Ascent of Helen Buttes on 2019-05-10

Climber: Connor McEntee

Other People:Solo Ascent
Only Party on Mountain
Date:Friday, May 10, 2019
Ascent Type:Successful Summit Attained
Peak:Helen Buttes
    Elevation:5560 ft / 1694 m

Ascent Trip Report

It was an absolutely fantastic day in the mountains. My only regret was not starting even earlier, and I began my hike with the expectation that I needed to go early. But, even hitting the trail by 6:30 and quickly making my time up the ridge, I was not spared from the slush. In general, early May is probably a perfect time for the Helen Buttes, because the Cow Heaven Trail is melted out and snow on the ridge provides a great alternative the traverse across slippery heather slopes. Just the unseasonably warm weather for the past few weeks had kept the snowpack from freezing making for more onerous travel on the ridge than ideal.

I rolled out of bed before dawn asking myself why didn't I sleep at the trailhead and whether I really wanted to go hiking anymore. Ultimately, I decided that I did and made the drive out, reaching the trailhead around 6:15. It's a small turnout just a couple hundred feet past the parking lot for the North Cascades ranger station in Marblemount. It was cold (in the low 40's) and I was a little skeptical that it would really reach 87F in Marblemount later in the day. Enthused with the prospect of frozen snow, I charged up the trail only delayed by a false start to go back and retrieve some sunscreen.

For about the first 2,000 vertical feet, the Cow Heaven Trail is surprisingly well maintained for a trail that putatively sees little traffic. I suspect that some of the rangers living at its base must use it regularly. The trail switchbacks aggressively up the mountain, and I as thankful that have such a great trail in contrast to the Lennox bushwhack the week prior. This early in the season, there was tons of water and several creek crossings, but they were all down low. Up high on the trail and on the ridge, the only source of water was the snow.

At 3,600' patchy snow appeared and by 4,000' it was continuous enough that I strapped on my snowshoes. This, however, was short-lived, because just a few minutes later to stay on the ridge I had to cross slopes that had completely melted out. At 4,400' I saw the first signs of instability in the snowpack with the north facing slopes of the ridge covered with avy debris. But, the rocky slabs on the ridge were melted out and made for easy scrambling to bypass the questionable snow.

By the point that I reached the lake marked on the topo, the scenery opened up considerably. Both the buttes were visible, though the north butte seemed quite a ways away. The ridge was nicely snow covered and still firm, so travel was quick and enjoyable as I made my way to the base of the south butte. As I got closer I started to become a little concerned that conditions my deny my ascent. The summer route traverses the east side of the south butte to reach the col between the buttes. With the warm weather, that traverse looked extremely dubious. Large slabs of snow had been sliding off the upper slopes of the south butte, and more looked ready to fall. The traverse crossed terrain that looked more like seracs than snow. I knew that other early season parties had gone over the south butte, and I was inclined to do the same. But, I wasn't sure if they had gone up through the rock or on what should normally be an easy snow climb. At the base, it appeared that the ridge could have cliff bands that could require low class 5 climbing for 20 feet.

With the only option being the ridge, I took my snowshoes off and began to scramble over the rocks. It turns out that it's an easy class 3 scramble all the way to the summit ridge of the south butte. (In fact, the scramble up the south Butte is even easier than the north butte.) I continued along the ridge and opted to tag the summit rock of the south butte. It was a little bit of work to get to with lots of steep, exposed snow to traverse. In retrospect, it's much more easily accessed from the north and I should have dropped in the basin and came back around for it.

For as cliffy as the rest of the butte is, the northwest slope is really gentle and the descent to the col was easy. Though, this was the only slope that I crossed that could have had some avy risk. I noticed that my quick descent set off a few pinwheels. I snowshoed up to the base of the north butte, which was generally easy save for a few steep sections. The scramble up to the top was mostly snow free and pretty easy. If I had wanted to go bushwhacking, I could have stayed firmly in class 3 terrain the entire way. But, I bypassed a thick hedge of trees on some rocks right above a cliff on the west side.

I was treated to expansive views from the summit in all directions. I didn't look all that hard, but I didn't find the summit register. It did not appear to be in the cairn pile on the summit. A little shy of an hour, I decided that I needed to head back down before the snow became any softer. The descent was much easier, and I opted to forgo the snowshoes for much of it. The final challenge was trying to be kind to my knees for 3,500' of loss once back on the trail.
Summary Total Data
    Total Elevation Gain:6966 ft / 2123 m
    Extra Gain:903 ft / 275 m
    Round-Trip Distance:15.4 mi / 24.8 km
    Route:Cow Heaven Trail/SW Ridge
    Trailhead:Cow Heaven Trailhead  400 ft / 121 m
    Grade/Class:Class 3
    Route Conditions:
Maintained Trail, Snow on Ground, Scramble, Snow Climb
    Gear Used:
Ski Poles, Snowshoes
    Weather:Pleasant, Calm, Clear
Ascent Statistics
    Time:4 Hours 1 Minutes
Descent Statistics
    Time:3 Hours 0 Minutes
GPS Data for Ascent/Trip

 GPS Waypoints - Hover or click to see name and lat/long
Peaks:  climbed and  unclimbed by Connor McEntee
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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. accepts NO responsibility or liability from use of this data.

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