Category Archives: Wilderness

Bergner-Stanley

“Are we in the flow state?”
“Yes.”
“Then we must be doing fine.”

Last Saturday I took a long walk with my friend Webster and climbed the Bergner-Stanley route on Prusik Peak. We discovered that the hyperbole often used to describe that mountain and route was in fact true. Considering my last car-to-car (mis)adventure  and with the chill air of autumn settling in, this trip was the perfect cap to a summer full of adventures.

Webster wanted to push himself, and while I wasn’t sure I had another big summer adventure in the tank, his stoke goaded me to the trailhead- from there, I was all in. We left the car at 4:25am, made it to the base of the climb by 9am, and started climbing at 9:30. We got to the base of the route just as another party was leaving the ground, and caught them again at the top of pitch 2.

I quickly made the acquaintance of Mr. Ben Boldt, and didn’t complain when he started taking photos of us as we followed them up the route. Ben and his partner had tried the route before, but gotten stymied by the challenging squeeze chimney on pitch 5 (or 6 depending how you do it). We waited for a bit while they fought their way thru, and Ben hung out to shoot my own battle. Webster was relieved to follow this one. Check out more of Ben’s photos here, and only use with permission. Thanks again man.

The last pitch is the money pitch, and I was happy for Webster to fire it. Despite some melting snow on the final crux section, he sent with aplomb. Following the pitch, I was surprised to find it steeper and more technical than it appears. Strong work Webster!

prusik peak, crux, rock climbing, enchantments

Man going to work, pc me.

We summited at 3pm, made 5 rappels and walked around a snowy north face to collect our packs at 515pm, and started the walk home at 530pm. We stayed focused and positive despite the many miles, and moved well, tagging the car at 9:15pm. We stayed in the flow state for almost the entire day, feeding off each others energy and enjoying every aspect of the experience. Not much time for photos, but we did hike past an amazing hydrologic feature- this drain pipe throws water between lakes:

As usual, the full effort in the mountains cleared my head in a way that nothing else does. It cemented another friendship that has been growing for a long time, and for which I am deeply grateful. It bolstered my self-confidence and increases the gratitude I feel for so many things in life, including my lovely lady (even though she doesn’t necessarily want to do these things with me). This piece by Hayden Kennedy says it better than I can. I love this stuff.

 

Copyright Skander Spies, 2017

A Standard

For a small tribe of rock climbers in the Cascades, climbing the complete North Ridge of Mt. Stuart, in less than 24 hours, without sleeping (“car to car in a day”), represents something of “a standard”. Certainly not a noteworthy climbing achievement, but enough effort to warrant a little respect. 8 miles and 3,000ft of gain on the hike in, 3,000ft of rock climbing up to 5.9, some scrambling and route-finding down a steep snow couloir on the way out. For most recreational climbers, it’s a pretty full day.  If that doesn’t mean anything to you, just ride along for the photos.

I climbed Mt. Stuart via a different route in 2010. Our “car to car in a day” took 23hr30min, and was an eye opening experience in alpine snow and mixed climbing. I was grateful for strong partners, but was mostly just along for the ride with more experienced people.

Last year, Pat and I climbed the upper North Ridge, approaching via an overnight camp at Ingalls Lake, the Stuart glacier, and a snow gully that cut off a bunch of more technical rock climbing. We had a blast, and after a punishing descent, made it back to camp in 15hrs. The position of the route, the quality of the rock climbing, and the reputation amongst my friends made me think that doing the Complete North Ridge was fully warranted. Sometimes it’s fun to bite off a little more than you can chew.

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(First look at the whole shebang)

Between weather and other commitments, I usually only get to partner with Ky one weekend a summer – so when we lined up for the July 8th weekend, I wasn’t going to waste the chance. Reliable beta indicated that the descent was in good condition.

We left the car at 315am and somehow managed to nail the approach- I was leading in my rock shoes at 715am. We let another party (Nick and Austin) pass us at the crux 3rd pitch because I wanted to take my time on the lead. I don’t regret it, but did cost us 45min. After the crux we lost a little more time with some route-finding, reaching the “halfway” notch at 11am. We were already low on water and while we rested and nursed a snowfield, the hoards caught up to us from below. I think there were 6 or 7 parties on the route that day. There are fewer possible variations higher on the route- so traffic management slowed us further.

