turning back

Sunrise over Redoubt

Sunrise over Redoubt

We are supposed to go to the Picket Range. A nauseating heat wave is causing the fastest spring melt that my friend Trevor has ever seen at Snoqualmie Pass in his two-decade tenure there. We walk the entire Hannegan road: over five miles in ski boots, with skins on for maybe the last half mile. Sweat pouring off, eyes darting from peak to peak in search of avalanche activity. Not much of that, really: it's been hot already for a few days. We see a big, old goat, still in its winter coat, trudging down the valley along the trail. We make it to Hannegan Pass in the mood that defines alpinism: perfect uncertainty. We may be launching into a six day expedition across the sharpest, roughest range in the lower 48 states. Or we may be turning around.  

Armin, Claire and Greg were handpicked by Martin for this rare, demanding trip. You can see why in camp: people are still laughing, smiling, chatting, willing to go to sleep without answers. We watch the sun go down, lighting up the sky behind Nooksack tower and the neglected peaks of Sefrit ridge. Dave Jordan and I sleep in a simple hole in the snow; I wake up at night and have a sensation of utter exposure--I'm going to fall into the abyss above me. I fall back asleep wondering if my sense of gravity is fundamentally skewed.

Greg Lange and Dave Jordan on the northwest side of Ruth

Greg Lange and Dave Jordan on the northwest side of Ruth

At 4AM Dave is setting an immaculate skin track toward Ruth Mountain. It might go, I think: as the snow continues to consolidate in the heat, and with continued radiative cooling at night, an early-rising team might make it work. The sun comes slowly up behind Redoubt and Mox, and soon the Pickets come into view. 

But as we round the corner onto an east facing slope, our skis punch into warm, soupy snow. I look at my watch and gauge our pace; I feel the snow changing underfoot as we change aspect and gain elevation; I pore over the weather forecast in my mind; I revisit the itinerary, leg by committing leg. There are so many sources of uncertainty. But I've calculated that we should at least gain the east ridge of Ruth and feel the snow up high, and on its southern aspect. It's the best way to milk these two days that we have committed to assessing conditions.   The opportunity to feel things out what prompted us to begin on the north end of the range and not the south. 

I find a gap in the cornice and bring us over to the east ridge. Dave and I step aside to have our guides' conference: the answer is disappointing, crushing. It might work, but everything would have to go perfectly. The crew supports this unanimously, and we carry on up to the summit of Ruth. I give the tour d'horizon, the traditional naming of peaks on the horizon. On Ruth this panorama defies imagination. Then we are skiing and, at least for a moment, consoled. 

The next night I have a dream that a wolverine has followed Erin and I to our home. It has dug a hole in our yard and, before our eyes, gives birth to two kits. Like the fear that I will fall into the sky, this is an instinct turned inside out: as if after all this time going to the mountains, they have suddenly come to me. 

Shuksan and Baker from the Nooksack-Chilliwack divide

Shuksan and Baker from the Nooksack-Chilliwack divide