Ground Hog’s Day all over again

I wrote this story on Facebook a year ago and it showed up on my “Memories” this morning. It was just a quick little blip that popped into my head back then and I jotted it down for Facebook.  I smiled over the memory then read through the old comments.

The post didn’t get much notice as posts go, 7 Likes and 6 Comments, but two of the comments were from my life-long buddy Rick. “Man, that looks like fun!” and “Those wool pants can take a beating!”.  Very short and simple, but just the kind of thing that sets off a hundred memories.

He was referring to the photo at the top that shows Beckey on an easy flake doing a layback move. We had been on climbs like that many times.  Each one flashed through my head and they were all fun indeed, even the nasty, chossy, dirt pile Beckey death routes no one had been on in years.

He knew that wool pants can take a beating because we had both worn them for many years before all the new-fangled synthetic stuff came out.  I had given him a pair of my dad’s old wool Army pants back in high school and we both wore them until we got too old and fat, replaced by nice comfy fleece.

But the thing that stung was that it is coming up June 17th, the day he died a year ago. I’ve been reading his comments from the last ten years coming back from the past in those Facebook memories for the past year thinking “he was still with us a year ago”. I don’t know why a year is meaningful, but it is.

Maybe because it still seems like it was just yesterday.  Maybe it’s simply a calendar year has an implied meaning.  Or maybe because the memory is the first time it has popped up…we have had plenty of fun re-commenting on these old FB memories from 2, 5, 8 years ago, but his voice is now gone from them.

In a few days none of the comments will be “new” memories.  Each would have been seen at least once before as a memory and repeated year after year like a scene in the “Ground Hog’s Day” movie.  I suppose all very appropriate for the boy born on February 2nd.

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Rick in his hand me down wool pants at Flapjack Lakes, Olympic National Park 1989

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In the early 90’s we stopped in to check out some routes in Squamish BC that were right next to a residential area overlooking the main highway. They were just beginning some home construction there and we figured we should bag the climbs before they closed it off from climbers.

We took the short walk over to the cliffs and were scoping the routes and noticed a group on a nice, classic looking crack. Most of them were young but there was an old dude on lead, dressed in long wool pants and a flannel shirt while everyone else was in shorts and t shirts.

The old dude would work his way up the crack with pretty good run-out and then do an odd layback that I can only describe as a “butt smear” so he could get a nut or stopper in. He was actually smearing the full length of the wool pants for added friction while he worked the stopper in. He could almost no hands it!

He turned to look down at us and I immediately saw it was Fred from his photos on his climbing guides. He must have been about 72 at the time. Here was our alpine messiah, whose words we poured over in his Cascade Alpine Guides to find some glimmer of how to find a route on some crazy “Beckey variation” doing a single pitch 5.6 fifty feet from a construction zone. Very surreal.

We immediately added the “Beckey Butt Smear” into our quiver of climbing moves…if it was good enough for the Master it was good enough for us. Photo (not mine) of the Legend on another climb, looks like up Icicle Creek in Leavenworth.

Slippery Slab Bivy

Slippery Slab Tower  Alpine Lakes Region/Cascade Range       Date –Sept. 23-24, 1995

Approach Route– Surprise Lake Trailhead #1060

Accent Route– Northface/Northridge Variation

Decent Route– Rappel from pine tree on east face (1 double rope rap)

Altitude– 6,400 feet  Elevation Gain – 4,200 feet

Total Distance – 11 miles     Maps/Guides– Becky Guide, page 328, Alpine Lakes Guide page 42,  Green Trails Topo #176,  Stevens Pass

Times:  Approach– 3 hrs. to Trap Pass      Ascent – 2 hrs.    Decent –(had to bivy) est. 3.5 hrs.

Grade –I-II     Class – 5.6 to low 5.8 some poor pro               Pitches – 3

Equipment Used/Recommended– Ropes, small to medium stoppers, cams to 2.5″, long slings & extra biners, (a few small knifeblades wouldn’t be out of place)

Weather– Good weather, clear skies, windy on tower, climbed in pile jackets.  Cooled down on our bivy to low 40’s – high 30’s

Climbing Partners – Tom Nicholas, Rick Baker

Climb Leaders – Les Profitt                Number in Party – 3

Flora/Fauna – Most wildflowers gone, saw a few marmots & picas.  Tom & Rick thought they saw an elk swimming in Surprise Lake from the top of the second pitch.

