Sunday, August 23, 2009

The Whitney Quest - Prologue

Sept 6, 2008

While I was in exploring the Dolomites of Italy, an email from a geocacher named ClueSeeker found its way into my inbox. I would get it a week later, after I returned from the European adventures.

The email read:

Hi Indy,

I would like you to consider joining a small group of us to score caches at the highest and lowest point in the continental U.S. ... in one day. Yes, Mt Whitney and Death Valley N.P.

Please send me a gmail address so I can send you the Google Documents invite.
You were the one to inspire me to climb Katahdin this August. What a blast! As usually is the case, I'm thinking of more challenges.


Now, among allllll my other hobbies, I geocache. But most of my geocaching is usually relegated for those times when I can't get out climbing, or diving, or kayaking, or something else. Or when I just need a good hike or visit to someplace "off the beaten path" (more than a few geocaches I've gone for have brought me to little-visited gems in this world, where few others have tread).

Another one of my hobbies is high pointing: getting to the highest point in each of the 50 states. Before this year, I had done 44 of them (45 if you include DC). The ones remaining include Kings Mountain (Utah), Boundary Peak (Nevada), Gannett Peak (Wyoming), Denali (Alaska), Mt Rainier (Washington), and Mt Whitney (California).

The first hurdle for doing Mt Whitney, which happens to be the highest of the high points in the United States outside of Alaska, is to select what day or days (depending on whether one was doing this "in a day" or backpacking) one would attempt the peak and submit it to a lottery drawing, hoping against hope that the day(s) choosen were selected, AND that the weather was favorable. This by January of the year in question. You won't learn until that April if you got what you applied for. Because of this, I had put off doing Whitney for a few more years yet. Just hadn't had time to wrap my mind around the logistics of it, given everything else going on in Life.

But now I was being asked to go climb it!

Doing the geocaches at Mt Whitney and Death Valley were secondary considerations to my acceptance - here was an opportunity to get to the highest peak in the Lower 48. (at 14,497', Whitney is a mere 87' taller than Mt Rainier; stand on a rock and my head is above 14,500').

With my acceptance, Jeff (geo-handle of Clue Seeker) put together a team of 6. We discussed where to fly in to (Jeff is a SouthWest pilot and an ex-military pilot, and can sometimes get free stand-by passes for people to use), rental car options, where to stay when, what our itinerary would be overall (nutshell: fly in, meet up, drive out, do The Hike, visit Death Valley, drive back, fly home). And we even came up with a team name: Team High Exposure (for going to the highest point followed by one of the most exposed [to weather/heat] points in the States).

Jeff took care of submitting the lottery form. We were aiming for late August - specifically to do the 22 mile roundtrip hike in one day on Aug 26th, 2009. In the meantime I was setting most of my focus on the upcoming Rainier trip in July.

As the Whitney trip drew nigh, there were some adjustments in the team composition (we lost a person, we gained a person, we lost a person - not sure if we gained and lost yet another person or not), ending up with 5 of us for this adventure. We adjusted hotel/motel accommodations and car rentals accordingly. We dropped the second car from the rental, deciding to squeeze everyone into one vehicle (and since this was a non-technical climbing trip, nor a camping trip, we would not have tons of extra gear to slog around).

Our team now consisted of Jeff (Clue Seeker), Dwight (Snurt), Marty (Flying Moose), Harold (Ridgeseeker), and, well, me. As I'll probably use their geo-names and real names interchangeably, it is onto you to keep up. ;)

Our plan was to fly into Las Vegas, stay the night (because some members were arriving in the morning, some in the afternoon) at the same Motel 6 I stayed at back in February when I was out there for the Red Rocks trip, then drive out to Lone Pine, CA, get the hostel room, supply up with necessary foodstuffs, sleep, up at o'dark-thirty, drive up to the trailhead, do the hike up and back, drive to Furnace Creek in Death Valley to get our rooms there for the night, do the lowest point in Death Valley first thing in the morning (thus accomplishing the goal of hitting the highest and lowest points in the Lower 48 within a 24 hour period), then casually drive back to Las Vegas, have a celebratory dinner, crash out at the Motel 6 again, and then fly back home.

Sounded like a good plan.

Just before the trip started the plan changed. Now we would all fly into and meet in Las Vegas on Monday morning (FlyingMoose would already be out there, arriving a couple days before), get the rental, drive out to Lone Pine (caching along the way), get the hostel room for two nights, do an acclimatization hike (such as it would be) the next day (caching along the way), get up at o'dark-thirty to do Whitney on Wednesday, head out to Furnace Creek afterwards (too tired to cache along the way), hit Badwater, Death Valley (the lowest point in the US) the next morning (caching along the way), drive back to Las Vegas (caching along the way), have a celebratory dinner (caching along the way - do you sense a theme in this trip?), crash out at the Motel 6, then go our separate ways that Friday.

The # of days were the same. Just adjustments (and added activities I hadn't considered; I didn't really realize how into geocaching my teammates were!) put into the mix.

Before I go on, I probably should quickly (hah!) explain, for the non-geocaching-initiated in the audience, exactly what geocaching is (skip to the black text a few paragraphs below if you already know and don't want to be extra-bored ;) ). In its bare bones breakdown, it is a high-tech treasure/scavenger hunt (yeah, that's what it is, a game). Baaasically, someone hides a container somewhere in the world (in the woods, in the desert, in an urban environment, etc), takes a GPS coordinate reading, then uploads this to (one has to have an account to do this - and to get coordinates in order to go out and find them). Other cachers then plug the coordinates into their GPS units and go out and try to find said cache.

