Report: Climbing Oregon’s 5 Highest Peaks over 10,000ft in one Push, with a Little Running Between

Executive Summary

On Aug 18-20, 2016, I made an attempt at climbing the 5 highest peaks in Oregon and ran between them. The suffering lasted for about 150 miles and a total of 67 hours and 23 minutes (2 days 19 hours 23 minutes). I would never do it again, but you should. You can watch the movie here. I the following post I share details to inspire others.

Introduction

After successfully completing Adams-to-Hood in 2015, I was looking for something similar, but more challenging and epic. Climbing Oregon’s 5 highest peaks over 10,000ft in a single push, with running between the peaks, seemed like it could be right down my alley: Mt. Hood, Mt. Jefferson, South Sister, Middle Sister, North Sister. According to my spreadsheets, the total distance was going to be around 150 miles (241km) with about 50,000ft (15,240 meters) of elevation gain. The detailed planning, recon, and training started back in 2015. It was only a matter of time to find the right window for this.

The weather looked absolutely perfect for the week of Aug 15, 2016, so on Wed, Aug 17, I posted an announcement and on Thu, Aug 18, at 3:00am, the adventure started at the South Sister trailhead.

Ready for a long 30mi stretch trough the night from Santiam Pass to Jefferson Park.

Ready for a long unsupported 30mi stretch through the night from Santiam Pass to Jefferson Park. That was not a good night. Not at all. The gear to the left is what Ursina carried into Jefferson Park.

The Movie Clip

As always, I tried to document as much as possible, but there were times I had no energy left to even get the camera out, let alone set it up. So here’s a short clip that hopefully illustrates a bit what this challenge was all about.

The Route

I started at the South Sister Devil’s Lake trailhead, climbed the 3 Sisters first (a.k.a. 3 Sisters Marathoncurrent FKT: 6:39), ran to Mt. Jefferson, climbed Mt. Jefferson, ran to Mt. Hood, and finally climbed Mt. Hood. The running part was mostly on the PCT.

Rank Peak Elevation [ft] Elevation [m] Prominence [ft]
1 Mt. Hood 11,239 3,426 7,706
2 Mt. Jefferson 10,497 3,199 5,777
3 South Sister 10,358 3,157 5,588
4 North Sister 10,085 3,062 2,725
5 Middle Sister 10,047 3,062 1,127

The route. I started at the Devil’s Lake TH and finished at Timberline Lodge after climbing South Sister, Middle Sister, North Sister, Mt. Jefferson, and Mt. Hood.

At Barlow Pass, almost "home."

At Barlow Pass, almost “home.” I had the worst stomach cramps from Frog Lake to Barlow Pass after eating an entire backpacker pouch.

Crewing and Logistics

Beloved super empress (BSE) Ursina had the very demanding job of following and crewing me for 67h23min. It’s hard to imagine what that means unless you have done it and have experienced the stress, the sleep deprivation, and the difficulty to see your husband suffering. Yet, we’ve done this rather successfully before.

Planning is everything. I spent days figuring out access points, mapping them out properly, and storing GPS coordinates of locations and routes. It took me probably equally long to plan the crewing and the logistics than to plan my own climbing/running route. Crewing and logistical mishaps can mean the end of the adventure in the worst case, they are stressful for everybody, and they can cost you a lot of time in the very best case.

We once again had a pretty flawless execution this time, except maybe for two cases. Since Ursina had to hike out from Jefferson Park and then drive almost 2h to Olallie Lake, I made it there first. She then couldn’t find me because I had fallen asleep under a tree. We lost about 45min. Another time I was 2h earlier than my anticipated arrival time and therefore had to wait almost 40min for her. It wasn’t a big deal except that I was very cold. So cold that I couldn’t even make good use of the time by taking a nap.

