To talk about climbing Mt. Goode, we must talk about the descent. It is the hardest part.
The ascent is amazing. The descent is the real challenge.
Deep in the North Cascades National Park, not visible from any road, is the tallest mountain in the park. At 9,200 ft. Mt. Goode reigns above the other astonishing peaks in the area.
Why I chose this peak to climb I am still not sure. It is a relic from years past when I would look through the Becky guides and Jim Nelson’s book, thinking about classic alpine rock climbs that would be a test of my skills. We used almost all of our skills on this climb except aid climbing and dealing with inclement weather!
Really, I am a fair weather cragger. This means I like to climb in the sun – or if it’s too hot in the shade, but it must be warm – where the access to the routes are easy. This is a gross underestimation of what I have done in my climbing life as well as clearly not totally true if you ask my kids and climbing partners and since I chose Goode, but it was what I said at the end of the climb, which to me felt like a good way to end my life as an Alpinist – in more than one way.
Goode is a big endeavor. After a 14-mile hike, the climb begins by crossing the North Fork of Bridge Creek. The word creek brings up bubbling brooks of my youth rambling through an open meadow with big rocks that you can step on to get across. This was not a creek but a river. We took off our approach shoes and waded the across the river, having to face into the current and move through thigh deep raging water over slippery rocks to get to the other side.
You must un-clip your sternum strap and hip belt in case you get “taken” by the river so you can get out of your pack and not drown….
Once across the river, at an elevation of 3,800 ft., we started our 2,000-foot climb to where we, or shall I say I, thought we would camp for the night.
Unless you are a climber, it is hard to assess what 2,000 feet really means. In this case it was about two hours, no breaks, of straight up hill travel at about a 45-degree angle – give or take – up steep slabs and then through an alder/blueberry tunnel bushwhack – where the sh-whacking was not without rewards, then more slab to get beneath the ice fall.
Let me explain a few terms:
- Slab: a usually slippery, steep, slanted rock that has very few little shelves to place one’s feet.
- Bushwhacking: an animal trail through thick vegetation that meanders up or down seemingly impassable areas of forest. These function as climber’s trails and they ease travel. Seriously.
In the Cascades, and many other places around the world, to get to certain climbs there are no maintained trails. This means that you try to find a whisper of a path which usually is harder to climb than you hope and doesn’t take you exactly where you want to go but you are grateful for it all the same!
Back to our story…
At the ice fall, we decided to “scope the route” as Neil suggested. Which meant climbing until it got too dark to safely keep climbing.
To “scope the route” – now this is not for the faint of heart and only for those who wanted to avoid an hour-plus long detour through safer terrain – we traveled under an active (though not active at the moment) serac fall. Visualize a two-story building of blue ice with large blocks calving off at random moments. To get through this we travelled over cinder block and boulder sized rounded ice blocks that moved as we moved over them – like walking through a slippery boulder field.
There’s more? This was the saying/theme of the climb!
Then, we encountered a gully, with a 500 foot drop off, one of many we would have to cross and the trickiest one because it was blue ice, with some gravel which you would think would make it less slippery, but it was more like ball bearings on ice. To be safe we put on our crampons and travelling over icy gravel is disconcerting to say the least, even with crampons on!
Once across, we were officially on the glacier, which meant roping up for safety. At this point, it was about 6 pm. We still wanted to “scope the route” to see if there was a place to get on the rock, as it was rumored that the bergschrund – the space where the glacier separates from the snow near the base of a mountain, and the moat – the space between the snow/ice and rock, were hard to get through/by.
As we ascended, Neil, clever glacier traveler that he is, found a ramp – with a small leap move required – that allowed us to access the rock. At this point is was 7 pm, we did not have enough water to get us dinner not to mention climb the route which was about 3,000 feet of third and fourth class scrambling and some low 5th class climbing. It was reported there was no snow easily accessible on the route with which we could make water, which was not entirely true though I am glad we stocked up as that eliminated stopping the next day.
