Sunday, July 20, 2014

This Day, Nine Years Ago

Today is the anniversary of my brother's accident. When Joe was 14, he got hit by a car (while walking) and suffered a severe traumatic brain injury. He was airlifted to Harborview Medical Center where he underwent multiple surgeries, then was transferred to Children's Hospital where he spent nearly a month in a coma. A couple years back I wrote about the accident and the aftermath. He has come so far over these years, thanks to his hard work, my parents' dedication, and good doctors.
Joe at Harborview, July 2005
But today I'm thinking about that day, exactly nine years ago. In June 2005, I had just returned from five months studying abroad and traveling in Mexico. I hadn't seen Joe in nearly half a year, and he seemed dramatically taller, bigger, and older than I remembered.

I was about to leave for Alaska to work in the egg house of a cannery for a few weeks for the height of sockeye season. My last interaction with Joe was him wandering into my room and saying, "I know you haven't ridden your bike for awhile since you were in Mexico. I lubed the chain and put air in the tires in case you wanted to ride it while you're home. And I'm making quesadillas. Want one?" We ate quesadillas and the next day I left.

I flew to Naknek, Alaska, for the long days and smell of salmon roe. The egg house was far more pleasant than the actual cannery, which is incredibly loud with all the machinery. But the egg house is still a huge, cold, sterile, fluorescent-lit, damp processing facility. Let me tell you what I wore there: bandana, hairnet, long-sleeve shirt, plastic sleeves from wrist to shoulder, latex gloves, rubber bib overalls, pants, long johns, 2 pairs of socks, and insulated rubber Xtra Tuff boots.

So when I saw a woman from the office walk in wearing her clean sweater, pencil skirt, and heels, I knew something was out of the ordinary. Across the room, I could see her talking to my boss, who then pointed in my direction. They told me I was excused from work because I needed to call home immediately. I had no idea what to expect. I followed the clicking of her heels across the grounds to the office, and asked her if she knew what it was about. She shook her head,"Something about your brother."

I talked to my younger sister, sobbing into the phone as I heard words like "hit-and-run"; "15 feet before his head hit the pavement"; "severe brain swelling"; "coma"; "spleen lacerated"; "bloody and bruised brain tissue". Things were looking really bad. It was late morning, and they weren't sure if he would make it until the next day. My family was going to get a doctor's note to the airline for me to get a flight as soon as possible.

The office told me to pack my stuff, and whenever I was ready, some one could drive me the half hour to King Salmon, the tiny town with a tiny airport. I walked back to the dorms just as the lunch break started. I saw my friends, and told them I was leaving. It was so rushed, and surreal- one minute packing and salting salmon eggs; the next leaving in a flurry to travel thousands of miles to try to see my brother alive.

The van dropped me off at the airport, where I was supposed to check in at the counter before the next flight. That was still several hours away. I walked around the town in a daze, the mosquitoes relentless. I found a patch of grass and collapsed, crying so hard I could barely think.

"You okay Miss?" came a concerned voice.

I looked up to see an elderly gentleman looking down at me.

"It's just- he's- a car- my brother-" I could hardly get words out.

He nodded slowly. "I'm going to grab some coffee there," pointing across the street. "Let me buy you a hot chocolate or a coffee or something."

And so I followed this stranger into the diner. He announced he was getting fish n' chips and certainly I must be hungry too. It was true- It was mid-afternoon and I hadn't eaten since breakfast at 6am. We proceeded to share a lovely meal, sip coffee, and talk like old friends. He asked me about my family and my time in Mexico. He told me stories of fishing and the Alaska wilderness, and adventures with his wife, who he spoke very fondly of. He thanked me sincerely for keeping him company before saying goodbye. Those hours would have been miserable sitting in the crowded one-room airport shack, and I am so grateful for that man's kindness.

