I stirred awake. I could hear Spring outside, in the kitchen area of the Cabin, preparing breakfast. I hadn’t really slept, the sleep I did get was restless and fitful at best. I woke up periodically and looked around to remind myself that I wasn’t out sleeping somewhere on those glaciers. My shoulders felt stiff and knotted, from bearing the weight of a heavy pack and a stressful day.
I joined Spring outside. The clouds still hung low beyond the large windows, dulling the morning light.
There was an unease inside me that wouldn’t abate. The previous day had been hard, really hard. The mental fatigue from it still lingered.
An Alpinist I met while ice climbing in Canmore last Winter, and subsequently added on Facebook, did some serious climbs in Alaska this past Spring. When he returned he posted online about how amazing his trip had been, and mentioned the obstacles he had overcome in a very matter of fact way. Weeks later though he posted a picture of the journal he had written on that trip which told a very different story. A story of fear, of exhaustion, of doubt. In retrospect he could only remember how much fun the trip had been, but his journals kept him honest when reflecting.
I took inspiration from him and kept my own journal on this trip. Reading over it now is like looking at the scrawlings from the mind of someone else. It would be easy for me to gloss over the trials in hindsight and make light of them. In retrospect, they weren’t that difficult. In retrospect I know that we left the Tantalus Hut and arrived at the Jim Haberl Hut 12 hours later and successfully navigated some heavily glaciated terrain.
The experience of that day was very different though and merely stating the facts would be disingenuous. I didn’t know if the fringes of snow that I’d step onto would hold, I didn’t know if the choices we made would work, I didn’t know if we’d have to sleep out there, if we’d find the Hut, if we’d get trapped by a dead end and an irreversible route, if we’d get injured by any one of the objective hazards we had to contend with, or worse, die.
That constant uncertainty and worry whittled away at my core all day until nothing was left but a shell. I sat in the Hut for most of the morning, looking at old, tattered magazines but seeing nothing but the events of the preceding day.
Sometime in the afternoon on our first day in the Jim Haberl Hut the eerie silence of this place was shattered by the sound of a helicopter approaching. It landed in a maelstrom of spindrift and dust thrown up by the rotor wash. Out stepped our friend Ron, his two workmates and two ladies that had been staying at the Tantalus Hut.
At little bit of serendipity meant that Ron had a package for us. A package of food and beverages. When we booked our stay at the Haberl Hut, Ron informed us that he would be flying up to the Hut the same week as our stay to do some repairs and fly out the “Honey Bucket” from the Outhouse. As he would be flying in supplies anyway, he graciously offered to take a small package up to the Hut for us so that we wouldn’t have to carry it. We left him a package of luxury food items like fruit juice, beer, fresh vegetables, fruit and cake. We still carried all our own necessary food as we were aware that Ron would only be able to fly up to the Hut if the weather was clear. We didn’t want to risk running out of food because Ron was unable to fly up to us.
While the 3 guys did their repairs, the 2 ladies that had come with them checked out the Cabin. It was surreal to talk to them. What had taken us 12 hard hours to navigate the previous day had taken them a matter of seconds to cover in a Helicopter. They walked around, looking at the Cabin with a relaxed nonchalance that felt foreign to me in this place. As we described the challenges we had dealt with they appeared detached, like listening to an Astronaut talk about what it was like to walk on the Moon.
I talked to one of the men repairing a broken lock on the porch door and told him about the challenges we had faced just getting here. He had been the one who had raised his eyebrows back at the Tantalus Hut when I had mentioned that we’d be taking the col route to get to the Haberl Hut. He confided that he expected it would be challenging. He expected that any route at this time of year, with the glaciers as bare as they were would be challenging. He ended by saying: “That’s why you fly in, I’m sure you probably will next time”
I felt a little vexed that he had not warned us ahead of time, but then what would that have changed. We’d still have went to see the conditions for ourselves.
All too quickly they finished their repairs, bid us farewell and flew away. We spent the rest of our day just recuperating at and around the Cabin, snacking on the extra food we now had. I felt strung out for most of the day. On edge, with a deep seated unease. I couldn’t assuage that feeling of being trapped here. As the heat of the day came I pictured all those tenuous snow bridges we had used to get here melting. Any one of them disappearing would cause us a lot of problems getting out of here.
I flicked through the Cabins copy of Alpine Select and the Guest book. In it, Mountaineers and Climbers have penned in updates on the conditions to the routes nearby. I noticed that somebody had penned in that the route from the col is not passable later in the year due to the crevasses and recommended taking a lower slope. We had investigated this lower slope on our approach and it was also heavily crevassed and bare.
As I read through the guidebook I started to notice a pattern. A number of parties were getting stranded at the Cabin due to low clouds and bad weather making a helicopter extraction impossible. I began to wonder if we’d end up in a similar situation.
I started to think of our options. Should we stay here, knowing our route out was deteriorating with each passing day. We could always book a helicopter to take us out, but what if bad weather rolled in? We’d have to hike out in the same, whiteout conditions that we’d endured on the way in. The thought of that made me sick to my stomach.
As myself and Spring sat, discussing our plans for the next few days, another Chopper broke the silence. It touched down on the snow nearby. Two guys hopped out into the rotor wash, and ducked down as the bird quickly flew away. They fist bumped, high fived, punched the air all while hooting and hollering like a promo video for Red Bull. I wished I had some of that stoke.
