The Torment - Forbidden Traverse

August 1972
The Rocks Don't Know the Good Climbers...

In August of 1972 I had completed my PhD and was preparing to enter academic life as a faculty member at Colorado State University. The Torment-Forbidden Traverse was a great way to cap off my adventures in the North Cascades. This traverse is one of the Fifty Classic Climbs of North America and involves a mix of rock and glacier climbing as well as the associated dangers. Contrary to the negative connotations of “Torment” and “Forbidden,” the scenery is magnificent and the climbing is excellent — as long as the weather cooperates.

In this picture taken as we entered Boston Basin, Mount Torment is on the left and Forbidden is out of the frame at right. The lighting seemed magical at this instant; there are many pictures on the web taken from near this vantage point but, in my opinion, none match this one for showing the beauty of the area. Be sure to click on the picture and expand your browser to full screen to view the larger, unmarked version! See here and here for pictures taken from a different angle.

Chris (a former student) was my climbing partner. Our first task was to traverse the Boston Basin (previous picture) to make camp. Warm August days made the many small streams run high; at one point we considered making camp and hoping the cool of night would moderate the flow, but we managed to cross them all and find a campsite below the glacier and moraine at the base of Mount Torment.

The next morning we began our climb up the South Ridge route to the summit of Torment. In Spring, Chris had suffered an injury in a fall and, though he was recovered physically, may have had confidence issues that slowed us down. He climbed well enough to justify continuing to exchange leads for the entire climb. We were well equipped for a planned bivouac on the ridge and the weather looked good.

We made reasonable time getting to the summit of Mount Torment, where we were treated to a view of the aptly named Moraine Lake on the north side. From the summit of Torment there is nearly one mile of rock and glacier to negotiate, primarily on the ridge or along the north side of the ridge, before attaining the summit of Forbidden.

We descended east along the ridge from the summit of Torment, then rappelled onto the top of the glacier. The rappel was complicated by the need to avoid the randkluft where the glacier met the mountain. Once we were on the glacier, we were able to avoid much of the exposed glacier traverse often necessary by climbing along the crest of the glacier or in the randkluft itself. At one point in this traverse, I was standing on a level spot where the glacier actually contacted the ridge underneath a cliff. As I stood at the base of the cliff, a canteloupe-sized rock embedded itself deeply into the snow three feet to my side. There were no climbers above us so the rock must have spontaneously dislodged from the cliff. I was reminded of a quote attributed to Hermann Buhl: “The rocks don't know the good climbers from the bad ones.” Unlike my experience on Mount Shuksan, I doubt my helmet would have saved me from serious harm.

We eventually climbed back onto the ridge crest and found a good place for a bivouac. The previous night there was no need to worry about water as there were plenty of streams with pristine water. We had brought food that did not require cooking, but I had packed my small gas stove with just enough fuel to melt snow for water for the bivouac on the ridge. Chris was still lacking full confidence and we had belayed more than most qualified teams would; belaying slowed us down a bit, but things were still looking good for completing the climb the next day (Sunday).

In this picture the high pyramid in the left background is the summit of Forbidden Peak, our ultimate goal.

On our hike in we had been treated with magnificent views of Johannesburg Mountain. While we were doing the traverse, my room-mate Tom was climbing the exposed rib descending directly from the summit in this picture. In what might be classified as an error in judgement, we had each told the other to call mountain rescue if we did not return Sunday evening.

On Sunday morning, Chris and I continued on to the summit of Forbidden but did not make good enough time. We began our descent from the summit via the exposed Northeast Face late. As the sun was setting we had not made it to the notch to climb onto the south side of the ridge, do one rappel and hike back to the car. I found a ledge measuring 3 feet by 5 feet and decided we needed another bivouac rather than risk continuing in the failing light. Although the ledge was small for two people, it had a beautiful crack running across just above and we were able to put in lots of pitons and clip our gear and ourselves to the mountain. We were short on food and even shorter on water. The night was not particularly uncomfortable, but we were worried the weather was deteriorating and we might be embarrassed by the appearance of mountain rescue the next day.

We woke at first light and completed the final two leads downclimbing the Northeast Face route. As we crossed through the notch, a light snow began to fall. We rappelled and hiked at a fast rate back to the car, then drove madly to the nearest restaurant in Marblemount. There we hoped to satisfy our hunger and find a phone to call Tom and tell him mountain rescue was not needed. We walked into the restaurant and decided the first priority was to order food. With the order out of the way, I started back to the front where there was a pay phone, but someone ran in the front door and grabbed the phone before I got to it. It was Tom! They had taken a day longer than planned on their climb of Johannesburg and were convinced I would be calling mountain rescue to report them missing. We all settled down to a nice breakfast and shared our respective stories.

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