Sawtooth Slam – Mount Bigelow (8,440ft), Martin Peak (8,375ft), Switchback Peak (8,321ft)
I couldn’t find a mountaineering partner for the first half of spring break, so set off to climb some mountains solo. The weather was supposed to be dry and sunny east of the cascade crest, and it looked like I could hit three hundred-highest mountains in one trip.
Sunday morning I drove four hours to Methow, WA on the desert side of the mountains and turned up the Gold Creek road. The road soon ended in a pile of snow next to the last house, and from here on up into the mountains it was all snowmobile tracks. I had hoped the road was melted out farther, but had no such luck. It would now be a nine-mile hike just to get to the trailhead of what my guidebook called a three-day peakbagging itinerary.
I came with a secret weapon, though – a sled. The Lowe’s in Seattle had just packed up their sleds for the season, but I had convinced them on Saturday to let me buy one. I loaded up my pack onto the sled, strapped on the skis to the pack, and threw in the ski boots. Ideally someday I’ll get a backcountry ski setup, but for now I have to hike uphill in snowshoes and use the skis to come down.
I towed the sled up the forest service road for nine miles, finally reaching the trailhead by 6pm. I momentarily considered sleeping there, but decided to push on until dark. After stashing the skis and sled in the woods I hiked on another two hours until darkness caught me. Luckily the trail was flat and there was no risk of other hikers coming by for at least another two months, so I pitched the tent in the trail.
The next morning I started hiking shortly after sunrise, and a few hours later made it to upper Eagle Lake. Here I dropped my pack, and proceeded ultralight with just the lid. I packed crampons, food, a nalgene, and the ice axe strapped to the back.
I carefully picked my way up the slopes above the lake, traverse to the northeast ridge of Mt Bigelow, then scrambled the short 3rd class rock and snow gully to the summit. The views were amazing – the cascades to the west, Hoodoo and Raven Ridge to the north, the desert to the east, and my next objectives, Martin and Switchback, to the south.
I rummaged through the snow for a few minutes looking for a summit register, but couldn’t find one. So I descended back down to my camp. By now I’d already drank my two liters of water so whipped out my stove to melt some more snow.
With full nalgenes I packed up and traverse around the slopes south of the lake, then hiked up to Horse Head Pass. The ridge extending south to Cleops Peak was very heavily corniced. I dropped down to Boiling Lake on the other side and stopped for a break at the first level spot I found. By now it was 3pm, and I figured I might just have enough daylight left to hit both Martin and Swithback. I dropped my pack, loaded up the lid as before, and took off.
I cut through a small pass just south of the lake, then traversed the west side of Cleops. Here I ditched my snowshoes and climbed up in crampons to the saddle between Cleops and Martin. I was careful to stay
well to the west side of the ridge to avoid the cornices, and from the pass scrambled up the steep rock and snow ridgeline to the summit of Martin Peak.
It was now 5pm, and Switchback looked reasonably close. I took a 5-minute break on the summit, then descended down the south ridge of Martin and continued ridge-walking all the way to Switchback Peak at 6pm. It had taken me 3 hours to get here, and I had 2 hours left of daylight, but luckily I could reuse my footprints on the way back to not have to break trail, and could make better time.
I jogged down the summit of Switchback, back up Martin, and then back down the
north ridge to my snowshoes. I carried the snowshoes on the traverse and eventually made it to camp right at 8pm, just in time to catch the last rays of light.
That evening unfortunately I ran out of fuel, having packed just as much as I thought I’d need but actually using more to melt the extra water that morning. I ended up eating just a meager dinner and having 1.5 liters of water left to get me back to the trailhead. I had briefly considered hitting more mountains tuesday, but with this water situation I would have to get back to the trailhead as quickly as possible.
In the morning I got moving by 8am, hiked back over Horsehead Pass and down to the trailhead by noon. I took a long break there to dry out my wet and sore feet, then strapped on the skis and coasted down the road. What had taken me five hours to ascend I skied down in a little over an hour, reaching the car by mid afternoon. I had enough time to make it back to Seattle by dinner time that evening.