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!

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!

 

After some high stress weekends in the mountains, Damien and I decided to take a rest and do a simple backpack with two straight forward scrambles. Our plan was to complete the Cradle Lake Loop and on the second day hop up to Bootjack Mountain, cross the ridge to Highchair, retrace our steps and then complete the backpack. We had attempted this itinerary in late October last year. It ended up being an out and back trip to Cradle Lake because of deeper than predicted snow. We didn’t expect to have this problem in July of course!

The trail begins at the very end of Icicle Road. It follows the Icicle Creek trail 1.5 miles through the forest until reaching a junction with French Creek Trail where we turned left. We continued through the forest though it opened every now and then as we followed French Creek for 4.7 miles until we came across the junction with Snowall Trail. We took a left and immediately arrived on the shore of a very deep French Creek. We both have vivid memories of having to cross this creek in October without pants with water nearly up to our hips and WOW had it been cold! Damien and I were both wearing shorts and with the water level being lower and the temperature being uncomfortably warm we were much more enthusiastic about this crossing in July. In fact, the water skimming the cuffs of our shorts as we crossed was downright refreshing!

We trekked onward following the trail as it switchbacks up through the forest. Not far up the trail we began to realize how poorly maintained the track was. Shrubbery hung over the trail scratching our legs as we gained gentle elevation through the woods. The trailed intermittently flattened out for stretches and the woods gave way to glorious wildflower meadows in the shadow of The Cradle…at least they were glorious at first glance. These meadows painted with ever color of an artist’s palette swallowed up the already thin trail. Several times we lost the track in the waist and sometimes shoulder deep grasses or flowers. Route finding skills came into play as we wandered through the meadows making our way up the valley. The sun also blasted its sweltering rays into the flora, which somehow seemed to have an insulating quality as we bushwhacked our way along the barely there trail. At least we had the relief of the forest every now and then even though the shrubs mangled our legs.

Finally, we reached the head of the valley and headwaters of French Creek. The trail turns left here and switchbacks up open hills of grasses and flowers. Most of the elevation gain had thus far been in the sections of trail under the cover of trees. Gritting our teeth we trudged up the exposed slopes drenched in what felt like gallons of perspiration. Finally, the small saddle in the ridge we where destined for came into view and we made the final grueling, long switchbacks to the high point of the trail (not including summits). The book said that this point was supposed to be 6100 feet, but my altimeter and GPS read 6500ish. Nevertheless, from this point we were rewarded with sprawling views of the Stuart Range and an inviting looking Cradle Lake about 250 feet in the basin just below us.

The trail to the lake wasn’t obvious so we just descended straight down the slope to the shore of the lake. We picked up the trail there and followed it around the right side of the lake passing a single tent, which surprised us. Damien and I continued past their camp in search of solitude and found a secluded place just past the creek at the foot of the talus ridge leading to Highchair Mountain. The mosquitos were hungry, but we were keen on getting into the lake. Quickly we stripped down to our underwear and stepped into the delightfully cold water feeling the sticky sweat drift away from our skin. Refreshed we swiftly set up our tent and dove inside away from the biting insects. There was no need to set up the fly so we watched as the sun drifted behind the mountains and mosquitos and flies buzzed hungrily just on the other side of the mesh. We still had to filter water so we armed ourselves with our puffies and long pants before venturing outside to the creek. After a lovely freeze dried dinner we settled in for the night completely exhausted.

 

We were packed up and walking in the cool morning hours of 6am the following day. Covered from head to toe in deet, we still had to deal with the buzzing of the biting bugs, but at least they didn’t land on us. As our beta instructed we followed the trail along the creek for one mile. At this point we were supposed to meet a junction with a trail on the left. This trail was on our GPS map as well so we were confident it would be there. It never occurred to us that there might be an issue. However, when we came to a junction is was marked off by branches as social trails often are in the National Forests. Confused, we checked our GPS which showed we had passed the junction. We figured we’d missed it and backtracked. Several minutes later our GPS showed we had passed it again! Now very perplexed, we diligently walked back to the blocked off junction. The trail on the map didn’t exist… unless it was this marked off trail and the GPS was off. Not knowing what else to do we stepped over the branches and followed the marked off trail.

Things seemed to go well for the first 15 or so minutes on the thin tread, but then the trail began to veer away from the direction we were meant to be heading and we found ourselves a quarter mile away from the “trail” we were supposed to be on. We had a good view of the sub-summit of Highchair and we studied the terrain. Damien suggested that we ditch the traditional route of summiting Bootjack and then following the ridge to Highchair. It would require a lot of backtracking anyway. It appeared we could climb Highchair via it’s West ridge and follow the next ridge to Bootjack making for a direct traverse. The appeal of a direct route and the fact that there didn’t seem to be a trail to Bootjack anyway made our decision easy.

