photo by Bradford MacArthur

Monday, 30 April 2018

Jupiter Shift

Jupiter Shift

It was Late February in southern British Columbia.  The icy arctic winds had pushed out any remaining warmth from the January warm spell, leaving behind a bone chilling cold that settled into the mountain valleys.  As per our usual routine, Marc and I returned to the Mt. Slesse cirque in the North Cascades to attempt some more of our winter climbing projects. This was my sixth visit to the mountain this winter, and for Marc even more. Over the years the Nesaquatch valley has become a home to us; one in which we have explored the ins and outs of, but even still, it holds many mysteries.  It holds beauty and quiet in it’s silence. Marc grew up in a nearby town and had some of his first alpine climbs in this area.   At age 15 he had his first overnight epic on the Northwest Buttress- an experience that drove him back to the mountain countless times. Mt. Slesse became his training ground for alpinism, but one which is much bigger, larger and scarier than one would ever expect. 

Marc first introduced me to the Nesaquatch River Valley in 2014, when we simul- soloed the Northeast Buttress.  At the top he wrote in the summit register how he never thought he would be soloing this climb with his girlfriend, the climb which had taught him much about the challenges of alpinism. Together we have established many lines including, mixed, rock, and ski descents in the area.  Marc returned in the winter of 2015 and soloed the The Northeast Buttress, claiming it as his most challenging solo climb to date.  The big terrain and steep slopes makes for excellent powder skiing, then when the snow firms into a crust the alpine climbing becomes good. This is what brings us back there time and time again, despite the long approach. 

This time we hiked in with the notion of attempting the East Pillar, a route Marc had been wanting to try for a long time.  I looked at the forecast and imagined what it would be like-  shivering cold on a dark north face in the dead of winter for two days during an arctic outflow.  There was going to be a whole lot of suffering I would have to endure.  I knew that this mountain meant so much to Marc and that this was most likely the last opportunity to climb it this winter. He had dedicated the past two winters to living in southern BC, waiting for the ice runnels to form. I would put in my suffer time for him.  

The access road into the Nesaquatch Valley was buried under a deep snowpack so we parked the car at the Chilliwack Lake Road then began the long ski tour in. The valley had been coated entirely in a crisp white from the previous night’s snow fall.  The morning sky glistened with ice crystals and the air had a biting chill.  As we skied up the road the winds of the Arctic Outflow blew through the spruce and fir trees, speckling the white ground with needles and branches.  With each step we sank to our knees in the deep powder, making trail breaking an exhausting effort. I wore my thickest base layer, hat, mitts for my hands, and yet I never broke a sweat, that’s how cold it was. We followed the long road through the forest to where it meets the river.  We stopped here for a snack before crossing the river and making our way up the switch backs to the memorial plaque.   From here we got our first view of Mt. Slesse and spotted our objective- the East Pillar; a prominent strip of ice feeding down from a large cave high above.  The route looked to be in superb condition, however, the approach slopes at the base did not. There was no sign of avalanche debris at the base, meaning the slopes were still awaiting a slide. This would make accessing the climb highly risky. Marc and I continued upward to reach our gear which was stashed a few kilometers up the trail.  When we reached the poor little fir tree that held our gear it was nearly buried under snow revealing only its crown. Marc dug down and pulled out our colorful Arc’teryx duffle bags that held our tents, boots, crampons, ice tools, climbing gear, ropes, food and gas. We spent the next while stamping out a level platform to set our tent in the soft snow.  The warm rays of the sun had long since left the valley, leaving behind the blue tinge of numbing cold. Despite all of our stomping around I could feel my feet losing blood flow; an inevitable consequence of being a poorly circulated Californian. Once the tent was set up I hurriedly climbed inside.  I wished I had the flexibility to warm my feet on my own belly because my hands were like popsicles.  Marc sat down across from me and with his gentle smile said he would warm them up for me on his belly.  He then stated that he wouldn't do this for ANY of his other partners, not even if they asked nicely. I laughed at the thought, then I told him I felt very lucky. 

Over hot meals we discussed strategy:
The morning sun should hopefully cause the slopes to release, but we would wait it out to be sure. 
That night the temperatures dropped to -20c.  I slept in two sleeping bags, my 8000m peak jacket, down pants but despite everything my feet still froze. 
It was a slow and painful process to get out of our bags the next morning because everything needed to be warmed up, including ourselves. 