The Weather

The weather was perfect, except the rather hot temperatures. My Ambit3 registered 93.4F around noon on Thursday, Aug 18, when I was near Mt. Washington. Yet, after the ODT, that didn’t feel very hot. The nights were very balmy still, except in some valleys, when it got surprisingly cold (55F). There was some significant wind on Mt. Jefferson and also in Jefferson Park, but nothing too bad. Overall, I’d say conditions couldn’t have been any better.

However, because of the hot temperatures, I needed more water than usual. As a consequence, I ran out several times. There are significant stretches on the PCT without water. With a bit better planning, I could have avoided that issue.

Selected Splits

Section/Peak/Activity Duration [h]
South Sister climb (Devil's Lake TH to Chambers Lakes) 3:35
Middle Sister climb (Chambers Lakes to top of Collier Glacier) 1:57
North Sister climb (top of Collier Glacier to PCT) 2:58
Mt. Jefferson climb (from/to Jefferson Park) 5:16
Mt. Hood climb (from Timberline to Hogsback and back) 3:36
Total sleep time 6:00
Total elapsed time 67:23
An example of a 30min power nap. They can do wonders.

An example of a 30min power nap. They can do wonders.

To Summit or Not to Summit

As expected, I did not scramble up the North Sister and Mt. Jefferson class 4 summit pinnacles/blocks because I considered the conditions to be unsafe without protection. These summits would have added a few hundert feet only, and probably 1-2h to the total time because the scrambling would have been rather time-consuming. Also, I turned around on the Hogsback on Mt. Hood because conditions were too dangerous (night, crevasses, ice, rockfall, sleep deprivation) for going up the Old Chute without protection for my skills and the equipment I carried. I have a deep respect for the mountains. In case of doubt, I err on the side of safety. That’s maybe why I am still alive.

In hindsight, it’s clear that I should have carried my rigid and heavy mountaineering boots with the heavy crampons, which would have allowed me to do proper front-pointing in the ice to cross the crevasses (more than just the regular Bergschrund) and to head up the 45 degree Old Chute. With the soft La Sportiva Crossover 2.0 GTX shoes and the ultra-light Grivel crampons that I carried, I could not do front-pointing well enough to climb the icy slope. Note that I also carried two pretty aggressive ice axes and a helmet. The decision to pick the light gear was based on my expectation to find rather soft snow because of the warm temperatures, as on Mt. Jefferson, which turned out to be wrong. So if I had made a better shoe choice, I could have summited Mt. Hood rather straightforwardly, I think.

The Hogsback is at about 10,600ft, so about 639ft below the summit. Summiting would have added 1-2h to the total time, depending on conditions.

Thus, for the Cascades 11-over-10 Challenge Series, my time should be labeled as an “attempt.” While I “climbed” all mountains, I did not technically “summit” all of them. I should also add that I was not particularly focused on the North Sister and Jefferson summit blocks as  I considered these minor compared to the rest of the adventure.

GPS and SPOT Data

I carried a Suunto Ambit3 GPS watch and a SPOT satellite transponder. You can see the recorded GPS tracks at the following addresses:

The total distance on Strava is listed as 136.1 miles with 39,217ft of elevation gain. Note: The Suunto Ambit3 GPS was on 1-minute interval, so that tends to be at least 10% shorter. The total time was 67h and 23 minutes (2 days 19 hours 23 minutes). Because this was the first such attempt ever, the time counts as an Only Known Time.

Strava elevation profile.

Strava elevation profile. There were lots of ups and downs, literally and figuratively.

Done, done, and done at Timberline after 67h23min.

Done, done, and done at Timberline after 67h23min.

Thanks!

Huge thanks to Ursina for the never-ending support and dedication to my crazy ideas and adventures! She’s the one who kept me going on track. She’s also the one who prevented me from giving up. Oh yes, I wanted to quit several times.

Many thanks also to all my fans, supporters, and followers. It means a lot to me!

Team Teuscher at Timberline. Photo by Marti. Thanks for coming out!

Conclusion

It was an epic adventure in pretty much every possible dimension. I’ve seen and experienced so much in these 67h23min that it will take me a long time to remember and digest everything. More than any other adventure, this one had parts that were deeply out of my comfort zone. Yet, that’s probably also what makes these things so rewarding.

