It was late season, but a decent snow year so we saw snow on the ground. Since it was late in the year, there was serious snow cupping - the dimples on the slope made it much like a staircase. But each step was more like a bowl than a step, and it took a toll on my ankles. By the time I reached Helen, I was a bit spent, and my ankles just weren't going to last much longer. So that became my stopping point - I hung out there for a good while before turning about. A ranger passed through and told everyone there not to go for the summit, too late, and could I see your wilderness passes please? Tom did keep plugging away and *much* later in the day got down in a pretty wasted state. He got sent down from the mountain by a ranger after he started heaving his guts, thinking he was only a bit off the summit. Based on later trips, it looks more like he was just above Red Banks. He said the glissade down through the chute was particularly exciting.
Try 2 - May 1996
After the 1 day disaster, we decide to be a bit smarter and make it a day and a half trip. Tom, I, and a third friend, Eric, take off one Saturday morning in the early season. We manage to get onto the trail itself sometime near 3 - time for lunch, and packing our gear added up. The snow extends all the way to the parking lot - typical even in a light snow year like 2002. So the trail for Horse Camp was much more direct, and I thought a bit easier then the sudden rise at the end of the dirt trail route. After Horse Camp, however, it got very hard. The snow was deep and soft, and we were postholing. Any hope of making Helen before dark was lost and we eventually created a campsite on a nearly flat snow bank. It took 20 minutes of moving snow to make two flat spots for the tents, and then we made dinner.
Without a doubt we slept well - too well really given how far we had to go. With the deep snow, we needed all the time possible. (It later turned out to be a moot issue, so better that we got the sleep). With the snow firm from overnight cold and our heavy packs now holding day gear, we made a decent clip as we got up and beyond Helen. Soon past, we run into the same ranger. He again wanted us to turn back due to time and potential for avalanches in the afternoon. We show our pass (of course), tell him we're going to keep going, but turn about at a given time. I want a better view and to get a bit higher up.
The weather is a bit odd - lots of thick fog. At times we can't see Helen below us, or even remotely as far. Very pleasing effect to me, but probably not cool for the vertigo sufferers. Not long past this we start to hear rumblings of thunder. And then they increase. And like that, time to turn around and get out of there. Sliding on this soft snow is fun and easy compared to the year prior. Each of us makes our own trail. However it's clear that dragging the pick is not a good braking method- worked better just to hit a flat spot. By the time we get back to our tents, it's clear that a good sized storm is coming.
My thinking was that we should hole up in the tents and eat like kings. I wasn't sure we could make it out of there and down to Bunny Flat before it hit. On the other side, the guys didn't relish the thought of sitting on a exposed ridgeline at 10,000 ft in a big thunderstorm. Majority rule had us packing our gear quickly and down we went. Somehow I had neglected to bring my non tinted glasses, so I was stuck with my very dark sunglasses if I wanted to see distance. That, the dark skies, and my growing fatigue made for some interesting visions as the last couple miles seemed endless. At one point I was convinced I saw lifts from the nearby ski resort. I was happy to make it to the truck and down to town for food.
We found a great German restaurant - I think I ordered 2 entres, a giant coke, a pint of something nice, and a milkshake. We sat and ate for hours. Again we didn't make it past 11,500, but we still worked pretty hard to get that much. By now the rain had turned torrential - too bad I didn't have a shell for my truck bed. The gear was getting a full soak. The drive back was amazing - the lightning show was fantastic, even if one lived in an area where lightning came more than twice a year. We definitely made the right call in leaving the mountain.
Try 3 - August 1996
Time to get it done. It's late season and snow is not going to stop us from making it up to the top, we hope. Again we don't make it out till 2, but what's new? At Horse Camp we came upon something different - several guys hired by the Sierra Club to build a new structure for the spring. We stayed a bit to help them move a few of the giant slabs of rock, and then keep going. We never hit snow, just steep trail and make it to Helen just as the sun is going down. The ice field starts right at this point. We make our dinner, and go to sleep, very tired. It would probably be good to make camp a lot earlier- some day.
We get up the next morning a bit later than most and head on up with the crampons, making reasonable speed to Red Banks. I think we took the second chute - it was mostly easy but there was one 6ft icy wall that was a bit tricky to negotiate. After that, it just went for a while - much more to the Banks than you can see from the base. Tom is starting to feel the effects of altitude sickness by now - when we got to the base of Misery Hill we sit down for a bit. At this point our favorite Ranger shows up yet again and suggests we head back, as the last hikers on the mountain. Not a chance this time. It's nearly all dirt and rock, so we ditch our ice gear and finish it. When we got to the base of the twin summit, we guess correctly to go to the right and spend a couple minutes at the top, take a few pictures. But Tom is definitely suffering a bit and we head back down. Here begins the true adventure.
We don't go down Red Banks this time, but instead follow the scree slope near the Thumb, thinking this would be easy. Didn't work out that way - rock is inconsistently slippery which seems worse than snow. But we make our way. When we get to the top of Avalanche Gulch, it's time to glissade. The run more closely ressembles a bobsled run, up to 3 feet deep. Tom goes first, and before I know it, he's at Helen. This was a mistake as I have a much harder time. I just can't generate enough drag to maintain speed and I lose control, flying off a curve. For a bit I let go of the ax and it slides next to me, then I realize this is pretty stupid and grab it again. I land on my back on one bump and start to wonder how bad the situation is, but eventually I can stop. Self arresting skills clearly negligent. I broke the skin on several finger knuckles, and probably would see/feel other bruises a bit later. So at this point I stand up and start walking down. The snow unfortunately is ice with an inch or two of wet snow on top, which makes for easy slipping, so I use the rock zone of the Heart too. It takes me a couple hours to do what Tom did in 10 minutes. Worse, he doesn't break camp, thinking I might not be in good shape to leave, which in my state drives me crazy.
It's now 6:30 and we head on out. Here I discover, not for the first time, that my preferred headlight doesn't seem to like being lit continuously for long, right as we're descending the steep rocky section above Horse Camp. We go slowly there, then get to the Camp. We find our Sierra Club friends having a nice dinner there and they invite us to the fire. They're quite friendly, perhaps too much so, but food and heat is welcome. They also lend us a penlight to use to get to the car. I'm embarassed that we were unable to return it - we lost the address information slip somehow. Hopefully they didn't stop bailing out other foolish hikers in the future. It was about 9:30 when we got to the car, and there was nothing open in the city by the time we got there. We hit a gas station for drinks and junk, and drove home.