Fleeing from a wildfire while climbing on Washington Pass
Sue and I used to alpine climb in the early eighties but gave it up after some near miss epics and the tragic loss of some close friends. I’ve been hearing how great Washington Pass was becoming. It’s even got a glossy guidebook and has been described as: “Like Castle Rock, but with a 2 hour approach”. I figured, hell, I haven’t used crampons and an ice ax in 36 years, time to get back on the horse.
Kena and I met our new friend D. at noon at the Silverstar Mountain, Wine Spires trailhead, 3 miles east of Liberty Bell. Four hours later after 2500 vertical feet of the worlds worst climber trail we arrived at the mosquito infested Bench Camp. It was flat, with a nice water supply and would have been idyllic if not for the bugs.
Remembering my shiver bivys of the 1980’s I’d brought a down coat with a space blanket for my legs. It was hot until 1 AM, at which point I was too tired to unfold the space blanket. Seriously, has anyone ever tried to unfold one of those half asleep and freezing?
We left high camp at 6 AM and arrived at Burgundy Col a couple hours and 1400 vertical feet later. I didn’t think the trail could get any worse…but it did. At the Col, Kena put on crampons for the first time, while I put on my son’s crampons.
D. belayed us both down the couloir with his 7.5mm 60 meter twin. We roped up glacier style for the rest of the ascent up to the base of the climb, passing several 60 foot cliff bands. Kena was a natural on snow, and it gradually started to feel familiar to me as well.
We climbed two pitches of the East Face of Chablis before bailing around 2:30. Kena and I were worried about the long descent to high camp. Plus the fire below was getting much bigger despite the efforts of a fleet of water bombers and helicopters.
Much of what was slowing me down was caution. There’s no cell service up there. If there had been an accident, someone would have had to rappel and then hike solo across steep snow and bad trails for at least 7 hours to reach a car. Then it’s 17 miles to cell service. It’s a far cry from a casual day at Index.
After a couple hours of up and down ‘glacier travel’, we arrived at Burgundy Col where we could unrope and take off our crampons. As an amusing side note, we were passed on the steep snow by an unroped one legged guy who was descending from a successful ascent of a 10B climb called Rebel Yell. He had both legs, but one was metal from the hip down. The dude was freaking amazing!
In the twilight we could see huge bright orange California style flames racing up the mountain side below us. They were on a ridge coming down off of Silver Star…which was adjacent to Chablis Spire. It looked like a wind change could have the fire on top of us long before we could reach the car.
We guessed that the fire wouldn’t cross to our side of the ridge and started down the awful trail towards high camp. We were dead tired when we reached our tent at 10:30 PM, but right there on the main trail was a brand new sign. The rangers had hiked 2500 vertical feet up from the road to post it: “Leave immediately, do not delay! There is an uncontrolled fire approaching Burgundy Col. The road will close soon, you could be trapped.”
We discussed maybe sleeping until the fire arrived, then running for a nearby boulder field where there weren’t any trees. Common sense prevailed. We packed up and stumbled down, getting lost multiple times where trees had fallen over the trail and arriving at the road at 2:30 in the morning. It appears that alpine climbing hasn’t gotten any safer over the intervening decades.