1-2 September 2018
This has been the best summer of my life. There’s no internal debate. Maybe there wasn’t a high bar. I am winter obsessed. Many times in the past I have, no joke, “Saved summer for surgery.” Regardless, I took a massive step towards a dream. The merit stands on its own. And I have had more fun than I thought possible in the process. When I did the 1:1 day in June with Craig from the Northwest Mountain School (Maude report) I had no idea where it would lead for the rest of the season. It was my first outdoor rock climb, my first multi-pitch climb and I wasn’t even thinking about leading. I honestly scheduled the day with him because I had gone all in on guides for Chamonix. The birthplace of modern alpinism. One of the most intense and committing places to climb in the world. Do that, you should probably have more experience than a bouldering gym.
Europe catapulted me into the world of technical alpine climbing. I arrived barely knowing how to tie in. I left having climbed the Aiguille de Peigne, Trident du Tacul and led the crux 5.10a pitch on Voie Frison-Roche. Holly and I even played around on the Matterhorn. Multi-pitch systems and roles became second nature. Exposure became cool. Muscle memory and intuition started to take control on difficult moves. Above all, I had gained a new appreciation for the path I need to take to gain the skills and experience necessary to step up to extreme objectives.
Back in Seattle there was a lot of summer left. Fern, Pete and I ticked off Mt Shuksan and spent a smoky weekend on Snow King. Holly and I climbed True Grit on Vesper Peak. Next, we wanted to do something big or exotic for Labor Day weekend. It started as a conversation on Vesper about a Bugaboos trip. It turned into weeks’ worth of group text thread that weighed limited, late season access and potential bad weather at the Bugs, Skaha, Revelstoke, Mt Whitney, Squamish, Wind River Range, Trout Creek and staying in our own backyard for Forbidden or Stuart. I do not exaggerate that this conversation went on without conclusion until nearly the moment we left. Bags packed we were on our way to Marblemount ranger station and the west ridge of Forbidden. And damn if we didn’t nail it.
I am so stoked on this climb. I am proud of it. It’s nothing in the grand scheme but it satisfied my as yet unknown bar for the summer. I now understand the layering to the difficulty in alpine climbing. Elements combined that define a route. Longer, steeper, exposure, route finding complexity, sustained grade, sport, trad, loose rock, snow, ice, weather, remoteness all play a role. Forbidden, unguided, was that next big step up. It felt like a true alpine summit. We roped up for most of the day. There was moderate snow, route finding, mostly fourth class but engaging, highly exposed terrain with a 5.6 crux and for our experience level, it was long.
We set out late on Friday night. We needed permits to camp at Boston Basin and the ranger station was closed for the night. I had called earlier and there were a couple permits left so we tried not to worry. We got a poor night’s sleep in the parking lot of the station. There were a lot of other people doing the same. Saturday morning we learned the hard way that being the second car in the lot didn’t finish the job. If you do this be sure to take a number… we were six. Our fingers were crossed and tensions ran a little higher as people stood around, nervously probing the other would be North Cascades campers for where they were trying to go. No one gave up much info except the one person with whom Armanda and I had a full conversation. Also the one other person going to the exact same spot as us to climb the same mountain. Zach was number four.
The station opened. They called one and two. Three didn’t show and Zach was up. Armanda and I shadowed him over to the counter where he asked how many permits were left for that night at Boston Basin. One. Armanda and my hearts sank a bit. But with a quick sideways glance, Zach responded to the ranger with, “Ok I’ve got a group of six,” two more than the four he had five minutes earlier. We quickly realized what he was up to and gave a muffled, “Eight, group of eight.” He hadn’t met Holly or Tom. We were still on. Thank you Zach! If you ever find this report, man, you rock for that! We went our separate ways and planned to find each other later at the high bivy.
Then I lost the permit. Turns out it was in my gear bag. But, at the moment, standing at the trailhead, backpacks packed with everyone ready to start hiking, it was nowhere to be found. The rest of the crew started up without me and I hopped back in the car and made the loop down through Marblemount for a new copy. Word to the wise, I confirmed with them that if you do lose your permit, they can radio in, so don’t do what I did. Anyways, lesson learned, I got back to the trail head and took off after Holly, Tom and Armanda.
The approach hike to Boston Basin is pleasant. A few hours of mellow pace gains from 3,200ft at the parking lot to about 6,350ft at the high bivy under the south face of Forbidden. The bottom of the hike winds through dense trees with a few fairly steep sections. A bit treacherous on the way down if you were to ask Armanda. The trail crosses a few small streams and one medium sized one that could require a bit more effort with high runoff. About two thirds of the way the trees relent into one of the most incredible landscapes I have seen. Cross Morning Star Creek and you are free to take it all in. Short pine trees grew a ways into a thick blanket of huckleberries and heather that covered the terrain up to the smooth granite slabs, abandoned by glacial histories, which spanned hundreds of feet up to the edge of the receding glaciers. To the west, Mount Torment, Forbidden directly ahead to the north, Boston Peak and Sahale Mountain to the east above Sahale glacier.