Neil suggested we stop mid-way on the entrance ramp and boil snow to make water. If you have never boiled snow, what you might not realize, but will become crystal clear to you if you try, is that it takes water to boil snow or you will burn the snow. Every climber has at one time or another burned snow – admit it – by not putting quite enough water into the pot. If you haven’t, someday you will. We fared well this trip. No burnt snow.
We found a good enough place to set up our stove, Neil retrieved some large blocks of snow/ice and we commenced boiling to get us six liters of water and then brought a 10-pound block of snow/ice with us – at this point we weren’t exactly sure where, because we were just “scoping the route” – to use for dinner and to make more water to replace what we drank in the meantime.
After packing up the water, snow and gear – a very heavy load – we commenced climbing. The bottom pitches that led up to the actual route were said to be the hardest. This proved to be true. The rock was loose. The pro, either nonexistent or marginal. And the climbing, not that hard – a move here or there – but with a full pack, it made it seem like 5.8 – or harder – in places. Maybe I was tired…
After a move of faith – one of those where…if this rock moves I will take a 40 footer, if the pro holds – we finally made it to the actual NE Buttress. Thankfully, the climbing eased and the rock quality improved and we went quickly to a place where we thought we could spend the night – a slightly sloping ledge that we built up. We slept roped into the mountain lest we roll to our death in our sleep. By this point is was dark. We made some dinner, arranged our sleeping area, and sipped our tea as we watched the full moon rise red through the layer of smoke from summer wildfires.
We woke at 5 am to a red sun. Brewed up, packed up and headed out. A bit tired from the night/day before we were slow to start, but then warmed up the simul-climbing – the money part of the route. Just shy of three thousand feet of mostly third and fourth class scrambling on a beautiful day on mostly solid rock. That was so amazing.
We finally topped out at about 1 pm. I never said we were fast. And we are older… We could see for miles. On the tallest peak in the north cascades park we could see everywhere: Forbidden – our alpine climb last year, Eldorado – a place we climbed together decades ago, volcanoes we guided, and every other peak in the range.
The elation of being on top was short lived and tainted by thoughts of the descent.
Later, when we returned home and were reminiscing about the climb, we reread the route description in case we missed anything. We saw a post from a previous climber that said the summit register quote from the party who had climbed the mountain before them was, “Dear lord, let me get off this mountain alive.”
I know how they felt.
What I did not think super clearly about as we set off for the climb was if we go up 5,400 ft., we must come back down 5,400 ft. I am a ready, fire, aim kind-of a girl and sometimes that gets me into trouble.
Upon our return, I shared the story with my parents. My Dad, part way through the story asked, “Did you ever think of two words before you left?” I said, “Don’t go?” He said, “No, Ruby and Clyde.” I replied I thought of them the entire time. That’s why my quads hurt so much! But mostly I thought of them on the descent.
See the climb is only half over when you get to the summit. So really, it’s not summiting the mountain that is the goal. It’s getting up and getting back down that is really the accomplishment!
Having two kids – who were both at camps during this endeavor – clouds the clarity I used to feel in the mountains. I think of them all the time. With each step. Neil and I often say things like, “If this rock breaks, tell the kids I love and I am proud of them.” Not sure if other parents out there feel the same, but it is hard for me/us to keep a singular focus. To die in the mountains, though a place of home coming for both of us, feels selfish. As we began the descent, which Neil says was not that scary, I thought of the children with every step.
This made for slow going as I was NOT going to slip. Thus, the aching quads…
In the route description, it mentioned three rappels to get off the mountain. Since we down climbed the summit pyramid, as the way we went up was on the west side of the pyramid and was easy scrambling, we skipped the first three rappels. I still kept envisioning three magical rappels that took us all the way down 3,000 ft., which if you only bring two 30 meter ropes up, and 30 meters is about 100 ft., well you can do the math. Clearly three rappels would not get us down.
