Early Winter Sends

It’s been a bit quiet here for a little bit; brace yerselves, this one ain’t gonna be short.

Since late August, I found that my psych for committing to big routes in the mountains had dwindled. I had had a few scary moments in the summer, notably without a rope, and my mental reactions sent me straight back to that feeling I had in 2018, stuck under the boulder beneath Mt Conness. Those feelings of I should not be here, the mountains must be trying to tell me something, the mountains don’t care, kept creeping into my mind and body. The anxiety and irrational thoughts would dance around my head all night before my last few objectives in 2020, and I knew, perhaps more for my own sanity than physical safety, that it was time to step back from the mountains for some time. 

So I spent the fall revisiting basics in a safe environment, focusing on pushing myself on single pitch rock, and projecting, something pretty new to me.

On Thin Air in the Marsupials

Luckily we have a world class backyard for rock climbing known as Smith Rock, and I was happy to push my grade on gear, sending classics like Iron Cross (5.11c), Crime Wave (5.11b), Hard Attack (5.11a), and other newer favorites such as Feel the Bern (5.11c) and Anglin n’ Danglin (5.11b) amongst others. 

What I love about the pursuit of the sport we call alpinism is its multifaceted nature. One can pursue hard rock climbing, or ice and mixed cragging, or ski touring, or even hiking and feel that it contributes towards the goal of moving quickly and safely in all mountain media. The only downside: you become a proficient at everything, but the best in none. 

But during all those long days at Smith, the views of the Cascades slowly accumulating snow behind us, the mountains kept a firm place in the back of my mind. I had just gotten a new socket for my prosthesis in early December that I wanted to test out, and with a good weather window, my partner Max and I decided to head up to Middle Sister for a season opener.

Soooo gooood!

It turned out to be a splendid, springlike day. Good skinning under blue skies brought us to the saddle with Prouty Point, and from there, a straightforward booter got us to the summit, Max’s first Sister! This day somewhat marked my transition back into focusing for the alpine, and hanging primarily off ice tools over crimping little tuff edges.

Max downclimbing back to our skis
TR solo hero… confidence laps!

Carrying the momentum and psych from Middle, I headed up to Montana with my girlfriend Sarah to visit the Whitefish area and to get some mileage in on ice! The trip was a success, and despite many great days of ice climbing and drytooling, my favorite moment was a peaceful hike in the woods at the head of Lake McDonald, surrounded by immense mountain faces littered with waterfalls frozen in time. We walked through a peaceful grove of massive cedars and hemlocks, surrounded by lush moss and ferns, alongside deep pools of the clearest water I’ve seen and mini frozen waterfalls. It felt that we, too, were frozen in time in this magical place. 

Leading in Hyalite

Down in Hyalite, I got to lead the Matrix (WI4 M4), Mummy II (WI3+), and the fun High Fidelity (III WI4 M4), amongst other classics.

Jake on one of High Fidelity’s cruxes
Heading up the intimidating Matrix!

Once back in Bend, a 4am-last-minute-worsening check of the avalanche forecast changed our sights from Hood’s Reid Glacier Headwall to an epic push for South Sister from Dutchman’s Sno-Park. Max and I skied down to the Green Lakes Trailhead, where a quest up the drainage in unrelenting powder commenced, and relent it did not. Skinning in powder is especially tough for me, as my snowshoe on my prosthetic sinks in much deeper than my ski, and I do not have a quad muscle to lift the snowshoe up very efficiently. Thankfully Max was feeling good and broke trail for me almost all day; without him, I would have likely bailed before sunrise!

First light on South!

We hoped that the snow would thin above treeline, but were greeted with alternating powder and sheets of rime ice. It was the first time I haven’t been able to skin to South’s summit via the regular route! Close to 9 hours in, we finally made it to the summit, and after dragging ourselves out, caught a ride with snowmobiles back out to Dutchman’s. 

Max free soloing the mega exposed mega gnar mixed variation to South’s summit

Since then, I’ve turned my sights to more technical ice and mixed routes in the mountains. Max and I put in two attempts in on North Sister’s East Buttress. The first was thwarted by a late start (7am) and plenty of deep snow on route which slowed us tremendously. Conditions were near perfect for the second, and assisted by a 4:30am start, we were atop the lower buttress by 9am. However, the unroped steep snow downclimb off the feature spooked Max, and intimidated by the long, similar downclimb of Early Morning Couloir off the summit, he decided he wanted to bail. I was definitely bummed, but there is no discussion in situations like these; if a partner doesn’t want to be there, nobody will be having a good time. 

Glorious early morning on our second try
Max downclimbing very steep snow on our first attempt

As a consolation prize though, I got to lead a cool WI3 ish mixed smear on our walk back down to our skis.

Didn’t climb this one… looks cool though
Climbed this one. Was cool.

Sarah and I celebrated a year of being together by skiing Mt Bailey in early January. Despite it being a long day (13+ miles) involving some steep traverses, deteriorating weather, and shitty snow… and it being her first backcountry ski (!)… she crushed it!

A springlike start to the day
Until howling wind reminded us it’s still winter!

After the two shutdowns on North, I realized I’d been throwing Max in the deep end of things pretty quickly, and we decided to go for Hood via Devil’s Kitchen Headwall v1 as a confidence builder. We skinned up to Palmer amidst the usual cluster of the South Side, under some pretty frigid wind, and got up to the fumarole in Devil’s Kitchen in around 2h30 or so. After taking a moment to put on crampons and have a bite to eat, we roped up and walked up to the entrance of the couloir.

Game face!
A close up of the couloir’s ice. Now likely buried under feet of snow.

I led a long pitch of mostly shitty and occasionally thin ice, punctuated by slogging through deeper snow that required a good handful of concerted swings to stick anything remotely solid underneath. I was able to find decent screws protecting the crux bulges, and after dislodging a microwave sized chunk of rime while navigating the last crux bulge, a little bit of simuling took me over the side of a little snow ridge where I could get decent pickets and bring Max up.

Unroped and exiting the DKH!

From there, straightforward snow climbing, then hiking, then walking brought us to Oregon’s summit! A good ski (for a volcano in January!) brought us back to the car in no time.

And now, with relentless snow on the forecast for at least the next week, I’m left with these fond, albeit occasionally bittersweet memories of a good early winter as I fix broken gear, try to put some food on the table, and dream of what’s to come.

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