You would naively think that getting the coordinate information would make finding said cache very easy. However, in reality, you'd be surprised. Caches can come in all shapes and sizes, and be camoflauged very, very well. The GPS will get you to the area (and the accuracy may not be 100%). It's then your job to find the cache.

Now physical caches can range in size anywhere from something that would hold a bazooka (usually referred to as "large") to ammo cans or lock-n-lock containers (usually referred to as "regular") to small tupperware containers the size of a baseball (usually referred to as "small") to magnetic hide-a-key or film containers (usually referred to as "micro") to something no larger than the area of your pinky fingernail (usually referred to as "nanos"). Within these containers is usually a logbook or logsheet (or strip of paper in nanos) for you to sign. And if the container is large enough, it will often contain inexpensive (i.e., McDonald or Dollar Store items) 'swag' for trade (sometimes caches have quite nice swag, but those are usually in more difficult to locate caches, rarely in the easy ones).

Caches can also be "virtual" - meaning that there is no actual, physical container at the location, but there is an object or view of some interest. In order to 'log' the cache for a find credit, you often have to answer a question about the object and/or have a photo taken - with your GPS (so as to prevent "vacation photos" from pre-caching trips) - at or with the object or view. Unfortunately, a few years ago decided that virtuals no longer consituted "real" caches and have banned the creation of any new ones - but the ones that existed prior to the ban were grandfathered in and many are still active and available for people to find. This is Good, because a number of places, such as pretty much all National Parks, or certain State Parks (e.g., North Carolina State Parks), places along the Appalachian Trail (notably in Pennsylvania), physical caches are not permitted. The best thing to have there, then, is a virtual. Especially if the location is some place cool or worthy of visiting.

Recently there has been a resurgence in another kind of virtual cache called Earthcaches. These are generally geologic-specific virtuals that attempt to educate the cacher on the geology or geologic history of a given area. Photo to the right is of me (with my GPS) at an Earthcache in Red Rocks, Nevada, called "Ancient Dunes". (from the cache page: ...notice the alternating red and tan layers. These were formed while the dunes were still active. The inclined layers were formed when the winds blew the sand, and the sand stacked up on the windward side of the dune. Continued forward climbing movement of dune after dune resulted in the stacking of layer upon layer of cross bedded sands. After the sand turned to stone, the cross bed patterns remained.) To log this cache you had to measure a 1' section of the crossbedding and tell how many layers of crossbedding you had in that section, and upload a photo of you at the area.

Caches are also rated with a Difficulty Rating and a Terrain Rating, each scale from 1-5. (where "1" is about as easy as it gets, and "5" is extremely challenging, might require specialized equipment such as climbing or diving gear) The easiest caches (often called "cache-n-dash") are rated no more than 1-2 in difficulty or terrain. Some of the best, though, are the harder caches. Photo to the left is of me, climbing up a 70' tall abandoned train trestle pillar, in the middle of the Potomac River, going after a Difficulty-5, Terrain-5 cache located at the top named "Psycho Urban Cache #13 - Impossible, Give Up Now!". As of this writing, I am the only person to have actually physically free climbed the tower; all others who followed have gotten to the top by the use of aid climbing up ropes. No mean feat in and of itself, mind you. Caches of average difficulty and/or terrain are usually considered "2/2".

All that said, some caches (physical, virtual, Earth) are very cool. Others are...not so much. Comes with the territory. Not everything can be perfect or awesome. Much more information can be found at

The principle goals on this trip were to log the caches (there are two, one physical and one virtual) on top of Mt Whitney followed by logging the Earthcache at Badwater, Death Valley. Anything before, in between, or after was just gravy to the trip.

Sidebar: as you find and log caches, your "find count" goes up (assuming you bother to log them online). This generally gives people an idea of how experienced you might or might not be in this caching stuff. Prior to this trip I had found 1992 caches since May 2003. I was hoping Mt Whitney would be #2000.

The weekend of Aug 22nd arrived. I spent the two days sorting and organizing gear and clothes for the trip. Yeah, "just" a 5-day adventure, but in some rather temperature and climatically extreme environments. No technical gear needed, but other stuff definitely.

Sunday evening I turned in as early as I could (still wasn't until midnight), setting my alarm for 4:30am. Jeff and Dwight would be coming for me in a few hours...

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The Rainier Quest - Days 9 & 10: The Final Adventures

June 25, 2009

Well, it was the final day of the trip. And I had a full day ahead of me before I caught the red-eye back to Baltimore.

Karyn took me down to the little town of Edmonds for breakfast and a jaunt through the local farmer's market. Which was quite a busy place! Did a little final souvenir shopping, then back to her and Bob's place. I packed the car with my gear, said my farewells, then headed out. Today's adventure was to hike up some of the Iron Horse State Park, a rails-to-trails park, hit a few geocaches along the way, then meet up with my friend Karen later in the afternoon, have dinner, then off to the airport to catch my 10:55pm flight, which would land me back in B'more around 7am.

But before I had taken off I had checked the geocaching website to see what caches were about. I noticed that not terribly far (horizontal distance-wise) there were a few caches from where Francesca and I had climbed yesterday. One of them had been placed out several days prior, and no one had even attempted it yet. Well, heck, that drew my attention. Given the number of geocachers around (especially back East), it is extremely rare to get a "first to find" (FTF) on a geocache. This particular cache had been sitting partway up this mountain for four days. It was a beautiful day out today, and it was a weekend - surely someone was probably already doing it! But on some slim chance no one had yet...I altered my plans. I would go for this cache first, then if time allowed try for the hike on the Iron Horse Trail.

