August 18, 2015. Something prickly was pinching the skin near my jawbone. Something else was stabbing into my hip. I opened my eyes. I was on my side, nestled among the flora covering the timberline. A small piece of mountain heather and a half-buried rock were the culprits. My Thermarest had glissaded ten feet down the mountain, riding upon the swells of green, while I simply sunk into the roots. I folded my glasses onto my face and looked around me. The early dawnlight was making the opposite walls of the north buttress of Bear Mountain glow golden and pink. I looked over to my left where Christian had gone to sleep the previous night. Nothing there. I quickly sat up and looked to my right. Seth was dozing a few feet away in his blue sleep bag and Christian was a few yards up the slope from him. During the night he had apparently moved to a more comfortable spot.
I sighed and fell back onto my sleeping bag. The far side of the couloir to the east rose steeply into the sky. That would be our first hurdle for the day. I yawned and stretched out, slowly resigning myself to the task of waking everyone up, collecting our sleeping bags, and walking down the slope to where we had left our bags lying on the rocks near the dripping spring.
After eating a scrumptious breakfast of oatmeal, CLIF bars, and dried fruit, we packed up our gear and began the day’s warmup activity of gaining 1,200 feet to the top ridge above us. We went for a direct approach, instead of going up and around the couloir, and I led the charge. The line I picked wasn’t too steep, but the crux was a section of sketchy rock that crumbled away when I stepped into it. I resorted to dry tooling with my ice axe and clinging onto the various flora above me, making use of their effective root system in the gravelly soil. Sweat poured off my face and, as I neared the lip, I glanced back to see how Seth and Christian were doing. We had staggered our approach to prevent unnecessary risks from rockfall and Christian was out of sight. I pulled myself up over the convex lip and was greeted by blinding sunlight and Mt. Redoubt looming above.
We regrouped at the top, among the dark green, stubby subalpine firs, before descending down beyond the ridge and trekking across a small boulder field to another ridge. Way up there in the subalpine-alpine zone, trying to avoid the thickets of devil’s club, vine maple, and fallen trees that raged 2,850 feet below along the creek, we had pitted our bodies and wits against the ratchety, rock-strewn slopes of those jagged peaks. We carefully picked our way across that boulder field, the first of many in this day’s adventure, and tried not to twist an ankle or fall with our heavy packs onto the uncaring terrain. Christian regaled us with a tale about climbing a 14’er in the Rockies with a pal from our university, and high winds and a loss of footing made for a bailed summit attempt and bruised wrists. We would do our best to make sure that didn’t happen out there in that wild, unforgiving place.
I reached the other ridge and set my pack against a large sun-warmed rock. I grabbed my trailmix out and wandered a few yards further and began plotting our next route. Mt. Redoubt stood fortress-like above, with its western face still darkened by the morning shadow. Seth went over to the col north of the ridge I was on and called back, “Hey, check this out!”
I grabbed my binoculars, trailmix, map, and camera and loped toward him across the boulders. The view from the col was incredible. A turquoise gem 1,500 feet below us shimmered in the morning light, surrounded by dazzling white snowfields and small glaciers melting into it. Our plan was to find a way to camp on Redoubt Glacier for the night, but we were forced to reconsider due to the terrain. Seth and I chatted about climbing down the steep glaciated slope below us, around the lake, and up the Depot Creek valley via the route plotted below.
After munching on trailmix and looking at all of the elevation loss, we decided to keep traversing the south side toward Mt. Redoubt. I found an appealing scramble from where our sun-warmed packs sat as Christian placed a call on his satellite phone to his dad to send us some additional supplies we had forgotten to put in our resupply (namely: batteries and Snickers).
We regrouped, shouldered our packs, and began the traverse. It wasn’t hard work, rather just long and tedious as we tried to stay on the same contour line. A small marmot chirped a warning and ducked back into the rocks as we approached. Eventually, we descended into the boulder filled couloir and slowly mounted the other side.
The rocks became more volcanic and pitted, scraping our shins and hands as we climbed up the rocky slope. We stopped for another rest and gazed up at Mt. Redoubt, so close and yet so far. Below us was a sheer, palm-sweating drop off, and we began scouting for a safer route down.
