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ingalls country sojourn

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We named the goat Blackbeard for the delicate fan of dark hairs on his chin. He came to our camp, as goats often will, for the salts in our urine. When he came too close we shooed him off, scolding him like a neighbor's child. Whose is this troublemaker? I think I often view animals as children, as oblivious and benign and innocent. All their behavior is aimed at meeting their basic needs, and they are unafraid of breaking human social rules in the process. But Blackbeard is an adult, a mature, taxpaying citizen of upper Ingalls Creek. I'm the one who must appear to him as a child, or a mutant, or an outsider. I am the one who does not speak the language. Ten years after my first visit to Ingalls country, I find it more compelling than ever.

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Scott came from Albuquerque to take a long course in alpine climbing. His first week saw him climbing around Washington Pass and to the summit of Shuksan via the Sulphide Glacier. He proved a quick study and conditions seemed good, so we we drove over Snoqualmie Pass and up the Teanaway River road. The trail to Ingalls Lake is magnificent; I can't think of a place with more idyllic meadows and larch stands so close to a road. Already I find myself plotting an autumn trip. The peridotite of the Ingalls basin recalls the baked sandstone dunes of Red Rock in Nevada. I half expect to find Joshua trees over the next rise.

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I had never done the East ridge of Ingalls Peak, and the long ridge run seemed like a good warm-up for Stuart. We hung our salty packs and shoes up out of reach of Blackbeard and headed up the moonscape above the lake. We found a slippery serpentinite chimney draped with the evidence of someone's retreat. From beneath the massive chockstone at the ridge, we scurried over long enjoyable stretches of easy rock with short steps of trickier climbing. The last time I stood on top of Ingalls, I was twenty-one and blissfully ignorant. I was the child that I wrongly take these animals for--I wonder if I passed a young Blackbeard in the meadow on that trip. I wonder if he scoffed as I tromped by: there goes another silly kid.

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Under the half moon we rose and left camp at four o'clock. Rolling over Stuart Pass and down into Jack Creek, up the rock glacier below the West Face, to Goat Pass where we found no goats but a guide friend and his client. With the North ridge cutting the sky above we crossed the Stuart Glacier, suncupped and icy and cracked open. Then it was the pleasure of the ridge, the familiar architecture of fins and towers and slabs, the cracks and footholds long since scraped clean by generations of alpinists. Was it any less clean ten years ago? My memory isn't good enough. We passed a few parties and hurried back to the sun at the summit.

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The meadows of upper Ingalls Creek welcomed us as we trudged toward camp. It's a place that makes you stop, no matter how bent on sleep you might be. It makes you stop and wonder how you might contrive to come back, to stay a while, to enter the secret life of a wild place.

In the morning we awoke to the bleating cries of a young goat outside the tent. Searching for coffee in the dawn light, I saw a family of four retreated to a slab nearby, and Blackbeard in his throne beside the old fire ring. On the slabs overlooking the valley I found spatters of drying blood, a trail of drops leading off toward the new family of goats. I looked at Blackbeard's sharp horns, his perfect disdain.

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Animals aren't the children I often mistake them for. But neither are animal children what I myself was as a child. Only a few years old, Blackbeard's neighbor kids are eligible for stabbing and murder. I think of my ignorant and carefree days in the mountains, and I am glad for the long, forgiving adolescence of my species. But I wonder again how to understand the ones who live their whole lives here in the alpine, who are not visitors but the evolutionary die-cast of the mountains. I look forward to more years in places like the Ingalls country and the Ptarmigan traverse, where the bears and the martens and the goats show me what it is to be made--and not simply re-made--by the mountains.

Thin Times

The ice has been a little reluctant to fatten up in the Alpental Valley this December. That's not unusual, and it's not a show-stopper. The last few weeks I managed to sharpen the tools and come up with some great options.

Think Thin

I climbed the north face of Chair Peak with some friends. The last time I climbed it was many years ago, and it was a perfect sheet of neve then. What we found this December was very different, with incipient ice barely coating the underlying rock and heather. While the terrain isn't steep, the conditions served up some challenge. A few short constrictions offered gymnastic fun, where later they are filled in completely. The constant shopping for good placements re-calibrates your sense of "good," and the lack of pro keeps you paying attention. Choosing thin conditions for a climb well below your comfortable limit is a great way to work your alpine skills.

Fail, then go cragging.

I went to the east face of the Tooth with Kurt Hicks. This route follows a ramp system across the big face above Pineapple basin, then heads for a chimney directly under the summit. The climbing was fun right off the ground, with runnel ice and rock moves, and just enough pro. Kurt built a belay on top of the first pitch and the ambience was distinctly alpine. Only an hour and a quarter from the car!

Well into the next pitch I pulled the plug. We wanted more ice on this pitch, and the pro was just not materializing to protect the snowy rock moves. I slung an iffy horn, clipped the rope with a beater biner, and started downclimbing. It will be there waiting for me next time.