The caches up on the mountainside above The Far Side climbing area are all pretty much dedicated to Harry Gault. In fact, the peak and the trail leading to the summit, as well as an overlook (Dirty Harry's Balcony), bear his name.

Historical sidebar note: Harry was a local independent logger who, in the late 1970s, who was in the business of buying cutting rights to next-to-worthless timber on private land that didn’t interest larger operators. He gained a reputation for relentless logging near North Bend, Washington, employing logging methods (that were subsequently outlawed) to chainsaw these forests into oblivion. He was known for his uncanny ability to build roads and log trees in places thought by other loggers to be too inaccessible to attempt. This reputation eventually led people to give him the nickname of "Dirty Harry". For years he was a thorn in the side of the Forest Service and local timber companies, who tried in vain to convince him to practice his craft in less conspicuous areas.

Photo right is one of Dirty Harry's victims, but with a new sapling growing out of the old trunk.

Anyway, many years after Dirty Harry stopped his tree-clearing practices, the occasional rusty artifact from his logging past can still be found along and near his old logging road (photo left of one such artifact). Harry had even left behind an old truck and some other logging artifacts at an undisclosed location he called the "Museum", also known as "Dirty Harry's Museum". Most hikers looking for this "Museum" never find it, as every year it becomes more hidden by brush and trees. I would soon learn why people don't always find it.

The cache I was growing interested in was called "Dirty Harry's Stash", which was where his "museum" was located.

I pulled off of I-90 at Exit 38, and went to the same parking area. I forgot to mention, the area where The Far Side climbing is located is the Washington State Fire Training Center. The road up the mountain (partway up the mountain) is open from sometime in the morning until 4pm in the afternoon. At least that's what the sign says. Yesterday when Francesca and I came out, it was past 4:30p and the gate was still open. But we didn't know it would be, didn't want to take any chances, so had parked in the parking area outside the gate. Where most people parked.

However, because it was still early-ish today (11am), the gate was open. I decided to chance it. I knew that the cache (having done some coordinate calculations) was 0.8 miles (as the crow flies) from where we were climbing yesterday. How long that would be on the trails....anyone's guess. The cache page said it was a 4 mile round trip hike from parking lot to cache and back. I opted to drive half a mile up the road and park at the trailhead. Save myself a little time. I was already figuring that I would not be doing any hiking on the Iron Horse Trail. Which was okay. This hike was going to kick my butt. The temps were rising (and were forecasted to be in the 90s), and the heat of the day was just coming.

From the trailhead I followed the old road that Dirty Harry had carved into the mountainside. Followed it for quite a while. Watching the GPS, the distance to the cache dropped very slowly, as the road switchbacked up the mountain. Lot of walking back and forth! And the day was just getting warmer and warmer.

Found a side trail that split off from the main road. I suspected that would lead me to an overlook called Dirty Harry's Balcony. I opted to not try for it right now, keeping focus on heading up to the Museum.

The views along the road were few and far between. In fact, only saw the valley twice through gaps in the tree line. But they were enough to let me know I had come up quite a ways in altitude! In the photo right, you can see a bridge on the Iron Horse Trail to the lower right across the valley. This is directly between where two of the Deception Crags climbing areas are located.

Finally I got to a point on the trail where the GPS said I was "only" 300' away. But it pointed straight into extra-dense foliage which was masking a steep hill, where a stream was coming from. 300' horizontally - how far vertically? I decided to not get sucked in by cutting off the trail, and continued to follow the road, anticipating that it would swing me around again and back closer to the Museum.

I couldn't have been more wrong.

Oh, the road switched back alright. But not far enough, and then the road promptly vanished beneath the debris of an old land slide to became a foot trail that continued up the mountainside. And the Museum...didn't get any closer than 0.12 miles. Urg! I had to go back.

Once I returned to the stream the GPS had me 300' away again. Sighing, and not looking forward to the bushwhack, I went downhill 50' to a likely opening in the foliage, plowed into the jungle, over rotted deadfall, and up the dirt and rock embankment - only to find another road.

....wait, what?

Looking at the GPS map screen, I saw the track where I had been. And this new road, very overgrown with slide alders (a thin but tough type of tree that doesn't grow so much straight up as it does in a wide 'blossom' of trunks) and other growth, and very very rocky, went away from the trail I had been following. Forging ahead, I began to follow the newly discovered road.

It was difficult going, but occasionally I'd hit a small 20-30' stretch where no slide alders or other growth existed and was able to relax for a moment.

Then the road became extremely rocky (actually, turned from rocks to boulders), and grew worse as I went higher. Finally, with 100' to go, what was left of the road blended with the jungle and mountainside. I inhaled, bent my head down, and pushed my way through. Then I looked up...

Ahead of me there was some non-jungle object, obviously manmade, and almost subsumed by the trees and other foliage. As I pushed closer (getting whacked in the head at one point by an ornery slide alder branch), I realized - I was here! This was Dirty Harry's Museum!

Rusted throughout, with baseboards rotting and tires disintegrating, Harry's logging truck has seen better days. And perhaps Bonnie and Clyde made it here at one point, too, as evidenced by the photo to the right.

I quickly made the cache find - and discovered a fresh and clean log book - no one has been up here yet! The cache has been here for four days, and no one's come up to find it - I got the "first to find". Sweeeeet!

Side note: it is now nearly a month later as I write this, and no one else has succeeded it getting up to the cache; for all I know no one has even bothered trying - maybe it's too hard for the local cachers out there to deal with. Wusses... ;-)

But I was hot, tired, and already had used half my water getting up here. I had a quick lunch, then started down. Back through the slide alders, and over to where the creek was running. Instead of dropping down the embankment, through the rotted deadfall and the foliage, I decided just to follow the creek.

