The intention for the weekend was to climb Devil’s Peak, traverse the ridge halfway and camp in the flat area and then continue on the ridge and tag Devil’s Thumb the next day. We found that Deer Creek Rd was open so we were able to drive the 1 mile to Coal Creek Road #4054. This road is closed to traffic and is horrifically overgrown. It must have been at least ten years since someone had last driven on it. There was no snow at 1900 feet so we carried our skis. Coal Creek Rd is littered with deadfall and low hanging branches that had an affinity for grabbing out our skis. It was pretty frustrating to say the least. After 2 mile we reached snow and we were able to skin a bit. However, this was short lived as we cut away from the road and begin to make our own way up through the forest cutting the switchback. We skied for a bit  but in got too steep and the trees too tightly woven that we ended up boot-packing our skis up the slope to the upper section of the road. We skinned this section over a bridge to the next switchback and once again cut into the forest. Once again we had to remove our skis for a front pointing steep section. But them we were more or less able to traverse upward through forest and open slopes. We noticed that the snow was very heavy and saturated. The skins seemed to also have a difficult time grabbed onto surface and we slide backwards and sideways down-slope constantly which was troublesome being that we were above to steep cliffy areas at points. We made a mental note of this. NWAC had called to moderate avalanches, but things seemed prime for the unpredictable loose wet slides.

Finally, we arrived in Devil’s Basin. Due to the loose/wet so conditions we decided to abandon the traverse idea and camp by the creek in the basin. We would do to separate ascents if the snow was safe. Looking up at the slopes around Devil’s Peak though it looked scary. Most visible trees in the areas were bent over and avalanche debris seemed everywhere… and it all seemed to be fresh loose/wet slides. Not exactly the type of things that give you the warm fuzzies.

No sooner than we had set up camp did the sky open up with rain. It was falling pretty heavily so we decided to wait it out a bit since it was still early in the afternoon. Luckily, it completely stopped after 45 minutes. We snapped into out skis and began to contour the slope following a weakness to the summit block. The snow was extremely saturated and heavy. Again we slide not only downhill, but sideways. Snow fell down-slope from our edges. Still we pressed on hoping for an improvement i suppose, but as we got higher it only got steeper and the snow only sketchier. At 4200 feet we examined all our observations and decided that continuing on was simply asking for trouble. Our experience descending back to camp proved our decision correct. It was like skiing through wet cement making it impossible to turn and mini avalanches consistently tumbled down slope as our skis slide sideways sometimes bringing with them substantial balls of snow. Luckily, it didn’t bring us with the slide. We were relieved to be back at camp and a bit unnerved so we move dour tent even further back from the in the basin hillside just to be doubly safe. And of course the rain started up again.

Damien dug a big hole down to the creek so we could access water. It was the first time this year we didn’t need to melt snow. Summer is coming I suppose. We discussed our plan for the next morning. If it got cold overnight and things froze up and got stable we would tray again on Sunday… but we knew our chances weren’t good. In fact it rained all night and will still raining on and off when we woke up. Loose/wet potential certainly had not gone down. It was was enough that we had some open slopes to ski down during our descent back to the car, but at least there were more trees and brush anchors.

The ski out was troublesome as once again we had to deal with concrete snow making it difficult if not dangerous to make tight turns around trees. I think we ended up carrying our skis more than actually skiing for fear of being unable to avoid the many forest traps and steep cliffs since our skis continued to slide down on their own accord. We made it own safety though, not with summits, but with new knowledge how to cope with with loose/wet conditions.

This ended up being a Plan C trip. Originally we were going to go for Garibaldi, but solar radiation boosted avy danger to considerable on the aspect we planned to climb. So we opted for Reid Headwall on Mt Hood. Avalanche danger was predicted to be moderate and we were excited to get in a technical alpine ice climb after avalanche danger pushed us off so many summit attempts this year. At least avalanche danger was moderate right up until we pulled into the Timberline Parking lot Friday night. We checked the forecast one last time and it had been updated to considerable an hour beforehand. We had our normal discussion and it was decided that Reid Headwall would be fine if we finished the route before any major radiation from the sun hit. However, the climb is more or less a maze through towers of rim ice and route-finding delay was not entirely impossible which could leave us exposed to falling ice once the sun warmed things up. Since we had already driven the 5 hours we settled on the South Spur/Hogsback route. This is the easiest route up Mount Hood and it attracts throngs of people, most of which are inexperienced and minimal climbing knowledge to the point of endangering themselves and others around them. It is normally a conga line of folks trying to get through the bottleneck of the crux of the pearly gates to the summit. However, it seemed like the only safe option and if we were stragicgic we could avoid the circus. Besides, although not the technical Ice climb we were hoping for, it was a climb nonetheless. Plus it meant a higher camp and we really needed to start acclimating for the season.

