Sunday, July 26, 2009

Speed Scrambling

Well, you've heard of speed climbing, right? Dean Potter, the Huber Bros., and Lynn Hill have all helped to create and advance the sport of technical speed climbing. Big vertical walls are generally the target for these rock climbing cheetahs. But have you ever heard of speed scrambling? It seems like such a familiar term, but "Google" it and you'll find nothing in the first two pages about climbing.

A little over a week ago, my friend Dan and I decided to take a little break from running and head to the mountains. We were both wanting to get out for a day, but needed a bit more adventure than what comes from a 4-5 hour trail run. Having not climbed for much too long, I proposed we tackle Sloan Peak via the Corkscrew Route. Dan, ever the good sport, seemed psyched on the plan, even given his lack of climbing experience.

Dan picked me up at 5 am Friday morning, and we arrived at the trail head by 6:30 or so. Our plan was to go light. We had ice axes and lightweight crampons, but we planned only to wear our trail shoes all the way to the summit. Having never climbed Sloan Peak, we were simply going off of Jim Nelson's description of the route from Selected Climbs in the Cascades: Volume 2. The trail is definitely not maintained and offers a couple of "interesting" sections. The first of which is encountered within the first half mile. Being that the trail is unmaintained and seldom traveled, for that matter, there's no bridge over the North Fork of the Sauk River. The river looked tame enough, but the ford was sketchy for a couple of steps through waist deep flows. Once across the river, it took a few moments to relocate the trail. When we found it, we started to put our running fitness to work on the steep uphill grind. We certainly weren't running, but we seemed to be making pretty good time power hiking. It was as we began this push upward that Dan shared with me the notion of speed scrambling. Evidently he and another friend,Eric. had just taken ownership of the term a week earlier, on Granite Mountain. A scramble is simply a non-vertical, minimally technical, climb up a mountain, and of course, speed-scrambling is just doing that quickly. So there we were "speed-scrambling" up Sloan Peak.

We really never stopped until we reached the saddle at the top of the first snowfield. It was here that we pulled out the book just to double check the route before ascending the Sloan Glacier. We chose to pass on our crampons. The snow was so soft that they would have just balled up with slush. The glacier had a handful of obvious crevasses, but we easily navigated around them. The only nervewracking section of the glacier, at least to me, was traversing underneath the towering cliff face of the summit. There were several very large chunks of rock scattered about the glacier, and I had no desire to have to dodge a couple hundred pound piece of rock careening down from above. Fortunately there was only about a ten or fifteen minute window were I felt vulnerable. Once off the glacier, we stashed our axes, crampons, and all other non-essentials as we began the final ascent up the goat path leading to the summit. This is the point where the Corkscrew Route gets its name. The path winds around the back side of the summit formation then steeply switches back and forth. We made a couple of route finding errors, and even ended up climbing a class 4 gulley, but with relative ease we reached the summit in 4:21 from the car.

The views from the summit were breathtaking. Glacier Peak looked like you could just about reach out and touch it. We could see Mt. Baker to the north and Rainier to the south. We signed the summit register and ate a bit of food. Dan took a photo of me and tried to text it to our wives. His cell phone was showing a signal, but he couldn't get the photo to send. Finally, Dan pulled out a small Gatorade bottle with about two swigs of whiskey in it. He took the first pull and I knocked off the second. You'd never know that Dan was a rookie, as he brandished the whiskey like a seasoned mountaineer.

Whether it was the whiskey or the food in our bellies. We seemed to have a little extra zip in our step as we made our way down from the summit. Once we reached our stashed gear, we really kicked things into another gear. Even though we were only in running shorts, we managed to glissade most of the way down the glacier and even the lower snowfield. Once back on the trail, we continued our quick descent, even mixing in a bit of jogging in the less technical sections. The descent was mostly uneventful, aside from a couple good spills. Once back at the river, we realized that we could cross a log jam slightly downstream of the ford. I was relieved not to have to make those couple of steps through the current on tired legs. Once across the river, we were able to jog most of the last half mile to the car. We stopped our watches as we popped out to the trailhead. From car to car, we climbed Sloan in 6:45. Without setting out to, we may have the fastest known time roundtrip on Sloan Peak. Leor Pantilat and Colin Abercrombie did the climb in just over 7 hours. Most everything Leor does is the fastest known time, so I can only assume their time on Sloan was the previous fastest. Regardless of the time, we had a fantastic climb, and I hope to get out and do more of the same very soon.


Aubrey said...

Its about time! Nice pics! You need to get a cheap-o camera to take out on your runs with you or do you have one?

NeverNeverMiles said...

Brian, sounds like a lot of fun! Count me in if you want to do something like that again some time.
I just did the Corkscrew route earlier this month. It took us over 10 hours, although we came in from the west side over a saddle before connecting up with the standard route:

Alison Hanks, LMP said...

That looks AWESOME, Brian. I've got a couple of those kind of adventures on my shortlist. There are tons of those up here if you ever want to make the trip, and a bunch of my friends do them (and soon-me).