Field Report No. 20160527CT
Topic: Finding our way
Conditions: Sketchy, Enjoyable
COMMENTS: My buddy Casey and I had been itching to climb Mt. Hood for months. The plan was to bag an early-season summit and avoid the conga line that you'll often run into during early summer. I had requested Friday, April 15 off, giving us a solid three days to make it to Timberline Lodge, the top of Mt. Hood, and back in time for work on Monday. As the weekend approached, we realized our itch may not get scratched. Snow had been falling on the mountain all week and the forecast projected a warming period from Friday through Sunday—in other words, a recipe for sketchy avalanche conditions.
Thursday rolled around and we anxiously awaited an avy report for the Northwest Avalanche Center. Finally, an update! Avalanche danger: considerable. Our fears had been confirmed; Mt. Hood would have to wait for another weekend.
Our thirst for a high-altitude weekend, however, would not be quenched so easily. Plus, I had already requested Friday off from work and I was not about to waste it sitting around watching Netflix.
I made the scenic drive to Omak, WA (there's a 45-minute portion of this drive where there is only one—yes, one—radio station) to meet up with Casey. He had an alternate adventure planned. When I pulled up to his house, he wasted no time. "Bro, come inside!" he beckoned. In his hand was the tattered, worn faux-leather cover of Cascade Alpine Guide Volume 3: Rainy Pass to Fraser River, written by none other than legendary Washington alpinist, Fred "I will drink your beer and sleep with your wife" Beckey. Beckey's reputation as a prolific climber is known throughout the world—if it's a peak in the North Cascades, Beckey probably climbed it first.
I could feel Casey's excitement. We hadn't discussed the alternate plan in much detail, but his tick list is long enough that I knew there was something he would want to climb. "It's called Silver Star Mountain," he said, flipping to an ear-marked page in the guidebook. "8,876 feet." I looked at the black-and-white picture that accompanied the route description. If you've never climbed in the North Cascades before (I hadn't), they look a lot like what you'd see in the Swiss Alps. Miles upon miles of sub-10,000 foot peaks, just waiting to be summited. We talked about the route, and Casey showed me the topo he'd nabbed from a buddy. He described the mild bushwhacking we'd experience during the approach (Lie #1), followed by a couple of easy stream-crossings (Lie #2), and then a straight shot to the top (Lie #3). I was in for the climb, and we decided on a wake-up time: 4am. This would allow us 2 hours of drive time to the "trailhead" and a 6am start time. If we hadn't summited by 1pm, we'd turn back.
We had some time to kill on Friday, so we went to see The Jungle Book—awesome flick, by the way—at a little theater in Omak. We ate a lot of popcorn and candy (Dietary Mistake #1), and then grabbed dinner and margaritas (Dietary Mistakes #2 and #3) with some of Casey's friends at a classic small-town Mexican restaurant called Rancho Chico. We turned in around 11pm, with visions of Fred Beckian summits dancing in our heads.
Unfortunately, our summit dreams would not become reality. We failed to consider that none of the coffee shops in town were open at 4:30 in the morning, which proved to be the first detriment to our summit attempt. We sailored on, driving Highway 20 in a dark, caffeine-less, burrito-induced haze. We finally made the trailhead, which was a pullout on the side of the road marked by a creek drainage. The creek would act as our trail, leading us out of the bush and into our climb. We parked the car and donned snowshoes.
For three or four miles, we bushwhacked. Casey led the way with his usual undaunted endurance. Twenty minutes into the approach, I was certain that I was dying. "Just tell him to turn back now," I thought to myself, "It would be more fun to hang out in Omak all weekend anyway." Lies. I pressed on, sweating and wheezing like I hadn't left the couch in months. I'd like to blame the popcorn and burritos that I'd consumed the night before, but the truth is that Casey is just in better shape than I am.
For the next three hours, we 'shwacked our way through trees and crossed the creek using snow bridges, engaging in what Casey and I call Type 2 fun: it wasn't very fun at the time, but looking back, we were glad to have done it.
Finally, we breached the tree line--we could see the mountains. The picture in the guidebook had not done justice to the beauty that would lay before us. To the right of Silver Star Mountain, the distinct and jagged Bear Claw signified that we were on the right path; to its left, Silver Star. One of the unique attributes of the North Cascades is that you can't see much of it from the road. When you drive through it, you're driving in it—all you can see is what's to the left and right of you. But once you get in it and start moving up, all you can see are beautiful, jagged mountains.
We marched on, in awe of the view ahead and behind us. As we gained elevation, Casey slowly began to leave me behind. I tried to maintain his pace, but ended up falling about 200 yards behind him. Finally, I reached him—he had stopped for a snack break about 30 minutes ago to wait for me to catch up. He laughed as I approached his rest stop. "Dude, I could hear you huffing and puffing for the last hour. You sounded pretty majestic." We laughed about it, and the voice in my head told me that I should probably let Casey know I was way too tired to keep going; the approach had worn me out. But I turned to look at what was behind me, and decided that there was no way in hell I had slogged that far just to turn around.
We made it to about 7,200 feet. The summit was within reach, but it was approaching 11:30 and starting to heat up. In the interest of safety, we decided to save summiting Silver Star for another day. On the way down, we ran into a bunch of backcountry skiers who looked like they were having a lot more fun than us. I'm not a skier (yet) and Casey is—I felt bad for dragging him up a mountain on snowshoes that he would've rather skied, but he assured me that he had "enjoyed the shit out of the climb," and I knew he wasn't lying.
A few hours later, we had made it back into the tree line. We could hear occasional rock fall and small avalanches coming from above us and agreed that we had made the right call. The return bushwhack was heinous in its own right, involving a lot more snow bridge crossing on much softer snow. Finally, we made it back to the car. For the purposes of this brief description and to protect Casey's reputation, I was most definitely the only member of our party who took a celebratory shot of tequila before we headed back to Winthrop. We had celebratory beers at the Old Schoolhouse Brewery and what may have been the best veggie burger I have ever eaten in my life, and then found a sweet little campground to spend Saturday night.
On paper, our weekend was a massive failure: we had intended to climb Mt. Hood, and got shut out. We didn't summit the peak that we had selected as our alternative. I spent much of the descent falling on my ass in snowshoes. Poor Casey spent a good 20% of the climb waiting for me to catch up. But it's weekends like this one that you talk about when you're stuck in a tent, freezing your toes off, waiting out a snow storm. "Cal, do you remember that weekend when I tried to haul your ass up Silver Star, and you used the ladies bathroom in that grocery store in Winthrop because the men's room was occupied and that old gal screamed at you? Do you remember that?"
And I'll laugh, and shiver, and say "Yes I do, Casey. Yes I do."
-Calvin Thomas, Spokane
RECOMMENDATIONS: For the wisdom to know when to turn back and laugh another day, choose Leavenworth's own Northwest Mountain School.