Thursday night we packed some really warm clothes and some very sharp metal, scrounged for snack-type food items, and went to bed. The alarm went off and I was suprisingly wide awake. So awake that I looked at the clock to be sure I didn’t set the alarm incorrectly. Crap! It was only 1:33 am and I was having pre-climb anxiety. oh well. Back to sleep. Two hours later, repeat.
Left the car behind at the trailhead by 4:30am, Saturday. Hiked quickly but cautiously as the ice on the trail was tough to see with just our headlamps. Got quickly and uneventfully to Mills Lake in about 1.5 hours. Then the real hike started. Looking at the quarter mile elevation gain from the lake to the base of the climb brought back memories, painful memories, of hiking to MacGregor Slabs. I was able to site enough differences between this impending hike and the MacGregor Slabs hike, namely – snow, no snow; many downed trees, few obstacles; no switchbacks, steep switchbacks; and the real clencher: no bootpacked trail, very obvious trail. I prepared wholeheartedly for a hellacious approach.
Good thing I did not instead prepare for a tea party because we kicked steps, climbed over old, rotten fallen trees, and vege self-belayed ourselves up snow-dusted, ice-covered rock slabs. Shout out to those tough alpine tundra plants! Surmounting the last steep bulge, we could see out climb clearly: P1: thinner, low-angle ice up about 150 feet to a few options for belays; P2: three bulge sections separated by what looked to be fairly good rest areas; P3: steep snow; P4: fat, steep, sustained WI4 filled a narrow chute… looked beautiful. We scoped our descent, left and down, too.
We reached the base of the climb around 7:30 am feeling as though we had already climbed the mountain. We spotted a team of two coming up behind us and jinxed ourselves by hoping we wouldn’t get in each others way. As planned, I geared up and started climbing. The ice was thick enough to swing tenaciously but didn’t want a good screw. Even the stubbies were bottoming out, some with 2cm sticking out, others with a little more. It didn’t matter, I was psyched. I cleared a few tough bulges but the real challenge was getting my ice tool unstuck after getting a good stick. Twice during my lead I wasted so much time yanking, jerking, levering, etc. in a frustrated, fun-sucking, energy-sapping state of stuckedness. Of course, I was getting great advice from multiple sources – get above and pull up on the shaft, pound on the adze, lift up and out up near the head – of course all of which I was trying over and over again with no avail. Then it pops out. Always shocking when you’re perched somewhat precariously on an ice bulge, working with all the strength you’ve got to unstick your stuck tool, then for whatever reason, this slam does it and it’s out. You didn’t expect it to come out, and suddenly it’s out. But at this point you’ve almost resigned yourself to the fact that your ice axe is going to become a fixed piece on this route until spring. At which point, you’d have to make numerous slogs up that heinous hill to check the status of the melting ice before someone took your tool as booty gear. Anyhow, the tool decided to unstick itself when it was ready to keep climbing and, once I had regained composure after the rush of unexpected unbalance, the good tool, bad tool, and I climbed happily together once again.
I set up my belay right next to the leader of the twosome, who had meanwhile decided to take the more interesting left side instead of waiting and following us up the middle. Phil came up with no problems. Then it started to rain.
Party #2’s leader headed up left through the same ice we’d have to climb, raining down ice chunks of all sizes, shapes, and colors. OK, so they were pretty much all white except for a few blueish tinted dinner plates, but wouldn’t it be cool if ice were multicolored? Party #2 follower starts up and knocks off a huge piece, catches it between his knees, and lets it fall. No “IIIIICE”, just lets it fall. Phil promises him, “if you do that while I’m leading I’m going to come after you with my ice axes.” Wow, good. Way to put the smack down, Phil. Phil and I are freeeeeeeezing as we prance impatiently in our 5-inch-deep, 10-inch-wide platforms we’ve kicked at the belay. Phil decides it’s best if we wait for both of their team members to get well above us before we start up the same section. I decide it’s best if we get the hell out of dodge and find some way to bail. About 20 minutes later, Phil starts up behind ice-chucker guy.
We met up with Jeff and Dan on the descent. The descent was full of very loose, very low angle scree. Snow was wind-blown into the crevices between the rocks and, more than at any other boulderfield I’ve hiked through, your foot would sink down between the unconsolidated powder in an ankle-breaker of a second. We continued our descent quickly and painfully. Our bodies were starting to fight back- feet ached, stomach hungry, backs sore, etc. Despite the beautiful waning (or maybe it was waxing?) gibbous moon, we put our headlamps on about 50 vertical feet above Mills Lake so as not to kill ourselves on the icey trail around the lake. We talked non-stop on the hike back to the car, which is definitely one of my favorite parts of the trip. I was so excited to talk to Phil – to tell him how I felt and what I was thinking through every part of the day, and to hear how he felt and what he was thinking – especially as he was about to climb that flippin’ ice curtain.
We got back to the car as two hurting units. Got home, showered, and picked up some take-away nachos from Ed’s. Laid out some of our more important metal gear to dry. Went to sleep.
We both learned a lot and all-in-all this was one of my favorite trips yet.