We could continue down 1,000 feet to our south where the ridge became less steep but winded through old avalanche downed trees and debris or we could head down what looked to be an old 500 foot waterfall drainage with a harsh 42-50 degree slope. I picked the waterfall route and led the descent. The first several yards weren’t too rough, with grass dotting the route and heather popping up through the rock. Then I noticed the thin sheen of wet rock trickling slowly down the mountainside. With few rocks larger than the size of footballs, and just sheets of slippery scree, handholds were almost nonexistent and the going was slow. It was Class 3 made worse by heavy packs. My pack kept threatening to send me bowling forward. It took us about two hours to get down to the boulder field below, with the crux of that downclimb being a forced wall hug and side shuffle before dropping packs down to the next level and dropping down onto it. We all breathed a sigh of relief afterwards.
With only a few hours left of daylight, our goal of reaching Redoubt Glacier began to look more unrealistic. We clambered through the boulder field, sun burning our faces and bright glints of mica, silica, and pyrite making the rocks all the more interesting. The shrill cries of unseen pikas echoed around the boulders. We reached the next ridge shortly before 4 pm and climbed up it, drytooling our way up the steep embankment. Before us lay a wide, sloping plain with creeks streaming fresh snowmelt through the green tall grasses. It felt like paradise, especially when compared to the sketchy waterfall we had just downclimbed. An island of green among a sea of grey.
We dumped our packs onto the few boulders, and began filtering water and enjoying the view. We each jumped into the pools of ice water and tried to scrub out the sweat and grime from the past days. I dipped my blistered feet into the cold water and leaned back onto my pack. We felt like we owned the world.
After washing up and enjoying the view, we shrugged into our packs, feeling the straps dig in and chafe shoulders red with heat rash, and continued our trek through the greenery. A large waterfall cascaded down the slopes and we jumped over the small gulleys and holes it had created. We had another couloir to cross on our traverse and were hoping it’d be easier than the others. Not so. We clambered up to the ridge and stared at the subsequent dropoff. The ridge stuck out like an peninsula, with three sides of steepness (including the west side where we had come from) while the north side was a craggy wall at the base of Mt. Redoubt. Seth volunteered to lead and traversed the north side, hugging the wall. I followed with Christian behind me. A small chimney shot up with a nice crack to climb, but we couldn’t tell where it ended and didn’t feel like risking it. Seth was now on the east side, shuffling along the steep talus when the ground began to sink all around him like fracture lines on a snowy, avalanche-prone slope. He moved a few feet back to firmer ground at the base of a large shelf and continued working his way around the far side. The couloir had formed a Y and he was past the shelf where the two diagonal lines connected, trying to find a way across the right-most diagonal. I held my breath. The risk was more perceived than actual. If he were to slide, he would simply fall ten feet and then, with the talus acting like ball bearings, slide until he either came to a field of large boulders, several hundred yards down the slope, or the friction of his body and pack would make him stop about a third of the way down. Either way, the chance of hurting something was still high, but probably not fatal.
He leapt across the offshoot and slipping, clambered for a good hold among the crumbling slope. His feet were sinking in the talus and rocks were clattering down beneath him. He shifted his weight and kept pushing his momentum onward onto a large rocky outcropping that had a thin line of greenery on it. I cautiously followed along the shelf, walking where he had walked. When I came to the right-most diagonal, I realized that the places he had stepped had simply dissolved down the mountainside. He yelled back to me, “Find a different route!”
I shuffled back along the shelf, back to the north side, and around to where Christian was trying to find another route down. It was steep, but the VBS (vegetative belay system) was solid and we downclimbed, using the flora to prevent sliding down uncontrolled into the couloir. I aimed for a large rock south of where Seth had been and drytooled my way up the slope, digging my pick into the crumbling earth. Seth had disappeared somewhere above us by the time I reached the eastern lip of the couloir. I called out and headed toward the sound of his voice.
