Prusik Peak West Ridge
- June 10-11, 2000
“Ow!” In a flash of unpleasant clarity, I’d had an idea. Let’s climb Prusik Peak before overnight permits are required. Sure we’ll have snow everywhere, but that didn’t stop Beckey who climbed it in May for cripes sake! We all rearranged our plans a little bit, then spent the week festering about what to take and what to leave. A stove was reluctantly brought because we might not have running water at Lake Viviane, our intended camp spot. Crampons were left behind. Two rope teams of two, each with 60 meter ropes. The participants were:
- Steve - claims to have a hip injury. Smokes us all on the approach.
- Jake - Expert mountain climber. He forgot his helmet and his sleeping pad.
- Peter - Can recite most of “the Holy Grail.” Willing to jump into snowy lakes.
- Michael - Devious in the extreme. Not above stealing food. Will put rocks in your pack.
Musical director John Bennett was scheduled to appear at our camp, sing a few quatrains, and head down in the morning while we climbed.
We were hiking before 8 am, but it already felt hot n’ dusty on the first switchbacks. At two miles, we paused to admire the Snow Creek Wall, strangely empty of climbers.
We met a weary but proud group of three on the trail before Nada Lake. They had climbed Prusik Peak, coming up from Aasgard Pass. They had set off a slab avalanche near the top of the pass, scaring them enough to walk out the Snow Lake trail and hitch back to their car. They put to rest any illusions we had of climbing the peak today. It took them 12 hours from base to base! 2 hours just for nasty steep snow without an ice ax, or boots. We bid them farewell, and they chuckled about the cardboard strapped to Jake. He had fashioned apple boxes into a poor sleeping pad.
Victory at Nada Lake, we were finally getting somewhere! We irritated Peter by refusing to walk back and pose by the lake. He “gets a lot of crap” for taking landscape pictures, and apparently he’s “tired of taking that crap” so he tried to finagle a body into every photo. He pantomimed a few incidents where “crap” was dispensed and unwillingly taken.
At Snow Lake we had a long rest, and Peter almost jumped into the water. He contemplated a bouldering problem far out in the lake, and we urged him on as true friends should. But then we fell asleep and lost interest. I ate a sardine, and couldn’t believe I didn’t throw up. I actually liked it.
Reluctantly, we put our boots back on and climbed to Lake Viviane, nearly giving up halfway. The trail was steep and difficult to keep track of among the snowbanks, brush and slabs. Some of us felt kind of queasy. Luckily, Jake got his second wind, and forged ahead with new energy, finding the way to camp, then planning a climb of Little Annapurna (“A Woman’s Place”) across the Enchantments. We all refused to accompany him, but he did get me to scout the approach with him. We kicked steps in the snow that we could use in the frozen morning. We climbed up, then over to the west, looking for better views. The mountain was spectacular! The appearance from the west is divine, while from the southeast it’s just a jumble of blocks. How long I’ve seen this view in photographs, I couldn’t believe we were actually here. And this whole enchanted valley belonged to us. The only tracks we saw were from the party of three, and these were melting in the sun.
Back at camp, we said hello to the “Kamp Goat” who circled around with a curious smile. He was losing his winter coat, and had a distinctive bald patch on his neck. We jealously guarded our boots, knowing he would want them!
Peter shared summer sausage and a neat wax container of cheese with me. Jake and Steve tried to sleep, but Peter and I (both 29) carried on a conversation typical of our generation:
“Did you have a snowspeeder?”
“Did you have the Degobah playset?”
“I never had Luke in Hoth attire, did you?”
“Oh yeah, also Han Solo. Yoda was a quality figure, you got a cane, a cloak, a snake and a tool belt.”
“Yes, and IG-88 had an awesome gun. I nearly wet myself when I got the Millennium Falcon.”
“I know I did!”
This went on until the goat came and stared us down. When he left we started up again, on another favorite topic. Steve and Jake endured us stoically.
“We are the Knights who say…KNIE!”
“We shall use my larger scales!”
“It’s not a question of how ‘e grips it, it’s a simple matter of weight ratios!”
“Did you get my note?”
“Er, I got A note…”
I laughed way too hard and loud at the old Monty Python lines, prompting another visit by the goat who flashed his curious smile and dead, coal black eyes.
The first half of “sleep” was marked by sweat, claustrophobia, and “soft spots” on my skull that complained about the rock I used as a pillow. Finally, I took off the sweater, hat and extra shirt I thought I needed, and lost consciousness.