On the way down we stopped by the Rap Wall for some drytool  action. In no time we had a good pump going, and the rock moves on the east face already seemed more doable. A few days later I ran into some fellows at Bryant Buttress who had just turned around on the first pitch of Chair's north face. They were using the same strategy--fail and then go cragging--which is a convenient fringe benefit to climbing in Alpental Valley.

Go looking

There are great unskied couloirs and unclimbed lines all over the Snoqualmie backcountry. On the Solstice I went out with the Pro Guiding Service guide crew for a wild tour north of Snoqualmie. One the way I saw two great, nameless couloirs, and a half-dozen intriguing mixed lines. Entering these in my "Black Book" database back at home always gets me excited for the variety and adventure of winter. And it reminds me that these mountains are, well, limitless.

Sahale Armor

During the brief sunny window offered on Monday and Tuesday, I went to the North Cascades in search of seasonal ice. While guiding Sahale this summer, I noticed this extremely narrow slot of a couloir dropping down the east face from near the summit; the Scurlock photos of course added to my excitement. I couldn't tell if it was a ski run or a climb, but I felt compelled by the thing.  The storms of late September and early October gave me hope that some magic had taken place, and I convinced my friend Kurt Hicks to go have a look with me.

The gentle trail to Cascade Pass went quickly with our eyes pasted on the north face of Johannesberg. I think we talked about every line we had ever dreamed of climbing or skiing.  We passed a pair of utterly fearless ptarmigans, just three brown feathers left on each wing. They were scuttling about in the heather and a rather fresh set of bear tracks (you can just make them out in the photo above). Later the tracks lead up Sahale Arm to a tight stand of hemlocks where the bear had bedded down. The patchy snow broke our rhythm and made my pack feel heavy; the bear, too must have grumbled at all the berries too soon covered by snow. Life can be hard in the in-between times.

We pulled into our camp at the toe of the Sahale glacier and shook our heads: we would be camping on new snow. We both agreed that the year had offered exactly one calendar month without a night spent sleeping on snow. The sun went down over the vastness of the cascades to our south, and we set our alarms for 3AM.

At 3 it was warmer than at sunset. Still, the stars shone and we agreed we should at least go for a walk. We wandered down in the dark, the land dropping away in mysterious slabs and gullies, the moonlight only suggesting that poor choices might well be possible this morning. We took our time, a little convinced that the route wouldn't be in. Two hours brought us down into Horseshoe basin, up onto the Davenport glacier and over to the base of the route.

The first pitch took an hour. A tall fin of last season's snowpack stood in the center of a vertical chimney. I tried climbing on the right, chimneying between the rock and ice. An overhanging exit made me back down. Kurt sent me over to the left side, where a similar chimney scheme got me up to an exit through a little hole and the easier terrain of the couloir. You can see Kurt popping out of said hole in the photo above.

As I had hoped, the couloir was exceedingly narrow. The snow was still pretty soft and made for some real work. I think it averaged 50 degrees with some steep bulges. Ice crept up here and there, with the occasional good tool placement offering some solace in the face of the constant rain of ice bits from the walls around us. We belayed again at the exit, where sugar snow and an infant cornice offered a fun mantling problem.

A quick scramble up the summit and we were able to change out wet gloves in the sun, eat some food, and chuck the ropes down the south side. I felt lucky that I love such a strange thing as mountain climbing, and luckier still that I have friends who share in my strangeness.

On the hike down the Arm, a powerful wind picked up, and we had to lean into it in order to keep walking a straight line. I thought of Johnny Cash's song, "Outside the leaves are falling, a cold wild wind has come." Here's to the in-between times.

Today Sahale, tomorrow the world

This weekend I had the pleasure of visiting Boston Basin again, this time in the company of Dan. A fairly recent transplant from Utah, Dan has been skiing and playing in the mountains his whole life. This was his first venture to a North Cascades summit. It only dawned on me late in the trip, but Sahale was also my first summit in the North Cascades. It truly is a fine introduction to the range, to alpine climbing, and to a world of possibilities.

When I was 18 years old I took a 12 day mountaineering course. I enjoyed the whole trip, but it was our nights in Boston Basin that really enthralled me. I watched the northern lights swarming above Forbidden Peak and the pale glaciers on the dark mass of Johannesburg. Our summit must have been splendid, although I don't remember it. Mostly I recall the sense of possibility, the new reality of endless, mysterious mountains spilling out in all directions from Cascade Pass.

Dan's trip combined an introduction to glacier travel and crevasse rescue with a summit of Sahale. The Quien Sabe route is a great way to encounter the essential elements of alpine climbing, especially for back-country skiers looking to expand their repertoire. It will also get you excited about further adventures. Whether your aspirations involve ski traverses, classic alpine ridges, steep descents, or wild lonely summits, the view from Sahale will tantalize you.

Thanks to Dan for a great weekend!