Sunday, May 10, 2009

The ski trek of a lifetime

On Friday, May 9th, I set out on the most adventurous trek of my life.

The Adventurers:
Bo Parfet – a great friend; a man that has reached the summit on the tallest mountain on all seven continents – “the Seven Summits”, and the recent author of a fantastic adventure / climbing book, Die Trying - ;
Eric Dalzell – a professional climbing guide in the Pacific NW; has reached the summit of Everest; and plans on climbing this summer in the Alps thru a special grant
Myself – ….. (nothing worth reporting here)

Needless to say, I was just a tad bit nervous heading into the weekend. I was clearly overmatched (in terms of climbing experience) by my climbing team. Among them, they had ‘summited’ ~100 mountains, if not more. I once saw a National Graphic episode on Everest, and read Bo’s book. Yeah -- not quite the preparation that was needed. On the week of the climb, I had several conversations with both Bo and Eric, where they used terms like, “skinning (i.e. skiing) up the mountain”, "alpine (ski) touring" -, “snow-camping”, “risk of crevasses”, and “roping in”. These terms meant very little to me heading in, but I would soon learn the vivid details of each. At the end of the day, the entire trek was a “trial-by-fire”, and an adventure of a lifetime.

I had two things on my side going into the trip:
1) being in strong physical condition,
2) ….and much more importantly, having two trustful friends / professional climbers to pull me through.

After a thoroughly enjoyable ski trip to Whistler this past January, Bo, Eric, and I made tentative plans to climb in May. We initially planned to climb Mt. Rainier, but after realizing the logistics only allowed for two days of climbing, we (or rather, Eric) decided to head for Mt. Baker, the most isolated volcanic mountain in the Cascade range, and the third tallest mountain in Washington After Mount Rainier, it is the most heavily glaciated of the Cascade volcanoes (ignoring Rainier). Its summit is 10.8k feet, and the top ~4k feet is a glacier. The volcano is active, and the height is misleading – while it is only 10.8k feet, base is near zero, so the elevation is exactly as stated. Eric assured this was doable in 2 days, but many things would have to go our way for us to successfully reach the summit.

The Adventure:
On Thursday afternoon, Bo flew into Seattle and I drove up from Portland to meet with Eric, who lives in Bellevue. The night before out adventure began, Eric’s father, Rick Dalzell, the former CIO at Amazon (i.e. the 2nd man in charge) - - took us out for a fantastic steak dinner. Rick is full of personality, and thoroughly enjoyed challenging my business views, especially those surrounding Nike. The adventure had begun!

On Thursday, we prepared our things, and readied ourselves for the adventure to come. Bo was already in the mood to climb!

..and Eric was his cool, casual self.

On Friday morning, we rose at ~7am and drove to the base of Mt Baker. We arrived at ~11am, only to find our first first perilous signs -- a trailer of snowmobiles had inadvertently gone off-roading.

We also learned that the road leading up to the base was unmanageable. The snow was soft, and any vehicle would sink, as you can see from our tracks in the bottom left (below). The picture is ~6 miles from where we had planned to start, so our adventure was almost over before it began.

(note: after May 1, these roads are no longer maintained, and an early May snow had created havoc for anyone - mainly snowmobilers - heading up to Mt. Baker)

However, we befriended a few of the gathering snowmobilers, and convinced one group to help us to the top of the mountain. The plan (shaky as it was): Bo and I would ride on one snowmobile -- backpacks and skis in hand, and Eric would ride on the back with another member of the snowmobile crew.

We gathered for our departure.

The 6 mile trek to the base was complicated by the fact that most of the road was not covered with snow (as you can see in the background), and these '$30k machines', as one rider claimed, were not meant to trudge through this paved terrain ..especially with 2 fully loaded skiers on board.

Bo (pictured on the right) and I had a fairly easy go of it, as Bo had experience riding snowmobiles in the "great state of Michigan". We took it nice and easy, through the peaks and troughs of the terrain to come. Eric, as we later learned, was a pared with a lunatic, and endured the most perilous part of his journey. He had bruises on his ass (from the gas tank on which he was sitting), and on his upper thigh (where he was holding the skis). He mentioned these throughout our trek, but persevered nonetheless.

Finally, we reached, or rather crashed into, base camp. You see -- Bo and I's journey came to a screeching halt as we twice tipped over trying to climb up a steeper slope with our heavy weight. I was in laughing hysterics, as this was the beginning of a wild adventure, and unlike anything I had envisioned going in. The snowmobilers were incredibly helpful, and our rewarding journey would have halted without a beginning w/o their assistance. This was the first of many aspects that simply, "fell into place" ..and allowed us to reach the summit of Baker.

