Ascent of Colchuck Peak on 2020-12-12

Climber: Eric Gilbertson

Date:Saturday, December 12, 2020
Ascent Type:Successful Summit Attained
    Motorized Transport to Trailhead:Snowmobile
Peak:Colchuck Peak
    Elevation:8705 ft / 2653 m

Ascent Trip Report

Colchuck Peak (8,705 ft) via South Face

Dec 12-13, 2020

Eric and Damon

27 miles (10 miles snowmobiling, 12 miles skiing, 5 miles booting)

I was looking to do a shakedown trip to test out my snowmobile with overnight and ski gear before bigger trips this winter. I’d previously climbed Colchuck a few times, from both the north and south, but Damon still needed Colchuck to get closer to completing the Bulgers list. Colchuck fit the bill for me as a good test trip since it could involve the snowmobile, skis, and overnight gear, and I was already familiar with the main routes so could focus more on testing out new gear.

Interestingly, Damon and I had each bailed four times trying Colchuck. For me the first time in November 2015 I got to the col above the Colchuck Glacier and bailed due to bad weather. Then in December 2015 a fresh snowstorm slowed progress down too much and I turned around before Colchuck Lake. I successfully climbed it in February 2016 on snowshoes via the Colchuck Glacier as a 16hr car-to-car hike. Then in September 2018 I was trying to tighten my Bulger completion time and attempted the Colchuck Glacier route, but bailed since the bergschrund was melted out and impassable. The next day I tried to go up the south face route but bailed in a heavy rainstorm. Finally the next day I climbed it as a day trip via the south face. So in all I’ve bailed on Colchuck four times and climbed it twice.

I think Colchuck must somehow be in the sweet spot of mountains that it seems easy enough for me not to prepare too much but it is actually hard enough that I underestimate it.

There was a good weather window shaping up for Saturday, but the snow pack seemed a bit thin. I was concerned not enough snow had yet fallen to fill in the bergschrund on the standard north route up the Colchuck Glacier. So we decided to try the south route. This would make for a good shake-down trip since we could snowmobile in from the 29 pines campground to the Beverly Creek trailhead about 5 miles. This was short enough that we could ski out if something went wrong with the snowmobiles, but long enough to make sense to use them. The route was long enough to make sense carrying overnight gear to test out our setup. And I had already done the route in summer so navigation wouldn’t be an issue despite the long bushwhacking component.

Friday evening I drove out to the 29 Pines campground on Teanaway River Road and snow started approximately at the campground. I couldn’t find Damon, but I saw two trucks parked in the campground so drove over there and went to bed. By 1am I still didn’t see Damon so I got up to go look around. The road was melted out a bit farther up from the campground and I found Damon parked there. We agreed to meet up at 3:30am to start riding.

I got another hour of sleep then loaded up my snowmobile. It’s long enough I can just strap the skis on the side and my pack on the back. I brought an extra bag of recovery gear, spare parts, and an axe and handsaw in case there was a tree over the road. It’s nice to not worry about travelling light on the snowmobile. I can just strap on anything I might need.

By 3:30am we started riding up the road. The snow soon got deeper but it was very icy. A truck had driven in the snow earlier making deep ruts that were difficult to balance the snowmobile on. All the bumps loosened my ratchet straps so it took a few stops to get my gear strapped down more securely. We soon reached the turnoff for Beverly Creek and luckily the truck tracks ended there. It was much smoother riding all the way up to the end of the road.

Just as the road was ending my overheating light turned on on the dashboard. The snowmobile generally relies on snow being thrown up by the track to cool the engine, but the snow was so icy that none was getting thrown up so the engine overheated. I’ll need to install ice scratchers to help solve that problem before the next trip. I threw a bunch of snow on the tunnel (the back of the snowmobile) and that cooled it off.

By 5am we had the snowmobiles parked and started skinning up the trail. We soon had to cross Bean Creek, but luckily nobody got wet. From there we followed post hole tracks up Beverly Creek until they ended in a mile or so. The trail was still easy enough to follow and by sunrise we made it to the pass below Bills Peak.

At the pass we took the skins off and started skiing down Fourth Creek. There was actually a bit of powder on top of the icy crust and we had fun skiing through the open glades. I think Damon said it was already one of his favorite ski tours. As we got lower the trees got a bit denser and the snow a bit icier. We stayed on skiers left of Fourth Creek and roughly followed the trail through sections of pointless ups and downs (PUDS) to Ingalls Creek by 8:30am.

We ditched our overnight gear on the south side of the creek, then strapped skis to our packs and carefully crawled across a freshly fallen tree spanning the creek. On the other side we put skis on and started skinning up the south face of Argonaut, aiming up and right to traverse towards Porcupine Creek. Unfortunately I neglected to remember my exact route when I’d done this climb before, and ascended a bit too quickly. We soon reached the open drainage below Argonaut, which was filled with slide alder.

