NOLS/Fisher Chimneys to Boulder Route Traverse - Days 7-9

Day 7:  The Bivy

Safety is something that requires intention.

Coming down from our glacial camp proved challenging.  The packs were heavy, and the terrain treacherous.  Our instructors spent a lot of time setting up anchors to protect 60-degree declines on snow as well as glacial ice.  The protection took time.  Safety is something that requires intention.  Our goal for today was 2 miles.  We got approximately .5.  With Amber’s back injury, and a new ankle turn by Austin, we ran out of time to make it down Fisher Chimneys, a scramble/rock chute granting access to the forest trails below to our re-ration, where we will pick up fifteen pounds of food each and drop fifteen pounds of poop that we have been carrying around in “WAG” bags.  These things are disgusting.  I don’t know what else to say.  Pooping into a bag that you must then carry around is disgusting.  

Austin.  Austin has the biggest balls of anyone in the group.  He takes a NOLS course on mountaineering, with next to no outdoors experience, minor physical ability (some distance running?), and a complete lack of awareness of all of the dangers around us.  He down climbed Mount Shuksan with a 20lb pack on as his first climb ever.  500ft of down climbing.  After this he will go back to his life practicing law.  The lives we lead are unquestionably duplicitous.  I love what I’m doing here.  At the same time, I miss those I love.  Daily.

Austin’s ankle couldn’t take the rock scramble that took us to Fisher Chimneys.  Since we could not make it to our planned campsite at a lake below, we are now sleeping on the various ledges of a rock outcropping beneath the stars and only in our sleeping bags.  We are “bivying”, as it is called.


Day 8:  The Rocky Descent

I’m sitting on a rock, with my back on a rock, and my feet propped on a rock.  In the past two days, we’ve travelled 1.2 miles as the crow flies.  Looking up from the lake we are spending our second night bivying beside, I am amazed that there was even a route down.  The mountains:  glacier, snow drifts, scree, boulder fields, and sheer, open air.  

Cascadian cliffs are a foreboding barrier to even the imagination of ascent.

Cascadian cliffs are a foreboding barrier to even the imagination of ascent.   The reality is quite unbelievable.  There were so many ropes set up to protect our descent, it was crazy.  Probably 600 feet of it protected by ropes.  I panic-clinged to the side of a rock with a sixty-five pound pack on my back and a very big fall below.  I was near tears trying to regroup when I saw all of the open air next to the goat path we were to travel.  I carried the weight of others going down the snow fields with underground rivers carving snow caverns beneath.  I survived.  Somehow.  The whole team did.  

My feet are wretched.  They have been mostly wet for a week now.   Surprisingly, the constant beating they have received has not left any marks.  I guess the years of adventure racing have paid off.  Still, tomorrow we make our push to re-ration, having missed the 4pm cutoff by no less than 7 hours.  Our tent group’s food supply has dried up.   Tomorrow morning, we will run out.  If we do not wake at 4am, if we do not get to the re-ration rendezvous in four hours, or if our contingency plan to send runners ahead to the 10am meet up fails, then we will not eat tomorrow.

This morning’s breakfast was a pack of Thai noodles. Tomorrows will be Koolaid.

This morning’s breakfast was a pack of Thai noodles.  Tomorrows will be Koolaid.  We have two handfuls of sunflower seeds to snack on.  We have seven days to summit Mount Baker.  I don’t know if it is possible.

Day 9:  Minus One

We reached the re-ration and the decision was made that Amber would be evacuated.  She was off her pain meds and this morning’s hike, which was three hours long, was at a very fast pace.  Without meds to numb her back injury, her movement was clearly painful, and it was decided in her condition she would not be able to reliably arrest falls on her rope team.  The injury was caused by a bad foot placement while being lowered, a small mistake that cost her three days of pain—perhaps more—and seven days of the expedition.  

Every rock out here wants to break your ankle, every snow field send you careening towards a quick stop, every glacier trap you in a cold, slow asphyxiation in a hidden crack below.

Every rock out here wants to break your ankle, every snow field send you careening towards a quick stop, every glacier trap you in a cold, slow asphyxiation in a hidden crack below.  I could not hold it together today.  We finally stopped to reflect on the past three morning-to-night non-stop days and I finally processed what happened.  I was terrified, several times, of falling, of slipping, of a misplaced step, a loose handhold, of over-trusted traction, of not being able to get up or down a section, of not making it.  

Mostly, I was terrified of being terrified—of having my abilities petrified by fear.  The team would slow on a difficult section and I would chill—not in a good way, but I would stiffen up—both with my body and mind.  Not moving and being in the rhythm of movement makes me not trust my first movements, especially when they are on foreign surfaces, which are everywhere here for me. 

All of this, plus Shanna and the kids.  I miss her.  I keep thinking about her expressions, about how she says, “Oh man gah” and other silly things.  I keep talking about her and my kids on trail, my mind attempting to reel me back to reality, back to life before sleeping in one bag and pooping in another.  There are other thoughts that creep in during the quiet moments, but I try to keep them at bay.  I want to marry her.  She is something that feels more right than the mountains, but the thought of it is terrifying.  It is so hard to let go of all the thoughts that her feelings toward me will pass.  My first text will be, “Are you still my girlfriend?”  Three weeks of reflection and separation can mean a change of heart for someone.  I don’t want it to be for her.  I wonder what her answer will be to my text.  I’m sure it will be a “yes!”, but I don’t know 100%, and that’s where the fear comes from.  So I will squash it, like I do, with finding comfort in her independence and freedom to CHOOSE me, which I love intensely.