Bo (seen in red) and I gathered our things off the snowmobile ...

..and began our trek up the mountain.

(note: as seen above, B0 is 'skinning' up the mountain. 'Skinning' is literally the art of hiking up the mountain on skis. You paste on special scaled material at the bottom of the skis which 'grabs' the snow, you release your heel from the binding, and you are free to 'ski up' the mountain. Check -- lesson one learned. )

The backdrop throughout was stunning, ever-changing, and best-of-all, absent from any other

I was all smiles initially. I was in a winter playground w/ two touring professionals

..and was excited ..and imaginative about the trek ahead.

The mountain ahead was no joke. This shows about 1/10 of the full scale of the mountain. The smoke in the foreground was from the active volcano. It was sporadic throughout, and smelled of something terrible.

...but made for a majestic shot across the mountain.

The initial slopes were quite modest, and gave us a chance to get our legs warm.

(a close-up)

(not shown in the photos above was one of the most challenging parts of our adventure. Eric chose to head up our steepest climb of the trek fairly early in the 1st day. This requred traversing a very steep part of the mountain, and special techniques, which Bo and Eric failed to share beforehand. Later in the trip, I learned of about 3 or 4 techniques (adjusting your boots and bindings propely for 1&2) that would have made this portion much more manageable. Needless to say, I struggled and fell behind ..and became very frustrated. Humorously (at least in retrospect), Bo called, "hey Bobby, can I tell you something?" which I calmly responded, "Bo, I think it's best that you don't say anything right now". He wisely left me alone. This created a good laugh over drinks afterwards. Regardless, I managed to make it to the top of this steep slope using my own downhill techniques, along with my own grit and determination)
Finally, we reached the camp site. The snowmobilers took us ~4k feet up the bottom, flatter portion of the mountain, and we climbed about 1.2k after. Our campsite was at ~6k feet.
Upon arrival, our guide / our leader / our relentless pioneer, was eager to set up the tent.

Bo was also in good spirits.

(not shown, I was the first in the tent for a quick nap)
Looking up the mountain from our campsite, we knew we had about ~4.5k feet to go, but the smoke / haze eerily blocked our view.

..and it got worse as night approached.

(not shown -- snow camping mid-way up a mountain is certainly not for the faint of the heart. Just before dozing off I shared, "I have five layers on, am sweating, yet still shivering". I somehow drifted off to sleep, dreaming of my warm bed at home.)
Bo, Eric, and I rose at 3:30am, and initiated the 2nd part of our hike at ~5am. We had 4.5k ft to go ..but the good news was that we left the heavy stuff at camp, and only took what was required. This was a tremendous help.

The views on the way up were simply breath-taking. Alpine tourers often talk about the feeling of being 'one with nature' and thriving off the serenity. Experiencing it firsthand is something I will never forget.

Even after ascending this mountain ~25 times, the splendor was not lost on our leader, Eric.


Every ~2 hours, we would stop for a 5-10 minute breather, some water, and a snack. Having a fast metabolism, and burning more energy than any other time I can recently remember, I felt like I ate breakfast, lunch, and dinner at every stop. Being great teammates, Bo and Eric didn't seem to mind -- they wanted to see me reach my first summit.

Near the top, Eric decided that it was time to 'rope in', for safety reasons. Another lesson learned.

Throughout the morning, the weather went from a beautiful sunny day to a white out, partly because of the haze and partly because of the volcanic smoke.

Using photoshop technology, I was able to manipulate the shot above to more clearly show the hidden background.

Bo was struggling a bit at the top, partly due to the fact he wasn't in top shape (he claimed to have only worked out 3 times in the 3 months preceding the adventure), but mainly due to the sulfuric smoke brewing from the volcano we were passing. He dry-heaved several times. At one spell, he challenged whether we should continue, but Eric assured us it was safe, and I was riding the adrenaline of nearing the top. ..but in true 'Die-Trying' style, Bo persevered, and in the end. largely pushed through so that he could seem me reach my first summit.

At ~11:30 -- right on 'Eric's schedule' -- we reached the top, 10.8k above the Washington landscape below. I have seen Bo in numerous shots standing at various summits, so I was thrilled to be standing beside him, but prideful of the mountain we had just conquered
..though, admittedly, my exuberance was hidden in the shot below by the burning in my legs and the general pain creeping through my body.

..but I did manage a little excitement after absorbing the moment!

This shot may go down in infamy one day. Bo and Eric had never climbed together before, but I doubt this will be there last expedition together.

