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Ascent of Snowfield Peak on 2012-07-08

Climber: Greg Slayden

Others in Party:Edward Earl
Date:Sunday, July 8, 2012
Ascent Type:Successful Summit Attained
    Motorized Transport to Trailhead:Car
Peak:Snowfield Peak
    Location:USA-Washington
    Elevation:8347 ft / 2544 m

Ascent Trip Report

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Saturday, July 7, 2012:

Our goal this weekend was Eldorado Peak, but when we arrived at the Marblemount Ranger Station at 8:50 AM we discovered that all permits for the Eldorado Zone of North Cascades National Park were taken. Surprisingly, permits were available for Sahale Arm, which is usually full up, but not for our destination. We looked at alternates and settled on Snowfield Peak, one of the 28 Bulgers with 2000 feet of prominence. We bought maps at the ranger station, and we tore out the page of the Green Beckey guide for the peak, but that was the extent of the research and planning we were able to do.

We left the Pyramid Lake Trailhead on WA 20 at 10:20 AM and hiked the good trail to tiny, claustrophobic Pyramid Lake easily. From there we followed the trail on the north side of the lake to a talus field and followed faint trails uphill, hoping they were the start of the climber’s path to Pyramid Ridge. We reached the col ENE of the lake, found a rough cairn, and started following the ridge south in the forest, which wasn’t too bad. After a short while we stumbled upon a very distinct trail, and starting following it as it led uphill relentlessly. (When we descended, we found that the best trail begins on the south shore of the lake).

The trail climbed steeply uphill for about 1300 feet. Near an elevation of 4200 feet we started seeing snow, and in the flat area at about 4350 feet we lost the trail in the many snow patches. We eventually made our way to a snowy boulder field perpendicular to the ridge with a brushy step of rock on the other side—we tried to scale the cliff and bailed due to thick vegetation, deciding instead to follow footprints in the snow that led downhill on the snow to the NW. After losing about 50 feet we turned left and contoured in forest SW, bypassing Point 4555, and then regained the ridge in an open forest area. Next was a short easy climb to Point 4614, which had open ledges and nice views.

Here we heard voices and soon saw the first other people on the trail all day, a party of 2 men and a woman from the Washington Alpine Club. They were stuck on a steep downclimb from Point 4614, and they let us by as we hung on to a sturdy dead tree and lowered ourselves down the cliff into the woods again. We then meandered around snowbanks, failing to find any trail, and took a rest while the group of 3 passed us. When we got going again, we headed along the crest, came to a steep cliff, and went straight up it, more or less, but it was very brushy and scaling it with full packs was miserable in the extreme. This was the worst kind of slabby, mossy, thick vegetation Cascade brush, and Edward’s external frame pack was particularly hard to maneuver through the trees and branches.

One atop this cliff we made our way up steep terrain that was now pretty much all snow-covered and beginning to open up. We passed the party of 3, melting snow to replenish their water, and climbed step snow slopes up to the open section of the Pyramid Ridge at 5400 feet. The other party passed us, but we passed them a final time when they decided to camp at about 5520 feet. One of the guys in that group had been up here before and told us there was a good camp site right at the base of the looming rock of Pyramid Peak ahead, so we contoured around the NW side of Peak 5840 to the snowy col there. There were some dirt ledges free of snow down the slope to the south, but they were small and we felt it was best to pitch our tent at the exact center of the saddle, on the snow.

While we were making camp a man and woman came by, heading down by traversing from the Colonial Glacier. They were in shorts and were dayhiking the peak with tiny packs. They told us there were really nice campsites over at the foot of the glacier with 2 parties there, including a Mountaineers group—we could see silhouetted figures in the distance. But it was now 6 PM and we were tired after hauling our packs up 4700 feet, so we decided to camp where we were.

We got water from a puddle in the dirt ledges below camp, made our dinner, and organized a bit before retiring to my small tent by 8 PM.