Highchair was on the other side of the valley from the ridge we were on. However, the ridge is U-shaped so we traversed the ridge staying high and aiming for the saddle on the left of the sub-summit. The terrain was a mix of heather, forest, tall grass and blocky talus fields. The bushwhacking was minimal and terrain pretty decent for cross country travel, though it still slowed us a bit. The heat was debilitating though, especially for me. Just below the saddle we stopped in the shade by a snow patch and filtered water from a small melt stream in the talus. This was our last appealing filtering option for the day. We continued to the ridge and followed it to the blocky sub-summit (the rocks are red from iron content). From here we followed the talus and scree (class 2) to the summit. You’ll know you’re there because of the massive ammo box labeled “Summit Register” at the top.

From here views abound with Mount Rainier taking center stage. Also visible are Dragontail, Stuart, Argonaut, Sherpa, Cashmere, Adams, Eightmile, Daniel, Glacier… basically you can see a heck of a lot of peaks! It was also clear from this vantage point that we could have taken a direct route by climbing up the foot of the ridge from Cradle Lake.

We lingered for a long time, hesitant to begin moving in the sun again, but the ridge to Bootjack beckoned. We descended loose rock down into a larch filled basin just below the ridge and skirted the talus below the gnarly part of the ridge at the edge of the trees. Just before the ridge drops to its low point there is a small pond with tadpoles called The Oasis. We rested here in some shade. The water was kind of dirty here so we did not filter. Soon after this spot we rejoined the ridge and began the 1.5 mile walk to Bootjack. Every now and then a gentle breeze refreshed us, but mostly we cooked in the sun’s blaze. There is a faint climber’s trail that meanders on top of the rocky ridge, or just below it on the right side. About .3 miles away from Bootjack the ridge turns broad and grassy as the route climbs to an unnamed high point with some shady trees. The ridge then descends to a small rocky saddle (we skirted a gendarme on the left side to gain the saddle). From here it is a quick 150-200 foot class 2/3 scramble to the sub-summit and short traverse (class 2) to the true summit on the right.

We were greeted by 2 day-hikers taking in the view. Our entire route from the day before all the way to Cradle Lake and the cross-country route we had taken to Highchair and then Bootjack was visible from this vantage point. Of course, we had the same amazing views of the mountain range as well.

We were again reluctant to leave the summit, but we did coax ourselves up. Damien and I scrambled down the other side of Bootjack and joined a faint trail. There are several turns along the trail that can lead you astray. The general idea is to make sure you end up going down the opposite side of the ridge away from Bootjack and not into the meadows just below it. The Blackjack Ridge trail wasted no time in elevation loss. It plummets straight down for over 1000 feet with no switchbacks. Then when the switchbacks do start they are exceedingly steep. May kind of descent trail!

We reached the road in early evening and walked .25 miles back to the Icicle Creek TH. A little more of an exploration weekend than the easy  backpack with scrambles we anticipated. Not exactly a rest weekend, but still excellent!

This weekend varied from the norm for Damien and I in that we ventured into the wilderness with a team of seven. The trip was an official Mountaineers Climb led by Damien. We do our best to, at least once a season (weather has gotten in the way in past few years), take out a team that includes basic students that we feel are up to a sufferfest challenge. These year our objective was Mount Hinman via the Hinman Glacier. The climb doesn’t have much beta. Although the info we found made it clear that it wasn’t technically challenging. There was even a way to bypass the glacier altogether. The difficulty laid in the approach and the amount of time we decided to a lot for it (2 days instead of 3). Different beta seems to show different mileages, but regardless it was pretty clear that it would be LONG. In the end, the teams’ multiple GPS devices calculated 20 miles total on the summit day.  We knew that to complete what would clearly be a somewhat painful journey, especially on on the last day, we needed a team of positive people who could laugh in the face of fatigue. We assembled what turned out to be the dream team: Ivan, Jose, Jorge, Kara and Rich. Kara and Rich are basic students and this was there very first mountaineering trip. They’re determination and positive energy was remarkable.

We rallied at the Necklace Valley TH at 7:30am on Saturday. The first 5 miles of the trail is relatively flat and forested following the East Fork Foss River. We did, however, cope with stinging nettle thickly growing into the trail for some stretches. I have never run into the vegetation before, but will say that they are aptly named. There were mosquitos as well, though not many.

