Mt Formidable (8,325ft)
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.]
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.