Proved to be a much better plan. There was a faint trail that paralleled the creek - but it was completely obscured by the foliage from the main trail. Heh.

On the hike out I decided to take the side trail I saw earlier and check out Dirty Harry's Balcony. Glad I did, as the overlook was pretty nice. The cliffs at my feet appeared to have been unclimbed, and held great promise for the future. Maybe next time I'm back there'll be some established routes to play on...

It was growing late. In fact, it was rapidly closing in on 4pm. I had to hustle.

I got back to the car, it was already after 4pm. Would I get locked in?? I sincerely hoped not. I quickly drove (as quickly as reasonable, given the twisty-turny road) the half mile back down the mountain, over the Snoqualamie (pssing other parked cars by the bridge), and to the gate - which was open! Wahoo! Free to go!

I jumped onto I-90 and dashed off to Western Seattle.

Now, before I continue, a few observations have to be made.

First, Washingtonians (or maybe it's Seattleans?) love their left lane! I saw more than a few cars enter the highway, beeline it straight over to the left lane, and sit. Then in nearly 3/4 of the cases, whenever someone traveling faster came up behind the left-laners, the slower driver would pull over one lane right, let the faster one go by, then drop back over into the left lane again, even if there was no other traffic around. It was odd to watch. The few who didn't move over were either out-of-staters or appeared to be teenagers or young 20-somethings. Then you'd get a huge line of cars in the left lane who wanted to go faster, but were unwilling to pass on the right. Eventually someone would.

Another thing I noticed was litter. Or the lack thereof. Apparently if you litter, Bad Things will happen to you in this state!

Eventually I made it over to Karyn's. Her husband, Pete (whose new hobby is apparently making zombie movies; license plate photo left), had just left town for Hawaii, so I missed seeing him. Karen graciously let me take a shower to wash off the trail grime from earlier, then took me on a walk down to the waterfront of Lincoln Park, half mile or so from their place. There, through the haze, heat, and intervening clouds, I would catch my last glimpse of Rainier on this trip. In the photo right, you can b-a-r-e-l-y see Rainier's snowy flanks, just left of center along the horizon.

After the walk we drove over to Hamilton Point Park of Alki Point to check out West Seattle's answer to Venice Beach, California, (photo left) and grab some dinner. From strolling along the beach, got a long view of Seattle proper (photo left). We also came to the marker for the birthplace of Seattle, where the Denny Party first landed and settled on November 13, 1851, and then had a pretty hard time of it. Karen told me a story that after the Denny party landed the women cried. She then said that when she and Pete first moved to Seattle, it was also November, and she understood perfectly why the Denny party women had cried. Karyn is originally from the extra-warm, humid and sunny Eastern Shore. Now transplanted to Seattle. And November is her antithesis: a miserable, dreary, chilly month.

BTW, the original name of the Denny party settlement was "New York Alki", where "Alki" is a Chinook word meaning "eventually".

Dinner was good. Don't remember the place we ate, but it had good seafood. Then we started hiking back to the car, enjoying the back-lit Olympics as the sun was setting (photo left).

We didn't realize just how far away we had parked until the rain started. Karen's car is a small two-seat convertible, and during the few nice, warm months of the year, the top is down and stays down. Wellll...we drove over with the top down, and left it down when we started walking. Now it was raining.

By the time I ran back to the car to put the top up, the rain had already stopped. The inside of the car was...a wee bit damp. Karen fortunately keeps a towel available to try and dry off the interior as best as possible, but it can only do so much with the soaked-in water. We had wet butts on the drive back to her house.

After that I said my good-byes and headed to the rental car place. Dropped off the rental, shuttled over to the airport - and completely spaced that I still had my pocket knife in my pocket when I went through security. Wasn't even thinking about it. Was just tired, wanted on the plane to go home.

The security guard took great pleasure in yelling very loudly at me about the penalties and dangers of bringing a pocket knife through the security gate. He then gave me the option to go back and either check it as baggage or mail it to myself. The pocket knife, however, was old, some parts in disrepair, and the blades were nicked from years of use. I'd been meaning to replace it anyhow. Tired, and not wanting to deal with him or the other hassle options he presented, I told him to just keep it, it wasn't worth it. I just wanted to get on the plane and go home. I grabbed my stuff and left him standing there.

At the gate I found a comfy corner to sequester myself in and waited to board. Half hour later, when boarding time came, we got an announcement that our plane hadn't come in yet, and wasn't expected in for another 45 minutes. Urg. Well. Whatever. I had downloaded some old Outer Limits episodes to my iPod before leaving on this adventure, for just this eventuality.

The plane finally came, the passengers there filed out, and we filed on. An hour turnaround and we were in the air, on the way home. Seattle and Tacoma were readily visible. I had a window seat on the right side of the plane, and given that it was after midnight, I knew climbers would be going up Rainier. I wasn't sure how close or far we were going to get to the mountain, but I strained my eyes to see if I could catch a glimmer of lights as climbers were making their way up the flanks of the mountain. I saw nothing. After 15 minutes of watching darkness, I finally passed out.

June 26, 2009

Some hours later I awoke to a brightening sky as the plane began to prepare for landing at BWI. I looked out and saw Liberty Reservoir just outside the window (photo left; the bridge across the lake is MD26, Liberty Road). Second thing I noticed after identifying the lake was just how hazy it was out there - the humidity must be dreadful!