We quickly cleared up our sprawling gear, expecting that they’d be staying in the Cabin, but they just knocked on the door to say hello, they were going to be camping out nearby and attempting Mount Tantalus the next day. I mentioned about the moats, but they just shrugged it off. Their stoke was just too high.
We had a good dinner that night and ate well under clear skies, we finally settled on a plan for the next day, the East Ridge of Serratus. Doing this route would accomplish two things. First, we’d summit Serratus via a Class 4 rock route (we also noted that a new, bolted, rappel route had been put in on Serratus which appealed to me). Second, we could investigate the option of returning via the Alpha/Serratus col instead of the Serratus/Ionia col.
The plan seemed sound, but something was different. Before a big summit push I usually feel excited with anticipation but I just felt sick to my stomach. I didn’t want to be doing this, I didn’t want to be here, I just wanted to go home. We went to bed and I hoped by the morning I’d feel differently, but as the sun set and we turned in I secretly hoped that it would never come up again.
The next morning came all too soon. We got up and my first words were “I don’t want to do it”. Spring seemed like she already knew. She said “Let’s have breakfast and see how we feel”. Conditions were actually perfect outside. The snow had frozen overnight and the skies were clear and crisp. We had a cup of coffee, then made a second one, then found something else to delay us.
As we did I seen the climbers that had camped out nearby passing the Cabin en route towards Mount Tantalus. I felt guilt about not being willing to be out there also.
We reluctantly accepted that we weren’t going to attempt Serratus today. As I allowed for that realization to sink in I grabbed a book off the shelf to flick through while I finished up my breakfast. The first page I opened on had a quote that immediately stood out to me.
“Commit or go home, but do not hesitate” – Sharon Wood
A wise mantra. I turned to Spring and said “We need to go home”. I was just putting off the inevitable. The Mountains are not a place where you have the luxury to hesitate and procrastinate. Spring agreed. We had cellular reception at the Cabin so we checked the weather forecast on our phones. It looked like we had at most another day of clear weather until more clouds and rain enveloped us. We had to make a decision, either leave the following day in good weather, ending our trip early, or risk being forced to leave in bad weather at the end of our trip. This bad weather would also shut down any possibility of getting a helicopter to extract us.
We decided on leaving the next day. We also decided on getting a helicopter to fly us out. After discussing our options neither of us had any desire to reverse the route we had taken in. This left us with a quandary about the Canoe we’d stashed on our side of the Squamish river. If we got a helicopter to fly us out we’d still need to cross the Squamish river again to retrieve the Canoe. We could of course figure this out but it would be a hassle.
So we made a plan. The following day we’d get picked up by a helicopter, but rather than getting dropped off back home in Squamish, we’d get dropped off back at the Tantalus Hut. This had two benefits. The first being that we could hike out on the trail we had come in on and retrieve our Canoe, and secondly, it meant we could spend the day scrambling to the summits of the easier peaks we had attempted earlier in the week but had failed to reach due to the weather.
Once we had booked our flight out for the following morning it was like a weight was instantly lifted from my shoulders, and that feeling of being trapped here finally started to dissipate. We spent our afternoon exploring some bluffs nearby, taking pictures and practicing our mountaineering systems in the Cabin. I felt good about our decision.
Later in the day we seen the climbers returning from the direction of Mount Tantalus. We went outside to chat with them and they said they had been unsuccessful in their attempt. The moats that they needed to cross where just too wide. We invited them in for a beer and some food and they enthusiastically accepted.
After regaling each other with stories from our past adventures they left to go back to their campsite nearby. We ate and drank heartily that night. We now had a surplus of food to get through as we’d be leaving earlier than planned.
We took the opportunity also to fill a bucket with hot water and wash ourselves outside as it been a few days. There is something distinctly “human” and “civilized” about rinsing ones skin with hot water. Being out in the Mountains can make you almost feel like an animal sometimes. Your thoughts are consumed with base needs like food, shelter, warmth and safety. I’ve read that it is important to invest time not only in resting the body but also the mind, which is done by reminding it of what it is to be normal as a person. Like literature, music, certain foods or bathing.
Feeling mentally renewed we turned in for the night, our last night at the Jim Haberl Hut, and we both slept well. The next morning we got up early to watch the Sunrise. As hard as it had been to get to this place, I knew in my heart that I would go back there again in the future. We packed our bags but realized we didn’t need to take all of our surplus food with us. There is an emergency provisions cache at the Cabin so we left our extra food that had the longest shelf life inside it.
When we had entered the Cabin for the first time a few days previously, somebody had left a can of beer on the table with a note that said “Enjoy a cold one on us”. Seeing that act of kindness had helped us after the hard day we had experienced. We decided to do the same and pay it forward. We assembled together our remaining beer on the table with a note similar to the one we had received with our email address at the bottom.
Weeks later I received a message from someone thanking us for that gesture. They had traversed Mount Tantalus from the North and had had an equally difficult time trying to get across the moats. Finally reaching the Haberl Hut in the middle of the night and seeing those beers waiting for them had lifted their spirits. In a little way, our entire ordeal of making it to the Cabin seemed worthwhile just to be able to bring a smile to the faces of some fellow, weary, Mountaineers.
We had just finished packing and cleaning up the cabin when we heard the distinctive *whop whop whop* of an approaching Helicopter. We shouldered our packs and headed out to meet it. That day we would leave the Tantalus Range behind, but not before getting caught up in one last unexpected adventure.
Continue Reading: Tantalust, Part V: Epilogue