Comments:   We decided at the car not to camp at the lake, so we headed up with just climbing gear. Started up trail at 10:00, about a half mile in Rick discovered he left the whiskey in the car…so back we went.  Trail up was very rooty/rocky with many muddy or wet crossing that could be messy earlier in the season.  Cruised up to Surprise Lake in about 2 hrs. (4 miles).  Took a short lunch and continued up to Trap Pass in under 1 hr. Met a pair of Pacific Crest thru hikers that had been at it for 5 1/2 months.  Chatted with them for a bit and then headed down along the goat path on the east side of the ridge.  This could be tricky with snow covering the ridge.

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Tom and Rick at Trap Pass. Slippery Slab in the distance

Arrived at the base of the tower around 4:00.

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Foreshortening squishes the slab as we move in close

Assembled our gear and left what we didn’t need below the tower.  Scouted the west face a little and then looked at the NE face. I picked the first chimney system to the east of the ridge, leading to a group of trees about 70 feet up.  This pitch was full of loose rock and dirt. Lots of moss & lichen in places.

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Our route goes up right center and then out onto the “slippery slab” in the sun on the right.

Half way up I concluded we were not on the Class 4 NE face in the Fred Beckey guide.  Luckily I had taken a little bit more than the four slings he recommends.  After grunting thru the moss & trees (scrapes) I set up at a bomber tree belay with several rap slings tied around it.  Tom & Rick followed, with plenty of “class 4 my ass”, and “Beckey sucks” comments. This 1st pitch is around 5.6 with all the dirt & loose crap.

On the second pitch I moved to the left along a small heather covered ledge looking for the class 4 route, but it all looked harder than that above us.  I spied an old fixed pin above a block on the right and headed to it like a moth to light.  Standing on top of the block I couldn’t reach the pin, but I could slot a stopper behind a finger crack.  This kind of protected the move to the pin… a finger jam and foot smear on heavily lichened rock.  I clipped the old pin and took out the stopper to save on biners, (I didn’t have many loose ones) and started up the face.  This pitch is very mossy and lichen covered.  I started to figure out that this may be why it was called slippery slab.

Continuing up from the old pin I couldn’t find any placements for the pro that I had, and started chanting “help me Mr. Wizard, I don’t want to be a hardman anymore”.  Some of the holds were only held in by the moss that grew over them.  Of course Rick & Tom, who couldn’t see me, thought this was great entertainment and served me right for making them stand at the belay stance shivering so long.

I had to run it out about 40′ above the old pin until I made it to the north ridge, on dirty, lichened rock.  I set up a belay with two small trees and a cam and belayed Tom & Rick up into the dwindling sunshine along the ridge. Tom decided he didn’t want to lead a pitch after coming up that bit of hairy crap.  This pitch must be 5.6 to 5.7 also.

From here we moved 15′ to the west along a funky ledge to a better belay tree.  I started up the face directly above and again, no place to get any pro in.  About 25′ up is a sandy ledge with a tree to the right (with old rap sling).  I put a stopper behind a flake and started up to the right.  It looked like it would go OK, but I couldn’t see any good way to protect it.  I down climbed back to the ledge and moved to the short crack system to the left.  I moved up and got a better piece in and felt a little better.  I continued up to where the crack ended and stood where the north ridge continued.

I looked out on the face to the right and saw an old ring pin about 25′ feet up.  I figured if someone could stand there and pound it in I could reach it also.  I rigged up a long sling behind a shallow flake and weighted it down with a few stoppers to keep rope drag from lifting it out.  I then moved briefly to the east side of the ridge, put in a cam behind a flake, and threw my right foot onto a high foothold.

Throwing my weight to the right I was now back on the NW face.  An exposed traverse up and to the right got me to the old ring pin, not exactly bomber but I would have clipped a blade of grass at that point.  A few feet higher I got a decent cam into a crack and breathed a little deeper… until I looked up at the overhanging crap above me.

At that point, rope drag was becoming a real issue.  Tom and Rick are below telling me where it looks easier (sure, from down there) and other assorted climber humor comments.  I’m telling Tom he should be the one up here suffering, not me.

