Thursday, November 26, 2009
Looks good, but behind the thin curtain the water rages
A few minutes after I read the words, Nada Lake Falls is in (thanks Craig for hiking up there!), shavings of metal fell from the picks of my axes. When they seemed sharp enough, I worked on dull crampons, then stepped out into the crisp evening air. A cold, star studded sky stole my imagination and that night I dreamed of good picks and the rhythm of ice climbing.
The next afternoon, Cole Allen and I pushed through fresh, knee deep snow to a bivi at Nada Lake, only 40 minutes from the base of the falls. We sipped on whiskey and cocoa and enjoyed the alpine bliss. But soon, I felt the dread of warm air pushing up valley. A pesky pineapple express had come to ruin our fun. Hopefully it would stay cold enough. When I woke up at mid night to hard rain and a soaked tent, I knew our chances of success were dwindling. Still, we made our way to the falls the next morning, establishing a tricky path through giant boulders only lightly covered with a wet, gloppy snow. The formation was there, but so was the rushing water. When I swung my axe into the ice, it easily punched through into the raging torrent behind. Getting creative, I started to work out a mixed start a bit to the right of the main falls, hoping to climb consistently crappy, but lower angle ice up high. After establishing a belay on top of pitch one, the sun kissed ice daggers above my head, melting them further and causing them to crash down around me. Clearly, this was not the place to be in the rising temps, now in the lower forties. So down we went. Back at camp, a large ice fall boomed across the valley. It seems we had made the right choice just in time.
Part of climbing in the alpine is making smart choices even when all you want to do is go up. That day at Nada Falls, Cole and I followed our intuition well, had fun, and came home safe. This is just the start of a season we are dedicating to major winter projects in the Cascades and the lesson learned in retreat was a great reminder that winter climbing is fickle. You gotta want it, but you gotta be level headed. Success can be rare on these short, dark days, but when it all lines up, there is nothing like a winter summit in the Cascades.