This was the first experience climb of the Intermediate Class, and although I'd looked forward to climbing the west ridge for a number of years, I wasn't excited about the approach at this time of the year. I wasn't in "climbing" shape yet, Aasgard Pass was not a safe choice due to avalanche and rockfall conditions, and the Snow Lake approach meant 4 miles of trail, then 6 miles of almost melted out snow along with 6000' of elevation gain. My fears proved well founded!
We didn't bother with too early of a start, arriving at the trailhead around 8:00, and hitting the trail by 8:30. This was the last weekend before permits were required, so we didn't have to bother with showing up at the ranger station before starting our trip. I started lagging behind Tom and Brent almost from the start, and it was to remain that way for most of the trip. The trail was in pretty good shape, with only a little wash out damage at a couple of points. There was very spotty snow here and there, but nothing to worry about until after crossing the bridge below Nada Lake. From here on out, the snow went from intermittent to continuous, but being spring time and warm, it was easy to punch through fairly frequently. We stopped for lunch on the shores of Nada Lake, and I discovered my heels blistering already when I took my boots off to cool and dry my feet. I tried getting some moleskin on them to help protect them, but 5 minutes after we had started out again, my heels were screaming for attention. We stopped for me to doctor my feet once again, and after a significant amount of mole foam and duct tape, I thought I could manage to go a little further.
From Nada Lake to Snow Lake the route gets fairly steep. When the snow is melted out completely, this area is a large boulder field, but with the snow covering that was left it was instead a booby trap field that allowed you to break through the snow frequently and sink up to your crotch. It was hard work and very slow going. There was no water running over top of the dam when we got to Snow Lake, so that crossing was easy. We sat down on the other side to take a break, and I was feeling completely spent by then. We were still planning on climbing up to the lower Enchantments, and bivying almost directly under Prusik Peak itself, but I was feeling like I'd had enough. After discussing various options, we decided that I'd forgo the climb, leave all my technical gear by Snow Lake, split up most of the rest of my gear between Tom and Brent, and we'd try to get to our planned bivy spot. In hindsight, this was probably not the best choice, but we continued around Snow Lake, and then headed up the ridge to bivy above Lake Viviane. We ended up staying too far to the right, and had to climb a few granite buttresses, and cross some very steep snow slopes. This was more attention getting than normal since we had elected to leave our ice axes at the cars, opting instead for trekking poles. The possibility of arresting was about zero with these (none of us had the arresting handles on our poles), and there were one or two slopes where a slip would have resulted in at least a bad injury. Without major mishap we did manage to make the ridge, and find some exposed granite boulders to lay our bivy bags out on. The sun had been out long enough that day to heat the granite nicely, and the radiant head lasted through most of the night. Tom and I were both exhausted, so we pulled on all of our extra clothes to keep warm, and then fired up a stove to get some food in us. Tom managed to get one bite of food down before his exhaustion completely caught up with him, and he puked back up what little he had in his stomach. This was actually kind of a big deal, because we had both gone so light we had no food to spare. Tom said he actually thought for a second or two about scooping things back up and eating them again just so he could have the calories, but the thought of that threatened to make him hurl again, so he decided to just eat the remainder of his food and plan on being hungry the next day.