A misty cloud pooled behind Slesse’s sharp summit as it found shelter from the strong northeasterly winds. The winds howled through from the notch between the first and second peaks.  As the sun hit the upper wall we watched small avalanches cascading down the East face. The face was active and the slope was unstable.  Marc and I looked at each other and in mutual agreement decided this was not the right time to try the East Pillar- this was the right day to go powder skiing. 
We clicked into our skis and dashed down fluffy powder fields below camp. The snow was light, creamy and very deep. I followed Marc bouncing off of drops and diving between trees.  When I reached him- about 1000m below at the basin- he was beaming from ear to ear.  Marc has a quiet contentment about him, a peaceful energy that emanates from somewhere deep, deep within. He’s able to see the full picture, absorb what’s around him and appreciate everything at once. He and I have come to know this mountain so well; discovered it’s secrets and now we can simply enjoy them.  As we toured back up to camp we stopped for a moment to admire the valley below- completely covered in snow it looked like something out of a dream. We agreed that this was the most unique and most beautiful view we had yet seen of the Nesaquatch valley, a reminder of why we go into the mountains. 

Turning my view back towards the ski track I noticed that Station-D peak was framed perfectly between the trees of the old logging road. Hiding from view was a beautiful and mysterious line Marc and I had been referring to as ‘The Andromeda Strain Line’ (due of its resemblance to the classic Rockies line.) Marc had sent me a photo of this line a year previous, after he had spotted it from a perched vantage from Slesse’s Second Peak. 
-Marc, what do you think about trying The Andromeda Strain Line?  
- Well it depends on the condition of the slopes below, but yeah… for sure that could be a good idea.

It was settled, we would go for that line, but we would need to come up with its own name.  Marc thought of Jupiter Shift, to follow along with the Space theme.   (Station- D refers to the old Boarder Patrol station, but I think it sounds more like a space station. ) 

The morning sun rolled slowly over the mountain peaks and warmed the frost from our tent walls.  We prepared the usual breakfast of maple-brown sugar oatmeal with a handful of dried fruit,  then began the ski up to the base of the mountain. Our packs were gigantic- I cringed under the weight. My shadow was cast into the snow, looking more like a sherpa than a fast and light alpinist.  Marc’s voice called up:
-These bags are stupidly heavy! With this load we’re preparing for an overnight epic. Let’s ditch half the gear and make due with what’s reasonable.
I agreed so we ended up leaving behind one double rope, the tag line, a handful of pitons and some cams.  This meant we would be committed to reaching the top and walking off the opposite side of the mountain then traversing to a steep gully to make a single rappel or two.  
 We continued the hike to the base of the climb where we dug out a small stance on a snow arête to rack up and stash our skis.  At this point I had noticed the exceptional pain coming from my frozen feet. They would get frost bite if I carried on without tending to them.  I looked at Marc, his expression was calm and patient.  
—No worries Lil-B, let’s warm them up. 
After abut a half an hour with my feet warming under Marc’s jacket we began up the steep snow, one at a time, to be mindful of the avalanche potential.  Reaching the choke of the couloir we built a belay to start the technical climbing.   We looked up into the funnel of the mountain, the line looked superb- compressed snow gullies leading into steep rock chimneys and a roofed exit to where we could not see above. It was difficult to tell how long and how hard the climbing would be. After one more feet warming session I racked the gear onto my harness then started up the squeaky nevé.  I stopped about twenty meters up to pound in a knife blade piton into a thin seam in the otherwise compact granite. I tied it off short with a sling, then continued up the pitch. Soon I found another knife blade seam but again I had to tie it off short. This reminded me of a climb Marc and I did the previous year; the North Face of Lady Peak which had very minimal gear opportunities -which were marginal at best- for the entire route. I hoped this would not be the case today.  I reached a ledge at the rope’s full 60m length where I found a perfect belay stance and to my luck found two bomber #1 cams for an anchor.  Marc cruised up to me so fast and causal he wouldn't have needed the belay, nonetheless we were both having fun and stoked to be out there together. We had already discussed that I would lead the entire route because it was my winter project line and Marc was stoked to support me and get rope-gunned up the route. 