I finally get my mind focused on the fact that I just have to move thru this overhang and the difficulties would be over.  I moved about 15′ up and to the right of my cam, just under the overhang.  I looked all over the rock and can’t find a good crack that isn’t loose or flaring.  No dice. There is a beautiful bucket hold that would be perfect… if it wasn’t loose and fractured along the base.

I start sweating, look down at Tom & Rick, give the old “when in doubt, go up” chant, shit my pants a few times and commit to moving up onto small funky holds.  I wind up in a stance where I’m barely hanging on, smearing with feet, forearms blowing out and desperately groping for something decent above me.

My hand falls onto a blind bucket and with an adrenaline surge yard myself into a good stance.  After screaming Shit! Fuck! Shit! I look down and smile at Tom & Rick, “that was fucking wild, class 4 my mother fucking ass” and other assorted testosterone and adrenaline pumped drivel.  I calmed down and shook out my arms, found that I was sweating like a madman, my mouth was dry as a popcorn fart, and I was going to make it to the top.

I continued up some actual class 4, across loose blocks and mossy rocks a few more feet until I heard Tom & Rick tell me I was getting low on rope.  I set up a belay around a medium sized block and a small tree about 15′ from the summit.

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Les at belay stance on top.

The view was spectacular, the last golden light of the sun shining on Glacier Peak to the north, Mt. Daniels to the south, alpine lakes below, and all around us ridge after ridge of craggy mountains and high country.

I belay Rick up this 3rd pitch. I can’t see him and can barely hear him. The rope slowly moves up until I figure he is at the lower crux.  He spends a few moments and the rope is moving again.  I can hear him breathing heavy and talking to Tom.

The rope is motionless for some time… he is at the overhang.  He tries several times but can’t seem to get past the crux, Tom is below shouting encouragement that I can’t hear over the wind.  I hear Rick saying his arms are blowing out and he doesn’t know if he can make it.  Tom shouts something and Rick says “alright”.  I start pulling on the rope for all I’m worth, to help him thru the crux, bend forward, pull back…taking in rope again and again.

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Rick coming up just past the crux overhang with a bar-tight belay

Tom later tells me that Rick’s feet looked like a squirrel flailing on a greased pole.  I hear Rick say “thanks Les” just about the time my hands are worn out and cramping.  The rope goes a bit slacker, and I know he is thru the hard part.  A few minutes later he is pulling himself over the top, looking dogged-out but smiling.

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Rick smiling now after pulling over the crux

Tom starts up and when the rope stops I know he has reached the crux.  I say to Rick: “There ain’t nothin happ’nen”.  The rope stays motionless for several minutes while Tom tries his moves.  The rope doesn’t move.  Finally we hear a loud bellowing, “The Taz” has come alive and the rope starts moving up.

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Tom clear of the crux

Tom is thru the crux and is shortly on top.   I think this pitch is only 5.7 to 5.8, although with all the loose crap and lichen Tom thinks it deserves an “Alpine 5.11”.

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Tom on easy class 4 ground

We belay the few remaining feet to the top, sign the summit register and the sun disappears behind the mountains.  It is 7:00 PM.  We untangle ropes and downclimb 20′ to a nice tree with rap slings.  As I set up the rappel we decide that this is the class 4 route, and it doesn’t look bad at all.  I start down in the dark wondering if I can find another good tree.

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Les signing summit register
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“I’m calling it Alpine 5.11”

I get quickly to a ledge with good trees, but decide I can get to the base in one long rappel.  I make it to the base and Rick and Tom follow.  As they finish rappelling I start around the tower to retrieve our hiking boots from the base of the other route.

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Just finished rapping off the tower…but it’s dark, cold and still 6 miles through rough terrain back to the car.

I meet Tom & Rick, give them their boots and we head down to find our packs, somewhere down in the dark boulder field below.  I locate the rest of our gear and Tom and Rick catch up.  A shot of celebratory whiskey to conclude our “triumph” and we are ready to get off this mountain.

Rick forgot his head lamp at the car, and knowing how much he hates climbing at night, I let him use mine. I lead off down the goat path, using the light from Tom and Rick behind me. We work our way down but lose the track below a talus slope.

We wander along the steep ridge, trying to use the lights from campers way down by the lake as reference points.  We stumble up and down trying to regain the track, running into impassable headwalls and drop-offs.  The slope we were on is very steep and covered with heather and pine needles, making for treacherous footing.  Going from tree to bush we worked our way up and down the ridge for some time.  Talk of biving came up and started sounding better & better.

