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Posts Tagged ‘climbing’

Sometimes while mountaineering in the Pacific Northwest, you’ll fight hours of  underbrush, punch through half-frozen rivers, and slip your way up maddening scree under sleet and fog. And just when you are the most lost, the most exhausted, you emerge from the clouds and stumble upon other climbers. They are lost too. They are tired. And they are cursing Becky.

Becky guide from 1949, with cramponsThat would be Fred Becky. The man who almost single-handedly defined climbing in the Northwest, who made more first ascents than anyone in recorded history, who will scale a cliff with thousands of feet of exposure more easily than most of us can cross the living room.

When climbers talk about a “Becky Route,” they often mean the hypothetical route which is documented in climbing guides, but seems not to be possible. When they talk about “Becky Time,” they are referring to the mythical  Becky pace that will take you from trailhead to summit to bar in one day. You complain about this pace in the late afternoon when you are still trying to reach the summit, and the nearest bar seems continents away.

Like most legends, Fred Becky has his fair share of detractors and acolytes, but he is still a legend. So when we heard he would be speaking at Edgeworks Climbing in Tacoma, we were in.

For autographing, I brought along his groundbreaking guidebook from 1949, which the Mountaineers had refused to publish. Long before I was born, my uncle kept notes in this very book as he trained to climb Mount Rainier in 1951-52. By the time I climbed the same peaks, half a century later, avalanches and rockfall had transformed the physical landscape. But the Becky routes remained in print, viable or not.

So I made the pilgrimage to Edgeworks to see Becky’s photographs and hear his wisdom. As it turns out, Becky isn’t so much interested in wisdom. If you invite him to speak at your climbing gym, he’ll tell everyone there to get out of the gym and climb in the “real world.” He will show you peaks from Alaska to Mexico, with photos from climbs in 2008 alongside climbs in 1956. But he will  not comment on the out-of-date equipment you see, or the age of the young spry Becky in many of the photos. He is really only interested in the ageless peaks themselves, and the challenge they represent.

After the presentation, I brought him my uncle’s old book to autograph. A book so old it says nailed boots are basic equipment for every climb. But also a book that opens with a statement just as true today as 60 years ago: “Since climbing in Washington is seldom done with guides, self reliance, keen judgment, and the technical competence to climb on steep alpine terrain are  prerequisites.”

I presented this old, first edition book from Becky’s youth to him for an autograph. He seemed not to recognize it. And then a 20-year-old behind me pushed forward and said, “You had a John Muir quote at the beginning of your presentation. Can you tell me how Muir inspired you?” And the 86-year-old climbing legend paused and looked tired for the first time in his life. “I never thought about  it,” he said.

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If you come around a bend in the trail to find Ranger Magenta waiting for you, and the ptarmigans have already turned white, and the wind keeps blowing you off your feet, pay close attention. Winter has come.

Above Yellow Aster Lakes

Above Yellow Aster Lakes

This is what I learned Monday and Tuesday on our trip to Tomyhoi Peak in the North Cascades. We started out smearing sunscreen on our faces, heading up into one of the best places to see fall colors  in the Pacific Northwest. It was sunny and we hoped for a clear ascent to the summit. But first the wind kicked up, and then I saw that the ptarmigans had already put on their stark white plummage, which seemed out of place in the bright oranges and dark purples of autumn. And then we ran into the park ranger.

Autumn colors along trail to Tomyhoi

Autumn colors along trail to Tomyhoi

Magenta is a strong woman. She left the trailhead while we were still assembling our packs, made it to the Yellow Aster Lakes to warn hikers and campers of the oncoming storm, summited Yellow Aster Butte for her own interest, and got back down to the main trail in time to intercept us. “Did you get the weather report?” she asked. We said Yes, and after an awkward pause offered, “But you can remind us.” The forecast was for snow dropping to 4400 feet with an incoming storm, and the winds were already topping 45 mph. The park ranger’s name was really Magenta. Her lips were stained dark purple from huckleberries. She had turned around two hikers before we got there, but we had crampons and ice axes and rope and had already lied about knowing the weather report, so she knew we were too foolish to be reasoned with.

Cairn and Mount Baker

Cairn and Mount Baker

The wind got worse, but the snow held off for a while and the scenery was spectacular. At 5000 feet the huckleberries were so abundant we could grab them without slowing down. 

We could still see Baker and Shuksan and Ruth and the Chilliwacks across the border in Canada. By 6000 feet the huckleberry and heather had been reduced to a dense 1-inch carpet.

Tomyhoi Glacier with Mount Larrabee in the distance

Tomyhoi Glacier with Mount Larrabee in the distance

Within an hour there was nothing but wind and rock and glacier.

Tomyhoi Glacier in late September has crevasses and a few snow bridges, but it’s easy enough to navigate. We started to run out of daylight less than 500 feet below the summmit, and with the storm coming and the exposure of the final ascent too risky to do in ice, we retreated. Next year, we figured. 

Back across the glacier, we stopped at the first water we came to. My old Peak 1 Coleman stove burned furiously, but to little effect. By the time we had dinner, the snow had started to accumulate, and then the storm really hit. It would

Finding my boots in the morning

Finding my boots in the morning

have been a nice time to have an actual tent. I cinched up my bivy so there was only a two-inch hole for air, but enough snow came through that to keep me awake most of the night. Ptarmigans taunted  us in the dark with their calls. By morning we had drifts over us and the pond was frozen. But the snow and the wind had stopped and it was a beautiful day.

The trail back to the Yellow Aster Lakes was obscurred by snowdrifts, and there was not a soul left in the valley. The only footprint  I saw between Tomyhoi Peak and the trailhead was from a small black bear. At the trailhead we met three women who were heading up to see autumn. They were a day late.

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