7 AM, September 25, 2021, Green Lakes Trailhead: It’s the day after the (grumble, grumble) wilderness permits were required, and I want to beat the crowds up to the basin. I’m clad in my usual Cascade rockaneering attire: well-worn trail shoes, argyle socks, cutoff dockers, long-under-short-sleeved wicking shirts, cheap sunglasses and a Wendy’s visor.
Before I know it, I’m past the lakes, and well up into the old growth. I’m accompanied only by my playlist and the slowly rising sun. Heading up, over the pumice field Drewsie grabbed her mossy branch from (her first mountain climb, all those years ago), the angle steepens, the pumice loosens, and my lungs burn. Damn, It’s good to feel this. Alive.
I crest the saddle and take a right towards the summit. Up and over the dinner plates, winding back and forth from the wet side to the dry side, thankful to be in such a glorious place (and doubly thankful I have it to myself). I keep heading up past the stunted, weather-beaten pines (how do they manage to thrive up here?) and the occasional ladybug (how do they?).
As I approach the step, I start to hear voices. Then, as I crest the last crumbling block before the headwall, I see them: a half-dozen people, fully equipped for a wintry afternoon in the High Sierra: waterproof clothing, harnesses, huge boots, helmets. I think one had an ice ax.
They look at me as strangely as I look at them: who’s this weird dude in gym clothes? And is that a damned fishing pole strapped to the outside of his pack?
We greeted each other briefly, and then the leader made a move towards the 12-foot 4th class crack dragging what appeared to be a 60-meter rope and full rack of cams. I gotta move fast…
“Mind if I sneak by ya? This’ll just take a sec.”
Without asking again, I step over their line and make the first move. I love this part: it’s one of the few places on Broken Top composed of solid rock. I’ve done it so many times that I have it (mostly) memorized: Grab two good holds at head height, lean and high step to that good foot. Rock over onto it, then reach up high to the made-to-order edge that Ma Nature placed there so you can torque on it, and step again to the…
What was that?
Was that a camera?
From the top of the step, I look down and right behind me, where a few of the party are taking pictures of me on their phones. I smile, make one more move, resist the urge to say, “Lemme know how those turn out,” (while slapping my ass like HI MacDonough), and I’m over the top.
“Why don’t we do it like that?” I hear from below. I laugh out loud as I pass the belay boulder on the left, then head up past that archaic piton, up and over that rotting wall, then step gingerly over the slanting, nubbin-riddled section before the rim. I take a deep breath…and step up to the best part.
I’m never not moved when I step to the rim. Facing south into that massive crater (that, up to this point, has been hidden from you entirely), the sun hits you square in the face, your skin tingles, and you can’t help but crack your biggest idiot grin. I recently brought my geologist buddy up there, and I thought he might cry. You take a left to the Catwalk, step over the ever-widening gap to the final headwall, and, after a couple moves, you’re up.
Broken Top’s summit is so special: the whole crater stretches away to the south. You sit in the coveted catbird seat, which bisects the arc and allows for some crazy awesome pictures. Spacious enough for a few people to occupy without undue intimacy, the summit platform is still compact enough to feel like you’ve done something. I treasured a few solitary moments up there and then, with a deep breath and plans for Fall Creek brookies on the way out, started to head down. Over the Catwalk, past the Nubbin Ramp, the Rotten Wall, the Piton…I smile the smile of someone who’s been in these places dozens of times, and still manages to find new things each time: a new wildflower, improbably growing on the west side of the headwall; a little spider scuttling across fractured basalt.
When I got back to Belay Rock, the leader of the group of six was there, alone. I checked my phone: I had left him and his party 20 minutes before. In that time, he had climbed 12 feet of VB.
He turned to me and, sheepishly, said, “You know, man – when I climb this alone, I don’t use a rope.”
I smiled at him, turned left, and downclimbed the utterly putrid 3rd class ledges facing the basin. A few of his party, still waiting for their turn to go up, came over as I landed softly back on the step. They started firing off questions.
“Do you always climb in sneakers?”
“What are you listening to?”
“They’re great! Check ’em out.”
“Do you think we could go up the way you came down?”
“Yes. But please don’t.”
“Because you’ve got a great anchor waiting for you! Just make sure your buddy sees the piton.”
“Just make sure to tell him it’s there.”
“How are you gonna get down?”
I leap over the rotten wall where I first laid eyes on this crew, land on the scree and start running downhill. From the lakes, this looks like a vertical wall, but I’ve done this exit enough times to know it’s never more than 30 degrees to the horizontal. It’s our son’s favorite part of the whole climb.
Down, down, down…down past Fossil Rock, the Second Screefield, The Spring, and Little Creek. Before I know it, I’m back above the camps. And that’s when I see them.
All of them.
My buddy Joe always said, “Be out of the mountains by 10.” I check my phone: 10:15.
At that moment, I make the decision to forgo tossing teeny dries, and instead just get down. I passed 200 people over the 4-mile hike out before I stopped counting: for those keeping track, that’s an average of a person every 100 feet. I despise the permit system, but I kinda get it.
Maybe next time, I’ll get off the summit early enough to do my favorite swim.