Mixup Peak 7440ft (2268m)
via West Face Couloir
November 12-13, 2004
Dan Smith picked me up at my house Thursday evening and we drove up to the Eldorado trailhead on the Cascade River Road so we could get an early start the next morning on a new ice route up Cascade Peak. We arrived at the empty trailhead around 9:30pm surprised that no one else was there. Dan had said there had been a lot of discussion on cascadeclimbers.com that the North east couloir on Eldorado was "in".
Looking to get as much sleep as possible before our alpine start the next morning, We quickly rolled out our sleeping bags in the bed of Dan's truck. Although the night was clear it wasn't very cold which gave us some concern about the condition of the ice on our intended route. We were treated to several shooting stars amidst the incredible backdrop of the Milky Way. Dan was sawing logs and I was nearly asleep when I heard the sound of a car driving up the road. I was thinking, "oh we might have some company tomorrow, cool." Dan was thinking something a little differently. Immediately after I hear the car I heard Dan sit up and start screaming loudly and incessantly. Not a little startled, I started screaming myself and kicked my legs up above the sides of the pickup to protect myself from whatever it was that alarmed Dan. My mind was instantly thinking of the climbers who were sleeping in their car near off of highway 165 on the way to climb Observation Rock at Mount Rainier N.P. and woke to the sound of gun shots crashing through his windows.
Fortunately for us it was only "billygoat" driving up to climb Eldorado the next day with "Bug". The sound of the truck apparently coincided with the dream Dan was having. Once we realized what was going on we all had a good laugh about it and visited with billygoat a while before retiring again.
I never really got back to sleep so I was relieved when Dan's alarm went off at 2am. After Dan brewed a pot of coffee, we stashed our sleeping bags, skis, and my bivy sack in the cab, donned our light climbing packs and headed up the road. It was 2:39am.
We had brought our skis in case the road was covered in snow, but it was bare so we ended up just hiking. When Dan picked me up the night before, he warned me that the snow level might be low so I threw in my leather Karakorum boots along with my plastic Tambos. At the time I was glad I had my leather boots for hiking in on the road, but later I would wish I had my plastic boots!
Still in the dark we reached the Cascade Pass trailhead and headed up the gentle switchbacked trail up to Cascade Pass. We reached the pass just as the eastern sky was starting to glow. It was still too dark to see our route so we hiked back down the trail to get out of the wind and sat for awhile until it was light enough to see. The couloir that we had intended to climb looked pretty dry. The words "friable", "loose", and "crumbly" appear in the descriptions of almost all of the routes on Cascade Peak in the Beckey guide. So with such little ice, we decided to abandon our hopes of climbing this new winter route. I had never been up Sahale Peak so we set our sites on it and headed northeast up the trail towards the Sahale Arm. This was all well and good for about 10 minutes until we realized that hiking up Sahale wasn't what we had brough our ice tools, screws, and rope for. Looking back towards the Triplets and Cascade Peak we spied numberous gulleys and couloirs slicing up the long ridge. One looked particularly promising, reaching the ridge in a continuous line. We proposed climbing the couloir, traversing the ridge to the summit, then drop down the other side to the Cache Col and returning back to Cascade Pass via the alp slopes on the north side of the range.
Newly energized with the thought of climbing ice we retraced our tracks back down to Cascade Pass and made our way up the other side of the ridge to the base of our route. As we got closer to our route it became more apparent that it was going to be less of an ice climb and more of a hard snow climb. Oh well, at least we were climbing and not slogging through snow. Once we entered the couloir Dan suggested we just keep the rope in the pack and solo up. We didn't have any pickets or snow flukes for protection and our ice screws would be useless in hard snow, so this turned out to be the most prudent way to ascend the couloir.
I followed Dan up and we made quick work of the couloir and soon found ourselves at a small rocky col on the summit ridge. We took a few pictures then removed our crampons and started scambling the shattered ridge. We were hoping that Mixup might have better rock than what we were expecting on Cascade Peak but we soon found out that the rock here was loose and friable as well. We made our way with care along the ridge and up to the summit stopping periodically to gaze down the ne face or look back down and across the valley to Sahale, Forbidden, and Eldorado. It was a spectacular day and we were very happy to be out of the shadows and climbing in the sun.