We reluctantly awoke to the tiny 4:30 wrist alarms. Jake had survived the night on cardboard, mistaking his arm for a meaty sea-creature when the whole thing fell asleep. I played “Contact/Crumb Jamboree” in my sleeping bag in an unfortunate Pop-Tart/eye-wear debacle. Peter felt better, probably regretting giving up so much of that summer sausage. We stomped up a hill, down and steeply up towards the mountain. Our pre-fabricated boot steps were nice to have, as the snow had hardened considerably. I thought about the route and all the slightly conflicting beta we had acquired. Steve was going strong, never even mentioning his injured hip. He had totally turned the situation around. By getting out and climbing, the injury seemed to have disappeared!
We roped up at the balanced rock, setting a belay at a wizened tree 20 feet above. I moved up, suddenly confused by the jumble of black and tan rock. First there was a crack with the lichen scraped off by hundreds of padding feet. After that, it was as if every climber had taken a different route. “Okay, fine!” I thought, doing the same. Around a boulder, up on top, to the left, no more rope. I have the uncanny ability to run out of any amount of rope you give me, and now I’d done it with a 60 meter rope. Struggling 7 more feet, and I had a big picnic table rock to squat ‘n scratch on. I reeled in a business-like Steve, and surrendered the rack. He padded around a bulge, clipping an old fixed sling. Within seconds he was at the 5.7 friction pitch, so often mentioned for it’s (oooh!) “12 foot runout”. After two moves, he was on the crest placing a cam.
Peter was fiddling with protection at a crux move below. He made the move and joined me, happy with his first wilderness lead. Just to annoy our companions, we switched ropes, and Peter followed Steve up, giving me a chance to belay again. He left me his rack, festooned with hexes and tied slings. Jake bellied up to the bar, and I took off. A bouldery hop across a 12 foot chasm was an unexpected move before the friction pitch. I clipped the iron piton at the base, didn’t find anything for my gear, and started up. A good but thin hold for the left hand, tiny nubbins for the feet, and the slab’s edge for the right hand encouraged me. Two more steps and I crouched at the top. Fumbling with the unfamiliar rack, I placed a forged friend, and steadfastly refused to look down and right. But the hungry maw looked at me! Whistling as I worked, I climbed to a bulging tower, and traversed around the south on an easy ledge. On the other side, I straddled the ridge crest, “riding” my way to flat ground. There was a lot of rope drag here, but the climbing was easy. I just yanked about 5 feet of rope at a time, paying it out as I moved forward.
Peter had attempted to girdle the peak on a long traverse, perhaps imagining a first corkscrew ascent. He was reeled back and sent upward, to find the elusive “highest easy ledge” Beckey mentions. Meanwhile, Jake was out-of-sight, dealing with inner demons on the friction slab. He was able to get a very high “body friction” coefficient, and successfully emerged around the corner, only to be mobbed by the paparazzi intent on photos by the hundreds. He suitably “worked it” for the camera and skootched across the shark fin ridge.
I climbed up to Peter’s ledge, admiring his hand-crafted gear anchor.
He used the yellow Alien, thus preserving it’s record of getting
used on every climb. I wouldn’t go anywhere without my little yellow
Alien! Soon the four of us milled around on the ledge, Jake and
I inadvertently playing “see-saw” on a tottering block. It was Steve’s
lead on what looked to be the hardest and best part of the climb.
We watched in rapt attention as he jammed up to a ledge, traversed
to a dihedral and sunk some gear. His “mantel” onto another ledge was
something to see. His most private aspects were slowly crushed by
a knot of carabiners and the unforgiving granite. Sadly, the
camera was put away. Mental note: don’t let that happen to me!
(note from Steve: “I want to set the record straight:
My mantel was a paragon of grace!”)
Stoically, he forged on, just out of sight, finally coming to the “5.4” chimney. Someone may be able to prove we were off route, but this was the only obvious chimney around. Steve got a good cam in at the base, then was confounded by the maneuvers required to get higher. We listened to his ice ax bang listlessly on the granite wall above as he cycled through different postures. He called on “The Inner Ron Kauk” and forced our hand. Now there was no retreating, our leader had gained the pinnacl’d point of Prusik! In a flurry of activity, Peter climbed, avoiding the traverse by starting at the dihedral’s base. I followed, getting a belay from Jake below. As Peter pantomimed patiently past protection points, he purposefully left what Steve had placed there, only the hour before. Churlishly, I purloined the pre-placed pieces for my pink-point ascent. Peter hollered some advice to me about a pendulum and a flake. Steve hollered some advice to me about a chimney and a left foot. I just kept climbing. Peter got some pictures of me on a fun flake, and I got a picture of him in the chimney. With advice from our chimney expert above, Peter nicely climbed up. I moved into it, clipped to a good cam and started up. A strenuous move with a poor right foot, and a tenuous hand jam allowed me to paw at loose rocks near the chimney exit. I made use of Steve’s advice, wedging my shoulders into the chimney. It was very secure, in fact, I could have dangled my feet uselessly, and still felt great.
