Obligatory Failed Attempt Post
Every climber who has spent some time in the Cascades knows how this works. You see a trip report on cascadeclimbers or come across an old mountain profile on summitpost and the idea of climbing some obscure, likely chossy, shitpile becomes lodged firmly in your brain. You pour over the Beckey bible late into the night, you daydream about the climb at work or school, you obsessively plan out your route, your partners, your gear, the trip report you will write and you imagine the waves of renown that will wash over you upon your return. And then you wait for the Right Conditions. You want to start out not at the beginning, but near the beginning, of a lengthy spell of clear weather – you want dry rock but still readily available water. You need to be able to drive to the trailhead but above tree-line you really want there to still be snow. Too early and those approach slabs will be slimy death traps, too late and you’ll have to contend with a twenty foot moat that looks and feels like the mouth of some cold Scandinavian hell. In a given year the Right Conditions are typically found during a single 12 hour period, often on the second Tuesday or forth Wednesday of the month.
Anyways, so the stars finally align and you get the Right Conditions, your partners are available, and you set off. Twenty-four to forty-eight hours later you are back at home. The summit was not reached. You are covered with cuts and scrapes and will spend the next four days picking random floral spines out of your hands and forearms. You took a few photos but no one will ever see them. You have had the Epic Cascadian Approach Fail, wherein you give up all hope of reaching your objective long before coming anywhere near it.
The Epic Cascadian Approach Fail has a long and illustrious history. Finding specific accounts from before the age of the internet is rare but evidence of its existence is plentiful. For the first ascent of Mt Olympus, an official club expedition of The Seattle Mountaineers, a road had to be built. One can only imagine the sort of failed attempts that would prompt legends like Asahel Curtis and Montelius Price to conduct a civil engineering project in order facilitate the climbing of a simple glaciated peak. In the late 1950s and early 60s Michael Borghoff wrote a number of articles for Summit magazine that noted the complications of Pacific Northwest brush. He refers to Fred Beckey as the “great pacific pterodactyl” who must have achieved his innumerous first ascents by flapping in over the tree-choked drainages on great leathery wings and he writes in terrified awe of the aptly named Devil’s Club. More recently, I have heard stories of climbers abandoning their fully loaded backpacks in despair of ever escaping the brush and of being forced to scrap plans after being unable to locate their own recently established campsites. Note to future archeologists: these lost gear stashes are presumably still at large.
I have my own stories by the dozen, the Bear Mountain attempt that ended with a trip to the Chilliwack emergency room for some extra-strength antihistamines, the aborted Inspiration Peak climb that never even reached the base of the mountain, the new route I put up on Baring Mountain from the Barclay Lake trailhead straight up the slope to the northwest ridge, the Merchant Peak fiasco the involved some of my best class 4 tree climbing to date, my long and storied Mount Index Hourglass Gully saga… the list goes on. One of the best stories I have heard however, and one that really encapsulates the entire idea of the Epic Cascadian Approach Fail, was told to me by a friend from college with whom I spent a weekend cragging in Squamish last September. This girl and a couple of her friends were trying to do a light and fast ascent of Glacier Peak. I believe their plan was to hike in one day and then summit and death march out the next.
Unfortunately, they were under the mistaken impression that because there was a trail indicated on their map, they would be able to make good time. Whatever trail they were following apparently disintegrated rapidly until they came to a section where the entire hillside had suffered some sort of cataclysm. After that it was an endless series of up the slope, down the slope, maybe over there would be better, route-finding shenanigans until night fell and they were forced to camp more or less where they happened to be standing at the time. I don’t entirely recall but I think they might have been able to pitch one of their tents. In the morning they determined that they were not in a nearly good enough position to go for the summit but in a bizarre turn of events they discovered that they were not actually alone. Not a quarter mile away was another party with an almost identical story. Neither group had been remotely aware of the other’s presence. Somewhat relieved that their failure was to be shared, my friend and her party retraced their steps out of the green hell into which they had strayed. I was told they were able to hold off opening their bottle of whiskey until they reached a maintained trail that would take them back to their vehicle. I was also told that said bottle of whiskey was rapidly consumed and that one member of the party proceeded to spend the entire car ride back to Seattle with her head out the window – a girl after my own heart, I’m sure.
Sometime during my life before Mountaineering-with-a-capital-M, I took upon myself the ill-advised objective of circumnavigating Goat Lake. Although I did not know it, this was as good a primer course as one could ask for in Cascadian bushwhacking. There was sketchy slide alder vegetable belays on 70 degree slopes and bounder-fields covered with Devil’s Club six feet high with an under-layer of stinging nettles. Before any of this I had to fight my way through a brush jungle so thick the air felt hot and stagnant and then wade an alluvial swamp. Something had possessed me that day to wear my utili-kilt. Around hour three of this venture I had an epiphany regarding the nature of bushwhacking that requires a little backstory. When I was a child we had a section of the yard we referred to as the Damage Zone – the one area me and the kids my mom did daycare for were allowed to take sticks and hack apart random plants to our heart’s delight. In a weird instinctual little kid way, it was all very metal. This gave me an unrealistic expectation about my relationship with nature in general and with plant life specifically. The epiphany I had while considering how I was going to descend through a thick slope of Devil’s Club while wearing a kilt without getting stabbed in the crotch, was that it’s not called bushwhacking because you are whacking the bush, it is rather the bush that is whacking you.
This is what the Epic Cascadian Approach Fail is all about, the power of nature to hit back. It’s not always the almighty brush, sometimes it’s an unfordable river or a malfunctioning compass, other times it’s dry powder snow miles deep or slush so wet and heavy your supposedly waterproof boots and gaiters succumb as if they were made of that superwicking synthetic sock material. In any case, it’s not what you anticipated, what you set out to overcome – it’s not steep crack systems or R-rated leads or unprotectable snice or any other similarly respectable Mountaineering-with-a-capital-M kind of challenge. It’s some crazy thing that gets in the way of you being able to grapple with the challenge you thought you were choosing. The Epic Cascadian Approach Fail is about how you don’t actually get to pick your battles; sometimes they pick you and when they do, most of the time they win.