The West Ridge of White Rabbit
August 12, 2007
"We go!", exclaimed Mike in voice much too cheery to be appropriate at 5 am. I got into my boots and out of the tent quickly and lit the stove to brew up more of the hated Pu-Erh. The warmth and caffeine would be appreciated. The sky was just beginning to lighten to purple, the stars just beginning to go away. Breakfast, tea, a last gear check. The weather was perfect, without a cloud anywhere. At 6 am we were moving up toward the west ridge. It was time.
We moved along the rocky benches were we had been bouldering yesterday afternoon and worked up the big ridge of a minor mountain that separated our col from the west ridge itself. There was plenty of light to see by and the rock on the ridge felt solid and comfortable. Quattrin glacier and the valley below, forming our approach route, spread out below our feet as we gained elevation.
Although it was quite light out, the sun was still behind White Rabbit and the shade we climbed in was quite cold. Eschewing the rock for the glacier hanging on the face of the barrier peak, we donned crampons and moved up the moderate, 35 degree slope. The shade meant that the crampons were actually necessary and moving un-roped meant that we could each move according to our desires. Bob took a direct line, front pointing up rapidly, stopping for breaks when his calves screamed for mercy. I switchbacked up, keeping my crampons flat on the slope to save my calves and taking few breaks. Mike took to front pointing as well, though moving with more breaks than Bob, but at a faster pace. Although we spread out initially, we all seemed to converge at the top at about the same time. We stripped off crampons and got back on the ridge for the last scramble up to the top.
Cresting out, we got our first full, unobstructed view of the west ridge of White Rabbit since the plane flight in. We had some work to do.
We moved to the end of the ridge where the sun just barely made it and rested in the sun while scoping out our route. We named the formation we were on Blaster Ridge, after Bob christened it behind a prominent boulder. A ridge further off, in view, Mike told us was called Dumper Ridge for a similar reason.
Well rested, we decided to leave our snow and ice gear behind, taking only two axes to pound pitons in if we needed them. To begin the west ridge, we'd have to give back nearly 500 feet of elevation, dropping down from Blaster Ridge to a notch at the base of the west ridge. The rock remained friendly and the route down was easy enough to inspire some amount of confidence in me: Things were going very well, we were moving quickly, and the rock was as solid as could be expected. Upon reaching the notch, all of that changed. Our two hours of fun were over.
One aspect about a first ascent that should be obvious is that no one had been around to clean loose rock off from the route. A mountain that gets climbed many, many times has all, or most, of its loose rock knocked off by others. Since no one had climbed the west ridge before, there were chunks of loose rock every where, which made climbing a bit precarious. However, loose rock is only one problem. The more important problem is that of crappy rock, which is a technical climbing term for rock that looks attached to the mountain, but in fact is highly fractured and will come off with the slightest pressure in the wrong direction. White Rabbit had both in spades. The Olympics, in my home state of Washington, are known for their awful rock, with both loose and crappy rock abounding. White Rabbit put the Olympics to shame.
The ridge was consistently fourth class climbing with rather a lot of exposure. Again my technical language is getting the better of me, so I had better take a moment to explain climbing rating. Class 1 is a trail, quite literally. Class 2 is not a trail, but only slightly more difficult. You might occasionally put your hands out for balance, but mostly you're just moving up uneven terrain with your hands in your pockets. Class 3 means that you're having to use your hands pretty consistently for balance and for pulling on rock, and you actually need to use your eyes to look for where to put your feet. Class 4 is like class 3, except that falling becomes more of a possibility, and that if you fall you will die. Class 5 means that most people will want a rope on them. The easiest class 5 climb is 5.0. The hardest in the world is 5.15.
Now, I also mentioned exposure. In a city exposure is something that perverts practice, but in the mountains it refers to having a lot of air under your feet. So, exposed class 4 terrain means that we were actively using hands and feet, with a ton of air under us, and that a fall would most likely kill the unfortunate climber. Because the rock was so crappy and loose, you had to be very careful with what you chose to stand on or put your hands on: A bit of rock breaking off from underneath your feet or in your hands was a real possibility, and if it happened a fall of a few hundred feet, tumbling down sharp rock would probably happen. It would have been silly to try to rope up and climb on belay: The rock was so terrible that building an anchor would be difficult and it was unlikely that the rock could support a leaders fall: The protection would simply destroy the rock.
This brief digression over, I will continue with our climb. We moved up the ridge much slower than before, gaining elevation, though Mike with his years of experienced moved easier and more comfortably that Bob or I. There were frequent sections of low fifth class terrain, which we climbed un-roped. Even though we were moving slowly, we were still making progress. And then I almost killed Bob.
