The last time I’d been out in the backcountry with Justus, about a year ago, we stood on top of Eldorado Peak in the North Cascades, taking photos for a “Made in USA” initiative for our employer Therm-a-Rest. I’d been there a number of times before, but this was Justus’ first real summit climb and snowboard descent. It was also her first time on a glacier and her first time split-boarding overnight in the backcountry, and she crushed it on an über-classic Cascade peak.
It wasn’t with too much surprise then, that when I suggested we escape the office for some product testing and photo-gathering for a new Therm-a-Rest camp chair on the summit of The Tooth, above the Source Lake Basin on nearby Snoqualmie Pass, Justus was all-in. Never mind that the whole of her technical climbing experience amounted to a couple of trips to the climbing gym. This, apparently, is how Justus rolls.
Appropriately named for it’s sharp, triangular protrusion from a high ridge virtually overlooking Interstate 90, The Tooth is but one of many summer and winter objectives in this proximal valley. Just 40 minutes from downtown, it’s a favorite dawn patrol outing for overworked Seattle climbers and skiers who are short on time, but long on desire. Lying at the terminus of a relatively short approach and offering solid rock, great exposure, and an easy grade of 5.4, the Tooth is a high-quality, mini-alpine experience for the taking.
“You’ve belayed before?”, I asked, probing lightly.
“Sure, in a gym. It’s been a while though”, replied Justus quickly, with a hint of how-hard-could-it-be mixed in. Such was the response for similar queries about rappelling and even climbing in general. It turns out this would be Justus’ inaugural acquaintance with an awful lot of things we’d do this day, including her first day ever climbing outdoors.
As I’ve learned after a few such outings with Justus over the last year or so, physical strength and optimism allow her to take on such things with a quiet enthusiasm that always makes for a great experience. In fact, I think she genuinely enjoys and excels at learning to swim in the deep end. Knowing this, my response to her how-hard-could-it-be answers was, “Not hard at all. You’ll be fine.”
First Approach to an Alpine Climb
So off we went at 8:30 AM on a Friday. A well-known and often crowded route, we’d planned to slide in perfectly between the dawn patrollers and the dusk patrollers in my favorite time slot, the Afternoon Shift. That plan worked well until, in the final basin, we couldn’t quite overtake another party with the same objective in mind.
They were making great time though, so we just downshifted, grabbed a snack and got in line. By the time we caught back up with them at the base, they were just about starting. This brief pause gave Justus an opportunity to watch the process of lead belaying, while also reminding me that I had some teaching to do.
First Lead Belay, Outdoor Climb, and Following/Cleaning a Pitch
The first pitch is fantastic. With Justus all dialed in, I took off on my umpteenth climb of the Tooth, but it never really gets old. It’s just so close to the city and such a quality experience that it’s impossible not to appreciate. Yarding on in-cut holds on steep rock, the valley, and just about anything else that could possibly have been on my mind, dropped away quickly beneath my shoes. Justus delivered a flawless belay and followed with a smile, ticking off a few more firsts.
First Multi-Pitch Climb, First Time Hanging Out On the Side of a Cliff
The Tooth’s three pitches are broken by two large, multi-tiered ledges with an ample supply of gnarled alpine greenery that lets you almost forget you’re a few hundred feet of the ground. That safety margin is what contributes to its great appeal as an introductory climb, but it also steals some the alpine feel. To make up for it, I set the final belay for Justus on a high perch at the base of the last pitch to provide one of the great rewards of any quality alpine climb – sweeping views and a unmistakable sense of “I can’t believe I get to sit here!”
First Technical Summit
You can’t walk to the top of the Tooth, and that’s another feather in its cap as a quality climb. We arrived there without a hitch and, by all indications, Justus was pretty stoked. We took in the views, tried to name all the peaks and features we could see and talked about the luck of living somewhere so amazing that in six months or so, we’d be back in this same valley on a powder day, or to go ice climbing. Of course, we also sat a while, reveling in the brilliance of getting in some quality product testing in such an amazing setting.
First Time Rappelling Back to Earth
After mentally recharging our urban survival batteries on top, we started rappelling; each on a strand of rope simultaneously to ensure Justus was comfortable. I backed her up for the first rappel with an auto-locking knot that would grab the rope should she make an error, but she was immediately confident and finished the next few rappels on her own.
First Walk Out to the Car After an Alpine Climb
The walk out from the Tooth only takes about an hour for mortals, and the entire thing has been climbed car-to-car in well under three hours. Our trip, however, was solidly tipped to the experience end of the spectrum, and we definitely got that. We met some great people and spent some quality time in the mountains that, as they always do, remind you to appreciate so many things that we often take for granted.