Columbia Peak, East Face
April 26, 2009

The crowd moved to and fro in these rooms like ebb and flow of turquoises, rubies, emeralds, opals, and diamonds. As usual, the oldest women were the most decorated, and the ugliest the most conspicuous. If there was a beautiful lilly, or a sweet rose, you had to search for it, concealed in some corner behind a mother with a turban, or an aunt with a bird-of-paradise.
~From Chapter 96 of the Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Damas

Photos and story by Jason Hummel

The Monte Cristo Range and her peaks have convinced me that they are so much bigger than their 7000-ft summits allude. It reminds me of this frequent conversation/inner dialogue. It goes like this.

I often get asked whenever I mention I’m a climber, “So how many times have you climbed Rainier?” As if that’s a mountaineering standard by which I am to be a bonafide Cascade Climber. I always crack a smile, wondering if I should tell them how it really is, but would it make a difference? Who cares if I grumble that “there are 7k peaks that take more skill and effort than summiting Rainier.” While, really, that doesn’t even tell half the story! Then I would be further remiss in telling them that I climb to ski. How can I make someone understand why I do that? There are times in which I don’t even comprehend “Why?” Which is a question with deeper ribbons of meaning all by itself. “Why do I climb mountains?” Perhaps it’s the mystery of the unknown, the living in the moment, the capturing life’s essence and separating it with fear and worry from everything else - so that when it floods back in, you’ll notice it. There it is, a fragrance recognized. But when I put a finger on it, there it goes, too slippery to capture. Eventually my mind snaps back to the question at hand. How many times have I climbed Rainier? My answer “6-7 times."

I’ve found the simplest answer is best, but for those that want more, here’s a longer one. Hidden behind Kyes and Monte Cristo Peaks, Columbia’s East Face appears out of a plethora of mountains as an object of desire. From cliffs on every aspect, there doesn’t appear to be routes worth noting, at least from a skier’s perspective. It wasn’t until my friend Ryan went into Kyes Peak, saw across the valley, and sighted a route. He took a picture of it and sent me a copy. It was then I changed my mind.

At the same time, I needed to get my brother, Josh out. He has been working 6 days a week and barely controlling his jealousy. You see, his girlfriend, Christy and I both lost our jobs. While he’s there in an office, we’ve been in another office of sorts, one with better views and benefits. Instead of a 401k plan, we have a game plan (there’s a list). Instead of 40 hr weeks, we don’t know what day it is. Instead of an HMO, we’ve got the grace of God and Lucy Luck. So does he want our job, “Hell yeah!” But we need a financier. Someone who is responsible? Thanks bro, you’re the man!

My first attempt to gain Columbia’s summit was via a different route. It was also a season ending trip for me. The combination of long trips that year had been too much for my knees. And I had lost motivation. After several with little reward, this one was no different. It was spent dangling in the fog, several hundred feet from the summit.

Going in a different way was enticing. Long had I wondered what was around the corner, over the pass between Columbia and Monte Cristo, down to the waters of Blanca Lake.

At just past midnight Josh, Christy and I set out to meet Ryan in Monroe at 1a.m. An hour later we were parked at a blockade on Beckler Road. From there we set out into the darkness, tiny globes of light expanding and contracting as we look from our feet to the forest, continuously searching for the way forward. On and off the trail, we climbed up through the forest. At dawn the ridge top was ours. Fingers aching from the cold, I wondered down to a spot with a view. Out beyond fog and cloud I could see Glacier Peak. It’s coming in and out of view like a mix of puzzle pieces forming and reforming.

On ice, the descent to Blanca Lake between cliffs appears only after a traverse to its outflow. All of us stood there with it in sight, clouded I’m sure with thoughts of wonder. They climbed up the ladder of conscious clutter. They spun and collided in colorful visions coming from this place. It was an honest to goodness sight. Above the lake wisps of storm swept the treetops, shadows of cliffs stacked on one another enclosed, and at the head of the valley loomed Columbia Glacier. Finally, what a view! What a place! It was something, but more was ahead.

Crossing the lake and taking a break on the other side for boiling water and ramen was a welcome respite. After setting ahead once more, we climbed up to the moraine where we found a weakness in the cliffs. There we pulled out crampons and axes. With Ryan taking the lead, we all began the ascent of the east face. It wound through cliff and snow fields that ranged from steep to moderate.

