Ascent of Gardner Mountain on 2021-01-10

Climber: Eric Gilbertson

Date:Sunday, January 10, 2021
Ascent Type:Successful Summit Attained
Peak:Gardner Mountain
    Elevation:8898 ft / 2712 m

Ascent Trip Report

Abernathy Peak (8,321ft), Gardner Mtn (8,898ft), North Gardner Mtn (8,956ft)

(possible first winter ascents)

Jan 9-10, 2020, Eric, Ryan, Josh

30 miles skiing, 8 miles snowmobiling

I couldn’t find any reports of anyone climbing these peaks in winter, so there was a bit of uncertainty in how to approach them and what routes to take. I had already climbed the Gardners twice in spring and fall, approaching via the wolf creek trail to Gardner Meadows and climbing the standard loop up the south face of Gardner, along the scramble ridge between to North Gardner, then back out. I’d climbed Abernathy once via the standard southeast face route in October and once via the non-standard north ridge route in September.

In winter the approaches and best routes are generally not the same as in spring, summer, or fall, though. However, I have a snowmobile so at least all trailheads are generally accessible. A few weeks earlier on a cancelled attempt for Abernathy I had scouted out a good parking area in the Winthrop suburbs for accessing a road to the wolf creek trailhead. This is not a popular winter trail so there’s really no official parking area and no beta online of people going in there. It turned out the road is plowed to within 4 miles of the trailhead, to a person’s driveway, but there is not enough space to park at the snow berm. However, a quarter mile down the road at an intersection there is a wide enough plowed area to fit a few cars.

We debated the Twisp River approach, Huckleberry Creek approach, and Wolf Creek approach and eventually settled on Wolf Creek. This made the most sense to hit all three peaks with minimum extra elevation gain since we could access them all from the same valley. Also, I had already scouted out the parking situation and had hiked in that way three times in other seasons.

I find in the winter it is extremely beneficial to do a route I have already done in the summer to minimize uncertainty and potential delays. A successful ascent of a Bulger peak in the winter seems like a feat resting on a fragile house of cards. If any little thing goes wrong (minor routefinding delays, poor snow conditions slightly slowing down speed, a tricky stream crossing, weather coming in sooner than expected), the trip will likely fail. I’ve failed on quite a few winter Bulgers, and discovered I’m most likely to succeed if I’ve already climbed the route once or twice in the summer, then attempted the route in winter, then returned again. Thus, the Wolf Creek approach gave the lowest uncertainty and the highest chance of success.

We all three met up at the pullout on Friday night and slept in the cars. I had never taken three people on a snowmobile but decided to give it a try. Josh and I loaded our gear and skis onto the sled then Ryan wore his pack and skis and rigged a rope to the back of the snowmobile to get towed like a water skier. He made a rubber belt out of a bicycle seat tube and looped the rope through there to absorb some of the shock from starts and stops.

We rode to the snow berm, then Ryan and Josh stepped aside as I started over. Surprisingly there was another old snowmobile track going over it, though it was very steep. I was a bit nervous about getting stuck if I went too slow, so I went over kind of fast. Perhaps it was a bit too fast and my front skis got a bit of air but I made it to the other side without getting stuck. We then loaded back up and started up the road. It went pretty smoothly until we got to the last half mile at the side road to the trailhead. There the old snowmobile tracks diverged up the main road and I proceeded up some deep ungroomed snow.

I had to do a bit of balancing with all the extra weight but luckily managed to not get stuck. We soon reached the trailhead and were unpacked and moving up the trail by 4am. I didn’t see any evidence of any other people on the trail, and we were possibly the first ones on it in a while. We took turns breaking trail and it was nice having three people to share the effort. In general it was easy to find the trail, though we lost it a few times in the dark at the one creek crossing a few miles in.

Along the way there were many trees drooping over with huge blobs of snow on the end. I call them question mark trees, and it was fun tapping the ends of them and liberating the trees from all the snow. For some reason that never gets old.

By noon we reached Gardner Meadows and found a spot next to the stream to drop off our overnight gear. The last time I’d been here in late May there were at least ten other tents in the meadow and it was tough to even find a secluded spot to camp. But that is certainly not the case in the winter. The weather was still looking good and I soon led the way across the stream and up the valley towards Abernathy Lake. Huge cliffs loomed above the lake dropping down from Abernathy Ridge. We noticed the steep northeast couloir dropping down from the summit of Abernathy and discussed possibly skiing it down.

We took turns breaking trail up to bowl northeast of the summit. Then I took over to skin up a minor ridge to gain the main north ridge of Abernathy, just above nasty pond. The ridge above looked rocky enough that we ditched skis just above the bowl. It was pretty late in the day so that seemed like a much safer option to ski in the dark than attempting the steep northeast couloir.