In summary, this final obstacle will really get your blood flowing, especially with a pack filled with boots, ice ax, etc. Don’t laugh at me when I say it felt like 5.8. Ok, fine…laugh.
Now it was Jake’s turn, and just when we were relaxing and unroping at the summit, he was in flight below us! Steve and Peter looked at me in disbelief when I said “Jake just pendulumed across the face!” “I didn’t even feel it!” said Steve, or something like that. A moment later, Jake said he was ok, but he did hit his knee pretty hard. He had tried a 5.13 variation before the final ledge, and found himself instantly airborne. Amazingly, he climbed back up, let me haul his pack, then climbed the chimney so quickly we all felt ashamed of our groveling performance. Ignoring our amazement and offers of sponsorship, Jake moved to the summit, and we crowded around his knee. It was swollen, which worried us all. It must have hurt a lot.
Okay, so now our mood was “gosh-what-a-great-place-we-did-it-wow-but-we-should-hurry-down-before-that-knee-stiffens-up”. We took a lot of pictures, and I signed the summit register for all of us. Peter said each party member had to put their signature instead, otherwise it “didn’t count”. We read a note in there that this guy from Wenatchee had solo climbed the route in 19 minutes. He also made sure to write down how quickly he soloed Dragontail and one or two other peaks.
Steve threw the ropes, and disappeared over the north side. Rappelling on two 60 meter ropes, he made it a long way down to some slings. Jake was next, then Peter and I. “So long!” I said, sure I wouldn’t visit this place for few years at least. I liked the summit, there was room to camp up there, it was nice and sunny, and the incredible exposure of the south face acts as an air conditioner: a cold sweat always results from a look down there.
At the station, I changed into my boots, since we were going through increasing amounts of snow. Later, to pass the time at the rappel stations, Peter and I had a rousing game of paper, rock, scissors. Then he made up some rabbit, carrot, gun game, but I beat him at that too. Pulling the rope after the second rappel, a moderately sized rock came down on us. It was about the size of a paperback. We didn’t know this though, and Steve’s cries of “Rock!” changing to “Big Rock! Big Rock!” caused me to try and burrow under Peter. It was coming straight for Steve, but landed harmlessly in the snow 3 inches from Peter and I. Now we all worried about Jake’s head, the only one unprotected by plastic. When I looked at him, it seemed to get bigger by the second, attracting rocks with a fierce gravitational pull. One more half rappel, and we stood on a steep snowy ledge. Wow! I was glad we brought our ice axes. Peter stuffed 400 feet of rope into his pack to relieve Jake. He was doing great, figuring out how to walk so the knee injury didn’t slow him down too much.
We carefully traversed the snow, coming out near the base of the route. Some more scrambling, and we began the descent to camp. The snow was too soft to glissade, so long plunge steps got us there quickly. I rescued our gear from the tree, then fell into a stupor of pleasure consuming my last half sandwich. I had carried a bulky Tupperware case to protect them, so it was as fresh and unsquashed as when Kris made it for me. Contrast this with the mystery “tomato or bread?” questions Jake had to ask of his sandwich, and the debauched helplessness of Peter’s once-proud peanut butter sandwiches. Total failure of bread/innards integrity. I couldn’t poke fun at Steve’s sandwiches because he went the whole day on two Fig Newtons, and I think he coughed one of those up. Too dry.
We packed up, each carrying more to offer Jake some relief. We said goodbye to the goat, and soon raced down the snow slopes towards Snow Lake. I found a cache of cairns we had missed on the way up, but they led nowhere. Cursing, I followed Steve back up, crossing a waterfall and rotten snow. This part of the trail went very quickly. Jake got another tick. We each fell down into rotten snow holes. Finally, we got to the lake and made the endless traverse around it. At the dam, we had a long rest, where I consumed everyone’s remaining food. I ate sardines, powerbars, goo, candy bars - basically anything nobody else wanted. (note from Steve: “At the dam, Michael went into such a frenzy of eating, that I was concerned that he had started to channel Euel Gibbons and would continue gorging on bark and pine cones, and denude the entire forest!”) I was feeling ok, but trying not to think of the 6+ miles we had to go. It must have been about 5:30 pm. The trip down to Nada Lake was pretty nice. I enjoyed the view of Steve and Jake bouncing far ahead on the trail, and Peter taking great interest in the flowers behind.