While ascending, our greatest worries were wondering off route and the sloppy snow conditions we were struggling through. They were worrisome for the descent due to a hard layer and the wet snow laid over that. The one active ingredient missing was sun, which could further soften things. It was hidden behind fog; a lucky break for us.

Further up, once we traversed onto the final slopes, the way became a bit more spicy. Below us, cliffs we saw from the valley were now being stood atop of with only balance and the grip of foot and hand to keep your fate from gravities clutch. A few hundred feet from the summit Josh and Christy turned back. While Christy is a wonderful climber, time spent down climbing would take too long in the heat of the day and skiing was too chancy. While she’d proven herself to me by skiing the NW Face of Sahale and the Cascade-Johannesburg Couloir the previous week, this was yet a step above.

Ryan was near the top when I decided it was worth continuing. Even I was sketched by the terrain now increasing to 50+ with exposure. In a hurry I rushed upward, making each step count. I was already worked and as I neared the top, pulling myself up around the cornice to get over the final 5-ft. It was then, my steps broke away, but my two axe placements were thrice checked and held. My next try brought me over the top, heart thumping and head clouded with fear and happiness, thrill and joy bubbling over one another in a stew of emotions.

Ryan was excited. There appeared to be a higher summit to our right, so we climbed over to it. Along the ridge there are many high and low spots, all within a few feet of each other. The true summit was still further along, but our line was below, softening under that day’s sun. With a handshake, Ryan and I loaded our packs, put on our skis, and glided to the edge.

The descent was before us.

Taking photos is a joy I can’t measure, but if taking a camera out while strung out over precarious cliffs with two waxed and slippery pairs of skis on is any measure of it, then I am alarmingly smitten by a instant captured. And yet, there was one I let pass, quite literally. Since our descent route began over massive cliffs there was a lot of air below us, thousands of feet. The Columbia Glacier rested underneath in contrast to the cliffs of Kyes Peak across the valley. Sat between it all was a white expanse, uninterrupted or marred. It was then, gripped to the slope while watching Ryan descend - that I saw a bird, black wings rising for a handful of air and falling with it in tow. Each stroke carrying it forward, up through the glacier valley. Pointed wings like a sea bird made me think it wasn’t a crow or raven. The slow pulse of its wings too elegant. Yet my view was an unfamiliar one, me above what I normally see from below. Perhaps my perspective was cause for mistaken identity? And yet no matter what it was, in that moment I forgot where I was. This was something special and no picture was worth sacrificing that. I wrung the moment out as this lonely bird flew on until it was gone.

Thoughts of birds and wings did me no good in this place. As I pulled in below Ryan, I took a traverse to a place between rocks. On a bench I could see Josh and Christy waiting. We joined up with them and took pause while making sure we kept close watch on the snow and its ever changing mood between sun and shade. It was touchy and we wanted to be sure we didn’t get slapped. We were capable of waiting till darkness and colder temps to freeze the snow if we had to. But it turned out to be fine, quite possible great in places, much to our surprise.

Once down at the bottom, everyone but me swept up speed and flew down to Blanca Lake. I watched and was happy to have skied a line that both challenged and tested me. As they reached the lake and began across, I rushed down to join them.

For most of an hour we slept and ate on the lake shore before climbing up to Virgin Lake. After peeling skins, we played tag with ridge line and boot pack, at one point losing both altogether. No matter our searching over creek, behind tree, and side to side, we didn’t find them. It was hopeless. Eventually reaching cliff bands we traversed through steep old growth forest and finally down to lower secondary forest. The annoyance was manageable as we knew from the map that we were likely to come to a road. As it happened, we were right. Following it, we came to a tee and retraced the way we had come, eventually arriving back at our car.

After 16 hours, we ended a long day, thankful for our clean socks, slippers, and some pineapple chunks we had in lieu of cold drinks we neglected to bring. It was then, while sitting on the bumper enjoying them, I realized that mountains are like a blunt object. They are the only things that get through my thick skull. With age I’ll discover more subtle joys, but until then I’m hopelessly entangled with tree and bird, lake and mist, sun and shade, ice and snow, rock and pass, thirst and hunger, success and failure, life and death, movement and flow and so much more. Too much to recognize without first separating it out from the clutter. For me it takes a dash of fear, a splash of mystery and a touch of challenge to do it well. The Monte Cristo Range certainly had enough of each to do that. But like the unknown bird, my answers eventually round the bend and fly out of sight, leaving me wanting to return over and over, in what ever capacity that may be, even if one day my knees are too old and I can only see the mountains from my porch.

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