I made it to Seattle around midnight, as July 20th drew to a close.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

High Divide-7 Lakes Basin in the Olympics

With Friday off of work for the 4th of July, it was the perfect Thursday evening to get out of town.  I headed out with a gal from my climbing class, and one of her friends. We had never backpacked together, but considering the long email thread and shared Google doc for planning, I knew they'd make the most organized, prepared, and positive outdoor buddies I could hope for. We hopped on the Edmonds ferry, grabbed dinner, and made our way toward Port Angeles.

The plan was to hike the High Divide trail, which is a 19-mile loop in the northern Olympics. It wraps around the 7 Lakes Basin, with beautiful lakes and campsites to break up the journey. We knew it was on the early side for this trail, and that we'd be getting quite a bit of snow above 4,000 feet. We were prepared to camp in snow, and brought ice axes for the descent into the basin.
High Divide Loop (map from here)
We left Friday morning from the Sol Duc trailhead, just as the cool morning air was turning into summer heat. The first several miles were along the Sol Duc River, shaded and lush. 
We even took a dip in the river. It was so cold I could barely stand in it. I thought I liked cold water, but these ladies put me to shame. We dried off in the warm sun before starting the uphill section.
The trail climbed steadily up toward Heart Lake. A few clouds rolled in, and we started getting to patches of snow.
We made it to Heart Lake, and we just had a little way to go before getting on to the actual crest of the High Divide. At that point, it was all snow, so we took out poles and gaiters and continued up.
Looking down to Heart Lake
Heading west on the High Divide
The High Divide is beautiful. At that point, you've done all the uphill work and just get to stay high with views in all directions. It was getting cloudier and darker, but we still got fantastic peeks at Mount Olympus and the surrounding ranges.

The lakes in the basin were at various ranges of frozen. Some of the bigger ones were 70-80% melted, while small ones were still completely frozen, with the faintest ring of blue around the edge. Our destination, Lunch Lake, was about 95% frozen still. The upside to the snow was that we could make our own trail, so we decided to cut down a little early to get to the lake just as it started sprinkling.
Descending into Lunch Lake
There were 3 other parties camped there, plus rangers, so we had to tromp around the campsites for quite awhile before we found an open and snow-free area. But we did! We set up camp before the rain really started coming down. We filtered water in the pouring rain, and my spirits got a little dampened by this change in weather.
But by the time we ate dinner, the rain had stopped and the air felt much warmer. A woman wandered over to our camp and said she wanted to check the nearby pond. For what? She was a frog and salamander researcher! She found one salamander and showed it to us, it's belly a bright speckled white, almost glittering. I had no idea there were critters living in those ponds when it was still so cold. 

"Oh, and did you see the sows and cubs?" she asked brightly.  She pointed out the bears on the distant hillside that we hadn't noticed! We saw one mama with two cubs, and another with one cub. She also told us that elk usually grazed that hillside in the mornings. She was like our little dose of National Geographic before bounding off cheerfully.

I can't think of a way I would rather celebrate America than being in the backcountry. But in the absence of fireworks, BBQ's, and cheap beer, we felt we had to do something. So we sang some patriotic songs and crafted this photo.
It rained on and off through the night. We had a slow breakfast and morning coffees before heading out. It was a short but steep climb back up to the trail, as we were going straight up on snow instead of the trail switchbacks (that would probably be melted out in the next couple weeks). Back on the High Divide, we smelled the strong musk of goats and/or elk, but didn't see any. They were probably bedded down in the constant drizzle. We did see glacier lilies, and then more day hikers as we got lower down.
We stopped for lunch at Deer Lake. It was a great spot, though we got swarmed by mosquitoes, which made me appreciate our frozen, bug-free campsite.
Boardwalk at Deer Lake
One of many falls on the Sol Duc River
We made it back to the car tired and happy. We weren't in a rush to get home, so we stopped at Lake Crescent to freshen up and enjoy the serene lake side.
Relaxing at Lake Crescent
We all agreed that a big hike needs to get rounded out with a beer and burger. We stopped in Port Gamble on our way to the ferry, and found the tiny town in full 4th of July festivities mode. We stumbled upon fabulous organic burgers with homemade ketchup, and the friendly owner stopped by our table to chat. Then we made it to the ferry, and were able to catch the very next one- always a bonus coming home from the peninsula!

