Ascent of Mount Jefferson on 2015-06-14

Climber: Austin D. Smith

Others in Party:Mark Smith -- Trip Report or GPS Track
Glenn Campbell
Date:Sunday, June 14, 2015
Ascent Type:Successful Summit Attained
    Motorized Transport to Trailhead:Car
Peak:Mount Jefferson
    Elevation:10497 ft / 3199 m

Ascent Trip Report

Jefferson is not a peak to scoff at. While it isn't notably tall, remote, or technically challenging under ideal conditions, one may find it rarely under "ideal conditions". Having failed a late season attempt the year prior, we attempted a seemingly benign early season ascent which I was significantly mentally under-prepared for. By attempting an early season ascent we were hoping to have easier glacial travel and more snow cover leading up to the Red Saddle. Unfortunately, we encountered more snow and ice than we had wished for which subsequently turned this climb into both a mental and physical beast.

We got a pretty late start from the Whitewater Trailhead at about 7:30pm Friday evening. We hiked up the trail about 4 miles to the first river crossing and pitched camp in a relatively flat area just outside of greater Jefferson Park around 9:30pm. We got up around 8:30am the next morning and headed for Jefferson Park, which is the typical camping spot on this peak. However, on our previous attempt, we had seen some potential camping spots about 1,000 vertical feet above Jefferson Park right at the base of the Whitewater Glacier. The extra elevation gain with a full pack is highly annoying, but in our estimation, completely worth it as it puts you closer to the summit for summit day.

From Jefferson Park, there is slew of routes to the Whitewater Glacier, and its not obvious which to take. On our previous ascent we took the farthest left snow chute, which proved to a big mistake. It was steep and, if not fully snow covered, is a super sketchy loose scree/boulder field with no real run-out if you fall. Regardless of the conditions, I highly recommend everyone avoids this route. This time, we headed up a boulder field about 1/10th of a mile to the right of our previous line. While this was far superior, it is 3rd class scrambling with some rock fall hazard from climbers above. On our descent, we found an unofficial climbers trail beat up a forested ridge about another 1/10th of a mile to the west which appears to be the main climbers route. We also discovered a flat camping pad right below the "trail".

To find this climbers trail, when enter the beginning of Jefferson Park, you will come to a fairly new looking wooden sign pointing you to camping and 2 lakes. From the sign, follow the trail about 60 feet straight ahead. Then, to your right will be a small but obvious path carved in the tundra. Take this "trail" and look for a rocky scree field on the right of Peak 6166. To the right of the scree is where this climbers trail begins.

Once we were at the top of the ridge above where the climbers trail exits, we traversed left, avoiding the first snow chute and took the second. If your're not planning on camping higher up then you should take the first of the 2 (the skinnier one farthest right) as it is more of a direct route. If you are planning on camping, head up the second chute which is the widest/farthest left. Right above the second chute is a glacial moraine cirque with some pretty good camping spots. This spot is ideal as it features a small glacier lake and a great launch point for summit day.

Having made it to our camping spot, we ate dinner and headed to bed around 6pm. The next morning began with the inimical sound of our alarm clock and the cold crisp morning air at the ungodly hour of 2:00am. It took us quite awhile to actually wake up and get ready to leave, but were finally hiking by 3:30am. The glacial travel wasn't technical or particularly difficult, just insanely long. We traversed the glacier for almost 2 miles. We only encountered two crevasse crossings which seemed fairly solid. After finally finishing our two mile slog across the Whitewater Glacier, we approached a ridge which separates the glacier to the left of the Red Saddle. We crossed to the other side pretty far down and headed up the snow field which leads right to Red Saddle. We decided to cross over the ridge so early because the Glacier becomes pretty steep. The other side, when covered in snow, is much easier and less of an angle than staying on the glacier - plus you don't have to stay roped up. However, late season your best best would be to continue on the glacier as far as possible to avoid a grueling scree epic on the other side.

We arrived at Red Saddle about 8:45am. Here is where things started to go wrong. We figured the traverse to the summit and back would take us 3-4 hours to round trip from Red Saddle...It took us 7. Typically, a moat will form behind the traverse allowing climbers easy access across. Unfortunately, due to the nature of our early season ascent, we found the whole 300 foot long, 55 degree traverse completely snow covered with no rock exposure or moat - just steep ice/snow with very hazardous looking rock and ice fall potential above and a death fall below. To make matters worse, the traverse is still in early morning shade and was almost bullet proof, impregnable snow/ice. The only gear we had was a pair of crampons, ice axe, 60 meter rope, 3 pickets, and an ice screw. This was not nearly enough to adequately protect the whole 300 foot traverse. Worse yet, we could hardly drive our pickets in the snow as we had no hammer. For anyone planning an early season ascent, I highly recommend 2 ice tools, 8 pickets and perhaps a hammer.

