South Brother South Couloir
Saturday night we went to see the comedian Steven Wright, and I really like his old joke:
- Did you sleep good?
- No, I made a few mistakes.
Back from the show, I started planning a mountain climb for Sunday, but the forecast was kind of grim. I had noticed in satellite pictures that the cloud layer was much thinner over the Olympics. The prevailing flow was from the South, channeled over the Cascades. The Olympics were clear! This got me excited to visit the range after years of wistfully looking over there.
I decided on the Brothers, and hastily threw my gear in the car, figuring there was no time to sleep beforehand (I was “Hooding it,” named for the common practice of climbing Mt. Hood Friday after work). For food I brought fried chicken and small cubes of cheese. I would later regret the lack of carbohydrates in this fare. I paid slightly more attention to the map, but not enough. Around 3 am, I was lost on the Key Peninsula, and had to backtrack 10 miles. Finally I arrived at 4 am, and was soon hiking to Lena Lake on depressingly flat switchbacks. I passed a few tents around the lake, and entered the Valley of Silent Men. I was too busy climbing fallen trees and crossing bridges on the way in to notice it much, but enjoyed the trail on the way out. The huge mossy boulders and splintered trees have a primeval look. The junction with another creek, or “base camp,” is nothing special, just a flat area in the forest with two feet of snow on the ground. It’s very easy to lose the proper trail in here. I followed tracks in the snow that seemed to belong to a party of 5, then 4, etc., finally one solitary stubborn man. Finally it was an all-out bushwhack with occasional bits of pink flagging. Then it started to rain. The stock of my enterprise was at a low, and I considered a reverse split. But then the terrain opened up into avalanche chutes, and I gratefully clambered aboard.
Seven increasingly rugged miles to here, and I hadn’t covered half the required elevation gain of 6200 feet. Now the climbing could begin, first up a long 30 degree avalanche slope, scarred by thoughtless glissade paths. I really resented the thought of someone having fun hurtling down the gully and leaving this environmental scar. My feeling of solitude, protected by law, was grievously violated! It didn’t occur to me to resent the helpful kicked steps, hmm…
The gully widened and veered rightward. I saw a few people higher up. I also saw a neat looking gully called the Hourglass. The route descriptions say to avoid it, due to falling rock and snow. But with crunchy, stable snow, I just had to climb that thing. Most tracks went down and around to the right, but someone had been up this before. It was fun to be in the narrow walled couloir. There was a small moat to step over. Melt-out will make it harder to climb in the coming weeks.
Above this the gully widened greatly, with a large snow slope on the right. I went over to it, thinking to join the other folks who went to the right. The snow was harder up here, so I put on crampons as it began to snow lightly. I went back into the wide gully and climbed for another 1000 feet, going around a rocky buttress on the left. Happily, the cloud layer stayed above my peak the entire trip, so I had good local views. Since I was wet from the rain, a spot of warm sun would have been much appreciated. But when I examined the steaming chicken entrails I had brought for this purpose, they revealed that the sun would never appear today. Never.
An exciting steeper step (45 degrees?) on an exposed slope led me to a “staging area” 100 feet below the summit. There were 10-15 people here in various stages of undress. No, but seriously folks, there was a crowd, with about 7 people heading down and 8 going up. I put on a sweater due to the cold, strong wind, and followed some people up a steep snow chimney, then on a trail pounded into loose talus (careful, the staging area is exposed to rock fall from this trail). I talked with some guys at the summit (10:15 am). Everyone was glad to be here and see the amazing view into the dark heart of the Olympics. The range was vignetted by a gray shroud that cropped the highest peaks, but added to the mystery. Everyone left and I was alone: standing in the screaming wind, munching hideously on a chicken breast. I contemplated the traverse to the North Peak, which was very steep getting down from the South Peak. Better to go the other way, I think, and I would take a rope.
With a mad cackle I retraced my steps, eventually passing the descending parties. I watched a few people attempt to glissade the very hard snow with crampons on. I did mention something about the danger of this to them, but had to be tactful. I said “Dang, I’d like to glissade, but I’d have to take off my crampons, and I want them for the Hourglass!” I believe they quit the attempt, but I didn’t stick around to find out. I removed crampons and went for some really fast rides below the Hourglass. Down to the brush, and a better trail. Soon I was on the flats of “base camp,” but I got disoriented among the hundreds of tracks going every direction. After wasting 15 minutes, I got out the compass and map. Due east led me to the river, then south along it’s bank to the fork. Another guy heard me scrabbling around upstream and called out to check on me (thanks!). I took a rest at the fork while he and his partner packed up their camp, then I took off for Lena Lake. Once there, I rested on an overlook of the lake, napping happily. That done, I pounded down to the car, fuming at the low angle switchbacks. I was there at 3:45, so it was an 11.5 hour day.
At the car a forest ranger was waiting for me. He asked for my license and social security number. I gave him my license, but didn’t see why I should give my SS number (“I’ll get it anyway,” he said). Since I didn’t have a forest service pass, I got a ticket for a $30 dollar fine. I told him I didn’t think I should have to pay to hike on public land and that I believed that the proliferation of user fees for low-impact activities has to stop. He merely looked pained, and sent me on my way.
The drive home was the crux. I had to stop and sleep three times. A large man leaned out of an espresso stand and bellowed angrily at me. I didn’t stick around to find out why. The day was cold and wet, but the mountain was good. Thanks mountain!