Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Mount Berge, Southeast Buttress, New Route, July 2011

Mount Berge, Southeast Buttress, New Route, July 2011         

     I had climbed Berge's long East Ridge in August of 2008 with Tana Beus and my old college buddy Chuck Sink.  Yes that would be the Sink of the Sink/Gerber Route on Dragontail's North Face.  When he and Eric Gerber put up the route on Dragontail, I had just arrived at WSU, and although strong and enthusiastic, I didn't know much about placing pro.  I learned a lot from Chuck and Dave Neff, and we did a number of good climbs together, including the second ascent of Mount Stuart's Northwest Face in 1972.  Here we are on the summit skinny, strong, and young; no marriages yet, hence no divorces, and none of our friends had been killed in the mountains.  Time has a way of altering all that; and Chuck and I are fast friends to this day, getting together for climbing trips every couple of years (even though he lives in Anchorage, AK).
Alan and Chuck Sink on summit Mount Stuart, 1972.   

      When we climbed Berge in 2008 it was obvious there were a couple of other unclimbed buttresses on the south side of the peak that was comprised of decent granite.  Although I had never been to the top of Berge before 2008, I was familiar with the area.  In 1967 at age 16, I joined a group on 25 Mazamas including my parents, for a week long outing at Buck Creek Pass.  I was fascinated at being in the midst of a sea of mountains, and even got to the top of Helmet Butte and Napeequa Peak with the group.  Twelve years later I led an Outward Bound patrol up and over the Louis Creek High Route to High Pass, and across the steep heather slopes of Mount Berge's west side.
Mount Berge from Buck Mountain, new route is far left buttress
      In 2008 we approached Berge from Buck Creek Pass and High Pass; virtually all good trail hiking, but a long ways.  Then last summer when my friend Matt Demey from Denver showed up, we went in the same way with plans to exit the bushwhack back down to Buck Creek at the climb's end.  With the heavy snowpackpack of 2010/2011 we encountered the white stuff over the trail before we reached Buck Creek Pass.  And that was the last week of July!  

     After a grueling ten hours of marching, the last bit on snow, we found a dry patch of ground to camp on just before the sun went down.  In the distance I could see Napeequa Peak that I climbed in 1967 with the Mazama group.  We were there in August of that summer and wildflowers carpeted the slopes and meadows, mosquitoes whined in the air, and every night we sat around a roaring campfire; back when fires were still allowed.
     Marsh Marigolds were the only blossoms popping up after the snowmelt where Matt and I placed our camp, and the tiny dentist drilling bloodsuckers were noticeably absent. We ate the largest dinner from our heavy packs, and contemplated tomorrow's route to High Pass and up around Berge.  The route to High Pass followed a trail on the east side, but that was covered in snow.  I was hoping that the crest would have some bare sections where a climber's path snaked along, saving us a lot of extra effort.
     Luck was with us next morning as we discovered that the west side of the ridgecrest was bare, and we picked our way along a narrow path up and over several humps leading to the pass.
Matt on approach to High Pass
      The remnants of cornices were draped about the ridge as the hot July sun created  rivulets of meltwater; it was going to be a long day.  Beyond High Pass we dropped into in snowy basin just north of Berge.  It was time to refill water bladders ( a half gallon gone), and for Matt do some first aid on his heels.  Rising south of the basin was the final climb of the day up snowslopes on Berge's Northwest shoulder, over the Southwest Ridge, and down into the basin where we planned to camp.  It looked to be hot so I changed into shorts before the ascent.  Westward rose Clark Mountain, the jagged summit of Tenpeak, and Glacier Peak's perfect snowy cone.  The high alpine slopes slumbered white from winter, leaving only dark ridges of rock exposed. 
Matt crosses the shoulder of Mount Berge
      The slope turned out not as bad as it looked, and we were soon off the snow and hiking up heather and scree to the ridge overlooking the basin on the south.
     It is always this point in the story of our heroes that they wish they were somewhere else, (enjoying happy hour in camp for instance), but the weight of a full rock rack, 60 meter rope, camping gear and six days of food created that bone- crushing load of reality.  Any sign or porters, sherpas or helicopters was distinctly absent from the scene.
    Once we topped out on the ridgecrest, we could look down to the southeast and see the basin of our intended campsite.  Bright green Larch trees dotted the otherwise snow-covered terrain.  We hoped to find a patch of dry ground to pitch the tent on, and in this we were not disappointed.
Matt approaches the Southeast Buttress

