Forbidden Peak (West Ridge) with Dave Ahrens
By Emma Walton and Andrea DeMuro
Touching down in Sea-Tac on a flight in from the UK, I meet Andrea, my climbing buddy. We hug each other excitedly.…then make our confessions: had we prepared enough? hmmm…we both wish we’d done more.…. did we think we were going to make it to the top of Forbidden? honestly, we put it at 50/50.… and, most important, did we promise to stay friends even if one of us wanted to turn back half-way?
Andrea and I had met as tent-mates the previous year on a climb of Mt Baker and, although I’d since moved to the UK (Andrea lives in Seattle), we’d kept in touch. We had now chosen to attempt the West Ridge of Forbidden Peak for a couple of reasons: it would be quite a challenge as neither of us had previous rock climbing experience, plus it looked like an interesting combination of rock and relatively steep snow (in the couloir leading to the ridge) with potential views from the summit of the mountains we’d previously climbed (being Mt Baker, Mt Rainier and Mt Shuksan). ANDREA: When Emma first proposed the climb saying it was well outside her comfort zone, I replied “it’s double well outside mine!”
We had contacted Mountain Madness (MM) a few months prior to the climb and Andrea had scheduled a rock climbing lesson with Dave Ahrens who was to be our guide, and I had scheduled a few lessons in the UK. In addition to Forbidden Peak, we decided to hit Mazama first to practice rock climbing together before attempting Forbidden.
A few days after meeting up, Andrea and I drive to Mountain Madness offices’ for a gear check and I meet our guide, Dave. He talks us through the climb, our gear, and the Leave No Trace principals, gives us a study guide, answers all our questions and concerns and deflects our attempts to force him to forecast the weather.
Day 1 (Rock Training)
Andrea’s super strong coffee gives us a hard-core caffeine hit and we we’re psyched for a day of climbing on the Goat Wall in Mazama. With a beautiful backdrop and clear blue skies, Dave shows us how to tie-in and belay, and also teaches us some climbing techniques. Our brains fully understand all of this, but applying it all is somewhat more difficult! We have lots of fun on a sport route and practice climbing together, lowering and rappelling. After a cake and coffee break, we try a route on the Fun Wall until we’re finally rained off.
In the evening, Dave cooks us a great stir-fry, preps us for the following day and assures us that the hike in will be wet, difficult and absolutely miserable!
Day 2 (Hike-in)
Much to our delight — and Dave’s relief — the day dawns dry and sunny. Following another of Andrea’s knock-out coffee kicks, we drive to the beginning of the hike-in. It starts off under the northeast face of Mt Johannesburg with its multitude of hanging glaciers, couloirs and glistening glacial waterfalls. The hike, which is only 3 miles, but gains 3000 ft elevation, proceeds to cross several streams and take us through tunnels of undergrowth which seem specifically designed to spike, impale, hang or otherwise inflict bodily harm! ANDREA: Don’t forget about the fresh avalanche shoots soothing our senses with earthly scents dominated by the evergreens.
After an hour or so we get our first glimpse of Forbidden Peak and its every bit as tantalising as I’d imagined. Only rather more so: the couloir looks far steeper than I’d thought it would be, the rock even more jagged and striking.… ANDREA: I’m thinking “couloir” — what that? Wow, that’s a lot of rock!
Finally we reach Boston Basin at around 5500ft and its so beautiful: wide green meadows full of wildflowers and little marmots lead onto the Quien Sabe Glacier which itself is surrounded by the peaks Mt Torment, Sharkfin Tower, Sahale Peak, Boston Peak, Mt Forbidden and Mt Johannesburg.
The campsite is empty so we pick a great spot and set up our tents. Dave gives us a lesson on anchors, glaciers, walking and climbing in snow and ice and then cooks a big pasta dinner (supplemented by my favourite cookies, hot choccy and mini-marshmallows) and we go to bed early. Of course I can’t sleep and so get up to watch the final embers of sunlight turn cold over Forbidden.
ANDREA: I couldn’t sleep either, but I wasn’t moving, I was meditating.