We circled around the north end of Baltimore, over Pikesville and Towson, down along the Bay, and then came at BWI from the East. I got one clear(ish) view of the airport before we turned to land (photo right). I put the camera away for the rest of the trip (i.e., if you came here for the pictures, you're done now ;-) ).

We landed without fanfare and taxied to the gate. Out of the plane and down to baggage claim to get our luggage. I had called Lisa to let her know I was back so she could come get me at her leisure, and waited for my bags to appear.

We all stood there a while. I noticed that the baggage carousel we were at had three AirTran flights listed, one of them ours. Bags began to appear, but none of them ours.

Suddenly there was an announcement over the PA.

"Would ALL passengers from AirTran Flight #231 please report to the baggage claim office. Would ALL passengers from AirTran Flight #231 please report to the baggage claim office. Thank you. {click}"

...wait...ALL passengers?? Ohhh, I did not like the sound of this...

Slowly understanding sank into the tired people standing around. I was already moving, so ended up near the front of the pack that would slowly grow. At the baggage claim office we would learn that our checked luggage never made it on the plane. None of it. Nada. Zilch. Nothing. In fact, the baggage still on our plane was supposed to have been transferred to a plane bound for Milwaukee - where our bags apparently ended up!

Oh, and the earliest they'd be able to get our bags back to BWI would not be for another 10-12 hours, due to their flight schedules. 3-4 hours after that to deliver.

Needless to say, there were quite a few very unhappy people - esp those who had connecting flights to catch in the next few hours (one unfortunate guy was being deployed to Germany, had a 6 hour layover here at BWI before continuing on; I hope he eventually got his luggage).

We all filled out info forms, then slowly dissipated, many grumbling. Me, I was lucky. I was now home. My bags could come eventually (little did I know they wouldn't come for another 18 hours). I went out to meet Lisa and headed home.

Adventure done.

But the quest is not over. See also the comment under Day 5 Part 1. Close enough isn't. {sigh} :-(

Monday, August 17, 2009

The Rainier Quest - Day 8: Climbing at Exit 38

June 24, 2009

I was up early once again. Karyn trotted out to work while Jody and Francesca roused themselves. Francesca packed her stuff, as her redeye flight back East was to leave this evening. Our plan: to go climbing at Exit 38 (Jody was abstaining, heading back to Portland instead for studying that she's been putting off for over a week now). We three went to another local establishment for breakfast, then parted on our two paths.

The last three times I'd been out to Seattle, I always got at least one day of climbing in. Either up in Squamish (British Columbia), out at Leavenworth, Exit 38. This latter was a small-ish area along Iron Horse State Park, which, at 110 miles from end to end and only 20' or so wide, is one of the longest and narrowest - if not the longest and narrowest - state parks in the country. Along this walkway hikers and bikers travel - and climbers play on the railroad blasted cliffs. Exit 38 is primarily a sport climbing/top-rope climbing area - meaning that it is heavily bolted (that's the norm) for people who want to lead climb, and for those who don't, there are anchors pre-set up top in order to top-rope from. The old guidebook (1996 by Bryan Burdo) to the area was 114 page spiralbound book offering 145 routes in three major areas: Deception Crags, The Far Side, and North Fork. The new book (2006, 2nd ed from a 2001 guide by Garth Bruce; 2006 guide image right) was greatly expanded. 248 pages, it offered over 100 new routes in new areas, color photos and maps, graphs, history to the area and to the growth of the guides, and "best of" lists for those people who don't have time to climb everything here, but are just breezing through.

In the past (2000, 2002) I had climbed at a couple of rocks at Deception Crags: Write-Off Rock and We Did Rock, doing the same routes each time. With the new guidebook in hand I wanted to explore new areas. For Francesca, having never been here before, anything we got on would be new and fun for her. So after having studied the guide a bit, I chose The Far Side, as it hosted one of the top-rated 5.7 routes in the area: Kiss Of The Crowbar. I imagine the name came from when the route was first put up, as the first ascent party was pulling and prying off loose rock.

Exit 38 is, as you might guess from the name, located off of Exit 38 on I-90, east from Seattle. So, pretty close to a major metropolitan area. Barring traffic, you can be from Seattle to crag in 30 minutes or so.

So after saying goodbye with Jody, Francesca and I headed out. The day promised to be bright, clear, sunny...and fairly warm. We were going against what late morning traffic there was heading to Seattle, and made good time. Got to Exit 38, then drove over to the parking area for The Far Side. Geared up and proceeded to hike in. Our destination was Interstate Park Wall, not quite the furthest of the developed crags (there is a lot more rock in the valley, but not all of it has been explored by climbers yet).

Getting to where we wanted to go took a little bit of time. About 30-40 minutes. But we eventually got to the area. And found a small group of people there! Turned out to be a couple guys leading a kids outdoor climbing session for a summer camp. They worked for an outdoor adventure business in Tacoma. They were very friendly and helpful, and offered for us to climb on any of their ropes that they weren't already using. That is almost unheard of back East. Outdoor groups there won't allow you to touch their ropes, and some can get downright hostile with you if you want to climb a route they have a rope on, but are obviously not using and aren't going to for some time. But I digress...

Looking around we could see more tall cliffs along the flanks of the valley, of which we were barely halfway up ourselves. But it wasn't a full-on wilderness experience - I-90 was just down there, below us. You could easily hear the traffic from atop of the rock.

These rocks were not the railroad cut blasted rocks that I had climbed on at Deception Crags. No, these were naturally weathered rocks. It would be very interesting to climb on this stuff, see what kind of song and character the rock had to offer.

