Aborted McClellan Butte Hike, Unstable Snow

Erin and I attempted a quick run up McClellan Butte as an opportunity to get some time in the mountains. With forecasted temperatures in the 50s and rain/snow falling in the mountains earlier in the week, we were slightly concerned about avalanche risk. We planned to stay in the trees and follow the summer trail checking the snow for stability as we passed the chutes.

Around 3,200’ we stopped at the edge of a lightly forested gully for a snack and noticed that the top few inches of snow was very slushy and heavy. The last couple of minutes I had noticed that some of my freshly kicked steps were collapsing as I weighted them – and I was slightly concerned about the potential avalanche risk above.

Erin noticed a team of two people glissading down the gully: I first saw the table-sized chunks of snow that where being trundled down the slope as they glissaded. They reported low visibility, fresh avalanche debris a few hundred feet above us at the base of the summit chutes, and even less stable snow.

Out of idle curiosity I dug a pit:

  • 4” – 5” top layer of very heavy, very slushy, wet snow on top of a relatively firm crust
  • A few dirty layers within 2’ section of slushy, wet snow
  • A very hard icy layer
  • About 1’ of consolidated snow above the soil

For fun, I gave the block a tug – and the top 4” – 5” of heavy, slushy, wet snow slide off along a the first firm boundary. Sluuussssshhhhhh. That explained why my kicked steps kept collapsing. Everything below that layer was stable.

We decided to turn around: unstable snow in the trees, reports of less stable snow above with fresh avalanche debris, and limited visibility. Too much risk for a training hike.

 

With our new found free time, we buried the avalanche beacons in the debris from the pit and played a few rounds of ‘find the beacon’ for some practice. I’m still amazed at how quick and accurate the Barryvox beacon is in search mode.

Our decision to turn around was validated on the descend, as we kicked off very large, building snowballs with gentle plunge steps on gentle slopes. Traversing across the steeper chutes (25 – 30 degrees) set off every larger snowballs and spontaneous snowballing.

A trip report posted for yesterday on Turns All Years reported a 8” to 10” of new snow near Alpental with “highly reactive snow”. Highly reactive, indeed.

Poor Position, Distracted, Fall On Rock

On April 2nd I was climbing an overhung 5.10 sport route at the Stone Gardens Bellevue gym. The crux of the problem is a series of reachy moves over the roof of the overhang and up the next overhung face to the top of the route (5’ above the roof of the overhang). I positioned my body as statically as possible at the roof to prepare for the start of the crux. I knew that the remaining series of moves required a continuous sequence were dynamic and reachy. As I reached for the first hold above the roof with a dynamic move, my left hand impacted a horn on the roof with great force. The force and surprise of the impact caused me to fall briefly onto the rope. I quickly regrouped and completed the sequence of moves. As I was being lowered by my partner, I noticed focal pain in the left pinky finger with minor swelling. At the time I believed the finger may have been broken, buddy taped it to it’s neighbor as a precaution, and stopped climbing for the night.

Subsequent investigation by Group Health Cooperative diagnosed a non-displaced avulsion fracture of the left 5th finger at the proximal interphalangeal joint.

 

Analysis

I had climbed that route on the previous trip to the gym and knew that the crux was a series of reachy moves which required the body to be positioned closed to the wall. The preceding day at work had been especially stressful, and I was finding it difficult to remain completely focused on climbing – my mind drifted back to the events at work. I was clearly distracted as I started the sequence of moves, and the combination of the distraction, reaching for the move and “throwing myself into it” to vent frustration I unintentionally slammed my left hand into the roof of the overhang: breaking my left pinky finger.

I Was Robbed By A Fox Named Slim Shady

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She tried to keep a straight face after it happened, a smile as cool and unforgiving as the mountain air. I was robbed by a fox named Slim Shady, right under my nose.

 

 

Kim, Erin and I left Paradise for an overnight stay at Muir. The forecast called for low visibility, snow, and high winds at the summit. We carried our summit gear in case the conditions cleared up on the mountain, but we promised our partners that we wouldn’t summit unless the conditions were ideal. Besides, it was still early in the season and we all had new gear that could use a night on the mountain.

