We were so enthralled by our trip to climb Courtney & Star Peaks last week in the Sawtooth Wilderness that we returned this weekend for a second helping of summits. This time we had more ambitious intentions. We planned on a circular, 25ish mile route both on trail and cross country tagging Bigelow, Cheops, Martin & Switchback Peaks along the way. Bigelow, Martin and Switchback Peak are often done as a “Slam” in three days as they are part of the 100 Highest in WA List. Cheops, Martin and Switchback were also sometimes combined as a single alpine traverse as they laid on the same ridge. Essentially, our plan was to combine these two popular peak bagging tours in one long endurance venture.

After the long 4 hour ride to the Northeast corner of the WA Cascades, Damien and I were eager to begin our journey. Our boots hit the trail toward Upper Eagle Lakes at 8:30am. The trails in this area are manicured and smooth. They might be even better maintained than the PCT. This is not by some random occurrence. The trails in this section of the Sawtooth are used not only by hikers and stock, but also by dirt bikes. I am sure that during the dog days of summer this area would not only be sweltering, but also abuzz with bikes. However, with 1-3 inches of snow on large sections of the trail this time of year was quiet with brisk and inviting nip to the air. We only encountered 3 mountain bikers on the entire trip.

There are several junctions that branch off the main trail. All the junctions, of course, had signs except the intersection that leads to Upper Eagle Lake. This was marked by a small carin about 5.5 miles down the trail. We followed snowy tread carpeted by the golden needles of larches past a small outlet pond. The clouds that had been hovering high above us throughout the day seemed to sink closer to the peaks and a strong wind nipped at the bare skin of our faces. So much for the sun that was predicted! We zipped our jackets up higher as we walked beneath larches now past their prime. The needles that still clung to the knobby branches were no longer vivid yellow, but more of a faded, deep gold. Still they were stunning and I relish this time of year for its colors.

Damien and I finally broke out of the larch forest and reached the blustery shore of Upper Eagle Lake. Across the choppy waters a massive talus field rose upward into the overcast sky. On the upper slopes of the choss intimidating headwalls reared out of the talus rubble giving us pause. A quick look at the beta confirmed that we did not have to climb the near vertical faces of the headwalls. The true summit was around the back. Still it looked gnarly. However, as luck would have it the talus slopes did not have a great deal of snow on them compared to the other rocky walls surrounding the lake. Our biggest concern for this peak when we planned it was the amount of snow present on the rock as the last several sections on the summit block were described as quite exposed. However, it looked manageable from the base.

We traversed around the right side of the lake and then began to scamper up the lightly snow dusted talus. Damien and I trended to the right aiming for a weakness in the cliff band several hundred feet above. The talus was not what I would describe as stable, however it was manageable to negotiate. The cliff band proved a bit daunting as some sections we had to scale consisted of damp slabs. Luckily, we did not plan to descend the SE Route. As we traversed left to gain access to the upper talus field the clouds sunk lower obscuring the tops of the surrounding peaks and ridges. Mist swirled above us around the menacing headwalls. Winter is indeed coming!

We climbed the upper talus slope without too much trouble, although higher up there was a bit more snow and the talus grew increasingly sloppy. Upon cresting the ridge, we were blasted by fierce wind. The lake had all but vanished in the blanket of churning clouds. I wondered if soon snow would follow, but no precipitation fell. The summit block was on our left. We took a right trended gully up to the ledge. This was described as exposed, but I disagree. It was easy class 3 even with 3-4 inches snow cover. From the edge we descended about 3 feet to the base of a small face. This was the most difficult section of the climb. The feature is snow covered, but clean rock and there are two ways to ascend the face. Damien did a wide stem on the right. I did a narrow stem left and then traversed right with a foot switch. Both options were tedious, but not extremely difficult.  From the top of the face it was a simple walk to the summit where we had marvelous, close up views of mist!