We decided we had enough gear to make it work and sent Glenn out on lead. I set up a belay from where I was and belayed him out about 75 feet before he put in our first picket. He then traversed out until he reached the center of the rope, where I was tied in. I then followed behind while my dad belayed us both. Glenn went another 100 feet before the end of the rope came to my dad. He then put in his ice screw and kept moving. This was a sketchy method of climbing as we now had out entire team strung out at once with no belay - just the pickets and ice screw to prevent a fall. To add to the dangers, there were about 4 major runnels carved into the snow which were wide and deep enough we had to climb inside of to get around. At one point I had both my feet slip out from under me but somehow managed to plant my ice axe into the snow and prevent a fall.

After finally navigating the traverse, we looked up to the summit and our hearts sank. The summit block looked nothing like the rocky pictures were familiar with. Instead, it was caked with a thick layer of snow/ice. There was so much snow, we couldn't decide what was or where the "official" route up was. We first traversed about 300 feet to the left but the snow became exceptionally steep and we decided this couldn't possibly be the route (we later discovered it was indeed around the block to the left). We then hiked up 100 feet to the base of the summit pinnacle and just climbed straight up what appeared the least menacing looking route. This line proved to be far above what one could consider "sane".

My dad being an experienced rock climber took the lead as there was sections of exposed rock which we figured we could protect. My dad quickly discovered this route proved to be far more challenging than he had hoped. The rated 4th class scramble became a disgusting combo of WI and YDS climbing on super crappy rock. I just want to point out that rock climbing in crampons is far more difficult than it appears... As for protection, there really wasn't any. My dad found a few blocks to sling, but who knows if they would have even held. We would have paid a lot of money for one or two cams. After about 50 feet of climbing, we came upon a nearly vertical 8-foot headwall of ice/snow. My dad ended up using his ice axe to carve some steps in and climb straight up - unprotected. From there, we found an easy, snow free 40 foot, 4th class section the summit. It was now almost 1:30pm.

As we were having our little summit celebration, we could hear stuff falling off onto the traverse and quickly decided we needed to get off the summit and back across the traverse before the sun fully hit it. We found 2 slings and a prusik cord slung around the summit block with a rap ring around the 2 slings and strung out rope through it. We rapped off the summit only to find our 60 meter rope wasn't long enough. It did however end at a little ledge system which had another sling slung around a block someone had rapped off of before. We put our own sling around the block and were able to rappel down the steep snow field we had hiked up immediately after the traverse. At this point, the snow had become slick and difficult to travel on. A fall from there would have surely been fatal so we had to make yet another rappel. We found 2 slings wrapped around another block and used them to rappel all the way back down to the traverse.

At this point, the sun was fully hitting the traverse and had now made the trip back across far more dangerous. The snow was quite soft, probably rendering our pickets useless, and rock fall from above raining down our route far more frequently than I was comfortable with. Then, as if by a miracle, another group who was on the other side yelled to us and told us they had gone across, seen the summit, and turned around but left all their pickets in the snow for us to use. Whoever you are, I hope you read this as you turned a super dangerous situation into something far safer for us. We cannot thank you enough!

We reversed the same process to get back across the traverse, just with more protection this time! Then, right as we were heading back across, an oven-sized rock fell off a from the summit a few hundred feet above Glenn. Miraculously, somehow, it landed into the snowy ramp above him and stuck. Had it not, it probably would hit Glenn and pulled all three of us down to our deaths. Scary stuff and a reminder to us as to why climbing in the sun is dangerous! Thankfully we made it safely across. We followed our tracks back to camp and crashed. It was now 7:30pm. After a 17 hour round trip, we were in no way shape or form going to hike out the remaining 6 miles to our car which we had initially planned to do. We got up at 4:30am the next morning and finished the hike out.

In summary, this peak is best attempted mid to late season making for a safer traverse and summit pitch. We made a mistake by going up too early which put us in a potentially dangerous situation. Fortunately, everything worked out for the best, but it really taught me how serious a low technical peak can be. I should also mention our total mileage for this peak was around 20 miles and 6400 feet of elevation gain. Even without the technical aspects, this is still a long and grueling hike which shouldn't be taken lightly.
Click on photo for original larger-size version.
Me traversing the Whitewater Glacier. Sunrise is just hitting the summit area. Photo taken by Mark Smith (2015-06-14). Photo by Austin D. Smith.
Click here for larger-size photo.
Summary Total Data
    Total Elevation Gain:6797 ft / 2070 m
    Extra Gain:200 ft / 60 m
    Round-Trip Distance:20 mi / 32.2 km
    Route:Whitewater Glacier
    Trailhead:Whitewater TRHD  4100 ft / 1249 m
    Quality:10 (on a subjective 1-10 scale)
    Route Conditions:
Maintained Trail, Unmaintained Trail, Open Country, Bushwhack, Stream Ford, Snow on Ground, Scramble, Exposed Scramble, Rock Climb, Snow Climb, Glacier Climb
    Gear Used:
Ice Axe, Crampons, Rope, Tent Camp
    Weather:Pleasant, Calm, Clear
Ascent Statistics
    Time:1 Days 18 Hours 
Descent Statistics
    Time:19 Hours 

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