Forbidden Peak (Washington), Sahale Peak (Washington), South Early Winters Spire (Washington)
By: Tom Randel
You've all done alpine start drill: up at 4:00 AM, forcing breakfast downand packing in the dark; leaving at 5:00 AM. Only this time it was different. Iwas going to get a shower in that rushed hour in the dark. I wasn't heading fora mountain, I was heading for an airport. I met Rick Beatty and Ellen Holden inthe lobby of the Ontario airport at 6:00 AM on June 29, still bleary eyed afterfour hours of sleep. After the flight to Seattle, renting a car, and stopping attwo ranger stations for information and permits, by late afternoon we foundourselves at a gate blocking further progress on the Cascade River Road. It wasstill early spring in the Cascades, and the winter washouts on the road had notyet been repaired. However, it was still close enough to the solstice that itstayed light past 10:00 PM. We made dinner and repacked our packs in thepullout, then hiked the remaining three miles to the end of the road, arrivingwith plenty of time to set up camp and get to sleep early enough to get a fullten hours. After that long day, we all needed it.
The second day of our week-long trip found us hiking in to Boston Basin. Theapproach is relatively short, about 3,000 feet of gain, but it's all throughdense forest. It is a climbers' trail, not maintained by the forest or parkservice. As a climbers' trail, it does what you'd expect. It goes straight upthe mountain. We found ourselves grabbing tree roots to avoid slipping in themud, our 50-60 pound packs trying to pull us back down the mountain. Because weknew we had tons of daylight left, we took our time. We didn't want to wearourselves out before our first objective, the West Ridge of Forbidden peak. Weset up tents on the only two snow-free tent sites in the low camp in earlyafternoon. The higher camp was still entirely snowed in.
We were able to see almost the entire route along the west ridge from camp.We watched a group of six from the Mountaineers slowly make their way down. Whenthey passed our camp on the way out, it was clear they had an epic. Six peopleis too many to take on a climb like this, especially when some are novices. Wegot our first bad news when the leader went out of his way to come over to usand emphasize that two ropes are needed for the rappels, and that the rappelstations in the couloir are hidden by all the snow. Since we only had one rope,we debated alternate plans, only to be saved by two other climbers arriving incamp late in the evening. The leader of the Mountaineers group had given themthe same information, and they were eager to team up with us for the descent. Atthis point, Rick opted out of the climb in order for the four remaining climbersto be able to move more efficiently.
We had a true alpine start for Forbidden. We woke up at 3:00 AM and leftaround 4:30. There are three segments to the climb on Forbidden. There is asmall, unnamed glacier to cross (several times larger than the Palisade glacier,but not big enough in the Cascades to warrant a name), a steep snow couloir toclimb, then several pitches of rock along the arete that forms the West ridge.It took slightly less than two hours to cross the glacier, crunching over firmsnow, all of us satisfied that the snow bridges were still strong enough to keepus from falling into any crevasses. As the sun rose, we eyed the cloudsstreaming over the summit and the West Ridge. We were all doubtful of summitingat this point. The ridge is narrow enough that strong winds would blow us off.Throwing a rope for a rappel would have been impossible.
There was enough winter snow remaining that we were able to go around thehuge bergschrund by climbing a snow field to the left of a large rock thatmarked the border of the 'shrund. Once above the 'shrund, we were very aware ofthe exposure as we traversed steep snow across the top of the giant gap to thebase of the couloir. The snow was still firm enough in the couloir to requirecrampons (the only time on the entire trip that we needed them). The guide booksays to climb the snow and ice to within 150 feet of the top of the couloir,then move out to class 4 rock. There was so much snow left that we were able toget within 15 feet of the top before having to make a few moves on third classrock (still wearing plastic boots and crampons). Magically, the howling windsstopped just as we topped out of the couloir.
We switched to rock gear at this point. Ellen's and my plan was tosimul-climb as much as possible. I took the lead as I had rock shoes and Ellenhad left hers in camp. The ridge consists of several large steps, with fifthclass moves (up to 5.6) to get around them, and very exposed third and fourthbetween. The arete is truly spectacular. It really is a knife-edge ridge. Atsome points we were straddling it; at others, we were doing hand traverses alongthe top with two thousand feet of air beneath our feet. This is what earns thisclimb a place in the "Fifty Classics."
We made such good time simul-climbing that we switched to normal belays twopitches from the top. The plastic boots didn't seem to slow Ellen down one bit.We got to the summit about 10:00, 5 '/2 hours after starting from the low camp,not bad since the guide book says 6 to 8 hours from high camp. The weather wasso nice and the view so incredible that we spent nearly two hours on the summit.
