Shiver Bivy

I keep an open schedule for moments like these. I’m not much of a planner. You never know when you’ll be biking along and a friend will call you to say “Turn around! We’re at Draught Works.” The next thing you know, you’re on top of a peak shivering in the dark. Who would want to miss that!

There were a lot of firsts for me today. I’m lying on a pile of boulders cuddled next to two friends. We are as close as possible. Pressed against one another for warmth. Michelle is in the middle, and Elliott and I are on the sides. A friend sandwich on top the narrow peak of North Trapper.

Our bed is a pile of rocks sunken a little lower than the rest. It is barely wide enough for three people, but hopefully it will provide some shelter from the wind.

“You know in the morning there’s going to be a cave beside us. Right?”

We laugh. It’s too dark to try and explore. We move rocks to make the bed as flat as possible. We roll the most uncomfortable ones away, finding smaller rocks to fill their voids. Elliott flakes the two climbing ropes on top to make a mattress. They are piled where our hips and shoulders are. Our pillows are chalk bags sitting on a large boulder we could only rotate into an acceptable position.

We started our trek earlier today, camping at the trail head, and beginning our approach at 5am. It’s not a conventional trail. It’s more, sometimes a trail and most of the time a bushwhack. Maybe you’ll find the path, maybe you won’t. Our directions were pretty much as follows.

“Go up the trail two creek crossings and then climb the talus field just before the third. It might be easier if you walk to the third creek crossing and then backtrack. From there, climb about 1000 feet through woods and talus until you hit the cirque that connects to the peak. It’s narrow, but you will know you’re there when you see it. Use the eagle claw rock as a marker. Good luck.”

I’m of course paraphrasing, but seriously short of a GPS those were actually pretty good instructions.

We lost the trail at the first creek crossing. We found it again at the actual creek crossing. Then we lost the trail again after the second creek crossing, and found it again before the third. Elliot walked down to the creek just to make sure. With the hard part over it was time to go up. We worked our way up the talus and made it to the second rib of the mountain.

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I’ve covered a whole lot of ground in just one sentence. It took a couple hours and whole a lot of work. As we got closer we got to the rib, the talus became scree. Loose gravel rolling out from under your feet. Two steps forward one step back and lots of gravel in shoes.

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“Well, at least we have a good view of the stars.”
“Was that rock fall?”
“Nah, I think it was Dwayne’s stomach.”
“It wasn’t my stomach.”
Rumble, rumble.
“Well, that was my stomach.”
Laughter.

We started sleeping on our left side. That’s the best side for me. We’re making jokes and laughing at how ridiculous our situation is. Elliott and I email our bosses.

“Soo…ummm…I’m stuck on a mountain, I don’t think I’m going to make it in tomorrow.”

Elliott leaves a little more details, but essentially the message is the same. We’re not going to make it in tomorrow. The Milky Way is overhead. I guess technically, it’s always overhead. A shooting star flies across the ski. If you wanted, you could make this scene incredibly romantic. But when the wind blows the romance is shivering and chattering teeth.

We don’t have sleeping bags, just pants, a light coat, a rain jacket, and each other. I almost left my rain jacket in the car. I had pulled it out, wondering if I needed it. We only planned for a day and should be back before dark.

“I’d bring it just in case. A little extra something to break the wind.”

Thank goodness for Michelle, we’ve said that a lot today. And thank goodness for her now, she’s the warm center of our sandwich. She presses down on our shoulders to try and lessen the shaking. I have no control over it. Just constant shivering, until the wind dies, and I fall asleep.

“Were you asleep? You breath different when you’re asleep.”
“I was out.”

It couldn’t have been more than a few minutes though. The shivering wakes me every time the wind blows. Somehow I’ve managed to sleep between gusts.

“Can we switch sides?” Elliott is the first to ask but we were all thinking it. I don’t think I’ve been so uncomfortable on a side for so long. There are several inconvenient rocks pointed into my skin. One jabs my bicep, and the the other digs into my thigh. I’m going to be bruised tomorrow. So, it’s a unanimous “yes” and we all slowly rotate, the big spoons becoming the little spoons. Another hour passes. “Rotate?” And so goes the night.

Rotations come at great sacrifice, every time we rotate the shivers become worse and the chattering of teeth get louder but there’s at least some relief to the pressure the rocks are putting on our sides. You can’t help but stare at the sky.

