Taylor Glacier does not disappoint. Back when I first started doing this sort of thing, I found a list of “classic” snow climbs and Taylor stood out as the steepest of the lot. I’ve since learned that steepness isn’t everything and I’ve done several climbs which are probably technically harder than Taylor Glacier. But still, Taylor held the spot of a boyhood mountain crush. And like all boyhood crushes, there were a fair number of uncomfortable faux-pas and awkward moments.
Fabio got the planning ball rolling and, before I knew it, we were striking out from the Glacier Gorge trailhead at 5:30 in the morning along with fellow Brutes-in-gear Aaron and Brian. The approach was uneventful and our 2 am wake-up was rewarded with glass-still reflections from the Loch as the first rays of sun struck the heights of Loch Vale. In traditional snow season, this would mean that the avalanche clock had started ticking and we should have been on the route long since, but now it just meant that the upper inch or two of the neve would be a bit softer and easier to crampon.
We scrambled past Timberline Falls and entered the awesome Sky Pond cirque. This is a stunning cirque with no easy exits short of turning and retracing the trail back to Timberline Falls. The Cathedral Spires with their various famous alpine routes (Petit Grepon, Sharktooth, Saber, Foil, etc.) rise impossibly pointy on the right, while the blank, menacing wall of Thatchtop and Powell Peak rises on the left. I exited that way via the Powell Snowfield once, but it was melted out now this late in the year. But Taylor Glacier remains, obvious and ominous at the end of the cirque. It starts broad and gentle with a nice curve to the right, but steadily becomes steeper and narrower culminating in a 20′ wide finger of snow reaching for the sky. We noticed a tiny gap in this uppermost part (maybe a small bergshrund?), but figured we could bridge that gap when we came to it.
We took our earliest opportunity to start the snow climbing and cramponed up right on the shores of Sky Pond at 11,400′. A short, 45 degree climb took us to a large, low-angle snow field with great views. The sun was shining and reflecting off the snow and climbing is hard work. We stripped to shirtsleeves but were still perspiring freely. Up close, we saw a startling amount of fresh rock fall and even witnessed a basketball-sized chunk tumble down to join its fellows. The snow was very firm. Crampons and picks stuck securely, but pickets and axe spikes weren’t penetrating more than an inch or two. The angle gradually ratcheted up as we got into the spirit of things.
By about half-way up there was a rather impressive rockfall which sent several watermelon-sized rocks and a water bottle sliding down the middle of the slope, and a couple smaller pieces humming (literally!) past our heads. I’d already been agitating to rope up and this tore it. In spring conditions, I’d have been comfortable soloing a 45 degree slope or even steeper. But a slide on this hard neve would get out of control very very fast indeed. Fabio and Aaron took one rope, Brian and I the other and we simul-climbed for another hundred meters before Fabio started placing long screws. After another hundred meters, Fabio had run out of screws and set a belay at the left-hand bergshrund.
I took over the lead from here as the angle became truly steep. It felt pretty good, but I was definitely glad to have a rope. Even chopping out the top couple inches of rapidly-warming snow, none of the screws I sank felt particularly secure, but the axe and crampon placements still felt very solid. The glacier narrowed to an incredible rib of neve bounded by deep moats on both sides with fractured dark rock beyond that. I finally pounded in a picket and felt much more secure. Toward the top, I was climbing a free-standing, 60-degree pillar of alpine ice no more than a foot wide in places. It was unreal and more than a little scary.
This, it turns out, was not the crux of the route.
The small gap we’d spied on the approach turned out to be more like 8 feet across! The upper edge hung over a deep, dank cave, wickedly overhanging and covered in water ice. Yow! My snow pillar ended in an aesthetic point an I sidestepped into a cold, precarious belay stance wedged between the snow and the right-hand wall below the overhang. Everyone else came up, though Aaron had to stay on the ice until room opened up on the rock. Ironically, his perch was probably the most secure of any of us!
A short rock dihedral on the right was by far the easiest way to bridge the gap in the snow. From there, the snow slope mellowed for a short run to the top. But the dihedral wasn’t as easy as it looked either. There weren’t any good holds and most of the rocks were loose. After several false starts, Brian managed to brute his way up the face while Fabio held several key holds in place. Having taken crampons off, he simply continued on the rotten, chossy, though thankfully low-angle rock for another 30 meters before bringing me up. At length, Fabio came up as well but managed to send much of the belay ledge we’d been standing on tumbling down into the void. Aaron scrambled to the top as well and we all relaxed.
Without the gap, it would have been an exhilarating and spicy technical snow climb. But the rock scrambling turned out to be a great deal harder and more dangerous than we’d expected. For the second time this year, I was in a position of being rather uncomfortable with what needed to be done, but not having much other safe choice. Fortunately, I was surrounded by competent and kindred partners and we got through it without mishap. Perhaps this sort of calculated risk is the norm in harder alpine routes.
I’d blithely predicted we’d be on the Divide by 10 am, but we’d lost a lot of time in all components of the day. When we topped out just before 1 pm, the weather was still fine, but large clouds were building to the south and we figured the last thing we needed right now as a lightning storm what with all the sharp pointy metal we were carrying. The nearest feasible exit was Andrews Glacier, so we hustled around Taylor Peak and hiked miles of tundra and sharp talus down to the well-known Andrews Pass, Glacier, Tarn, and Creek, in that order.
I’ve climbed Andrews only twice before, but this was my fourth descent at least. It’s pretty mellow as glaciers go, but the drop down to Andrews Tarn is still a little intimidating in running shoes. We managed a bumpy, sloppy glissade, then switched back into trail mode and hiked the 2 hours back past the Loch and down the fire trail to the Glacier Gorge trailhead. 12 hours car-to-car is no sort of speed record, but it was still early enough to get a table at Ed’s for the obligatory post-climb libations and tall tales.