So after talking with the two guys a bit, Francesca and I decided to take them up on their offer and got on one of their ropes. The wall they were set up on, Squishy Bell, was pretty short. 25-30' tall. Average for something in central Maryland, but looking around at the exposed rock faces around the valley, this was barely a blip on the scree field. But it was rock, it was vertical, there were ropes already set up, and we were going to climb.

Looking over the selection of routes on the wall, most were pretty easy. So I opted for us to do the rope in the middle at the tallest point of the wall, which would cover Winter Rushing In (5.8) and November Glaze (5.9).

Winter Rushing In wasn't too bad. Felt a little easy for a 5.8, but it was a pleasant climb (photo right of Francesca on Winter Rushing In). Francesca went up after I came down. At this point the two guys started taking down their other ropes. They were going to move on to another area, having just finished lunch. We offered to help by taking down the rope we were climbing on, since they were so gracious as to allow us to climb on it. They accepted. I then scurried up November Glaze and topped off. That felt a lot more like a 5.9 in difficulty than what Winter... did for its grade. But it was still a neat climb.

We gave to the two guys their gear as they took their charges and went back into the woods. I still wanted us to do Kiss Of The Crowbar, and we were already practically on top of it. Just a matter of finding the start.

We went around to the bottom of the overlook and started trying to match up the topo photo in the guidebook with what we saw of the rock (topo photo left). We found it readily.

As all the rocks here are top-rope or sport (bolted), we did not bring any trad gear with us. Just quickdraws and slings. I racked up while Francesca flaked out the rope, and up I went, trying to follow the bolt line when I could see the bolts. At first I went off too far left because I saw a bolt there, but nothing in the corner. But I managed to get re-oriented and got back on route again.

The route was pleasant. Not superbly fantastically great, but not bad. And didn't feel 5.7 in difficulty to me (felt more like 5.5 or 5.6, given my experiences in the East; then again, I've noticed in general that routes out West tend to feel 'softer' or easier than their posted rating vs. routes in the East). But it was still climbing.

After I went up, Francesca followed (photo right), cleaning off my 'draws as she went up. I then opted to try the 5.8, Attack Of The Butter Knives, off to the left. The start was a good 20-25' away from the start of Kiss Of The Crowbar, but the two routes converged about 1/3 of the way up and Attack Of The Butter Knives finished on Kiss Of The Crowbar.

...Butter Knives felt a good deal more difficult than Kiss Of The Crowbar. Definitely more in the 5.8 range. But not impossible, just attention-getting. Once I was past the two cruxes, I was back on Kiss... . I lowered off and let Francesca have a go at it.

Then we were done. It was getting late (4pm), we still had to get back in time for dinner with Karyn and then get Francesca to the airport. We packed up and took an alternate trail out.

At this point all the after-work climbers were showing up. We met no less than a dozen coming up the trail on our way out. Yep, this is a popular area.

Once back down on the road we opted to stop at the Snoqualmie River. It was much hotter now, down here, and in the sun. The water was inviting and cool. Unfortunately, neither of us had thought to bring swimsuits, so we just waded in as far as we could, and played with the river rocks a while. And okay, yeah, the water was pretty cold (photo right of Francesca expressing how cold it is). But definitely refreshing! And very clear - so clear that you could see where the rocks across the river went into and under the water, and formed underwater cliffs. The river wasn't overly deep at this point, but I had a brief wish to have had either my snorkel or scuba gear with me to drop down and explore the bottom. Ah well. Another time...

After our wade we got back to the car, and made the drive back to Karyn and Bob's, doing an admirable job of going against pretty much all traffic there was! Had to take three different highways, and by gum, the main rush hour flow was always opposite our direction. Go us!

After dinner Francesca got herself packed and the car loaded. I drove her down to the airport and dropped her off. Her adventures here in Washington were now coming to a close. But for me, I still had one more day to do stuff.

On the drive back I had hoped to catch a second glimpse of the noctilucent clouds, but instead I was treated to lower altitude clouds that dropped rain. However, they were localized (mostly localized over where I was driving!), and off to the west, along the horizon, there was a break, and I could see the reddish sky of the deepening twilight. And the sliver of a thin crescent moon. No place for me to stop off of I-5 to easily get a photo, I just glanced at it when the opportunities allowed, between raindrops and cars.

Back at Karyn and Bob's it was my turn to pack. After breakfast tomorrow I intended on heading back out to the area we were just at today and do some geocaching hiking. Then meet up with another friend of mine named Karen whom I haven't seen in years, then get myself on the plane for the flight home.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The Rainier Quest - Day 7: Apparitions in the Sky

June 23/24, 2009

The next day started....slowly. I was up first, and quietly felt the activities of the past few days sink into my body. Yeah, a little sore, and pretty tired. But at the same time I was a bit restless. Wanted to go out and do something. Had kinda wanted to go climbing today, but would have to wait and see what Jody and Francesca were up for - when they finally woke. An hour later I went to go check up on them. They were still sacked out.

Bob had long gone on his extended weekend backpack trip. Karyn had headed off to work. Their kitties were huddled together, snoozing. The house was pretty quiet.

At some point the girls roused themselves. And we spent a more or less listless morning, recovering from the Rainier adventure. We eventually headed out to breakfast and discussed our plans. Jody was thinking to head back to Portland. I and Francesca wanted to go climbing, but would do so tomorrow (since we had very little energy today and it was already getting well into the afternoon). I made arrangements to reserve a rental car, and Jody brought Francesca and I to it on her way out of town. She was going to then stop off at a spa (don't remember what it is called, but it's supposed to be a Really Good Spa Place) and get worked over before continuing down to Portland.

