Man, what a day.
A little fuckup here:
Put us here:
Where we wanted to be, just not when
It was beautiful, and it was - as I lay safe in bed later that night and reflected on it - terrifying. The next day I knew I never wanted to do anything like that again. I accepted that I'm a cragger through-and-through, that big mountains aren't for me. I had never had a day like that before, and I never would again.
Conditions in Roger's Pass were stable, but a storm was on the horizon. If we wanted to bag a big peak, today was the day.
Sunday, the day before, I rested my cold while Jenn and Maciej skied the pass, where Jenn developed a blister the size of a camel's hump. The blister sidelined Ms. Hess when Maciej, Nathaniel and I went off for the summit of Mt. Green.
Jenn said as she turned back towards the trailhead that morning,
"Before you do anything stupid, ask yourselves, What would Jenn do?"
WWJD. Got it, Hess.
Maciej, happy to have survived doing something Jenn definitely would not do.
We slogged along a creekbed, bootpacked the steep "Elephant's Trunk", fought up a narrow and tree-well ridden track, and made our way to a large clearing.
It was here that we got off track.
It didn't seem critical at the time, because, frankly, we'd terribly underestimated how much was going to be involved in reaching the summit of Mt. Green. In all, we lost perhaps an hour on the wrong skintrack. At least we got to make turns as we corrected our mistake.
Back on track, we worked our way up gully, shoulder, and bowl of the mountain. The gradient was consistent and the cold air and wind favored a brisk hiking speed to keep warm. Before long the gray skies were torn apart blue, and for the first time I had a view of the mountains that dwarfed us on all sides.
Mountains often make me feel small and reflect on my size and place in the cosmos. The mountains of Roger's Pass, however, didn't induce any sort of neo-hippie internalism. Instead, Roger's Pass made me dwell on just how small every other mountain range I've ever seen is.
There wasn't room for thoughts about myself under their shadows.
The skintrack, laid in by a party of three young men who had passed us as we mucked about on the wrong apron, turned steeper and steeper as it zig-zagged up the bowl that nestled into Mt. Green's southern ridge. We could see that the boys had bootpacked the last section of the bowl up to a rocky band and had broken out their climbing gear.
We made good time catching up to them, and I watched with a bit of envy as their third member was belayed up through the sugary snow, sending rivulets of ice grains our way as he tried to find placements for his ice axe.
Maciej, Nathaniel and I had no climbing gear.
Still, looking at the terrain and having watched the other three go up I felt confident that we could make the climb.
To be clear, this is where we violated the WWJD rule. What would Jenn do? Jenn would turn around and have an amazing mile-long ski down a bowl.
If only we were all as wise as Jenn.
The climb was split in two parts: twenty or thirty feet of sugary snow climbing, each move upwards separated from the others by thirty seconds of vigorous sweeping through the sugar in desperate search for something under all that mess. A rock here, a rock there, a bit of faith in nothing underfoot, and the slope evened out enough to stand without constant fear of falling backwards.
Maciej was ahead of me, and as soon as the party ahead cleared out he started climbing the next section, forty feet of very steep gully. It wasn't long before he realized that all the snow that had given the earlier party purchase to move upwards had also washed away in their passing. Maciej stalled out.
Climbing up the twenty feet of sugar lower down had scared me enough - I wanted nothing more to do with snow climbing. I was blind to the route Maciej was taking.
The left side of Maciej's gully was made up of a rock formation with vertical spines, and I had eyes for nothing else. I called Maciej to my alternate route, and reached my numbed fingers as high as possible along a spine in front of me. A few moves of actual climbing, thank God and I was clear of the steepest bits, having deposited myself upon a final mellow scramble.
Here, I took my time hunting for plates solid enough to hold my weight in the snow, placing my palms on them and mantling my way up. Where my hands were, my feet went, and enough of that put me up safe on the ridge.
Maciej came up shortly behind me, breathed a sigh of relief, and shared my last peanut butter and jelly sandwich with me.
Nathaniel had the worst of it. Five people had gone ahead of him and washed away the little snow bridges that got me to the rocks. Eventually he found his way to the rocks, fought up it, mantled across the plates, and got to take two breaths before we plunged onto the windy ridge.
The Ridge: Above It All
Maciej took the lead again up the ridge.
"Matt! You have to come check this out!"
"Wait, you look rad!"
"No seriously, come up here!"
He wasn't lying. I did have to go check that out. It was, hands down, the most beautiful view of nature I've ever seen. The peaks rose out of golden clouds, they were huge, they went on forever, and the sun was setting on the hori-
The sun's where?
Oh shit. We need to get moving. This is not the time to dick arou-
MACIEJ! NOT NOW!
Nathaniel, eat something. You're bonking buddy. We've got to beat the light.
The peak. We made it to the top, but by then sun had faded over the horizon. We stood in the most unearthly sunset realm I'd ever seen.
We weren't sure of the descent off the peak at first, but I spotted the tracks of the party that had gone before us off to the right. We took off our skins, and set out. Nathaniel took point and went to scout the line.
We lost sight of him after a steep rollover with rock outcroppings below. What I could see, or at least I thought I could see, was the highway - our way home - far, far below.
"Nathaniel? Which way do we go?"
"I fell off a cliff.
"I FELL OFF A CLIFF"
"WHICH WAY DO WE GO"
"I FELL OFF A FUCKING CLIFF"
We are so, so screwed.
Nathaniel had fallen off a cliff. Maciej and I might not be able to get down safely - after all, that other group had had a rope they may have used to rappel. We didn't.
I had brought two headlamps with me to Canada, but somehow neither had ended up in my pack. Nathaniel was in the same boat, and light was fading fast.
"ARE YOU OKAY"
"NATHANIEL. ARE. YOU. OH. KAY."
"... YEAH. Yeah, I'm fine."
"Okay then. How do we get down?"
"Go right. DOWNCLIMB RIGHT."
So we did. Maciej and I skirted around to the right, and began downpacking through the snow. I held a shortened ski pole horizontally in each hand, and punched my fists straight into the pack from above, doing my best to distribute my weight through the loose snow and create something I could hold on to as the sugary steps below me alternatively washed out and consolidated.
Below us, the bottom of the bowl we'd left behind yawned up at us from a thousand feet below.
As we climbed, Nathaniel skied around the apron and into view. He had fallen, on his belly, over a cliff to the left, but made it around to the right. If only I'd fallen off the cliff, I thought. That lucky bastard.
Fifty feet further down, Maciej and I were on the apron at the foot of the cliffs. He was so wired up from the exposure that he waded through the snow another fifty feet to Nathaniel, skis A-framed over his pack. I strapped on my board there at the apron, took my goggles off so that I could see in the low light, and we started chasing the tracks - so grateful for the party ahead of us - down the mountain.
The skiing was amazing, but for some reason it's not the skiing that I remember that evening.
Maciej and Nathaniel both stopped more often than I would have liked, but maybe splitboarders have the advantage on the big days: the skiers were both complaining of burned out legs.
When full dark settled on the slopes we still had a thousand feet of bushwhacking to drop. With one headlamp, working only intermittently, well...
It was a shitshow.
I've never been so happy to hit a skintrack. An hour across the flats we were back at the trailhead where a Jenn that's never been so happy to see her boys greeted us.
Heading towards oblivion in the bottom bunk at our hotel room, I started back awake, my chest gripped with fear.
Holy shit. Never again.
I write this now about a week after the day.
I can't wait to go back.
After all, now I know the route.
Just huck the cliff.