I’m obviously very bummed that I could not summit Mt. Hood and had to turn around at the Hogsback. I’m also disappointed that I was not able to scramble up the North Sister and Jefferson class 4 summit pinnacles, but I expected that more than failing on the Old Chute on Hood.

I can’t wait to see others attempt this fantastic adventure!

Warning

Do not attempt this challenge, or even parts of it, unless you know exactly what you are doing. Several parts of the climbs are plain ugly and dangerous.

News: Climbing Oregon’s 5 Highest Peaks over 10,000ft in one Push, with a Little Running Between

Check out the report and movie.

The Plan

On Thu, Aug 18, 2016, I will make a first attempt at climbing/speed traversing all 5 Oregon peaks over 10,000ft (3,048 meters) in a single push: Mt. Hood, Mt. Jefferson, South Sister, Middle Sister, North Sister. I will connect the 5 peaks by running between them. The total distance is around 150 miles (241km) with about 50,000ft (15,240 meters) of elevation gain. I expect this endurance challenge to take anywhere between 70 and 90 hours. Nothing too crazy. To the best of my knowledge, no such attempt has ever been made. If successful, it would be a 5-peak contribution to the Cascades 11-over-10 Challenge Series.

Rank Peak Elevation [ft] Elevation [m] Prominence [ft]
1 Mt. Hood 11,239 3,426 7,706
2 Mt. Jefferson 10,497 3,199 5,777
3 South Sister 10,358 3,157 5,588
4 North Sister 10,085 3,062 2,725
5 Middle Sister 10,047 3,062 1,127

The Route

I will start at the South Sister Devil’s Lake trailhead, climb the 3 Sisters first (a.k.a. 3 Sisters Marathoncurrent FKT: 6:39), run to Mt. Jefferson, climb Mt. Jefferson, run to Mt. Hood, and finally climb Mt. Hood. The running part will be mostly on the PCT. It’s all pretty much a straight line (see map below), or so I like to think. Depending on conditions (rockfall, snow, ice, visibility) and the time of the day, I may have to skip the summit pinnacles on North Sister (a.k.a. Faith, Ugly Sister, Gnarly Northy, or The Black Beast of the Cascades) and/or Mt. Jefferson for safety reasons. Since I’m doing this solo, I will not have any protection on the very last 100-200ft or so of these two exposed class 4 climbs. This will be by far the most technical and dangerous endurance adventure I’ve attempted so far.

The planned route. I will start at the Devil’s Lake TH and, if all goes well, finish at Timberline Lodge after climbing South Sister, Middle Sister, North Sister, Mt. Jefferson, and Mt. Hood.

Elevation profile of the route.

Elevation profile of the route. Only 5 peaks and a few other hills to conquer.

Logistics

The adventure will be supported by beloved super empress (BSE) Ursina. As usual, the logistics are non-trivial. We have about 7 support locations along the route. To avoid meeting mishaps, Ursina will be able to track my SPOT location on the Iridium satellite network from anywhere, even without cell phone reception. For the Mt. Jefferson climb, she will have to hike into Jefferson Park during the night and carry all my climbing gear (in addition to her own gear, tent, and food) to meet me on the PCT in the early morning hours. At least that’s the idea, but things rarely go according to the masterplan.

Tracking

You can track me at:

The planned start is at 3am on Thu, Aug 18, 2016.

If someone wants to come out and run sections with me, that would be cool! Misery loves company.

FAQs

  • Are you recovered from the ODT? No.
  • Are you ready for this? No.
  • Will this be safe? No.
  • Do you know what you are doing? No.
  • Do you know why you are you doing this? No.
  • Do you have issues? Yes.
  • How old are you? 65.

Recon and Training Pics

5x10CT4

Mt. Hood seen in the early morning hours from a Mt. Jefferson training climb. It does not look that far away, right?

