Thursday, July 13, 2017

Rebel Hell

It was 6am on the Fourth of July and I was navigating the fringes of Wenatchee on my way to Washington Pass on Hwy 20 in the North Cascades.  I hadn't taken the time to make coffee, and no shops were open yet.  After finally getting some life juice in Winthrop, I made it to the Blue Lake Trailhead around 9am, to be greeted by Matt and Kyle, rearing to go after a restful night of sleep that I was sorely lacking.

As I got out of the car, I asked what we were going to climb today.

"Rebel Yell!" said Matt.

I vaguely realize that route is in the Wine Spires, a 3-4 hour approach.
My brain said, "Bitch, you crazy, that's a terrible idea."
My mouth said, "Okay."

I tossed my gear together and we were hiking by 10:30am, much later than recommended.  Halfway up the relentlessly sandy and steep approach, the physical and mental exhaustion of my work week caught up with me.  I didn't want to hike any more, I wasn't particularly psyched on climbing, and I was dreading the certain deproach in the dark.

I tried to bail, but my sympathetic and encouraging climbing partners wouldn't allow it.  We pressed on, arriving at the col and dropping down the east side into the snow.  Twenty more minutes found us at the base of the climb, tucked into a hole in the snow, racking up.  It was nearly 3pm, the antithesis of an alpine start.  We had three people climbing on two ropes; hardly the recipe for efficiency.  But we were motivated more by spending time in the mountains with good people than styling the shit out of anything.  Matt led the first crux pitch with few qualms, and shortly after the three of us were squeezed onto a belay ledge below a left-leaning flared chimney.

View of Silver Star Glacier from the route

Someone read the beta, "5.9+ flaring squeeze to a previously hidden hand rail traverse."

Before I could talk myself out of it, I agreed to take the lead.  Anyone who has done much climbing knows the "+" on the end of that number can be dubious.  Think of it as an asterisk, an ellipsis, a suggestion that this probably wont feel much like a 5.9.  I squeezed myself into the chimney and was relieved to find good protection.  I thrutched (it means exactly what it sounds like) up, making only a few inches of progress at a time, I'd get stuck as I tried to move up, and slip out when I least expected it.  After what seemed like eternity measured in grunting, I arrived at a wide crack that split the steep outer wall of the chimney. I placed my only large cam (#4, for anyone who cares), at the narrowest part and tried to move upward, quickly realizing that this wasn't going to be as straight forward as I hoped.  After hanging and looking and hanging and stalling, I tried to shove whatever would fit into the crack.  It was my right knee, and it fit so well I quickly became stuck.  After a few minutes of trying not to freak out or flail, the initial nausea subsided and I got myself unstuck.  After one last attempt that included rodeo-style horn-lassoing shenanigans I lowered to the ledge in defeat.  Kyle took over and managed to make it around the corner and to the next belay.  Turns out I just used the wrong knee.

Matt in the chimney

Moving through the upper pitches of the route, we were very aware of how much daylight was left. Some simple math concluded: not much.  Now that we had figured out the three-person system, we were making better progress and everyone was in good spirits.  As the light on the snowfield below started to turn warm and dusky, Kyle finished the last pitch and we began to rappel.

We are still super sane at this point.....

Things were tense until all three of us were back safely on the ground.  Baring the scary snow traverse in rock shoes to make it back to our packs, I was relieved that all I had to do now was hike.  We Marched by headlamp back across the snowfield and over the col.  The upper part of the approach is loose and hard to follow in the daytime, and downright treacherous at night.  The few times we lost the trail, we made every attempt not to knock rocks on each other or tumble into an endless debris gully.

Sunset from the route

By 11:00pm we were back on a definite trail and you could almost hear the collective sphincter relaxation.  There are a few different types of "fun" we define with respect to outdoor activities.

Type 1: I'm having fun now, and I will remember this as fun later.
Type 2: This sucks, but as soon as it's over, I'll remember this as fun.
Type 3: This is the fucking worst, and I will remember it as such forever and always.

Wine spires in the distance. View from Liberty Bell Group

As we descended by the orbs of our headlamps, now laughing and joking about the day's suffering, we hovered somewhere between Type 1 and 2.  Moments of that epic may never even make it below Type 3 for me, but after only a week, I look back on it fondly for the most part.  I attribute this to the quality of humans I am lucky enough to share a rope with.  From beginning to end, Kyle and Matt were happy, encouraging, and put up with my delirious mood swings with such grace and patience.  At some point that day, I said I can't imagine two people I'd rather epic with, and I meant it.

The best part is, ladies, they're single.

Summit of NEWS the following day.  Almost nothing went wrong.