Around 10am we reached what we deemed the summit and ate some food and took some pictures. It was indeed a glorious day and we were very pleased to be out in the mountains. I tried making a call to Kim with my cell phone (T-Mobile) but I couldn't get a signal. Dan was already starting down while I put my phone away and followed. Dan located a snow finger that lead down from below the summit and we got our ice tools back out to downclimb. It was fairly steep with only rocks to catch us at the bottom so we made solid foot and tool placements on the descent. On the south side of the ridge the snow was much softer so self arresting would be nearly impossible in the event of a slip so we were just that much more careful.
At the bottom of the snow finger the angle lessened and we were able to plunge step while making a descending traverse. We were hoping to find our way down to the gully that lead up to the Cache Col without losing too much elevation. Since our original goal was the route on Cascade Peak, we didn't bring a topo of Mixup Peak. As slowly found out, the south side of the ridge is comprised of *many* series of gullies and ridges that took a lot of time to negotiate safely. On loose rock, downclimbing is much slower than climbing up and it took us several hours to reach the col. At one section the snow became quite hard and as Dan was traversing in front of me the he slipped and was able to self arrest after a short slide. "Good catch! Are you ok?", I asked trying to sound too alarmed. It was nearing 1pm which meant we had been moving for 12 hours since our early alpine start and we were getting tired. We figured that if we reached the col, we would be able to cruise down the small glacier and back to Cascade Pass. Kim and I had made dinner plans with our neighbor so we were working hard to keep moving to make our time. Dan and I would sometimes take different paths while traversing but we always stayed within site of each other.
After a few false gullies we came upon a large ravine that required 4th/5th class climbing to descend. We knew this had to be the route up to the Cache Col. Dan lead down and I didn't envy him with his plastic boots. I was glad that I had my leather boots which provide a much better feel on rock. We both made it down safely although we did kick off some small boulders that caromed down the slope. We had to traverse some wet slabs for about 100 feet to reach the base of the couloir that lead up to Cache Col. Even though we had been descending, the stress of having to move so carefully over the loose rock and drained me and I was feeling pretty groggy. Not the mindframe I like to have when traversing exposed terrain. Accidents are always bad but in the alpine realm with two person teams the are particularly not good. So I took time and finding the best route down the slabs.
Once down the slabs we now had the pleasure to climb up the steep snow gully to the col. Soon Dan called down from the top that this indeed was the col. Hurrah! At this point we were still hopeful that we could get back down to the truck in time to drive home for my dinner plans. The other side of the col was a little steep than what we had come up so we put on our crampons and started down climbing. We were stil about 100 feet above the glacier when we reached a steep rocky step that would require a rappel. With no natural anchors like a tree or a rock horn, we decided to dig a snow bollard and rappel off of that. The snow was fairly soft so we made a 5 foot wide bollard and backed it up with one of Dan's ice tools buried in the snow. We were both about the same weight but I was closer so I went first on the rappel. I tried to move as smooth as possible to avoid putting sudden jolts on our anchor. Things were holding well at first but just as I lowered past the rocky block I felt the rope give a few feet and I heard Dan yell something about the anchor. The bollard had failed. Fortunately Dan's ice tool held and I didn't drop far. Since I was off the steep rocky part and back on the snow, I buried one of my ice tools and clipped into it as a personal anchor. I got out of the rappel and tied some slings and pitons to the rope for Dan to haul up and use as an more solid anchor. In alpine climbing it's preferable to avoid leaving fixed anchors in the wilderness but if that's the only choice for a safe anchor then that's what must be done. I heard the rising "pinging" tones of the pitons ringing as Dan hammered them into a fissure in the rock. Once the rope was through the new anchor Dan and I rappeled off without further incident.
Once on the glacier we shortened the rope with kiwi coils and headed off down the glacier towards Cascade Pass. In the warm afternoon sun the surface snow on the glacier was relatively warm and our crampons balled up constantly. We could see across the valley to the Sahale Arm and were optimistic that we would soon be at Cascade Pass. We tried to make a descending traverse down and left, but instead of a gentle glacier we continually found ourselves at the top of steep cliff bands with no way to descend. So we would backtrack up and far right to negotiate around the cliff bands. After the third series of cliff bands we decided that it might be faster to just head right and descend the glacier all the way down to the valley floor and follow the trail up the lower Sahale Arm to Cascade Pass. But as we made our way right we found ourselves on the edge of a very steep and very broken up section of the glacier. So we retraced our steps back up and left to try to find a way back towards Cascade Pass. It was getting on towards 4 pm and the dimming light was causing us to carefully consider our options. Not only was our strength diminishing but so was our available daylight. Dan mentioned something about considering a bivouac to wait until morning so we would have more light to see where we were going but that wasn't even an option as I was ever hopeful that we would make it back down in the remaining daylight. My dinner plans were definitely going to be missed but I was certain that we would make it down off the mountain that evening. I told myself that there was no way that I was going to put Kim through a night of worrying about why I hadn't returned. Several times we stopped to see if we could get a cell signal with my phone but with no luck.