5x10CT1

Mt. Jefferson seen from North Sister. Mt. Hood in the far background. Mt. Adams can barely be seen to the right of Mt. Hood. Mt. Washington and Three Fingered Jack in the foreground.

5x10CT2

North Sister training. That thing is just an ugly pile of rubble. It’s hard to laugh up there.

5x10CT5

There’s a bunch of significant crevasses on the Mt. Jefferson Whitewater glacier. Route finding needs some creativity in some places.

5x10CT7

The 3 Sisters (in the far background) seen from Mt. Jefferson. Three Fingered Jack and Mt. Washington in the foreground. Mt. Bachelor to the left of the 3 Sisters.

5x10CT8

The Mt. Jefferson South Horn seen from the Red Saddle. The traverse to the left is exposed, and so is the summit pinnacle class 4 scramble. Protection is definitely recommended. But alas, I won’t have any.

5x10CT9

On the Mt. Jefferson summit traverse from the Red Saddle. The rain washes out deep gullies with nearly vertical walls. It’s steeper than it looks. And no, you definitely don’t want to slip there.

Winter training on South Sister. Bivouac in the middle of the summit crater.

Winter training on South Sister. Bivouac in the middle of the summit crater. The winter access is a long slog, well, unless you use a snowmobile along the Cascade Lakes highway 46.

Teaser | Restlessly Relentless: 750-mi Oregon Desert Trail (ODT) Fastest Known Time (FKT)

On Fri, Jul 29, 2016, I completed a speed record on the 750-mi Oregon Desert Trail (ODT): 17 days and 15 hours. I averaged 43 miles per day without any rest day in some of the most challenging terrain I ever navigated. Below is a short teaser for a longer movie that will be coming out soon. Sign up for the e-mail notifications (see right tabs) if you’d like to get updates.

Direct URL: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7D8Lz0TIie8

The Trail

The trail is the brainchild of the Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA). Because of its novelty and uniqueness, it was featured in both a National Geographic (“World’s Best Hikes: 20 Dream Trails“) and CNN article (“10 of the world’s most amazing long-distance trails“). Compared to other long-distance trails, the 750-mile ODT is very challenging for a thru-hiker/runner, both physically and logistically. There are few reliable water sources, the trail is extremely remote, 267 miles (36%) are cross-country, and the environment is very unforgiving.

odt_logo

odt_overview_elevation

Map of the conceptual trail designed by ONDA. (c) Map by Mapbox. For an interactive version, click here.

Additional ODT Resources and Posts

ODT2: Gear

For the geeks and curious, here is a complete list of the gear I used for the Oregon Desert Trail (ODT) speed record. I spent a lot of time and money optimizing this list. The base pack was just above 9lbs. It got lighter over time as a I used many of the med kit items, sunscreen, toiletries, etc.

Overall, the gear selection worked great. I only wished I had a pair of long pants for the 3 nights when the temperature dropped below 30F, but I didn’t suffer too much. Since it never rained, I only used the bivy bag once against some strong winds at night.

