An Excerpt from
James Martin's Book
"North Cascades Crest"

Martin Photography
Chamonix: To Climb
Changing Face

© 1999
All Rights Reserved.

The Triplets in Winter
Excerpted from North Cascades Crest, Chapter Six

The Triplets in Winter
The Triplets in Winter
[click to zoom]
In his new book, writer and photographer James Martin, captures, in words and stunning images, the extraordinary landscape of the North Cascades in northern Washington.

Winter climbing in the Cascades makes little sense. Wet-snow avalanches set like poured concrete, cloud cover masks approaching storms, and arctic winds shiver the peaks. Melting snow and occasional rain soak equipment. An honest memory of a winter climb is a litany of miseries.

In the warmth of the living room, our plans had the ring of sweet reason. Jim Nelson, one of the region's best winter climbers, proposed an unclimbed line on the north wall of Johannesburg Mountain. If that ice climb proved too ambitious, we would scamper up a short gully on the neighboring Triplets.

"As he stepped around a bulge, he called down: 'Watch me. I'm terrified'..."

As our car nosed up the snow-covered Cascade River Road, conditions seemed perfect: high clouds, cool temperatures, old avalanche debris at the base of the steep gullies called couloirs. Our intended route came into view after a mile of snowshoeing. The early-season ice hadn't yet filled the couloir on Johannesburg as we had hoped it would, so instead we trudged up to Cascade Pass, intent on bagging the Triplets. We dug a snow trench for shelter against the building wind, which soon shooed us into our bivouac sacks. We carried no tent; we knew that going fast meant going light. But I regretted not bringing one, as spindrift sneaked into my bivy sack and my sleeping bag. At least I had brought a sleeping bag. Jim had opted for only a half bag zipped to a down jacket.

A cloudless sky greeted us in the morning. After the usual winter struggle with clothing and breakfast, we slowly hiked to the Triplets.

The Triplets in Winter
Mt. Slesse
[click to zoom]
The peak looks like the back of a hand with fingers extended. In winter, thin runnels of ice and snow clog the lines between the fingers. We decided to try the left-hand runnel. Despite being surrounded by higher peaks, the Triplets commanded respect. Snow plumed from the summits and tortuous gullies hid the difficulties. We donned crampons and roped up at the base and started ascending together.

Almost immediately, thin ice slowed us. I still expected, however, to summit near midday. The fact that we had left our headlamps and bivy gear in camp didn't trouble me. We were light and fast.

The ice disappeared entirely, leaving a leftward traverse across bare rock toward the narrowing gully. To my relief Jim gathered the gear and led. His crampon points ground against stone as he placed them on tiny edges. Compact rock rejected pitons. After much fussing, he hammered in two thin pitons thirty feet up, which we recognized as psychological protection. They likely wouldn't hold a fall.

As he stepped around a bulge, he called down: "Watch me. I'm terrified." This was not welcome news. Jim normally relished climbs that drove me to consider confining my thrill-seeking to chess matches and wedding photography. Any bit of climbing that slowed him at all would be desperate business for me.

"We hurried to the car with the wind pummeling our backs. The North Cascades had spit us out..."
Jim leaned around the bulge and sank his ax into thick ice with a reassuring thunk. After surmounting twenty feet of what appeared to be vertical ice, he called for me to follow. I felt the reassuring tug of the rope as I moved quickly to the two pitons. I whacked at the pitons with my hammer, trying to do my job of removing them. The bulge forced my body away from the ice, and my pack threatened to pull me off. Jim's intermittent tugs pulled me sideways. If I lost my grip, I would swing across the traverse and slam into a wall, away from climbable rock. The pitons finally popped out, and I swung around the bulge with more desperation than elegance. Panting against the ice, I paused to wonder why I kept coming back to winter climbing. Bad memory, I concluded.

On closer inspection the sheet of vertical ice became a cluster of detached icicles. To ascend, one foot clawed the hanging ice while the other sought purchase on wet rock between the icicles. It was all coming back to me. The tug on the rope became a pull as Jim winched me up.

Midday was already a memory, but the route eased back and our optimism returned. The gully necked down to six feet across and zigzagged up, obscuring the route, but the loose snow allowed us to create steps and move quickly. With luck, we could still get up and off before dark. Growing urgency propelled us upward. As we ascended, the snow deepened and softened, slowing us and reducing security. We surmounted a couple difficult steps before arriving at the funnel of a small snow bowl. Jim laboriously packed the powder into steps and swam to the top of the gully as evening alpenglow tinted the surrounding peaks. It was late. We were in trouble.

"The worst was over, but the moonless night yielded little light. We picked our way down unroped, unable to see our feet. The slope steepened..."
We retraced our steps downward, racing the light. The deep snow and narrow gully passed quickly, but the technical steps stopped us. We needed anchors to fix the rope so we could rappel down. But the ice was too thin for ice screws and the rock lacked cracks for pitons. In the gathering gloom Jim hacked a channel in a three-inch-thick patch of ice adhering to a boulder, draped a sling in the channel, and hung the rope from the sling. It held. After passing that obstacle, he hammered a piton into a bottoming crack, attached the rope, and slid down to easier ground. Night extinguished the last glow on the horizon.

The worst was over, but the moonless night yielded little light. We picked our way down unroped, unable to see our feet. The slope steepened. A section that seemed trivial in daylight required perfect placements. The terrain dipped to 60 degrees. Crampon points and axes bounced off rock behind thin ice. Concentration battled with haste and fatigue. I forced myself to focus all attention on each placement. The world became very small and compelling.

I found Jim inspecting every square inch of a ledge at the base of this section. We were atop a fifty-foot cliff, though just below I could see a gentle slope dipping to Cascade Pass . The expanse of snow reflected starlight, and the glow of nearby towns silhouetted the peaks. No wind interrupted a perfect silence.

"No anchors," Jim announced.

While I would have preferred a miracle, I resigned myself to a night of doing jumping jacks to stay warm. We had survived. We would get off the ledge at first light, with all body parts intact.

"I've got something," Jim said.

He had found a hole in the rock by fumbling blindly. He threaded a sling through the hole. After a minute of aggressive testing, we rappelled down to our snowshoes. An hour later we found our snow trench and wiggled into frozen bivouac sacks.

Next morning the wind wailed across the pass, blowing snow hundreds of feet into space. We hurried to the car with the wind pummeling our backs. The North Cascades had spit us out.

— James Martin, Correspondent

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