Fortress Mountain - SW Face
June 22, 2008


"The one had leaves of dark green that beneath were as shining silver, and from each of his countless flowers a dew of silver light was ever falling, and the earth beneath was dappled with the shadows of his fluttering leaves."
-JRR Tolkien

Photos and story by Jason Hummel

It is weird, how when life takes you up so high, you can by living it, come so close to dying. I have lived a high life and in the process had many close calls. Most I can stack up to being stupid or unlucky. On this day, during this adventure, I can say for sure this one smacks of stupidity.

Fortress Mountain lies deep in the DaKobed Range and is one of the 100 highest in Washington. Further north along the same ridge is Chiwawa Mountain. Buck Mountain and its impossible flanks and Glacier Peak whose slopes rise higher than all look at you with their faces of a million expressions, as does every mountain, near and far. On a sunny day, the view can be one of the most spectacular in the Cascades of Washington.

The drive was impractical. I had a last second decision to make. Go with my brother to Mount Daniel where I'd meet my old man. Or go to Fortress with Ryan, Sky and Corey. Somewhere deep down was this urge to see a place I hadn't for sometime. When I was 13 or so, I'd gone to Buck Creek Pass during a 16-day hiking trip with my brothers and parents. In our circumnavigation of Glacier Peak, we'd seen many wondrous places. This one was among our favorite.

The planning was Ryan's. He'd seen the SW Face of Buck on an earlier trip to the area and his itch to return was as infectious as my desire to see a place I had never seen snow-endowed. This year's incredible amount of snow made a ski to this area feasible.



Saturday Afternoon and Sunday

We spent the night five miles before the end of the road where the Town of Trinity rests. When the mine was abandoned the town became a casualty of the bust and boom of the industry. We caught sight of it not much time later when our 2am alarm broke the silence. It wasn't until 3am that we were off. It wasn't until then that I realized the length of the trip, 23 miles by our best estimates.

The first miles were on wonderful trail and the patches of snow remained patchy until 6 miles in. The snow was laid thick in places beyond there and when we came into snow barren avalanche fields we'd run the gamut through them, surely not taking the best routes, but neither were they bad ones. All in all, by the time we reached the upper snowfields, we'd made a fine run of it up to there. Choice views were at a premium as the fog and clouds swept upper cliffs and long fingers snaked down to consume us, often closing even the valley from sight.



Finally next to a massive tower of rock, the clouds parted and showed us the way. It was enough to spur me to continue, even when the earlier rain drops and dreary weather had made this a mission of futility rather than conquest. Not that any adventure is defined by either.



At a false summit in loose rocks we packed our skis up and waited for Corey, whose off the couch efforts were heroic. Meanwhile, twenty seconds of sun interspersed by those both longer and shorter tantalized us. The small windows into our place among them were infectious and seeing one fingered-summit above the clouds left me awash in wonder.

The climb to the summit was on easy rock and snow, some made much steeper by the fact that I climbed over the ridge to stay on the snow. I seemed assured that it went, but looking at photos, I may have been disillusioned. Dropping into such a face would've been ill-conceived, but when on a river course of such decisions, it is made more difficult to break free from the current when eddies and bends are swam by. Although this one wasn't, others were.

We had made our way to the top via rock and snow and I wasn't inclined to go back that way. I was sure a route went directly below us and would avoid traversing. While surely not as zealous as my earlier mention (that, I might add, was made more out of interest than actual doing), was still requiring further exploring. Our fog-encumbered summit views were far from definitive. We had been waiting for a sucker hole big enough to allow us to see enough to make a decision and to also enjoy the descent. In the end, we didn’t see enough to ski the route below us, which we imagined could be cliffed out and so agreed to ski a few hundred feet down and traverse over to our ascent route, which was not quite as steep. We had been able to skin up the entire way to the rocks, 300-ft below the summit. It was an exciting skin track!


 


From the summit, we followed the ridge down and then dropped from the ridge a few feet on rock. From there Sky had skied down and Ryan was waiting next to a convex slope. Below me I could see the fog and nothing else. Earlier I had seen the huge relief down to valleys, more the look of vast chasms as seen in a movie of some other place like Nepal, not Washington.



