Josh and Jason Hummel, Ben Manfredi, and I planned to spend a night out in the mountains. Sometime during the week someone (not me) had broached the Price Glacier. My knee-jerk reaction was an emphatic "Let's do it." The option of heading to Twin Lakes, staying at the cabin atop Winchester, and skiing Larrabee was also considered. The two trailheads are a very short distance apart. The weather was uncertain, so the decision waited until the last second.
Just up the Twin Lakes road, the north side of Mt Shuksan defiantly stood in the sunlight. All I could think was, "We gotta go there." Josh had been studying every weekend, for quite some time, to take all of his tests to become a certified financial consultant. He had been looking forward to a nice, relaxing weekend. He was with Bad Company. Ben said, "I'll leave the decision to you three." Jason and I didn't need to think twice to vote for the Price Glacier, so it was quickly determined that a bushwhack and "the steepest glacier in the lower 48" (I don't have any official source but the Hummels for this hearsay, but it seems likely.) were what Josh would get this weekend.
Ben had been this way a few times before, and he had seen the Price firsthand. I had brought a rope, a picket, a screw, some prussiks, some webbing, and some carabiners, but he advised me to leave them. On this point I might stick with my own judgement next time. Hey, I've read their trip reports; I should have known. The creek crossings were cold and painful, but not too difficult. Josh took a brave line across a downed tree ten feet above the second crossing. Then came the bushwhack, where I was glad that we could follow Ben, because I would not have known where to go.
The afternoon was beautiful; and we stopped to admire the views above Price Lake. This was my first time to see the North Face of Mt Shuksan or the Price Glacier from so close. The views alone are worth the bushwhack. We made camp in some trees near the top of the ridge. I dug a pit for my bivouac - not the best idea, actually. The Hummels pitched their tent. Ben just put his pad and sleeping bag into his bomb-proof bivy. Ben, Jason, and I skied a slope toward the lake while Josh took a nap. The snow wasn't corn, but it was soft and fun.
In the valley, Ben looked at a chute that climbed directly to the Price, which he and the Hummels decided to take instead of the approach to the Beckey route. Josh gave me his watch, since he knew it wouldn't wake him. Shortly after we went to bed it started snowing. I didn't hear the alarm, but I awoke moments later and was grateful to see it was ten after two, since that meant I could get out of my uncomfortably wet sleeping bag and start moving.
The chute was easy with crampons, but Ben blasted too far up the thing, so we had to downclimb to the Hummels. I started up another side chute, but Ben said he had seen it from above and it wouldn't go. I took his word, downclimbed quite some distance, then saw that we wouldn't find another exit for a long way. At that point, Ben went ahead and climbed the chute. I think Ben, Jason, and Josh were just playing an elaborate hoax on the Cascade Classics outsider.
Above the chute were some open snowfields. It was still snowing, as it had been since we started. Ben traversed right around some rocks, then we saw some crevasses that assured us we were on the Price Glacier. Ben climbed between two crevasses, then started skinning. Josh climbed farther, in the process leaving behind him a gaping hole from a failing thin bridge in his wake. We all switched to skis and I thought about how I would have felt better with the rope.
We skinned up some avalanche debris, until we reached the massive icefall. Wow, looking above us we could see cascades of icefalls stacked on top of each other the whole way up the glacier. We knew that just above where we were, there was a shelf that went almost all the way to the top; we just had to get to it. I skinned to the area below the icefall, looking for the chink in the glacier's armor. The left looked promising to traverse around the ice cliffs. I waited for Ben. He insisted that the plan was to go straight up the icefall.
I exchanged skis for crampons just behind Ben and Josh. After a steep step, I could see Ben trying to skirt a steep face, while Josh watched. Ben went as far as he was willing to go with his UTB crampons and self-arrest ski poles. He decided he had not found the way. Josh started to go higher in another direction, but he became rather preoccupied with the massive ice cliff at the bottom of the steep slope below him. Ben chided him a few times, then I decided to take a look for myself. I made it to the ice step. It looked like about fifteen vertical feet of soft seventy degree ice. I started to take a step up it, thinking that I could get up it without a problem. Josh questioned, "What are you doing? You can't ski that, how do you plan to get down?" Well, I could climb down if we didn't find another way, but this was a group endeavour, so I decided to desist. I thought maybe things would have felt more comfortable if I could have pulled a rope out of my pack, but the rope was in Ben's truck.
In my Grivel G-14s, true ice-climbing crampons, which were not made less effective by a telemark boot, I downclimbed the little bit of icefall we had surmounted in a frenzy, talking smack to Ben and Jason as I passed them, "Come on, downclimb!" I wanted to check the way on the left, so I looked at the huge seracs above me, took a deep breath, and traversed with swiftness. I had to go up a small bulge to get to the crest, but there was a sizeable crevasse in the way. I kept kicking into the snow, watching it get wider. Probing to the left five or six steps, things felt stable, so I scrambled to the top. Ben and the Hummels followed me. It was snowing again; the visibility was maybe ten feet. We couldn't see the slope. I could see a few small irregularities in the surface just across from us, but they made it look really steep.
After a few minutes, I decided to retreat, so I hiked across the avalanche debris until I was out of the way of the most threatening seracs. The Hummels crossed next, then the sun broke through the clouds. Ben was still sitting on the perch atop the rib. He joined us momentarily. He had taken a look in the light, the slope wasn't too steep, and it looked like it definitely wasn't blocked by ice cliffs. So the question was: Should we go climb it? I was interested, but at the same time tentative. We speculated for a moment, then Ben said something to the Hummels. No one said no, but no one was saying yes. We had lost a lot of time, but it was only nine thirty in the morning.
I guess I made the final decision, since I was the first to start skiing. I stopped and waited above the crevassed section. Jason showed first and we took a few more turns, before waiting for Josh and Ben below some big crevasses. We took pictures of them skiing. The steep chute returning to the main chute we had climbed was thin, icy, and rocky. Someone with a video camera could have caught some ugly footage. We skied out of the main artery none too quickly. A huge avalanche of big icy chunks of snow crashed down the gut just as Ben and I were exiting. We turned the corner and waited for the debris to stop, which gave us a chance to contemplate our good luck.
The sun was shining below camp. We all stopped and rested without packs on our backs. Then we sat and watched avalanches come down the mountain and spill over the cliffs. We saw a few more come down the chute we climbed and skied. It was a rewarding trip, but I think we were all a little disappointed, too. There was some talk about the possibility of a day-trip to ski the Price the next week. Honestly, sometimes I think I get a little obsessed with mountains, but I'm sure I don't want any help with my disorder.