Damien has attempted to climb Bald Mountain in winter/Early spring conditions several times. I was with him on his most recent attempt about 2.5 years ago when we had to bail due to scary avalanche conditions on the ridge. This weekend called for stable and moderate conditions in the Cascades. Hoping for a better outcome, Damien and I decided to once again try to Bald Mountain & Helena Peak.

We were able to drive about 2 miles up Deer Park Road before encountering impassable snow. We parked only about .4 miles from the first washout so this was a descent amount of headway. From the car Damien and I continued walking up the road, easily crossing the 4 washouts. After about one mile the snow was fluffy enough to warrant us strapping on our snowshoes. Both of us were surprised at how deep the powder was at 2000 feet. Not very long ago our biggest difficultly was lack of solid snow coverage!

At the end of the road near the TH for Kelcema Lake, Damien and I turned left into the forest and began to break trail up the slope to the NE Ridge. Several yards in we removed our overnight gear from our packs and stashed it in some trees so we could go light and fast. Fast was relative in the terrain. We wove around fallen trees and other terrain obstacles picking our way through the snow covered forest. Luckily, the snow depth increased swiftly and soon we didn’t have to worry about forest debris. We did, however, find that the snow was thick, fluffy and deep with a base that was not very close to the surface. As a result Damien sunk far with every step even with snowshoes.

We reached the open slopes where we had turned around on our last attempt. This time the Damien and I found the snow to be well bonded and we pressed on. However, “breaking trail” seems an inaccurate description. Damien was now tunneling through the snow at this point! We continued pushing our way through the sea of white to the ridge crest. Damien and I began to question how much longer we could continue cutting a trench through the powder or if we had enough daylight to make it to the summit. We continued on until about 3:00pm. The summit was still .84 miles and 700 feet away. There was no way we would make it there before dark; if we could make it at all. Moving had become an incredibly tedious and slow process.

After a brief discussion, we decided that we should abandon our original plan to attempt Helena the following day. Helena is a higher summit and involves a ridge climb about twice as long at Bald. The mountain would almost certainly have the same conditions as Bald and it it didn’t seem worth the attempt. It also didn’t make sense to camp at the base of Bald and then walk the 2.5 miles out the next day when we had a great weather window. It made more sense to choose a new, day-trip objective.

Damien and I descended Bald Mountain reaching the road just before sunset. With a full moon, darkness fell slowly even with the heavy cloud cover and snowflakes falling from the sky. Our legs ached from the attempt, but we looked forward to trying to climb in another part of the Cascades the following day. Sometimes you need to be willing to change plans.

A warming trend over the week caused heavy rain and low freezing levels, thereby melting a fair amount of snow. It did however, build a solid base. Damien and I floundered trying to decide on the weekend’s destination. We just could not predict conditions or the snow line after the warm and rainy week. To complicate things, Saturday was going to start out cloudy, but in late afternoon a huge system was going to move in bringing heavy precipitation and strong winds. This left us with a tiny window of opportunity to climb. In the end, Damien and I settled on climbing “something near Blanca Lake”. In general, we planned to either climb Kyes Peak or Toil peak depending on our timing, weather and general conditions. If both summits were out, then we would just camp near Blanca Lake. It seemed like the best strategy for the weekend was to have options.

On Saturday morning we arrived at the closed dirt road leading to the Blanca Lake TH.  Several washouts occurred a few years back on this final 2 mile stretch of road. No repairs have been made and now getting to Blanca Lake permanently requires a road walk. Of course, the 3 washouts are all in the final .25 miles! The first washout is an easy creek crossing over rocks. The sound washout in just a gravel blow out with no water. The final wash is a large and deep creek. I opted to take my shoes off and ford the rushing water. Damien made some treacherous leaps higher up to cross. As I put my shoes back on I heard splashing upstream and looked over to see Damien tossing large rocks into the current. He was building a bridge for us to cross on our way back!

After building half of the bridge (Damien said he’d finish on the way back) we continued up the final short section of road to the trailhead. The sky was slate grey as we entered the forest. However, the clouds were high, and it seemed like we’d have good visibility if we went for a summit. Of course, we also knew that the weather window would be brief.

Damien and I followed endless switchbacks up toward the Ridgecrest. The trail was reminiscent of Mt Si. At about 3500 feet with reached the snow line. Nevertheless, the trail was well traveled and a solid boot track was stamped into the snow. At about 4200 feet the switchbacks ceased as we crested the ridge. The tread traverses along the crest through gradually opening forests revealing far off vistas of craggy snow-covered peaks I could not identify. Closer to us we could see Glacier Peak, Kyes, Toil and Double Toil. About .25 miles short of Virgin Lake the boot-pack transformed rather abruptly into a snowshoe track. We took a moment to don our floatation and then continued to “The Saddle.”

The Saddle above Virgin Lake marked the point in our journey when we needed to make some decisions. If we turned right we could follow the 3-mile-long ridge to the summit of Kyes Peak, an involved scramble route.  Turning left would lead us to a simple scramble up Toil Peak. Descending would lead us to Virgin and Blanca Lakes. The clouds were still high, but the wind was certainly picking up considerably and the grey looked a shade or two darker. Damien and I estimated that to summit Kyes Peak would take 3 hours minimum and that is only if nothing went wrong. This put us on the summit at 4:00pm leaving us to descend in the dark and, possibility, in a storm with 40 mph winds. Going for it seemed unwise. On the other hand, Toil Peak was only .6 miles away and it seemed we could easily make it before a major weather event struck.

Damien and I split away from the solid snowshoe track and began to break trail along the ridge leading to Toil Peak. We discovered a random set of snowshoe tracks that seemed to appear out nowhere. Following them ended up leading us in a circle! We deserted the old tracks and once again made our own way through the powder. Breaking trail was not terribility difficult as the snow had a good base. However, the final 300-400 feet final climb to the summit did get steep. Also, Toil is one of those summits where you just never get there. Every time you think you are about to crest the summit you find that you have only topped out of a little mound and the summit is still in front of you! However, on these mounds the trees often parted, and we were granted spectacular views of the Monte Crisco Group and, unfrozen, Blanca Lake.