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Farewell Spring, In Pictures

No, but seriously, where did the spring go? Usually I can't wait until summer, and this year it's here before I even had time to wait for it.

I think the last few months were more of a blur than usual with Basic Climbing and Mountaineering Class I did, having a weeknight and most weekends planned. It was such a wonderful course though, between learning climbing basics, going snow camping dressed as Courtney Love, doing my first alpine climbs ever, learning glacier travel and crevasse rescue, and climbing Mount Baker. The class finished just at the right time, and I have been appreciating having weekends free again. All in all it was a really great spring.
Waiting to do the Maypole at Woodland Park
The Maypole in progress
Pulling out the bolted, over-wintered kale
Planting in the garden: broccoli, brussel sprouts, and
cauliflower starts... and white wine
Some critter got a garlic!?
Being recently carless means I try to transport ridiculous
things on my bike rack.
Work volunteer event- Spring Clean-Up in Pioneer Square
Mid-spring: 3 boxes on the beehive
One of my bees, drinking from the faucet
Very beginnings of the backyard berries
The garden in late spring

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Mountaineering Class Post 5: Summiting Mount Baker!

It was just getting light out and I was trudging up the steep snowy slope in my crampons when the rotten egg smell hit me. My first thought was, Is every single person on the rope team in front of us farting? Every one ate those freeze-dried Mountain House meals for dinner last night, that must be it! Then my perplexed brain remembered that I was on an active volcano, and it was the smell of sulfur from the caldera that we were approaching.

It was the wee hours of Sunday morning and I was on the side of Mount Baker on the Easton Glacier, doing the final climb in my Basic Climbing and Mountaineering class. We had started on Saturday from Schreiber's Meadow, and hiked in about four miles and 3,000 feet to get to base camp. We shouldered very heavy packs, crossed streams, and saw lots of ptarmigans and marmots.
It was a beautiful campsite at just over 6,000 feet, and a lovely afternoon. We got there before 2pm, which I thought was really early, but the rest of the day went fast as there was plenty to do. First of all, we had to set up tents, which takes longer in snow considering digging snow platforms and making snow anchors. Then we had to make water, and melting snow takes a long time.
Another large group camped below us
We also met with our rope team and decide who would be in what position. We flaked, divided, and stacked the rope, and also attached our personal prusiks so that in the morning, all we'd have to do was tie in.
Ropes, ice axes, and prusiks ready to go
People started eating dinner around 3:30 or 4:00. "This is weird," I said. "I can't eat dinner this early!" An instructor advised me to not think of it as dinner. "Think of it as a pre-climb conditioning meal," she said. So with that, I ate my Mountain House, drank more water, and made sure my backpack was all ready to go.
Westward view of the San Juan Islands from camp
The plan was to go to bed at 6pm because we had to wake up at midnight. I scoffed at this, knowing there was no way that I, or any one else, would be asleep before 9 or 10. I even brought a book! And my iPod! But it was completely quiet at 6:00 with every one in their tents. I pulled my hat over my eyes and my sleeping bag over my head, and shockingly, slept a good chunk of the evening.
Camp is still and quiet at 6pm
A shout from our instructors of, "LET'S GO CLIMBING!" was our official wake up call at midnight. I awoke feeling surprisingly rested. It was a beautiful clear night, with a bright gibbous moon. I didn't know if I'd be hungry then, but amazingly I was- I think the early dinner helped. I ate some crackers, hard boiled eggs, and a cup of coffee before leaving camp.

It was a really mild night. I started hiking in only a long-sleeve base layer. It was so surreal, watching this evenly spaced line of headlamps going up the side of the mountain. Part of our class was doing the Squak Glacier route, and they later reported that they could see the northern lights! 

