Mt Formidable

Mt Formidable (8,325ft)

Descending down Drop Creek

Eric and Matthew

September 23-24, 2017

Matthew flew up for the weekend from Palo Alto, CA, and we started driving north from the airport at 6:30pm Friday evening. Summer had just ended in the Cascades, with intermittent snow blanketing the summits over the past week, but we still planned to an ambitious ascent of Mt Formidable.

We drove to the Cascade Pass trailhead that night and camped out at the trailhead. It was pretty crowded, with plenty of other campers. In the morning we started hiking up shortly after sunrise, and noticed quite a lot of fresh snow across the valley on Johannesburg Mountain.

Almost to Cascade Pass

I’d heard that Paradise on Mt Rainier had been expected to get up to 10″ of snow earlier in the week, and it appeared this area had gotten snowed on as well. Our planned route on Mt Formidable involved some 4th class climbing, but since it was on the south side of the peak we hoped it would have melted out and not be too sketchy.


In a little over an hour we reached Cascade Pass and chatted with two other climbers resting and admiring the view. They had left earlier that morning to try to climb Mixup Peak, but were sketched-out by the snow-covered talus they’d been hiking over, and turned back.

The route didn’t look too bad to us, so we continued hiking up a climbers trail from the pass, following those guys’ footprints in the snow until they ended where the guys had turned around. The traverse wasn’t bad, and we soon rounded a ridge and reached the Cache Glacier.

Traversing above Cascade Pass, with Sahale Peak in the background

There were minimal crevasses on the small glacier, and the fresh 10″ of snow wasn’t really enough to cover any up, so we proceeded unroped up to the top at Cache Col. From here we got a great view of the rest of our route, though pesky low clouds rolled in and out frequently. Mt Formidable in the distance looked quite worthy of its name, but luckily we planned to climb up the back side, which was supposedly less intimidating.

From the col we started a descending traverse across talus, following a good climbers trail, all the way to Kool , Aid Lake, a small melt-water tarn. We were following the first part of the popular Ptarmigan Traverse route, which explained the presence of the climbers trail.

Our guidebook recommended camping at the tarn, but it was only noon so we decided to push on farther. We continued traversing across talus until we reached a big rock rib. There was a convenient ledge across it (the famous “Red Ledge”) that we aimed for. We scrambled up a short bit of loose rock to the start of the ledge, then roped up for the traverse. It wasn’t bad, but with the fresh snow we were concerned about slipping, and it felt nice to have the extra safety of a few cams in between us.

Across Red Ledge, with Mt Formdiable (right) and the Middle Cascade Glacier (left) in the background

Across the ledge the terrain eased up again, and we started traversing meadows and talus, heading towards the Middle Cascade Glacier. We reached the glacier at the level of some impressive icefall, and then scrambled up talus and snow slopes on the side to where the glacier was more tame. Here we roped up and started climbing up the left side of the glacier, weaving through crevasses until we were nearly at its head. Luckily the fresh 10″ or so of snow here meant we could ascend without wearing crampons. Without the fresh snow, the glacier would have been very ice I imagine.

High on the glacier we traversed right, through more crevasses, and followed some animal tracks to the Spider-Formidable col. I had originally thought we might camp here, but it was only 3pm so we decided to push on farther. From the col we plunge-stepped down snow, then put on crampons to down-climb a steep icy section to a big snowfield below. At the snowfield we traversed to the right (skier’s right), scrambling over slabby rock slopes to reach another col just below point 7285.

Navigating through crevasses high on the Middle Cascade Glacier

Again, we thought we might camp here, but it was kind of windy and there was still plenty of daylight left. There was

no water at the col, but below it would could see a meltwater stream on the south face of Mt Formidable. We descended a steep snow gully from the col, and traversed over to a flat area below a snow slope on the south face of Formidable. It was 4:30pm by now, and given that this was likely the last flat spot before the summit, we had a decision to make. We could relax, set up camp, and try to summit the next morning, or drop our overnight gear and try to summit that evening before dark.

