*Pictures of the trip are all the way at the bottom. You will notice we stopped taking pictures on the descent… read more to find out why.
The first time I heard the term sufferfest it was in a video by Alex Honnold and Cedar Wright. In their movie, “Sufferfest 1: Climbing California’s 14ers by Bike”, they bike to every 14er in California and then free solo one of the more technical routes to the top. Neither of them had ever biked long distances before so the self inflicted suffering that ensued was pretty epic. The moment I heard the word sufferfest it struck a chord. It is the notion of these extremes that exist in adventuring; the idea that having really low low’s will make your highs seem even higher. The concept that even when you are broken down to your barest, miserable and frustrated, deep in the suffering of being cold or having your feet hurt or being tired, even way down there there is something enjoyable about pushing yourself hard. Another term that gets tossed around a lot amongst outdoor enthusiasts is this idea of type two fun. Backpacker wrote an article about type two fun and the fun spectrum. To summarize their scale type one fun is fun while it’s happening, type two fun is miserable while it’s happening but fun to think about later, and type three fun is miserable while it’s happening and miserable to think about later. Type two fun is not only more memorable, but it is the kind of fun that also pushes you and causes you to grow. Type two fun can become a sufferfest.
I have experienced a fair amount of type two fun and I have had a couple of sufferfests in my day. Much of the AT, especially in the mid-atlantic states, was a sufferfest. Mountaineering outings usually fall into the type two fun category. Building trails and working for conservation corps fulfills all of the above requirements. But yesterday Kyle, our friend Phil and I climbed Eldorado Peak in the North Cascades and my bar for what constitutes a sufferfest… well, it just got raised a whole hell of a lot.
Sufferfest begins: 3:00 am and we were headed up the climbers trail. It took us only a couple of minutes of hiking to register that it was extremely hot. The humidity is off the charts and the bugs were relentlessly attacking our head lamps and our arms. After hiking for ten minutes we all stopped and stripped down to our last layer despite the risk of being bit by something. We were shocked by how hot it was. On top of the heat the trail was so steep. It goes straight up through the woods for 2,000ft until it reaches The Boulder Field. This is capitalized because later it will become a key player in our downward spiral of despair… but on the ascent it was a welcome reprieve from the woods. It was cooler out of the dense underbrush and the bugs weren’t as bad. We picked our way amongst the boulders, swinging and lowering ourselves down them, Phil claiming first ascents and naming routes as I focused on not breaking a leg. The boulder field lasted for 1,000 very slow feet and at the top we crossed a waterfall and another steep trail took us up to the basin.
Here we put any suffering on hold for a while because the views were so beautiful. The glacier carved valleys are smooth and rounded on the bottoms, with meandering rivers running through them, and as far as the eye can see rocky peaks covered in glaciers rise out of a blanket of trees. Up in the basin slabs of granite with ribbons of various other rock running through them create mellow paths through the heather and wild flowers. We rock hopped over to the ridge, found our way up to the top, and then attempted to head down. I say attempted because the spot we chose for our descent turned out to be problematic for Phil and Kyle. I somehow slid down a slab that they weren’t comfortable with and so we found ourselves in a predicament. I was standing down bellow trying to coach them down different scrambles as they wandered around telling the other person to go first. We later joked that they looked like two dogs that were trying to jump off a dock for the first time. It was as if I was in the water, trying to coax them in and they were standing on the edge, unsure if the water was going to hurt them or not. Finally they found a good way down and we continued up to the glacier.
Once we reached snow we roped up. With me in the lead we struck out onto the snow, separated from each other by 30 meters of rope and in our own little worlds. I was carefully rest stepping, keeping the pace laid back, when Kyle yelled, “Are you okay? Why are you going so slow?” Turns out the pace I was setting was way to mellow and we found ourselves a little behind schedule (not aided by the fact that the boys scramble debacle had cost us 30 minutes). After we got up to the flat part of Inspiration Glacier we sped across it and up onto the ridge. The ridge itself was also fairly low angle but it did have a few crevasses to navigate. Once through the crevasses we reached the final hurdle, the knifes edge. The conditions were perfect though, an amazing staircase of kicked steps led us up to the top of the edge and on the crest was a foot and a half wide walkway of compact snow. On either side the snow slope fell away to the cliffs bellow and although there was definitely some pucker factor and I did a little crouching as I walked I didn’t find myself filled with fear. Instead I felt jubilant.
