The South Brother is the higher of the two Brothers, located in on the edge of the Olympic National Park. Even though Boealps typically sticks to climbing in the Cascades, we had decided to take on this beastly climb for our overnight. The climb itself is not overly techincal, but route finding is rumored to be tricky and it’s a bit of a haul to get back to the base of the route. A typical Boealps climb usually involves two or three miles of hiking, but this one would require us to travel a little under six miles to camp alone. That would be day one (Saturday), day two we would go for the summit and then come all the way back out.
We left the trail head feeling good but I knew from experience that a very different group of climbers would be returning the next day. No one has ever walked that far in mountaineering boots, especially on trail, and felt fine. As Kyle always says, our dogs were going to be barking.
Our first obstacle was a downed bridge at the inlet to Lena Lake. The creek isn’t too deep there, but none of us wanted to have wet feet for the whole trip. We set up a hand line and everyone donned trash bags on their feet before stumbling across the river, pack buckles rattling. Everyone was fairly dry on the other side.
After the crossing the trail got significantly more interesting. Entire sides of the Valley of Silent Men were washed out and the trail skirted up above it or disappeared all together. At one point we found ourselves down at the level of the river, in the middle of a Salmon Berry choked sandbar, completely confused. We pushed on until finally I spotted the trail, emerging from the water on the other side, washed out and masquerading as a tinsy creek bed. We all sunk through the mud getting back over to it, but being back on trail and out of the thorny plants and blow down was a relief.
It is amazing how long six miles can feel. Six miles on a regular trail is the distance between snack breaks. Six miles of post holing and falling into moats and hidden blow down is slow going. We made it to camp around five. It took us nine hours to go six miles. Camp was set up, holes to watch out for were identified and we all gathered around our camp kitchen. Somehow we hadn’t been rained on all day and it looked like the weather was going to hold. Melting water and rehydrating Mountain Houses was a joy filled process. The Beef Stroganoff was as good as ever.
Part of the overnight outing is experiencing an alpine start for the first time. We were up around 4:30, which felt like a pretty weak alpine start to me, but we didn’t want the snow to be too icy, considering the students aren’t allowed crampons until the crevasses rescue outing. We left a little late but were moving before the sun began to rise. The sky was clear which seemed like a miracle. It has been a very cloudy wet winter in Seattle and I felt like I hadn’t seen the warm twinkle of stars in ages. Snow conditions were terrible. Myself and a few others were able to walk on top of the snow but most people found themselves punching through an icy crust to soft powder below. Once the slope steepened we fell into line and began to kick steps in ernest.
The going was incredibly hard. To start with we have a large team, so waiting for your turn to be in front takes forever. That’s nice because you get a long rest, but big groups move more slowly. Also, the snow conditions were just miserable. Plenty of holes and moats were found and occasionally the person in front would just be stuck, wallowing up to their waist for a while before the rest of the group was able to extricate them. It took us around two hours to go 1,000ft. Finally, we decided to jump off the snow and onto a field of avalanche debris. We had been avoiding it because it looked like giant icy blocks, but the avy debris actually made for much easier climbing. The blocks were firm and solid and acted like a staircase. Our pace sped up for a bit.
Then, as we got higher up the gully the blocks diminished and instead we were left with a very steep smooth icy surface. Using ice axes we were able to cut steps, but still the going was slow and we knew we needed to traverse right to get onto the ridge at some point. Between us and the ridge was a very steep, marble smooth stretch of ice that would have to be protected, since no one was wearing crampons. We gathered the instructors to discuss. We were still 1,500ft below the summit, we only had an hour before we needed to turn around and realistically we needed to readjust how long it would take us to get back to the cars, based on how long it had taken us to get in the day before. The best rule of thumb is every time you take out a rope you add an hour, and with a group as big as ours getting everyone through the system would probably take longer. As it was we were going to have to rappel to get back down the slope, which would add time to our descent. As we considered all of the options the clouds that had been skittering through cleared for a second and we got a glimpse of the summit block, still unbelievably high above us. That did it. We made the call to turn around.
It actually took us three rappels to get back down to a place where people could down climb without fear of slipping and falling. And post holing back to camp was a thigh burner. We took down camp and headed back out, splashing liberally through creeks, not nearly as concerned about getting wet. My feet actually stayed relatively dry.
Predictably the switchbacks down from Lena Lake back to the cars, which were the last couple of miles, were pure torture. The feet had that familiar feeling, like someone had beat them with a bag of rocks. There was a lot of groaning. But as always, the bliss of removing those pesky boots was completely worth it.
For dinner we drove down to Olympia and went to Tugboat Annies, where they serve giant hamburgers. Another mountain not summited, but another great weekend, none the less. This year is turning out to be so completely different from our year, particularly because there is SO much more snow. It really complicates the climbs and adds a whole new element that we didn’t have to think about as much in 2015. It makes me excited for this summer though, because in theory the snow will last much longer and mountains that were just dirty scrambles in 2015 will still be snow climbs late into the season.