The climb was typical for an early season approach to Muir. We started in the midst of thick clouds, and climbed slowly through the clouds. The clouds started to fade away as we reached the top of the clouds just below the base to Panorama Point around 6,300’. While we would have preferred cloud cover for the climb up Panorama, the warm sun was nice.

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Stability

Our summit plans were originally put on hold due to the weather forecast calling for high winds and storm activity which caused us to worry about the potential slope stability. As we approached, we watched clouds stream off the summit. While beautiful, they didn’t raise any confidence that we would find the ideal conditions we promised for a summit attempt.

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At camp the rangers stopped by to determine our plans for the night. Usually this is a routine and light conversation, but this time the conversation had a tinge of seriousness about our route and gear. Last night, a guided team set off a dry avalanche which swept through a few parties lower on the route – nobody was injured. The guided teams all turned around after the slide. We discussed potential routes from a stability perspective – the rangers recommended Gibraltar Ledges over Ingraham Direct. While tempting, our commitment was based on ideal conditions: a recent slide on route, high summit winds, low summit visibility, and concerned rangers were certainly not ideal.

Muir Beach

We proceeded to set camp, cook dinner and enjoy the evening roll by the snow slopes climbers often call Muir Beach. Muir Beach is an apt nickname: the clouds often sit below camp with the snow slope below camp looking like tropic beach.

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Camp Muir is one of two National Park Service high camps on Mount Rainier. At 10,080’ most climbers use Muir as the base camp for summit attempts via Ingraham Direct, Disappointment Cleaver, or Gibraltar Ledges – although there are other routes that can be attempted via Muir.

After dinner, we packed up for the night. Last year’s spork theft by ravens was at the top of my mind as we packed up for the night since we were sleeping near the scene of the crime. I buried our food cache under 6” of firmly packed and worked snow – planting a wand so that I can find (and chip away) the protective ice the following morning.

Confident that the food (and my new spork) were protected from the ravens, we turned in for the night. Given the cold forecast I was really looking forward to testing the warmth of my new Exped DownMat.

 

Slim Shady Strikes Again

We awoke to a cold morning, with temperatures below the forecast. Thanks to the new DownMat I stayed nice and warm all night – sadly Erin slept cold in his heavy down bag. The first order to business was breakfast and that’s when we found the hole.

I had been planning to chip out our food cache buried under well packed snow with an ice axe in the morning, however somebody else beat me to it. Surprisingly the entire food cache was gone. Everything. Including the titanium spork that I purchased after a raven stole the original the previous year on the Muir Snowfield.

Frustrated, I started searching for debris around Camp Muir, and found none. I asked the ranger if he had seen a debris field that morning: his only reply was “nope, looks like ravens”. Reluctantly I returned to camp, and settled myself into the realization that I lost yet another spork. Kim could barely contain her amusement at my situation.

A few minutes later Erin noticed some tracks, and asked me what animal caused it. Annoyed, I gruffly replied that the only animal stupid enough to live this high up were humans. There were tracks leading north and south next to our site. We started a search. I traveled north: Erin, south. Fifty feet, I passed a team clearing camp who mentioned they saw a fox this morning. That would explain the tracks, and I picked up the pace and walked onto the upper Paradise in search of a debris field. 3 minutes later I found the remains of my orange stuff sack with the only inedible item it contained: my spork.

I took the claw slashed stuff sack over to the ranger’s hut. Holding the stuff sack in the air as I approached the ranger rang out “Looks like you got hit by Slim Shady!”. The fox has a name. Not only does the fox have a name, according to the ranger, it summits. We were robbed by a bad-ass summiting fox named Slim Shady. While it didn’t quell the grumbles in our tummies, we didn’t feel as bad knowing that we were robbed by an animal with more summits than all of us combined.

That said, the foxes stealing food have been a real problem this year. If you are camping at Muir, make sure you use one of the plastic buckets and keep your food in your tent. The foxes won’t enter a tent or break into a bucket – which encourages them to dine on the mice that live in the huts.

