Tuesday, September 5, 2017

The Torment-Forbidden Traverse: a Trip Report.

In an article he penned for the 1972 Chouinard Equipment catalogue, legendary guide and author Doug Robinson wrote that “the true object [of climbing]... is not simply to get up things and check them off in our guidebook - it is to challenge ourselves”. By that measure, fellow AAI guide Kevin McGarity and my recent ascent (entirely summit-less) of the Torment-Forbidden traverse was certainly a success.

The Torment-Forbidden Traverse.  Photo taken from just below the summit of Torment.  The triangular spike of a peak in the background is Forbidden.
The TFT is one of the most prized objectives in the North Cascades. It is long (grade 5), strikingly aesthetic, and requires the full gamut of alpine skills to complete successfully. Simply determining where to go is often a challenge as the line of least resistance constantly weaves back and forth on both sides of the ridge. There is complex glacier travel that requires a number of transitions from roped technical climbing to snow/ice and vice versa. It is also committing. While one could conceivably bail off of the ridge at any point, retreat between the first rappel and the start of the west ridge of Forbidden Peak (a distance of nearly a mile) would be more hazardous than simply finishing the traverse.

Most people choose to climb the TFT in a comfortable two days (although it has been completed in as little as 9 hours car to car!). While this would have been the prudent option, Kevin and I were both keen for a challenge. Trying to on-sight an objective like the TFT in a day adds an additional level of complexity to the whole operation. Naturally it's essential to travel as light as possible. The downside of going light, of course, is that the margin of safety grows smaller in case of incident or bad weather etc. Additionally, it was mid-August and the TFT is well known for becoming more difficult later in the season. All the cruxes are on snow and sections of the route that are relatively straightforward step kicking in June can turn to cracked up, bullet hard glacier ice by august.

Knowing all of this, we chose our gear carefully and trusted in our judgement and technical skills to overcome whatever obstacles presented themselves. After discussing it, we settled on one 8.7 millimeter triple-rated rope, six cams, a set of stoppers, two ice screws, five alpine runners, one ice axe each and approach shoes with strap on crampons. We also brought one lightweight blanket which, together with the removable back panel from my climbing pack and the rope, would allow us to survive an unplanned bivy in relative comfort. Thus geared up we set a 2 am departure time from Bellingham and tried to get some sleep.

Johannesburg seen through the clouds on the approach

In alpine climbing, pacing is everything. We knew we had to go fast otherwise we would never make it. Too fast and we wouldn't be able to last all day like we needed to. I was also a little nervous because I had only gotten around 3 hours of sleep. Fortunately my fears were unfounded. As soon as we started hiking my body took over and I was suddenly grateful for all of the days I had spent guiding with a heavy pack in the North Cascades and on Denali this season. We made good time, reaching low camp at around 5500 feet in around an hour and a half and the base of the Taboo glacier below Mount Torment an hour after that.

Fortunately the glacier looked to be in good condition. The snow was firm enough that snow bridges would likely be solid yet soft enough that our crampon points bit well into the surface. Route-finding also proved straight forward with a relatively crevasse-free path to the access couloir. We reached the base of the rock quickly and found the moat at the edge of the glacier in very reasonable condition. Stowing our ice axes and crampons we scrambled for a hundred feet or so to the notch in the ridge that marks the start of the climbing on Mount Torment.

The author starting up the Taboo Glacier with the summit of Torment directly above his head.

While the west ridge of Forbidden Peak (a fifty-classic climb) is a masterpiece of clean lines and proud features that beg to be climbed, its cousin to the west is a total trash heap. The rock is loose and of poor quality; the line is indirect; and the extremely misnamed south ridge route (because it rarely travels within shooting distance of the actual ridge) links a series of sandy, scree-covered, sloping ledges with short steps of 4th or easy 5th class climbing. The whole thing is covered in grass and looks like a large pile of sand and gravel magnified.

Kevin on the south ridge of Torment (one of the only sections with decent rock)
Using a combination of simul-climbing and short pitching, Kevin and I reached the ledge system just below the summit of Torment about 4 and half hours after leaving the car. Feeling a little pressed for time since it was already 9 am we decided to bypass the true summit and head straight for the notch that marks the rappel onto the glaciated north side of the ridge.

Kevin following some sandy choss on the west side of Torment
Upon reaching the rappel station, it was immediately apparent that the short glacier traverse back to rock would be tricky. There were large open crevasses in the snow slope we had to descend and a large moat at the base of the rappel. Kevin volunteered to go first. Giving him my ice axe, I lowered him into the moat and then kept him on belay as he ice climbed out of it. He attached the climbing rope to an anchor on the glacier and I did a weird free hanging rappel traverse to join him. The snow here was firm and the slope steep. A fall would almost certainly mean a tumble into one of the waiting crevasses below. All of a sudden our decision to leave the mountain boots at home seemed a little hasty. Fortunately, the snow was just soft enough to allow purchase and we took turns belaying each other the hundred or so feet to safer terrain without incident. For the next hour things went smoothly. We regained the rock and wound our way up enjoyable fourth class terrain on the north side of the ridge. Eventually we regained the ridge crest just before the route's crux snow traverse.