I saw a bulge out to my right side and wanted to use it to push off against, to counter-force my way up a little higher in the gully. It looked solid, connected, perfect. I decided to test it first and gave it a light push. The bulge broke into three parts of substantial size and began to fall down the gully I was climbing, directly down toward Bob, who had just started up the gully and was 15 feet below me. I yelled "Rock! Rock! Rock!" and watched helplessly as the three pieces tumbled down toward Bob. I could see him pull close into the rock and brace himself, for he was going to be hit. Time slowed and slowed and slowed. The first rock caught him across the arm and shoulder. The second got him directly on the head. "Please...please...please, " I said to myself, "just hold on." Bob shook slightly with the impact, but didn't come off the rock. Had he fallen, he would have gone a long way down and our trip would have changed into recovering his corpse. Mike shouted at us, at me. I finished climbing up the gully and choked down my tears. Mike had a few more choice words. Bob reached the top of the gully, and I couldn't look at him. He was fine, but a little shaken. I sat off by myself and tried not to cry.
The danger had passed and, after recovering a bit, Bob tried to talk to me, to reassure me that he was fine and that it was just an accident. I couldn't say anything, having never been that close to killing someone before and I wasn't taking things particularly well. I tried to pull things together and spent some time munching on an energy bar and looking down the west ridge and out toward Blaster Ridge from where we had come. I had to either pull things together or stop here. But if I stopped here, I knew that Mike and Bob would as well. I forced myself to go on, still mentally somewhere else, still thinking about the bulge that I had pushed ever so gently, about the look on Bob's face as the rocks went toward him, about dying on the mountain or worse, killing one of my friends.
I still couldn't speak without tears welling up. All I could do was pick up my pack and motion to go on. I'd be climbing last from now on. Any rocks I would dislodge would just go harmlessly down the mountain. There was no one else out here to injure or kill.
We continued up the class 4 terrain, moving over knife-edge ridges and tackling each gendarme as it came. We had hoped to be able to bypass these pillars of rock on the ridge, but had to climb up and over each one of them. The rock continued to be loose, crappy, and steep. There was no room for error, no slips could be forgiven.
The sky was clouded when we managed to bypass one gendarme, finally, only to find a vertical, technical section of rock. The cracks in the rock face looked solid enough to accept protection and so we pulled out the ropes for the first time and built an anchor to climb off of. Even though Mike's wrist was hurting him, he was the strongest climber and thus he would lead the pitch, climbing up and out of sight. We had no idea what he might find or how long the climb might last. We built an anchor into the wall, getting three solid nuts placed. The cold grew and grew and my hand began to go numb. Bob belayed Mike as he set off, moving slowly and cautiously and trying not to use his right hand very much. After twenty feet of climbing he disappeared over a lip. A few minutes later we heard him shout "Off belay," meaning that he had reached a safe spot and it was now our turn.
Eventually the rope was pulled up taut against Bob and, after a few words between Mike and Bob, Bob began his own climb on the security of a top rope. I flexed my hands, trying to warm them, during the ten minutes of waiting around. I heard the call and gathered my gear. It was my turn. The pitch was straightforward enough and I cleaned the gear that Mike had put in for protection, eventually reaching the lip. I thought about what to do for a while, secure in a spot where I could do so without burning any energy. A minute went by and I hadn't moved from my secure spot below the lip. One high step to a small, but secure looking bulge and a mantel and I was up on the slab above. Easy friction climbing brought me to Bob, who was belaying me as Mike's wrist was getting increasingly painful.
We stowed the gear and looked up the ridge, seeing only grey mist. There was no where to go but up. An hour passed. An hour of complete focus on the task at hand. The ridge continued to be steep and exposed, the rock getting worse as we went higher. The level of risk stayed at maximum. Bad rock coupled with exposure kept me, and Bob, focused completely on climbing safely, slowly. Mike, though, didn't seem to notice. A greater level of experience and skill meant that Mike was climbing well within his thresh hold of risk, whereas Bob and I were constantly on that thresh hold, or beyond. The clouds were not helping, for we could not see how far we still had to go. I was spent and tired, and when I watched Mike climb deftly up a vertical wall of rock on a gendarme, I wasn't sure I wanted to follow. We exchanged some more choice words as Bob and I looked at what Mike had just cruised up. I didn't want to go on, but in that strange state of mind that I was in, that was exactly what I did.
The route up, had the rock been confidence inspiring, would have been fun and pleasant. Low-mid fifth class with excellent features to use for hands and feet. But the rock wasn't confidence inspiring. It was fear evoking. With great care, I made it easily to the top of the twenty five foot gendarme to join Mike in the mist. Bob followed closely behind, waiting for me to finished before starting up. We rested. We could see only mist and rock face in front of us, waiting for us once we downclimbed the other side of the gendarme. My nerves were gone. Although I was fine physically, mentally my reserves had run out. I was amazed that I was still alive, that I hadn't fallen to my death yet. I was sure, though, that I would die on the descent. It was 1 pm and I had spent the last five hours in mortal terror. It was just too much and I told the others that they should push on without me. They, though, were having none of it and we decided to retreat, both due to the end of my nerves, but also to the late hour and our need to get back to camp before dark. It was unclear how far we had to go still, but another two hours seemed to be needed, at a minimum. We ate raspberry fruit leather that Bob's mom had made for us.