The weather forecast for Saturday had been sunny, but in reality we were socked in with clouds. The forecast for Sunday was cloudy with a chance of rain or snow. Given that the “sunny” day was cloudy, we guessed the “cloudy” day would be even worse weather. So the consensus was to try to summit that evening before the weather got even worse.

Crossing the sketchy snow ledges below the summit

After dropping all unnecessary gear we started scrambling up the snowy talus field towards the summit. After rounding a 3rd class rock rib, we reached a big snowfield in an alcove with a cliff above. We’d read one way up was to find a “hidden gully” on the left side of the alcove, but all reports about this “3rd class gully” I’d read mentioned some 5th class sections at the top. The other option was a ledge winding around from the right side of the alcove to get to the top. This was supposedly 3rd class with one section class 3+.

I’m always skeptical that something rated “3+” or “class 4” is actually sandbagged, so I brought a rope and rock pro just in case. We decided to aim for the ledge, and at the top of the snowfield on the right we noticed a cairn. We scrambled up to the right, and soon gained a reasonable ledge. We felt comfortable scrambling unroped until the ledge wrapped around a deep exposed chasm. The snow was deep on the ledge here, and we decided to rope up.

On the summit

I led across the ledge, and we started simul-climbing until I got around the chasm and up a short snowy slope to a good belay at a slung boulder. Here we unroped and traversed left, then followed cairns up a fun class 3 gully a short ways to the summit.

We reached the summit at 6:13pm, with around an hour to spare before sunset. The top was covered in snow, but I dug out a register and signed us in. The last party up there was on August 27, so it’s not too popular of a peak in the late season. Unfortunately we were socked in with clouds, so the view was only about 20 ft in each direction. After about 2 minutes on top we started descending, hoping to get off the sketchy section before dark.

We roped up exactly where we did before, and I led easily across the chasm. This time we kept the rope on for most of the ledge, all the way back to the snowfield. Just when we reached the snowfield it got dark enough to need the headlamps, but by then we didn’t need the rope anymore.

The descent from there was pretty easy, just following our tracks in the snow, and we soon reached our campsite. After leveling out a spot and cooking up some dinner, we were sleeping around 10pm.

Sunset on the descent

The next morning we had a decision to make – we could return the exact same way to the trailhead, or we could try a more direct route descending directly from camp down Drop Creek. We’d never heard of anyone trying this descent route, but a few valleys down my map showed a primitive trail. If we could reach that trail, we could reach a road and then walk the road back to the car to make a big loop. It sounded adventurous, and we had all day since we’d already summitted, so we decided to try it.

Our first obstacle was descending to a meadow below through what looked like a ring of cliffs. Somehow we found an easy route through a grass-covered ridge. In the base of the cirque we found an awesome snowpatch that had a tunnel melted through it, with an extremely thin snow-bridge on top. It probably didn’t have too many days left before it completely melted out, so we were lucky to see it (and walk under it).

Crossing through the snow tunnel

We descended through the meadow, over some complicated avy debris, then into easy walking through open forest.

After descending through the forest, we eventually encountered some orange flagging on trees a few hundred feet above the South Fork Cascade River. There was no obvious trail anywhere, and there was no trail labeled on my map or GPS, so we figured it must be related to logging.

From here we descended all the way to the river, then followed the river down for another 500m or so. At that point we encountered the biggest obstacle of our descent – Box Canyon. The valley narrowed so that the river had cliffs on both sides, and it looked like our only option was to traverse in some trees on a steep slope on the left.

The south face of Mt Formidable. Our route went up the right side of the highest snowfield

We picked up a faint animal trail, and followed this across steep terrain until we reached what looked like it might be a dead-end. Luckily we had the rope and rock gear, though. We roped up and I led across a sketchy section, putting some pro in, then I scrambled up some bushy cliffs to get to a more moderate slope. It’s actually pretty safe traversing steep bushwhacking slopes with a rope on, because the rope will catch on any small tree if you slip. I bet not too many people have done technical bushwhacking like this.