Damien and I were now faced with the most difficult part of our day: descending. Getting off Bigelow would prove to be a rather horrendous and creepy undertaking. To descend the peak and get to Boiling Lake we needed to traverse along the ridge for one mile until we reached Horsehead Pass and the trail leading down to the basin. It seemed simple enough in text. However, this side of the ridge had a lot more snow. In addition, the talus and scree was some of the worst we have ever encountered; possibility worse than Morning Star Peak. The rock kept shifting and when they loosened huge piles just above us moved as well threatening to tumble down the mountain. It was like climbing through a house of cards. Once false move and an entire section of choss could collapse and some of these rocks were huge! We picked our way very slowly and carefully through the rockfall landmines. We could see the basin below us about 800 or so feet away. We toyed with the thought of just descending to the basin instead of traversing the ridge, but every time Damien and I tried to descend the rock grew more sketch. Damien and I decided to keep traversing but keep an eye out for a weakness in the talus to descend directly to the basin. The ridge was creeping us out.

After crossing some sketchy snow covered slabs we found an area that seemed to have more scree than talus heading down. We began to descend at a painfully slow rate navigating around wet slabs and cliff outs though the messy gully system. Damien and I each had a turn taking a fall on the way down, but fortunately neither of us traveled more than a foot or two. I cannot emphasize enough how relieved we felt when our feet finally touched grass and larch needles.

After a brief break to absorb the experience Damien and I continued through the basin on welcomingly soft ground just below the ridge. We stumbled across the trail  after about a half mile and easily followed it to the shore of Boiling Lake. Of course, the lake was the opposite of boiling: it was frozen!

The sun was just beginning to sink below the horizon as we set up camp under the trees near the shore of the lake. It was odd to see a picnic tables in a backcountry campsite, but I assume this is because the area if frequented by dirt bikes. I refused to sit at it for dinner though because it was the backcountry! I think my ethics annoy Damien sometimes, but he accommodated me.

We broke camp the next morning at 5:30am with three summits to tag and about 15 miles of travel ahead of us. Three peaks in a day would be the most either of us have ever accomplished in 24 hours. The psyche was high! Damien and I followed a trail south from the lake climbing easily to a small pass at 7440 feet. We then followed the trail down about 100 feet into a small basin. According to our maps this trail would just dead end and at some point we needed to start heading up to the saddle between Martin and Cheops just above. We were not sure what part of the saddle to aim for so after following the base of the talus slope in the meadow for a few minutes we started to angle upward through the rock.

Ascending those pile of rubble was comparable in many ways to the quality of rock we navigated through when descending Bigelow. The rockfall risk on this slope was extremely apparent and again we stepped with great care as a single misplaced muscle could cause massive rockfall. We even heard some large slides in some of the gullies after we had traversed through them. It was enough to send chills up our spins. Of course, part of the chill was also attributed to the frigid cold that enveloped us even as the sun rose illuminating the spectacular Sawtooth Range. We were on the shady side of the ridge. The sweeping views did provide some solace in the havoc of the ascent. We could see Bigelow far off and the long ridge leading to Horsehead Pass. Had we not descended directly to the basin the previous day it appeared we might have been on the ridge traversing for another 3 hours.

Finally, after several heart wrenching moments on the treacherous, loose talus we crested over the top of the ridge where, naturally, it was sunny. We were about 200 feet above the low point in the saddle and now were could see that a trail led right to it! This is the problem with alpine starts: you just can’t see very far and if it’s not on the map you have little else to go by.

We admired the snowy peaks bathed in golden alpenglow near a small stand of trees while eating our second breakfast. To our left were the craggy pinnacles that make up Cheops Peak. We toyed with the idea of skipping it since our minds were so mentally destroyed from the climb to the top of the Sawtooth Ridge. After all, it isn’t one of the hundred highest. But it was right there and we knew we’d regret it if we skipped over it. We weren’t chasing the 100 highest away. We were there to play in the hills.

