Sunday, June 17, 2012

Mount Jefferson West Rib Ski Descent

This past weekend Dan, Chris and I attempted to Summit Mt. Jefferson via the West Rib , Milk Creek Glacier drainage approach.  I had been wanting to climb Mt. Jefferson for years after my failed attempt with Kalin a few back at the Jeff Park Glacier route.  This time we had Dan with us who had great climbing experience with rope systems and protection yet was a fairly new skier.  Chris and I are great skiers but could definitely use Dan’s knowledge when we got to the steep and exposed summit block of the mountain.

After a quick drive to the trailhead on Saturday afternoon we started hiking up the trail at nearly 4pm with Dan’s current girlfriend (and my nearby officemate in Grad School) Racquel joining us with Dan’s dog Endo.  My pack was incredibly heavy with skis and ski boots attached to it and the gear we would need for the climb but I can’t imagine how heavy Dan’s was because he also had the heavy rope with him (he is an animal).  Thankfully, we got a nice rest break at Pamelia Lake where we stopped to let Endo play in the water for a bit.  Unfortunately, the lake was too overgrown for any good views of Jefferson for photos.  

We then continued onto the Pacific Crest Trail for a short section until we got to the Milk Creek drainage, turned off the trail and headed up through the riparian vegetation along the old glacially carved out river bed.   When we reached the furthest extent of the winter’s snow we said goodbye to Racquel and Endo who turned around to head back.  We had to negotiate around a very large ice cave from the spring runoff to get safely onto the snowpack and put our skis on for the skin up snow.

From there it was simply a long trudge on skins up the thin snow of the drainage towards the base of the West Face of Jefferson.  My pack felt increasingly heavy with every step forward and I quickly found myself burnt out and regretting not eating more that morning for energy.  Then to my amazement I saw them, a group of Rocky Mountain Goats running across the snow far ahead of Chris and Dan who didn’t seem to notice them.  I gave them a shout and we all watched as the two adults and two children ran up steep hillside to our left.  I quickly grabbed my camera and instantly regretted not bringing my long lens on the trip.  

I was happily snapping photos of them far above on the hillside above me when I heard that first crash about 20 feet in front of me... They were kicking up rocks!  Not only had I never seen goats in the western Oregon Cascades I have never seen them seemingly purposefully chuck rocks down at people they feel threatened by!  As I watched, the family of goats literally ran back and forth across the hillside far above until a cascade of stones was raining down on me.  Then, they would stop and peer over the edge down at me to see if any hit their mark!  Incredible, and quite amazing until I watched a big rock about the size of my head take a big bounce off the cliff and land about 10 feet from me.... time to move on.
Our camp site for the night was not ideal.  The snow was too steep everywhere so we found a place on the hillside (also steep) where there was a stream for water coming down.  All three of us had to dig out flat platforms in the steep hillside to accommodate our bivys.  Chris ended up not digging out his flat enough and was constantly sliding downhill all night.  
Despite the crude camping spots, and Dan watching his sleeping pad tumble down Milk Creek out of site, we had a beautiful view of the entire west face of the mountain with a cool waterfall nearby and under a beautiful sunset.  That night we also saw another scraggly looking goat up on the cliffside above us.  This one was all alone and seemed to prefer a certain rock with something on it that the goat liked.

We had planned to get up around 4am for our summit bid but instead woke up at 4am to  rain pissing down on us!  This was not looking good but the forecast called for clearing so I set my phone to wake us up at 6am to see if it got any better and thankfully it did.  By the time we had eaten and started our skin up to the base of the west rib the clouds were beginning to lift off the peak and we got a few glimpses of the summit.   

We were not able to keep our skins on for very long as we quickly started to gain the face of the mountain.  Instead, we strapped our skis to our packs and began our long bootpack up the face of the mountain.  For the most part we were on snow but on a few occasions we had to cross rock fields which is always awkward in ski mountaineering boots.  We kept up our slow pace with Dan kicking steps for Chris and I most of the way up the peak despite his heavier pack (again, he is an animal).  

By 9am the clouds had pretty much cleared out and we had sunny skies to climb under as the sun peaked out over the south shoulder of the peak.  As we got higher up on the mountain the slope became steeper and the snow became harder.  Eventually, the snow became so hard that we had to kick multiple times for each step and we all rotated out the lead to give each other a break.  After a quick scramble up to a rocky area where I was literally only getting about an inch of depth with the toe of each boot I decided it was definitely time to put on crampons and the other guys followed suit.  

We eventually came to a large rock outcropping where we took a break out of the wind to let our calfs and toes rest from the front pointing with crampons up the icy slope.  It was a pretty crazy climb as it was super steep and one slip would mean rocketing down the face on icy snow.  We soon were skirting around the summit block which Dan said we could drop our skis off under on the East side of it.  Unfortunately, there was no flat area to safely drop the skis and we ended up carrying them up on our packs to just below the true summit.  
We ended up getting to a spot about 50 feet from the true summit.  Even getting there had been pretty sketchy with a super steep climb up on rime ice about 5 feet from a vertical overhanging cornice drop of about 1,000 feet down the east face of the peak.  I took the lead up to where we stopped and let Dan take a peak at the possibility of getting to the summit.  We had gotten as far as I knew we could without ropes, harnesses and rock protection.