After we took off the rope the terrain soon eased up, and we descended to the base of Box Canyon. Here is where my map showed the trail ending, and we soon found a faint trail in the woods, marked by orange flagging. [As I would later read online, the trail actually used to go all the way up to Drop Creek and beyond to a gauging station at South Cascade Lake. So the flagging we’d seen higher up must have been from this old trail! It passed on the other side of Box Canyon, which must have been easier than the side we traversed.]

Roped bushwhacking across Box Canyon

The trail obviously hadn’t been maintained in a long time, and was pretty hard to follow. Luckily we could follow the

flagging, though, and eventually made it down to the road by 3:30pm. From there it was about 6 miles back to the car. We tried hitchhiking, but the only car heading up wasn’t interested in giving us a ride.

It made the most sense for one of us to just run back to the car, since that would be much faster than walking with packs, and since Matthew had shoes much-better suited for running (unlike my monster mountaineering boots), he volunteered to run up.

I guarded the packs, and in just under 1.5 hours Matthew made it back, after a quick run up 2,500ft and 6 miles. We loaded up the car and made it back to Seattle in time for a big pasta dinner that night.



Star and Courtney Peaks

Star Peak (8,690ft) and Courntey Peak (8,392ft)

Star Peak and Star Lake

Eric Gilbertson

~20 miles

September 18, 2017

Fresh off of mountain biking and scrambling up Cardinal Peak, I drove four hours to Twisp and up to the West Fork Buttermilk trailhead. I’d skied in here last February, and it looked a lot different. It was quite bit more convenient to be able to drive all the way to the trailhead rather than parking 9 miles away at the sno-park!

I slept in the car that night, and just after sunset two other hikers emerged from the woods and drove out, leaving me the only car in the lot. This wasn’t too surprising on a Sunday night.

Sunny skies at the pass

I got up shortly after sunrise and soon hit the trail. Unfortunately mountain bikes were not allowed on this trail, so I would have to do everything by foot. After about 2.5 hours I reached Fish Pass, amid light snow showers. It appeared the area had seen the first snow of the season the past night, and the summits were coated in a dusting of snow.

The views were amazing, as the larches were starting to turn yellow in the valleys below. From the pass I dropped down to scenic Star Lake, then picked up a climbers trail up the ridge behind it. I followed the trail up towards Star Peak, eventually scrambling over snow-covered talus to reach the summit. It was pretty slippery.

After admiring the view I carefully climbed back down to the lake, then back up to the pass. From here I made a short 30-minute hike up the ridge to tag Courtney Peak, which had a lot less snow, being a few hundred feet shorter. I noticed ominous clouds to the west, and it looked like the western Cascades were still getting snow. I had strategically chosen to climb these mountains East of the crest to avoid the snow, and it looked like I had chosen wisely.

I soon descended back to the pass, and was at the car two hours later for a 7-hour round trip. After a food stop in Winthrop I made it back to Seattle that evening.

Cardinal Peak

Cardinal Peak (8,590ft)

In the meadow below the summit

Eric Gilbertson

September 17, 2017

I left Seattle around 9:30pm Saturday evening and made it to the North Fork Entiat River trailhead about 4 hours later, sleeping in the back of the car by 1:30am. I knew there was a chance of afternoon snow showers starting around 3pm on Sunday, so needed to start early to get the ~20-mile hike of Cardinal Peak done in a day. Luckily I had a secret weapon – my mountain bike.

The trail to Cardinal is not in wilderness, so mountain bikes are allowed, and the first 6 miles are a very gentle gradient. After fixing a flat tire in the morning, I hit the trail around 7:45am. I made excellent time on the mountain bike, hardly needing to walk at all until the trail steepened after mile 6.

Here I pushed the bike up steep switchbacks for a few miles, until it leveled out again after intersecting the Pyramid Mountain trail. I passed two guys hiking out who’d climbed Cardinal that morning, and kept biking another mile on rolling hills to the edge of a meadow beneath the peak.

