Ascent of Gobblers Knob on 2014-04-26

Climber: Craig Willis

Other People:Solo Ascent
Only Party on Mountain
Date:Saturday, April 26, 2014
Ascent Type:Successful Summit Attained
    Motorized Transport to Trailhead:Car
Peak:Gobblers Knob
    Elevation:5485 ft / 1671 m

Ascent Trip Report

NOW I know why people do not attempt Gobblers Knob in Winter or Spring. I was invited to join someone for an attempt of Jumpoff Lookout on this day but once it appeared that those plans had ended I made the alternate plan of visiting Gobblers Knob. Then, the night before, the Jumpoff Lookout plan went back on track for the other person but by that time I already had my sights set on Gobblers Knob.

A peakbagging acquaintance who had been to Gobblers Knob twice, albeit not with snow, had told me that the route would offer no difficulties and might be nothing more than a steep forest climb. Although that is true in essence, this trip definitely provided me with some sphincter-clenching moments and was my most difficult climb of the year thus far. This trip could be divided into three sections: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.

First, the Good. I entered Mount Rainier National Park at 5:30 AM and purchased an annual pass at the kiosk. During the next year, I knew I would be visiting the national park at least two times, if not more, so the annual pass was worth buying. I drove up the Westside Road approximately three miles to the gate, and parked. Blue skies suddenly disappeared in favor of low clouds and light snow... the first of several times during this trip that nature seemed to mock me. After changing my socks and boots, and had a leftover-ravioli breakfast, I headed out by 6:15 AM. A storm was supposed to be hitting the area by late afternoon, so I wanted an early start in an attempt to avoid it as much as possible. Plus, being 12-13 miles roundtrip, I did not know how the snow conditions would be on the approach and it might take a while being solo. However, there were only sporadic snow patches along Westside Road until Tahoma Vista. By the time I reached Round Pass (1h45m), the snow on the road was at least 6'+ deep. It was obvious that I was the first person this year to visit Round Pass, blue skies opened up again, and it was enjoyable to have the area all to myself.

Second, the Bad. I cannot really consider the Lake George Trail as a "bad" trail. Even with thick forest, using common sense and directional sense I thought the trail was fairly straightforward. I double-checked my GPS acouple of times, just to make certain. After crossing a minor stream about halfway to the lake, the trail had a ~300-yard stretch where it skirted atop steep, seemingly near-vertical slopes. When dry, this is no problem. But when snow-covered, without any sort of trench where people have been walking, I had to cut through slanted snow slopes and hope not to slough off too much and trigger a slide. I did not think this section was difficult; it just took a little extra time carefully choosing steps in some areas. After the trail diverted from those slopes it traveled through the middle of rolling gentle-sloped hills within the thick forest. I am certain I lost the trail a couple of times during this stretch but the terrain was easy to traverse, and my GPS and common sense eventually led me back to the general area of the trail prior to reaching Lake George. It was awesome to see the north peak of Mount Wow lingering over the snow-covered and frozen lake. After taking a few minutes to send a SPOT signal to my wife, drink some water, and enjoy the serene surroundings, I backtracked slightly from the lake to find the Gobblers Knob Trail. I could not "see" the trail anywhere but my GPS and printed map showed I was basically on it. However, I quickly found myself ascending a super-steep snow slope north of a small waterfall but towards a cliff.

Time for the Ugly. I was actually slightly north of where my GPS showed the trail to be, only because the slopes immediately south of me were even steeper than what I was on. The slope was not supposed to be *that* steep; the contours on the map did not appear to be correct. I slowly made my way up to the cliff. From there, I could either side-traverse along the cliff to the left up steeper and more dangerous-looking terrain, or side-traverse along the cliff to the right (north) at a similar slope angle and towards an apparent gully/hill-bend. I chose the latter option. However, I knew that keeping my snowshoes on would not be very safe, so I cut out my first snow shelf of the day at alongside the cliff. The shelf I created was just large enough to remove my snowshoes, stash them in my backback, and take out my ice axe. I proceeded to punch and kick steps, virtally creating shelf-ramp alongside cliff until reaching a steeper-yet-more-favorable slope a short distance north of my rest-shelf. Then I carefully headed straight up until reaching gentle-sloped terrain above. This first 300' ascent from Lake George took nearly 50 minutes by itself.

Once on the gentler terrain, I knew that the official trail was now further south than my location but would require going downhill to reach. I really did not want to unnecessarily go downhill and some of that terrain was unseen & unknown, whereas the terrain ahead of me continued uphill and seemed easier to see & navigate. I planned to gradually do an ascending side-traverse towards where the trail would be but I soon realized that was not a desirable option, as most of the slopes to the south of me leading towards the trail were even steeper to traverse than what was ahead of me. So although I continued trying veering south, the official trail also continued to head south so I never reached it. Instead, I found myself continually ascending. Once I got ~300' below the summit, that is where the terrain worsened and clouds replaced blue skies above.