As we descended the 3rd class Southwest Couloir gully on rock ledges to get off the climb, I heard Neil exclaim a loud, “Wow.” I was psyched! I called, “Yes! You found the rappel station?” He said, “No. I found the most perfect specimen of Silky Phacelia!” We had been smelling this flower, which smells like kind bud, all the way up the mountain. Thus, we had to take out the camera and snap some macros of this beauty!
About 1,000 feet down we did find three rappels. One off to the skiers right of the gully on an old hex with so many rappel slings around it that were crusty from weathering that you must wonder, is it better to take them all off and add our one new one? Or leave them all for extra security? We left them all and added a nut to the anchor! Sorry Park Rangers!
Then, another 200-ft. lower – we only did two rappels as we were tired of pulling rocks down on our heads when pulling the rope and the down climbing eased a bit! The joys of a third class descent. We began again the rock ledge descent until we arrived at the steepest part of the couloir. Neil looked into this wide chimney and said, “I think we can make it.” Only to look left and see the first of three magical rappel stations. These three helped us down the remaining 300 ft. of the descent couloir, to a cold and clear water source and finally onto the steep snow at the base.
As we descend the snow, I looked longingly down into the Park Creek drainage, an alternate descent. It looked steep, but I could see it. Our original idea was to go back out the way we came. Which would require a climb back up to the Storm King/Goode col, a rappel, glacier travel and then another 2,000 ft. bushwhack descent to the river. The Park Creek drainage was unknown and an extra 5 miles, maybe more, walk back to the car. It seemed appealing. No more glaciers, I don’t like them. No river crossing – that we knew of. As we had never read the descent off this side and had no internet access to do research, we were a bit in the dark on this exit. Yet, I was desperate for easy. I felt done.
As we got down to a rocky basin, I lost it. I just started to cry. To release all of the angst I had built up about staying safe on the descent. To let go of the fear of dying and my children not having a Mother or a Father. It really was not that difficult of a down climb, it was the all thinking that got in the way. I said to Neil, “Don’t worry, I am fine and will be better. I just need a minute.” He looked at me thoughtfully and gave me time.
A few minutes later, wiping the tears from my eyes, I said, “The last time I cried like this was on Polar Circus (a grade 5 ice climb in the Canadian Rockies) and after that I never climbed ice again. I think this is my last alpine climb.” Neil said, “Let’s just focus on getting off and then we can talk about it.”
After a bit of deliberation, we decided to go out the way we came. We began our journey through another sketchy kitty-litter-on-rock-animal-trail-1,000-foot-drop-off gully where I finally committed to the climb. I mean really was ‘in.’ Funny how it took that long. I mean I was ‘on’ the climb before, but now I was ‘in.’ And though I thought about the children, I stayed in the present moment from there on out. Doing what needed to be done to get off. And not thinking so much.
This was gift of the climb psychologically. I mean to be in the mountains for this long with my partner was amazing, a true gift. Yet, to have the switch flip and to feel it. Wow. That was so cool.
We walked across a snow-covered boulder field, ascended a beautiful heathered slope with a stream that came right out below a huge boulder, and a final – there’s more? – boulder field ascent back up to the Storm King/Goode col. By this time, it was 7 pm. I never said we were fast. Did I mention we were older?
This is where things got real. Yes, there’s more…
It was late season, early August. We knew the glacier would be exposed. However, we were not prepared for the nearly impassable glacier we encountered.
After a rappel from the col, we found a fixed line (somebody had been in this predicament before…) which got us over the moat and onto the glacier proper. We had to put on our crampons again – Neil in the moat and me at the slanted gravel spot where we began the fixed line rappel – because the glacier was so steep, exposed and icy that we could not have made it down in our approach shoes. Neil went first and held an anchor for me while I descended the steepest part of the glacier. Then he came down and we began to try to find a way off. We were on the skiers left of the glacier – facing downhill.
We thought we saw a place where we could jump across and down from one fin to another. This turned out to not be the case. The bergschrund was far more broken up than it appeared to be from above, was way steeper and jump was a we-might-not-make-that jump as it was longer than we thought. We had to set up a rappel to get over the overhang and onto the glacier proper. Neil made an anchor by the time I got to the rock. We took out our headlamps and were off again. He rappelled first and took a king swing into the hole trying to walk a fin of ice, then popped onto another fin and then walked onto the glacier. I just rapped the overhanging ice.
