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Climbing: Ptarmigan Ridge

June 28th, 2007

For years I’ve looked at Mt. Rainier from afar and from commercial flights, picking out the line of Ptarmigan Ridge, noting rock fall and crevasses indicative of the route’s conditions. I’d been up the mountain twice before, but this route was the line I wanted, a challenge that for one reason or another I hadn’t faced.

Having attempted the route once before I knew it would be a long, physically demanding trip. I watched reports on route conditions, casually discussed it with friends, and tried to get back into alpine shape after a winter season spent abroad and chained to the computer. I had been pursuing my other passion, journalism, and was out of physical and mental shape for this exertion. Like so much in life, climbing takes fitness, skill, tenacity, and acceptance of risk…but maybe turned up a notch or two. (at left: Dan crossing the Carbon Glacier)

I consider myself a mediocre climber at best and yet I participate in this consuming lifestyle; I don’t plan my weekends based on events, I plan them based on the weather. I can sleep in my car and have more closet space devoted to gear than button-down shirts. I identify as a climber, and I know the return is what you bring to it, but of late I’ve felt it slipping from me. Not the passion, but the ability.

When the weather looked decent enough Chad Kellogg, Dan Aylward and I decided give it a try. Were going to stay in town Saturday for weather, work and social obligations, drive to Rainier that evening and hike through the night. With our permits taken care of, we headed off into the darkness. (at right: Dan near high camp)

Dawn caught us on the glacier crossings; there were several as we had to hike around a good portion of the mountain’s north side. Low clouds kept the snow fairly firm as we climbed to the 10,200 foot high camp.

In the afternoon light we brewed up and tried to sleep in the brightness. Even after being up all night, and as exhausted as I was, it was a struggle to sleep. It wasn’t from the apprehension I feel before some climbs. I wasn’t scared, I just felt this one was just going to be arduous. It was probably Chad snoring beside me. He is exceptionally loud. (at right: the looming seracs)

We awoke in the dark to make our final preparations, mostly melting more water. Dawn came and with it a fear-inspiring rumble. We jumped up to watch a house-sized chunk of serac break loose and pummel the approach to the climb. Climbing is about risk management but there only so much you can control. If we weren’t melting water there was a good chance our five minute crossing of the debris path would have coincided with the serac fall and we would be dead. Simple as that. (at left: puget sound enshrouded in clouds at sunset)

In a ‘safe’ zone, our gear packed, crampons a-fixed, we tied into the rope, gripped our ice tools in hand, and moved as fast as we could across the slope to cross the bergschrund easily right where the serac debris flows. In relative safety we paused to evaluate the route ahead; we were opting to simul-climb a less-traveled, more technical path through a band of rocks. (at right: at dawn)

The protection, a mixture of ice screws and a rock gear, was sparse as Dan climbed up in a traversing fashion trying to break through the slightly overhung rock. Finally, with the last of his gear dozens of feet behind, he pulled up a slot of ice and onto easy snow where he set the best belay he could. It was marginal. Chad then took us up ice and snow couloirs to the base of a rock step, the last technical hurdle before the long glaciated slopes below the summit. Being in the middle was nice for photos but meant I did no leading. We regrouped and Dan led out again, pulling through the short step with a series of hook moves, his crampons scraping and tools pawing for purchase. I followed quickly and received a rock in the face. It hurt, my nose bled, but nothing felt broken so off I went. There wasn’t much choice anyway; at this point it was up and over the mountain.

The slog that came after was mind-numbing. The wind had picked up to a steady 30 mph with gusts up to 60. The altitude was starting to take its toll on me, as was my level of fitness. I was regretting every ounce of weight; the heavy camera, the spare battery I kept warm against my chest, not having lighter boots, crampons, or tools. Otherwise, my pack was fairly light for I was wearing all my clothing except my down parka. I don’t think I had recovered from the previous day’s cumulative 7000 foot elevation gain and I was slowing down. I was slowing everyone down. And I didn’t even have group gear on me. (at right: at dawn)

By the time we reached Liberty Cap, what I thought would be our high point, I was on the edge. My body was depleted; I noticed how a packet of Gu, the one-ounce wonder of simple sugars, would bring me back from the edge but for shorter and shorter periods. Bars had a similar effect and the meat I had with me wasn’t satiating the craving for calories. (at left: Chad after crossing the debris path)

We paused on the windswept knoll for some pictures and a moment for Chad’s wife Lara. It was less than two months since her death. Both had been climbing rangers on this mountain and they were intending to climb the route together. Exhausted, I knelt in the snow, my tears hidden behind mirrored lenses, my shudders disguised by the gusting wind. (at right: Chad low on the route)

If I had been thinking, I would have eaten and drank what little water I had left, for after Chad quickly took the lead and plodded off, down the ridge to the saddle between Liberty Cap and Columbia Crest. By now I desperately needed to eat for I had bonked and was digging a hole I wasn’t sure I could rebound from. But Chad kept on going, not understanding my repeated requests. He yelled he was searching for a spot sheltered from the wind. As we trudged on, my incredulous laugh was lost in the wind. There was no shelter in this saddle. When he began climbing the last few hundred feet to Columbia Crest I was pissed; the descent did not lay over the true summit like he said, he was being figurative. It lay right in front of us but he insisted on the summit. I unclipped from the rope and, shivering uncontrollably, wrapped myself in my down parka to begin the futile process of hydration and food. Dan had managed to stave off his bonking by eating a bar while walking. That and he’s in better shape. (at left: Chad in the initial mixed climbing rock bands)