Finally, we stood on the tree lined summit of Toil Peak. The lower mounds afforded more unobscured views. Still we had finally tagged a summit this month! Damien and I didn’t linger though. Frigid winds bashed the trees and the clouds were sinking lower as the impending storm neared. We could see snow falling already about ten miles away.

We descended Toil the way we had come with ease, except we had to face inward during some steep sections. Damien and I rejoined the Blanca Lake Trail and followed the descending track from the Saddle. First, we passed tiny, frozen Virgin Lake. Just beyond the lake were signs indicating that there was no camping within 200 feet of Blanca Lake. This didn’t seem like it would pose a problem in the snow as we wanted to stay a bit back from the open lake anyway for protection. We continued, descending steep switchbacks as snowflakes began to fall.

A few switchbacks down I paused and questioned if Blanca was the smartest place to camp. The lake was a long descent. Damien considered this for a moment. With the freezing level at 6900 feet that night we had been surprised that snow was forecasted for 4900 feet. Blanca lake was at 4000ft and would thus, almost certainly, acquire heavy rain. Damien and I highly prefer snow and, thus, we decided the backtrack to Virgin Lake at 4600 feet.

We found a sheltered, flat area under some trees  across the lake from the trail and set up camp just as darkness enveloped the wilderness. Thick snow fell around us as we enjoyed dinner and discussed winter ambitions. Damien and I mused at how deciding  to camp at the higher lake was the smarter choice. We felt certain rain was falling at Blanca.

A strange thing happened that night. Usually, temperatures decrease after sunset. However, I was jolted awake around midnight by the sound of rain thrashing against the tent walls in a violent rage. Damien and I lamented having to pack up in the dashing, wet precipitation, but there wasn’t much we could do about it. At least we were dry in the tent… or we were dry at midnight.

At 5am I rolled over and Damien shook me awake. “Don’t roll toward the middle of the bag. It’s wet. My side is all drenched already,” he informed me.

I rolled back over in our double sleeping bag. A moment later Damien spoke again, “Get into the vestibule. We need to get rid of the water. We’re flooded!”

Fully awake now, I scurried out of the sleeping back and huddled into the vestibule. Damien did the same and peaked under the sleeping bag and pads. We might as well have been sleeping on a floating raft on a lake. There was major body of water growing on our tent floor! First, we tried to channel it out the door, but we couldn’t angle the tent correctly to achieve maximum drainage. Next Damien attempted to bail out the water with his coffee cup. This also did not prove to be effective. Finally, we made the decision to cut a tiny slit in the floor. This method worked perfectly, and we watched mesmerized as a tiny whirlpool appeared over the hole and the water drained out onto the snow.

Satisfied that we had removed most of the lake, Damien and I crawled back into a damp sleeping bag. We were going to start the day in just 1.5 hours, so we wouldn’t have to remain in the damp tent very long. Damien and I have discussed what might have caused water to enter the tent. The only conclusion we have come up with is that some gear inside the tent was pushed far off to the side and thus made contact with the fly causing leaks.

The rain still fell when we finally emerged. Our gear was thoroughly saturated though and I’m sure we packed out about 5lbs of water each. Luckily, rain was not falling nearly as aggressively when we began to follow the trail back to the Saddle.  In fact, the rain fully stopped, and glimpses of blue sky appeared about halfway down the trail!

Back at the washout, Damien completed his bridge building project and, therefore, I did not need to subject me feet to arctic temperature water again. The walk down the road to the car went quickly to our delight. Roads normally feel endless when you’re heading back. To top it off the next wave of the storm held off until about 30 minutes into driving home!