At mile five we crossed the river on a bridge and then over a long log bridge over a stream. Upon reaching the other side there is a short talus scramble marked by cairns before the dirt tread reappears and heads relentlessly up. Very Very much up! We could not figure out how long this wooded uphill section was. It felt like four miles to the lake, but the sign at the trailhead said it was 2. Our watches varied. Regardless we did eventually emerge tired and sweaty from the forest to the glistening waters of Jade Lake. The trail traverses along the left side of the lake shore. A good portion is submerged under the overflowing lake. Shoe removal was required, but rather refreshing in the afternoon heat. Once we reached dry trail again the team took a long break lounging in the sun and filtering water. The mosquitos increased here, but we released plumes of deet and it worked well. Damien and I indulged in a brief swim in the frigid blue water. I can’t describe how awake I felt after that!

We reluctantly departed Jade Lake and followed a less worn, narrow trail to the head of the valley. We passed several other lakes apparently, but the trail does not go to the shoreline of these. However, there was plenty of running water everywhere. At the end of the valley is 1200 foot pass call La Bohn Gap. We regrouped here and discussed out route options to scale the snow covered pass. It was much steeper than anticipated, especially toward the top. We opted to follow the snow just beside the talus on the left until it ended. Then we would move slightly right and ascend near the center rock island, keeping a far distance though to avoid the moat. Jose broke the track and we made steady upward progress. We started out without crampons, but at the top of the talus we put them on. The grade on the upper portion was about 50 degrees and very exposed over the large rock island and a slightly smaller one as well directly below us. We proceeded with caution and made it to the upper basin without a hitch.

We climbed over to the upper left bench of the basin and arrived at La Bohn Lakes about .25 miles away at 4:30pm. The area was mostly snow covered with several exposed heather patches perfect for camp. We all set up our sleeping systems and filtered water in the melted turquoise portion of one of the smaller lakes. It was difficult to focus on camp chores with the amphitheater of peaks that surrounded us. Truly a magical and secluded wilderness setting for basecamp.

After taking some time to get ourselves situated we re-grouped for dinner and to discuss the morning itinerary. We knew that it would be a 15-17 hour day and thus agreed (after some good natured grumbling) that we would be moving at 3:30am. We examined the portion of the route within view that we would climb by headlamp. It sat just right of the larger La Bohn Lake. After a short snowfield we would need to climb some blocky talus and rock just right of a small waterfall to gain an intermediate small snow slope. Then we were move left, scramble over a 10 foot headwall onto the next snow slope and heather benches until we reached the highest area in our field of vision. By then it would be light.

We all turned in before sunset, but even when darkness fell sleep did not come easy. The moon was so bright it never truly got dark. Heck we could barely see the stars in the moonlight! Our alarms rang at 2:45am.  It was shockingly chilly! The coffee crew boiled water (that is to say everyone but me) and we ate breakfast recounting our nighttime sleep experiences. “No one ever turned the lights out!” Jose said.

At 3:30am we promptly made our way to the blocky talus and began to climb. It is mostly secure climbing. However, some chunks of stone were wobblers and there were several more exposed technical sections that required contemplation, but never above class 3. We put on our crampons at the top of the steep talus slope (marked by a carin) and continued upward. There were 2 gullys that went up the 10 foot headwall guarded by a  small moat easily crossed. The students impressed us by climbing the headwall in crampons (first time) without any hesitation and listening carefully to our coaching.

The team moved to the upper slope and traversed left just 100-200 under the ridgeline crossing some talus bands and checking our GPS. We roped up into 2 teams at 6500 feet well before the glacier, but the traverse was about to get exposed. Split into 2 rope teams, we plodded along enjoying spectacular sunrise views of Sloan, Rainier, Glacier and Baring until we were below a section of the ridge that had a rocky high point. First we thought this was the summit and we made a beeline to the gap in the ridge below the rock pile. It turned out that this was one of many false summits, but it was the way to access the glacier. We crossed to the other side of the ridge and stepped onto Hinman Glacier (no crevasses). We traversed right (backtracking but on the opposite side the ridge). We then regained the ridge several yards from the true summit near some craggy, knife edge looking rocks (Damien placed a picket near the top where it got steeper). Here we un-roped and followed the mellow snow on the ridge to the rocky summit (class 2-).

It was rather windy on the summit so after some photos we took shelter in a moat near the craggy rock ridge for a snack before the journey back to camp. On the way back just after crossing on the other side the ridge we stopped to watch a entrancing performance as streams of clouds blew in fast moving ribbons over the ridge. None of us had ever seen anything like it. Retracing our steps was pretty straight forward and we were back at our tents at 9:45am. We took some time to chill, eat and nap before breaking down camp and departed at 11am for the long haul out.