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(Ky follows the crux)

It gets real at the Great Gendarme, and suddenly folks were more orderly in letting faster parties go. I blitzed the layback pitch (which I had followed in 2016), and Ky made excellent grunting noises while sending the off-width pitch on-sight. Both pitches are amazing climbing, but we were tired and I was really glad I didn’t have to lead the off-width. We raced for the summit, topping out at 645pm. I wish I could have enjoyed it without dreading the time of day on our descent.

(The only non-blurry summit photo I got of Ky. Instagram PC – Ky)

We gratefully followed Nick and Austin (because they knew where they were going), and found a legit snowfield water source just before really getting onto the snow downclimbing. Conditions were good, but I was very grateful to have aluminum crampons and approach shoes- we had to front point all the way down. We approached the bergschrund (where the glacier pulls away from the mountain) around 915pm, just as daylight started to fade in earnest. Steep snow was hardening, and our brains were fried from effort and dehydration. A safe path was not obvious, and it was not the time to be bold. We opted to give up on completing the sub24 hr standard, sit out for the night (with no bivy gear), and make a better decision in the morning. Nick and Austin agreed and we collectively found a nice little rock ledge to hang out on.

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(Starting down the snow. PC Ky.)

After 5 hours of shivering, it was glorious to see the sun-rise. We warmed up for an hour, and left around 6am. Breakfast was a peanut butter packet and a fruit leather, the very last of our food. With daylight, the bergschrund crossing was more obvious and we were soon cruising towards the car.

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(Ky finds salvation below the bergschrund)

I love mountains, even when it doesn’t all go according to plan. Thanks for following.

 

 

Copyright Skander Spies, 2017

Scratch

“Shit guys, my hands are done.” I hated to be the one to call it, but I had just tipped past “fun” and my hands were giving up on holding my ski poles.  It’s always humbling to hang out with people just a little tougher than you are.

We’d been skinning for a couple hours up the long south face of Mt. St. Helens. Wind-driven snow at 35F has an uncanny ability to turn into liquid upon contact, penetrating every last layer. The gale increased with elevation, but visibility dropped. I didn’t stay focused on self care enough to make sure we hit the summit before the painful wet cold overcame my ability to smile about it. Not being able to see up from down didn’t help the case for continuing, despite Devon’s GPS coordinates keeping us on track.

mt st helens, skinning, backcountry skiing, whiteout

The best visibility we had all day.

This spring storm cycle has been unforgiving for those of us limited to weekend days and smaller plans. Every once in a while, you can’t scratch the itch any other way. You make the long drive, put a smile, and go see what Mother Nature serves up.  The snow was really good on the way down, but we skied some of the flattest, whitest conditions I’ve ever been in. We side slipped together, checking course every 100yds.  There were no visual references. Like the best of friends, Martin and Devon wore smiles all the way. Its always remarkable to me how much better you feel as soon as you slip on a puffy coat, thick gloves, and rip your skins off.

I don’t know why we needed to do that, but I’m glad we did. Maybe it was a test. Or a smackdown. Or just a day out in the mountains, full of acceptance for what we got. For a power much greater than ourselves. In a world where we tend to see the best of everyone else’s days on Instagram, where failures are uncelebrated- an unremarkable day of skinning, freezing, and smiling with friends feels like the best thing we could have done.

Short Season pt 1

(part 1 of 2)

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(Challenger Glacier)

I like to think that I can enjoy outdoor recreation in every season. Sometimes that’s a challenge- trail running in freezing rain gets old pretty quick. For high travel in the mountains, summer in the Pacific Northwest is prime time and the season suddenly feels very short. Those of us that recreate here are blessed to have the problem of too many good options. Stellar trail running or alpine climbing, deep wilderness or front country cragging- it can be hard to pick.

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(Copper Ridge lookout)

Two weeks ago, Abigail and I headed for her first trip to see the North Cascades. We got a few recommendations, and when the camping permit location didn’t overlap with some of the features we wanted to see, she didn’t complain. As we are both preparing to run versions of The Rut trail race in a few weeks, she figured that a few extra miles to link the features would be good training. The recommended 4-6 day Copper Ridge backpacking loop became a single overnight adventure, with a detour to Whatcom Pass and Tapto Lakes. All destinations recommended, but our itinerary is only recommended for the fleet of foot.