Damien and I scrambled up the South Ridge of Cheops until we reached the clutter of towers. We followed the weakest path on the east side of towers up some narrow gullies. There are two large rock piles that look similar in height. We first climbed the nearest pile thinking it was highest, but of course once were on top it was apparent that the far pile was the true summit. The final summit scramble was easy class 3 on large blocks. Care must be taken because of the black lichen, but we didn’t find it too slippery.

We descended back to the saddle and began to traverse to Martin Peak. From a distance this mountain looks tremendously daunting, but as we neared it the talus angle seemed to soften and appear feasible. Damien and I began to climb up the North Ridge veering off to the west to avoid the rugged cliff directly on the crest of the ridge. The rock was slippery and unstable, but not as petrifying to climb as the scramble to the Sawtooth Ridge Crest. We certainly could not be careless though and steps deliberate. About 300 feet from the summit we ran into a descending party. They claimed the next section was the more difficult part of the route. The angle certainly increased and we had to contend with some slabby features as we ascended more or less straight up to the crest of the North Ridge. However, once we crossed into the ridge and onto the sunny side of the mountain the terrain eased rather significantly. It was an easy scramble up blocks to the summit.

At first, we through that the next bump in the ridge was Switchback Peak. It wasn’t far at all and looked extremely tame so we were elated. However, the more I looked at it the less confident I felt that bump was our objective. It was too close. Switchback was supposed to be a mile away along the ridge. I followed the ridge expanse until my eyes met with a white peak that looked as unnerving as Martin had from a distance. I looked at the map. This was Switchback. The bump was just that: a bump.

We descended easily down the south side of Martin and began the long traverse to Switchback Peak along the ridge. To our relief, this part of the ridge in no way resembled our experience descending Bigelow. The crest was board and the talus stable. There was even a descent climbers trail in sections! Additionally, now on the east side of the ridge we had the pleasure of enjoying the warmth of the sun’s rays and protection from the wind.

When Damien and I reached the base of Switchback we paused for a break and to procrastinate. It looked like another snowy talus pile and neither of us were eager to begin the ascent up rubble. We took some time to enjoy the wilderness views and look back at the other peaks we had climbed. Star and Courtney Peaks from of previous weekend trip were even visible in the distance.

Damien and I peered up at the final 450 feet of climbing. It was time to go. Shouldering our packs, we followed the ridge up Switchback. To our shock, although Switchback appeared from the base to be another snowy choss mess, it was composed of a fair amount of scree, firm sand and stable rock. The ascent was uneventful compared to the other climbs and we reached the summit swiftly, topping out at about 1:00pm. Three peaks in a day, all of them over 8000 feet!

Of course the day wasn’t over. We still had a long journey back to the trailhead. Still Damien and I didn’t hurry to much as it was a gorgeous day and we wanted to savor the moment. We descended down the south side of Switchback Peak and walked cross country over talus to the far-right ridge toward an obvious gap where we would meet up with the trail. This section of the Sawtooth Ridge is known as Angel’s Staircase. The talus was a bit finicky, especially the upper rocks which had slick lichen, but travel was comparatively tame. Damien and linked up with the trail with general ease and began to follow the steep switchbacks down toward Cooney Lake. It felt odd to be on ground that didn’t shift with every step and I felt like I was flying down toward the frozen lake.

Cooney Lake is a large lake beneath the expansive Sawtooth Ridge and surrounded by larches. I wished we could have stayed another night, but unfortunately, we had to get back to our weekday lives on Monday. Instead we walked the final 9 miles back to the trailhead and left the slate blue frozen lake behind. The miles flew by on the well-maintained trail. It was like walking on a superhighway as we completed the loop. Damien and I reached the car at 6:30, an hour earlier than expected and just in the nick of time. The sky swiftly dimmed as we replaced our hiking boots with crocs. Another 10 minutes on the trail and we would have broken out the headlamps! Of course, the day still wasn’t totally over as there was still the 4 hour drive home to complete. Wilderness weekends are always worth the drive though!

 

 

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