With all the ski resorts opening, Damien and I felt particularly compelled to brush the dust off our skis as well. Our first choice was Camp Muir. Unfortunately, there was a storm moving in Sunday afternoon and high winds were predicted to sweep over the mountain all day. Thus, we opted to give Surprise Mountain a try. We predicted the North face ascent would have plenty of snow on it. Also, the approach along Surprise Lake TH is commonly used in the winter. Damien and I figured we’d good boot pack at least part way along the 5.5 mile approach to Glacier Lake. If not, how bad could breaking trail be?
Damien and I started on the trail (2200 ft) at about 8:30am hauling our skis on our packs. This was anticipated for part of the journey as we knew the snow would not be thick enough for about 800 or so feet. However, we were surprised to discover that there were no tracks whatsoever. We would be cutting trail the entire way! The snow cover was mostly solid, but not consistent or thick enough until reaching about 3200 feet. Here we found a decent enough base and about 1 foot of coverage. Eagerly we unloaded our skis. After several months off it took a few tries to negotiate our boots into our tech bindings! Cutting a ski track went smoothly and we were happy to be floating as opposed to pushing through over a foot of powder with our boots. We could see bluebird skies above us and the sun’s radiation quickly began softening the snow covering branches of the pine trees. Large chunk of snow kept plopping abruptly out of the trees creating mini-whiteouts of powdery fluff. After getting bombed a few times I finally conceded to putting my hood up!
Damien and I navigated the snow concealed trail without issue until about the fourth switchbback. In the talus field we began to lose the path and our GPS seemed to be jumping everywhere. We knew the direction to travel in and were not concerned about simply making our own track. However, the treacherous terrain familiar with early season skiing slowed us down immensely. Voids, wells, stream crossings, large talus blocks and 3+ feet of very soft snow with only a subtle base continued to redirect our path and make the route considerably more difficult and less straight forward. By the time we regained the true trail on top of the plateau we were fatigued and surprised at the amount of time the ascent had taken. Following the trail once more, we made descent time to the junction with Trap Pass. It didn’t seem like we would make it to Glacier Lake or Surprise Mountain. Daylight hours were drawing to a close. Furthermore, assumed that climbing Surprise would have been dangerous in these early season conditions we had experienced so far. Still we wanted to at least get to Surprise Lake.
We continued into the open talus field, once again losing the trail. Around this time, I discovered that one of my skins had completely de-laminated from the ski. It caused me to slip everywhere when I side-hilled. I thought maybe I could remedy the problem by securing the skin a bit with a ski strap. Of course, when I stepped out of the ski I plunged into a void in the talus nearly reaping my knee. Luckily, Damien was there to release me from my predicament. Somehow, I am always getting stuck! With the skin secured we continued gingerly through the talus to the creek.
At the creek we encountered our next dilemma. The log bridge we first came across looked questionable. Damien and I weren’t sure if the snow was resting fully on the two logs coming across the creek. Since the logs were angled and not straight across the center of the bridge appeared like it might be a cornice of sorts giving the illusion of a solid crossing. Damien attempted the bridge first and sure enough the center collapsed. Luckily, he fell on the solid portion of the bridge. After some careful maneuvering he was able to take off his skis and toss them to me on the shore. Then he stepped over the running water were the bridge had collapsed and crossed the creek. Damien’s original plan was for me to throw his skis to him and then for me to cross somewhere else. He forgot that I can’t throw anything for my life. I attempted to get closer on the part of the bridge that was stable, but I could get close enough and when I tried to stand in the collapsed snow near the shore my feet got a little wet. We bailed on the plan and Damien very carefully crossed back to my side. After some exploration we found a large stable log to cross.
Following the treacherous creek fiasco, we carefully broke track through more talus that had some water flowing beneath it in places to the forest. A few minutes later we finally stood on the shore of Surprise Lake. In the fading light Damien and I skied along the flat shoreline to a small peninsula. Here, overlooking the frozen lake and snow adorned evergreena, we set up our Pyramid tent. It takes more work than our other winter tents. There is no floor, so a proper platform needs to be stamped down. But it allows for a raised bed and plenty of gear storage within the walls. You can almost stand up too!
By the time we finished setting up our sleeping bag the sun had dipped below the horizon and dark blue tones of a winter evening colored the landscape. Damien and I began the process of melting snow and cooking in the tranquil winter night. Nothing stirred in the darkness. All is silent, and serene on these cold, clear nights. It is unique to snow camping.
Damien and I procrastinated the next morning, taking out time with breakfast and heating water for beverages. I think neither one of us felt eager to make out way down the steep slope where we’d lost the trail the previous day. Our first turns of the year ended up being “survival skiing”. Poor coverage, terrain traps and tight conditions made for very tedious and slow downward progress. After about 400 ft of descent we resorted to plunge stepping back down to the trail. But we got to ski!
You never know what conditions you’ll find this early in the season. I think the important thing is to be flexible and make the most out of whatever you encounter. I know we still had a spectacular time playing in the mountains even though we didn’t do exactly what we planned!

Another winter blast this weekend! Damien and I attempted Stillaguamish last year the same exact weekend (in a day), but ended up turning back because some freezing sleet gave us both hypothermia on the ridge. This time we planned on making a second attempt as an overnight and brought a few extra pairs of gloves!

Saturday morning started out with high, grey clouds as we hiked up the nearly level Perry Creek trail which gains 1,300 feet in 3.3 miles (hardly noticeable). Damien and I did not run into any snow patches on the trail until about .25 miles from Perry Falls. Note that these patches we a bit icy, but we did fine without traction. After crossing the river and beginning the steady climb up to Forgotten Meadows, the trail stayed mostly snow free until about 3,700 feet. At this point the track featured a few patches of snow. Around this time intermittent rain also began to fall. With our full goretex armor we hardly noticed the increased moisture! The patches increased in size until snow covered the trail completely. Folks had come up this way though, and there was a solid, compact boot track all the way to Forgotten saddle where the trees parted. Near the saddle we trekked through a trench with 2-foot snow walls!

A blustery wind tussled the snowflakes through the frigid air with gusto as we crested over the top of the ridge on the saddle at 5000 feet (the precipitation had turned to snow at about 4,000 feet). The solid boot pack ended here. There was evidence of tracks heading right along the ridge toward looming Mount Forgotten partly shrouded in wispy layers of mist. However, on our left in the direction of Stillaguamish, there was barely the faintest whisper of some old tracks vaguely detectable in the fresh powder. From our previous attempt last year, we knew there was a descent climbers trail that followed just below the ridge. Damien and I assumed we would have no issue finding our way even with the snow being much deeper than anticipated. We expected there to be at least an indentation of a trail, but there was none!

After traveling a few yards through the deep powder, we opted to slip into our snowshoes. I am really not a fan of the flat shoes, but sometimes it is the best method of travel before ski season. Our journey started out well and we easily followed the broad ridge through trees and open meadows. However, after about .6 miles or so the terrain grew increasingly rugged. Damien and I attempted to follow just below the ridge crest, but got cliffed out. We tried to follow our beta’s suggestion to travel along the top of the crest in the snow, but again geo cliffed out. We continually made attempts traveling at different elevations along the ridge, and got shut down every time by terrain! After roughly two hours with no luck and daylight hours swiftly decreasing, Damien an I decided that, once again, Stillaguamish would have to wait.

We backtracked along the ridge until we reached an open, broad meadow on the ridge crest perhaps .2 miles from the saddle. Here we were granted wide open views of Mount Forgotten, White Chuck and other surrounding peaks, but not for long! The clouds closed in as we set up camp and blotted out the views as snow fluttered with increasing vigor from the darkening sky. It felt like Christmas in this winter wonderland!

When we woke the following morning, the snow fell with even more intensity. Accumulation was surprising little considering how thick and swift the flake fell. It might have been the texture of the snow. It certainly was less fluffy compared to previous weeks. The snow turned to rain at about 4,500 feet as we descended. Back in Perry Creek Valley the mist hug low, giving the mossy trees an eerie and mystical effect. There is beauty in all weather in the mountains.

