100 Peaks #32: The Many Stages of Whitehorse

Sleepy road
We tried to blink away our sleepy eyelids and wondered if we should venture out at all today, or go back to sleep in the car in the chilly, first-light forest. Sun came through the fuzzy spaces between trees– no sharp angles or shadows, all moss. But not the deep green moss of dark, spooky fairytale forests. This forest was the light-colored wood and yellow-green moss of someone’s backyard, at least where I grew up in the Southeast. And I guess it was some miners’ backyards at some point, at least for a little while. We walked down the gently graded road dreamily until we reached a gaping hole in the hillside. Here at the mine, the overgrown road abruptly ended, and we stumbled into a river bed.
Slippery Hill
After some moss-slick river rocks, we encountered a steep hill covered in tall grasses. The sunshine was still lazy and pale, though you could tell it was going to be a sunny day. The glacier was visible in the distance, but it was such a disparate layer that it seemed like a movie backdrop. The hill was damp frustration, full of thorns that caught everything and bundles of vegetation that made for poor traction for hands and feet. It was short.

Fun Dense Forest
For a while afterward I wriggled through a playground of branches and brambles in the same type of forest that we parked the car in. I would find myself pushing a tree aside to see faint bootprints, and looking over for the tips of Westy’s skis bobbing among the tangle. There were several pieces of a rusted wood stove in a small clearing just as the forest opened up. The all-caps block letters read “RUSTIC MOHAWK.”
Fun Open Forest
Then the forest was friendly. I weaved through bigger trees on soft soil, following some evidence of previous parties which could not quite be called a climber’s trail. It got lighter as the morning progressed and the trees became older and more spaced out. Below, my mouth had been full of some acidic copper or iron taste, but now it had become the familiar scent of mulch and advanced decay.
Snow on Bullshit
Suddenly, a large expanse of white shone through a little brush peephole above us. A small tree drooping under a few pairs of trail runners signaled the transition. Westy added his to the brightly-colored assortment and put on his boots. The snow was blue in the shadow of the mountain, dirty and thin. When the boot prints went through, I could see what was underneath, which was more slippery brush, slide alder, and dark rocks slick with running water. Every footstep was different, even though there was an established path, and travel was awkward.
Traverse Land
The snow deepened as we traversed below some icy cliffs. The quiet skittering of sugary snow blown down from above was nearly constant. It was broken up by small chunks rolling down the slope, coming in occasional waves of bouncing balls leaving dotted-line tracks. Around us was the history of the past couple of days of melting: these curving intersecting tracks, sloppy piles of debris from small wet avalanches, and a few large geometric blocks fallen from the cliffs above. Luckily, the sun was still not shining directly on this area. We walked sideways as well as upwards, so that the false summit, once so impossibly far away, seemed suddenly closer.

The Staircase
Since it hadn’t snowed in a while, even the few recent parties had created a perfect staircase of boot prints going straight up. I could tell they were made by someone taller than me, but I still fell into a rhythm of foot above predictable foot. Then, the terrain leveled out a bit and the landscape looked somehow more pristine above. We were out of the cliff-related hazards, and the snow was becoming whiter as it approached midday. In patches, it sparkled. Above us, what had looked like white sand dunes from far below loomed much closer, and they still looked like cartoonish rolling hills.
Lower Lumpy Land
Among the layers of hills, Westy set a skin track zig-zagging back and forth. It was sunny, and it felt like we were in a sparkling white desert. Following his switchbacks, I really started to feel the joy of expending a moderate amount of energy for several hours. Coming out of winter, it was the first time I had felt relaxed in a while, not cold, not in a hurry. It felt like I was stretching my cardiovascular system. I smiled, and went back, and forth, and back again across the gradually undulating terrain.

The Extreme Staircase
In front of us was a steep hill with another perfect set of boot-stairs up it. This time it was worth getting out my ice axe, and finding a different rhythm, using my hands as well as my legs. It was fun– steep enough to be engaging, but not at all treacherous in aluminum crampons. At one point, there was a narrow crevasse to sort of hop upward over. The hill crested dramatically and suddenly, into an even more beautiful set of dunes we called Upper Lumpy Land. When I got to the top, it looked like the world dropped off behind me at the end of the big, round, bump I was standing on. Westy’s skis poked up before his head, and he came up behind them.

Upper Lumpy Land
We passed a strange moat, crevasse-like but with striated rocks at the bottom. It became more obvious that there was glacier ice under the snow. Everything got bluer and more sparkly. We could see the other party in the distance, but it was not difficult to stay far away from them. After some more rolling hills, I walked directly across a flat, unbroken and shining snowfield to the summit block. We rested right at the edge of the shadow of the summit and waited for the others to come down. We noticed for the first time after standing still for 30 minutes or so that it was still cold out. We looked back down at the open expanse of snow, and up at the shaded but steep slope to the top.

The Super Extreme Staircase
After the others were gone, we began the climb to the top. At first it was extremely fun, just a little steeper than the previous staircase. It got a little steeper, a little icier, and a little sun-sloppier toward the top. In floppy shoes with short crampon spikes, the last few steps felt consequential. I took a bit of time finding the correct locations for my feet and my tools and made it to the top. On the opposite side of the summit, previously invisible, was a dramatic view of Three Fingers right in front of us, which looked a bit like a person rising out of the ground into a big white sheet. Arms reaching up, maybe moving about a bit wondering how to get out of the sheet (but on a geologic time scale, of course). And on all sides, layers of Cascades peaks, dressed in winter snow, and the far, far valleys that always make prominent peaks feel like the moon.

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