What I was wearing

The pack

Quantity Item Item weight [g] Weight [g] % of total weight
1 Raidlight Ultra Olmo 20l with 4l front pack 860 860 20.12
1 Western Mountaineering SummerLite sleeping bag 490 490 11.46
1 Integral Design Siltarp 1 + 4 tent stakes 304 304 7.11
1 Tape and medical kit (initial weight) 256 256 5.99
1 Mountain Hardware Ghost Whisperer down jacket 197 197 4.61
2 Raidlight bottles (750ml) 98 196 4.59
1 GoalZero battery pack with 4 AA batteries 175 175 4.09
1 Klymit Inertia X Lite sleeping pad 173 173 4.05
1 Repair/backup kit + 4 AAA batteries 151 151 3.53
1 Ultimate Direction ultra rain jacket 146 146 3.42
1 SPOT satellite transponder with 4 AAA batteries 114 114 2.67
1 Raidlight rain pants 112 112 2.62
1 Extra La Sportiva Legacy shirt 106 106 2.48
1 Ruta Locura Wasatch bivy bag 105 105 2.46
1 Black Diamond ReVolt headlamp with 3 AAA batteries 94 94 2.20
1 Toiletries 92 92 2.15
1 North Face 5" shorts 86 86 2.01
2 Ultimate Direction soft bottles (17oz) 41 82 1.92
1 GoPro Session camera 73 73 1.71
2 Ultimate Direction soft bottles (14.2oz) 31 62 1.45
1 Knee sleeves 52 52 1.22
1 CEP ultralight compression socks 46 46 1.08
1 Extra socks 45 45 1.05
1 Suunto Ambit charging cable 41 41 0.96
1 Columbia omni-heat glove liner 36 36 0.84
1 Sunscreen 35 35 0.82
1 Salomon soft bottle (500ml) 27 27 0.63
1 Sea to Summit bug head net 27 27 0.63
1 Raidlight waterproof overmitts 25 25 0.58
1 Salomon beanie 20 20 0.47
1 Half buff 20 20 0.47
1 GoPro charging cable 16 16 0.37
1 MSR foldable spoon 10 10 0.23
Total [g] 4274 [g]
Total [lbs] 9.423 [lbs]

News: ODT Speed Record Attempt Successfully Completed

After 17 days and 15 hours, I successfully finished the 750-mile Oregon Desert Trail (ODT) speed record attempt on Friday, Jul 29, 2016, solo and self-supported.

I averaged 43 miles per day without any rest day in some of the most challenging terrain I ever navigated. Despite the massive planning and training, a lot of things went terribly wrong. The experience broke me in so many more ways than I thought I could be broken. It was a colossal struggle against myself and the often hostile, yet incredibly beautiful environment.

I will post more on this blog soon. Check out the teaser in the meantime and sign up for the e-mail notifications (see right tabs) if you’d like to get updates.

odtfinish1

The finish at the Owyhee State Park, just after sunset. Badly beaten up, unshaved, insanely sleep-deprived, dirty, and just about ready to pass out from complete exhaustion.

odtfinish2

I did not stand for much longer.

odtfinish3

Notice the ODT patch on the pack. You can order it from ONDA.

The Trail

The trail is the brainchild of the Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA). Because of its novelty and uniqueness, it was featured in both a National Geographic (“World’s Best Hikes: 20 Dream Trails“) and CNN article (“10 of the world’s most amazing long-distance trails“). Compared to other long-distance trails, the 750-mile ODT is very challenging for a thru-hiker/runner, both physically and logistically. There are few reliable water sources, the trail is extremely remote, 267 miles (36%) are cross-country, and the environment is very unforgiving.

odt_logo

odt_overview_elevation

Map of the conceptual trail designed by ONDA. (c) Map by Mapbox. For an interactive version, click here.

Additional ODT Resources and Posts

Leave-no-Trace

The endurance challenge will be completed by following strict leave-no-trace ethics. In order to reduce landfill waste, all trash will be recycled. The buried cache bins will serve as temporary trash bins during the adventure. They will all be retrieved after the adventure, whether I finish successfully or not.

News: 2nd Oregon Desert Trail Speed Record Attempt

On Tuesday, Jul 12, 2016, I plan to start for a 2nd 750-mile Oregon Desert Trail (ODT) speed record attempt. The 2015 attempt ended prematurely after 9 days and 371 miles because of a debilitating Achilles inflammation. Once again, my goal is to run the challenging and largely unmarked “trail” across the Oregon deserts solo and self-supported. What could possibly go wrong this time?

“Hastening Eastward” Movie Clip

Check out the following clip to get a better idea of what this endurance challenge is all about: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vzY2uAxzgs8 (direct URL).