Ascending the talus

I hid my bike in the woods, and continued on foot. After walking through easy open forest, I crossed a talus field and then hiked up the scree gully to the notch between the north and middle (true) summits. From the notch, I scrambled easily up to the right, then at the ridge crest scrambled right on easy class 3 terrain to the summit.

I was at the top by noon, well before the snow was expected to start. Unfortunately the views were extremely hazy from the nearby forest fires, and I hoped the coming precipitation would help stop the burns. After a brief rest I hiked back down to the bike, and started my amazing ascent.

It took me half the time to descend as ascending, and I cruised back to the car by 2:30pm. My hands were actually pretty tired from riding the brakes for several hours, but it was definitely worth bringing the bike for the extra fun and speed.

Right on schedule, as I started driving out the rain started at 3pm, but I was already in the car and headed to my next objectives – Star and Courtney peaks.

Dumbell and Greenwood Mountains

Dumbell (8,421ft) and Greenwood (8,415ft)

Looking across at Dumbell from the summit of Greenwood

September 13-14, 2017

Eric Gilbertson

I had just come down from Mt Fernow and retrieved my bivy gear in Leroy Meadows in the afternoon on September 13. I still had an extra day of food, so decided to climb two more mountains before returning to the car. Dumbell and Greenwood were farther up Phelps Creek, so pretty easily accessible.

I hiked back down Leroy creek, surprisingly passing several other groups coming up. If it was that popular on a wednesday, I imagine the area is quite crowded on a weekend. At Phelps Creek I turned right, and eventually hiked into Spider Meadows, and then into upper Phelps Basin.

Hiking to upper Phelps Basin

The basin still had a patch of snow in the middle of the meadow, apparently from huge avalanche debris that still hadn’t melted. At the end of the trail I continued hiking higher, to a level spot at the last patch of trees around 5800ft. The trees sheltered my from the wind, and I found a nice level spot next to a stream to lay out my bivy sack. After a dinner of ramen noodles and lots of blueberries I went to sleep at sunset.

In the morning I left my bivy gear and started hiking up the basin, aiming for a large right-trending gully at the head of the basin. I actually passed a black bear eating blueberries on the way!

In the gully I picked up a climbers path, and followed it up to the talus slopes beneath Dumbell. I decided to climb Greenwood first, since it was farther away, so soon scrambled to the edge of the southeast ridge of Dumbell, to the start of an improbable ledge.

This very narrow and exposed ledge wraps around the east face of Dumbell, and eventually pops out on the edge of a

The narrow ledge

snow and talus field at the Dumbell-Greenwood col. The ledge is a little scary, but not technically difficult. You just have to be careful and deliberate on it.

At the snowfield I put on crampons and descended to the col, then walked up easy talus slopes to the top of Greenwood. There’s some debate if the south or north summit of Greenwood is taller, and as far as I could tell they are close enough in height that one would need some legitimate surveying gear to determine which one is taller. Basically everyone assumes the south is taller since this is the only one actually surveyed, and it has the summit register, so I signed in there and then headed back.

The ledge was just as sketchy returning, but I made it back safely. Back on the other side I turned right and started heading up Dumbell. I scrambled up a class 2 ledge next to a snow patch, then found a 3rd-class gully through the upper cliff band. At the top of this gully I traversed right on class 2 ledges to reach the notch just below the summit. From the notch I scrambled up easy 3rd class ramps and ledges to the summit.

A scenic bivy site

Luckily the area was not too smokey from all the forest fires, so I had a pretty good view. I signed in, then headed back down, retracing my route back to my bivy sack. I briefly considered rationing my food and hiking up to spider pass, to try to drop down to the next basin and hit Chiwawa Mountain that day. However, my map didn’t show a trail there, and the contours looked like I could get cliffed out. Also, I was kind of tired and really was low on food. Maybe most important, though, my hiking boots were torn up enough that my toe was almost sticking out, and I wanted to repair them with some shoe-goo in the car.