Descending La Bohn Gap was a bit sketch at this hour. The sun had warmed only the top layer so it was not yet soft enough to plunge step. Yet it was not stiff enough for secure crampon pointing. We descended very slowly some of us using yesterday’s switchbacks and other front pointing face into the slope. The exposure and lack of experience on steep terrain got a little under Kara’s skin, but she never froze up or refused to go down like we’ve seen students do in the past. She listened to the instructors and with determination she made it down the gap. We were all impressed yet again.

From there was an endless march out. Ivan and I kept remarking of long it was from Jade Lake back to the flatter part of trail. We didn’t recollect it being so steep or so infinite! The group congregated at the creek where the flat section of trail began to filter water one last time and then spread out for the final trudge out. It was 5:00 and we had 5 miles to go. Jose decided he wanted to get back by 6 and took off. Damien followed not far behind. Jorge shouldered his pack not to be left out and swiftly disappeared into the trees. We would later find out that the three of them engaged in trail running with fully loaded packs making it back to the TH before the rest of us by 50-70 minutes. Ivan, Kara and Rich took of the rear leaving me to hike in the middle of the pack since, apparently, I have a middle speed gait. The 5 mile final slog through stinging nettle and forest was indeed endless, but I did enjoy the time to myself. It seemed like forever, but soon after the hoots of a barred owl echoed through the trees I emerged into the parking lot to see Jose sleeping in his trunk. Kara, Rich and Ivan appeared ten minutes later at about 7pm. It was the 16 hour, 20 mile sufferfest day we predicted. But I cannot describe how awesome the suffering especially with such an amazing group of mountain people!

 

We woke up at 3am for an early start of the Beckey Route.  However, after venturing out of our tent we quickly decided that a slightly later start might be wiser. It was shockingly frigid outside even though daytime temps were hovering in the 80s that weekend and just the day before we had been sweating bullets on SEWS, South Arete. We woke to our second alarm at 4:15am. The air temp had gone up a bit and we were confident the rock would be warm enough to handle once we arrived at the base of Liberty Bell. We departed from camp 300 feet below SEWS saddle with our harnesses giggling in the cool, comfortable air of early morning. Damien and I traversed high above the slabs on mostly snow (no crampons needed) below the lofty spires until we reached the infamous Concord-Liberty Bell gully. I recalled this gully being pretty rotten last time I had the pleasure of ascending it 4 years ago. We moved upward first on steep snow and then on dryish loose rock and gritty sand. Then up another steep snow slope. We were able to kick good steps and did not break out our axes. I wished the entire gully was full of snow so were could have avoided the crummy loose rock, but it wasn’t as wretched as I remembered from last time. Maybe I’ve gotten used to such conditions over the years. We ran into a team descending the gully on our way up. They had topped out at 3am from Liberty Crack. Turns out they  saw our headlamps when we first woke up and were confused as to who could be down in the basin so early/late!

We stashed our boots, poles and axes in a tree near the top of the notch and made our way over to the bottom of pitch 1. Getting to the pitch is a bit cruxy within itself. After moving around narrow ledges toward trees around the corner of Liberty Bell there is a very exposed 4th class traverse section on slabs to the start of the gully start of the Tunnel Pitch. When I climbed this route with Eric a few years back we had used the alternate finger crack start thus avoiding the exposed 4th class section. The moves weren’t difficult, it was just exposed.

I led the first pitch through the actual “tunnel” formed by chock stones. The pitch is easy to protect with cams. The most  intimidating section is when you find yourself just above the tunnel with legs on either side. Lots of playful movement and I somehow managed a knee jam (probably not necessary, but ulta fun). The pitch ends just to the right of the crux chimney by the tree.

Last time I climbed the Beckey Route I led the crux chimney pitch. To me it had been a rite of passage or sorts, so I wanted Damien to experience the pitch on lead.  The most difficult part of the chimney is tendency to get sucked too high into the chimney and getting your head stuck under the chockstones above. Stepping out onto the left ledge as soon as possible to critical. Damien was pretty psyched for the pitch and made astoundingly quick work of the crux moves! I was so proud of him! After easily moving off the ledge on big horns above the chimney he moved into the easier chimney system above and out of sight. I could hear the friction of his backpack though as he squeezed through. Backpacks are always an issue in chimneys!

Upon rejoining Damien at the top of Pitch 2 we had a short discussion about the chimney crux. The most difficult part for Damien was getting his leg on the left ledge. The move was awkward for him probably because of his height. For me I found the most difficult part to be reaching the jugs above the ledge (in the end I had resorted to some stemming variation followed by a pull-up/mantle). Personal attributes change how we view cruxes.