Day 3 (Climb)
Dave wakes us with hot oatmeal and coffee around 3:30am and we get going around 4:30am.
This is one of my favourite moments: each of us climbing silently, turning every now and again to watch the alpenglow light up the faces of the surrounding peaks. There is no wind and the sun slowly rises into the most sublime of summer day.
We put our crampons on, rope-up and leave our trekking poles at the base of the couloir. We ascend the couloir which is steep at around 45 degrees but are helped by the tracks of previous parties. We scramble up a rock tower while Dave belays us from above and soon we climb up and onto the west ridge where an awesome view of the surrounding mountains and Moraine Lake awaits us.
Then we change into our rock shoes and move onto the “notch”. Dave tells us to just climb over it and not look down the thousand ft or so of northwest face, but who could resist taking a peek?
ANDREA: A heightened sense of anxiety starts to rise so at the next big move, I freeze and tell Dave, “I just can’t do it.” Then I tell Emma, “I’m sorry, I think this is as far as I can go.” As promised, she says okay, she assures me most graciously that getting as far as we did was good enough for her. As we speak, Dave is busy manoeuvring his gear and rope, comes back to us, gives us more direction, then turns to me and said, “There’s more than one way to skin a cat, Andrea,” and off we go for the summit.
We continue climbing for a few hours – the ridge is full of flakes and horns and looks as though the entire peak might just suddenly crumble under our feet, but in fact it proves very solid and feels great and secure. Dave cheerfully, patiently and tirelessly belays us, talks through moves where necessary, and always has a wicked smile for us. The exposure is wonderful ANDREA: (scary) and as we work our way higher I keep looking around to see if I can see Mt Baker, where Andrea and I met. ANDREA: What I find as we move forward is the more I move the more I love it, I just don’t like looking down.
Finally we reach the west summit, pause for a moment and then make the final moves to the true summit at 8,815 ft: it’s a spectacular moment as we can see Eldorado, Glacier, Shuksan, Baker and even Rainier far off in the distance. We almost can’t believe we’ve made it and I’m indescribably happy. ANDREA: Although I am happy, I’m a little shaky and seek to capture forever in my mind the magnificent 360 degree view.
We take a zillion photos and then its time to head back. We downclimb portions and Dave lowers us over others until we are back at the notch again. This time its fun and we jump across. We down climb the couloir and head back to camp in the setting sun. ANDREA: Going down that couloir, all of a sudden, I find myself in a gully. I’m proud I didn’t panic too much and climbed out rather quickly.
I fall asleep smiling.
ANDREA: Me too, I’m also exhausted.
Day 4 (Hike out)
I awake early and chat to some other climbers who are now camped at the campsite and are getting ready for their climb. I already wish I was going back up. ANDREA: If given the chance, she would have, me, well I had enough climbing for this adventure!
With sadness we pack up and after a final glance at Forbidden, we fight our way back through the undergrowth and down the trail. Back at the car, it’s so good to remove our mountain boots and change. We drive up to Cascade Pass to celebrate with a mix of chips, salsa, oranges and cherries!
ANDREA: Then the rain moved in and we moved on out but not before Emma chides us one more time about letting the rain dictate what we will or will not do.
Andrea’s favorite moment: reaching the true summit, I realized I managed to achieve a dream of traversing the ridgeline of mountain. Okay, okay days later it hits, but still a dream come true.
Emma’s favorite moment: stepping out onto the ridgeline, seeing the view and feeling the exposure!
Our favorite mountain meal: close call between the cream cheese, salmon and basil bagel and the rigatoni pasta dinner.
What we like about guide Dave Ahrens? his total dedication in respecting the environment, being prepared and preparing his clients, enabled us to have the courage to meet this challenge head-on and moving us from beginner to more intermediate level climbers. Many thanks Dave!
Oh and are we still friends? Of course! … And planning our next Cascades climb. ANDREA: I recall discussions of climbs on other continents too, so my new goal just might be one climb on each continent with Emma! Dave, we want you there too, so good luck getting your IFMGA status.