On top of Old Snowy

To become a member of the Mazamas, you have to summit a glaciated peak. I really wanted to become a member so I could get a discount on the tuition for the trad climbing class I took with them, but I’m no mountaineer. I’ve never even worn crampons. I’m a straight-up rock-jock, or I would be if I were any good at it. Anyway, I needed to haul my corpus up to the top of some mountain someplace, so I asked my friend and fellow crag rat Matt for advice.

He suggested I summit Old Snowy, likely the easiest glaciated peak in the area. No technical expertise required, it’s a simple hike to the summit. We had been trying to get together a plan for a backpacking trip with Dan and Amy, so we decided to kill two birds with one stone by hiking into the meadows below the summit over the Fourth of July weekend. We’d establish a camp there and hang out for a few days, zipping up to the summit and some other nearby lakes and so on. A relaxing summer weekend in the great outdoors!

We piled into Dan and Amy’s car with all our gear early Saturday morning and got headed up towards the Goat Rocks Wilderness in Washington. On the way we decided to swing by Voodoo Donuts and grab something delicious, since we were basically going to be eating gerbil food all weekend. Matt was blown away by the fact that he could buy two (2) five-gallon buckets of day old donuts for $5, so naturally we did that. We completed the rest of the four hour drive with easily a hundred donuts in the back of the car, and Matt did his level best to make a dent in that number. I think he ate nine or so before we even hit the trailhead.

Matt had made this trek a few years prior in April with his wife Joanne, and they’d had to deal with a little snow on the trail in a few places, but nothing major. Collectively, we were completely sure that in July, two months later, we would be greeted by meadows filled with alpine flowers and frolicking mountain goats.

So naturally we didn’t call the forest service to ask about conditions and wound up post-holing through two to three foot deep snow all the way up to our proposed campsite. Despite the snow it was a very warm and pleasant day, with water coursing through channels in the snow all around us, so we kept going, optimistic that we could find some clear ground to camp on.

That didn’t pay off so well. When we reached the plateau in the shadow of the mountain where we’d expected meadows, we found nothing but more snowfields. While the sun had kept us warm up to this point, as it got dark and we prepared dinner, I realized just how underprepared we were. We didn’t have terribly warm clothing, just a few light layers for each of us, and nobody was rocking anything other than a summer sleep bag. We mostly had thin closed-cell foam sleeping pads, and there were no groundcloths or tarps for the tents. To put it simply, we were in for a pretty cold night. Not we-might-die cold but definitely this-is-gonna-suck cold.

Matt and I split a tent, and I was damn jealous that he could curl up with his dog Yogi. I swear I looked over in the night and that bastard had his bag unzipped down to his knees! Matt has a sort of stoic way about him that gives the impression he never suffers or is bothered by anything. Throughout the evening and next day, even as the rest of us complained of frozen toes and weary muscles, Matt just smiled and kept a positive attitude. What a jackass.

Anyway, we somehow got through the night, although speaking for myself there wasn’t much sleep involved. I did learn a valuable lesson about the rated temperatures on sleeping bags that night, though. Anyway the next morning was another extremely warm day totally at variance to our surroundings, and we summited easily in t-shirts and regular hiking boots which were quickly soaked through by melting snow. When we got up to the top I’m pretty sure I saw a yeti but nobody believes me.

It was pretty amazing luck that we had come so dramatically unaware of the conditions waiting for us and yet been mostly comfortable up to this point. On the way down our luck took a sharp turn for the worse as clouds came in, reducing visibility and temperature. Just as we reached our camp, a freezing rain set in that would leave us tentbound for the next 18 hours. We couldn’t see well enough to descend, and we weren’t at all equipped to wander around in those conditions anyway. We didn’t have much in the way of waterproof gear so it was important we keep dry as much as possible, so there was no choice but to wait out the rain.

This was the first time I had ever been backpacking. I guess I didn’t mention that. Much as I love to cook at home, I was pretty short on even just camping experience at this point, and in my prep for this trip I decided to keep things as simple as possible with a lot of energy dense foods and things that required little prep. My personal food stores consisted of two bags of GORP, a few freeze dried meals, and a bunch of Pemmican bars. Pemmican bars are 500 Calories for $2 or so, and they looked like a steal to me!

So as we sat confined to our tent, my body decided that this downtime would be a good opportunity to let me know just what a bad idea it is to eat nothing but dry, dense, pre-packaged foods for an entire weekend, especially if you plan on accidentally dehydrating yourself. We had plenty of water, I just forgot to drink it!

I’m lying next to Matt as he reads his book, doubling over in pain and hoping he just assumes I’m trying to keep warm. I hobbled out of the tent to go do my business, and although I can barely stay upright the pain is so bad, I get about a hundred feet away so I can crap without stinking up our campsite. I dig a little hole in the sand, squat, and proceed to grunt my head off for about ten minutes. I pushed so hard my abs actually cramped up. It’s a miracle I didn’t get hemorrhoids. At the end of this process I was rewarded with a pile of shit about as big as a golf ball.

Fuck.

I repeated this whole thing three or four times over the course of the next two hours as I powered down all of our water. I must have said something to Matt at some point; there was no hiding my gastro-intestinal distress as I made twice-hourly trips out into the freezing rain.

Finally, something gave, and I was relieved of my burden. I don’t know if the local ecosystem will ever recover from what I did to it. Two days of peanuts, raisins, and malted oat bars, compressed into a pile the size of my head. I have nightmares about it. I had to go back to camp and get an ice axe just so I could free enough snow to bury the damn thing. But boy oh boy did I ever feel great!

The rain persisted, and that night the four of us (and Yogi) piled into Matt’s two man tent and ate delicious chicken tacos with cilantro and onions that Amy had prepared. We’d hiked in a bottle of Sangria, and we passed that sucker around taking swigs straight out of it. Despite the mildly epic nature of the trip, that dinner stands out as a great memory.

We all froze our goddamn buns off through the night (except Matt and Yogi, of course), and the instant the sun came up around five AM, I yelled over to Dan and Amy to see if they were awake. They grunted an affirmative and even the always-stoic Matt responded with “Let’s get the hell out of this place.”

Amen!

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