I had turned my brain off to all risk assessment. The terrain was steep, maybe 40 degrees, but not heart-clutching to say the least. The snow was new snow that had fallen a few weeks before, and was the same that I had seen remotely triggered from flat slopes (far from danger), on Mount Adams. It was assumed a week of sun had put all danger to rest, so without taking into account what was under my feet (so used to assessing danger on the way up and often shelving on the descent), I set course toward the center gut pounding turns right on top of the convex slope and proceeding to pound turns in the most abundant way I could. To a tee, I was having a blast. On a left turn, if I could've seen my smile, I would've seen it slip away into a mask of concentration, tinged I'm sure by flashes of fear and horror at what was happening. I felt then that I had made a critical error and not one I could walk away from. I could see Sky standing safely beneath a rock outcrop. I was no longer turning and yet I could see him being swiftly moved through my peripheral vision. Of course it wasn't him moving. It was then I knew the man had come to collect. It'd had been 3 years since my last close call on Mount Baker and I've worked so, so hard to turn around when the danger is bad, to not go out when conditions are questionable, but often, after thinking about this on the drive home, I realized that in the spring I turn off my avalanche assessment because the danger is often limited. But this year has been an interesting one and late season snow laid on top of a wet spring base is an accident waiting to happen. My assumption that a week had been enough to bake the snow didn't take into account that it really hasn't been that warm, especially at 8500-ft. On top of it, the freeze/thaw cycle hasn't been in full operation either. Temps at night weren't always freezing and temps during the day weren't always very high. A week then wasn't enough to wrestle the upper layers of snow into a more compact spring-like base that we are familiar with this time of year.

In other words, now that I was in an avalanche, those allusions of control and predictability were now a matter of how and why than where I was then. In the midst as speed picked up and downward momentum set my fate to the snow's path, I had time to consider so much more than in any other close call I've had before. As I fell into the fog, I was reminded of my first and only sky-diving experience. It was such a consuming fear and yet so very practical. The chute would pull and all would be safe, if it didn't then the end would be quick, painless. So was the case for me when, several hundred feet down, my greatest fear of all came to greet me...falling. In my head, as I was swept away by the rivers of snow, I thought of the cliffs that could be waiting below, some surely hundreds of feet tall. I'd seen many wet slides on hot days break off high slopes above cliffs and fall over a vertical mile to the valleys and forests far below, usually coursing where the rivers and waterfalls go. Right then I was freefalling and I couldn't see how far, how big, what I was to land on, whether it would be jumbled boulders or ledged cliff-face or one of those giant waterfalls I'd seen lining the valleys. Would it be them? I'd hoped it wouldn't, I really did. How could I be so lucky? I really couldn't.

But I was.

In landing, now below the fog somewhat, I could fathom my predicament. There was a bench before another roll. Beyond that roll was theoretical, but  the valley below would entail thousands of feet and the math wasn't good. If the others came upon this, they wouldn't even need to bother to go down, although I know they would've. The snow was over 90 percent of the way there and and was beginning to coast over the roll, I kept my eyes open looking for any opportunity to escape. With all moving, there was none. Then, after an eternity, all was stopped, frozen in place. The fog was still drifting between blue and dominating grey. Right then, all was grey, but quickly clearing more than we'd seen all day. I let out a hoot of relief and there was no need to sequester thanks, I had it there too next to my wilting fear. Whence meeting it head on, I was quite thrilled to be walking away. Very thrilled to be alive when I had thought I was surely dead. Life has a curious mistress? She brings you up, spits you out, and sometimes you forget she could just as surely gobble you up

 



I had taken a ride for 800-ft according to Ryan's altimeter with my beginning at the false summit of Fortress, 8,400-ft, ended approximately 800-ft lower at 7600-ft. The slab was 18-24 inches when it started, but picked up rocks and debris along the way.

My ski pole was swallowed by the avalanche and the only injury I appeared to have, were my fingers which had gripped it. Today, one finger still doesn't have all feeling back, but a small price to pay for a second (or is that my eighth) lease on life. Hopefully I carry this one as a reminder for a long, long time to come.

 



The hike back was nice and rewarding. The forest and scenery along the way were truly special.

On tired feet, 17 hours after I began, we were at an end. Along the way I had a lot of time to think. The wind felt good, the water cold, the birds sounded loud, and the sun felt warm (more pleasant than usual?). Life is pretty damn good; you just have to watch your living of it. Although, as Sky said once, "If it ain't worth dying for, then you need to find something else to do." The mountains are certainly worth it to me, as it is to those I know. Of course, we don't want to die in them, but in order to experience nature, certain risks are assumed and can't be nullified. If you can't accept them, then you can hide under your bed, but for me, I seek more weathered places, less treaded vistas, and higher ground than most.

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