West McMillan Spire
January 14. My 39th Birthday. Russ, Silas, and I hustled along the Goodell
Creek road once again, the frozen alder leaves crunching beneath our
feet. The leaves fallen, the salmonberry in hibernation, the trip up
the road went no slower than usual despite the extra 20 winter pounds
around my middle and the extra 8 or so on our backs from snowshoes and
The day was great and I have some nice winter shots of Trappers, Triumph,
Despair, and The Stump and the The Terror Creek Spires. Russ was in the
same shape, winter and summer, and accustomed to this snowshoe travel
and we let him take the lead just beyond the 3200-foot hummock. We had
no choice. The snow was hard enough that leader steps didn't help that
much. The miserable doghair patch that gives so much trouble in the summer
was totally white and somewhat of a pleasure, if it hadn't been uphill
with weight on your back.
We were without water and sucking on snow from Over and Up Creek to
high on Lunch Creek where we hit it just past Camp Barbara where Silas
and wife #1 (as opposed to #1 Wife) had holed up at 5600 feet during
a winter storm in February 1977 when they made the second winter ascent
of West McMillan.
We arrived at Glee's Knee a foot flat that has since become a favorite
stopping place of ours, and stomped out a couple of tent flats, relegating
Russ to the "Snoring Section," 50 feet away from our tent.
At 39, I was feeling O.K.
January 15. It was plenty cold when we gathered full daypacks at 7 AM
. The snow was still powdery enough to require snowshoes and Silas was
stoked enough about this trip to be out there punching the lead steps
across a steepish section. We were soon standing at Terror Col talking
about what the possibilities were. The sky was plenty encouraging, but
it was getting that milky winter white, almost yellow, look that often
means trouble's a brewin'.
We took off our snowshoes to descend from Terror Col and floundered
a bit in the accumulation of snow on the lee side, but then found that
the upper part of Terror Basin had been wind packed hard making travel
even better than summer. We headed up for the obligatory look into Azure
Lake , since the high route here makes the most sense. There is a peculiar
sinkhole at 5600-5800 feet, kind of a nesting basin within the greater
Terror Basin that is the alternative approach.
Silas and Russ drooled over East Mac, encouraged by the fact that there
was a continuous snow route to the West Mac-East Mac col, then probably
a zigzag snow route from there to the summit. I nervously eyed the football
field sized slab avalanche slough that stood at the upper edge on the
mini-basin and the tell-tale jagged line across the middle of the slanting
couloir leading to the col, which indicated that a slab had broken away
from this spot as well. I wished them both luck and told them that I
did not choose to die this day riding a great white surfboard to the
After World. Instead, I told them, I would cross the basin and climb
West Mac and capture them triumphantly standing atop East Mac.
I figured I wanted to be back in camp at 5 since I was not sure I could
survive a winter bivouac here without my tent and sleeping bag. To allow
enough time I made my turn around time 1 PM . I walked above the football
field slough, wondering if the football field above it that I was standing
on was going to stick, or join its neighbor at the bottom of the slope.
We left our snowshoes behind at the first hard snow, but as the day
grew slightly warmer I started breaking through the crust on enough steps
that I at least wanted them back on my back, just in case. I made it
to the rock rib coming down low off of W Mac and waited for about 20
minutes hoping to get a telephoto shot of Russ and Silas doing the couloir.
I never saw them and proceeded slowly up to the col pondering how important
it was for me to get the third winter ascent on a peak that I'd already
climbed. My pace was slow enough by design that I didn't sweat so I wouldn't
have to give up any heat to evaporation. I reached the 7300-foot col
about 12:30 and started firing shots at the Southern Pickets on edge
to my west and the Northern Pickets decked in white across the valley.
I continued up slowly, frequently now breaking through the icy crust,
already having given up on the summit. 1 PM came and I was still 3-400
feet from the top and decided it was prudent to stick with my turn-around
rule. I worried that something bad might have happened to Russ and Silas,
simply because I was not there to provide moral support.
Turning the W McMillan corner below, I looked up and could see the summit
pitches on East McMillan, largely plastered with snow and unbelievably
with two tiny spiders clinging to the uppermost snow. I put down my pack
and let out some whoops and was whooped in return. My telephoto bayonetted
into place, I fired several shots of their summit bid. I was impressed
with their guts. But they still had to get down.
I continued circling back towards Terror Col , then sat down on my pack
with a cool wind blowing at about an hour out of camp. I could stay here
until 4 PM and still make it safely back to warmth. But what if they
never came into view? Should I go up that couloir unbelayed looking for
them? Could they survive the night if one of them was injured on the
descent? Could I survive the night if I tried to help? Would we be better
off with me helping on the scene, or racing out for a helicopter? These
were not entertaining questions at 20o or whatever it was.
15 or 20 minutes after I figured they should have come into view, they
did and I made sure they were safely out of the couloir before I started
back for the tent where I had boiling water waiting for them. It was
dark by the time we rolled in to bed. Just before retiring, Silas filled
his poly bottle with water for the trip out and tightened the lid, bringing
the bottle inside the tent so it wouldn't freeze overnight. In about
an hour I felt a little moisture on the floor of the tent and figured
it was condensation from our hot bodies. About an hour after that Silas
sat up in his back and mumbled, "What the hell? Have you got a leak
in this tent?" The bottom of the tent had a significant pool of
water that was soaking the edges of our sleeping bags and all the gear
we had at the head of the tent. The cap of Silas' poly bottle had had
snow in the threads when he'd put it on. As the snow melted in the "warmth" of
the tent a full-blown leak occurred, essentially draining the bottle.
We sponged up the pool with the wet clothes and hoped our bags wouldn't
January 16. Bad weather came with the morning, and by the time we should
have been back to the hummocks we could hardly see across the valley
and the landmarks were not familiar. At this point my intuition said
go left, but Silas and Russ felt we'd gone too far and somehow had crossed
Over and Up Creek and should head back to the right. Reason could not
sway them and they outvoted me. To make some good of a bad situation,
I bet Silas a Kidd Valley hamburger that I was right. He took the bet,
but as soon as we rounded the first ridgelet he felt he'd lost the bet,
but by that time Russ was far enough ahead of us that we proceeded on
his course, and darned if they weren't right, and I was out one burger.
Copyright 2004, John W. Roper, MD.
All Rights Reserved.