After getting something warm in us, and crawling into our sleeping bags, we decided to discuss the plan for the morning. Tom and Brent were still planning on trying to climb Prusik, and I decided that at the speed I was moving, I'd just head down when they left, and we'd meet up back at the trailhead. The night was mostly uneventful, with a few rain showers passing over us. About 4 in the morning, however, we were all awoken by a tremendous roar. Knowing we were in a position that was completely free of avalanche danger, I was filled more with curiosity than fear. It wasn't until the sun came up that we were able to see the source of the noise - about a 200 foot section of cornice that had come loose and dropped off of one of the peaks to the south of us! Although we'd agreed to get up at 5:30, the rain forced everyone back into their shelters until closer to 6:00. At that point we ate what food was left for breakfast, packed up our gear, and went our separate ways. I watched Tom and Brent traversing around until the disappeared around the corner of Prusik's west ridge, and I then headed down, keeping much closer to the river pouring out of Lake Viviane than we had on the way up. I made a few turns here and there that I needed to reverse, but for the most part found my way easily down to Snow Lake. The sun was trying to come out, so I stopped here and took a long break, regathering my technical gear and packing them back in my pack. I rested here until I started getting cold, and then decided I'd better continue moving. The way from Snow Lake to the top of the slope leading down to Nada Lake was uneventful, but descending the slope we'd taken so long to climb the previous day demanded significant attention. The warm temperatures had only melted more of the snow off, removing all tracks from the previous day, and making every step a gamble as to whether or not the snow would hold my weight, or whether I'd break through. Since I was traveling by myself, I needed to be particularly cautious, as a sudden drop and a sprained or broken ankle would leave me stranded until the rest of my party caught up with me many hours hence, and a drop into the rushing snow melt easily heard below could easily prove fatal. At this point I was happy to have my trekking poles instead of my ice axe, and used them extensively to probe the snow patches I was anticipating putting my weight on. I think I paid a bit too much attention to the snow condition, and not enough to route finding, because I eventually found myself at the inlet stream to Nada Lake, a hundred feet or so below where I should have been to intersect the trail that circles the lake. From there I needed to work my way carefully up a boulder studded brush field, with the small krumholtz tree providing welcome reliable handholds now and then. I eventually did regain the trail, and the descent from there, though still quite long, was a piece of cake.
I stopped again at Nada Lake and rested and ate the last of my food. The sun wasn't very strong, and I started moving along again as I cooled down. Finding the path from there back down to the bridge was the last minor challenge, and from there out it was just trail walking. Knowing my "partners" were a long ways behind, I took many opportunities to stop and sit, and just enjoy my surroundings. I've never been much of a speed demon on the trail, and I enjoyed my leisurely pace on the way out significantly more than I had enjoyed the hurried pace of the approach. My heels were not happy, but by this point I had decided that the best idea was just to get back to the car before attempting to uncover them and treat them further. On the final switchbacks down to the trailhead I encountered a mountain goat who seemed to have determined that that section of the trail was his. I very slowly sauntered down the trail behind him, stopping every time he decided to stop and graze, but eventually I decided I'd like to make a little better time, and tried to pass him as he stood just below the trail. As I approached him (and it definitely was a him!), he turned to face me and lowered the business ends of his horns in my direction. Not being in that much of a hurry, I quickly stepped back a few paces, and decided I'd just have to wait. I think that must be what he decided to do as well, because 10 minutes later neither he nor I had moved. I finally decided to climb up the steep hill above the path to give him enough room, and to let me finally pass him. This tactic worked, and I was quickly on my way with only another 10 or 15 minutes left to the car. I warned the few other parties I met on the way down about the territorial goat they would run into, but it was still pretty neat to be able to get that close to a large game animal, shaggy though he was with loosing his winter coat.
I finally got back to the car, changed out of synthetics and into cotton, and proceeded to recline my car seat for a short nap. Down at the trailhead the temperature was significantly warmer than higher up, and I ended up letting the car run so I could keep the air conditioner going while I napped. About 2 hours after I had gotten back to the car, Tom and Brent appeared at the trailhead. They had successfully climbed the west ridge, but looked like extremely tired puppies! After quick changes on their parts (outside of the car so we wouldn't let all the nice cool air escape!), we headed in to Leavenworth and dinner at Gustav's before heading for home.
This trip gave me a good feel for what kind of outings were to come in the class, and started me seriously thinking about dropping. I'm just not in that kind of shape this year, and I didn't find myself enjoying much of the outing at all, mostly thinking about how long it was until I'd be back home again. Maren and I were planning on heading to Mazama for some rock climbing the next day, and I was pretty bummed about how badly I had blistered my feet. It turned out that didn't slow me down too much, but I only attempted one more experience climb with the class before deciding to call it quits. I'd love to go back and do Prusik some day, but it'll be at least a three day trip so I can enjoy it!