“The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings.” – William Shakespear
“Man propose, nature dispose” – Gary Paulsen
After climbing for four days in a row I came home feeling exhausted and dehydrated. Matt Lemke calls me by saying “want to climb Sloan Peak via the rock route”. It was a tempting offer, but I declined due to being fatigued. Then Shortly afterwards I was offered a trip so ridiculous that I couldn’t refuse. Burgundy Spire via the North Face. Some say Burgundy Spire ranks as #10 on Washington’s hardest peaks. Before climbing it I knew that I would be climbing at the edge of my limit and that with how I felt this would be a big under taking. I had prusiks just in case and felt that with all the years of mountaineering it would be enough. Unfortunately I was wrong. At the crux I fell and took a big swing fall which ended up being one of the scariest moments of my life. This was a scary climb that put me on the edge of what I thought I was capable of.
We worked out a deal so that I would have a semi rest day before climbing Burgundy Spire. As a pre-trainer we went to Mount Erie and did a few rock climbs to help me ease back into it. After a few hours of some good climbs it was time to head over to Rainy Pass where we met up with Fletcher and Gimpilator. They didn’t climb with us, but it was nice to get a few chats in.
Leading Up to the Incident
The next day we drove on over Washington Pass and then over to the Silver Star pullout. We started hiking at about 7:20 a.m. down a bouldery path. Once we were in the woods, the trail became sustained which I was pleased. The trail crossed the creek, there is a few logs to use for crossing. A little ways after the log crossing. the trail steepens up. I could feel the burn from my previous climbs, but knew I could endure it. After about two hours in, we cross through a flat camping area which made for a great rest spot. Once I refueled, the traveling was easier even with the more difficult terrain. Further ahead the trail became less obvious but at least there was cairns. The terrain went from bad to cruddy, there was kitty litter everywhere. I’d rather free solo low 5th class than go through this class 2 scree. At least it would be safer.
After blasting through more garbagy slopes we arrive at the bottom of the north face of Burgundy Spire. We put on our harnesses and left behind some gear to make the climb easier. I led the first pitch which was quite decent. After I belayed Matt up, he led the rest of the pitches. We were not sure where the 5.8 sections were. I’ve only led up to 5.7 which is why I let Matt do the rest of the leads. The next pitch was class 4 with some kitty litter in it, the worst pitch of the route in terms of quality. Then on the 3rd pitch we climbed up some 5.4 flakes. The climb was going well, I started to think that this climb might actually go drama free.
The next pitch is possibly the crux pitch, at least it was for me. It took Matt quite a while to climb it. “I guess this is where it gets hard” I whisper to myself. As I approached the bottom of the crux I realized why it had taken so long and that I would have difficulty getting up it myself. The hand jam business was working out fine at first. I pulled out a cam and tried to go higher. I had a hard time getting a good hand jam and I was just feeling fatigued as I tried to climb higher. Breathing hard I push on for the next move. I was almost to the top when I started to tire out. My grip was failing, I was now trying everything I could do to hold on. In a pathetic attempt I yelled softly in a desperate voice “Matt, catch me ca…” and then my grip completely failed.
One of the Scariest Moments of my Life
I don’t entirely know exactly how it went down considering that I immediately went into panic mode. As I fell back I could see the landscape all around me changing. In a sort of free fall I look down below me and dread what lies ahead. My heart was racing, and I finally understood what the phrase “I saw my life flash before my eyes” meant. Falling side ways is much scarier than I had imagined it being. After what felt like a long time I smacked into the slope hitting the back of my head. I spun around and kept flying. I didn’t know what was going to happen to me. The final impact was the worst one. I crashed into my left knee and left arm. I think I felt it pop. When I stopped I immediately was in some sort of mental shock. It wasn’t until then that I realized that was one of the scariest moments of my life. My vision dimmed, my body was aching, heart was racing, breathing hard, and I knew I had really messed up.
I had cuts on all my legs and arms, the most worrying part was my knee bleeding down my leg. After more heavy breathes I could finally feel the impact which I started yelling in pain. I managed not to swear, although I was quite tempted to. After about 10 minutes, I felt around me and realized I could walk. I was quite pleased. Each movement was quite painful, but at least I was well enough to get off the face. I had to finish the pitch before I could think about patching myself up. Casual rock climbing moves were now quite difficult. I traversed over a slabby section and found a crack I could go up. After some moaning, pushing, and pulling I made it to Matt. On a tiny ledge I clipped in and he helped bandage my leg. We poured some water on it to get as much dirt out as possible. Each wrap was difficult considering the precarious position I was in. I had one leg in front of the other on a less than ideal ledge. At one point I almost fell from having difficulties wrapping the bandage. Once it was sealed tight the bleeding seemed to slow down which I was quite pleased about.