I put Damien on Belay for pitch 3 as well since I wanted to lead pitch 4. Pitch 3 requires the most route finding. The key is to follow features trending right until you reach Beckey’s fixed piton. Then make a sharp left onto the delicate finger traverse. Reaching very far left on this traverse will get you onto a more secure hold. Rope drag is a very real issue and unavoidable on this pitch and it is imperative to extend gear properly to avoid making it even worse.

From the top of the third pitch we moved the belay over some 3rd class terrain a few yards to a big platform just below the start of Pitch 4: the 5.7 face. This 10 foot,  blank and unprotected face is the original crux. Apparently Beckey ascended it by standing on his partner’s shoulders. I wanted to climb it because it’s a boulder problem in the middle of a mountain. There are decent ledges on the bottom so the lack of handholds isn’t an issue until those ledges end. The jug top hold is just out of reach of course. The best handholds available are not secure and include a mono-pocket with small thumb catch on the left and a barely useful small slopper n the right. The strategy I came up with was to grab these holds, smear hard, trust my feet and commit. The terrain after the slab is low fifth class to the summit. We were joined by the youngest team I’d ever run into into the alpine: two teenagers aged 17.  I wish I had started that young!

We hung out on the broad, spacious summit to enjoy the view for about 20 minutes. The sun wasn’t baking us yet (luckily we had the pleasure of climbing almost the entire route in the breezy shade) and we were in no big hurry. But we did eventually have to descend. Most people down-climb all of pitch 4 including the 5.7 slab. We opted to do the optional rappel. We down-climbed from the summit to descender’s left of the terrain/gear belay area just after the summit slabs and then turned left and down-climbed a few steps to a tree with slings. The key to this rappel is to not go straight down, Instead stay left and do not go directly down the face. You will end up on a small platform just around the corner from start of pitch 4.

From here we descended to the belay tree at the top of pitch 3 and then turned left moving down through the trees until our first chance to turn right. We walked onto a rock large rock ledge. There are chains on the wall here. We rapped down to a smaller ledge with chains (don’t miss them!) and made a final rappel to the notch. Make sure you direct yourself left on the final rappel or you will end up hoovering in space and not on the notch!

At the notch we gratefully removed our swollen, throbbing feet from the our tiny climbing shoes and savored the moment. A beautiful climb, on a glorious day in a spectacular setting! Plus, we were in the shade! Eventually we put on our boots and descended back to camp. The Beckey route was crowded and completely in the sun now. We had climbed it at just the right time!

Gear note: in addition to the standard Beckey Route rack (nut set, double cams  .4-3″) we found that a few mid-sized hexes proved to be very useful.

Damien has been climbing for nearly 10 years in the Cascades and somehow never got around to climbing the Liberty Bell Group. I am not sure how this happened, but this weekend we set out to remedy this situation by climbing 2 classics. The South Arete of SEWS was our first objective (the 2nd climb was the Becky Route on Liberty Bell). I climbed this route the summer of 2014 and have a trip report on it. My vision of climbing has changed since then and yearly conditions vary, so I feel that another write up is in order.

We left the Blue Lake TH at about 7:45am. There are big sections of snow on the lowest portion and after losing the boot track we decided to just push straight uphill and bypass all this lower, sweeping, annoying switchbacks. We linked up easily with the trail which was much more melted out about 250 feet up from the TH. Continuous snow began at the second clearing where the route turns away from the Blue Lake Trail and detours toward the Liberty Bell Group. There is a good bookpack from the steady steam of climbers heading into the basin. However, there are lots of creeks moving under the snow. Care should definitely be taken and there are hollow places where you can puncture through pretty deep. Damien and I cut off from the main track and set up camp in a flat area about 300 feet below the SEWS Saddle. We didn’t see much point to camping in the car like most people do. Then we re-joined the track and headed up the snow covered slope to the saddle.

The top of the saddle is melted out with plenty of space to prep for climbing.There were already a bunch of teams on the route. We knew the 5.6 moderate S Arete route is very popular and we were prepared to wait. Damien and I geared up and hung our shoes and poles in the trees out of reach from the goats. I wanted to lead the first pitch since I recalled it being kind of bouldery. The first pitch is the crux and has a move or two that is deemed to be much more difficult than the 5.6 it is rated. I’d have to agree. After some easy moves using a flake you have to step out onto the slab and smear hard on almost nothing while you hands are on awkward and insecure holds. Add the fact that the rock was sweating from the heat and no amount of chalk would help with friction made this section even more challenging. Once passed this part though climbing returned to mid-class 5. I belayed Damien up from the tree at the top of the pitch. There are also chains to the left if one prefers though those are really for rapping.

