Ascent of Emerald Peak on 2020-02-22

Climber: Eric Gilbertson

Date:Saturday, February 22, 2020
Ascent Type:Successful Summit Attained
Peak:Emerald Peak
    Elevation:8422 ft / 2567 m

Ascent Trip Report

Cardinal Peak (8,590ft), Emerald Peak (8,422ft), Saska Peak (8,404ft) (probable first winter ascents)

Feb 22-23, 2020
Eric and Fred
46 miles, 9,400ft gain

Saturday – 12:30am to 10pm, climb all peaks and camp at Grouse Creek
Sunday – 6am – 1pm, ski 17 miles back to car

I had attempted to climb these peaks solo the previous weekend, but was slowed down by a flat tire on the drive over so had downgraded my objective to just Cardinal. Then on the way up Cardinal my ski cracked in half and I had to post hole and scoot 19 miles back to my car.

Luckily no new snow fell the following week and I expected my skin track to remain intact most of the way up Cardinal. It looked like a Saturday weather window in the area, and amazingly the avy danger was low. That would be important for the steep face up Saska. I bought a new pair of skis, had the old bindings mounted, tested them out Thursday night at Snoqualmie pass, and was ready to go again.

We slept in the Entiat River Sno Park Friday night and were up and moving by 12:30am Saturday morning. I brought my plastic sleds to pull our gear up the flat approach road expedition-style. The Entiat River Road was pretty icy with no new snow over the past week, and had lots of big humps from the snowmobiles. Unsurprisingly we were the only ones on the road at that hour.

After about 7.5 miles we ditched the sleds in the woods at the North Fork turnoff, then skinned up the steeper road. We navigated quite a few blowdowns, then reached the trailhead around 5am. Fortunately my skin track was still clearly visible into the woods. Following that track not only would save us from breaking trail, but also from navigating and trying to find the trail. These time savings would prove very important later in the day.

We followed my tracks a few more hours before reaching my previous bivy site at Grouse Creek at 8:30am. There we ditched our overnight gear and filled up water at the flowing creek. With lighter packs we started steeply up the side of Grouse Creek, eventually reaching my previous turnaround point. A few snow showers lasted about an hour but were fortunately replaced by sunshine.

We broke trail up to a small bench below Skidgravel point, then zig zagged up gentle slopes to the Skidgravel-Cardinal col. From there we descended a short steep wind-scoured slope to the bowl east of Cardinal, then skinned up to the col northeast of Cardinal.

We dropped gear there, put crampons on, and made the short scramble to the summit by 1pm. It was very sunny out, with only a bit of wind. Though clouds enveloped the larger peaks to the west. Across the valley Saska Peak looked very intimidating, but we reasoned the slope steepness is generally deceptive from a distance and usually isn’t as steep as it appears.

Back at the col we skinned to the edge of the west face, then carefully side-slipped through the icy shark-infested slopes to powder about 50 ft down. We transitioned to ski mode, and had an amazing 1,000ft descent to the basin below. We then traversed high until we were below Emerald Peak, then changed back into climbing skins.

I broke trail into the basin southwest of Emerald and gained the west ridge, then booted carrying skis up to about 8,300ft. From there the terrain got too steep for me to risk skiing, and I figured it would be faster to just crampon up and down. This would be my third ascent of Emerald Peak, and it definitely helps on winter ascents of Bulger peaks to already have a solid understanding of the route from summer time.

I quickly changed into crampons and kicked steps up the correct route. The view on top was amazing as before, and surprisingly I was actually able to find the summit register. That’s not very common on these winter ascents, when the registers are usually buried deep under the snow.

We downclimbed back to our packs, then Fred led the way skiing down the southwest face towards Saska. We traversed to around 7,400ft, then put skins on and made it to the south ridge. The sun was getting low on the horizon by that point and the snow started getting icier. We put the skis on our packs and Fred led the way kicking steps up the steep face to gain the ridge.

We’d hoped the southwest aspect on the other side of the ridge might be more powdery for the descent, but once we gained the ridge at 7,700ft we realized it was just icy everywhere. So we put our skies down under a bush, transitioned to crampons and whippets and continued up fast and light with no extra gear.

I led the way kicking steps up. It was going to be tight to beat sunset. It was already 5:15pm and we figured we had til around 6pm before we’d need headlamps. Luckily the snow made for solid steps, even if it would be terrible skiing. I moved up efficiently, finally surmounting the final steep snow step to reach the summit at 6pm.

The sun had already set on the surrounding mountains, but a colorful twilight made for excellent views. Glacier Peak was poking out of the clouds, and we saw either Rainier or Adams getting enveloped in a growing lenticular. That generally means bad weather is coming, and indeed we knew a big storm was supposed to come that night.

We soon downclimbed facing in until the slope angle decreased, then plunge stepped back to our skis. There was some debate about skiing down vs downclimbing, and we agreed Fred would go first to test the slopes, since he’s the better skier. In the dark it was unclear if the slope cliffed out at the bottom or not, but Fred side slipped down far enough that I decided to start skiing too.

Before long, though, I saw Fred fall and a ski go flying down the slope. Sparks flew visibly as it banged into rocks below and went over a cliff. I quickly kicked out a platform and transitioned to crampons as Fred downclimbed to try and find the ski. In the dark it was difficult to see anything.

He couldn’t find a way down through the cliffs, but I found a way at my level. Fred climbed back up to me, then we traversed and carefully downclimbed to the broader south slope of Saska. We poked around at the bottom of the cliff and miraculously found the miscreant ski. It was quite a relief that Fred wouldn’t have to post hole 22 miles back out to the car.

We downclimbed into the trees where the snow was less icy, then put the skis back on. Fred led the way as we made a long descending traverse through the trees. It was actually pretty fun skiing through the open forest, except in the few places we encountered breakable crust.

We eventually reached the trail at the north fork entiat, then transitioned to skins and skinned back to our camp by 10pm. Fred quickly got to work putting up the tent as I purified some water and cooked up dinner. By 11pm we were asleep, just as it started snowing.

Sunday morning we were packed up and moving out by 6am under intermittent snow showers. It was a quick 2 hours back to the trailhead, where the snow intensity picked up considerably. We made good time down the road, even taking the skins off and skiing a bit on the steeper sections.

The snow had accumulated quite a bit on the road and was sticking to our skis enough that we decided it would be a bad idea to put skins on. So we loaded up the sleds with our gear and headed out. After a few hours on the road we eventually reached the car around 1pm. The whole morning we only saw one group of snowmobilers, and that was probably because the snow changed to rain down at the trailhead. We drove back through heavy snow back to town that afternoon.

Link to full trip report and pictures.
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