Living the Dream
“Hey dude, did you see Porter’s video? That looks awesome. Want to take Wednesday off and get it?”
I blinked twice. It was Monday morning at the office and I was catching up on my work emails.
Anthony had texted me. He was referring to a GoPro video that Porter, a local ice crusher, had posted of the NW Ice Couloir of Eldorado. It looked like a fantastic ice line in the heart of the North Cascades. But what was surprising is that Anthony was the one asking me, not the other way around. Usually, I have to drag him away from lapping Si and his home in North Bend to adventure in the greater mountains. But recently, after an awesome day ice bouldering at Heliotrope Ridge, Anthony has been showing a resurgence in alpine vitality. This was too good of an opportunity to pass up. We needed to do this. We began making plans.
“Hey, I just woke up and I’m not feeling as stoked on Eldo anymore. It’s kind of a contrived route and the approach is long and there’s not that much actual ice. The ice to walk ratio isn’t great. Do you still want to do it?”
I didn’t blink once. It was Tuesday morning and Anthony was once again trying to back out. But it was too late. I had already opened the bottle, capture that rare, ephemeral Anthony Stoke, and canned it. We were going for the send.
It was just after 4 am on Wednesday when we left the car at the Eldorado Trailhead. Just as Porter promised, our morning began with a cold crossing of a wet log across the wimpy Cascade River. The beginnings of a true Cascadian adventure!
We easily found the true Eldorado climber’s trail and begin heading uphill in the dark. After climbing a few hundred feet, the air warmed 10-20 degrees and we suddenly found ourselves sweating in our base layers. Is this really November?
I love these steep Cascade approach trails. The vert comes so fast, you can hardly even notice it. After one hour and 2000 ft gain, we entered into the infamous boulder field.
I remember crossing the boulder field 3.5 years ago in the pouring rain with mountaineering boots and a 40 lb pack. It is amazing what difference a few years can make. Now Anthony and I were cruising with lighter packs, way more technical gear, and running shoes, bouncing up the boulders, following the cairns on the right side of the boulder field. We both agreed it was one of the most stable boulder fields we have ever encountered, so it definitely has an undeservedly poor reputation.
Above the boulder field, we started to encounter snow, but it was firm so we stayed in running shoes. As we entered the alpine, first light was rising behind Johannesburg and the Triplets. The immensity of the peaks around us was just starting to become apparent, but we knew that giants lurked.
We cruised up supportive crust to the ridgeline before descending into the next basin. Out of the blue, we ran into a single dude, Shaun, at an epic shiver bivy. It was cold and windy, and he obviously had not slept well. He was thinking about soloing the NW Ice Couloir, but was not sure if he would continue.
We chatted and then continued on our way, dropping down into the basin beneath the Eldorado Glacier. The wind was whipping here, blasting us with cold air. The snow was firm yet grippy, so we continued tromping in our trail runners.
It was 6:30 am, and usually I would just be waking up at this time. But instead, Anthony and I were up here, soaking in a November sunrise in the alpine. We are so lucky to have such wild places so close to home. Or maybe, these mountains are truly home. Some days I am not sure.
We stayed in our tennies until we were literally at the lowest ice mound of the Eldorado Glacier, at 7000 ft. Here, we switched footwear, put on harnesses and brought the rope out. The wind was just blasting us with Arctic air and it was difficult to feel our hands. We both had our belay puffies on as we set off once again up the glacier.
After cresting onto the flat Inspiration Glacier, we finally entered the sun. The wind stopped, the sun bathed us in warm light, and the effective temperature shot up about 50 degrees. I stripped down to my base layer.
The massive flat expansive of the Inspiration Glacier is truly unmatched in the Cascades. As we began our morning stroll, I was immediately transported back to that surreal morning 3.5 years ago as I watched the mountains turn gold and pink at sunrise. After a day of suffering through pouring rain and a blizzard, we awoke to a magical landscape of ice and snow. We walked across the Inspiration as the sun rose from behind Forbidden and all around us, peaks stood out like islands in the sea of clouds. It was a day I will never forget, the day that set the hook, the day I truly fell in love with the North Cascades.
We stayed low and passed around the East Ridge, the standard route of Eldorado. There were a few more crevasses as we headed towards Dean’s Tower, but they were still very easy to navigate. We were both blown away by how filled in the glaciers seemed for early November.
We easily found the notch between Eldo and Dean’s Tower and the piton rappel anchor.
We made one ~33m rappel (single 70m rope) and then slung a rock for the second rappel anchor.
This popped us off at the top of the small glacier at the head of the Marble Creek Cirque. We looked up and instantly saw our line: steep, fat, wonderful. The NW Ice Couloir.
We traversed a few hundred feet to the base. It looked steep and sustained. We could see numerous ice steps and fortunately, they all looked pretty fat! This route is rarely found in such icy conditions, but we have had a pretty great fall to feed it: a huge early season dump followed by cool, clear weather.
The approach had taken us 5.5 hrs, but it was so beautiful that it felt like time flew by. Now, we racked up and prepared for the business. Anthony was visibly excited. His dream is moderate ice and mixed climbing. Here we were, about to climb a striking line in perfect condition in the most beautiful setting. It doesn’t get any better than this!
We simul climbed upwards into the couloir. As the walls shrank the gully around us, I felt my focus narrow into the task at hand. Alpine climbing has such a way of demanding intense presence in the moment. One becomes intensely aware of every sensation and every movement. We are completely within ourselves.
There were many little ice steps. Incredibly, all were thick enough to take screws! Most were 70-80 degrees, but a few bulged to vertical for a body length or two. The sticks were incredible, usually just single-swing hero ice! Anthony and I were absolutely flowing, cruising up the steep snice and wonderful ice. Everything about the route – the climbing, the position, the condition – felt so perfect.