Standing above treeline / cloudline / steamline, the views from the top were fantastic (sorry my thesaurus is out of adjectives by this point)

It's worth noting at this point that on several occasions at or near the top, Bo made it clear, "we're only halfway there". I did not verbally acknowledge this comment, though it certainly lingered in my mind. Given my quantitative mind, I was subconsciously thinking, "the climb up has to be the toughest part, right? that would mean we are (physically) more than halfway." This equation didn't quite pan out like expected. Read on...
After ~10-15 minutes at the top, we started the ~4.5k vertical drop to base camp, and then the grueling (due to the ~50lb packs) 3.5k veritcal drop to our car. I grew up skiing the mountains of Colorado; I've tackled the Bowls of Vail, the Moguls at Mary Jane, and the Birds of Prey at Beaver Creek ..but the uncharted terrain of Mt. Baker was something entirely new.

To their credit, Bo and Eric insisted on taking a few shots on the way down. We were on a glacier on the 3rd tallest mountain in WA, without a soul around. The pictures below tell it all...

(a close-up)

(a close-up)

(a close-up) Nice form Bo!!

(Most of the skiers that venture up Mt. Baker do so later in the year, where there is much less of a hike, and thereby less skiing. Eric estimated that we were the first skiers (ah em, Up and Down!) of the year. Not sure if it’s true or not, but we certainly didn’t see other ski tracks on the fresh slopes.)

(a close-up)

With a light pack, I was quickly starting to get the hang of out-of-bounds skiing. The key is truly jumping into your turn, and avoiding all the inconsistencies of the snow in the interim. Strong legs (..of which mine felt like puddy at this point) is also key.

(a close-up of our fearless leader)

..and a few shots looking down the mountain

(a close-up)
At this point, we were nearing our campsite. ..and little did I know the toughest part was yet to come.
not shown -- Bo and Eric had assured me that our packs would be lighter heading down the mountain, as we had eaten most of our food, and water was minimal. They lied.
(mother, please jump forward here)
Skiing down a mountain with a 50lb. pack on wobbly legs is treacherous, to say the least. The most agonizing part for me came when I fell at one point and my left ski was driven into the ground. With a 50lb pack on my back and my legs locked in place, I was frozen. Bo and Eric had already skiied down. I finally managed to get my pack loose, and wiggle my ski free. Loading everything back on was a pain in the ass, to say the least. I had clearly 'hit the wall'. I therefore spent the remainng 3k drop 'survival skiing' -- i.e. read SNOW-PLOW -- as I don't think I would have survived another fall.
Finally, we neared the bottom, and we stopped to take a break. At this point, I was calling it quits (shaking my arms) -- throwing in the white flag -- crying Uncle!

Bo had clearly reccovered. He later admitted that he was "pacing" himself at the top of the mountain as he knew he was only "halfway there." I, on the other hand, had already entered the 'final 15' (a popular term among our Nike Soccer leadership team) near the top of the mountain -- i.e. by the bottom, I was in triple overtime of a marathon college soccer game, and was pleading with my coach to sub me out. Bo was clearly amused.
At this point, we met another set of 'friendly' snowmobilers who pulled us the rest of the way, along a very flat portion at the base. Another obstacle overcome.
..and finally, we made it! I have never been so happy to see "our car", and in fact, I literally hugged the car. LITERALLY! I didn't think to take a picture of it, but even if I had, I don't think I would have had the energy to lift the camera out of my pocket.
That night, we headed out for dinner / drinks in Seattle. What a day! A quick summary of Saturday's activities:
- we rose (shivering) at 3:30 in the morning from our camp in the middle of (snow-covered) Mt. Baker
- we climbed, or "skinned", ~4k vertical ft.
- we skiied down, loaded w/ gear, ~8k ft. of uncharted mountain terrain
- we made our dinner date with friends at 9pm in Seattle.
Bo, Eric, and I were all smiles that evening.

..and we enjoyed a relaxing dinner with Jess (Eric's girlfriend) - left, Meredith (Bo's fiance and a friend from Kellogg) - right, and Louisa (another friend from Kellogg) - far right.
On the drive home, I made the claim that, this was likely “the most physically grueling” 30 hours of my young, athletic adult life ..and I wasn’t joking. My thanks is forever extended to Bo and Eric for pulling me through.
I also made the claim at the end of the day that, "this was my first, and likely last summit experience" -- however, as the pain in my legs ease, and the postive memories rise to the top in the coming weeks, I only hope that Bo and Eric will pull me up another mountain adventure sometime in the future. ..hopefully without any more RLI experiences :)