After last weekend’s bout of intense sunshine, the snow returned! Thursday night and into Friday the freezing level dipped and the first storm cell released heavy snow in the mountains. Light snow persisted into the weekend with the next large release of snow predicted to occur Saturday evening into Sunday morning. Damien and I had to be flexible with our objectives and plans. Fresh snow in this amount could bring avalanche danger and, with no base layer, walking through talus presents dangerous hidden voids. We took into account that snowshoes do little to help with floatation in the absence of a base. However, there is always an adventure to be found no matter what the conditions! We set our sights on the Monte Cristo Group. After all our years climbing in the Cascades we have never visited this particular set of summits or even seen the Ghost Town of Monte Cristo! We decided that we would journey to Glacier Basin and set up camp. If conditions were safe, Damien and I could also attempt Cadet and Foggy Peaks.

The trail to Glacier Basin must be reached by walking the 4.2-mile old road to Monte Cristo. When we arrived Saturday, there was only a faint dusting on the road with sections of more coverage. Clouds hung low in the sky concealing the lofty peaks we knew surrounded us. The old road is easy to follow until reaching the banks of the river at one mile. Here we were faced with crossing a wide log dusted with slick, fresh powder. We safely crossed the log over the first branch of the river. Damien and I then dropped down to the gravel and crossed the second branch on a partially submerged, but less sketch log just to the left where the water was shallower.

From the river we easily followed the road into the abandoned ghost town of Monte Cristo. I was surprised at how much of the town is still standing. There are several small buildings, a train turntable and a few artifacts scattered about. After a brief break we continued past the trailhead sign and crossed the bridge on the left following the old Dumas Street. Along the road snow coverage became increasing consistent as we passed various signs notating where structures of importance once stood in the old town. The road petered into an actual trail beyond the sign for Glacier Basin (2.5 miles away).

We continued up the trail breaking free from the forest into an open valley enveloped in clouds and falling snow. Massive, craggy summits rose around us and we caught glimpses of the higher reaches as the winds intermittently brushed away the clouds. The trail gained elevation gradually at first, but near Glacier Falls the track suddenly reared upward. Damien and I climbed up steep trail and rocky blocks sometimes using the trees to assist the ascent. The blocks turned into slabs which were extremely slippery in the increasing powder. One of the gnarlist sections of slabs was protected by a permanent, rope handline which we very much appreciated.

After the high angle, tedious climbing following the valley around the back of misery hill, the grade finally eased. Instead, we now contended with 2 feet of soft, fluffy snow! Damien and I pushed through the snow with caution. There were sections of talus we needed to pass, and we fell into hidden voids abruptly on several occasions. Progress was exceedingly slow and tedious. The open basin we could vaguely make out through the thick snow and mist seemed to never grow closer as we followed the creek up-valley.

After what felt like ages of plowing through snow, the terrain opened into Glacier Basin. Through the low clouds and swirling snow, we could see Cadet, Monte Cristo and Wilman’s Spire engulfing the borders of the wintery basin. We crossed the running creek in a shallow spot and set up camp in the glorious amphitheater of craggy peaks.  The freezing level dropped and we hurried to put on more layers, breaking out our Feathered Friends Frontpoint jackets for the first time this season. Damien and I live for winter camping and alpine weather extremes! The first time we use the frontpoint jackets is always a splendid occasion for us!

Darkness never truly fell that night. The nearly fully moon reflected off the snow and mist giving the effect of mild dimming rather than true darkness. The clouds even lifted a bit and when we peaked out of the tent door at 9:30pm. We were able to make out some of the summits. But when we looked out again at 1:00 snow was falling fiercely and visibility had decreased to less than we had experienced all of Saturday. We wondered what would remain of our tracks. Some hours later we were awoken by the sound of avalanches on Wilman.

The snow still fell with vigor when we woke on Sunday morning and the temperature had decreased further. Damien and I plowed through over a foot of fresh powder to a large rock where we could get a better view of the route up Cadet. There was talus with hidden voids to negotiate, at least 2-3 feet of deep powder and avalanche potential in the gullies. Climbing seemed like a recipe for injury so we decided that we would return. Besides, getting down the Glacier Basin trail would probably provide plenty of technical travel! Damien and I even discussed the possibility of rappelling the steeper section of slabs.

Damien and I were in no hurry to leave the winter storm. The weather was just too beautiful for us to hurry out of the backcountry. Instead, we settled down outside, sitting on our packs and watching he snow whirl around us. Nothing could be more tranquil and perfect.

We did manage to finally rise to our feet and break down camp mid-morning. Both of us dreaded going down the Glacier Basin Trail, however, it wasn’t as horrific as we had anticipated. After Damien and I both slipped and fell hard on the first concealed slab, we discovered that we could simply glissade down the slick, smooth rock. Our tracks were, indeed, completely obliterated so we ended up plowing a new trail again, but it was easier descending and we made descent time getting back to Monte Cristo. The road was no longer snow free. The freezing level had dropped significantly overnight!

When we reached the river, Damien and I took the bridge over the first branch. We had missed the side trail leading to the dilapidated bridge on the way in. On the second branch we resorted to jumping rocks and crossing a small log (which Damien put in place for me as a courteous husband).  The snow-covered ground continued to the Trailhead (the snow line is at 1500 feet). A weekend of winter wonderland bliss! Ski and ice climbing season is nearing!

Heavy rain with flooding potential. Wicked winds up to 40 mph. Snow accumulating up to 1.5 feet. Sounded like a great weekend to spend some time in the mountains too us. This week a phenomenon that become known  as “The Big Dark” crept over Washington. More less, this referred to a massive storm system of dark clouds that stretched from China to the PNW. Three major storm cells were predicted to move through the region with the largest occurring late Saturday afternoon into Sunday. Damien and I believe that there is no such thing as bad weather in the mountains, only bad gear. Thus, armed with our heavy duty expedition tent and dressed from head to toe in goretex, we set our for our customary adventure on Saturday morning. We had to tame our ambitions with the incoming storm. Our goal was to hike to Trap Pass via the Surprise Lake Trail and PCT. If conditions allowed, we would continue off trail on the route to Thunder Lakes and perhaps get some scrambles in.