After spending a chilly night in the car parked in the Timberline parking lot (5800 ft) we began the long approach. Luckily, this was not as arduous for us since we had our skis and skinned up. The route begin as the ski resort and follows the right most cat track up open slopes. Don’t follow the groomers near the lifts unless you want to be stopped by ski a patrol. You’ll know you’re on the right path because the catt4rack is filled up bootprints and usually some semblance of a skin track. The first 1200ft of gain brings you parallel to the Silcox Hut. From here the slope gets a bit steeper until the cat track finally terminates at the top of the highest chair lift (8600 ft). From here there are normally multiples boot paths and a skin track to follow to the crater. The general idea is to stay to the right of Crater Rock and Left of Steel Cliffs aiming for the flat basin area. There is a flattish area at about 9200 feet where most folks camp even though the crater is flatter. However, the crater is a thermal area with fumroles and other aroma releasing formations. However, Damien and I passed this lower camp opting for the less crowded high camp since the smell of sulfur isn’t as issue for us. The final ascent to the crater is pretty steep and at times our skins didn’t catch completely. However, we were pretty overjoyed that with elevation came a breeze. Lower we had been baking in the blazing sun!

We set up camp well away from Devil’s Kitchen thermals in the crater at 10,100 feet. Mt Hood is known for high winds even when it isn’t in the forecast. Therefore, we dug a good sized hole to set up our tent along with a substantial windbreak. From there we had front row seats watching the conga line climb up the Hogsback to the Pearly Gates. We wanted no part of this steady line of people and the hazards of climbing in the throngs. Therefore, our plan was to climb in the dark and reach the summit exactly at sunrise. Hopefully, we would be the first to summit and avoid the bottleneck in the Pearly Gates.

We spent the rest of the day people watching. In the evening the clouds built and we couldn’t see the mountains below. The higher elevation was clear though and we had the rare experience of people the the only people on the upper flanks of the South Side. Not a soul on the Hogsback Route. It was quiet with only the sound of the wind and the pristine evening light. Solitude in a place where you can rarely be alone.

We were moving at 4:20am carrying our skis for the descent. A team of three were coming up from the bottom of the mountain as we walked to the nearby Hogsback, but they stopped to rest in the Crater so we climbed alone. The Hogsback is a spine of windblown snow creating a ridge of sorts from Crater Rock.  The well beat down path traverses the side of the tall spine until reaching the crest where there is a flattish area before the Hogsback rears up rather steeply to the Pearly Gates and towers of rime ice. I found myself front pointing parts of this section using both ice tools.

There was a small flat area stamped put at the base of the Pearly Gates, probably the result of people waiting in line. But in the darkness there was no waiting. The Pearly Gates is a short, steep and narrow chute big enough for climbers of only move in single file up ~60 degree slope. It is borders on either side by high rock towers covered in rim ice making them look like mystical castles. This is the area is possesses a rock and ice-fall hazard making it imperative to move quickly and preferably only in the early morning hours before things warm up. I front pointed and used both tool picks through the Pearly Gates.

After the chute it is basically a long gradual climb to horizon which never seems to get closer. It look to be just a few yards away, but really you need to ascend about another 250 feet. Eventually, we did indeed crest over the South Side and stand on the summit just in time to admire the fiery colors of sunrise. The wind was wicked and gusting at probably 30 mph, but we put on our down parkas and stayed plenty warm enjoying the perfect moment of solitude. We were the first to summit that day. We watch the sky go from bright pink to fluorescence orange as the sun finally peaked over the horizon and bathed the mountain snow soft corral glow. The perfect morning and we didn’t want to leave, but we had seen the headlamp coming up the mountain when we left camp we didn’t want to get stuck in the throngs. We passed the team of three as we descended to the Pearly Gates and front pointed down the chute. Only one climber was at the base of the gates politely waiting for us to descend. However, the Hogsback was getting crowded. We had timed things perfectly.

We down-climbed to the flat area of the Hogsback and from there skied back to camp. The Summit was looking pretty cloudy and once again we were pleased at our luck. We went back to sleep or tried to. The winds picked up and whistled around the tent waking us up. When we finally started to pack up the winds were worst in the Crater than they had been on the summit. Another bit of good fortune as I imagine summit winds were 40+ at that point.

We snapped back into our skis for the long run down. This is when I really appreciate being able to ski. The slog down the mountain on foot is excruciating, but on skis the descent of 4300ft from the crater is a highlight!