Damien led on pitch 2 which started in a blocky, low fifth class gully. At the end of the gully is a fun 5.4 chimney which can be awkward with a pack on. The top of the chimney is the end of pitch 2 and the start of easy climbing. Damien and I chose to Simaul-climb the remainder of the route. It is basically all class 3/4 with a few low class 5 moves sprinkled in here and there. Unfortunately the team of three in front of us pitched out nearly everything which slowed us down quite a lot. I think we might have made it to the summit an hour and a half earlier otherwise. Regardless, it was a great opportunity for us to practice efficiency and simaul-climbing skills. I remember that last time I did this route I was pretty disappointed due to all the low class climbing pitches, but this time I knew what to expect and was able to appreciate the climb as a fun, low-stress, warm up for the alpine rock season.

The summit block is a V0 slab boulder problem which delighted me as I didn’t recall that. Damien and I rested in the shade a bit as the day was growing grossly hot and increasingly uncomfortable. Eventually, we ventured back out into the sun for the descent. Since Damien led the simul-climb up, I led down. Basically to descend you reverse-route down-climbing until the top of Pitch 3. Then we did 3 rappels on trees or chains (all directly on the ascent route), back to to the saddle. Enroute another rappelling team recognized us from the summit of Mt Hood last year when we had climbed Leuthold! We had talked to them for some time, but I didn’t remember their faces. We were surprised they recognized us!

We plunge stepped easily back to camp to enjoy an evening beneath the spires.

Hail? Snow? Clouds? Pea Soup fog? A touch of sun? Of course this is the best time to go out climbing! Damien and parked at the bottom of snowbound Smithbrook Road near Stevens Pass Saturday morning. Huge, fluffy, Christmas flakes fell heavily from the sky as we began to AT ski up the road. Our goal was to ski Lichtenberg Mountain and Mount McCausland; and break in our new Helios 88 skis.

At the firsy switchback we cut left directly into the forest. We crossed a creek shortly thereafter using a questionable snow bridge (it had some old tracks on it) and then broke trail uphill in the general direction of Lichtenwasser Lake. Most of the route was general switchbacks though the forest, but we did boot-pack a particularly steep section of trail for about 10-15 minutes. Upon reach the frozen lake the beta describes to choices. The first option is to the  skier to go directly to the base of the Saddle between West Summit and True Lichtenberg and ascent straight up to the saddle. However, if this saddle is shrouded in cornices the best alternative is to climb up to the ridge a few feet to the right of the lake an ascend gradually to the summit block. A clear view of the saddle was blocked by the trees so we opted to follow the ridge. The ridge is pretty forested at first but begins to open as was elevation is gained. The snow stopped and clouds lifted from time to time affording us views of the summits around us and all the way down to Smithbrook Road. We were also eventually able to get a view of the saddle, which did, indeed, have a huge overhanging cornice on it. We were able to easily switch back up most of the ridge, however, the first half of it did have about 3 head-walls what required us to remove our skis and kick-step up.

As we neared the rocky summit block on the end of the ridge we were able to make out that this way up was unfeasible due to cornices. We decided to traverse to the right about 100 feet below the summit. We found that the ridge on the other side directly next to the peak did not have a cornice. We removed our skis and began to kick step up the slope. Unfortunately, as Damien above me neared the summit the slope angle increased and snow began to sluff off down the slope to a concerning degree. We decided that it was unsafe to continue. We continued our traverse coming to a small flat basin 200 feet below the summit and ridgeline. The ridge here was again guarded by a substantial cornice. There was a high rocky high point in the ridge that did not have a cornice. Maybe we could find a way around that area? Our minds were getting jumbled and it was getting on to late afternoon. We elected to make camp in some tree in a high place away from the cornice collapse run-out. The we set off in the evening to attempt Lichtenberg again. We climbed up the to cornice free rock face and poked around to see if we could get around the right of it but there was a cliff. There was a small area to the left of it that did not have a cornice and some tree provided stability even though the slope was steep. We tired this way and found the snow to be more stable at this aspect. Finally we gained the ridge! We from we simple walked along the ridge staying away from the corniced edge to the summit block. Of course where we arrived there was pea soup from and hail pelted us! But after several tries and some route finding we finally gained the summit!