Sunday, July 8, 2012:

We awoke at 4 AM and were hiking by 4:45, heading out on a well-worn boot path in snow that traversed south to the toe of the Colonial Glacier. This slope was steep, and in some places you would not want to fall, especially over a huge waterfall and its cliff, so we took care. But our crampons bit in nicely in the early morning and we had no issues.

We continued traversing, now below a slabby moraine ridge to our left and a frozen pond to our right. Once past this area, we were in the huge open bowl of the Colonial Glacier. There was no crevasses in sight at all, so we just followed the most convenient boot paths up to the prominent notch at 6860 feet. Just below here we were passed by two fast climbers who had camped last night near the group of 3—they powered by us almost like we were standing still.

At the col we rested, got our first view of Snowfield Peak itself, and then headed down a wide couloir to the Neve Glacier. The bootpaths lost more elevation than strictly needed to avoid some large oval crevasse-like areas, so I think we dropped about 350 feet. We then started up towards the beckoning summit. Edward saw some crevasses above, and we decided to rope up, so we took a break to do the whole harness/rope/prussiks thing. The 2 fast climbers ahead of us didn’t bother, but once up in the middle of the glacier we did have to cross about a dozen small crevasses, a foot wide at most, and it seemed prudent to be roped.

The bootpath led over gentle snow slopes and finally swung around to the west ridge of the final pyramid of Snowfield Peak, at about 7800 feet. Here we ditched the rope and started hiking up easy and snow-free heather/talus slopes, thinking we’d have an easy scramble to the top. As we neared the top of our slope, we ran into the 2 fast climbers, heading down, and they told us there was sketchy class 4 climbing in a tricky notch ahead. Sure enough, our slope suddenly ended at a yawning chasm, with the summit on the other side.

Just to our left was a deep notch, and a gully leading up to it, but we had to backtrack down our slope a bit and traverse into the gully--we saw we could have entered the gully lower down. We climbed up to the deep notch at the top of the gully, and here our initial thought was to turn left along the crest of the ridge to the summit. But the terrain was very steep and exposed, and after some explorations we decided that was not the way to go. Beckey’s terse description was not much help. Eventually we simply did the steep downclimb on the other side of the notch (easier than it looked at first) to a tiny snowbank below, and then climbed class 3 gullies and dihedrals directly up to the summit, which we reached at 9:20 AM.

It was a beautiful day and we took a nice long rest, eating our snacks and looking out at the 360-degree panorama of North Cascades peaks. We left the top at about 10 AM, and as we downclimbed the summit block we encountered the party of 3 we had been playing tag with for the past day. They had climbed the ridge route we had abandoned and seemed to think it was pretty sketchy. We told them about our route, and after downclimbing the summit block and climbing the 30 feet up to the prominent notch, I shouted back to them that we thought this route was pretty easy.

We climbed down the gully a bit, cut back over to our talus/heather slope, and easily hiked sandy boot paths to the snow margin. We then roped up again and easily hiked down the Neve Glacier. At the base of the couloir that led back to the Colonial we unroped and grunted out the 350 foot climb. Just below the col was a nice waterfall running off the rocks, and here we stopped to completely replenish our water supplies.

From the col we glissaded the best we could down the Colonial Glacier, passed the pond, and carefully made the traverse to our camp—the snow was pretty soft now, but the traverse route still had excellent boot prints, helping a lot.

We were back at camp at 12:30 PM, only about 1.5 hours from the top. We took an hour to rest, eat, and take down camp, and we were headed out by 1:30 PM. We climbed the 60-foot hill just NE of camp instead of doing another traverse, and then were plunge stepping down the open upper slopes of Pyramid Ridge. We passed the tent of the party of 3 (we had seen them coming down the Colonial Glacier as tiny dots from camp) and were soon in the forest, unable to find any kind of trail among the snow patches and instead looking for footprints in the snow to guide us.