The Trail

The trail is the brainchild of the Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA). Because of its novelty and uniqueness, it was featured in both a National Geographic (“World’s Best Hikes: 20 Dream Trails“) and CNN article (“10 of the world’s most amazing long-distance trails“). Compared to other long-distance trails, the 750-mile ODT is very challenging for a thru-hiker/runner, both physically and logistically. There are few reliable water sources, the trail is extremely remote, 267 miles (36%) are cross-country, and the environment is very unforgiving.

odt_logo

odt_overview_elevation

Map of the conceptual trail designed by ONDA. (c) Map by Mapbox. For an interactive version, click here.

ODT distance comparison. Run the ODT or run on I-5 from Portland to Fresno?

ODT distance comparison. Run the ODT or run on I-5 from Portland to Fresno? Neither option sounds completely sane to me.

Tracking

I will start from the Tumulus trailhead in the Oregon Badlands, just outside of Bend, and then haste eastward. In the unlikely case that things go well, I may finish the adventure in the Owyhee Canyonlands at the Owyhee State Park.

You can track my progress (or lack thereof) here in real-time: ODT: Real-time Tracking.

Additional Resources

Leave-no-Trace

The endurance challenge will be completed by following strict leave-no-trace ethics. In order to reduce landfill waste, all trash will be recycled. The buried cache bins will serve as temporary trash bins during the adventure. They will all be retrieved after the adventure, whether I finish successfully or not.

Anatomy of a near-accident

The Plan

The plan for this weekend was simple: climb Mt. Adams twice to get in some good training. So I did. Or almost.

Before we left for the Cold Springs trailhead on Saturday, June 18, 2016, I checked the weather forecast again at 4am. It looked terrible for Saturday, but brilliant for Sunday. We decided to sleep in until 6am in the hope that when we’d get there, the worst may be over. That strategy didn’t pan out well.

The weather forecast announced heavy snow showers on Mt. Adams on Sat, Jun 18, 2016.

The weather forecast announced heavy snow showers on Mt. Adams on Sat, Jun 18, 2016.

In anticipation of the inclement weather, I packed all my heavy winter mountaineering gear, including snowshoes. When we got to the trailhead at around 9:30am, it was cold and windy, but the sun peaked out between the clouds. While Ursina set up camp, I got ready. I wasn’t keen to go particularly light since this was for training, so I packed, as always, the necessary—plus more. Because, after all, it’s the mountains and you just never know. My rule of thumb is that I should be able to safely spend a night if necessary. Thus, besides an emergency medical kit with first aid supplies, I packed a headlamp, spare batteries, hand warmers, a space blanket, and an emergency bivy bag. And of course plenty of layers, food, and hot fluids in thermos bottles. I didn’t pack any uninsulated bottles because I anticipated freezing temperatures.

Mt Adams South Spur Climb Route

Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/33792231@N00/5425423648

From the Trailhead to the False Summit

At 10am I was ready. We’ve used our radios on Mt. Adams before and knew they would work great even from the summit, so I grabbed one and left the other at camp for Ursina. I didn’t set up the SPOT satellite transponder, but I had my Suunto Ambit3 GPS watch with the Mt. Adams south climbing route pre-loaded, even though I had been on that mountain countless times.

I felt great and moved swiftly. The south climb route is straightforward: about 6 miles to the summit with 6,676ft of elevation gain. There are no technical sections, although crampons and ice ax are almost always recommended as there can be icy sections. Snowshoes with crampons do the job equally well. That’s what I carried (besides crampons and an ice ax). As the snow started to linger around at about 6,200ft, I put them on and continued to cruise upward on the winter climbing route.

At around 7,000ft the wind picked up and it started to snow. Not the kind of pleasant soft snow, but the icy-kinda that look like styrofoam pieces but feel like nails. Soon thereafter, the snow hurt too much in my face and I decided to put on ski goggles together with a neoprene face mask. My hand warmers were already going and I switched to the toasty winter mitts. So far so good. I felt a bit like being in a protected bubble.

As I climbed toward the Lunch Counter, I caught up with a couple. They turned out to be two rangers. They looked worried when I told them I was going to see how far up I could go. They inquired if I knew the route and had a GPS in case I got lost. I said yes to both questions. They were the last persons I saw for the next couple of hours.