Indeed, after the two tagged the summit–which I’d only been an immensely distant 100 vertical feet shy of–we headed back down our track and then cut east across the top of the Winthrop and Emmons glaciers, following a boot track beaten into the snow. Each step was jarring, the snow firm enough to warrant crampons. Occasionally it was a bit icy and there were the inevitable crevasses to cross, some gaping and deep enough to swallow our entire rope, the three of us attached. (at right: Dan on snow slopes)

I had to rest often as my steps grew sloppy. I fell once, to be caught by the rope as Dan self-arrested above me. Another time I didn’t quite make a snow bridge, my foot plunging through the fragile snow into some unseen abyss; I managed to hurl my body over my leg just enough to make the other side of the crevasse. Chad looked up and jokingly said “What, are you trying to get a helicopter ride out of here?” I had to laugh. (at left: Dan leads the upper mixed step)

I had been to this state of emptiness before, but not quite as far. It was strangely familiar to be pushing with my mind when my body clearly wanted to stop, to be disassociated but unable to escape my physical state. My tongue swelled with dehydration and I alternated between overheating and freezing.

I stared down at the cluster of tents imagining the refuge of the ranger hut at Camp Schurman where our friend David Gottlieb was sure to have gallons of water. The Emmons descent takes between one and two hours. We took four but with Chad and Dan’s patience we made it. On the flats I took my first pee in about seven hours; it was painfully yellow. I climbed up to the flagstone patio of the hut and with great relief collapsed on my pack, my crampons still on my boots. (at left: Dan pausing near Liberty Cap)

Water, conversation, and ramen were served by Dave while I contemplated staying the night. Unfortunately Chad had to be at work the next morning; the sun was beginning to set and there was still the several mile, 6000 foot descent to the car to make, half of it on moderate glacier. I decided to stay for I would be too slow and a danger to myself as my normally strong steps were reduced to a shuffle. They got home at 3 a.m. and the next morning–because he’s unemployed and a generous guy–Dan and his girlfriend Alison came back down to the park to pick me up. I had hiked out with Dave, who was on his way to do a technical body recovery of a hiker who fell off a cliff. They met me at the ranger’s residence. (at right: self portrait of a bloodied face on Liberty Cap)

In spite of the suffering, I genuinely enjoyed the route and am glad I finally climbed it. It also gave me more time to learn who Chad is; like many, I knew Lara better. And it was good to share the experience with Dan for, like planetary orbits, friendships are alternately close and distant. Our orbits had a chance to meet. (at left: friend and climbing ranger David Gottlieb at Camp Schurman)

Besides reminding me to be extra vigilant about fueling my body, the climb gave me time to think about how much work it takes to be in shape for this kind of endeavor. I was gone most of the winter on a self-assigned job to report on human trafficking and afterwards worked many weekends at home to catch up. Until Ptarmigan Ridge, I hadn’t swung an ice tool since last spring in Chamonix. My work had taken precedent and I was out of shape.

Which brings me back to the idea that climbing is a lifestyle choice. But so is the kind of journalism I want to do and while they share the similar need to be free, flexible, and willing to take risks, it seems the levels I want to push for are exclusive of each other. My hobby and my profession are disparate and yet frighteningly similar, I just hope I can continue to balance the two because without climbing I am lost and without meaningful journalism I am empty. (at right: St. Elmo’s pass seen on the hike out)

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6 Responses to “Climbing: Ptarmigan Ridge”

  1. Kelly says:

    I noticed the references to pictures but after reloading the site a few times they never appeared. Do you have these photos?

    from: http://timmatsui.com/blog/2007/06/climbing-ptarmigan-ridge/

  2. Rich says:

    Tim,
    I enjoyed your blog. I am thinking about the ptarmigan this summer with a friend of mine. I am running, hiking and today walked to work with a 30 pound pack on in my boots trying to get ready. your story is giving me the extra push to keep up my physical activity so i am ready. any beta on the route?
    Rich

  3. tim says:

    Rich,

    glad you like the blog. the only real beta i feel i could give you is to know you can do a 5000′ day with reserves, be fast, and make sure you’ve hit a good weather window. the rest is going to come from experience which, for me, meant doing more technical climbs on lower mountains in the Cascades and getting my systems dialed. in retrospect, on this climb, i should have been more fit, hydrated better (ie. not just slamming water at high camp, but adding electrolytes and doing it more slowly), making sure i ate/drank when i needed to on route, and maybe not starting at midnight and hiking through the night to get to high camp. we did it in a compressed time because that’s the time frame Chad had available and we did it more or less at his pace. he’s a machine, i’m not.

    but all things considered, it was another rich experience to remember.
    t

  4. tim says:

    oh, and as for route beta, i’d go to Mike Gauthier’s climbing site: http://mountrainierclimbing.blogspot.com/

    there you will find a searchable archive with good beta and current conditions.

  5. […] and physical healing consumed Chad over the next year. During that time, I had a chance to climb Mt. Rainier’s Ptarmigan Ridge with him and Dan Aylward to an emotional summit on Liberty Cap. Siguniang, I can only imagine, was […]

  6. Sonny Acosta says:

    Very nice, I sure will be coming back more often. I bookmarked your site also, thank you.

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