Amazingly we were met with a beautiful undercast to our west and south. Snowy peaks poked out like islands in an ocean and the setting sun made everything very colorful. These undercasts seem much more common in winter than in summer, and is one reason why winter mountaineering is so fun. After ditching the skis we continued scrambling up the ridge. In general we either stayed on the ridge crest or dropped down to the right to get around gendarms. I’m glad I had already scrambled this ridge in the summer time to know what to do. On that trip I recall scrambling over some 4th class steps on the way up then figuring out how to avoid them on the way down. This time I remembered the good route and was able to avoid any difficulties.

By 4pm after a final scramble up a thin gully Ryan and I crested the top and took a break to admire the amazing view (Josh turned around a bit lower). The snow was pretty deep so we didn’t bother excavating out the summit register. I wish I could have stayed there longer to take in the undercast, but we were lucky to have made it up there with any daylight to spare.

We soon turned back and scrambled back to our skis just as it got dark enough to pull out the headlamps. In the increasing darkness we skied off the north ridge steeply down into the bowl, then back over Abernathy lake and down to camp by 6pm. I then set up a mega mid tent and Josh and Ryan dug snow trenches for their bivy sacks. Luckily Wolf Creek was melted out so we could cook with running water instead of melting snow.

That night it was forecast to snow, ending by mid morning. Our plan was to climb the Gardners the next day, but we didn’t want to be navigating above treeline in the dark in a snowstorm. So we slept in a bit and were moving by 6am. Josh decided to ski

directly back out to the cars but Ryan and I started breaking trail up the south slope of Gardner. It was snowing lightly all morning, but by the time we broke out above the trees the snow storm ended and it started getting light out. I think we timed it perfectly, since that was the time we started needing visibility anyways.

We found a nice wide snow gully on the south face and I led the way zig zagging up to about 8,000ft. Then it started getting pretty steep so I cut left to a scoured ridge and we booted up a bit farther. When the angle eased we put skis back on and skinned all the way to the summit by 9am. Unfortunately the visibility dropped then and we were stuck in a cloud of freezing fog. My sunglasses iced over and small rime feathers were forming on my pack. It was pretty cold and windy so we didn’t stay long.

We scooted down with skins on a few hundred feet, carefully avoiding rocks in the thin rime, then transitioned to ski mode. I had originally thought we should scramble the west ridge from Gardner to avoid elevation loss, but that seemed like it would be slow going scrambling snowy ledges in crampons carrying our skis. We instead decided to ski the south gully then traverse on snow below the ridge to potentially save time and increase fun.

We soon gained the gully and had some amazing turns, dropping down to 7400ft. We then traversed around where the steepness decreased and gained the bowl south of point 8487. Ryan then led the way breaking trail up the bowl to the end of the snow on the ridgecrest just east of point 8487. The ridge crest was scoured down to rock, so we ditched our skis there and continued in crampons.

We hiked over point 8487, then continued north along the ridge. The wind from the west was pretty ferocious, but occasionally we could drop to the east side of the ridge and find shelter. I was happy to have done this ridge a few times in the summer so I could remember which way to get around a few gendarmes. The scrambling on snow was a bit trickier than I remembered, and there were sections of deep postholing, but by 11:45am we reached the summit. It was mostly socked in the clouds, but we hung out for a while and were treated to a few blue holes of sky that gave us views. I was actually able to find the summit register and sign us in. I think the previous sign in had been from early October.

After 15 minutes we started back down the ridge and scrambled back to our skis. Then began the funnest part of the trip, skiing 2500ft back to camp. The snow conditions were perfect for fun turns skiing down the bowl. We stopped to take some pictures and videos, then at the bottom of the bowl started traversing back around the south side of Gardner. I was skiing pretty fast through the trees and at one point felt my left ski hit a rock really hard. I later discovered a long and deep core-shot gash that I’ll likely have to get repaired.

By 1pm we made our final turns into the meadow and arrived back at camp. If that ski run were 1 mile from a road instead of 15 miles I bet it would be extremely popular. We quickly packed up and started down the trail. We skinned for a few miles, then the snow conditions changed and snow started glopping up on our skins. I think maybe it had gotten a bit warmer in the sun. We changed to ski mode and skied and scooted out for the next few miles. Then when the sun set and the snow got colder we changed back to skins and skinned back to the trailhead by 6:15pm.

The snowmobile was just where we’d left it, and we were soon loaded up and riding out. Josh had skied all the way out to his car so this time it was just me and Ryan on the sled. We soon made it back to the berm, which I went over slowly this time and had no problem. We were back to the car around 7pm and soon loaded back up. A few locals were walking by and let us know we weren’t really supposed to park where we did. I think we were blocking access to a water pipe that I hadn’t seen in the dark. So for future reference, it’s ok to park in the wide area of the intersection opposite the water pipe, but the separate plowed area near the water pipe should be avoided.

Just as I started driving out it started snowing again. I took my time driving back in the snow, and eventually made it home by 2am.

Link to full trip report and pictures.
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