Photographer’s Climb

“You see that saddle over there? That’s where we’re going.”

Note the knob on the left (mostly un-named on trail maps) and the peak on the right (Mt Ruth, 7115 feet elevation) as well as the tiny tuft of trees you can see in the middle.

We hiked in about five miles to Hannigan Pass.

Four hot hours later we were looking up a gully. It wasn’t too difficult, just hot and dry and mostly unshaded, leaving us sweat-and-dust covered, which helped keep the black flies off, I guess. They were relentless for the first half of the trail. There were still several creeks running across the path in early August though, which made cold, fresh water readily available. At the last creek, we took mini-baths in the 40 degree water. It was fabulous. I almost caught a tadpole, and the butterflies were varied and plentiful, fluttering around us, alighting on creek-side flowers. From the water we also surveyed our next move. This trail is marked only to Hannigan Pass, which was just up ahead. From there, it’s a convoluted climber’s trail to the summit of Mt Ruth. We planned to stay in the saddle just before the Mt Ruth climb, which would yield views of nearby peaks in all directions. But we purposely left our climbing gear at home. This is a photographer’s expedition, not a summit grab.

The next bit is still a bit terrifying in my own mind. See that tan slide area in the center left of this photo?

…the bit that looks like a vertical climb up a gully? It goes up about 400 feet from Hannigan Pass.
“We’re not climbing that, right?” Rachel said.
“No, we’ll go to the left on that bit there.” Steve returned confidently. It looked like a green switchbacking trail in the beginning, but the greenery hid most of the trail from view.

For the next hour we tackled The Beast. Not the gully in this picture, but its smaller, almost as vertical little brother. For 350 vertical feet we tentatively selected footing, kicked loose rocks down the slope and relied occasionally on veggie belay (grabbing trees and roots to pull ourselves up). And we each have not-so-light backpacks tugging us mercilessly toward the bottom of the ravine with each step.
“You see that root there – don’t use it, it’s cracked. Reach up to that tree; get a good hold on that before your next step. This is slippery.” Mud and water trickled down The Beast intermittently.

Rachel led, I was middle, Steve guided us through each foot placement and had our backs should we slide or fall.

The funny thing about this sort of climb, it can be a blast in the right mindset. But I was exhausted from the hot trek in, and in this fifth hour of exertion, my thighs hummed and my knees wobbled. Then I almost panicked. “Steve, my head is screaming at me. I’m going to say some irrational things in a minute. I just need you to talk me through it.”
“In a minute, like now?” His voice was relaxed and that helped. Then I did, and he did. After that brief pause, we moved on. His wristwatch kept track of our altitude on ascent. He checked his watch. “You have 100 feet elevation left to the top. Or 250 if you turn around.” He should be a motivational speaker.

While going up was terrifying in spots, the main thing that accosted me was the thought of going back down. How the hell was I going to get back down this with a pack? I voiced that thought and Steve again talked me through.

Finally we topped out. The Beast had been conquered.

Twenty minutes later we had crossed talus fields and snowy slopes. We were close to the golden hour of pre-sunset, and we hadn’t found a camp spot yet. Raindrops began falling just as we entered the saddle. In a small bowl along the ridge, we put up our tents while we listened to the tapping of raindrops on them. Mt Baker was in view, Mt Shuksan visible to its left. Beautiful location!

But the clouds… and the rain. We prepared to get skunked for our first sunset.

Steve surveying the clouds approaching from the east.

Then the rain stopped. The low hanging clouds caught a little light and we waited. Might get something. Might all fade to gray. We waited some more.

Then the clouds pulled back and the sky exploded. I was tickled to see Steve, who has been doing this sort of thing for almost 2 decades, react to the sunset. He lit up as much as the sky. Here is some of it.




Once the show was over it was 10 pm and we hadn’t made dinner yet. Sporks and foons, food in the twilight, chats about the day and chimping shots. Moments later all was silent.

I lost a little sleep over The Beast. About 2 am I got up and looked outside. The Milky Way shot out from the summit of Mt Ruth like a fountain across the sky. Two hours later there was light in the sky and I was up, awaiting sunrise.



Steve followed shortly, setting up before the first light hit the heather.






Over breakfast we pondered the day. It seemed to go on forever. We’d shot sunrise, wandered and enjoyed the space all around us, moved the tents around, posed and staged some shots for Steve, made food, looked at the views, had leisurely coffee in the fields of alpine heather. (There was no where else to sit.) It made a nice bed, too. I forgot to pack my sleeping pad. I realized it just as we arrived at our campsite, before I opened my pack. “Oh no! You’re kidding!” Rachel and Steve said in unison. But the heather was more comfortable than my Thermarest. Hummingbirds buzzed us. One paused and studied me long enough that I could see it was a male Rufous.