So, I hiked back to the car over the next few hours. I took a decent rest there to eat some food, drink some water, and repair my shoes before starting that evening on the next mountain – Chiwawa.







Entiat Slam

Entiat Slam

At Ice Lakes with South Spectacle Butte in the background

South Spectacle Butte (8,392ft), Mt Maude (9,040ft), Seven Fingered Jack (9,100ft), Mt Fernow (9,249ft)

September 11-13, 2017

Eric Gilbertson

I had five days to do some mountaineering and decided to tag a bunch of Washington Hundred Highest mountains near Lake Wenatchee. After dropping off Katie at the ferry terminal at 8am Monday morning. I started driving into the mountains. It took a bit longer than expected, after lots of road construction on route 2, me picking up a few PCT hikers, and the road to the trailhead being in rough shape. By 1pm, though, I was parked on the side of the road a mile from the trailhead at the start of some shin-deep quick-sand-like dust pits, and started hiking. I reached the Phelps Creek trailhead around 1:30pm.

A few miles in I turned up the steep unmaintained Leroy Creek trail and was soon at the scenic Leroy Meadows. My goal was to climb South Spectacle Butte that day, but I had to hustle given the 3 hours of delays getting to the

The summit of South Spectacle Butte at sunset

trailhead. I traversed from the meadows and followed a climber trail up to a pass south of Mt Maude, then dropped down to Ice Lakes. This area is really scenic, with a big alpine lake flanked by granite slabs and a few larch trees, with snow patches leading into the lake.

I dropped my bivy sack and extra gear at 5pm and continued on the route to South Spectacle Butte (SSB). It looked unlikely I could get back by dark (around 8pm), but I thought I might be able to summit before dark. I dropped down to another lake, followed a rough trail farther down, then traversed across talus and through woods to the southwest ridge of SSB.

From here I climbed steeply up the ridge, scambling up slabs and talus. A few times I met steep gendarmes, and I traversed around these to the right, following cairns. The route was complicated, and at times exposed, and I was happy that it was still daylight.

I ended up cresting the summit almost exactly at sunset, and caught the last amazing view of the 9,000ft mountains

Sunset on Mt Maude

to the north. I hastily signed in the summit register and started descending after about 3 minutes on the top. I knew the route would be hard enough to follow in the daylight, and I wanted to utilize any remaining photons to my advantage.

Luckily on the way up I had carefully memorized the route, and managed to make it down the exact same way in the dark. By 10pm I was back at camp, and after a quick dinner of liptons I crawled into my bivy sack and went to sleep on the edge of the lake.

September 12

My watch battery died that night, so I let the sun wake me up. I quickly packed up and hiked back to the col below Mt Maude. Here I ditched my overnight gear and hiked up the easy talus and scree to the summit. The views were a lot better today, given that it was actually light out, and I could see my next objective to the north – Seven Fingered Jack.

The view from Mt Maude, with Glacier Peak in the distance

There was a ridge connecting the mountains, but it looked very technical, so I descended back to my pack and hiked back to Leroy Meadows. I planned to camp there for the night, so I hung my food in a tree, left my overnight gear, and started hiking up Seven Fingered Jack. I followed a rough climbers trail to exit the meadow basin, then traversed easy talus and scree slopes all the way to the summit.

I had considered tagging another mountain that day, but was too worn out from the previous night climb that I just descended to camp and went to sleep early at 7pm. A few other climbers arrived, which was a bit surprising given it was a Tuesday, but I suppose that meadow is well-known for being very scenic.

September 13

The sun woke me up early the next morning, and after stashing my camping gear I set off to climb Mt Fernow. This time I brought my crampons and ice ax (whippet) since I’d read there may be a small glacier crossing. I hiked through steep forest and meadows, then talus slopes to the pass just west of seven fingered jack. From here I descended, following cairns, towards a small tarn to the left.

The little tarn I descended to.

The standard route descends from the ridge above the tarn to the gloomy glacier, but at this time of year much of the snow had melted out and it looked like steep slab with scree on top above cliffs. I decided to take a less-sketchy detour, and descended to the lake and wrapped around the promontory to reach the base of the gloomy glacier. The route was a bit longer, but much safer.

