Speak Softly

I wanted to climb on clean beautiful granite, pitch after pitch until we felt so far away from it all.  I wanted a striking line of clean rock, stark, architectural.  I wanted to sink my hands into one of the 50 classic climbs of North America, to feel the progress that I have made as a climber over the past 2 years.  I had my triumphant return back to the east coast and my blustering all planned out.  The low pressure weather settling in over the Pacific Northwest had other ideas and put me in my place.  

Our original plans were either to go deep, skiing and climbing in the remote Pasayten Wilderness or a similar itinerary on Mount Stuart.  We thought that one of these plans would provide blue skies, one being in the heart of the cascades and the other being in the desert rain shadow; however, each destination was awash in a sea of green precipitation forecasts.  My brother-in-law, Erik, and I resorted to Plan B, then C, and then grasped at straws in a flurry of emails, searching for clear weather.  What about the Olympic range?  No go.  What about Squamish?  Nope.  The Chilliwacks?  No.  My hopes sank with each progressive email.

Finally, on the 130th email since I had booked the flight, Erik sent a photo of the weather forecast.  On the photo, Erik circled the clear patch above Oregon and next to it placed a single exclamation point.  The weather had spoken, and what it had said was this – you are going to Oregon.  It took me a few minutes to re calibrate.  Oregon, huh?  I had recently climbed in Smith Rock, Oregon.  I pictured the state park over Memorial Day weekend and shuddered.  The crowds would be heinous, and Smith Rock just didn’t feel like a lofty enough goal for all the pent up stoke that Erik and I had built up.  Beyond Smith Rock, the rest of Oregon is filled with mountains of crumbling volcanic rock, not suitable for true rock climbing.  So what would we do?  Ski the whole trip?

I will say it here before this story continues; I am not really a skier, and a trip filled with skiing did not have me exhilarated.  But along with the weather forecast, Erik included a loose itinerary for skiing as much vertical on as many volcanoes as we could squeeze into our trip, ending the itinerary with “YESSSS…” with 49 S’s.  49 S’s, huh?  True, I am not a skier, but I guess Erik’s stoke could buoy us both for the time being.

In addition to borrowed stoke, I would be putting my trust in Erik.  Being that I live in Eastern Pennsylvania, my experience skiing on real mountains is extremely limited.   Sure, I have skins, a beacon, probe, and shovel, but for the most part they just occupy shelf space.  Erik assured me that conditions would be safe, but I had my own fears with which to contend.

I was flashing back to a little less than a year ago.  Erik and I were climbing in the Bugaboos during the late season.  We had completed what proved to be the biggest rock climbing route of our lives and were finishing the last rappels onto the glacier below as the remnants of alpenglow faded from the skyline.  I flicked on my headlamp, set the belay device and began descending.  The moat at the edge of the glacier and granite looked like it could swallow a truck as my headlamp disappeared into its depths.  My heart rate quickened as I descended and the maw neared.  Erik was there to talk me through the jump across onto solid neve.  And Erik was there again, when later that night, terror coursed through my veins as my leg plunged through a void in the glacier.  My leg punctured a snow bridge and the icy grasp of the glacier clutched at my thigh.  My mind raced through glacier anatomy in a split second as my body dropped.  I pictured the snow bridge perched on top of the chasm I had just discovered.  I pictured the bottom of the deep pit as the crevasse would eventually tighten into darkness.  I spread my arms out wide, and when the rest of my body didn’t fly through, I looked to Erik to keep me from what felt like certain death.

Erik has a lot of experience in the mountains and on ice and snow, but has constantly downplayed his expertise.  But Erik was confident that it was prime spring season and that the cracks would be bridged and the skiing perfect.  But he had mentioned that it was really, really hot for the past two weeks.  Maybe the crevasses would open early this year.  All my second guessing was not aligning with my ideal triumphant return to the mountains.  Wasn’t I supposed to return home to brag about how confident and in control I was?

Our first stop was Mount Thielsen, just North of Crater Lake.  Mount Thielsen was supposed to be a quick day, to give us plenty of time to rest up for a bigger following day.  Three hours of skinning later, we crested a ridge to see that a lot of climbing remained.  The day was going to be a little longer than expected.  As I struggled to skin through undulating snow mounds scoured by the wind, I also began to struggle with the familiar beast of my damaged pride.  Again, wasn’t I supposed to be confident and in control?

Thankfully we touched dry rock to reach the summit of Thielsen, and I was happy to feel more at home climbing the fourth to fifth class summit block.  When we returned to our skis, I was a little timid to point them downhill but happy that it meant that was the last time I would have to flop them around going uphill for the day.  The skiing was short lived, but reminded me of the east coast and had me whooping and cheering as Erik and I formed a double helix down the bowl of Thielsen.  We arrived at the van, more tired than expected, but I was warily confident for our next goal of South Sister in the mountains above Bend.  It would be more elevation than the previous day, 1,000 feet extra vertical, but it promised to be more straightforward.