Rain fell lightly from the sky as we started up the trail. I had forgotten how many wooden steps there are on the first 1.5 miles. Stairs in the backcountry drive me completely insane and Damien repeatedly has to listen to me rant about how these man-made ascent devices do not belong on trails. At about 3000 feet the rain grew heavier and began to turn to sleet. Another 100 feet and we were walking in snow! The snow was greeted with great enthusiasm as it is always more pleasant to walk in a snowstorm than heavy, freezing rain. To our great, surprise and pleasure, it was accumulating swiftly too. Two hikers passed us on their way to Surprise Lake and before long their tracks were completely concealed under an inch and counting of fresh powder. By the time we reached the Trap Pass Junction we were walking through about 4-5 inches of fresh snow! Damien and I turned toward Trap Pass and, after a bit of searching for the trail under the deep snow, we located the endless switchbacks to the pass.

With the snow accumulating so swiftly, we began to doubt the wisdom of pushing beyond Trap Pass. Damien and I had traversed to the basin last year in similar snow levels and the entire route proved to be extremely sketch. We’d pushed through deep snow up to our noses just above a sheer cliff with no protection just to get into the basin. Once in the basin we stopped short of the lake due to partially covered talus full of dangerous holes. Last year, however, there was no snow falling. This year, with snow increasing in real time, the traverse to basin and Thunder Lakes would probably be even more dangerous. Still, we held off on making a final decision under we reached the pass.

The switchbacks from Surprise Lake joined with the PCT about 800 feet short of Trap Pass. Our progress was slowing significantly. The snow was now up to our knees! Damien and I did pack snowshoes, but we opted to just break trail with our boots. Looking back we should have taken the time to put them on! After what seemed to be an eternity of breaking a trench through the fresh powder, we crested over the horizon to Trap Pass. In the swirling mist and driving snow we could not make out the ridge traverse to Thunder Lakes, but we didn’t need to see it. We concluded based on the high accumulation rate and the thigh deep snow we had just trudged through that attempting the ridge was a unwise idea. Trap Pass would be our camp.

We set up the First Ascent Katabolic Tent in the most exposed section of the pass to see how it did as the weather worsened overnight and make things more interesting. Snow gathered with intensity on the fly as we got organized inside, but after about 30 minutes the fluffy snow turned to a frigid mix of hail and rain. Damien and I made camp just in time and avoided the most unpleasant type of precipitation!

Throughout the night, we were awakened by rain spattering boisterously on the roof and powerful, roaring winds ripping fiercely through the trees.However, not a single drop of water entered the tent, and the wall barely shuttered when the winds tore by. It was like sleeping in a bomb shelter. Damien and I were happy with our choice to bring the heavy tent.

The rain let up and clouds broke teasing us with momentary blue pockets shortly after sunrise the next morning. We took our time breaking down camp thinking that the storm was more short-lived than predicted. Damien and I were concerned about avalanche potential in the more open areas of the switchbacks on the upper sections of trail, but the snow was compacted from the rain, though still knee high. We were able to plunge step down a few switchbacks with ease. The snow dissipated at about 3000 feet. There were huge stretches of trail that had transformed into rushing streams and the creek was surging beyond the previous day’s levels. However, we made it back to the Trail-head without incident and under light showers at most. However, several minutes into the drive home a black cloud cloaked the skies and a monsoon of freezing rain poured relentlessly from above. Talk about good timing!

 

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!

 

 

Damien and I were really torn between two separate trips this weekend. We originally had our sights on doing the Spider Meadows Loop (38 miles) with a side trip up Cloudy Peak in 2 days for added spice. However, the more we studied forecast models the more unattainable it seemed. Weather called for about a foot of new snow and high winds on Saturday. Getting through the entire loop or even just getting to Lyman Lakes seemed as though it would be a bit of a stretch in 2 days. Instead we opted to journey to fairer skies Northeast in the Lake Chelan/Sawtooth Wilderness. Snow was expected Saturday, but only about an inch or two, and winds would top out at 35mph. Sunday promised to be clear with 10mph winds. As it turned out, our decision was the right one. Not only did the forecast pan out exactly as predicted (for once), but climbers in the region of Spider Meadows experienced blizzard conditions with 70 mph winds that tore their tents apart!

Damien and I hadn’t been to the Sawtooth Range before, so we were very excited to experience a new area. We followed the W Fork Buttermilk Trail (TH 4000 ft) through the forest. The elevation gain is gradual and barely noticeable until about 6000 feet where there are steeper sections and some switchbacks. Still, we considered it relatively tame. The snow line begins at 6500 feet with the forest floor fully carpeted in a layer of white. However, the snow depth was rather thin (1-2 inches) making the trail easy to identify. At 7000 feet the evergreens give way to a forest of golden larches in their prime. The snow depth also increased here to roughly 3 inches as the forest was much less dense. I don’t think I have ever seen so many larches at their peak autumn color in one massive forest before. The contrast of white snow against the golden yellow hues of the needles took my breathe away. The autumn/winter wonderland didn’t even look like something that could exist in nature. It seemed more like a fairytale as the snow crunched under my boots and I gazed up at the shimmering branches.