The descent was straight-forward. We rappelled the steps and either belayedor third-classed the lower angle terrain between them. At one third class move Itold Ellen that if she fell I would not mount a rescue; instead I would comeback with a body bag. It is a very airy ridge. One single and two double roperappels got us down the couloir. We carefully traversed across the top of the'shrund, this time sinking and sliding on the slushy sun-warmed snow. Rick metus at the top of the glacier with extra water, and we made it back to camp inabout half an hour. We had had fourteen hours of climbing (including two at thesummit), yet we still had several hours of daylight left to relax and makedinner. All in all, a very rewarding climb.
Our next objective was Sahale Peak. Since we had chosen the lower camp inBoston Basin, we could do this without moving camp. Because we felt that Sahalewas just a glacier walk up, our alpine start for this peak was 10:00 AM. Thisturned out to be too late, as the warmer, wet snow in the afternoon is moreprone to avalanche. We followed the dotted line in the snow left by previousclimbers across the Quien Sabe glacier and got to the Boston-Sahale Col in goodtime. There were very few crevasses along the route we had chosen. We did haveto cross some avalanche paths, however, that had come down from the area ofShark Fin Tower.
Things started to get tricky when we got to the bergschrund at the top ofthe glacier. The old tracks crossed a small and weak looking snow bridge. Wewere all skeptical of the strength of this bridge, checking it out from aboveand below. Rick tested it by poking his ice axe through it. When he could seecompletely through the hole he made, we knew we had to find another way tocross. We checked out some other bridges and finally crossed at a place that wasnarrow enough to make a big step all the way across to a foot-hold on the otherside, then scrambled up the steep snow wall above the 'shrund.
Safely across, we now turned our attention to the final ridge leading to thesummit. The guide book calls this ridge third and fourth class rock. This wasnot the case, as we were still early enough in the season for the entire ridgeto be covered with snow. There were huge cornices to our left (on the oppositeside of the ridge from the glacier we had climbed) and steep, loose snow on theright. We could see cracks forming where the cornices were getting ready tobreak off. We knew we had to stay to the right of these cracks, but that put uson steep, avalanche-prone snow. We all agreed that we would have to do thisridge roped up.
Ellen took the first lead, as she is the lightest and least likely todisturb the cornices or loose snow, with Rick in the middle and myself trailing.She cautiously made her way along the ridge, following the narrow path betweenthe cornice cracks on the left and the steep snow on the right. There was ahidden crevasse at one point. Ellen fell in to her hips. Rick and I each tried adifferent crossing point, but we fell in to our hips as well. Finally the snowalong the ridge got so loose that Ellen thought it would be best not tocontinue. As we were very close to the summit, I ventured forth and led thefinal few feet to the top, with both Rick and Ellen acting as a belay in casethe snow slid out or a cornice broke off from under me. I made the final easyrock move to the summit and immediately clipped myself off to a sling that wastied around a rock. I then belayed Ellen and Rick from the top.
We had two reasons to get off the summit quickly. The loose snow was onlygetting worse and we wanted to descend before everything slid down the mountain.It was 2:00 or 3:00 in the afternoon, and there were several more hours ofpotential snow loosening ahead of us. We even heard a large slide directly belowus. The other reason was that we had just caught our first glimpse of a stormbrewing in the west.
We decided that it would be best to send the two heavier people down firstwith a belay from the rock anchor on top. I went first. When I got a full ropelength out, past the worst of the loose snow, I buried my axe as an anchor asbest I could. Rick then followed, using a prusik as a self belay on the fixedline. When Rick got to half-rope, he tied in with a middle man knot. At thispoint, Ellen untied from the rock anchor and the three of us down-climbed therest of the ridge tied together. We each set off several small slides as wenavigated the ridge line. Being first, I set off the most, with one of thembeing quite large. These were all shallow slides, only going as deep as the sunhad warmed and softened the snow.
When I got to the crevasse that we had all fallen in, I actually got downand crawled, spreading my weight out as much as possible. It worked! Soon wewere above the bergschrund. This we crossed the easy way: we jumped. One personjumped, one set an anchor and one person belayed the jumper with a boot-axebelay. The person not actually belaying got to snap a picture as we cried "one-two-three"before we leapt. We quickly made our way down the glacier, out of any potentialavalanche paths, before we had lunch. We looked back at our route and marveledat all the slides we had set off.
