Ambassador Nick Lake: The Art of The Alpine Start
I didn’t hear any alarm, but my eyes snapped open at the sound of rustling nylon next to me. The down cocoon of my sleeping bag is so warm I’m slowly melting in it. It’s a stark contrast to the mid-September cold snap I’m waking up to, coating the inside of our tent with a thick layer of frost. Each movement brings a shower of icy dust down onto my exposed face.
An alpine start is always miserable for me: fumbling through the dark to make some semblance of breakfast; putting on cold clothes and gear; slipping on frozen boots and hoping my feet are warm enough to melt them out before my toes go numb. As someone who is decidedly not a morning person, the idea of awakening before sunrise to this reality doesn’t rank highly.
But I’m here, camped in a shallow depression atop a broad, rolling ridge almost exactly halfway across the northern unit of the North Cascades National Park with my friend Scott and we’ve got eyes on three peaks. This trip is a bit of an beast--forty miles on foot with almost 15,000 vertical feet gained and lost in just three days--and my legs and back are already heavy and sore from our first day’s approach. Poking my head out of the tent I can see our biggest objective, Whatcom Peak is ringed by the peach glow of dawn, and the clouds that whipped by our tent last night on a stiff breeze have settled lazily into the Chilliwack valley several thousand feet below us, creating a river of fog above the river of….river.
On a morning like this it feels like the battle against a constant chill has to start from the inside and work its way out. I was never a coffee drinker growing up and, doing my best to play into stereotypes, I only acquired a taste for it after moving to Seattle and discovering good espresso. Typically when climbing, however, I’ve resigned myself to packets of instant coffee or sloppy pour-over setups. The Nanopresso is a godsend today, and not just to help fight the cold. We’ve got thousands of vertical feet of slick talus to descend and re-ascend, and then descend and re-ascend again before our day is through, bless our caffeinated souls.
The slog is honestly not very memorable. We don’t summit Whatcom Peak or our second objective, Mineral Peak. Somehow, there’s simultaneously not enough snow and too much snow. Most of the snowfields from the previous winter have finally melted out (just in time to begin to build again) and an early-season storm has just left a few inches of fresh powder on the upper peaks, streaking the steep slabs below in icy meltwater. Travel on deep, compacted snow is easy as is travel on dry, stable rock. We have neither.
The The Imperfect Impass [sic] is a thousand-foot long dike splitting the south face of Whatcom Peak in half, at times over 80 feet of class 4+ climbing down and back up to get across. Opting for a safer route, we’ve dipped to its bottom to traverse on a lingering snow bridge over a raging stream and now size up the greasy slabs leading 2,000 feet back up to a saddle (Perfect Pass) and the final summit push. It’s already taken us two and a half hours to come this far, slick talus and awkward route-finding obliterating our 45-minute estimate. The choice before us is to press on with the knowledge that we’ll be returning to camp well after midnight, traveling much of the treacherous route via headlamp, if we are able to return to camp at all. The possibility of an epic (an unplanned night out, exposed on a climbing route) is all too real at the moment and, remembering the bone-chilling cold of the night before, the prospect of bivvying without overnight gear on a high ridge is just as undesirable. We decide to turn back, that all-too-familiar ache of a missed opportunity sitting like a rock in our stomachs.
The rock is still there, hours later, as we stare up at another mountain face, Mineral Peak, again unsure of where the route is actually supposed to go. The beta we have is from a skier friend of ours who skinned up to the peak and skied off it in spring when unbroken snowfields made the ascent simple and straightforward. Now we’re trying to determine whether or not the chute splitting two sections of glacier on Mineral’s eastern slope “goes.” The waterfall running down the middle indicates that it probably doesn’t. Neither of us feels good about it. Both of us mention the importance of trusting one’s gut in these situations. We’re saying it’s a no-go, but neither wants to say it out loud. Finally, exhausted, we turn back up slope to a grassy ridgeline and our route out.
We set up camp on the broad shoulder of the ridge leading to Whatcom Peak, this time in the middle of a grassy meadow surrounded by glassy tarns and 360-degree views of sugar-coated spires and deep, verdant valleys. There’s no rush now and the sun seems to agree, listing lazily towards the western horizon. We’ve got all the time in the world to sleep before our hike out the next day, so I lay awake on my back for a while watching a thick swarm of stars roll right to left across the sky. It’s a surprisingly good consolation prize.
Sunrise is the yolk of a cracked egg melting across a sea of peaks that stretches as far as I can see. It’s decidedly warmer than yesterday and we’ve got a lot more time to sit barefoot in the grass and enjoy our backcountry espresso before packing up camp. The wind this morning is balmier, having shifted from the south, and the sun quickly works its magic. I haven’t mastered the alpine start by any means, but I wouldn’t be anywhere else than in this moment, right here, right now, a cup of roasty, warm goodness steaming between my hands.
Nick Lake travels the world telling stories of wild, far-off places and the the people who inhabit and visit them through still images, short films, and the written word. He has worked with many brands in dozens of states, provinces, and countries to inspire thousands of people to experience and protect our wildest places and to embrace an active, outdoor lifestyle. Follow his adventures on Instagram and his website.