Fragile on the Edge
It seemed like we were incredibly close to the summit, so I figured it would be best to get to the top and rappel down from the proper area. I suppose it was possible to rappel from where we were, but I didn’t want to risk it. What I didn’t know is that there were more traverses and pitches. As I belayed Matt I was shivering. I couldn’t tell if it was from the blood loss, the mental shock, or being fatigued. Seeing that I wasn’t a natural born mountaineer, it wears down on me. Being told that it’s out of my realm. “Maybe they were right” I whisper as tears start coming down my face. “But at least I made it so far” I chuckled with a hint of hope. Matt arrives at the top of the pitch, which it is my turn to start climbing again. “Another dreadful pitch” I whisper and sigh.
The further I climbed, the more fragile I felt. With more difficult moves, I managed to surprise myself with what I can do when feeling injured. I guess part of it had to do with the fact that I felt very desperate. Survival mode pops in and one must keep himself as calm as possible. From stemming, hand cracks, foot jams, and other climbing moves I was impressed at how much the mountain kept throwing at us. The pitches began to blur and I started to wonder when we would top out. We arrived at another traverse section that required my full attention because I didn’t want to take pendulum swing. The idea of falling 2 feet sounded terrible. The slightest bump on my knee hurt (it’s hurting as I’m typing this over a week later). After what felt like a long time we arrive at the summit ridge pitch.
On the final pitch I went up the 5.8 crack and then traversed around a fin. Then I had to climb a 25 foot off-width crack which stemming and foot jams were a great method for getting up. After enduring that last bit I arrived on the summit ridge and walked over to the summit rock. I set down the pack and touched the summit. I was so thankful to be almost done with Burgundy Spire. “Matt, thank you so much for leading most of the pitches, being patient, and helping me when I was hurt” I told Matt. We had a short break on the summit and got ready for the descent.
Double ropes were nice for rappelling down. I was quite pleased that getting off the face didn’t have any major difficulties. Even with double ropes there was one spot that was a bit hot on my hand due to friction. Many rappels later we had to go through the kitty litter section which we were both worried about the rope getting caught. Lucky for us it didn’t get caught. On the 5th rappel the rope got quite tangled, but fortunately Matt figured it out and soon arrived safely at the bottom of the climb.
We had a quick food/drink break and started hustling down to maximize day light. The sun was almost setting and we had thousands of feet to go. The scree on the way down was quite bad, we both kept slipping. At one point I almost lost my full balance while sliding on a slope. I dug in my fingers to catch myself which took a few seconds to stop. As the sun set, the evening view was refreshing and the scree eased up. I decided to put my camera away.
My knees were still slowing me down, but I still managed to make decent time. I wanted to get home as soon as possible to wash off all the cuts. Once it became dark I had a hard time keeping up with Matt. I kept sliding on the scree trail and fell on my back. Somewhere during that time of falling over and over I unfortunately broke my main camera. After falling behind so much I decided it was best to go at the pace I felt comfortable with which is why I slowed down a bit more. As we neared the bottom we could see head lights above as cars drove along highway 20. We then crossed the creek and started the ascent to the car. “This is the crux of the climb” Matt announced to me as we struggled up the hill. We took a few breaks and pressed on. Finally we arrive at the car where we set down our gear. “I made it” I announced with joy. What a day!
A few things to take away from this:
– Don’t climb a super hard peak after being exhausted from climbing a bunch of other peaks
– Both party members should do their homework before a climb, not just one (My Bad)
– Protect the Traverse
– Climbing at one’s limit in the alpine is dangerous, even with prusiks
– When falling a lot on scree, make sure your camera is in a safe location
In conclusion there were a few things done wrong on this trip. It’s now over a week later, I can softly walk around the house and go for short walks outside. I had to visit the doctors to get antibiotics and make sure nothing was broken. It will be a few more weeks before I can even consider hiking again if all goes well. I’ve learned my lesson the hard way, and am happy that it wasn’t more serious. May my camera be fixed and eventually I hope to get back into the swing of things.