The top of the gendarme was just a rubble heap: Nothing to rappel from. And so we had to downclimb the face. Downclimbing is much more difficult than climbing up, but I was at least some what reassured by having Mike below me, on the deck, giving me bits of advice. And if I fell, I'd only hurt myself, not die. Once down from the gendarme, we continued down the 4th class rock to an outcropping that all of us remembered. The climb up to this point had been difficult and sketchy, with small holds and shifting rock. We had to rappel. Mike and Bob searched for something to use for an anchor and eventually elected to pound two pitons into a large, solid block that looked stable enough. Although this sounds easy enough, it took nearly and hour before the pitons were driven in and the rope rigged. Mike would go first, all smiles, even with his aching wrist. Bob and I watched him go over the edge on the rope, and then stared at the pitons in the rock, not quite sure that they would hold. The pitons, though, were solid and after a minute all seemed well and we watched Mike work his way down the rock face, untangling the rope as he went, and trying to clean off obviously unstable rocks from the face. And then Mike had his own close call with death.
A chunk of rock decided that it was time to fall. Bob and I could see it come loose, just a few feet below us. We hadn't come near it, nor had the rope knocked it loose. It simply came apart on its own and broke into several parts. Mike was twenty feet below. One got him hard on the head. The other nearly sliced one of the 8mm strands of rope in half, though below where Mike was. Hurt, but still alive, Mike finished the rappel. Bob and I joined him shortly there after to see to him.
His helmet had a distinct mark on it from the rock, just like Bob's. The strand of rope was cut through about 75% at the 20 meter mark. Mike had rappelled down to the cut and had been fortunate enough to be on the ground. Had he reached the cut before reaching a secure spot, it was unclear what he could have done. We re-coiled the ropes and began to down climb through more comfortable terrain.
The sky was clearing and the weather improving, but because of our position on the ridge we couldn't see how far we had made it. The quality of the rock improved as we descended, though it still seemed to be rather awful to me. At least we were moving down instead of up. We were moving toward safety as opposed to away from it. People frequently say ignorant things about the need to step outside your comfort zone. I would charge that they've never been truly outside of theirs, only skirting the edges of it. I had been so far out of mine that a return to the awful rock lower down seemed almost pleasant.
At another memorable spot, we decided to rig another rappel. Rather than pounding pitons again, we found a massive, free standing pillar or rock that sat on flat ground. The rock was about the size of a VW bus standing on its end. After a few mis-tries, Bob and I managed to lasso the top of the pillar and our anchor was built. Of course, three members of the Mountaineers had died a couple of years back when the used a similar sized anchor to rappel off of Sharkfin Tower. I had read the accident report and numerous analyses of the accident and knew that we were avoiding all of the mistakes that the deceased had made. But it wasn't until Mike reached the ground 30 meters below that I actually trusted the system. That is how things are when physical safety is in doubt: Theoretical knowledge pales before the practical. We continued our down climb, hoping to avoid any more rappels.
Slowly the notch between the west ridge of White Rabbit and Blaster Ridge came into sight. My thoughts of the certainly of my demise were now mellowed. I thought, quite rationally, that my chances of living through the descent were now about 60% and, if I could make it safely to the notch, they should be near 100%. This cheered me quite a bit. Of course, the thought that I was giving myself a 40% chance to die didn't strike me as depressing. Rather, I was happy because things were getting better instead of worse.
We moved along a knife edge that ran into a gendarme. Up and over and down and along and up and over and down and along. There was one last down climb to be done. The weather was gathering its forces for another assault upon us, though the last one had actually been more of a threat than an actual attack. The black clouds moving toward us didn't bode well, but we didn't hurry either.
We climbed down into the sandy notch and began the ascent up to the top of Blaster Ridge where our gear was stashed. Unlike the west ridge of White Rabbit, the climb up Blaster Ridge was solid. The rock was firm and didn't disintegrate when you touched it. We made short work of the several hundred feet of rock between the notch and our gear. We sat in the remaining sun, somewhat giddy from having gotten back in one piece. We could see the red lasso that we had rappelled off of, and eventually spied our higher rappel as well. However the top of White Rabbit remained shrouded in mist and we still could not tell by how much we had missed the summit. We collected the remains of our gear and set off across Blaster Ridge and eventually down it to the safety of the snow.
The snow and ice of the glacier felt friendly, safe. We moved rapidly down it, taking the rock in a few choice places, and made it to the base of the ridge just as the heavens opened up and hail, mixed with rain, began to pelt up. I didn't care any more. We had easy, flat, safe ground to walk on back to the tent. That it stopped hailing at the precise moment that we reached the tent didn't bother me. I was safe again. It was 7:45 pm, nearly 14 hours from my last island of safety. Tomorrow we would rest.