Of course, the higher we got, the colder it got, and I slowly added more and more layers. Clouds rolled in, cutting visibility, and it got chilly. It was a pretty slow climb as we had a large group in a train of rope teams, and ended up waiting for any group in front of us that was pausing. When we were moving, I felt good. But standing on snow, and not knowing how long we'd be stopped, was torturous. My fingers and toes got cold. But you are roped together, and and at the mercy of every one else in front of you moving first.
The wind picked up and I think it was the first time I experienced my eyeballs getting cold. I was so happy I had clear goggles. Even though they were for Burning Man and rimmed with fur, they worked perfectly.
We put on crampons started up toward the caldera. And... that brings us back to the stinky part. That is when I started to feel more awe for where we were- it was light out, jagged outcroppings rose up behind us, and steam was rising up from the caldera below. It was other-worldly.
Leaving the caldera
A few fun facts about Mount Baker, courtesy of Wikipedia:

-Mount Baker is 10,781 feet, making it the 3rd highest mountain in Washington state
-After Mount Rainier, Mount Baker is the most heavily glaciated of the Cascade Range volcanoes
-The volume of snow and ice on Mt Baker is greater than that of all the other Cascade volcanoes (except Rainier) combined
-It is one of the snowiest places in the world- In 1999, the Mt Baker ski area set the world record for recorded snowfall in a single season.

Good to know, right? Okay, back to the climb! We left the caldera and started the final steep section, called the Roman Wall. I don't know why it's called that, but it is definitely the part where you have to pay pretty close attention to your footing. Luckily, it wasn't too icy and my feet felt really secure.
Going up the Roman Wall
We did, however, have to cross a pretty serious crevasse. If the snow bridge over it was any more melted out, I don't think it would have been possible. It was so melted, that there was basically a snow step hovering in the middle of the gaping hole. A friend later asked me if I had a picture of the crevasse. Hah! The last thing you want to do on a sketchy snow bridge is stop and take a picture. Though I sort of wish I had one.

With that, we reached the almost-top. There is a big flat section before the last little bump up to the summit. We unroped, hydrated, sunscreened, and ate homemade cookies (thanks Jen!) before the grand finale.
We were floating in a sea of clouds, with Mount Rainier and Mount Saint Helens the only things visible. It was magical.
Our rope team and friends on the summit! (Alice's photo)
Summit selfie epic fail
Looking down to the flat
Some dude once said that getting to the top of a mountain is only half way. Some other guy said that getting up a mountain is optional; getting down in mandatory. Besides the Roman Wall and the freaky gaping crevasse, the descent was not that technical, and I was feeling good about getting down. 

We took off crampons near where we had put them on, and started post-holing in the deep, soft snow. That was slow-going, but not bad. Then the white-out rolled in. I was leading our rope team, and we could no longer see the team in front of us, so I lead us carefully from wand to wand. I had to walk a little ways from one wand before the next fleck of hot pink tape became visible.

We finally made it back to camp sometime after noon. Luckily, there were more home-baked goods, and here are my awesome team mates resting up and eating brownies.
Some of the faster groups had time to take naps, but by the time I coiled the rope, melted snow, and ate a bagel, it was time to start packing up camp. The clouds lifted, and a bright afternoon sun came out. We hiked out, which to be honest, was probably the hardest part of the day for me. My pack was really heavy, the sun was hot and relentless, and I was tired of walking on snow. But we did get to do some glissading on the way out, which sure beats walking.
We all made it back to the trailhead in one piece, with requisite clean clothes, snacks, and beers waiting in the cars. I don't have much to compare this trip to, but I would say it was a great climb.

That night back in Seattle, I hung my wet stuff to dry, texted my mom that I was okay, slathered on the aloe, and drank a bunch of water. Then around 10:30 I finally crawled into bed after being up for 22.5 hours, and on my feet almost the whole time.

I don't think I have to tell you how well I slept.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Mountaineering Class Post 4: A Weekend on the Nisqually Glacier

Last weekend was the Mountaineering Class Snow 2 trip. We headed out to Mount Rainier to spend two days on the Nisqually Glacier, honing our ice and glacier travel skills.