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(Burly babe at mile 25 and starting up Whatcom Pass)

We left Hannegan Pass at 730am on Saturday morning, and at 915 made the final call. We wanted to see Copper Ridge, but doing so meant committing to a 30 mile day with our (relatively light) overnight packs. Up we went- it was worth it. At mile 25 and 530pm, we started our final climb to the Lakes above Whatcom Pass. There is a decent trail to both Tapto and Middle Lakes and good camping can be found at either. The views off both are spectacular. The huckleberries we found on Sunday morning were critical to finishing the remaining 18 miles back to the car. A few more photos to whet your whistle.

Thanks to Abigail for picking a lovely loop and putting out the moxie to get it done- she is a rare girl for sure.

All content Copyright Skander Spies, 2016

A Grand Time

Over the July 4th weekend, I got to find some deep wild in Olympic National Park. I am not sure of how many major American cities have proximity to wilderness like this.

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There is little rock climbing to be had. That doesn’t matter. Bright skies, beautiful friends, and deep green glades were more than enough. The wildflowers were out in force, and the bugs were not. Bliss.

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Abigail stares at the Olympics every day from her office, so when my good friend Michael from work invited us out with his wife for a hike along “The Grand Loop”, it was easy to say yes. Not for the faint of foot, we earned the 45 miles and 12,500 vertical feet over 4 days. They don’t get much nicer than this.

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While it reminds me of a Dr. Seuss drawing, Beargrass is a special plant in the Montana mountains. Deep in the Bob Marshall Wilderness last weekend, it was in rare form.

Joe in rare fields of white.

Joe in rare fields of white.

Martin, Joe, and I burned out of Missoula promptly on Wednesday afternoon. Our travel plan was loose and our packs were light. The Bob Marshall/Scapegoat/Great Bear wilderness complex is one of the largest protected wilderness areas in the United States, and home to some spectacular treasures. It feels the most like Alaska of any place I’ve been here. We walked, and occasionally ran, a lot of miles. Details really aren’t necessary. We had an amazing, beautiful time.

Getting into the business.

Getting into the business.

With a little luck, clockwise was the correct direction for our loop.

With a little luck, clockwise was the correct direction for our loop.

24 miles back, the Chinese Wall is worth the walk.

24 miles back, the Chinese Wall is worth the walk.

Sunrise.

Sunrise.

Big skies.

Big skies.

Quick work of the trip home.

Quick work of the trip home.

 

practice

(ed. note: this started a few weeks ago as a note to a friend. photos are of compiled adventures. capital letters are omitted intentionally)

learning to go up. the canon, 5.11c, rattler gulch, mt.

learning to go up. the canon, 5.11c, rattler gulch, mt. (photo: helena mast)

practice is a word i have to remember and think about a lot. growing up, it got drilled into me to practice my cello. practice. always, practice. with that came some cool acceptance that i would simply not get things right the first time. they would require regular failure and slow painful progress. the desired outcome required grit, or perhaps just simple stubbornness.

we practice being in the mountains-

we practice being in the mountains-

-perhaps to learn to be better when we are together.

-to learn to be better when we are together.

somewhere along the line, after leaving my music career, i think i might have lost some of that willingness to practice. our generation just wants things. we want money, or a relationship, or a status in things, and we forget that often those things take hours, and days, and years, of practice to get right.

we practice building homes-

we practice better building-

-to build better homes.

-to build better homes.

i’m asking questions about how to practice better these days. reviewing results more carefully, and taking a more curious approach to trying to do some of the same common things just a little bit better. it’s easy to let intensity slip in, but more fun to laugh at while we keep it at bay. i’m still looking for the right definition of success in many of the things i do or attempt. i see many people with the same uncertain gauge of success- i’m not sure why me and my peers have such a hard time with this concept. we’ve figured out that we can’t define it with dollars, or map it out cleanly. we know when we’ve found success (the feeling is obvious), but it’s hard to see when it’s only looming on the horizon.

we practice the things that show our weaknesses-

we practice the things that show our weaknesses-

-because it is the only way to real strength.

-because it is the only way to real strength. roadside off-widthing, lolo, mt. (photo: sarah zugar)

i have a fear of failure that sometimes prevents me from taking real risk, or even giving my best effort. like all old things, it is time to let that fear pass. thanks to many people and partners that help me practice letting a little bit go each day.