At the Lunch Counter, the visibility was near zero, the wind was hauling brutally, and it snowed. I only saw one tent. It was pretty much flattened by the wind. As I got past the exposed rocks that make up the Lunch Counter plateau, I had to rely 100% on GPS navigation as I could not see any more natural features for a while. Once I started to climb up the steep slope toward the false summit, I had at least the inclination that helped me to navigate. It was hard to move in the wind and snow, but I saw no good reason to turn around (yet), so I continued the grueling climb. There were lots of soft snow slabs, but other parts were hard-packed and swept clean by the strong winds. As I got to 10,000ft or so, I started to notice a faint silhouette of the rock band that was exposed from the snow on the left hand side (West). I kept that in my eyes as well as my GPS track, which I followed closely.

False Summit

Finally I made it to the false summit (Pikers Peak, 11,700ft). Uff! Besides the last few rocks on the left, there was nothing to be seen. I figured that by following my GPS track, I could maybe make it to the summit, otherwise I could always turn around. So I took a deep breath and continued to move forward. Had I known at that point that my GPS did not properly function, I would have made a different decision.

The next steps were like stepping into another world. A world of absorbent cotton in some sense, but everything else than soft and comfy. As soon as I crossed the false summit ridge and stepped into the flatter part that was fully exposed to the gale-force west winds, I knew I was in trouble. I could barely see my snowshoes. The rest was white. I instantly lost all sense of orientation. I also instantly decided that I needed to go back right away. But “back” made no sense anymore because I had no clue how far I actually had turned. That’s when I wanted to check my GPS. But alas, it looked like a block of ice. I had worn it on the outside of my GoreTex jacked so that I could easily see the route. That was not the best plan. I tried to frantically scrape off the ice with my mitts so that I could read the screen. That failed miserable. I had to take off one mitt and use my fingernails. But the screen would stay ice free for a few seconds only. In the meantime, my ski googles also started to ice up and I had to take them off to read the screen. In the few seconds that I saw the screen I only realized that the reading made no sense.

Without the mitt, my right hand went numb almost instantly. By the time I tried to put the mitt on again, I couldn’t. So I kept it off and continued to scrape the screen as soon as it was iced over again. I figured I might have to move a bit to see in which direction I was going, hoping that the GPS would update and that the track would make sense. So I moved a bit, but I had no clue in which direction and how far I was going. It didn’t help in any case.

There were two scenarios I was most afraid of: if you go too far east, you will fall over a cornice down to the Klickitat glacier. That’s where you die. If you go too far West, you hit the SW Chutes and dangerous cliffs. You may die too. The only way out of this was to get back to where I came from. And it had to be in the next few minutes, or I might not make it.

In the meantime, I realized I could not see anymore on my right eye because it was completely iced over between my eyebrows and the face mask. The ice would not come off. I started to shiver hard. My hand was still exposed to the elements. It did not feel good. Not at all. For the first time I considered radioing Ursina and call it an emergency. But the thought that it would take anybody at least 6 hours to get up there made me quickly give up on that option. If I didn’t make it out there soon on my own, I would freeze to death. I considered putting on the remaining layers I had in my pack, but decided it would take too much time and may be impossible with the strong winds. Later, on the way down, I realized that I could not even open my backpack because the buckles were big pieces of ice. So taking anything out of my pack would not even have been an option.

I still frantically tried to get my GPS to display anything meaningful between scratching the screen and moving around randomly. Needless to say that I was really scared I would get too close to the cornices. It was impossible to see anything. I would simply have stepped into the void. After some hopeless trying with the iced-over buttons on the GPS, I nevertheless managed to change the view to the compass. But I could not see the little arrow that marks north because of the ice. So that was useless. By that time I felt I had moved around quite a lot. Since following the GPS route did not work properly, I remembered the GPS backtrack function, which, thankfully I had tested once before. It took me a long time to activate it with numb fingers and the continuing need to scratch the ice off the screen and the buttons. But finally I managed.