“What time is it?”
“11:30.”
Sigh.

Michelle on Lead. instagram @elliott_natz

To lead a pitch is a big responsibility. You take the rope and gear up, placing safety in the rock as you progress upward. You try to be aware of every danger, any rock that might fall, places where the rope could drag, predicting falls your partner might take, and much more. All this while focusing on the task at hand, keeping your mind clear, and the fear out.

When you get to a good stopping spot, either because you’ve ran out of rope or found a good ledge, you build an anchor to bring your partners up to you. That responsibility can weigh on the mind. If your partner falls, you have to know your anchor is solid. That you’ve made a good decision with the anchor you’ve built, and sometimes circumstances are less than ideal. Maybe the cracks are flared, the rock fractured, or the boulder you’ve slung is a little smaller than you would like. The gear is not perfect, but you make the best out of what you’ve been given. It can be a scary position, but Michelle is stoked and leading comes with ease. She lead 8 of the 9 pitches, Elliott lead 1, and I followed all of them.

“Why are there are ladybugs up here?”
There should be nothing but rocks, stars, and us. But ladybugs are crawling up my pant legs. An insatiable itch to add to my shivering body. Sure, I could smash it, but I hate the smell of ladybugs. They were hidden under the rocks that we used to make our bed and now the crawl all over me. They tickle my legs, my arms, and stomach. I even blow one off of my lips. Seriously, ladybugs?

Michelle leads full ropes lengths keeping a pretty good pace for a party of 3. She belays us both of us at the same time. We climb staggered. “Up on pink.” I go first. “Up on purple.” Elliot follows close behind. This is not a safe environment, but it’s not scary either. Michelle and Elliott have spent quite a bit of time in the mountains, and I’m getting there. I’m actually surprisingly comfortable. Not just physically, but mentally. Two years ago I wouldn’t have felt like this. I would have been scared, but the more time you spend in the mountains the more comfortable you get. The more respect you have for it.

“Rock!”
A boulder the the size of a basketball comes bouncing down towards Elliott and I.
“Rock!” He yells again prepping to dodge.
This time he is ahead of me. We look up and watching the rock bounce down the face. Waiting for it to choose a predictable path so we can move. It bounces off the right wall and veers left. The moment is intense but we’re safe. There is sigh of relief as we listen to it trundle down the mountain. Elliott checks the ropes and we let Michelle know that we are safe. The rock was dislodged by our ropes. An unnerving predicament, but handled in the best way considering the circumstances. The unpredictable happens. You have to stay on your toes, there’s no doubt about that.

“What time is it?”
Elliott pulls his watch up and I can see the numbers.
“3:30”
There are at least four more hours until daylight. The shivers are becoming more uncontrollable. I feel like a flag in the wind. Shaking with every gust that passes over us. I feel bad for Michelle. How is she ever going to sleep with two shaking buns on each side. We’re a sandwich remember?
“Rotate?”

We were so confident of the route when we made it to the head wall. You could see the crux pitch. It’s very distinct and was maybe a rope length away. From a distance the climbing looked easy. There way to get there was obvious and our beta confirmed. “Climb the left facing dihedral and chimney to the crux pitch.” There is only one left facing dihedral with a chimney about. What it did not say was that it would be covered in mud. Who could predict that? Despite how much confidence we had, the mud made us second guess our route.

“Is this really the right place?”

Elliot is barraged by mud and pebbles as Michelle treads lightly towards the chimney. It’s not hard climbing, but it’s nasty and more dangerous than it should be. The protection is less than ideal, every crack is filled with dried mud. She scouts the chimney finding no good protection to get into it.

“Are we really on route?”

We reread the beta. It matches. We look for an alternate route but I am not good enough to just wing it up the mountain. Michelle could, but your only as strong as your weakest link. We don’t have time to second guess so we decide to trust the beta. She finds a way into the chimney, and brings us up.

The chimney is caked on both sides. There’s no fear of falling but it’s hardly climbing. It’s more wollering. She presses her feet and hands against one walls and her back on the other. She moves up the dirt, slinging chock stones for protection. Normally this is good safety but they are covered in dirt and debris. It’s hard to tell the difference between a solid stone and a mud clod.