Actually, the switchbacks above the lake brought a rare moment of peace for me. Looking down on the lake, nestled among trees and steep canyon walls, I didn’t want to move, just stare at it until the sun went down. Peter seemed to share this feeling, and for a brief time, we could smile without worrying about the many miles to go, on already aching feet. Brian Burdo said in one of his guidebooks “When it comes to happiness, 95\% of success is just slowing up.” At the lake, Peter noticed a grand waterfall we had missed on the way up. I tried to get water from the lake, but a stringy worm twitched in my bottle. No rest for the wicked!
Down, down, down in growing darkness. I hadn’t seen Steve or Jake in a long time, so Peter and I were sticking together. He had at least one big blister, and each step hurt a lot. Finally, Steve was waiting for us, explained that he needed to hurry and get back for an 8 am meeting in Oregon. We raced ahead, leaving Peter and his blister to a private trail of tears. I remembered my own “trail of tears”. Four miles along the white river in full-shank heavy boots. Steve had raced ahead to escape the bugs. I wallowed in misery, wearing all my goretex in the stifling heat, hundreds of mosquitoes frantically trying to puncture the seal. I didn’t even want to look at my feet. Finally, I reached bottom, sitting down by the river in a puddle of deer urine. Steve’s car reeked for months. I now have a bone spur at the site of that horrible heel blister.
We found Jake at the car just at full dark, around 10 pm. Feeling pretty good, I prepared to climb back up and take Peter’s pack. But lo! A figure staggers up in the dark, only 15 minutes behind us! He hadn’t even sat in deer urine. I was impressed, I certainly would have found some.
We went from “beer for all!” to “how about a meal at least?” to “I’m just going home.” as the day went on. Four sleepy, exhausted bodies motored over the pass to the west, where all the people live.
Notes from John Bennett
This side-story is from fellow climber John Bennett, who tried to meet up with us on the Snow Creek trail. Considering his generosity to these climbers, and the time that took, it wasn’t meant to be. But he saved the day with an interesting tale and a restorative hike to the Snow Creek Wall.
It all started when I decided to get up really early and head out to Leavenworth from Seattle. Unfortunately I didn’t leave Seattle until 9:30. I was on my way to a trail-head up Icicle Creek when I noticed three hitch hikers, one going down the canyon and two going up. They looked pretty tired and I said to myself, “man I’m glad I’m not those guys”. Upon reaching the trail-head I saw a sign that said you needed a trail head park pass and noticed that I the gazillion passes I have wouldn’t work and I would have to go to the store and buy yet another pass. For a moment I sat in my car thinking gee, I really need to develop a project plan with milestones, critical path, key activity drivers, sponsor list, process flow, budget, and of course a RACI (responsible, accountable, consulted, informed) chart to maintain all the different passes I need to acquire in a year to go outside on a weekend and not think about work. I never knew how complex it is to go for a walk. Finally I decided the right thing to do is to buy another pass.
On my way down the canyon I decided to pick up one of the hitch hikers, he said he needed to get to a phone because is party was a day late in checking in. During the ride he mentioned that he was coming back from Prusik Peak and I told him I was going to hook up with some of my buddies just below Prusik and camp out with them. The hitchhiker perked up and said his group had met up with another group and it was probably my friends. I was really psyched he met up with my friends until he said, “Man do those guys have a long day in front of them”! Just then every lazy cell in my brain perked up and thought “long day, no one said anything about a long day”.
By noon I was on my way back up the canyon and was rolling into the parking lot when I saw the other two hitchhikers and realized they were in the same party with the guy I picked up earlier and I decided to give them a ride as well. They needed to go back to Colchuck Lake trail-head and my hiking brain cells were saying, “we really need to start hiking” of course my lazy brain cells we saying “we’re doing a good deed and the trail can wait” (convincing little brain cells aren’t they). During the ride back to Colchuck trail head they were discussing how light my friends were going and how the crux on the last pitch is well understated in the Beckey guide. By the time I made it back to the lower trail head it was closer to 1:00 and figured there was no way I would catch up with Michael and the gang until very late and decided to hike a few miles, have lunch and mosey on back to Seattle. Not very exciting but I had a wonderful time helping out some climbers and enjoying the beautiful weather.