Saturday started with the usual thorough pack check to make sure we had all the required gear. Turns out the Paradise parking lot wins the prize for prettiest pack check location so far in the class.
We set out into the snow to hike a few miles to the glacier. It was an amazingly sunny, warm, and clear day.
When we got to the edge of the glacier, we pulled out our harnesses, ropes, ice axes, and helmets. We had practiced roping up several times before- twice on grass and once on snow- but never on a real glacier. Here you can tell we are on rope teams because of how evenly spaced we are. 
In the typical style of the class, the day was comprised of rotating stations. My team's first station of the day was general glacier travel. It was a rundown of tips, safety considerations, and what to expect next weekend when we climb Mount Baker.
Our second station was hortizontal ice. We finally got to use crampons! And I managed to not rip any holes in boots, pants, gators, or legs. We focused on French techniques where you don't use the toe spikes. I have to say, I wasn't a huge fan of this station, but we had good instruction and I know the skills we practiced are important. Apparently the angle of ice we were on was steeper than we will actually encounter on Mt. Baker, so that was comforting.

Our next station was called Prusik Cafe. I understood the prusik part- we would use our Texas prusik system (a friction knot with leg loops) to get out of a crevasse! I had been looking forward to this since I heard about it months ago.

"But why is it called a cafe?" I scoffed. "Are they going to have coffee?" As it turns out, yes! They had three ropes set up, so three students could be in the crevasse at a time. While the others waited, they would heat water and make us our choice of tea, hot chocolate, or apple cider. It was a blazingly hot day so a hot beverage was not top priority, but I loved the novelty of it anyway. The awesome instructors had made huge snow bollards as anchors, and we put on our raingear and they lowered us in. Yeah!

Hashtag crevasseselfie
Being inside the crevasse was one of the coolest experiences I've had in a long time. We were far enough down, and over a lip, that it was hard to hear an instructor up top. I felt like I was alone down there, having to use my prusik system and figure out anything else all on my own.

Just the feeling of being down there is hard to describe. It has the serenity of a mountain, the coziness of a cave, the luminous beauty of ice. It's strangely expansive and claustrophobic at the same time. It was also sort of nice to be in the cool, damp shade after relentless sun and snow reflection. 

The final station of the day was Z-Pulley. Also called Z-Drag, this is a system of pulleys, rope, and friction knots that creates a mechanical advantage of 3 to haul a load up. You could use it to pull some one out of a crevasse who was not able to self-rescue.
From Wikipedia
I liked this station a lot. I don't have any experience with setting up these kinds of systems, so it was like a fun puzzle. After you get the hang of it, it's not complicated, and it's satisfying to know how to do.

The busy day was winding down, and we got ready to leave. Some instructors camped on the glacier, but most instructors and all the students hiked out. We were camped down the road from Paradise, but my carpool all agreed that cooking at camp sounded like too much work to our tired bodies. So we opted for a nice dinner at the Paradise Lodge before returning exhausted to our tents. 

Sunday was a similar routine, hiking in and doing our stations, but turned up a notch. 
We went into a bigger crevasse, and this time with backpacks on. We did more advanced low-angle ice crampon practice. Z-Pulley got a more complex scenario. The big change was that instead of Glacier Travel, we got to do a Vertical Ice station. That means ice climbing! It was my first time trying it, and I loved it. No worries about reaching holds like in rock climbing- you just hack your own with spikes and axes. It's great!
It proved to be another fabulous day on the Nisqually. We kept moving all day and learned a ton, but somehow it never felt rushed. Somehow, I still had time for hot chocolate, snacks, and reapplying sunscreen a million times. Somehow, I still got sunburned even with said sunscreen. But I felt good, invigorated, and most importantly, every one stayed safe. We made it back to the parking lot as a happy bunch, ready to celebrate with an aptly-named Rainier beer, and ready to climb Mount Baker this weekend!