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Western Provocation – Part 2 of 3

(Read Western Provocation – Part 1 of 3)

Darkness began to envelop the mountains, slowly at first as the dusk light kissed the treetops, then with haste as the sun dipped below the horizon and the temperature predictably dropped rapidly.

The last rays of cold winter light rise up the towering birch trees, fading into night

We scrambled to keep warm and perform vital tasks; boiling water was perpetual, for dinner and for the next day. After hot mugs of tea to warm the insides I tried to make a fire in vain. Despite my best efforts and the employment of every trick and tool I possess, wet frozen wood is, not surprisingly, impossible to catch aflame. Abandoning the idea of a fire to warm our bodies and spirits we turned to that other ancient and ever effective cure-all, alcohol. A few nips later we were feeling on the up again, as the temperature continued its downward trend. By 8pm it was 15 degrees and falling, leaving few options for us without a roaring fire. We made do, had some light dinner, several more ever larger nips, and began battening down the camp for the evening. After hanging the food and putting the stove away, we crawled into the tent and our respective sleeping bags. Cold as they were at first, our quality bags warmed quickly and we were fairly snug as we stuffed into them with us anything that we couldn’t afford to let freeze; all our water, a snack for the morning, and our boots. I was feeling rather chipper and up for a bit, but as I adjusted to the relative warmth of the tent and bag and the Jim Beam worked its woozy magic, I quickly drifted off into a warm slumber around 9:30pm.

I woke, of course, to a violent shivering fit. It wasn’t Aimee though, as I expected, it was me. After I did some sleeping bag ensconced cardiovascular-pumping calisthenics, also known as wiggling like crazy to get warm, I prepared to regret looking at my watch. Midnight. I knew what was ahead for me in the remaining night, and it was not a pleasant prospect, especially in light of what I was planning on undertaking the next day. I shifted to a slightly less uncomfortable position and listened, seemed like Aimee was sleeping well enough at least. I later learned this was most decidedly not the case. The snow under the tent, initially kept soft enough by our body heat, had by now in the ultra frigid air of the late night frozen solid into a lumpy nightmare. The tent bottom, my half inch thick sleeping bag mat, and my bag were joining forces to culminate in the inanimate physical definition of cold comfort. I willed myself back to sleep. This scenario played itself out continually, for both of us, throughout the excruciatingly long night.

Finally, I woke to dim light. We were camped on the western flank of the mountains so I knew that dawn would be subtle and long. What I’d thought would be the relief of daybreak turned out in reality to be quite bittersweet. It meant, after all, that I not only had to get out of the relative comfort of my bag in which I was already wearing almost every stitch of clothing I brought, but additionally that I had to set out to climb the mountain on which we were camped. After griping with myself for what I’d gotten myself into I grabbed a snack from inside my sleeping bag and came to terms with getting up. I almost started to feel excited for a minute, then I realized my gargantuan mistake from the night before – I’d failed to put my boots in the sleeping bag with me. They were ice blocks, totally frozen. I tried them on and my toes went numb in less than one minute. While blowing on my feet and trying to return feeling to them, I contemplated my options. There wasn’t really much to be done, other than double up again on socks. So I sucked it up and tackled the task of putting on my frozen boots, then my gaiters, then my crampons. By the time my crampons were on my toes were completely numb again and it was quickly moving down my feet to the heels. I grabbed my smaller summit backpack and tossed in two bottles of water, some snacks, my camera gear, a knife, survival kit, ice axe, and walkie-talkie. Aimee and I worked out a time to make first contact on the radio (10:30am), as the cold and me having forgotten fresh batteries meant we were running preciously low on life in the radios, so we had to conserve. At 6:50am I checked the temperature, 5 degrees, and Aimee wished me luck as I hit the trail.

I moved swiftly for a good clip, and it became easier as my body warmed, all of it except my feet. I wanted to forget about that situation for a while so I was pretending they didn’t exist, which was alarmingly easy due to their ever penetrating numbness. After a half hour or so I came to the register, basically where the main trail splits into one that goes up and one that goes down. There’s a small notebook inside a box for people to register their name, date, and destination in case of emergency.

The registry box at the trail junction

Signing on the dotted line - Name: Patrick O’Malley, Date: 2/19/08, Destination: Summit

Another half-buried sign at the trail junction

I trudged onwards through the forest; around switchbacks, down small troughs, up over countless hills, in silence. Surrounded by the woods which looked the same in every direction, I continued on following the conglomerate ski/hiking trail. As long as it was going up I was going the right direction. I entered the first small glade that I could see on my map, which was a welcome break from the blindness of the forest, and took it straight up as far as I could. It wasn’t ‘Dutchman’s Glade’ as far as I could tell, the skier had said it was huge and this didn’t seem to qualify.

The first of many arms-length self portraits. I’d intended on avoiding too many of these by bringing along my tripod, but it was destroyed in transit to Phoenix

The first small glade, my route took me straight up and to the left, back into the dizzying woods

Though it was a little easier going than the woods, as hiking up it I was able to follow a decent patchwork of snowboard trails to the boundary of the trees at the top. The grade was steep though, about 45 degrees, and the part of the glade I traversed was every bit of 2,500 feet at that angle.