We broke free of the forest and crested sandy Fish Creek Pass in early afternoon. Immediately, now exposed to the elements, we were greeted by a blast of icy wind ranging from about 35-40 mph. However, the surrounding landscape spread out in front of me was so overwhelmingly spectacular that I couldn’t decide whether I wanted to stare with my mouth agape or put on more layers first! However, a massive burst of arctic air against my face brought be swiftly out of my trance and I hurried to slip on more clothes. Feeling warmer, I could focus on the landscape. Clouds were moving in again and soft snowflakes drifted around us in the powerful gusts. To my left, the sheer face of Star Peak angled impressively upward. To my right, the NE Ridge of Courtney Peak angled to the summit. I could see the Methow Valley far in the distance bathed in sunlight and woodlands below with the golden larches leading up to the pass. On the other side another forest of larches stood against the untainted white snow. Snowcapped mountains encompassed the horizon as far as I could see. Purely magical.

Damien and I braced against the wind and turned onto the SE Ridge of Courtney. We brought our full packs with us as they weren’t all that heavy and there is nothing wrong with a bit of training weight! The ridge is composed of talus and scree. There is a faint trail in places, but mostly we moved cross country following the ridge crest tending right. The light layer of snow didn’t cause too much difficulty, but we did have to step carefully as some of the talus sections were on the slippery side and the rocks were unstable. The most tedious section was the larger talus blocks about 250 feet from the summit. They seemed especially slick and prone to shifting.

When we arrived at the top, the clouds were blowing around us blocking the views. However, since the wind was moving the condensed air so quickly we did get intermittent moments of unobscured visibility. Below us were the Oval Lakes and Gray Peak. Buttermilk Ridge ran downward from the summit reaching a bouldery high point and then dropped again before leading to the summit of Oval Peak in the distance. However, we admired that view from only moments before it vanished again into the mist.

Fierce winds drove us off the summit after several minutes. Descending the ridge required care due, once again, to the slippery and instable talus. Fortunately, the going grew easier as we lost elevation. Back at Fish Creek Pass, the clouds moved away and the sun illuminated the yellow needles of the larches once more. Damien and I crossed over the pass and, after several steep switchbacks, walked cross country to the shores of Star Lake about 1/4 mile away (9 miles from the TH). Star Lake, beneath the flanks of majestic Star Peak, is one of the most regal alpine pools I have ever encountered. We walked to the far side and set up camp on the shore just across the outlet in the shadow of a stand of larches. Snow again fell from the sky as we set up the tent, but in the basin, there was no wind whatsoever! It was, however, extremely cold! I was very excited about the brisk temperature. Autumn and winter are my favorite seasons for a reason! Unfortunately, along with the cold also comes less daylight. It seemed like just yesterday that the stars didn’t arrive until 10pm!

Damien and I woke the following day before sunrise, per usual. Alpine starts are a trademark for us it seems. I think I’m mostly responsible for that. There’s just something about starting the day under the stars and watching the full performance of sunrise that appeals to me. Damien and I only needed to use our headlamps briefly as we made our way through the forest of larches to the upper basin less than a half mile away. Once the terrain opened up we found that the moon was shining so brilliantly that we could see better without the help of our lamps. From the base of the massive SW Ridge we found a decent climber’s trail (easy to spot since snow had drifted it) and followed it to the crest of the ridge. At this point the sky was beginning to brighten revealing perfect views of the Cascade Range. We followed a climber’s trail on the right side of the ridge, staying below a hump. The trail began to dwindle after the hump on the ridge, but it was easy to find our way staying on the talus and scree right of the crest. The sun began to stream through the sky making the larch wonderland below glisten like golden flames. The snowcapped peaks of the distance Glacier Peak Wilderness glowed a soft pink against the deep blue sky. Fluffy clouds picked up hues of lavender and orange as the sun rose above the horizon just out of view behind Star Peak. In all my years playing on the mountains this might have been the most spectator display of alpenglow I have ever witnessed.

The strange and awesome thing about Star Peak is that it is deceiving in all the best ways. The ridge from afar look gnarly, steep and almost impossible. However, the further we traveled along it the easier the ascent seemed to appear. And not only did it appear easier, but I would rate this scramble as more enjoyable than Courtney. Though longer, the rock on this route was exceedingly more stable, even with the thin layer of snow. The final scramble up some large blocks did not cause us any trouble either to our pleasant surprise.

By the time we reached the summit, the mountains were bathed in full morning light. Views stretched out before us. Courtney, Oval, Hoodoo, Buttermilk, Bonzana… I could go on forever naming peaks. Unlike the day before, Sunday was clear and windless. Thus, we lingered on the summit for quite some time. Note that care should be taken as the North side is a sheer cliff. Don’t lean over too far! Eventually we did manage to tear ourselves away and begin the journey back to the lake. The descent was relatively quick taking only 1.5 hours (half the time it took to gain the summit from camp). Back at the lake we packed up our gear and began the journey home. Fish Creek Pass was calm. What a difference a day can make in the hills. Conditions are always changing and it brings with it adventure. I get bored when the weather is too pristine sometimes. It’s better to add a bit of spice to make it interesting.

The walk out seemed endless once we left the larches behind. Such is often the case during long stints in the forest back to the car. In this case it about roughly 7.7 miles of green forest beyond the larches. However, on these woodland treks I always love to observe the changes in vegetation as the elevation decreases. The diversity of the forest never ceases to amaze me. Furthermore, it gives me an opportunity to reflect on the weekend and, in this case, how glorious our adventure into the autumn wonderland had been!

Damien and I haven’t really come to terms with that fact that autumn has arrived in the mountains. I believe the fact that only 3 weeks ago we couldn’t even sleep inside the sleeping bag because of how warm it was has really thrown us off! Thus, we did not question the weekend weather forecast as much as we should have. It looked rainy on the west side of the crest of the Cascades, but Washington Pass seemed to have a nice weather window of sunny to partly sunny skies. We saw this as a great opportunity to get in the rock climbing we’ve been craving since our return from the PCT. On the menu was Poster Peak (Blue’s Buttress) and North Early Winters Spire (Chockstone Route). We anticipated frigid temps, but figured that was all we would have to contend with forecast-wise. Unfortunately, neglected to factor in that we were climbing in Washington and not Yosemite!