Anthony and I have climbed enough together that we have a good sense of each other’s comfort level. On this day, we were completely within our abilities, and so we were able to move quickly with minimal gear between us. We just kept moving upwards and it seemed like we were at least halfway through the route by the time Anthony set up a belay station.
At the belay, I caught my breath for a moment, grabbed the remaining gear, and was on my way. The near continuous climbing on sustained terrain was wearing me down, but I have gotten better at finding rests to relieve the calf burn.
We continued to simul upwards, making progress quickly. I begin to realize that we were nearing the end of the couloir! It seemed absurd to be almost done with the route on just the second pitch, but we were moving well because of the ideal conditions.
The final WI2 ice step was pure water ice and of extremely brittle quality. I was quite tired at this point and was shattering ice with every swing, showering ice down on Anthony. Fortunately, it was over quickly and I popped up beneath the summit.
We fist pumped and then finished the famous “knife edge” to Eldorado’s true summit. Even though the technical fun was over, the knife edge is such an iconic, stunning feature. Especially on a bluebird day like this, it feels like a snowy staircase into the heavens. Surrounded by a world of ice and rock, Eldorado is the queen.
We arrived at the summit exactly 8 hours after leaving the car, at high noon. The air was perfectly still, just as the mountains around us. I have never been in the alpine in the late fall before. There is no other time of year when the mountains just feel so peaceful – void of people, avalanches, wind. Sometimes it feels like my life is flying by and I don’t know what I’m doing. But then there are these brief moments of incredible peace both internally and externally and I see matters with a new clarity. I see my life from above, and I realize how lucky I am to be here in this moment.
I remember the first time I saw a photo of Eldorado Peak and later the first time I saw it in person. From the start, it captured my imagination. There’s just something so quintessentially alpine about it – the snowy kinfe-edge, the sprawling glaciers, the steep valleys. To me, it has always been the image of what a Cascadian Peak should be.
As we started to head down, we passed Shaun, the soloist. He had climbed the route after us, so apparently he got he mental game fixed up after a cold night! Ice soloing is all about head space, so we were glad he got to a place where he felt ready for that route.
One of my favorite views in the entire Cascades is that of the Tepeh Towers and Austere Towers. Hundreds of little rock spires poke out of the icecap like fangs. It is so incredibly unique and awe inspiring. Maybe some day I will traverse them all. That sounds like a crazy idea, but the NW Ice Couloir sounded crazy to me a few years ago. That’s what dreams are made of.
The snow was surprisingly still firm as we descended, making for fast walking.
The sun was blindingly bright and warm as we descended south on the Eldorado Glacier. The snow became extremely post-holy once we stepped off the glacier, so we had to be careful not to tear an ACL or hurt ourselves. Other than that, there was not much that could go wrong. We had the day in the bag.
Near the top of the boulder field, we transitioned back to running shoes and drank fresh melt water from the streams. Above, the granitic summit of Mt. Torment beckoned. Another day, another adventure. There’s no shortage of adventures around here.
The boulder field was more pleasant in the afternoon light and we made good time down. Near the bottom, I took a moment to gaze at the incredible North Face of Johannesburg. The entire mountain looked dead: the vegetation in valley floor had no life, the usually gushing waterfalls were frozen or dried up.
We pounded our knees in a controlled fall down the steep forest trail. Before we realized it, we were back at the river. Here, deep in the valley bottom, it was just as cold and icy as it was in the morning. We scooched across the still-wet log and walked back up to the car in the cold shade. The road was still frozen. Somehow, it felt like 60 degrees in the alpine but never got above freezing at the valley floor.
We reached the car around 3:30, about 11.5 hrs after leaving in the morning. We were both very pleased with the time. It was yet another day of flawless execution and movement, but of course, we knew most of the credit goes to the perfect conditions the mountains gave us. We sent the route, but the mountains allowed us easy passage. They played nice this time. It is important to always remember that.
Anthony and I both agreed that this was the best alpine snow/ice route we have ever climbed. It just perfectly fit our vision of fast and light alpinism: moderate, high quality climbing in a spectacular setting. It feels so good to have a vision of that experience you desire, build the necessary sills, develop trust with your partner, and make that vision come true.
Fall in the mountains is a weird time of year, but it can yield such amazing opportunities like today if you just keep an open mind and go with the flow. This climb was completely off my radar until a few days before, but it may very well turn out to be the climb of the season for both of us. I am someone who likes to control and plan everything. I’m a strategist, and I execute to a high degree of efficiency and success. But no matter how hard I try, some things don’t work out. That’s how it is in the mountains. Even if you are completely prepared, they can and will still shut you out from time to time. But that only makes it all the more wonderful when the pieces fall into place and for a brief moment, you find that mountain magic, that alpine perfection. It never leaves you, for as long as you remember.
- We rated the climb in this condition as WI3. There was no mixed climbing. However, realize that any climb like this can vary hugely, from AI2 to WI4 M4.
- We brought 7 screws and used them all. We placed a few passive rock pieces (nuts and tricams), but could have made it without them. Bring more rock gear and pickets if you are not comfortable on sustained, exposed 50 degree snice.
- A 70 m rope will make the raps in 2 rappels, while a 60m rope might take 3 rappels.
- Be careful of ice fall in this gully. It is an extreme funnel. The only concerning moments for us were when the leader knocked off dinner plates of ice down on the follower.
- The glacier approach was surprisingly straightforward for early November. I don’t think it has snowed enough to bridge the crevasses, but it seemed almost too cruiser.
- Stick to the climber’s right side of the boulder field(s) and follow the cairns.