We roped up again and began to pick our way down the glacier through all the crevasses. At one point, Neil said, “Tracy, I am not sure how we are going to get off this thing.” In my head, I thought, “You are the glacier expert! We have to get off this thing as I have two kids to pick up tomorrow!!” I said none of this, and just said out loud, “We can figure this out. We can always camp.” Though the idea of having to camp on a glacier, tied into an ice screw as there were no flat spots, or in a moat, in a light summer sleeping bag, did not really appeal to me.
We had run into the ice fall. There was a two-story, active blue ice cliff below us. Not the one on the other side of the glacier, but another ice fall. Mt. Goode is about a mile wide where we were. We could/would not go down that. We could not see a way through on the left side and we would have had to ascend about 750 ft.,maybe more, on the right to get up to the rock and cross the moat and scramble to get around to another moat/bergschrund and get onto the flatter part of the glacier. We were in for it. And it was dark. How I longed for those heavy halogen lights of yesteryear…
Neil said he would take one last look. It took a while and I inquired. He said I found a way. I was overjoyed. He said you should come look though.
What he had found was a fin of snow on top of ice about the width of a balance beam below a 5-foot section of vertical blue ice. It went, but barely.
Neil chopped steps down the vertical section both so he and I could get down it. He set an ice screw so he could hang onto something while he chopped steps as we each only had one ice axe and aluminum crampons. I walked back up the glacier and held an anchor the best I could in the steep, hard ice.
I called to him for a progress report. He was about to move. I moved with him to keep the rope taught. When you travel on a glacier, the rope only works to stop you from falling very far into a crevasse if you keep it reasonably taught. So, when your partners move, you move with them at the pace that keeps the rope taught.
I could not see Neil at first as he was below me, but I felt him moving. As I approached the hole, he asked if I felt comfortable down climbing and crossing this fin with a 30- and 40-foot drop, as far as we could tell, on either side. Having climbed a lot of ice in my past, it seemed easy to descend in cut steps 5-ft and then side step an eroding balance beam of snow and ice – no problem.
What he told me later, was the place he was walking toward as I crossed the fin was a small ice bridge between two other large crevasses which emerged the father he travelled on the bridge! As soon as he realized where he was he back tracked a few steps and got on solid-er ground.
That night, after a long walk down the snow we camped in a relatively safe spot on some rocks. We had some dinner and then went to sleep around 11 pm. Covering ourselves with a tarp as the breeze off the snow was chilly in our light bags. We were up again at 5 am to continue our descent.
This descent was lovely at first, with heather benches, early morning light and refreshed bodies (but sore quads!). We may have entered the bushwhacking part too early as we descended about 1,000 ft. of intense alder, salmon berry and devils club vertical sh-whacking looking for the not-so-steep slab at the bottom. After a few waterfall/shoe encounters, some steep down climbing, bee stings, multiple scrapes and tangles, we found the slab. We descended, the easiest part of the trip yet, crossed the river, which was a breeze, even welcome, and were on the other side quickly.
We got naked. Submerged ourselves in the freezing cold river – a Goode baptism. Cleaned up and began our 14-mile hike out. We got to the car at 3:15 pm.
We were rewarded with seeing friends in Mazama. To whom I said this was my last alpine climb. The friend, who was a mountain guide with us back in the day, said, “Tracy, you just need a few weeks to get over it and you’ll be back.” I told him, “I don’t think so. I think this was it.”
As we drove into Seattle after an epic 9-hour drive to pick up our daughter the next day, I turned to Neil and said, “I know what our next climb is, the North Ridge of Stuart.” He laughed. Our friend was right, it didn’t even take a day…
This post was written for friends and family who are interested in our adventures. Sorry for those looking for a simple summit post. There is important info here, but you must wade through the story!