When Damien and I arrived at the Hairpin Turn approach for Poster Peak the sky was cloudy and a heavy mist hung low in the mountains. This is normal for the cascades in early morning and it was especially not surprising since there had been some light rain the night before. The talus was barely damp and we expected the remaining, moisture and mist to burn off as the sun got higher in the sky.

After some bushwhacking we found the climber’s trail heading up the valley from the Hairpin Turn under the Liberty Bell Group. Autumn colors are coming to their peak with golden larches and brilliant red blueberry leaves painting the landscape. The route is straightforward and cairns guided us through the talus patches with ease. We turned off the trail beneath  gully and stream that lead off to the right granting access to the lower talus slopes of Poster Peak. There was still a fair amount of mist, but as we anticipated, it was beginning to burn off and patches of blue sky gave promise for a pleasant, sunny, fall day.

The talus beneath Poster Peak is not the most stable and care must be taken to not create rockfall bombs. We ascended the gully, circled left toward an obvious roof and went around the corner to the Blue Buttress belay ledge. As we were scrambling up the talus a light, intermittent sprinkle began to fall from the sky. There was sunshine at the same time and we still saw some blue ski. It seemed to be a simple, short lived sun shower at best. However, as we racked up on the ledge clouds closed in, engulfing the mountains and a steady rain began to fall. At first, we shrugged it off, thinking again that this was a brief event. But then the rain turned to heavy, whiteout snow. This gave us pause.

Damien and I really did not want to bail off a technical route for the second weekend in a row due to weather. Maybe it would improve in 30 minutes or so. We sat on the ledge with our puffies and began to wait, certain it would pass. After all, it was supposed to be sunny! It did not pass. In fact, the snow began to stick! The rock was also now saturated and dripping. After 45 minutes we threw in the towel. Even if the sun did come out it would take at least an hour if not more for the route to dry. By then it would be too late to attempt a 17 pitch route. We played with the idea of climbing up the peak via the descent route, but abandoned that quickly once we realized how rotten the talus was. Instead we headed back down to the car contemplating our Plan B.

Damien and I have xc skied around the perimeter of Goat Peak near Mazama every winter twice. Nonetheless, we had never been to the summit. It is a quick 5-mile hike and, though we always wanted to hike to the top, it was not a priority since our focus is technical alpine objectives and long backpacks. However, we had used half the day attempting Poster Peak, so a short day hike seemed to be the perfect way to spend what remained of the day.

We arrived at the trailhead midafternoon. Fifteen miles away from Washington Pass the sun illuminated autumn hues of gold, orange and red. Not a snowflake in sight. We journey up the trail feeling the crisp chill of the autumn air brush against our cheeks. Views across the valley and into the Pasayten were nearly immediate. The tread is surprisingly steep after the first mile. Luckily, even though we were in thr forest the trees parted every now and then providing glimpses of the Cascades and Methow Valley far below. At about 2 miles the trail reaches the top of the ridge leading to the Lookout and summit. Here views pour forth in all directions. West toward Washington Pass we could see thick rain/snow clouds blanketing the mountains. Blue skies and puffy, white clouds dominated the east. Typical Washington! We followed the gentle ridge through brilliantly golden larches to the Lookout. The fire lookout, which was used during the height of the Diamond Creek Fire, is locked for the season. However, climbing up to the lookout is unnecessary to enjoy the expansive views! Again, we made note of how turbulent Washington Pass looked. It appeared bailing was the correct choice. Our decision to bail from Poster Peak was verified further the following day as we drove past the Liberty Bell Group. The peaks and lower slopes were covered with fresh powder and Poster Peak looked particularly white!

 

Damien and I were excited to get back to uneven, unpredictable terrain inherit to mountaineering after 2 weeks on the PCT. With cool temps and no rain in the forecast after a week of precipitation and even some snow at higher elevations, we opted to go for the Ragged Edge (5.7) of Vesper and the NW Face/ N Ridge (class 4) of Morning Star. We had attempted to climb the Ragged Edge last year, but ended up having to bail due to the massive, unexpected line at the route. A new guidebook featuring the route had just been published which gained the area popularity it had never seen before. We hoped that all the hype calmed down after a year, but just in case we arrived at the TH at first light.

The trail to Headless Pass is notoriously rugged and very unlike the smooth trail of the PCT. The rocky, uneven terrain woke up the muscles I hadn’t used since climbing in California a month ago. We saw only 2 other parties as we journeyed up at ascending valley and both were headed to Mile High Club, an alpine sport route up a spire near Morning Star. Damien and I made impressively quick work of gaining the top of Headlee Pass, known very well for it steep, endless and short switch-backs up a narrow gully. Then we traversed across the scree and talus covered trail to the outlet creek of Vesper Lake.

Damien and I took a few moments to set up camp. On the way up to the pass we came across a couple going for the scramble route of Vesper, but still no technical climbers. After stowing our overnight gear in our tent (and repairing a pole!) we donned our harnesses and continued up the scramble trail through the lower benches and trees to the upper rock and slabs. Once on the rock, and some snow, we began the familiar traverse right around the mountain toward the notch that allowed access to the North Face of Vesper and the three technical routes. Upon rounding the corner, we received our first glimpse of the North Face with snow!

Damien and I expected a snow patch or two, but certainly nothing to this degree. The face itself was pretty clean, but the slippery heather ledges that access the routes, we covered with about 3 inches of fresh, white fluff. From our vantage point we could see that parts of the Ragged Edge definitely had some snow in the cracks and blocks. We traversed a bit further right to gain a better view of the route. Maybe we could work around it and somehow make due? We were aching to get back to roped rock climbing! However, with a better view of the route, we could see that most of it was caked with snow and probably there were lots of wet sections as well. But just maybe?…. we kept going back and forth, discussing our tolerance level for route spiciness. There was descent chance we would epic somehow, especially since there was no practical way to bail off the route. It would also be the stoutest 5.7 we had ever climbed in the backcountry.  Not to mention that the class 3 heather ledges were sketch already when they were dry. Snow covered heather would make things well, um, interesting. Still, we floundered back and forth. The urge to climb was so great that we couldn’t tear ourselves away. That is, we couldn’t tear ourselves away until a mini avalanche cascaded down the rock face. That made our decision black and white. I sure we would have ultimately backed off the route regardless, but seeing the avalanche made the decision process move much more swiftly!

