Mt. Constance


Last ridge before summit.


Traversing on descent.

(Here is a link to Tyler’s Trip Report on Cascade Climbers. More great photos!)

“You know what would be nice right now? Bikes,” says Tyler with more than a hint of sarcasm. There are four of us this time, the all-star team. The team members are: Mike Haft, a past co-worker who is now guiding for IMG on Mt. Rainier. Eric Quiggles, a trip leader for Grey Wolf Ranch and experienced ice climber and backpacker. Tyler LaPettito, whose experience and poise are detailed in many entries of this blog. And myself. Together we are massively over-prepared for this trip, an overnight climb of Mt. Constance. However, we decided not to bring bikes, which means we have to walk the 5-mile stretch of road up the Dosewallips River to the trailhead.

Verdant overgrowth where cars once passed chokes the roadside and is bright in the late morning sun. I am hot and sweaty by the time we reach the trailhead. The next 2 miles climb 3400 feet to Lake Constance at the base of Avalanche Canyon. This trail is touted as the steepest in the Olympic Mountains and the first quarter mile lives up to this reputation. High-steps, root handholds, decaying maple leaves characterize the trail. Soon the grade lessens some and we are hiking like normal. We stop often, are in no rush to get to the lake, want to conserve energy for tomorrow’s long climb.

Just when we think the trail couldn’t get any easier it becomes vertical again. Complex movements are required to ascend. Loose rocks and roots are the danger here, and our heavy backpacks, loaded with climbing protection, rope, ice screws, and pickets, are awkward mounds on our otherwise nimble bodies. We ascend without incident though, find snow the moment we reach the lake, break trail to the northern edge and settle for a campsite shaded by trees, a view of the half-frozen crystal water, the icicle formations that stretch finger-patterns further across the open spaces, eventually encasing everything in night-ice.

I bivy on a flat perch five feet from the water. The sky is a blanket of pinholes. Nestling into my down bag, I remember the unique pleasure of sleeping inside a warm cocoon surrounded by a magnificent boreal frontier.

I hear movement at 4am. In my groggy, half-dream state I think it is a bear sniffing around the camp. As the fresh morning light fills my eyes, I realize that it is only Tyler and that it must be time to climb. Breakfast is a Clif Bar, barely enough to sate the hole in my stomach. Combined with black tea, it is just enough to get me moving, plodding through the snow. By 5am we are climbing Avalanche Canyon, watching the sun blast the Thumb, wondering which chute is the right one.

This, according to the guidebook, is one of the most difficult parts of the climb, finding the right chute. It takes a few discussions, a few looks at the map and the route description, to decide. Scree fields interspersed with snow and huge boulders; the pointy “Cat’s Ears” are the distinguishing characteristics. And the first chute we choose is the right one.

I am amazed with how little snow there is. Two weeks ago on Marmot Pass the snow blanketed everything above 5000 feet. Here, at the same elevation, snow is like white squares on a checkerboard. Crampons scratch talus. The sound of forks raked over ceramic echoes through crisp air. Our layered breathing is the background noise to the climb.

Cresting a notch in the torn-paper ridge, the massive Puget Sound, Mt. Rainier, Adams, St. Helens, and Seattle gleam in the August-like sunshine. We plant our pickets in the snow, clip our ice screws to them, and leave it all behind.

After an hour of scree climbing, during which Eric bats a falling rock away from his body and lets it pass, tumbling down the gulley, the traverse begins. 50-degree snow slopes are getting softer in the strengthening sunshine. Every so often, one of us plunges hip-deep into the corn, struggles out, continues traversing along the steep wall.

By the time we reach the “terrible traverse,” all ledges with deathly payouts, we still haven’t roped up. Eric’s “protector” mentality comes out. He suggests we rope up and sling a horn for protection. The other three of us disagree. We are happy to climb this section without protection, knowing that a fall means death, but that none of us will fall. Climbing decisions should not be made democratically, so we discuss both options thoroughly and Eric eventually agrees that it is safe to continue without roping up. The climbing is indeed easy, the rock surprisingly solid, although there are a few shaky holds worth avoiding. After all, it is the Olympics.

Powder clinging steep to orange rock, ridge like a dinosaur spine, boulder chocked notch, warmth, the summit, everything is beautiful. 360-degree views from Mt. Olympus to Port Townsend to Seattle are stunning. Tyler snaps photos like crazy. Mike opens some smoked salmon. Eric puffs a cigarette. Six hours after leaving camp, we bask on the summit, contemplating each distant peak, captured in a state of pleasant solitude among friends.

The reverie lasts just long enough. The snow is quickly melting, the traverse becoming slushy, unstable and dangerous. We have two energy bars left between us. It’s time to descend.

Along the way we set off mini-avalanches. My steps sometimes rupture the rotten snow along the boot pack, my foot sliding downhill. The tiny snowball that I have created is enough to fracture the soft surface layer, which catalyzes the slope into an opaque waterfall, an ominous whoosh. We move quickly through this section and, for once, we are happy when we make it to the scree.

Going downhill in soft talus can actually be quite enjoyable. The feeling is akin to skiing. We move quickly, almost jumping down the gulley. By the time we reach Chute’s Notch, where we left our pickets and ice screws, it is past midday.

“Well, I’m glad we brought the rope,” I say, shaking my head.
“Yeah,” says Mike, jangling the carabiners on his harness “and all this protection too.”

Of all the gear we carried we didn’t use a single piece. We probably even could have got away without crampons, but, as Mike points out, it is always the times you don’t bring something that you end up needing it.

Tyler runs off down the gully. When he reaches the snow he starts making giant leaps, basically sprinting through drifts. I try to keep up, but before long Tyler is out of sight. I turn around and find that I cannot see Eric or Mike behind me. Flaky canyon walls, the Thumb, unidentified peaks in the distance are my companions for the hike to the lake. I have always enjoyed the solitude of hiking. It is nice, especially in a group of four, to have a few moments of alone time in the wilderness. The descent passes quickly. Soon I am shedding layers, repacking my bag, filling my water bottle for the steep hike to the river.

Face inward to safely down-climb this part. My quadriceps are throbbing by the time we reach the Dosewallips. Now I wish we had bikes, except for how slowly the serrated alder leaves pass, rustled by the wind and the smell of clean ocean as it flies through the valley. 12 hours after leaving camp this morning, we are back at the cars, utterly exhausted, groaning, stretching, laughing, and ready for more.

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