“Mac always says the good thing about chimneys is you’re not going to fall.”
Some optimism is a dirty situation.
“Whew, that’s the nastiest pitch I’ve ever climbed.”
She builds an anchor at the base of the crux pitch, before bringing us up. That’s at least some relief, the mud doesn’t continue and we are in the right spot, even if the daylight is running out.

I wish I could sleep on my stomach, but our pillow is not very conducive. It would be OK on the back, but that’s more surface area for the wind to freeze. At least on the stomach I could cover my arms. I feel the wind cut into exposed skin. I pull my jacket down to cover it. I think the sky is becoming lighter. There are no pauses between the chattering teeth and shivers now.

The crux pitch is hard for me. I’m tired, the sun has almost set, and I’m carrying a bulky pack. Feet are pressed against opposing walls as I prep to make the hardest move of the climb. My pack hangs on the roof as I pull upwards. I’m pulling on a piece of gear Michelle left to help us aid through if we need. My left foot slips and I fall in frustration. Elliot tells me to calm down. He didn’t even say that. His words are more eloquent but in the moment all I hear is “calm down”. It has the opposite effect. There’s something about feeling as if an emotion is being projected on me that frustrates me, even if it’s true. I try again, harder, resentful, and I fall again. It jostles me back to reality. I recognize the frustration. This time I take his advice and breath for a minute.

“Don’t rush it, take your time, and be calm. You’ve got this.”

I hang there, breathing heavy. Realizing how ridiculous my mind has been. The battle is as much internal as external. There’s no reason to be frustrated but I’m exhausted and that’s easy to do.

“Up on purple.” Elliot says as he starts into the pitch. But his rope doesn’t move. Michelle pulls it up but it’s stuck. No slack is being taken out. He cannot proceed. It must have been put in a bind when I fell. I regain myself and give it the crux another go. This time I pull through the moves and both ropes move up. Some more relief. My muscles have regained some strength and my mind recomposed.

Michelle waits at the top of another chimney just below the summit. There is only one more pitch left, night has fallen. We climb with headlamps. I breath heavy on a boulder behind her as Elliott makes his way up. We are holding it together, but there is definitely some tension. A unspoken disappointment that we are not going to get off here tonight. We force smiles and manage to stay optimistic recognizing that exhaustion is an enemy. I breath facing the chimney, resting from the previous moves. Michelle preps for the final pitch.

The sight of color is beautiful. Midnight blue is turning to the purples of dawn. The mountains are revealing themselves as shadows. We are still shaking against one another. Who would have thought the body could shake for so long. We’ve slept more than expected but that’s not a lot. Our eyes are on the sky waiting for the sun.

“Should we get up?”
It’s so warm between us.
“Not yet.”
“To think I’m here because you saw me biking by.”
Laughter.
“I’m glad we are here.”

When we finally made it to the summit it was obvious that trying to get down was a bad idea. Darkness surrounds us on all sides. Our headlamps reveal the boulders teetering on all sides of the peak. We have a down climb ahead of us and it would be nearly impossible to judge the quality of rock on our descent. We are exhausted. It is easy to make poor decisions under these circumstances. It’s simply not worth it.

“We have to stay here.”
Michelle says when we make it to the top.
“Yes, we do.”

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The sun is peeking in the distance. We peel ourselves from the rock and begin to eat. It takes away the shivers. Warm rays of light will hit us soon. I can’t wait. North Trapper casts an enormous shadow on the mountains to the west. We are in awe at the landscape that was hidden by the darkness.

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The sun has never felt so good, and friends have never been so sweet. We are far more rested than anticipated, and we start our climb down knowing it was the right decision to stay. We laugh, enjoy the view, and make our way to the vehicle.

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The climb was about 1200 feet. It took us 9 pitches from the base of the mountain. Our entire trip took around 34 hours including the shiver bivy. It took 7 hours to make it back to the car.

I keep an open schedule for moments like these. I’m not much of a planner. You never know when you’ll be biking along and a friend will call you to say “Turn around! We’re at Draught Works.” The next thing you know, you’re on top of a peak shivering in the dark. Who would want to miss that!

Not me.

Cheers to good friends!

Please thank Elliot Natz for all the photos. Check out his story of the trip on his Instagram! Happy Birthday Elliot and thanks for letting me come along. Thanks Michelle for being such a champ and getting us to the top!
Route climbed: Thompson Route on North Trapper Peak
Rating: 5.10 Traditional Grade IV Alpine

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