Rachel lay in her tent, Steve was filtering water at a trickle below a snowfield about a quarter mile from our site, and I was deciding if I needed to do anything aside from digest breakfast. If we were back home, the day would be over, with all the time that ran across us. But it was barely 9 am. We looked at each other and marveled at how slowly the clock moved out there, and what do photographers do now that the golden light is gone for the morning. Light clouds drifted over Mt Baker casting shadows.

Then Steve spotted a dark shape in the snow a little way up on Mt Ruth. “Hmm, that was weird, that rock looked like a bear, but it’s not moving… No! It’s a bear, it’s moving!”


Our only camp neighbors were along the same ridge, but closer to Mt Ruth. They had begun their ascent about 7:30 am, as we were finishing our morning camera time and deciding which dehydrated bag to pick for breakfast. They’d been making slow progress along the ridgeline and were two dots near the top now. The bear began loping faster, with intent, it seemed, up the snowbank, toward the climbers. The climbers were unaware of the furry creature pursuing them. We watched as our stoves heated breakfast and coffee. “I suppose we’d better look for a place to hang our food tonight, huh?” Steve said. And after breakfast we did. The bear took no interest in the climbers, but frolicked in the snow, enjoying the cool temps and probably escaping flies. He traversed the ridge and wandered across the base of the mountain toward some mountain goats who blended in well with the snow. They took notice and moved to a rock. Then we lost sight of the furry entertainment as it wandered into the distance.

Mid morning. Light’s gone, might as well walk a bit.
Took a lazy stroll toward Mt Ruth. I stopped in the shade of the few trees to sit and look around, smell some flowers, let the butterflies float by. Rachel had summit fever and wanted to go up a bit more. She and Steve kicked steps in the snow for a while until some of the fever subsided. Ice axes and crampons next time. It looks like a pretty nice walk up along the Ruth Glacier. By then the weekend summiters had made it from the parking lot and were on their way past our camp. A parade trickled by most of the first half of the day. Each group complimented our choice camp site.



Looking back to our campsite. Note the 2 dots just above the center of the frame.


Wild penstamon maybe?

Mid afternoon. Considering lunch. Thunderheads built to the west. Summiters passing in the early afternoon lamented not bringing rain gear. Some were bent on sleeping at the summit of Ruth.

What to do with the afternoon? Photographers nap, since they’re up at 4 am for sunrise and up at 11 pm for sunset and stars. A nap seems obvious at 2 pm. So I did.

Storm clouds built to the east as well, and we wondered if we’d see sunset.

Flat mountains and flowers in the mid-day sun. It was hard to take a bad photo up there, but if you were going to do it, it would be at 2 pm.

The clouds thinned, so we had an early dinner and headed up to the top of the nearest peak for sunset. It’s opposite Mt Ruth from our campsite. (Remember the knob on the left in the first photo.)



Steve setting up in Sunset Location One

While we didn’t climb Mt Ruth, we did summit our own little mountain. Here’s the view from the top in a 360 video.

Then the light turned sweet again and the cameras clicked. A veil of clouds pulled back just as the sun ducked behind the mountains, and mad colors screamed across the sky.





“Funny thing is, people are going to think you Photoshopped that.” That’s what the climbers said to Steve when they saw his shots from the previous night. Yup.

The last quarter moon crept toward Mt Baker on the horizon as we hiked back down the hill in twilight. The Milky Way reached up from the peak of Ruth all the way across the sky. We played with flashlights and long exposures.

I don’ think I’ve ever had moonflare in a photo before. (That’s the red spot in the sky on the left. It’s the light of the moon refracting off my lens.)

The sunrise the next morning was cloudless, so similar to the morning before, that I was not compelled to get up. We had breakfast and broke camp at 7:30 and were on our way back down just after 8 am.

The Beast loomed, but in the end, thanks to Steve’s awesome guide skill, and his trekking poles, going down wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. Slowly, tentatively, we picked foot spots and used veggie belays, making our way down a few feet at a time. I employed the crab walk at one point, and butt-friction at another, then I flipped around and backed down a bit that was too steep to go down forwards.

These two photos were taken by a friend of Rachel’s who just happened by on the way up (with skis, no less) as we were coming down. It was flat enough here to stop for a photo.


Then, finally we could see the bottom about 50 feet below us. The Beast was conquered. We exchanged high fives and breathed deeply.

Then it was just a quick, hot dusty four-mile slog back to the car.