     Enroute to our camp we passed the unclimbed buttress, and it looked like good clean rock.  And like the baby bear's bed that Goldilocks slept in, (not too hard or too soft) and in our case just right; not too steep and not too big.  
     Once settled in camp (on dry ground) we plunged into happy hour and fixing dinner.  Not trusting to the wonderfully lightweight Nextex material of BD's Firstlight tent, we brought a big nylon tarp to put over it in case of rain.  So much for modern technology in the Cascades.  Odd isn't it that most of those single-walled tents are manufactured in Utah or California!  But based on the weather prediction we'd brought the tarp, and it looked as though we were going to need it as high cirrus clouds moved in over Berge that evening.
     A sullen thick blanket of grey blotted out the sky on the following morning, but as Matt and I were itching to climb something, we racked up for a damp adventure.  I figured if we could even get in a couple of pitches before it rained, we could fix our one rope and make it to the ground.  And the first two leads looked blankish and wandering. 
Matt cleans the first slabby pitch
     Small Stoppers, tiny cams and a knifeblade or two helped immensely on my first pitch up out of the moat.  Regardless of how high we made it, it was a great feeling to be on the rock moving and out from under our backpacks.  I worked my way up and right to a small stance and anchored in.  A thick, dark, nasty cloud was shrouding Buck Mountain to the south, as veils of moisture began their descent into Buck Creek southeast of us.
     Matt was having troubles extricating one of my small cams from under an overlap, and all I could think of was we were going to get soaked and nowhere on the route.  But he pulled it, scurried up and we exchanged gear for his lead.  "Where to?" he asked.  "Well I think if you go up to that block, work left across that roof, and then up into that corner system, we can still reach the ground with our rope." I replied.  Moisture was imminent.  It looked as though he might beat it, but I was surely going to be cleaning the pitch in the rain.  
     At least we were not far above the ground, which is a much different feeling than being very high on a big 

Matt leads pitch two just before the storm
route when the weather goes bad.  The uncertainty of getting off, turning blue from cold or making a fatal mistake because you get in a rush are always a possibility.  On Berge we looked right across at our camp only minutes from the route's base.
     There wasn't any hot porridge or feather beds in our temporary home in the woods, but plenty of dry clothing and makings for hot drinks. 
     Matt made quick work of pitch two as the clouds grew darker, and it began to sprinkle.  A pin driven in here and there made the lead a lot safer, as I became anxious wondering whether I'd be cleaning his pitch in a waterfall.
     It was a close thing when I reached his tiny belay ledge just as the rain poured down hard.  Our single 60 meter rope just reached the ground, so we fixed it, donned raingear, rapped off, and headed for camp.  The hope was this little storm would pass on through tomorrow, and we could reascend our rope and finish the climb.  In camp there were hot drinks, books, and a cozy tent, but we hadn't brought enough food to hang for more than a couple of days.
Getting ready to rap in the rain
Camp in the Larch forest
         It rained hard that night and well into the next day.  Around 1 pm patches of blue began to appear through ragged rents in the clouds and the south-facing light-colored granite was drying quickly.  Still, we were unsure if this was a stable bit of clearing or not.  By 2 pm it was looking even better, and although it was late to try and finish the climb, I figured we only had three steep harder pitches left to go to reach the easy slopes above leading to the summit.  I said to Matt "hell with it, let's go finish this thing off before it gets dark."   We were over at the base of the route by 3 pm, and at the top of yesterday's rope by 3:30.  The sun was out as I led up good cracks and grooves.  We each carried rain jackets, water, headlamps and a couple of candy bars.
Tossing off a loose rock on pitch 4
        New routes sometimes require some tidying up, and on Matt' s next pitch he sent a few stones earthward on the otherwise perfect rock.  The climbing was not difficult, and we were following a set of crack systems that looked as though they would carry us to the top left side of the buttress.  As the sun began its slow descent in the sky, a cool breeze brushed the wall.  In one more pitch I scrabbled past a lichen-covered overhanging slot, and on up to low-angle terrain leading to the summit.                                                                                                      
Matt scrambling toward the summit

Matt near the summit
      In less than an hour we were below the final summit rocks, 
where we dumped our gear, and scurried toward the top.  I had descended this side three years before after climbing the East Ridge, and knew it was easy.  Waves of fog rolled in and out, but high above the sky was blue.  
     To the south the gigantic North Face of Buck Mountain loomed above the valley.  And although Cal Folsom and Mark Moore climbed it in 1976, they warned others away saying the face was; "extremely loose and dangerous."  I had scrambled to the top up the backside two summers before, and at one point I peeked over the north side to try and see where they might have climbed up.  For over 2,000 feet black schist dominated the scene; rubble on every ledge, teetering chunks of unstable rock, and the paucity of cracks gave the wall a creepy feel.  This was no hidden prize that climbers coveted, it was something to avoid.
     Matt and I had a couple hours of light left, and as the descent to camp was easy, we knew we'd make it back before dark.  He was excited about reaching the top since he had never done a new route before, and he liked the idea that we picked our own line, and each pitch was an adventure.

Alan and Matt on the summit of Mt. Berge

     In no time we were back in camp, under a star-filled sky, clutching a hot drink and scheming up more new lines to climb in this range of 1100 peaks.  On the summit my friend from Colorado had gazed about and then finally said;  "I had no idea there were so many mountains out here!"      
Night sky and Mt. Berge