Some years ago, when I first started climbing with people who were not my dad, I began to hear what I will affectionately refer to as the Travails of Joshua Lewis. I have been told that anyone who was active on Summitpost or NWHikers circa 2009 will know what I am talking about. It’s a classic story: young guy tries to get into climbing, attempts some bold and mildly stupid climbs, and gets completely ostracized by large portions of his local climbing community. Pretty typical right? I’m mean we’ve all been there, when you go off and do your own thing and then people get mad at you on the internet and you get expelled from The Mountaineer’s Climbing Course? It happens to the best of us.
Anyways, so I started hearing these stories and thought to myself, “Man, what does it take to get some renown around here? I’ve been doing stupider nonsense than that for years and no one gave a shit!” After sitting on these feelings for a long time I’ve finally decided to do something about it, I therefore present, “Soloing Exploits of Years Past That I’m Not Getting Enough Credit For,” in which I describe, in three parts, how I’ve survived some semi-serious lapses in judgment.
Part 1: Sloan Peak
How Yellowjacket Stings Can Protect You From Crevasse Falls
Every now and again I used to be possessed by the urge to go off and try to climb the most intense thing I could think of. This desire would typically strike at the end of summer, when I was fit and strong and had just quit my job and returned to school. Boredom and ambition would combine in a perfect storm to send me off on a climb I probably had very little business undertaking. One such sunny autumn weekend I decided the really prudent thing to do would be to drive my car up the Mountain Loop Hwy out of Granite Falls to where Forest Rd. 49 was gated for repairs and hike the four miles up to the Sloan Peak trailhead to solo a glaciated 7000 ft. mountain. A saner man might have found a partner for such an undertaking, a much saner man might have stayed at school and tried to become friends with his Spanish dormmate, who was soon to move out because this guy the Housing and Residence people had put him with was insane. But having a then typical disregard for such pedestrian pastimes as hanging out, smoking pot, and getting laid, I set off that Saturday morning with my menagerie of hand-me-down climbing gear to do some Mountaineering with a capital M.
Within three hours of leaving my poor, innocent, Corolla, I was bathing my calves in the frigid meltwater of the North Fork Sauk River, trying to staunch the burning sensation of a dozen yellowjacket stings. I should add that I was, at this point, no where near the actual trail. Here’s what happened: walking down Forest Rd. 49 I had become impatient to reach the trailhead and, unsure of how well marked it actually was, I had followed a poorly defined game trail into the woods. According to my map, I had crossed the correct number of culverts and the trail did lead, somewhat predictably, to the river I knew the actual route to cross, the problem was that it was not a trail at all. Any resemblance to a trail had in fact disappeared after about twenty feet from the pull-out. This did not dissuade me, I was a Mountaineer with a capital M, I did not need a trail, I would find a way. The logic was simple: the actual trail was reportedly flagged with small strips of orange tape, that trail had to cross the river, all I had to do was walk along the side of said river until I saw the unmistakable signs of my chosen route. This worked excellently until I stumbled into a yellowjacket hive, and by stumbled into I mean stepped directly on and then ran away from shrieking.
Seated thus, on the banks of the North Fork Sauk River, I gazed upward to the northeast and saw, above the rising green fir slopes, a glaciated peak. This was a problem, as the only glaciated peak in the area was my objective, the mighty Sloan, and it was supposed to be to my southwest. My trusty map and compass resolved the dilemma. Somehow in my crossing and re-crossing of the river I had become turned around and had been traveling in completely the wrong direction from the outset. It was at this point that I began to seriously doubt I would make the summit that weekend, but returning to the road was simple enough and once there I had a good think. My options were two: I could turn around and return home with my proverbial tail between my proverbial, and yellowjacket-stung, legs, or I could continue and see if the actual trail was more well marked, knowing that if I walked too far I would encounter a sizable campground and be able to pinpoint my exact location. So, pride trumping pain, I stumbling along down the road and about ten minutes later reached the trailhead. Part of me was gratified that my persistence had paid off but another part of me was quietly dismayed, this would mean that I actually had to try to climb the mountain.
The actual trail, being that it was a trail, was easy enough to follow and soon I was hauling myself up the hillside, wondering if I could blame the presumably massive amount of yellowjacket venom in my system for how inordinately shitty I felt. The climb through the forest took me most of the afternoon and I emerged on the upper slopes in time to find a reasonably flat spot for my bivy sack with a view of the glacier. At this point I was still feeling rather pessimistic but I assured myself that the next day I would just give it a shot and see how it turned out and in the mean time there was nothing to do but eat my ramen and see if I could make some headway on my John Donne reading. I don’t recall that I did because it was around that time that my calves started to itch. They would continue to itch for the next two months. Soon after dark I began to hear rumblings of ice fall from the glacier. It wasn’t the most restful night of sleep I’ve ever had.
The weird thing about glacier travel is that it doesn’t feel nearly as dangerous as it is. Soloing on rock you are fully aware that the slightest misstep could send you tumbling into the void, but on a glacier it just feels like you are walking on snow. The gaping abyss ready to swallow you whole and spit you out a century later has the common courtesy to keep itself hidden until the moment it decides it doesn’t like you anymore. Fortunately, I found the Sloan glacier to be a cooperative and agreeable chunk of ice and crossed it without mishap. From there the Corkscrew Route earns its name and I wound my way around the mountain, following an alternatingly faint and obvious bootpath. As is usual for me, I arrived at the summit more than a little surprised.
On some climbs it feels like the mountain is luring you into a trap, that every step forward you are taking will be paid for threefold on the way down. This was not one of those climbs. Frankly, I think the mountain had had enough of my idiocy and decided that the quickest way to get rid of me would be to let me descend without incident. That I did and to be honest I remember little of the down scrambling and the reverse routefinding and sooner than I expected I was lounging in the scree on the trail side of the glacier filtering water and eating almost the last of my food. The actual last of it, some granola mixed with fresh huckleberries, would be consumed, deliciously, at the trailhead before the final four mile road walk out to my car.
The lessons here are obvious: there is a certain amount of random mishap that can occur on a given climb and once you reach that level everything else can be expected to go perfectly, it is therefore best to make sure something goes wrong before you ever get anywhere near your objective, insuring that you will be safe through the really dangerous bits.