I entered the bottom of an avalanche slope. I took a few minutes to inspect the terrain and determined the snow conditions on the slope were not slide-ready. The side slopes of the lower portion of the avalanche slope were even steeper and big cliffs were above the slope, so I knew I had to gain a little elevation to be able to leave the slope and try to find a way around the cliffs. I carefully kick-stepped a rising traverse and then slowly created a side-traverse snow shelf that cut from the middle of the slope over to the right side of it. Immediately north of avalanche slope, the terrain was even steeper but the snow was not at all subject to sliding. I steeply ascended directly up-slope for a short distance, kicking steps with my snowshoes still on (which was not easy and was perhaps a tad crazy), until reaching a more-favorable rest stop on a slightly better angled terrain just beyond trees approximately 100' below the summit. I looked downslope and noticed a very good-looking slope slightly north of my location, which I would have had less difficulty heading up and I knew I would use for heading down.

The snow at my rest stop was soft enough where I could create another snow shelf... I guess you could call me the shelf fun guy (fungi) for this trip. I know, bad pun. I could see a cliff in front of me but a favorably-angled firm snow slope heading up to the left. I removed all of my non-essential gear and secured the extra equipment at the snow shelf, leaving me only with an ice axe, trekking pole, and microspikes for the final summit ascent. The snow slope leading towards the summit was even icier than I anticipated, and I realized I should have brought actual crampons (rather than microspikes) as well as a helmet. Before reaching the top, I had to skirt around the steepest snow by scrambling up boulders near the top-right. I soon reached the lookout but low fog and clouds were all around me and there were no views even 30' from me (and worsening). It seemed to be quickly turning into whiteout conditions. Just as I arrived at the lookout, I heard an avalanche on a nearby slope and I knew there was no time to waste. I was a tad spooked and did not want to get caught in a whiteout or avalanche up there, so I quickly left. Although I did not encounter any cornices, as I began my descent I noticed small clumps of snow breaking off from the cliff above my rest stop. This gave me pause as I carefully downclimbed back to my gear shelf.

I safely reached the gear shelf, put on my backpack and other accessories, and continued the descent. I carefully downclimbed 25' to the top of the better terrain I saw earlier, which was seemingly a tiny ridge full of pillowy snow. This made my descent very fast and easy to navigate. I plunge-stepped about 400' until my progress was hindered, and then I switched back over to snowshoes. I soon intersected my original path and followed that until 4600', near the first steep section above Lake George. This time, however, I angled further north and found much better slopes there to descend than my original slopes. When I finally intersected my original path a short distance north of Lake George, it had only taken me 20 minutes to descend the ~1200' that it had taken me over two hours to ascend. The rest of the return descent was straightforward and easy-going. While walking along the Westside Road, blue skies returned again and at 3700' I could see Gobblers Knob in the distance. Then the clouds moved back in, bringing a lot of snow and hail near Tahoma Vista. I reached the car at 2:15 PM... with enough time for another peak.

1) I *DO NOT* recommend this peak as a Winter or Spring ascent. Although I was successful, a slight change of approach and/or conditions could have made this a disasterous trip. There were several sections of the route where a fall might be fatal. I recommend that people only attempt this peak as a Summer-to-late Autumn trip, using good trails.
2) Going solo was both good and bad. It was good in the sense that I know my own limits, some rest stops (shelves) I made could not be made large enough for more than one person, and some of the kick-steps and side-traverse shelves might not have held another 1-2 people using them. The unfortunate thing about going solo was not having an extra set of eyes to inspect the terrain and approach options.

After the snow melted from the trail systems, I revisited Gobblers Knob. I wanted to see if another slope or approach, such as on the south and/or west sides, for the final ascent would have been better than the one I discovered. To my surprise, it appears that I had actually found the best snow approach for the final ascent to the lookout. The final slope I had originally ascended was in a gully which, despite being steep and potentially dangerous, was not near as potentially dangerous or exposed as any other options I could fathom on the upper areas of the peak. So I guess my first trip was an example of me stumbling onto the best way to the summit through a combination of experience, motivation, and luck. If the snow/ice/weather conditions had been worse, or if I had attempted a different way, I probably would not have made it.
Summary Total Data
    Total Elevation Gain:2785 ft / 848 m
    Total Elevation Loss:2785 ft / 848 m
    Round-Trip Distance:12 mi / 19.3 km
    Quality:9 (on a subjective 1-10 scale)
    Route Conditions:
Road Hike, Maintained Trail, Open Country, Snow on Ground, Scramble, Snow Climb
    Gear Used:
Ice Axe, Crampons, Ski Poles, Snowshoes
    Weather:Snowing, Cool, Breezy, Low Clouds
Ascent Statistics
    Gain on way in:2685 ft / 818 m
        Gain Breakdown:Net: 2585 ft / 788 m; Extra: 100 ft / 30m
    Loss on way in:100 ft / 30 m
    Distance:6 mi / 9.7 km
    Route:Road / Trail / Steep East Slopes
    Start Trailhead:Westside Road Gate  2900 ft / 883 m
    Time:0 Days 5 Hours 0 Minutes
Descent Statistics
    Loss on way out:2685 ft / 818 m
        Loss Breakdown:Net: 2585 ft / 788 m; Extra: 100 ft / 30m
    Gain on way out:100 ft / 30 m
    Distance:6 mi / 9.7 km
    Route:Steep East Slopes / Trail / Road
    End Trailhead:Westside Road Gate  2900 ft / 883 m
    Time:0 Days 3 Hours 0 Minutes

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