4:00 am is a nasty little hour, not quite belonging to night nor to day, it whispers, “What are you doing? Go back to bed. But you have to pee first.” I know of no man nor woman strong enough to resist that insistence of the pee call once woken at some unseemly hour. However, despite the best intentions of my sleeping bag, I was not to return until many hours later–thoroughly satisfied and sunburned.
It started way back in Seattle, where my good friend and climbing partner Kirsten had the momentum to send us hurtling into the North Cascades. We were aiming for the very serious Torment-Forbidden Traverse, a solid and experienced alpine climber’s must-do. Luckily for me, as a rookie alpine climber, the permit season for the North Cascades–and Boston Basin, in particular–had just snapped into effect. Trying to stay above the law, we opted for the easier to secure Forbidden permit, which meant an extra day of sleep before the ranger’s station in Marblemount.
The rangers were happy to see us when we arrived; being full-time rangers, their job was to excitedly spread joy to arriving climbers and backpackers. Later in the season, as the hordes made a general ruckus of each station, patience wears thin and helpful suggestions from foolish mountaineers are met with harrumphs and guffaws. But early season we were, and we benefited from the singing robin’s hint of spring. One or two scrawled entries in the climbing log-book, cryptic as hieroglyphics, increased our enthusiasm for the venture. Permit secured, we rolled onto the Cascade River Road, up into the mountains.
Arrival at the trailhead, we promptly emptied the entire contents of my bag. Kirsten, with the aplomb and relish of a customs agent, separated the “go” and “no-go” piles, while I fretted over the idea of losing toes in inadequate shoes. We came to the bag of Parmesan Goldfish.
“I will NEVER tell you not to bring these.” Truer words were never uttered by any oracle.
Finally cut down in weight, we hoisted ropes and bags, when bursting through the “path” came one exhausted climber. He threw down his bag, then himself. Of course, the opportunity for first-hand beta was irresistible, despite prior misgivings (see here). We questioned the poor man, who was trapped until his partner emerged some minutes later. This time, our pioneers predicted success, which uplifted our hearts and made the bags seem…just as heavy.
The trail up to Boston Basin is a foolish notion. There is no trail in the first miles, simply an area in which the vegetation has grown somewhat less. But after this North Cascadian bushwhacking, we started to truly experience the joys of uphill travel through simple perambulation–as in we gained umpteen thousands of feet of elevation by ascending a spillway of rocks and roots. At one of the many roaring waterfalls, we submerged our heads and hats in icy water, refreshment for the final push.
Almost to the Basin, we meet a middle-aged climber and his lady friend. She has earrings and makeup, speaks with a Southern twang, and its her first time into the Boston Basin. And, because this is how these things work out, she is Reba McEntire’s sister. This adds a touch of celebrity, no matter how brittle, to our endeavor.
And there it is, rising stark and black against the dark blue sky, Forbidden Peak. Our objective. Only it wasn’t. We were looking at Mount Torment–Forbidden came into view a quarter mile later. But why dwell on mistakes in the majesty of Boston Basin? Behind us, the great wall of Johannesburg Mountain crashed and rumbled as snow and ice melted and bombed to the valley floor. Ahead, the sweep of the Basin alternated green and white and gray with heather and snow and granite. Teeth, incisors and molars, cut into the sky. We are such small things in these places.
And our first major challenge, the roaring Boston Creek drainage, heaving with snowmelt. We searched around the edges for a possible crossing, avoiding what we knew we would have to do–jump the river. As the rookie, I knew this was my time to shine. I hurled my backpack across the waters, then–much like a noble gazelle–leapt the raging current. In truth, I made the leap, but with much less grace than any wild antelope. And I worried I crushed the Goldfish.
But disaster strikes! Kirsten, in the act of throwing her bag across, decided to follow its path, and unwittingly, both ended in the water. I grabbed the bag while Kirsten grabbed herself, the river happily gurgling laughter at us. We lay the contents of her bag out to dry on the hot stones, and relaxed in the unfazed glory of the North Cascades (for those of you counting, we had now unpacked both bags twice since parking).
Two more climbers, these heading up, eventually found us there, lazing like river otters. A casual conversation ensued where we each tried to gauge the other’s strength and speed. Who would pass who? I volunteered my obliviousness to crampons and ice axes, but to no avail. They were certain we would pass them the next day en route.
We came to realize that we were already pretty much exactly where we wished to base our attempt on Forbidden, and took to making camp. Unfortunately, the North Cascades had claimed Kirsten’s tent poles somewhere between the car and our immediate locale. Sacrifice to the mountain gods, surely. At this moment, they were likely enjoying a swift descent down the Boston Basin creek without us, and we were faced with an unplanned, yet not unpleasant, open bivy.
The sun began to light up the face of Johannesburg in slants and angles. The pinks and purples of fading light made the Basin a Maxfield Parish dream. If you ever have the chance to visit the very special Boston Basin john at precisely this moment, you will truly know why its true nomenclature is throne.