We spent very little time on the summit, worried about the hot sun’s impact on the snow bridges bellow. We had a quick break and touched base, verifying that all of us were, at that point, out of water. The nearest water was back at the beginning of the glacier and we didn’t have time to boil any so we decided to get the heck out of dodge. The ridge went well but as we crossed the flat wasteland of the glacier Phil began to spiral. When we reached the other side Phil blurted out, “Guys, I almost lost it back there.” Kyle confirmed that Phil had been doing a lot of weaving around, as if he were drunk. This was not surprising. I haven’t made the last bit seem that miserable and for the most part it was fine. It was beautiful, surreal and a huge accomplishment. We were all pretty focused on that. But once we summited the 6,8000ft of elevation gain in four miles compounded with not enough water and intense heat began to take its toll. Phil was its first victim out there on that glacier, lost in his own misery. The warning sign that an epic sufferfest was brewing on the horizon.
We unroped, which seemed to buoy spirits a bit and once we reached a good water sourced filled up our camelbacks with freezing cold glacier melt (treated of course). The first few sips of that water was orgasmic, helping to refresh us. We chose a different scramble to get back on the ridge and then headed down into the basin which was reminiscent of a giant brick oven at this point. Every time there was water we were wetting our hats and our necks, trying to stay cool. Soon we reached the waterfall before the boulder field and stopped for a break.
Neither Kyle or Phil were in very good shape at this point. Both seemed a little delirious, despite having drank all their water, so I filled up water bottles again and scolded them until they ate some gold-fish crackers. It was like herding children. Which made us all laugh. Knowing that this was our last water source we wet all of our clothing and dunked our heads. And then we headed into The Boulder Field.
The boulder field was all of our breaking points. During the trip I heard it described as purgatory, satan’s asshole, akin to a parking lot after a giant earthquake. The bottom line was that it was sweltering. There was no shade anywhere and, after baking in the sun for hours, the boulders themselves seemed to emit heat. In order to move through them you had to touch them, burning your hands. I felt very unsure of my ability to balance on the points and edges of the rocks, and spent a lot of time on my butt or using my entire body to steady myself against the boulders. At one point I found a little rock cave where it was cool and I was tempted to crawl inside and give up. Later we found Phil, sitting under the shade of a giant boulder, claiming that he had thought it was the end but then he rounded the boulder and it just continued on forever so there he was, dejected. My head hurt, my thighs felt on fire from all the up and now all the down. Inside my boots my feet were sweating but numb at that point. It just went on and on. We were all sunburnt. Finally we saw the woods where the trail picked back up and it was just one more traverse to get there. I went very carefully, amazed that I had made it that far without breaking anything and determined not to hurt myself so close to the end. When we reached the shade of the trees we found Phil, shirt off, sprawled in the trail. Unable to move. We followed suit.
Soon the bugs were too bad to lay there anymore. We were all almost out of water again and we had 2,000 more feet to descend. We started down. This is when delirium set in. Kyle started sharing very strange things about what the heat was doing to his nether regions. Phil and I laughed uncontrollably. Sometimes one of us would just collapse in the trail, or stop suddenly to lean against a tree. Phil and I asked Kyle what elevation we were at every 200 feet. When Kyle would break the bad news we would claim that it couldn’t be true! We all tried to avoid carrying the rope and Phil got stuck with it. The audible moaning and groaning got louder and louder until we tried yelling but discovered it hurt our heads too much. We all took a different kind of pain-killer. Kyle refused to let me stop and tie my shoe. Dust covered everything and although we tried to book it our legs would go no faster than a shuffle. The only thing keeping us going was the knowledge that at the bottom, by the parking lot, was a river. If that river hadn’t been there we would have stopped and just started new lives on the trail were we lay, warning people not to go up because then they would have to come back down. At the very bottom we ran back into a group from The Mountaineers we had met up on top (one of whom my old coworker) and they confirmed what we had known for hours: Eldorado had been Sufferfest 2015.
The water in the river was so cold it made me gasp and I splashed it over my back and neck and head, over and over again. I sat down in the river, cooling my feet and my thighs which were still burning with the heat of the day’s exertion. It was the most incredible feeling, the most refreshing moment of all time, and all around me were smiling ecstatic faces. Those faces all know that you can only reach a state of cold river ecstasy after you have passed through the hell of The Boulder Field.
Maybe the idea of type two fun and sufferfests don’t sound like fun to everyone. I can’t blame you. I recognize that there must be something crazy about me, that I seek out that kind of fun, over and over again, even knowing full well what I am getting myself into. But if you haven’t tried it before, haven’t put yourself into a situation that will be a little hard, a little miserable, a little uncomfortable, I think you will find, upon doing so, that those situations will, mysteriously, be the most rewarding.