We stopped for a break and I took my head lamp and went to scout below us for the trail, about 40′ below Tom and Rick I was stopped dead by a tall cliff all around us.  It was 9:00, it was pitch black, we were tired as hell… it was time to bivy.

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After stumbling down a couple thousand feet of elevation and nearly walking off a cliff, we thought it would be prudent to bivy in place until sunrise.

Rick broke out the whiskey, a full liter, and we proceeded to empty as much of it as we could.  We made much noise laughing and recounting our “alpine adventure”, and settled in on our little sloping bivy site.

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Bivy down boys, it’s going to be a nippy one. Notice Mr. Baker pulling out the bourbon…the only liquid we had left. Just to the right of Tom’s leg is about a 200′ drop. We made our little nest and hoped we wouldn’t roll off.

Tom had his pile jacket, pants, and Goretex parka.  Rick had his pile jacket, long underwear, and Goretex jacket.  I only had a pair of shorts and my pile jacket.  I dumped the gear out of my pack and shoved my legs in up to mid-thigh.  Tom was nice enough to let me use his pile jacket to cover the bare part of my legs.

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Tom’s happy ’cause he’s the only one with fleece pants. I dumped the crap out of my pack and shoved my legs in.

The whiskey flowed and war stories were told, and we finally crashed around midnight.  Tom of course started snoring right away, nice and cozy in his pile and Goretex.  I laid there shaking and freezing until dawn.

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The lads tucking in for the night…snuggle up boys, the Fall Classic is underway. After a chilly night we found the error of our ways and made it down to a lake to get some water after sipping whiskey all night.

We awoke and saw that we were totally off course, but it wasn’t too far back to the goat path and onto the main trail.  By now we were out of water, severely dehydrated from all the whiskey and exertion, and had over a mile to get to the lake.

A very dry, stumbling hike down to the lake, a long break to fill up with water (ten minutes for iodine is a long time when you’re that thirsty) and we were on our way back to the car. Another total classic.

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Slippery Slab on the right from Trap Pass

The Climber Community

The day Rick died, his brother Matt posted that he had passed away that day on a hometown memorial page. It is one of the things that got me thinking about documenting some of the stories as it was swarmed by well-wishers for a couple of days and then rapidly moved down the news feed for that page.

No judgement, that’s just how things are in Facebook group land…the group is only as fresh as the latest post and time quickly moves on.

In Memoriam

Still, 66 brief posts of the “Sorry for your loss”, “Prayers” and the odd message of someone actually mentioning a memory about Rick made the response rather anemic feeling for me.  I get it…the site only has a few thousand members and only a few would have really known Rick for the time he was in high school or lived there.

Curious and kind of hoping for more notoriety for the passing of my buddy, a few days later I went to one of my Hiker/Climber groups and made a quick post amongst “or people”.

300 in an hr

What happened blew me away a bit, as my computer starting blowing up with over 300 people responding in less than an hour.  Ding, ding, ding, ding, ding.  Eventually, the responses grew to almost 900 people until the inevitable moment where the post reaches the critical spot where it is too much trouble to scroll down that far and view older posts.

Now, there was some competition, since, at the same time I made my post, the one below was posted and began ticking the likes, loves and wows. I take some comfort that it took 3 hours for the poster to hit her 300, even with the cute mountain goat and bikini competition. The old goat still had a move or two in him.

Brittany 3 hrs

What impressed me the most, was it was a response to someone none of them had even met.  While there were a few “sorry for your loss” type posts, the majority were celebrating the life of one of their own… an adventurer and seeker of something more up in the mountains and wilderness.  They grasped that it was a life well lived and not one viewed from the sidelines.

responses

At the same time it was somehow comforting to see that the subject matter of the other post, Colchuck Lake, was a place Rick and I had been to many times and never tired of the wild looking mountains begging to be climbed and the serene lakeside offering relative peace and comfort from the intensity of being up on the rugged crags.

Seeing younger folks experiencing it for the first time, just as excited as we once were, gives a continuity to the community of hikers and climbers that can only be experienced by being “one of us”.

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Colchuck Lake in 1995 with our target for the weekend, 8,840′ Dragontail Peak, looming behind it.