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South Sister did prove to be more straightforward; for Erik, just a mellow cruise up and down a familiar mountain.  For me, an utter sufferfest of blisters, getting worked at altitude, and delusions of worthlessness.  A few miles into the skin, I felt the growing blisters on my heels begin to tear.  After removing my boots for an emergency tape job, we broke through above treeline and started across the cloudless and windless landscape.  I am not sure what the temperature was, but with the lack of wind and unrelenting sun I began to roast.  As we neared the top, we came across a group huddling around a solitary girl.  The girl sat on the barren rocks with a look of shock on her face.  She stared blankly past the group around her and out onto the gleaming snow.  A man standing over a narrow crack in the snow explained that she had just punctured through the snow up to her shoulders and they had spent the past 15 minutes carefully extracting her.  Again, I looked to Erik as he cut a skin track right and left to squarely confront the crack in the snow.  With blisters, fatigue, and my crevasse memories, I was struggling to stay positive as we crested the false summit, but Erik convinced me to skin the last few hundred feet to the true summit and the stunning views of the lower sisters mountains.  By the time we skied off of the summit, the sun had baked the fresh corn into the consistency of a slurpy.  The skiing was not prime, but I was just excited to not be suffering so much.  We blasted down the open slopes, hustled across the rolling flat, and managed to pick our way to the car while staying on our skis and mostly on snow.

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As I unpacked my damaged feet from my boots and decompressed from the day, I stared off into space and began worrying about my next challenge.  We had planned a day of rest, squeezing in a quick climb at Smith Rock, before heading to Mount Adams to try and ski on the legendary Southwest Chutes.  Erik had built the Southwest Chutes up as “the” goal of the trip.  The consistent, 40+ degree slope for 5,000 vertical feet was unparalleled, and Erik was not listening to any of my excuses.  Maybe Adams won’t be in condition, since South Sister was so warm.  Maybe I will crack after exhausting myself on two mountains and attempting to skin another 7,000 feet of vertical, up to the highest peak of the trip at 12,280 feet.  Maybe my bloodied feet will prevent all enjoyment of the day.  No, Erik was not hearing it.  We were going to Mount Adams.

As we settled in for the night at the trailhead, a number of neighbors came wandering over to have a chat.  At first I thought some of these folks were just friendly, but some began referring to Erik by name.  And after some began asking Erik for advice, I had to ask who they were.  Erik revealed that they were in an avalanche course that he taught.  When I was surprised that he had taught a class and wanted to know more, Erik demurred, “They just needed an instructor.”  I went to bed that night thinking about doing more and boasting less and hoping that my ailments wouldn’t prove my undoing on the following day.

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The smell of sulfur accompanied a quickening wind forced us to don jackets and hats as we neared the summit of Adams. The foul odor bubbling from the mountain reminded me that we were climbing a living beast.  One need only look to the left as they ascend the South face of Mount Adams to see a reminder of the power breathing beneath these cones.  Mount Saint Helens stands more than 1,000 feet shorter with a scar that is still noticeable, even 35 years after the “big one”.  My blisters, that had ached all day, faded into a distant memory.  The exhaustion I had felt on every previous volcano evaporated as I neared the summit.  I was lagging behind Erik as he and his more fit companions pulled ahead on the slope just below the summit, and for a moment I felt alone in that beautiful, barren landscape.  Not quite alone though, as I felt the breathing of the mountain below, the ominous presence of Mount Saint Helens to my left, and, as I crested the last rise in the snow, Mount Rainier, Tahoma, in the distance beckoning to be skied on my next trip.

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As we stood on top of the Southwest Chutes, Erik, his companions, avy course students, and new friends talked over the conditions we saw at the headwall.  In stark contrast to the slush of South Sister, the top of the chutes were pretty hard packed and a bit icy.  Everyone seemed cautiously optimistic and agreed to give it a go.  After picking our way down the first few iced turns we eyed up many thousands of feet of the most premier corn to be found anywhere.  A new pair of friends, Nick and Katelyn, came to a rest alongside me after we realized our good fortune.  They were smiling ear to ear and panting hard from pushing the limits on the beautiful snow.  I told them they should ski by Erik and he could take some photos of them.  And when Katelyn responded that we should exchange photos for her GoPro footage, I said to find Erik at his website www.highpressurephotography.com.  Nick double took when I said that, “Oh yeah, we know him.”   And Katelyn exclaimed before setting off down the slope, “We get so lucky to ski with a photographer!”

As we charged hard down the mountain and scrambled across rocky outcroppings, I felt full to the brim.  Full of the mountains around us, full of excitement from amazing skiing, and full of pride in Erik.  For the previous few years, I have been playing catch up to Erik in the mountains.  When he started skiing, I got my first pair of backcountry skis.  When he started climbing, I bought the gear.  And when he led me on my first true wilderness experiences, I raced into the woods to gain experience of my own.  And when I had delusions that I was really rad, he taught me how to speak softly and carry a big stick.  From his experience climbing and skiing to his amazing photography skills that netted him the National Geographic Adventure Photo of 2015, he continues to develop a resume that any adventurer could brag about.  Anyone, except him of course.

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For anyone wanting to see more of Erik’s work, check him out on instagram: https://www.instagram.com/highpressurephotography/

And in the spirit of not quite having it all together, I made this video featuring Erik and my outtakes.

Authored by Andy Munas

 

 

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