With rental car secured, Francesca and I trotted back to downtown Seattle, to check out the Pikes Place Market once more. The idea was to look for some souvenirs, but we got there so late that stalls were starting to close up. We had to scramble just to grab a late lunch/early supper while we were in the area. Then back up to meet Karyn for dinner.

Karyn had suggested a nearby pizza place for us to go to. It was kinda like a cross between a diner and a restaurant, but I don't remember the name of the place. We ordered various pizzas and chilled out for a while. Partway through dinner Jody called. She was verry tired, had a great, relaxing time at the spa, but was too tired to make the 3 hour journey back to Portland. Could she come back and spend the night at Karyn and Bob's again? Sure! No problem.

It was getting on dusk at this point. We departed the pizza joint and started to head back to Karyn and Bob's. As is my custom, I looked up at the sky to see what there was to see. It was partly cloudy as the twilight deepened, yet you could still see the sky. I knew where the planets were (the few that were visible right now), and what stars were up, but...I still looked up. It's...what I do.

Something caught my eye, low to the northwest. The sun was well down - it had set almost an hour earlier. Yet...there in the sky, was this illuminated patch of light. I stared at it, waiting for it to move. Aurora? Would I actually get to see a display? However, the apparition had structure unlike any aurora I had ever seen. Like frozen lightning. With a ghostly bluish white glow.

Wait...was this a noctilucent cloud?? (in the link there is a video from the ISS, and you can see a lightning storm below not quite halfway through). A friend of mine had passed the above link on to me mere days before I took off on this trip. But I had forgotten about it - until now.

I got fairly excited. Karyn and Francesca just looked at each other, not understanding. I tried to explain while we were driving back. The twilight deepened, and I was wishing there was a place to stop and take a photo (or, given my little digicam only goes as slow as 1/8 of a second, that there was a place I could try to take a photo, before things got too dark for my camera to pick up. Karyn suggested the park-n-ride garage a half mile from where they live. Onward we drove!

In a nutshell, noctilucent clouds, if you have not yet googled it or gone to the link above, are thin rarefied ice clouds extremely high up in the atmosphere (50 miles up; not quite halfway to the orbit of the Space Station - and mind you, supercell thunderstorms that ravage the plains of the U.S. "only" reach around 1/10 that height, though the highest is one that formed over India and is thought to have pushed just over 9 miles up). These ice clouds are so far up in our atmosphere that they still catch light from the sun, long after the sun has set for surface-dwelling critters. A friend of mine had sent me the above link a couple days before I set out on this adventure, but after asking various people about them and finding no one had ever seen one, I gave up on this phenomenon. And tonite, there it was.

We reached the top of the parking garage, there were three boys up there test driving a go-cart (no one else was in the parking garage - perfect place for them to play!). They thought at first they were in trouble when the three adults arrived, but when we took no notice of them, they, too, looked up. "What the heck is that?" They came over to ask me after a couple minute's hesitation.

While atop of the parking garage I took a series of photos. The photos above were taken over a span of 5 minutes. You can see the cloud's structure change and alter during that time.

50 miles away. How cool...

We drove back to Karyn and Bob's. Jody was already there. She, too, had seen the apparition in the sky, and wondered what it might have been.

Back inside again we all hung out, had some dessert, then Jody and Karyn talked "shop" (medical stuff) until late in the evening. Meanwhile something crept over me and put me down and out before any of the rest of them even thought about sleep...

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Rainier Quest - Day 6, part 2: The Hike Out

With snow flying all around me, I rolled over as best as I could to try and self-arrest. The snow had the consistency of slush. I couldn't stop. Laying sideways, my pack preventing me from rolling fully over onto my front, I dug my feet in, as best as possible. Still I flew down the glacier.

Finally, after more than 100', I slowed. The ice ax was digging and dinging off of the solid ice beneath the snow. But I finally slowed, and stopped. I was just past halfway down the last line.

A little frazzled, I gathered my spinning thoughts, moved back over to the glissade trough, and with ice ax planted even more firmly, started down again.

Fortunately I only had just under 600' left to go. And a few moments later I was rapidly coming to the end of this glissade. I rolled out of it and self-arrested in the thicker snow at the bottom of the glacier as the angle tapered off. I didn't really have any desire to slide into the rocks and the creek that formed from the snowmelt off the glacier. Video below that Jody took (camera turned on end, not realizing - like I did the first time I took video - that "orientation matters").

{Whew!} That ride was over! Time to hike out.

Jody marched ahead, chilled a bit from the cool winds coming down off the glacier. Francesca and I lingered a while longer, changing out of some of our layers, then we followed Jody. A while later I stopped again to change out further, as I was getting very hot. Francesca continued on to catch up to Jody. I was with them a moment later.

With a bit more than 3 miles to go, we all were ready to just get out. As we had no need to be roped together, and I knew they wanted to move, not stop, I decided to plow ahead because I wanted to slow down and take some photos on the way out, and I didn't want my slowing down to slow Jody and Francesca down. I took one last look back at the Inter Glacier before I headed down the trail. Photos right are looking back up the Inter Glacier, then looking down the White River valley. In the distance you can see the White River cutting through the center of the valley. In the Inter Glacier photo, looking closely, you can see the zig-zaggy white line of the glissade track, and the greyish areas on the shoulder of the glacier up and left where the snow has melted off, leaving only ice. The dots you see on the glacier near the glissade track are of other climbers heading up. Mt Rainier is the blue-white snow dome to the upper right corner of the photo.

