Saturday, May 30, 2009

Paddles and Peaks....

Mount Rainier adventure - Intro and Day 1 (of 4)

It seems a brutal sufferfest has become a yearly Yogaslacker tradition
and this year we went to Washington for our dose. The plan was to
climb up one side of Mount Rainier, ski down the other, packraft out
the White River to the bicycles stashed at Buckley, and bicycle back
to the cars over 4 days. As usual, things did not go as planned. For
starters the weather was a bit iffy and there was a lot of fresh snow.
Then we discovered the west side road in the park was closed. The
chosen route up was changed to the Success Cleaver, with the
distinction of being the longest route on the mountain.

After stashing the bicycles in Buckley we got our park permits and
continued sorting and prepping and packing gear under an old gas
station bay which provided some protection from the rain. We had come
from all over, Andy flew in from North Dakota. I had been at Smith
Rock and drove up from Portland, OR that morning to pick him up at the
Airport. Sam drove all the way from N. Dakota in a marathon of sleep
deprivation. Jason and Chelsey drove up from California, but had just
come from Costa Rica. We were all veterans of last year's Montana trip
except for Chelsey, but she had been hanging out with Jason long
enough that she sort of knew what she was getting into - exhausted,
scared, cold, wet, and even more exhausted. But exactly how much none
of us really knew. Eventually we thought we had all the food and gear
ready (some of this was gear we were just getting for the first time -
always exciting to go on a serious expedition with new gear). The
packs weighed in somewhere around 35 pounds which is pretty light
considering they included alpine touring ski and whitewater boating
gear. Some of the weight savings were in one ultra lightweight 3
person tent and 2 sleeping bags for the 5 of us along with Alpacka
packrafts and inflatable PFD's (life jackets) for the river. We set
the alarm and slept in our vehicles listening to the rain and hoping
the forecast break in the weather materialized.
The morning was gray and dreary and it was difficult to take off our
warm clothes and head up the trail. The closed road meant we ended up
starting at the Kautz Creek trailhead at around 2400 feet of
elevation. Soon we were hiking under a foggy drizzle on snow in
sneakers for everyone but me who was in sandals and wetsuit socks. All
of our feet were cold. Eventually we lost the trail in the snow and
decided it was time to start skiing. Our feet thanked us at first. We
were using Dynafit bindings and 130 cm skis with skins to go uphill.
The skins stick to the bottom and have hairs pointing backwards that
keep the skis from sliding back and allowed us to shuffle uphill as
long as it wasn't too steep, in which case we had to switchback.
As we got higher the snowfall picked up and the visibility decreased.
Route finding got a little more interesting, but by a combination of
map and compass reading and dead reckoning we actually spotted the
buried cabin along our route. Once we approached tree line things got
a little harder. For the leader visibility was almost zero with the
slight texture of the snow fading into the surrounding whiteout as
little as 3 feet in front of their skis.
The rest of us were able to
see the tracks and the person in front for orientation. It was
incredibly taxing leading as it was hard to tell the slope let alone
where you were supposed to go. We dodged around cliffs and steep
slopes and eventually decided we were near the pyramid peak saddle.
From there we dropped down to the saddle and started up the Success
Cleaver ridge. At least the route finding was a lot easier here, just
head uphill the easiest way we could find.
We continued on uphill using the altimeter to navigate and just as we
were approaching a planned camping spot the cloud level dropped enough
to reveal the upper mountain and a little later we were treated to a
view of Mount St. Helens as well. we set up camp here as the sun set
digging into the snow and constructing a wall as a windblock. The CAMP
XLS shovels worked well for moving the snow, and the paddles worked
well for cutting it. Not the usual combination for mountaineering, but
if you are carrying it you might as well use it.

When we went to start cooking we discovered we had no matches or
lighter (we had discussed this while packing but somehow didn't
rectify the situation). Sam had a flint and we were able to start the
stove with sparks. That night we had tasty dried Indian food with
butter (one of the advantages of cold weather camping). Then we got to
test out our minimalist sleeping accomodations. As I mentioned we had
a three person tent and 2 sleeping bags for five of us. This sounds
worse than it was, but not by much. For starters the tent was a
warmlight model that had an incredible amount of space for it's
weight. It was larger than most 3 person tent's I've seen. Besides, we
wanted to be packed in tight for warmth, and we were packed in tight.
Sam, Andy, and I were under a 2 person "bag" that didn't have a
bottom. Jason and Chelsey were under a similar one person arrangement.
If 2 of us were on our sides we could barely get the edges of the bag
down to the ground. Jason and Chelsey weren't so lucky, but when they
were wedged next to us, we didn't need to get the sides between us
down to the ground. That brings me to the ground - or should I say the
snow. Immediately under the sil-nylon floor was the snow. The pads we
had were very lightweight and sort of had an hourglass of inflatable
insulation to cover your shoulders and hips if you could stay on them.
Our feet were mostly fine in ski boot liners, but it seemed that
whatever position I was in there was always some part of me touching
and being frozen by the snow. In addition my rehydration plans were
wildly successful resulting in multiple trips outside to relieve
myself. Luckily we were planning an early start, as I didn't get much
more than half an hour of sleep.

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