That evening we took an excursion onto that glacier headed for Sharkfin Tower between Forbidden and Boston. We didn’t get there with enough time to climb it but it was cool to have a look around. Our planned route for the next morning headed northwest, in the opposite direction. Back for dinner was a better choice. The high bivy camp is spectacular. It overlooks the basin back south and over to Johannesburg Mountain. There was a stream of clean, drinkable water fifty feet away, smooth spots to pitch the tent, a composting toilet, a black bear friend and more marmots than you can comprehend. Our only concern was the tumultuous clouds rolling in off Sahale and those that had covered the summit of Forbidden since we arrived. We cooked dinner, drank some whiskey and headed to bed just after dark for a 5:00am alarm.
Clear skies the next morning fed me a mix of excitement and oh shit for breakfast. It was go time. Now we had to do it. We got moving around 7:00am with the first light. Start the clock. We hiked NW out of camp and worked our way out left to where the granite slabs weren’t so steep. Tom found a way further to the right with some scrambly bits that cut off some distance here. Ok for the way up, probably don’t want to do this on the way down in the dark. These slabs led up to the snow. Holly and Armanda reported that there was some thin ice to contend with on the rocks. Something to watch out for.
Holly, Tom and I had decided on micro-spikes for this bit of snow. Armanda had crampons. Were they enough? Yes. Would a pair of lightweight aluminum crampons have made it easier? Also yes. The first part of the snow isn’t steep but its angles up a bit towards the end and requires some traversing. The early morning ice made it a bit spicy. Bring an axe.
The snow leads to a wet class IV gully. We carefully stepped off on to the rock. Note was taken of the deep undercut between the bedrock and this upper snow. Don’t approach this transition point from directly underneath it. Traverse into it left to right at the height of the bottom of the cliff face bordering the gully’s west edge. We clambered up this gully to a wide platform at the bottom of the main snow gully and late season approach, cat scratch gully. We dropped our ice axes, micro-spikes and trekking poles. The rope and gear came out. Doubles 0.5 – 2 and a set of nuts 1 – 10.
If you are standing at the top of the wet gully on the platform, the cat scratch gully is the one on the far left. The snow gully is out of season late August, early September. Holly and I set off first. We were short roped with about 20m between us and 20m on either end. The plan was to simul-climb the gully. It was reported to be mostly class III with some class IV. In truth it was pretty spicy. I led, keeping two to three pieces of gear in as best I could. The stronger rock climber, Holly followed as is the practice when simuling. I was glad for the practice placing gear. The hardest parts of the gully are towards the bottom, with one section a bit overhung on the right. The top mellows out to some dirty, third class steps. Take note of the tat locations on your way up. This will make the descent much easier.
The gully topped out on some loose rock that led to a distinct notch that marked the start of the route. Another team of three was just ahead of us. We wasted little time and took off after them. The fun began right away with a big step over an exposed gap in the rocks. From there the ridge rose uninterrupted. Holly and I moved smoothly over this initial section. The weather was immaculate. The ridge incredibly aesthetic, a sharp line dividing expansive exposure to either side. Before too long, we saw Armanda and Tom top out from the gully. We were all go!
The ridge is mainly composed of large blocks. You weave up, over, around placing protection on tricky moves or when Holly radioed up to me that she was at the last piece. This was so much fun. We went up. Eventually we reached a section which is the obvious 5.6 crux. The ridge steepens abruptly for three or four moves worth of climbing. It is demarcated on a smaller scale by a piton at about head height when you first arrive at its base. Holly led this pitch. I had opted for mountaineering boots instead of rock shoes and when I couldn’t find solid feet I was glad she did. She cruised it and belayed me up.
From here I’m not so sure. We made it but I think we probably could have stayed more on the ridge crest. My route finding took us left. We started traversing about fifteen to twenty feet below the ridge. There were a nice series of ledges that linked up. It was a stretcher of a pitch. We still had all the 60m rope out from the crux and I used every bit of it. I know this isn’t correct. One of the guides in the Torino hut educated me to always keep the rope as short as the terrain will allow. A subtle mistake but I am glad we made it through without incident. During this time another team of two came by down climbing and confirmed they thought we were on the better route. The other team of three from earlier were up on the ridge and had to deal with a down climb either over or around a sheer section just before the summit. In either case, if I do it again, I will probably stay up there just to give it a go.