While jostling in the pack, my touch-screen GPS had somehow accidentally managed to delete our upward track—this was a huge setback, given how difficult the terrain was to navigate. So the next hour or so was a nightmare of bushwhacking as we floundered down the ridge. We veered too far to our right above Point 4614, avoiding the nasty brushy cliff of our ascent route but plunging us into a more prolonged bout of brutal brush as we descended too far off the ridge and had to claw our way back up to the notch just below 4614.

We found the tree-aided cliff climb back up to 4614, managed the downclimb and bypass of 4555, but lost the trail after the snowy transverse boulder field. We explored the pleasant area of open rocky knobs, but could not find the trail at all. We had no 7.5 minute map of the area, no saved GPS track from yesterday, and no reference map at all on the GPS. Eventually we plunged downhill into the brush to the north, towards Pyramid Lake, figuring we’d bushwhack and eventually hit the trail.

Big mistake. This led quickly into the worst bushwhacking of my life—a miserable stew of extremely close-together trees, very steep slopes, lousy footing, and treacherous snowbanks, all with full overnight packs. At times it was taking us 5 minutes to move 10 feet in this mess. We finally seized upon the one thing we knew, which was that the climber’s trail ran north-south at a longitude of -121.124 for a long time—we knew this because it was frustratingly just off the edge of the one 7.5 minute map we had on the way up. My GPS said we were at -121.123, so if we were to find the trail, we had to go west.

So I led us uphill (to get back to the knobby area to look for the trail) and to the west (the direction of the trail) as best the brush would allow. Finally we came to more open forest, and suddenly we were on the trail. As we rested after our ordeal, we vowed to never lose this path again.

The rest of the descent was relatively uneventful. We were tired and required many rests to eat, drink, remove layers, tie gear on our packs, and other chores, but we followed the climber’s trail downhill very steeply, and it eventually somehow led us on a route we had missed on the way up, down a steep, rocky path around the south side of Pyramid Lake, where we joined the maintained Pyramid Lake trail near the outlet stream.

The trail down to the car was a dream after the rigors of the climber’s trail, and we made our last stop at a stream crossing to filter more water to sake our extreme dehydration. We were back at my car at 7:35 PM.

Snowfield Peak was definitely a tough climb, but pretty typical for a major North Cascades summit: long approach, brushy forest, faint climber’s trails, lots of snowy terrain, big glaciers, and exposed scrambling on less-than-sound rock. This peak is probably about your average Bulger (WA top 100 by elevation) peak by effort, giving me lots of respect for climbers who multiply the work of this climb by 100 to complete the list.
Summary Total Data
    Elevation Gain:8017 ft / 2443 m
    Elevation Loss:8017 ft / 2443 m
    Distance:16.2 mi / 26.1 km
    Quality:7 (on a subjective 1-10 scale)
    Route Conditions:
Maintained Trail, Unmaintained Trail, Bushwhack, Snow on Ground, Scramble, Snow Climb, Glacier Climb
    Gear Used:
Ice Axe, Crampons, Rope, Tent Camp
    Nights Spent:1 nights away from roads
    Weather:Pleasant, Breezy, Clear
Ascent Statistics
    Elevation Gain:7547 ft / 2300 m
    Extra Loss:350 ft / 106 m
    Distance:8 mi / 12.9 km
    Route:Neve Gl-West Ridge
    Trailhead:WA 20  1150 ft / 350 m
Descent Statistics
    Elevation Loss:7667 ft / 2337 m
    Extra Gain:470 ft / 143 m
    Distance:8.2 mi / 13.2 km
    Route:Neve Gl-West Ridge
    Trailhead:WA 20  1150 ft / 350 m
GPS Data for Ascent/Trip


 GPS Waypoints - Hover or click to see name and lat/long
Peaks:  climbed and  unclimbed by Greg Slayden
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Note: GPS Tracks may not be accurate, and may not show the best route. Do not follow this route blindly. Conditions change frequently. Use of a GPS unit in the outdoors, even with a pre-loaded track, is no substitute for experience and good judgment. Peakbagger.com accepts NO resposibility or liability from use of this data.

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