After staring at the massive pyramid of Wedge Mountain every time I turned onto Icicle Rd for 5 years I finally stood on the summit. Our west side plans foiled with bad weather, Damien and I headed over to the sunny east side to backcountry ski Wedge. The true summit of Wedge us under debate. The maps the summit is labeled as a 5860 foot high point on the ridge. However, there is also a 6885ft high point about 2 mile further down the ridge (South Wedge). Starting out we weren’t clear on which peak we would ultimately go for or if we would do both. It turns out we ended up climbing Wedge Mountain proper as seen ont he maps and from Leavenworth since that’s where the beta brought us.

Mountain Home Rd is plowed for 3.5 miles to the country road line. From there the road is snow and pretty much impassible without a 4×4 that you don’t mind getting scratched up even in summer. Branches reach out in many places and would cause detriment to any paint job. We started skinning here. It is key to follow maps and directions to the saddle very carefully as the roads on the lower hilly slopes of Wedge are a maze and the terrain is rather complex.  There were a few bare patches where we carried our skis early on, but strangely the road was still full of lots of snow even though sometimes the land right beside it was pretty much melted out. Mountain Home Rd becomes FS 7300 though there are no signs. We passed some kind of mini train track thing near a sign that said “Steinback.”  A bit random. There are a few turns but don’t take any under reaching the massive junction with labeled FS 400. On lower FS 400 there are several creeks running under the snow so use caution to avoid hollow areas. This is where most of the climbing occurs as the road switchbacks upward. It’s long but there are excellent distracting views along the way. There are a few turns as well. Stay left at the first junction and right on the second. The road finally reached a wide saddle at about 4500 feet (about ten miles)

From the saddle we turned right and continued to follow FS road 400 which even on snow seemed barely like a road. The path follows under Wedge’s summit and beneath the ridge. There were two areas of avy debris to cross. After about 3/4 of the mile we decided to switchbback straight up the slope to gain the ridge. From below it didn’t look bad, but experience proved different. After about 1/4 of the way up the slope got steeper and the snow ws too frozen to cut switchbacks. Damien decided to bootpack up a cleaned avy gully. I attempted to continued try and skin straight up. I did well for a bit but then conceded to bootpacking up the avy gully. Which involved a far amount of front pointing. We did but our skis back on about 3/4 of the way up, but where forced to take them off again and flounder about in inconsistent snow. It was either too hard or too soft to skin. We were aiming for a small notch on top of the ridge that looked wide enough for camp and was protected by some trees. The finally several yards took an excruciatingly long time… we post-holed through knee and waist deep thick and heavy snow. Finally we made it! The tree ended up not offering much protection from the blustery wind, but we had our winter tent so it worked out great. The camp had excellent views and was .35 miles from the summit.

 

In the morning we found clear skies and solid snow. It seemed like the best idea would be to walk the ridge, but we carried our skis just in case. We traversed the  ridge-line enjoying 360 views of Leavenworth, Icicle Divide, The Enchantments, Cashmere, Snow Creek Wall and the eastern hills. The going was pretty easy until we got to the final slope to the summit block. We found we had to front point deep into the 65 degree slope and walk a bit on the knife edge. It was doable, but sketch with a whippet and ski boots. We dropped out packs and skis in a flat area by what we thought was the summit block and front pointed up a 15 foot snow finger to the summit…. well kind of.  When we reached the top we realized the block a few yards away was taller. This was bit disheartening since the snow finger has been no picnic to climb unprotected. Nevertheless,  we down climbed and headed over to the left most block. After some exploration we found a class 2/3 route up the left side. It was bare rock so we climbed with gloves off With gloves off, but still in ski boots. There we descent ledges and enough hand holds to feel safe even in bulky boots. The down-climbing was less comfortable though. It was  our first experience scrambling on rock with ski boots!

We hung out just beneath the summit block and enjoyed the perfect view for maybe and hour. We weren’t in a rush. We had decided after looking over to the higher South Wedge that we would not attempt it. Traversing the ridge looked sketch and there was a huge rough looking gap between the two summits. From observation they appear to be 2 separate peaks for sure. And we were also afraid that the return trip would lead to a post-holing odyssey as the snow softened (there was no way we could ski that terrain).  Back at camp we relaxed a bit and waited until about 11:30 to ski down giving the snow a chance to corn up. We skied back down to the road making some pretty excellent turns! Best we’ve had all spring thus far for sure! We cut a few switch backs on the road by skiing straight down the slope, but found that after about 3700 feet it was best ti just stay on the road since the straight way down had lots of  melted out terrain traps. Even with the long sweeping switchbacks the going was pretty fast. on FS 7300 we did have to free our heels since the road is flatter for ascends in a few places.