Me, feeling awfully winded already by the steep grade. The trees behind me give an indication of the angle

The downward half of the glade, kind of made me wish I’d come to ski

Overcast and cold, but at least it wasn’t windy . . . yet.

In the woods there were fewer tracks and what tracks there were had fresh snow much of the time, not to mention no direct sun to pack them. So at the top of this glade I took a quick respite before heading back into the woods to continue on until I hopefully quickly gained enough elevation to get above the treeline. It was fairly dark up to this point, with the sun still an obscured and distant light source somewhere on the other side of the mountains. Not surprising then that the temperature still felt like the middle of the night, and my toes were totally numb. The rest of my feet had warmed a bit due to the activity, but the toes still were only assumed to be there. At one point I stopped to put the point of my ice axe on my boot and try to feel if I could wiggle my toes. Nothing, they didn’t budge.

At last, around 8:45am, I reached the edge of the trees and there before me was the massive expanse of Dutchman’s Glade. The tracks seemed to disappear right there, on the spot. The snow was also a good two feet deeper, and powdery. Entering the glade, surrounded by saplings and baby evergreens, it was clear this was avalanche terrain. There was a reason the area was mostly devoid of old growth trees and that the bottom was under considerably more snow than anywhere else.


The bottom of Dutchman’s Glade, where the tracks seemed to walk down into the snow cover and vanish. The entrance area with loosely spaced and small evergreens would later indicate to me just how far I’d come up the glade.

Here I took a fairly long break, to drink and take a serious look at the map. I knew exactly where I was, but wanted to think in detail about how I wanted to get ahead. It looked like a task and a half to cross the glade, and from there it looked like there was essentially a wall or amphitheater locking me into the glade. The top was the summit ridge though, so I had to get up there somehow. I decided to hike out to the center of the glade and take a look to see what line looked the least dangerous and torturous.


Looking down from the entrance to Dutchman’s Glade, no tracks anywhere

Again, at the bottom of the glade, with Fern Mountain (8,772 feet) in the background

Just getting out into the open glade was murder. Fully breaking trail through the snow for the first time was a slap in the face. I was winded hiking through the woods, but this trudge was another world, stopping me in my tracks to pant every five minutes. After sinking in up to my hips for the fifth or sixth time I was out in the open enough to decide how to proceed. The most direct route was up and to my left, where exposed rocks interspersed throughout the slope seemed to indicate good footing conditions. But it looked steep. I’d have to get right up to it to know for sure how steep, if it was even climbable for me, but if I got there and couldn’t climb it the prospect of doubling back to try another line seemed absolutely impossible. So I continued marching towards some rocks I’d picked out near the base of the slope; resolved to go for it. Just getting to the rocks burned badly in my legs, where the slope gradually got steeper than 45 degrees. I started up the slope around 9:15 and of course, immediately, the wind hit. And it hit hard. It was coming over the summit ridge and sweeping down into the glade at a blistering pace. It felt like 20-30mph, and the temperature was still hovering in the tens, so with wind chill it was mighty cold. I wasn’t fully realizing at the time, but the slope was steepening, and not so gradually anymore. This escaped me for the better part of a half hour as I climbed, mostly because progress was utterly agonizing. Look up, pick a rock or shiny patch of snow fifty to sixty feet ahead, and head for it. Each time I did this it’d take a good five minutes and upon getting there, every single time, I’d hit the deck and pant, gasp really, for ten solid minutes. I still had absolutely no feeling in my toes and was gasping all the time, with every step. I had begun using my ice axe sometime then, no longer as a kind of leaning device or walking stick, but to hack into the slope and use it to help pull myself up and defray some of the pain from my legs to my arms. Having only one axe, my other gloved hand was trying to help too by just stabbing into the icy snow for a little extra grip and balance. This is about when I realized what I was into. I was already totally exhausted, estimated I had about 1,500 vertical feet of elevation still to gain just to get to the ridge, and had zero feeling in my toes. Then I looked down. I was in the middle of one of my climbing bursts and without realizing it the slope had increased to every bit of 65 degrees, maybe 70. I was holding on and strapped in to my ice axe which was planted above me, my left hand was dug in to help hold me, and only the four front points of my crampons were stabbed into the slope. Just air beneath my heels. That was it. That was everything holding me to the slope, keeping me from taking a long tumbley slide down to the rocks in the glade at the bottom of the slope, about seven or eight hundred feet down. I kind of shook my head and looked back up at my next mini-goal and headed for it. As I pulled out the point of my ice axe the chunk of snow it broke loose skittered and then rolled quickly by me, and I lost sight of it before it stopped on its fall down the slope to which I so precariously held fast. Moving quickly up to a point among some rocks where the slope eased a bit, I prepared to take a long break and seriously assess my situation.

The rocky outcrop about a third of the way up the slope

It looks much flatter than it really was here, both my feet with crampons were dug in hard to stay put

This is a little better view, looking down over the edge of what I’d just climbed up

Continued in Next Issue...