Kevin being lowered into the moat.  He then ice climbed back onto the glacier with two straight axes, and strap-on crampons on approach shoes!

Belayed down climb off a T-slot anchor

Finishing the snow traverse.  The rappel notch we came from is the right most notch in the photo.  We then had to down-climb between the obvious crevasses below it before traversing back to the rock
The crux traverse is several hundred feet of roughly 50 degree snow and ice. In early season it's relatively easy and secure to kick steps across it. As the snow melts, it gets increasingly severe and difficult to protect. We knew it would be way too firm to climb safely in approach shoes. Fortunately, we had anticipated tough conditions on the traverse and had other plans.
The crux snow traverse seen from low on the north side of the ridge.  To avoid it, we repelled out of the notch at the top-right of the photo, onto the south side of the ridge and traversed third and fourth class ledges in a whiteout before regaining the ridge near the triangular tower in the upper left of the photo.

In a 2009 trip report, Steph Abegg wrote that she and her partner had found a passage entirely on rock. By climbing up and over several gendarmes above the snow traverse it was possible, she wrote, to make two rappels onto the south side of the ridge to access a 3rd and 4th class ledge system written about by Fred Beckey in the Cascade Alpine Guide. This ledge system would eventually connect to the normal route several hundred feet after the end of the snow traverse. We decided to give it a go. A hundred or so feet of easy climbing brought us to a rappel station on top of the first tower. We rapped into the next gulley over and started up a chimney system that looked promising. After a few short lived route-finding challenges we found a rappel station that allowed access to the south face of the ridge. Unfortunately, sometime between the saddle before the snow traverse and the rappels, the weather decided to shift.

What had started out as a beautiful high pressure day was fast succumbing to a thick, pea soup like fog. The wind began to pick up and before long it was misting. As we did our first 30 meter rappel onto the south face, visibility was such that we could no longer make out any of the towers in the distance or much of the terrain beneath our feet. The whole face was covered in “grassy ledges” and without visibility it was nearly impossible to tell which ledge systems would allow passage and which would dead end. We ended the rappel on what looked to be a large one. Since there was no evidence of a second anchor we decided to rope up and look around. After traversing eastward for a rope length we wound up on a rock ledge from which we could see what we assumed to be the ledge from Steph's trip report 40 feet below us. We rapped from a rock horn and resumed walking. After several hundred feet of easy travel the ledge we were on seemed to dead-end. Without landmarks to guide us, it was impossible to know which direction to go in. After several minutes of discussion we decided to try climbing a 4th and easy 5th class ramp up towards the ridge crest. Our gamble paid off. After two hundred feet we reached a talus field on the ridge that eventually led us to the start of the knife edges.

The author route finds in the mist!
The Knife edge ridge

Kevin smiling despite being on uncertain terrain
By this time, the misting drizzle we had been experiencing was beginning to take a toll on the rock. Moves that would normally be quite secure seemed slippery. Fortunately the climbing was easy and we reached the “sidewalk in the sky” that marks the end of the traverse and the start of the west ridge of forbidden peak fairly quickly. Rapping from slung blocks at the end of the sidewalk we gained a 3rd class ledge system that we followed to the base of Forbidden. Re-evaluating the conditions and our timing we realized that the fog had slowed us down quite a bit and it was much later than we wanted it to be to start up the west ridge of Forbidden Peak. We were also nearly out of food which made a minimalist bivy unappealing. We decided to descend.

The author standing atop the sidewalk in the sky
After 5 or 6 rappels down the gullies at the base of the ridge, we reached our last major obstacle: the glacier at the base of the route. Having gained the ridge almost a mile to the west we had no idea how best to negotiate the glacier or the rock bands below. Visibility was still low. Fortunately Kevin had been to Boston Basin several weeks earlier for work and had several GPS tracks that all indicated the same thing: go left. Good advice. Before long we had gained the slabs at the base of the glacier and finally retreated below the cloud ceiling. Knowing the biggest obstacles were behind us we breathed a collective sigh of relief, re-packed and started the two hour hike to the trailhead.

Our route in red.  Photo taken on the approach
One of the most time honored questions in climbing is: why do it? As a guide I have observed several schools of thought on the subject. Doug Robinson summed it up nicely when he laid out the alternatives as either to check a box or challenge oneself. While my climbing career has led me to embrace the latter approach, I would also add to it: that in the challenge there is fear and joy; and by the interaction of these emotions it is possible to learn about yourself and to grow. While Kevin and my Torment-Forbidden Traverse didn't achieve a single summit it was the type of rich experience that keeps me coming back to the mountains year after year.

--Eric Shaw, AAI Instructor and Guide

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