This was the last ridge. In front of us spread subalpine firs, blueberry bushes, mountain heather and the distant slopes in the east. We started tromping through the shin-high underbrush at a slight angle up the slope until we came to a large rocky shelf with small rodent droppings. We dropped our packs and Christian headed downslope into the shade to nap. Across from us, the north face of Bear Mountain roared as the glaciers, partway up its rocky walls, calved. The sound roared through the valley, bouncing off every rock. Seth and I looked for a way to keep going, but the sun was dropping and we were nowhere near Redoubt Glacier. We climbed a bit higher until we had a good view of the area and spotted Bear Lake below us. Then came the moment of decision. Should we go for another wild climb straight up the hill behind us to where we could top out and still camp near a glacier (just not Redoubt Glacier) and then go for a summit push via the Southern route early the next morning, or instead go down to Bear Lake and shoot for the saddle going down to Redoubt Creek in the morning? We were already a day behind schedule, thanks to the unexpected difficulty of the bushwack from the previous day. We decided to head down to the lake and set up camp. Our route looked like the one below as opposed to the first optional route we had looked at earlier in the day.
The hike down to the lake was relaxing, if not slippery (who knew that blueberry bushes can act like bananas and send you flying down a slope on your bum?). I forged ahead of the other two, trying to find an easy route and followed several deer trails until reaching the small thickets of subalpine firs. Somewhere among those firs lies a knife that I had received as a groomsman present from one of my friends back in Tulsa. It somehow came unsheathed from the side of my pack and disappeared among the wood or blueberries or somewhere during the day’s traverse, though most likely it’s in those firs near Bear Lake. I only noticed it missing at camp but it was futile to look for it in the dark.
I had the tent set up by the time Christian and Seth reached me. About 75 yards from the water, our campsite was set up on a patch of dirt surrounded by heather and grass. Judging by the squarish shape of the dirt, it looked like either someone had camped there before or it had contained a pool of snowmelt that had recently dried up. A small path led through the mountain heather to the lake shore. Across from us, the fortress-like walls of Mt. Redoubt stood defiantly as the summer sun cast its golden shadow upon it. The water was blue and clear, nearly as clear as the waters of Crater Lake. One at a time, each of us took a turn wading in, slipping on the cold rock ledge that banked into the water, wringing out quick-drying clothes, and rinsing off the day’s sweat. Ice water.
I fished while the others splashed around and shivered. Each cast I made with my Daiwa backpacking pole, using a homemade fly I had tied when I was about 6 years old, caught a fish. It was amazing. Rainbows flickered across their lively scales. Before long, I had six trout, all at least a foot long. I let Seth cast while I went in for my turn to strip and dive in. In the blue void, shadows darted around and lunkers trolled slowly in the deep. My face went numb. I swam back to the slippery ledge and waddled out of the cold waters. Seth caught one. We decided on letting all of them go, partly because we were camping at a place called Bear Lake, but mainly because there was a state-wide fire ban and didn’t feel like eating fish soup.
We all had changed and dried off by the time the sky turned purple and orange and the last vestiges of the summer sun flickered across the very summit of Mt. Redoubt.Water was boiled and dinner was soon served. I munched on some sort of spicy ramen noodles that I had found in my pantry before the trip. Kim-chi flavored. We stretched out our weary, blistered feet and basked in a the glory of a day filled with hard work. Our camp was cluttered with pieces of gear and wet clothes drying off. As we told each other tales about the day’s adventures, Christian pointed at the north face of Bear Mountain, across the valley from us, and remarked, “Hey! There’s a light over there!”
I thought he was joking. We hadn’t seen anyone for the past two days, and now someone or something was up on the sheer rock walls roughly 1.4 miles from us? I pulled out my binoculars and scanned the walls. Sure enough, a headlamp was moving around on a ledge. I passed the binoculars to Seth. He saw it too. When you feel like you’re the only wild group in the wilderness and then another remnant is seen, typically you become elated and then disappointed at the fact that there is someone also out there, encroaching your space. For me, I was impressed. Bivvying on the side of a mountain. Near a glacier that calved earlier that day. Wild.
We watched the climber’s light as it bobbed around, and blinked our headlamps at it. Could he (or she) see us? No way to tell, but just before we turned into the tent to sleep, we yelled out our evening greeting. “GOOD NIGHT!”