The second pitch started out with better protection, but the climbing was a bit more challenging. This pitch consisted of sustained mixed climbing in a chimney.  I arrived below an overhang and couldn't think of how to possibly climb it.  I contemplated my next move- left looks hard, right looks hard, straight up looks hard, hmmm…
- I don't know how to get over this overhang! I called down
Marc answered,
-What do you mean? You know how to climb overhanging rock!

I laughed.  Of course I know how to climb overhanging rock, but this rock was buried under a wave of overhanging snow and a thin veneer of ice. I began inching my way up one move at a time, uncertain of where this would take me.  I stemmed as wide was I could; my right crampon points on the vere glassed face, and my left crampons on the lip of the roof, smeared onto a slab.  I dug through the offending snow bulge to the boulder above.  With the snow gone I reached my tool around the block and to my surprise, found the most amazing hook.  A hold crafted perfectly for my pick.  I matched both hands on my tool then proceeded to layback up the corner with my tools. The climbing continued in an engaging and sustained nature until I reached the roof where I built another belay with a nest of micro pieces, wires and pitons. 

I watched as Marc blissfully climbed the pitch, tip-toeing his front points between small edges and ice blobs, delicately taping his tools into the veneer of ice.  When he reached me he was cold.  He had been shivering at the lower belay- “Soul Shatteringly cold”, he said.  

Pitch three was the crux roof traverse that began with some deep snow digging. I squeezed my knees into my chest making my body as small as possible to fit into the chasm under the roof, pressing my hands in opposition against the blocky features for support. Carefully I stepped my front point rightward on micro edges until there were no more edges but sheer slab. Once again I ran into a crux where I didn't know what to do.   Marc called up to me again:
-Try a Stein Pull in that block!
-‘What?’  I thought to myself.  Which block?  He’s confusing me.
-Flip your tool over and crank down on the handle!
-Ah, Marc thats so sketchy!  
But alas, that was my only option.  I carefully pressed the front point of my right crampon into the slab, doubtful that it would hold, and pulled down on my sketchy  inverted tool.  Then, being sure not to move my lower body, I reached my right tool far around the corner and miraculously found a blind hook. That was the end of the physical crux, but next came the psychological crux.  I stood up into a precarious stemmed position in a corner.  The corner very thin, without any obvious holds. One move at a time I progressed up the delicate corner on questionable holds the entire time.  The ice was too thin and breakable to hold my weight but the small amount of dirt that had accumulated in the corner was just enough.  I’m sure I could have pounded in a knife blade or bird beak at this point, but the climbing was too demanding to take my hands off my tools.  Nonetheless, I reached the snow gully above and with a breath of relief continued up to the end of the rope. 
      Up top everything was covered in a thick layer of rime so it took me a long while before I found a semi decent belay.  As Marc climbed up, the sun was setting behind Mt. Slesse sending a cast of colors into the sky, illuminating the ridge lines in a blue and yellow contrast.  He met me at the belay and we simul climbed together to reach the summit just as the light was fading. We high-fived, but did not take a summit photo, which I later regretted. I wish I could have captured the energy during this moment in a photo or a video.   But I know, that even through a photo, it is only the person who lived the experienced who can appreciate it. It’s the feeling of camaraderie, a partnership, where each person is working towards the betterment of the whole, no longer an individual but a pair.   It was very cold up top so Marc and I hurriedly packed up the rope and hiked down the western slope to reach a notch.  We made two rappels off of pitons to enter into a steep couloir, then we down climbed back to our skis.  It was dark and starry night as we skid down to camp over the snowy mounds of glaciated granite with the light of our headlamps illuminating the way.

Marc and I reflected back on the climb, aware that this climb was not particularly ground breaking, nor life changing. It was not the biggest nor proudest line we have established together but this was a climb where we were synchronized. We listened to the environment and made choices based on what we were told and based on each other.  It is in these moments of simplicity that we find peace and contentment.  

We never know when will be the last time we get to climb with someone.  We will never know when is the last time we will share such a beautiful moment together.  It is important to be present and appreciate what you have while you have it, because nothing lasts forever.  I hold the simplicity of this adventure, climbing Jupiter Shift, close to my heart for it was not about the climbing, but about the experience.  Skiing out with heavy packs on our backs, the familiar pattern of life kicked into the subconscious and lead us to where we needed to go.


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  2. Spellbinding read. Immense respect. Thank you!

  3. Beautifully written . Thank you . Sending more power to you :)