To get to the true summit would have meant a traverse over large slabs of rock in ski boots with protection that may or may not hold.  If one of us were to fall the pro may hold but it would still pendulum us about 10-20 feet into the jagged rocks above the northeast face.  That was the best case scenario.  Worst case scenario was the pro wouldn’t hold resulting in a good 500-1,000 foot drop and tumble down the northeast face.  Despite desperately wanting to get to the true summit I thought of Emily back east shopping for wedding dresses and my daughter and bailed.  It just wasn’t worth the risk.  Chris took a quick look and quickly agreed.  

This was about the time that the trip became EPIC.  It felt like the frigid wind got even stronger and colder and downclimbing from where we were was looking dangerous so we chopped out a bollard (trench in snow we lay rope in to support our weight on descent) in the snow and used my 60m Beal Iceline rope to rappel down the steep rime ice to a slightly easier slope below.  I was first to head down as I was then shaking violently with cold and it took some effort to sort out the tangled rope in the wind on the way down for the other two guys.  

Once down they followed quickly and began to dig another bollard for a 2nd rappel.  F* that I thought as I was still shaking and simply began to downclimb myself to stay warm keeping my chest to the slope and being careful and steady with each step.  Soon I was down to a good spot and wind break behind a rock to wait for Chris and Dan.  I was still very cold but being out of the wind a bit was helping and the down climbing and concentration had warmed me up a bit.

By the time Dan and Chris had caught up to me below after a 2nd rappel the weather had turned to shit and whiteout conditions were rolling up on us fast.  Time to get out of there!  After debating options we found a good place with slightly softer snow to dig out flat places to click into our skis and start our descent.  Initially, the snow was rock hard ice but quickly softened up, and softened up, and softened up, until it felt like we were skiing through a thick fog of mashed potatoes.  Thankfully, I had my gps and we could barely make out our boot prints up the mountain which we tried to follow.  

Eventually, the snow became a deep slush that literally cascaded down the slope with us with every turn.  I warned Dan to watch his slough while skiing as he is new and was worried that perhaps he may have bitten off more than he could chew on the ski descent.  I was having a great time jump turning down the steep face with the moving snow and Chris was managing just fine too.  

We both stopped for rest in the middle of the face and were looking around when Dan came sailing out of the mist on his side with a river of slush and slammed into me.   I was planted firmly with both poles in a wide stance so he just bounced off me and continued down the slope but he lost a ski in the process.  Dan, thankfully, was able to stop himself in the slide as he was being carried quickly towards a rock outcrop but his ski wasn’t so lucky.  We all watched as it was carried about 1,500 feet down the face of the peak flying off rocks with the rest of the slough towards the base of the west face. 
A wall of snow was quickly piling up on Dan’s back as he regained himself in the snow from his slide so I helped brush a bit off and stayed while he got back to his feet.  Chris had taken off after his ski to try to keep an eye on it.  I think Dan was a bit shaken from his ride and I frankly was a bit surprised to see how much the slough we kicked up gained traction down the slope.  It was creating quite the avalanche fan at the base of the mountain.  Dan had to make his way down by foot while I spotted Chris below and caught up to him.  

We all made it down the avalanche fan at the base where we last saw his ski and I was shocked to see that it was a couple hundred yards in length and about 5-6 feet deep.  I don’t think any of us would have been buried by it but the ride down could have injured us and it wouldn’t have been fun for sure.  To my amazement Dan was able to find his ski sticking out of the snow and we all made it back down to our camp safely.  I almost tried a different route but Chris thankfully talked me out of it as I would have ended up on top of the waterfall we had seen from camp which would have required a 15-20 foot drop on skis that would not have been fun.

We all had a good laugh about how the trip had turned epic as we packed up our site and began our ski down Milk Creek.  On the way out we had to avoid all the small rocks laying on top of the snow which was tricky and once again a few goats chucked rocks down at us.  Dan was even able to find his sleeping pad as well!  By the time we made it back to the PCT I was already exhausted and my shoulders hurt from my heavy pack.  

It was hell snapping my boots into the Dynafit bindings of my skis strapped to my pack but my lighter hiking boots felt good on my feet for the dry walk out.  I gave Holm my rubber crocks to wear out rather than his ski boots as well.  From there it was a torturous 3 mile exit out of the woods where I had to will myself with every step towards the car.  Thankfully, we had a cooler full of cold beer in the back of Chris’ car to cheer us up once we got there.

In the end we didn’t make the true summit but we certainly had an epic trip and I believe we made the right choices when we had to so that we all got down safely.  I’ll have to head back with a lighter pack in August on an easier route and grab the true summit in rock shoes.... Jefferson definitely deserves a lot of respect!

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