Black swallows the never-ending trail in front of my weary feet. Drunk on exhaustion, I swerve all over the footpath. A bear crashes in the brush a few feet away, but my trance cuts through the surprise of giants in the dark. Nothing alarms my senses now. Twenty-five hours into the experience and I am dull as a butter knife. I barely know who I am.
In September of 2008 Sol Wertkin and Blake Herrington climbed the complete east ridge of Mt. Goode, the highest point in North Cascades National Park. An icon of the region, Goode’s walls and ridges are fortified with steep brushy slopes, ice-cold river crossings, and a lonely location far from any road or town. Sol and Blake’s line snaked from the summit in winding, gendarmed twists. A sinister exposure swirled on the north side and talus filled gullies trickled down to the south. They named the massive knife-edge the Megladon Ridge in honor of the largest fish to ever swim the seas.
“It’s all about commitment.” Dan’s simple words make decisions easier. Tossing away my harness I pack the swami into my blaring red helmet and stuff it down into my rucksack on top of our shoestring lifesaver. The skinny twin line would most likely severe in the event of any fall, but the peace of mind it provides is worth its featherweight. A few cams short of a single set, a pink tri-cam, and a couple of nuts round out the arsenal. Light is right.
I have always desired to repeat the Megladon. Thoughts of a solo mission swirled in my mind for a few months. I wanted to dive deep into the North Cascades experience, pushing my limits far from humanity. Little did I know that Dan Hilden desired the same pearl of adventure even more than I did. Goode had fostered his climbing progression, serving up adventures appropriate to his building skill set. Over the years, Dan had gone from crawling up the classic NE Buttress over three painful days, to soloing the same route in one day. Now, he wanted something more trying, but more rewarding. When he suggested the Megladon in a push, I eagerly signed up. The idea was as enticing as it was crazy.
In the midst of it all
My eyeballs sting, cut by a salty sweat. The ridge looms in front of me, but I’m focused on the cascading stream falling from a snow patch at its base. We are thirsty and hungry. 15 miles and 9 hard hours are behind us. I dare not let my mind measure what we’ve done. In harsh reality, we’ve only just started. A liter down the hatch and we’re off and soloing. The energy of racing up a mountain unroped in such a spectacular position exhilarates us, washing the fatigue away.
Fun climbing in an incredible position...
Dan made the perfect partner for such a venture. Tough as nails, Dan never complains and always takes on each challenge with thoughtful ambition. Our young, but mature partnership was forged in the icy wasteland of Cascade winter. Dan enjoys climbing hard routes in rotten weather. All day, even in my lowest moments, I pushed myself to maintain composure amidst punishing fatigue. Dan wasn’t complaining and I sure as hell wasn’t going to be the weak link.
Clouds over deep valleys
“Climbing choss is all about distributing your weight properly.” Dan nods in agreement. Our crux has been safely soloing loose, but moderate ground. Carefully, we pick our way through snow and rock towards the distant summit. Twice I pull the rope out to protect airy, more difficult climbing. I lead an exciting pitch downwards to a notch, before stretching the rest of the line out over loose and sharp ground. Just short of the wintry summit, I set a belay and watch Dan manage the verglased, steep funk. Unforeseen challenge is found in the mixed finish. Digging for holds in the snow, we creep towards the top. Puffy clouds cast shadows over the valley floor, five thousand feet below. On the summit we feel high, but yearn to get low before the light leaves. Before long we are tossing our skinny line down the descent gully, rappelling towards the journey home. Once the rope is put away we begin the 20 plus miles towards the car. For the first time, my tired mind loses focus. Hours spent repeating the “one foot in front of the other” mantra ensues.
Looking back, the 27 hours spent on this mission were filled with months worth of memories. A day can feel like a year when it’s stuffed with ambition. I am overjoyed to have dug for my limits in the rugged beauty of the Cascades and more than ever, looking forward to even bigger adventures in tougher conditions with Dan. Maybe we can pull off something of this magnitude under the icy grip of winter or find similar challenge on higher peaks in greater ranges. The possibilities are endless with a commitment to seeking personal limits and a love for wild places.
Highway 20 under my feet and a dark starry sky above my head marks the end of our journey. I lay under the universe and smile for only a second before losing consciousness and drifting into dreams unremembered. Movement has stopped. The world is still.