Great weekend and our first summit as a married couple! Next time we will tag South Wedge!

“The best alpinists are the ones with the worse memories”-Jimmy Chin

That pretty much describes the past weekend. After last years arduous episode ascending the NE Couloir of Argonaut Damien and I had both claimed that we would never, ever make an attempt again. And yet we found ourselves skiing up Eightmile Rd once again last weekend for our second summit bid. Not to mention this would be our 5th week walking up Eightmile Rd in a row!

We were much more weighed down this time as we walked up the Lake Stuart Trail. Our packs were overflowing with ice and trad gear, but our spirits were pretty high. We were hoping for good snow/ice conditions on the route. The avy was moderate and the weather seemed promising with sunshine and intermittent light snow. Finally we had a window to attempt a climb. We hadn’t had the opportunity to go for a summit since January with all the crazy weather this season.

When we reached Stuart Meadows and turned off the trail toward Argonaut. We crossed Mountaineer Creek immediately over a solid log bridge. This early crossing prevented us from having to cross 3-4x like we did last year since the creek branches further up (plus the crossing were much sketchier). The higher snow level also made thing much easier in the forest since low brush was covered. It is about 2 miles of cross country travel the where the tree open on the lower slopes of Argonaut. We switchbbacked up the slopes passing the large rock we had camped on last year and continuing to a meadow at 5400 feet where the slope angle will more gentle. We found a flatish spot here and, after some escalating of snow and leveling, we engineered a platform and windbreak for the tent. By then it was after 6 and we ate dinner admiring some excellent views of Stuart, Sherpa, Colchuck and Argonaut.

It was a bit windy at camp when we turned in, but it really picked up overnight, waking us up as gusts slammed against the tent. This was unexpected and made us wish for our 4 season tent. We woke up at 3am to find low visibility, high winds and driving snow. We decided to give it another hour. At 4am the wind and snow was the same, but visibility was better. We shouldered our packs and headed into the darkness up steep, crumbled avalanche debris. The thing about the slopes are Argonaut is that they never let up. Every time you this you are getting to crest the hill and reach a flat spot you a greeted with a slight decrest in incline followed up a even steeper hill! The debris field was enormous. Larger than last year. We found that climbing on the clean slide was easier than on the debris itself when we had an option. the snow felt stable, but not great underfoot. It was just “off” somehow in a way I can’t quite describe. Damien’s crampons kept getting snagged up, that was mostly due to crampon comparability with his ski boot, he had never tried combining this set before. He used a ski strap tto secure the crampons though and that seemed to help.

The wind was still blasting us when the sun crested the horizon. Heavy clouds and mist moved in and out concealing and then revealing the mountains thats surrounded us. Argonaut’s upper North face moved in and out of view with the clouds and snow that stung our faces. Every now and then the sun would peak out and some blue with appear in the sky, but the clouds always closed in again.

We took shelter from the wind as best we could by a large boulder to take a break and examine the couloir. It was definitely more filled in with snow this year. It looked clean. Almost too clean. We wondering if there was an upper wind slab that hadn’t broken free yet. We knew there was a wind slab danger on the NE aspect in the area. The filled in snow would also possibility make protecting the route with rock gear challenging. But heck we didn’t want to turn back on this route and have to start all over again on a third attempt either! Where these concerns legitimate? As we pondered if we should proceed a particularly heavy gust of wind somehow manged to lift Damien’s food bag out of his backpack and send the bag down the mountain. One more thing to add the the “going wrong list”. Yikes.

In the end we decided that “we don’t want to have to do another attempt” was not a good enough reason to get into the couloir. Too many things were wrong. Even if the couloir went well the wind on the ridge would be murder. We reluctantly decided that we would have to retreat. Slowly we made our way down following a trail of kind bars that were scattered over the slopes. Snow continued to swirl in the gales and snow hammered us like little needles in our faces. Camp was a welcome sight indeed!

We broke camp after a nap. The wind never let up and the weather continued to vary between stormy and clear. We made the right call just considering the weather factors alone. This was definitely the best adventure we’d had in a  long time. Sometimes the summit isn’t the most important thing. Sometimes the best adventure is the journey and being exposed to the alpine elements. If you get every summit you set out for, you’re not setting hard enough goals. I guess this climb has become poetic to me. And I have the feeling that enough though right now I fell like I am done attempt the NE couloir that I will find myself on the approach again.