We thought for sure we'd get rain once we got back to camp, but it nevercame. We made our dinner watching the sun set through the rain that was west ofus. The weather looked so bad that we took everything we had into the tents incase it was raining when we had to make breakfast and pack up for the hike. Itnever happened. We actually got quite lucky. We were able to hike out, getshowers, drive to a car-camp and make dinner before it started to rain. Itrained all night.
It was now Thursday. We had completed what we called trip 1 and were readyto start trip 2. Our objective for trip 2 was Shuksin, a large glaciatedvolcano. It was still raining off and on, so hiking in was not even discussed.We spent the day as tourists in North Cascades National Park, checking out thedams and power stations that provide power to Seattle, touring the visitorcenter, etc. During a brief clearing, we made a hot lunch over our stoves andspread wet tents out to dry in a parking lot. No one seemed to care.
On Friday, we headed to the Trail head for Shuksin. It was still rainingintermittently, and the peaks were still shrouded in clouds. The weather reportcalled for clearing the next day, so we debated hiking in anyway. We wereconcerned that there might have been enough new snow to make summiting the nextday an impossibility. We didn't want to hike in if we weren't even going to havea shot at the peak. While we were waiting at the Trail head, a large group,guided by AAI, came out. They were drenched, soaked to the skin. They told usthat the trail was so bushy they got soaked just brushing up against the plants,let alone the rain. That was enough for us. We pulled out the guide book andlooked for something we could do in one day on the east side of the range,presumably out of the rain. Our flights left Sunday, so we only had limited timeleft.
We found what we were looking for. The South Early Winters Spire sports aneight pitch, 5.4 arete. The guide book claims the route is spectacular for itsrating, with tremendous views in an incredible setting. That was enoughmotivation for us to get out of the rain. We drove through the entire park (onlytwo to three hours) to get to the east side Trail head, and sure enough, thisside of the range was nearly cloud free. We still had plenty of daylight left,and even though this is a one day climb, we decided to hike in for threereasons. One, the Trail head was right on the main highway, two, it would makethe summit day that much shorter, and three, we didn't have anything else to do.
We were able to find a camp, despite the guide book's poor (i.e., completelywrong) description of the approach. Being considerably higher that we werepreviously, this was our only night camped on snow. It was also our coldestnight, dropping below freezing. We had hoped for an early start, but it was justtoo cold. Rick opted out of the climb for two reasons: it was too cold for him,and there was a group of four climbers ahead of us.
Ellen and I climbed the approach on very cold and firm snow. We startedabout 8:00 and it was still very cold. Once we got to the base of the rock atabout 10:00, it had warmed up quite a bit. We were eager to get ahead of thegroup of four. They passed our camp about an hour before we left, and they werestill gearing up for the climb when we arrived at the base. They said theyclimbed fast, but we thought otherwise. Signs like huge packs, even huger racks,and bicycle helmets clued us in to their true climbing abilities. I startedclimbing before their first leader had made a belay. Ellen passed the followerabout halfway up the first pitch. We didn't see them again until we were halfway down the descent, and this included almost an hour on the summit.
We were very disappointed in the route. It is not, as the guide book claims,spectacular for its grade. There is a move or two of 5.4 on the first pitch andthe second pitch has a move or two of low fifth class. The third pitch is fourthclass and the rest of the eight pitches are third or even second. Ellen and Isimul-climbed the whole route and made only one belay. Had we known that theupper pitches were so easy we'd have stashed the rope at the top of the thirdpitch, but while simul-climbing it is more efficient to just climb through easysections than it is to stop and belay them, so we stayed roped up all the way tothe summit, hoping that the route would become fifth class again. I don't knowhow this route made it into "Selected Climbs in the Cascades.
On the descent, we third classed it all the way past the top of the thirdpitch. Three short rappels got us back to the base, and a short hike down thesnow got us back to camp. Once we got back to camp, we found that our packs weregone! Not to worry, Rick had carried them out for us. We made it back to thecars in time to drive back into the park and get showers before we made dinneron a picnic table. Sunday dawned clear, and we re-packed our bags for theuneventful drive back to Seattle and the flight home.
If you ever visit the Cascades, be aware that July is still very early inthe season. Be prepared for lots of snow, but usually mild temperatures. July inthe Cascades is like May in the Sierra. As for the weather, I can give you someforecasting advice. If you can't see the mountains, it's raining. If you can seethem, it's gonna rain.
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