About 2 more inches of snow fell overnight and we woke to flurries early the next morning along with thick fog. We carried studies several pictures of the the descents from Lichtenberg and our topos and discussed our observations. We needed to get to the saddle between Lichtenberg and McCausland. However, the direct line looked to be a cliff from the maps (we could not see the actual line). Descending in the Lake Valhalla direction is very steep and had some terrain trap cliffs that Damien recalled from the summer. Descending to the valley just below where were camping seemed like the best bet, but which line? The photo was unclear as to which way presented the fewest terrain traps and we were unfamiliar with the slope. In the end we settled on a wide gully that seemed to have the lowest slope angle int he picture and map. As it turned out we took the only way down that did not come to a narrow 50 degree chute or massive cliff headwall. Planning and discussion pays off. We put our skins back on in the valley and headed through the open forest to the saddle between Lichtenberg and McCausland. Gaining the saddle was pretty straightforward and were even have bits of sunshine. From there we headed straight up the broad mostly open ridge to the summit of McCausland. And as luck would have it the sun came out as we prepared to descend eliminating the white light. We skied down to the saddle and then back down into the valley. The snow was difficult to manage as we lost elevation and it became heavy and saturated. But ti was great for Damien to build a snowman! We reached Smithbrook Road near the Lake Valhalla summer TH and skied the road back down the the car. Two more summits!

 

 

Another weekend with high avalanche danger, only this time the danger was high even below the treeline! I don’t think I’ve very seen that before. We knew we have to be very cautious and decided on Lake Stuart since we recalled the trail being very gradual and off any major avalanche path. We started up Eightmile Rd. Unlike last week when there was a good trail stamped out there was only a fairly new and uneven footpath in (not snowshoe) as we ended up breaking msot of the track on your own through very heavy and saturated snow. It was clear there had been rain over the week. At one point a snowmobile passed up. Further up at about 2 miles down the road they left their sled and began to skin as well which gave us a nice break. They stopped at the Eightmile Lake TH though and we once again broke trail the rest of the way to the TH.

No one had been on the Lake Stuart Trail for a long time. No tracks. We didn’t run into many issues though and we were ablwe to stay on the trail. The biggest problems was our ski tips getting jammed under heavy, wet piles of snow and then having to dislodge them. The large bridge crossing over Mountaineer Creek was pretty sketch. It snow was piled high about the railing, probably 2-3 feet and it was well cornices. I highly suggesting removing skis for the crossing. Luckily no one went for a swim. From there the trail steepens but we were able to stay mostly on track though huge piles of snow on the trail and downed trees made for some interesting route finding. We finally arrived at the junction with Colhuck Lake Trail and the trail evened out a bit. Shortly after the junction (stay right) there is an open area (a swamp in the summer) where the trail disappears. The key here as we learned last year  is to go in the clearing for several yards and then head right into the trees to find the trail.

By now the snow was beginning to turn into cold rain and we were pretty tired from plowing our way through heavy snow. But it was pretty cool to be the only people that had ventured this far! We finally broke out of the trees and into Stuart Meadows. On a clear day there are great views of Stuart, Argonaut, Sherpa and Colhuck. Of course at that moment they were hidden in the clouds. Ahead we could see the high Plateau where Lake Stuart was nestled. the slopes looked a bit steeper than we recalled. We also observed a long avalanche slope topped with cornices that drained right into the middle of the meadow and onto the trail. We decided that our destination would be the meadows, about .75 miles short of the lake.

Damien strung up the tarp in some trees on the edge of the meadow and used two skis lashed together to drain the fabric. Ot kept up from having to stay inside the tent all evening which was great. The rain/sleet continued to fall from the sky most of the night and it was accompanied by extremely loud gusts of wind that kept waking me up.

But when we woke up we were surprised to unzip the tent to calm bluebird skies and a full panorama of mountain views. We enjoyed a pretty leisurely start to the morning, reluctant to pack up and head out. It waking up to views like this that make trudging through cold rain worth it! We were able to follow our track back out. The challenge was getting down the switchbacks from the junction to the bridge. The deep track through the heavy snow made turns nearly impossible and the ski trips kept getting hung up in the thick, wet snow. It made for some impressive face-plants on my part!

Eventually we found our way back over some new downed trees back to Eightmile Rd. We didn’t remove our skins until after the uphill section ended near Eightmile Lake TH. From there is a pretty much a fast glide all the way back down to the bottom at Icicle Rd. A nice change from plowing through thick snow!