We didn’t want to go up the standard class 2 scramble route up the south side. We had done that last year as an alternative and we really wanted to do something more technical. We decided to head directly up the West Ridge from the notch. This turned out to be a fun class 3/4 scramble on solid, enjoyable slabs and even some knobs reminiscent if Tuloumne Meadows! It should be noted that in many cases we purposefully chose to climb class 4 terrain. Most of the route had class 3 alternatives throughout.

We reached the summit of Vesper rather quickly and joined the throngs that had come up the South Side. It was early afternoon, so we lingered on the summit enjoying the expansive views and talking to the scramblers. Unexpectedly, we all noticed 2 helicopters flying below us nearby. This quickly got everyone’s attention and we peered over the summit block to observe. Was this SAR? It didn’t appear to be since the choppers were blue and white, not yellow. However, the one closest to us was flying as though searching for a place to land. What was going on? Finally, after a few attempts, the first helicopter touched down on the slabs on the shoulder of Big Four Mountain. About 5 people popped out and, to our astonishment, they began taking selfies and other pictures with their phones. Heli-camping? This gave us all a good laugh. The most expensive way to see the mountains on the Mountain Loop Highway indeed! Meanwhile, the 2nd chopper landed on the sandy shores of Copper Lake. Through my camera viewfinder I could see 2 people run out with what appeared to be environmental surveying gear. No selfies for them.

Damien and I descended the South side of Vesper. There were several inches of snow in places, but it didn’t cause any issues on the descent. Back at camp, we set up our sleeping bag as thick mist rolled into the basin socking us in under a white blanket of clouds. I’ve missed these brisk, autumn evenings! We filtered water from a small stream several yards further up the benches to avoid descending to the lake or outlet creek. By 6:30pm we were cuddled up in our sleeping bag. Sunset was only a half hour away. The seasons are changing!

The thick clouds lifted overnight revealing a sparkling array of stars. When morning arrived the cold, clear air felt uniquely bitter to us after a sweltering summer, but we appreciated it vastly. Our objective that day was to climb Morning Star Peak. This summit has a reputation for being a rather unpleasant climb with loose, rotten rock and bushwhacking. However, I read a report that claimed that this was only so of the standard East Route. The beta claimed that the NW Face/ N Ridge route was a fun, fast and easy class 3 scramble with about 50′ of class 4 on the summit block. This sounded like a good deal to us, especially since we were carrying a rope anyway for the exposed class 4 section.

Damien and I broke camp and descended Headlee Pass. From the final switch-back we traversed right over the talus field beneath Morning Star, following carins for the Mile High Club. The talus was not the best I have been on, but not the worst either. At least not yet! The carins led into a band of trees. On the other side of this band of foliage we left the Mile High Club approach route and headed straight up the NW Face. The going was relatively straightforward as we followed the wide gully system. The talus stability did diminish as we got higher and we took care to not climb parallel to one another. At about 4800 feet the gully curved right above a large clump of low trees and brush. We stashed our overnight gear here before moving on.

We followed a few carins over a small gully/drainage just beyond the trees and then once again, started to climb straight up. The already faltering talus and unstable, steep scree began to be replaced by heather steps and mossy, steep angled rock. We checked the beta to make sure we were on route as this terrain seemed rather sketch, but found we were right on track. Warily, we continued to follow the gully. Travel was tedious and calculated as we tried to step only on the small specks of dry rock between the thick, moist moss and insecure foliage. The angle grew sheer enough in sections that I am relatively certain it was class 4 and not 3. In addition, the run out became increasingly horrendous. An error here would be detrimental, if not fatal.

At 5900 feet, we reached a point where the run-out was so horrific and the moss so copious over the ever steepening rock that we decided it was time to turn around. In fact, we probably should have bailed earlier. Now we faced a new dilemma. How could we descend safely? The beta mentioned that it was possible to ascend to the summit block via brush. Could we go down that way? There was brush and trees on the edge of gully. However, when we ventured into the trees to explore we found them to be exceedingly dense and the ground to be nearly vertical dirt. Additionally, in the dense thicket we couldn’t see very far into the terrain. After a quick discussion, we concluded that the safest way down was, in fact, the way we had come. Although the terrain was sketch, it was familiar to us and we just had to reverse it. Naturally, we would have to move very slow and with caution to avert danger. We also knew there was a group of trees just above one of the worst sections we had scaled. I had seen a sling there. A rappel station.

It seemed to take an eternity, but we gradually and purposefully reversed route to the trees. First, we examined the brush directly beside the descent ledge we were standing on. However, the best tree there was much too narrow to be ideal. Unfortunately, this meant we would have to descend about 6 more feet to the thicker, overhanging tree situated in a area that felt much like a hanging belay anchor. With cedar branches in our face, and standing on slippery, high angle dirt we added two new strands of webbing and rap ring to the existing single point anchor. I cannot express how relieved I was rappel this final cruxy section. Normally, rappels are not my first choice, but in this case I was simply ecstatic!

Following the single rope (60m) rappel, we continued to double back toward our stashed gear. We celebrated as the terrain gradually grew more forgiving. Of course, route still pretty much sucked, but that was all relative compared to what we had experienced above. Damien and I finally returned to the trail 8 hours after we had departed. So much for a quick and easy climb!

The weekend was certainly not what we intended. Sometimes those kinds of weekends result to the best adventures. Climbing is not always about summiting. Sometimes it is about problem solving and the ability to be flexible as conditions changes. After all, the alpine is not a place of predictability!