I did take some video of the river here and there on the hike out. Below is from partway down from the Inter Glacier, about halfway between the Inter and Glacier Basin camp. All this water you see is meltwater from the Inter Glacier alone. A couple miles downstream meltwater from the Emmons joins it, adding a lot more volume to the flow.

Most of the rest of the hike out was anti-climatic. The trail was level, it was all downhill. There were views of the valley at first, until I got into the woods, then just views of flowers, small meadows between the trees, a waterfall and the river. A few glimpses of the mountains around were afforded.

Photos: flowers along the trail, near treeline, small pond shortly before arriving Glacier Basin camp, and meadow of wildflowers along the hike out.

Photos: view down valley while still fairly high above the White River along the hike out, more wildflowers (Indian Paintbrush and some purple bell-types whose name I can't remember), and a view back up valley towards Rainier.

Photos: the White River, a waterfall by the trail, and a view back of Rainier with detrius from the 2006 flood strewn across the river-carved water way.

After I had marched and photographed for a couple miles I was pretty hot. I stopped, dropped my pack, and wandered over to a point where the river was accessible from the trail. The grey-white water was roaring past in a frenzy, as if in a rush to get further down valley and join other streams along its way to the Pacific. I watched it for a moment, then got down on my stomach, stripped off my hat, and dunked my whole head under, up to my shoulders.

THAT was refreshing!

I wanted to soak my feet, but there was still a mile to go, and I didn't want to put wet feet back in the boots. So I dunked my head a second time.

Feeling better, I continued onward. I thought for sure Jody and Francesca would show up at any time (in fact, I thought they would catch up to me while I was head-dunking), but it wasn't until another 20 minutes had passed before they caught up to me. In the meantime, I napped a wee little and read up on the info sign at the trailhead, learning a bit about the damage the 2006 flooding had caused, and about the Starbo mining operation that used to be here. From the plaque:

Copper Fever
In the quiet alpine setting of Glacier Basin are abandoned shafts and rusted mining equipment

Early prospectors were convinced this area abounded in rich copper and silver oe. Between 1914 and 1930 the Mount Rainier Mining Company dug several tunnels and prospect pits, and erected a power plant, a hotel, and an aerial tranway. All the claims lay in steep terrain above timberline. To extract a profit, a truck road out would have to be built and maintained on landslide debris. And geologists in 1950 found little value in ore samples from Glacier Basin.

There was also a warning to stay away from open shafts. They are dangerous.

Now I finally knew why most of the Glacier Basin trail was so level and smooth - that was the old truck road that had been installed in the valley. However, with the 2006 flood having destroyed a chunk of it (nothing on Earth is forever), this made the new trail a little more challenging. But not impossible, after the park service worked on it since last year.

Anyway, I digress...

Together again, as a trio, we marched out to the parking lot. The final 1000' feet of the hike dishearteningly on pavement. BUT, we were elated, we were happy, we thought we had summited Rainier (though see also the comment under Day 5, Part 1), the goal I had had for some 10 odd years. It was time to go back to Seattle.

We re-weighed ourselves and packs. I found I had lost some 11 or 12 pounds on this trip! Wow. Forget Weight Watchers, just go climb a damned mountain! :-D A passerby took our photo for us, and we repacked Jody's truck. We left and headed back to the Ranger Station, singing Queen songs.

At the Ranger Station no one was about. Sign on the door - oops. Something Bad happened to somebody. Probably a hiker. Certainly not something on the mountain. Rangers down here are far too far away to be of assistance there. That's the purview of Dave, and Phunuru Sherpa. I hoped nothing untoward would happen to the climbers up there currently, especially given the deteriorating snow conditions.

We headed back to Mountlake Terrace, and Bob and Karyn's place. For their unimagined and unasked for hospitality of hosting us and all our gear at the start of the trip and for the next few days after, we wanted to buy them dinner. Bob told me of a good Mexican place: Todo Mexico. Sounded good to me. I recalled after my first trip to Rainier, Bob, Aqua and I had stopped at a Mexican place in Emunclaw. Probably one of the best meals I had had in a very long time.

We took a quick detour to REI, dropped off the rental tent, and I glanced through the local climbing guide books. Hmmmm. There was an updated guide to the Exit 38 area. I'd been there before. So decided to pick that up. It would later prove very useful.

An hour or so later, as dusk settled on the land, we arrived to Todo Mexico. A stern-looking Middle Eastern guy opened the door for us. We explained we wanted to put in for a take-out order and did so. Then Jody went to go get her truck washed while Francesca and I waited. I asked for an iced tea while we were waiting. It came speedily. Ahhhhhh. Good, cold iced tea. Haven't had one of these in days...

We got to chatting with the stern-looking fellow. He was in his 50s, and originally from Iraq (still has family over there). Once we got talking with him for a minute or two, his sternness melted away and he proved to be warm and friendly. Actually, a talkative guy, after all! Turned out, he was the owner of the Todo Mexico chain of restaurants. Very cool. Unfortunately, I forgot his name. Well, Bob and Karyn go there often enough; they probably know him.

Our food came out, and we made our farewells, heading out to pile into Jody's truck (she had just gotten back from the wash). A few minutes later, after a couple of wrong turns on the highway ("you can't get there from here!"), we made it to Bob and Karyn's, where we sat down and feasted. Then we each took showers while Bob was packing for his extended weekend backpacking trip to NW Oregon (he would be leaving at o-dark thirty in the morning, while we were asleep). We unfortunately wouldn't see him again after tonite, for he would not return until after we had all returned home.

I stayed up as long as I could chatting with Bob, but finally exhaustion overtook me, and I crawled into bed, sound asleep.