Moments later I was on the summit. I slung a horn and belayed Holly the rest of the way up. A few deep breaths in and we started to look around. This is easily one of the most epic summit days of my life. The sun was out with just enough clouds for dimension. I won’t even try to name all the peaks because you could see them all. Moraine lake a cloudy emerald far below to the west. Holly and I sat there trying to believe where we were, trying to comprehend the gravity of the ascent and the view. Gravity also lurking past the half way point. We still had time to enjoy the present. There’s no other place in time to live on these peaks. I was immensely content to sit there with her, perched on a spire of rock. We had made some serious progress since Label Virgine in the Aiguille Rouges. I cherish these moments and the people who will go a little crazy with me on a concoction of thin air, exhaustion and fear.
Tom and Armanda arrived shortly thereafter. Summit party! Man, were we all stoked. Pictures, high fives and reverence for Tom leading it with something like four cams, three slings and some tricams. You’re a boss. Reality eventually hit and conversation turned to getting down. You’ll notice that in most of my stories the getting down is summarized in, “we retraced our steps,” or, “a few quick rappels.” Beer. This one was quite a bit more involved.
Holly and I took off first and carefully down climbed the reverse of the lower ledge system, now down to our right from the ridge. This all went well and we arrived back at the top of the 5.6 pitch. There is tat and rap rings here. We moved to set up the abseil. The wind had picked up and the rope had gotten a bit tangled. After a couple nerve wracking throws of the rope where it got caught in the wind and blown way off course (luckily never getting caught), Holly decided to saddle bag it. From here I once again am not sure. We made it but we probably could have followed the tat down the NW face to the bottom of the snow beneath the notch at the start of the route. The group of three had gotten too far ahead of us to see what they had done but they very quickly reached this point and climbed back up and around the climbers right of the snow by the time we had rapped the crux. We weren’t sure, so we continued to down climb the ridge. This took a long time. Eventually, after a couple interesting route finding moments, we made it back to the airy step-over that signaled the end of the route.
Now for the gully. Clouds had just started to condense along the upper parts of the ridge. The wind whipped up from the glacial floor bringing the cloud line ever closer to our position. We scrambled down some loose rock and found our first tat. It was a cord, covered in a light green, weaved, elastic cover on the right of the gully’s entrance. From there we descended to the next one, blue, also on the climber’s left. This continued on for a couple more raps. It appeared there are a couple different tat combinations available. We could have probably extended one or two of the rappels but it was getting dark, we were tired and felt it was safer to use what was visually apparent. Until it wasn’t.
We were about two thirds of the way down, on the climber’s right of the gully and couldn’t see another rap station. We had to go find it. If there wasn’t anything we’d have to build it. Holly was in the lead. I gave her my cordelette. We were both really nervous as she rapped into the abyss. I couldn’t see her after twenty feet. She kept yelling up to me that she couldn’t find anything. It was one of those moments where the ante got raised. She rappelled to the end of the rope. At the end she found it. An awesome station built with four points that was just over 30m from the platform at the top of the wet gully above the snow. For readers interested in beta, I will note that there was a station in between made of black nylon. It was very hard to see in the near dark but it is there on the climber’s right about 15m above this final station.
There are a couple options here. The one we took is the obvious red tat on the boulder just at the top of the gully. Do this, and like us, you will probably be rappelling through a small waterfall. The other option, which we did not do (and I do not know for sure is possible) is to make a double rope length rappel off some tat up to the climbers left from the top of the bottom gully. Instead of going down the gully it goes over the cliff face and down onto the rock where we transitioned off the snow. I’d be interested to know if anyone has used this.
Holly and I waited behind a melting tower of snow for Tom and Armanda. It was completely dark at this point. We still needed to get down the snow and back across the slabs. For the first time since meeting Holly she asked if, “Tomorrow can we just, not?” She took the words right out of my head. Team all back together, we headed out to the snow, micro-spikes on and axes at the ready. For the steep upper section we made use of an old snow anchor for a 60m rappel. It held but everything was melting fast. Probably good to back it up. We ended up way too far to the right but the hardest parts were all over. The low angle snow was easy walking. We made it back to the slabs and from there it was just one foot in front of the other until finally, the tents appeared.
No way was it any kind of speed record, 17 hours camp to camp, but we did it. At the time I write this, the west ridge of Forbidden is the pinnacle of what I have achieved as an alpine climber. It goes in that special memory bank of best days in the mountains I’ve ever had, right next to the first day on Mt Hood and summit day on Aconcagua. The hardest days. The days that set a new personal bar in a big way. Where you get down having expended every last ounce of energy but got it done. I love that. Days when the whiskey is deserved. I’m proud of us. I like to make progress every time I go out. But not every trip can be a defining leap. It makes them special.
Summer’s winding down now. It was the best one yet. I’m no cheat on winter, but I’d dare say it was one of the best seasons I’ve had, period. Then again, this winter it’s time to learn how to ice climb. Think I’ll kick it off 1:1 with the Northwest Mountain School. Let’s face it, I’ve never placed an ice screw.