We put the skis on our packs and had a difficult stretch of dense bushwhacking and postholing. Unfortunately the south-facing slope had melted out enough that the bushes were not yet covered in snow. I’d been in this drainage in early May a few years ago climbing Argonaut and the bushes were all smoothed over, but December conditions are not the same.

Eventually we reached trees on the other end, but left the skis on our packs since the snow was either icy or melted down to dirt. We worked our way up and right through mostly open trees, even skinning for a ways. Around 5,800ft we reached a long section of partially melted-out boulders and waterfalls and decided to ditch our skis. It didn’t look skinable or skiable, and the extra weight of the skis on our backs would surely slow us down on the way up.

I led the way from there and the snow conditions were great for bare-booting. I sunk in just a few inches, not enough to be super tiring but enough to give the boots purchase to not slide. I crossed Porcupine Creek and continued through intermittent larch trees on the east side. Around 6,600ft we reached what would have been excellent skiing conditions, and regretted leaving our skis. But we were in it to summit, and booting was much faster in those conditions anyways, and we were starting to get concerned about reaching the summit before sunset.

As we climbed higher we got socked in a whiteout and I worried that the rest of the mountain would be in a whiteout. Though the first time I’d summitted Colchuck in February 2016 I had hiked to a whiteout all the way to the summit. But when I stood on the summit my head poked above the clouds while my feet were still in the clouds. That was an amazing experience and I held out hope it might get repeated.

Amazingly, as we got above 7,800ft we poked out above the clouds for a spectacular undercast. Rainier and Adams were the only peaks poking out to the south, and the setting sun made everything very colorful. The expected wind hadn’t materialized and it was actually warmer and calmer the higher we climbed.

We kicked steps up a few steep slopes and eventually reached the col above the Colchuck Glacier. It actually looked like the bergschrund was filled in enough to be passable. But, interestingly, the bottom third of the glacier was all melted out and there was only a big talus field from there down to Colchuck Lake. Colchuck Lake only looked thinly-frozen, perhaps not enough to trust to ski across. So I think we made the right choice coming up from the south.

From the col we scrambled up snowy talus and ledges to the west to gain the summit plateau. I briefly considered putting crampons on, but the snow was always soft enough that bare boots were sufficient. By 3:30pm we finally reached the summit, making Bulger number 79/100 for Damon. The undercast was one of the best I can remember in the cascades. It extended almost all around us, except for the valley below Mt Stuart to the west. But clouds were pouring through the Stuart-Sherpa col like a waterfall filling the valley. I’d only ever seen this once before, near Mt Washington in New Hampshire.

There was almost no wind and it felt warm in the direct sun. We hung out for a while taking pictures and admiring the view. But we did want to get back as low as possible before the sun set, which would be around 4:15pm. So we followed our steps back down to the col. It was disappointing to not have skis stashed at the col, because the skiing would have been excellent from the col down about 1500ft. But carrying them up would have slowed us down and we might not have topped out before sunset, so we were ok with our decision.

We plunge stepped down, back below the undercast, and reached our skis at about the time we needed to turn headlamps on. Unfortunately the snow was too icy and melted out for it to make sense to ski from there, so we carried our skis as we bushwhacked straight down. This time we avoided the nasty slide alder by going straight down to near the confluence of Porcupine Creek and Ingalls Creek.

Back at the trail we put skis on and skinned back to the crossing, then crawled across the tree to camp. We set up my mega mid pyramid tent, laid out bivy sacks, and were asleep by 9:30pm.

It snowed a few inches overnight and we hoped this would make skiing out funner. Unfortunately both our sleeping bags got pretty wet, and I think bivy sacks actually work best out in the open where moisture can escape better, instead of being trapped inside a tent. So while the mega mid tent is very light (it doesn’t have a bottom and uses hiking poles as the middle pole), it is probably best to use with a tarp on the ground instead of bivy sacks.

We skinned up the trail from camp, reaching the pass above Fourth Creek a few hours later. From there we had excellent skiing down Beverly Creek with several new inches of snow. We eventually reached our snowmobiles an hour later. Mine had a bit of trouble starting, but this is likely because it is due for the servicing after the initial 10-hour break in period, and I probably need to replace the spark plugs. We got it running after a few tries, then started riding out.

I’ve done so many trips in previous winters where I’d get back to the trailhead but still have 5 or 15 miles left to ski back to the car. It’s pretty amazing now to have a snowmobile waiting at the trailhead. On the way out we passed one skier skinning up the road, and we later saw his truck parked at the turnoff for Beverly Creek. I don’t think that road will be passable to trucks too much longer though. It was very fun riding out, and we made it to the campground by 1:30pm. I quickly loaded up and managed to get out without getting stuck. By now there were a half dozen other vehicles parked with trailers, and I actually saw another forester with a snowmobile trailer, which was surprising. We made it back to Seattle later that evening.

Link to full trip report and pictures.
Summary Total Data
    Gear Used:
Ascent Statistics
    Route:South Face Porcupine Creek
Descent Statistics

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