As the sun sloughed off the North Cascades, tiny lights appeared on our route. We reckoned that they belonged to the only other tent we had as neighbors in our chosen camp (the climbers we had met earlier electing to camp at the upper Basin). Due to the lateness of their timing, we guessed they had just finished the TFT, but they sure were taking some time to descend the couloir. Entertainment at the slowly descending headlamps turned to frustration at the lack of movement to speculation over what was transpiring on the mountain to worry over the state of the soon benighted party. We both agreed that if a rescue was needed, we would forego our summit and help the injured party–the pact of the climber. In the hours of darkness we watched, the lights had descended no more than 100 feet or so, but they were moving. We eventually closed our eyes to the debacle, and focused on sleep for whatever the morning brought us.
And yes, now we arrive at 4:00am. Ghastly. But, our worrisome party had descended–a 24-hour misadventure on the mountain! Kirsten had spoken with the one semi-conscious individual while the others lay half in and half out of their respective tents. We hoped that our day would be much, much shorter. So we clicked on headlamps, shouldered summit-esque packs, and set off (Of course, a quarter mile into our hike, I had to return to camp to grab mislaid climbing shoes).
Soon, we donned crampons after a silly scramble up the rocks to the upper basin camp. We saw the headlamps of our fellow climbers nearing the snowfinger that led to the gully that marked the actual West Ridge. Imperceptibly, the unnamed glacier began to lighten, as did the mass of Johannesburg and the Cascade range behind. And there, over Jo’s behemoth shoulder, the perfect pink of Glacier Peak receiving the dawn. These are the moments that mountains are made for.
We came to the snowfinger, and dispatched it post-haste. From camp, this thin line of white had filled the novice in me with the most dread–it appeared steep and unforgiving. While the unforgiving aspect may have been correct, its steepness softened the closer we came. We stepped over the small bergschrund into the gully, and we were able to shed crampons and snow gear, and head to the West Ridge.
We met the other climbers at the notch that marked the beginning, and the quick leap of faith over the rock that introduces the West Ridge. They graciously allowed us to pass, and offered the use of their rope coiled below to rappel the snowfinger later. Nothing like the camaraderie of mountaineers.
And then, we were flying. The West Ridge was a serrated knife blade at angle in the sky. To the north and south, the ridge fell sharply away to glaciers, silhouetting the follower against a perfect backdrop of white. Half-frozen moraine lakes glittered turquoise and aquamarine below us. More and more mammoths of the Cascades heaved into view. Shuksan. Baker. Eldorado. Rainier. Even, perhaps wishful thinking, but the blue outlines of the Olympics far to the southwest. I wandered among pinnacles, passed gendarmes, underclung traverses, topped boulders, while the mountains shouted (in my mind) roaring approval.
There was a large tower that required a few more complex moves to traverse and drop down the side, then a little rock sidewalk, and…summit! A tiny platform, a rock rookery, a thin space in the complex ridges and spines that ran hither and there in geographic mandala. Peace and perfection in the warming sun. Shared candy bars, summit entry jokes, and selfies. But as I’ve written before, the curse of these wild places is we cannot stay.
Returning down the ridge, just as fun and sharp, weaving in and out of granite blocks and blades. Until we had to start rappel traversing, which is rarely as good as climbing, and (to me) twice as likely to end in sorrow. Luckily, the slow party from the day before had left new cordelette and biners all over the route, so there was little shortage of stations.
We reached the notch, thoroughly pleased with ourselves. Since nature abhors a self-congratulater, we still had to prove ourselves wiling to punt. While handing the ice axes down to Kirsten, somehow she kept a hold of hers and threw mine into the coulior. We watched it flip end over end, shouting encouragement.
“Grab the snow, dammit!”
As it inched nearer some melting crevasse, the ax’s sense of self preservation kicked it, and it caught itself in the snow, peeking ever so slightly over the yawning ice. Relief.
But not to be outdone, after watching this drama unfold, I subconsciously decided to involuntarily hurl my crampons down the gully. How I did this, I know not, but descending the snowfinger and the glacier sans ice ax and crampons was not high on my list of accomplishments to-do. They bounced and rattled down the rocky gully, but instead of clinking down somewhere underneath the ice never to be seen again, they came to a rest not far from the belay station. The North Cascades wanted to warn us against false pride, not actually get us stuck on the mountain.
On the descent, I picked up the forlorn ax. The sun was throttling up and the snow was melting fast all around us. Previously hard ice on the glacier now sagged and depressed–it was obvious this glacier was unlikely to last the season. We crossed off the snow and stripped crampons. Along the narrow trail, with heather falling off to each side, we stopped to look back at the mountain. It seemed near fantastical that not a few hours prior we had stood at the top of the immense granite triangle.
We pulled into camp eight hours after we had left. We wanted chow and to dunk our heads and feet in cool water. Those surviving Goldfish satisfied the former need, and the icy Boston runoff the latter. Forbidden rose mutely in the background, without care for our ascent. Torment loomed to the west, inspiring ideas of returning for the traverse. Johannesburg began its daily salvo of ice missiles. The Cascade River rushed through the valley thousands of feet below. Marmots whistled and peeped. We slowly re-racked our gear, drank the last swigs of celebratory whiskey, shouldered packs, and descended from Eden.
**All photos courtesy of Kirsten G–thanks!**