 

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Skiing Under The Base of the Matterhorn

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Bright orange wands whipping past me at high speed, I turn make a left-handed turn and my gaze shifts to the iconic Matterhorn looming above me. A split second later I’m dancing on my skis trying to regain balance over my skis as an unnoticed undulation in the slope almost catches and edge – and almost flings me into the compacted groomed surface. Between views of the towering Matterhorn, day dreaming about lines up the Matterhorn, bars sprinkled along the routes, and the notion of skiing down to Italy for a quick lunch before returning to Switzerland for dinner, there is a lot to keep you mind away from the snow.

Zermatt receives an annual average of 300 inches of dry snow per year, which is significantly less than the annual average in the Pacific Northwest (Stevens Pass receives 450 inches per year). Unfortunately due to warming temperatures and climate changes in the Alps the snowfall is less regular than it used to be. To compensate, the resort has installed snowmaking equipment along most of the runs. In the late season, the snow machines are critical for keeping snow on the lower mountain runs back into the villages of Zermatt and Cervina.

Despite Tiffany and I only having a season’s worth of skiing, we did reasonably well. The runs at Zermatt are not very steep: red runs equated quite well with more shallow blue runs at Stevens. Most of the runs had 2 fall lines, adding a level of difficulty. The runs at Zermatt make up for their lack of slope angle, with length.

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It can take a good hour of skiing to get back down to the village from the highest lifts – we frequently overtook the Gornergrat Bahn train on it’s descent down the mountain. With the exception of a handful of un-maintained (“downhill”) runs Zermatt has only 1 black run – which we accidentally but successfully descended.

Zermatt Village

At it’s core Zermatt is an alpine resort village with year-round tourism as it’s core and practically only industry. The village has a museum dedicated to the local mountaineering triumphs with broke rope from the Matterhorn’s first ascent as it’s centerpiece. If you can step off the main streets, the high priced fashion boutiques and watchmakers, you’ll find pockets of ancient farm warehouses with their stone mouse guards intact. Unlike many resort towns, Zermatt manages to blend fashion, history and the environment in the urban fabric in a way that feels intimate. Cars are banned from the village. Skiers whisk from their hotels or homes on one of two electro-bus lines directly to the main lift stations. Walking around Zermatt, you feel design decisions and priorities made by a population that has lived in the fragile high-alpine for 7,000 years and understands the connection between a healthy economy and a healthy environment.

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Zermatt’s chic youth hostel makes it possible to enjoy Zermatt on a budget. We snacked throughout the day on food purchased at the local Co-Op grocery. A member of Hostelling International, the modern hostel provided a surprisingly tasty breakfast and dinner as part of the hostel rate – a rare deal in an otherwise expensive resort town.

Lifts and Transportation

Thanks to Swiss engineering, Zermatt provides skiers access to elevations and high-alpine terrain typically available only to mountaineers. For a mountaineer, it’s an opportunity to enjoy running downhill at high speed without booting or skinning up the slope. You’ll find every form of vertical lift in operation at Zermatt: rope tows, t-bars, chairs, gondolas, cable cars, funicular and the cogwheel Gornergrat Bahn railway.

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Access to all of the lifts – from rope tow to train – is controlled by a RFID enabled SkiPass. Skiers must scan their pass on entry and exit for most lifts. While annoying, this tax also enables the resort to build rich analytics for mountain usage, which is available to skiers via a simple website.

Over the course of 5 days we descended 18,921 meters (62,076 feet), with a third of that distance covered on our last day dropping 6,491 meters (21,295 feet) over 42 kilometers (26 miles) as we traversed the resort from Sunnegga Paradise to the Matterhorn Paradise.

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Zurich

While getting to Zermatt is only a 3-hour train ride, timing between our international flights and hotel check-in times required us to spend a night in Zurich at the beginning and end of our trip. The surprisingly small city core is exactly what you’d expect to find: great chocolate, micro-roasted coffee, small tightly packed streets, and a fantastic public transportation system centered around the train station.

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More photos from the trip to Switzerland…

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