 

 

 

This past weekend was a great example that avalanche predictions are just that: predictions. Saturday and Sunday were forecatsed moderate so we decided to try for Eightmile Mountain, a peak that has very little beta and seems to be rarely attempted especially in summer when it is an arduous bushwhack. It was supposedly a nice AT ski though. The Eightmile Road was crusty, but once we got on the trail conditions were good. It was even sunny which was not it the forecast making for a lovely bluebird day. However, we ran into two skiers coming from the lower slopes of Cashmere. They were pretty shook up as they’d been knocking down 8 foot slabs. We made a mental note. There were a few old, mostly concealed snowshoe tracks for the first 1/2 mile, but those petered away and we were left to our own navigational skills. Route finding was pretty straight forward and I think were were able to remain on the trail up until Little Eightmile Lake. We noted some shooting cracks though as we skied along.  Things got a bit challenging navigating through some boulders with hidden holes and ascending the final slope to the lake which was rather bushwacky through dense trees. We should have ascended on the far left of the slope where the trees were more open. Either way we manged to make it to the lake as clouds closed in a snow began to fall. We set up camp about halfway around the frozen lake so we’d be closer to the start of the route in the morning. At this point we were questioning if the avalanche danger was truly moderate.

It was still snowing the next morning. Throughout the night Damien, counted the rumble of 6 avalanches and a 7th one went off soon after we woke up. Clearly things were not moderate and we made the call not to make an attempt the summit. We still took a tour around to the other side of the lake to get eyes on Eightmile Mountain. We observed massive wind loading on the slopes of all the mountains in the area which made us confident that choosing to not climb had been a good decision. We packed up and left mid-morning under clearing skies following the faint tracks nearly covered from the heavy snow. Everything was pristine with the fresh 5 inches of powder. Tranquil and truly a winter wonderland. We did find that the new snow was very sticky when we removed our skins to ski down the abandoned road back to Eightmile Rd.  It was pretty much a tripping hazard. Back on the main road though we were able the snow powder covered up yesterdays crusty surface so we had a descent ride back down to the car. We heard of several avalanches incidents that had occurred over the weekend when we got home/  Sometimes observations are the best ways to mitigate disaster.

We were pretty happy to finally get out again this weekend. Illness and some crappy weather had kept us from our adventures the past few weeks. This was supposed to be an AT ski to Park Butte. However, we discovered that unlike last year, the snow began about  one mile from Baker Lake Rd at The Mt Baker NRA Sno-Park at 1400 feet. Basically this added about 5 miles to the trip which, of course, led to things going behind schedule. Skinning up the FS Rd 12 & 13 went pretty quickly (8 miles) and we arrived at Schreibers Meadows TH at about noon. Everything was pretty well groomed from the snowmobiles and the snow itself was in good condition allowing for nice skinning. Weather wise, it was cloudy with some intermittent snow and cold rain. Lots of motorized recreationalists were out and about, but all were polite.
From here the snowmonile track continued into the meadows and the grade steepened quit a bit. It looked as the though Sulpher Creek had flooded recently. It looked like the snow around the creek hand be carved out into a deep canyon. Luckily, the snow bridge was still in and allowed for safe crossing. In fact I think it was better than last years bridge since it was wider. We continued to follow the snow mobile track along the moraine and smaller creek until in turn right and headed to the rolling slopes of lower Mt Baker at 4,500ish feet. At this point we left the trail and continued to follow the creek along the moraine looking for a place to cross. We floated well on the snow.  However, snow began to fall harder at this point and it was sticky crud that stuck in huge blocks to our skins. We tried glop stopper, but it didn’t make a difference. Instead we intermittently banged on our skis with our poles. It was during one of these banging sessions that I managed to snap one of my poles clean in half. Marvelous! At this pointed we examined the situation…. and options for fixing my pole. It looked like there would finally be a place for us to cross the creek several yards away. However, with increasingly less visibility due to the heavy snow and slow going due to the sticky conditions we decided that trying to scale the moraine and ski to Park Butte would prove pretty fruitless. We knew from our Pinnacle Peak attempt a few weeks ago that sticky snow building on skins is like skiing wearing cinder blocks and decreases speed to a snail pace crawl. Damien was also in a lot amount of pain. At that point the reason was unknown, but we would find out the next day that he had shingles.  With all these factors taken into account we decided to call it a day at 3:45 and set up camp near some trees.
 
Lots of snow fell overnight (maybe 5 inches) and we woke up to it still falling the next morning. Damien splinted my pole using our spoons and athletic tape. If you recall last year his binding broke on the way to Park Butte. Way does gear always break on this trail?! What took us 7 hours to ski up (14 miles) took all of 2 hours to descend. The snow was in good condition all the way to the bottom and provided a fun ride. We lucked out in that only had to ski through freezing rain for about 15 minutes too!