We found a steep snow slope that appeared to lead down to the valley but as we descended a few hundred feet we saw that it narrowed into a rocky chimney with a stream which would have been extremely difficult to descend. So we once again retraced our steps back up to where we could continue traversing left towards Cascade Pass. We had our headlamps on by this time and clouds were starting to roll in and obstruct our views of the surrounding peaks. I took a bearing on the upper Sahale Arm so that we would know the direction when it got fully dark. Above us to the left we could make out a ridge with trees on it. I hoped that if we could reach that ridge we would either find easier terrain that would lead down to Cascade Pass or we could rappel off the trees to reach the valley floor. I made a deal with Dan that if this last ridge didn't pan out then we would look for a place to bivouac. He reasoned with me that he wanted to get home as bad as I did but if we wanted to give ourselves the best chance to get home then the right thing to do was to be safe and wait out the night. I postholed across the steep snow towards the lower end of the ridge and my hopes sank when I saw that beyond them were more steep cliffs. Reality finally hit me and I said, "OK, Dan. Let's look for a place to bivy".
Dan spotted an area at the base of a small cliff and started to kick in a platform. Once I flattened out my side I just put my head down on the snow and cried silently. I knew how much I would be worrying if Kim was overdue from a climb and it was tearing my heart out that I was going to be causing this stress for Kim. I quickly said a desperate prayer, one of hundreds that I would say over the next 12 hours, that Kim would somehow know we were ok.
I flaked out the rope so I would have something to keep me off the snow and then put on my rainpants to give me an extra layer to keep heat in and moisture out. Meanwhile Dan had put on the few extra clothes that he had brought and unfolded the eggshell insulation pad that he used to stiffen his frameless backpack. I asked Dan what time it was and learned that it was a little before 6:30pm. We tried to remember what time it got light and figured that we about 12 hours to kill.
With only the clothes on our backs it was difficult to retain body heat. Dan curled up in a fetal position on his sitpad and I sat up with my arms wrapped around my bent legs. When my neck would get stiff from being bowed down over my knees, I would stretch it left, then backwards. Backwards felt the best but then snow or rain would fall in my face. I estimated that these stretches took about 20 seconds. That was 20 seconds that I didn't have to endure again. I made this my routine for a good portion of the night. I recalled all the mountaineering stories that I had read of unplanned bivouacs and what climbers did to stay warm. In -148F, Art Davidson described how he kept his face out of his down sleeping bag inspite of the severe cold so the moisture from his breath wouldn't cause the down to loose loft. I focused on my breathing, trying to breath through my nose. I recalled a slide show by Doug Scott where he told of massaging his toes all night long while making an exposed bivuoac near the summit of Everest. I wiggled my toes and fingers to keep the blood flowing through them.
The temperture was probably around 30F, not minus 148F and we were around 6400 feet, not 28,800 feet so I reasoned that we had it pretty easy relatively. But the one threat that was critical for us was that we were wet. Our pants and jackets were wet from the snow falling, my leather boots were soaked through and through and Dan's feet were getting cold inside his plastic boots from perspiration inside his vapor barrier liners. Hypothermia was a real risk and we knew that to avoid it we needed to stay hydrated and to keep our energy up by eating food keeping our body core warm. Dan solved our water problem by using his Glad plastic ware container to catch a small drip of water that was coming off the rocks. In a few hours we had about a cup. Around 10pm the toes on my left foot stopped hurting and I could no longer feel nor wiggle them. I told Dan this and asked if I could use his pair of dry liner socks that he mentioned earlier he had. Dan helped take off my boot and wet socks and warmed my icecube toes on his stomach. This also, I read in a mountaineering story! I thought about Kim and how she would never have let me put my cold feet on her stomach. This made me laugh a little bit. Once my toes warmed up to where I could feel them, we put on the liners stuck my foot in a plastic ziplock bag and then put my wet sock over the bag. I slipped my foot back into the boot and Dan tied it up for me. I felt like I was in a luxury hotel. My foot felt so much better. I had stuck a Snickers bar under my jacket so it would warm up enough to eat and I offered some to Dan but remembered that his diet doesn't allow for the sugars in the ingredients. "Sorry" "That's ok. Thanks."