I crossed the moraine, then scrambled up to the right of a waterfall to reach the 7000ft bivy basin. From here I scrambled up ledges and slabs to the right of the upper waterfall, eventually reaching large talus fields. After crossing an upper snowfield, I climbed almost to the crest of the south ridge of Fernow, then ascended the gully with the obvious chockstone.

I passed under the chockstone, then followed cairns along ledges to reach the east ridge of Fernow. Just before cresting the ridge, I

The gloomy glacier

scrambled up an unlikely-looking route on a ledgey face, to gain the ridge just below the summit. I soon topped out and was treated to sweeping views all around.

Unfortunately there was no summit register, but it was pretty clearly the summit. I retraced my route back, encountered one other hiker going up. For the return I tried the more direct route, instead of hiking around to the tarn. Ascending wasn’t too bad, but I still wouldn’t recommend descending late season.

By 2pm I was back at Leroy Meadows and ready for my next objectives – Dumbell and Greenwood Mountains.


Saska Peak

Saska Peak (8,404 ft)

Eric and Katie

September 4-5, 2017

We drove in to the recently-cleared North Fork trailhead Sunday night, and started hiking in Monday. After reaching a nice campsite in a meadow about 8 miles in, shortly after the Pyramid Trail intersection, we dropped our gear and continue to Saska. At the start of the switchbacks before Saska pass we left the trail and angled up and right. We crossed a talus field, scrambled up some class 3 rock bands, then hiked up a loose scree gully to just below the summit. Here we scrambled up class 3 rock to gain the south ridge, then scrambled to the summit.

We camped out in the meadow that evening, then hiked out the next day, with a brief detour to check out Fern Lake.

Dark Peak Attempt

Dark Peak (attempt)

At the meadow at the base of the glacier

Eric and Katie

August 29-31, 2017

After a rest day in Stehekin swimming in Lake Chelan and eating at the Bakery, we took the morning park bus to Highbridge, dropped off unnecessary climbing gear in an bear box at the trailhead, and started hiking.

We hiked south on the PCT for 8 miles until we reached Swamp Creek Camp around 12:30pm. After a short break we started up the old abandoned Swamp Creek Trail. The trail was pretty easy to follow at first, but after it climbed up to around 3,500ft lots of blowdowns made it tough to find. I eventually lost the trail and crossed over the creek at a shallow spot.

Bushwhacking up

In retrospect, we should have followed the old trail farther through open woods to a good log crossing. Unfortunately, my navigation error meant we were thrashing through alder slide thickets for the next few hours until we met up with the old trail at the good log crossing.

We followed the old trail a bit longer until it disappeared for good, and had a tough time bushwhacking through more dense alder thickets. Finally, just before sunset, we reached a flat open meadow at 4,300ft below a huge waterfall and stopped for the night.

In the morning we consolidated glacier gear into one pack and started bushwhacking up towards the waterfall. We then hiked up a corner on the left side and met up with a faint climbers trail, leading all the way to the next basin.

Our camp in the high alpine meadow

Here we found a huge meadow and got a nice look at the glaciers on the face of Dark Peak. Unfortunately

the snow was really melted out by this late in the summer, and most of the glacier was ice. What would be an easy snow walk in the spring or early summer would now be more difficult transitioning between snow, steep wet rock, and ice.

We put on crampons and climbed up the first snow slope, then had to traverse onto rock when the snow melted out. We made it a bit higher to the next snowfield, but eventually decided to come back next year earlier in the season when the terrain was less sketchy.

We climbed back down the route, broke down camp, and bushwhacked back down. This time I did a better job avoiding some of the alder patches, and we crossed swamp creek at a good log. We made it to 5-mile camp that night, then the next morning hiked in to High Bridge to catch a bus back. After filling up on pastries at the bakery in Stehekin we caught a ferry back to Chelan and drove back to Seattle that night.