I continued to move around and to try to make sense of the new GPS reading, which—oh wonder—showed me the route I needed to follow to go back to where I came from. Now the GPS at least seemed to react to my movements. So I keep moving, I kept scratching, and I tried to stay on the track the GPS indicated. And I repeated that. After all, what else could I do? I could fall to death, I could freeze to death, or there may be a chance I would find the descent route.

Feeling the wind from the right gave me some confidence that I was at least moving southward. And that was good.

The Escape

After what felt like hours, I noticed something black in front of me. It was the rocks right by the ridge I came up from. Holy wow. I stumbled and fell several times. Uncontrollably. But I continued downhill. The further I moved, the better the visibility became. And suddenly the clouds lifted and I could see the entire route down to the Lunch Counter. That’s when I realized that I may have made it this time. Unless it was all just a bad dream and I was already starting to freeze to death, not realizing it anymore. That’s also when I was able to put back on my mitt and realized that almost everything on me and on my pack was covered with a thick layer of ice. Looking back, I saw all white only.

I was still shaking and had trouble moving. There was one gel left in my pocket that gave me some of the well-needed energy back. I continued toward the Lunch Counter as quickly as I could. The clouds moved in again, but the GPS backtracking function guided me safely this time. The Lunch Counter was as deserted as before, but much further down I started to encounter folks climbing up to the Lunch Counter with heavy packs. They all mentioned that I had some massive icicles going on on my face. I smiled and wished them a safe night at the Lunch Counter. I figured the night would not be pleasant.

Just past 5pm I reached our camp at the Cold Springs trailhead. We made a huge fire, had dinner, and drank beer. By 8pm I was asleep in my cosy sleeping bag while it started to snow again outside.

Climb 2

The alarm went off at 2am. I quickly got ready and started to climb that mountain again. The conditions were perfect this time: no clouds, almost full moon, with only a light breeze. In 5h I was on the summit, at a time when most climbers were only about to get ready to start. On the way down I checked the cornices where I may have fell to death had I gone too far in the wrong direction the day before. It was not a pleasant view.

GPS Track Analysis

Only when I downloaded the GPS track at home I realized that the GPS had stopped functioning properly well below the false summit. It only started to receive a correct satellite signal the moment I switched it into the backtracking mode, when I was already in deep trouble. The readings I got before did indeed not make any sense. So much for relying on technology.

At home, I realized that the GPS had started to malfunction well below the false summit.

Only at home I realized that the GPS had started to malfunction well below the false summit.

The following figure shows how I moved around disoriented like a blind pigeon. The straight bright green line indicates that the GPS did not track during the last part of ascent.

Disoriented.

Disoriented.

On GoogleEarth, it became clear that I had moved dangerously close to the abyss during my desperate search for the descent route.

I got dangerously close to the abyss.

I got dangerously close to the abyss.

Aftermath

What’s left over from this mishap is a swollen right hand from one of the falls and minor frostbite on the pinkie (still tingling and numb after 2 days).

So, Lesson Learned?

It’s not the first time I got lost, but this time was different because I realized immediately that I was hopelessly disoriented. Would a traditional compass have helped? Maybe. But it would have gotten iced over as well. And it’s doubtful that I would have found the correct descent location just with a compass.

Would waiting out the weather have been an option? I doubt it. I would have been frozen rock solid quickly without a better protection from the elements. Getting out additional layers and the emergency bivy bag from my backpack wasn’t even an option at that point anymore because of the frozen buckles.

In the future, I will be more careful about moving forward into the unknown, especially when your GPS watch represents a single point of failure. Redundancy is key to resilience and robustness.

Life can change dramatically in an instant. In fact, it almost almost does. We rarely get a warning and can rarely prepare for the things to come. This near-accident was no different. In the mountains, never plan for the best, always plan for the worst. And even that may not be sufficient.

Mountains have a way of dealing with overconfidence.” – Hermann Buhl