Throughout the night I would hear Dan get up and shake the snow and water off of his foam pad. Through chattering teeth we would ask, "How ya doin'?" "Pretty chilly." "Yeah, me too" Acid reflux, leg cramps, and violent shivering filled the gaps as the night slowly passed. Snow flurries came and went. Around 5:00am wet snow started falling and around 6:00am we decided it was light enough to get moving. We filled up our water platypus bottles with the water Dan had collected, put on our crampons and tied back into the rope. It felt really good to be moving again and we knew that we would be warming up soon with the exercise.
The visibility was poor as I lead up through deep snow past a series of steep rocky cliff bands to easier terrain. We were now definitely off the glacier but we still had the alp slopes to negotiate to get back to Cascade Pass. Dan lead off across a avalanche debris filled bowl about 200 yards across. We kept making a descending traverse hoping to cross our tracks from the day before but we never found them. After wandering around for a while we realized that we should have reached the ridge leading down to Cascade Pass already and decided to just try to go cross country down the drainages towards the upper parking lot. We were now in sub-alpine forests which made us even more wet from the water on the branches. While hiking down through the trees I stopped several times to listen for what I thought was a group of people talking and singing off in the distance on either side of us. I asked Dan if he could hear that but he never did. I recalled stories of people lost in the wilderness following the sounds of bagpipes to safety. No bagpipes, just singing. Hmmmm. Just as we thought we were making progress down, our path was blocked again by a steep cliff band. We were thoroughly exhausted at this point and the thought of having to hike back up was almost too much to bear.
Dan said that he wasn't warming up even though we were moving. To get a better idea of where we were I got my compass out and took a bearing on the other side of the valley. From what I read on my compass it appeared that we might be on the east side of Cascade Pass instead of the west side. We were doing ok earlier because we had the hope that we would soon find the trail back down from Cascade Pass. But now that there was the possibility of being lost on top of being wet and tired, our situation turned very serious. Another night out might prove very bad for us. Since the visibility was still poor we weren't able to get a view of the surrounding peaks which would tell us immediately where we were. We discussed our options and decided that since our wives would most definitely call search and rescue and they in turn would most likely head up to Cascade Pass to begin looking for our tracks it would be best to get back up on a high ridge as close to Cascade Pass as we could figure and wait for the clouds to break. I tried not to think about being lost and having to spend another night out. I offered some desperate prayers for the weather to break so we could find the trail.
We slowly retraced our steps back up the hillside and then headed up to a ridge that was above us. Dan was about 50 yards above me when he called down that the cloudy sky was turning bluish. This made me feel better as I continued climbing up. From time to time I would turn around and look back down hoping for a break in the clouds through which I could see a part of a peak that I recognized. I turned around and looked down the valley and saw a bright white cloud in the middle of the grey clouds that grew larger then dissipated leaving a hole in the clouds that eventually opened up to reveal the surrounding peaks and far below, the Cascade Pass parking lot. I yelled, "Dan! Dan! I see the parking lot! And there are trucks there!" The road was gated for the season 3 miles back down the road, so we knew that the trucks we saw were most likely forest rangers looking for us.
I saw a person walking around near the trucks so I blew my emergency whistle and waved hoping they would see my red jacket and spot us. I didn't hear any return whistles so we continued hiking up to where we now knew our trail was. A few minutes later Dan called down that he had found our tracks from the day before so we knew the trail down was fairly close. With a burst of energy we made our way down to the trail and about a half hour later we met, Joe, a national park ranger hiking up. We were very glad to see each other and he radioed down that we were ok. We asked Joe if the folks in the parking lot could get a message to our wives that we were alright and he said that they were already doing that as standard procedure. Now that we knew we were going to be ok and we knew that our wives were going to be told that we were ok we finally could relax. Together we made our way down the 3 miles to the parking lot where a deputy sheriff, another NP Ranger, and three search and rescue volunteers met us.
After filling out an incident report of our adventure, we were given a ride in the sheriff's suburban back down the road to Dan's truck where "Billygoat" and "Bug" were organizing their gear from their trip up Eldorado earlier that day. We shared our story and compared our withered feet. Dan's feet had been basting for 36 hours and were a shriveled, ghostly white. My toes weren't quite as shriveled but I had a nice indention in the bottom of my foot from where the corner of the zip lock bag had been. Neither of us cared since we were in a hurry to get down the road to Marblemount where we could make a call to our wives to tell them our stories and to order flowers and chocolates.
Thanks Dan for getting me through the longest night of my life. Hopefully Kim and Rachel will let us play together again when we're finished being grounded! ;)