Snowfield Peak (8,347ft)
Eric and Aaron
April 28-29, 2017
With a tight weather window Friday evening through Saturday morning, we decided to try to climb a big peak in the Cascades. Snowfield peak is one with a road open and plowed to the trailhead, and looked like it might be feasible. Almost every report we’ve found of climbs of Snowfield have been in the summer, so we didn’t anticipate crowds.
Snowfield Peak is a classic Cascades climb with a little bit of everything. You hike through mossy forests on a trail down low, then bushwhack up to treeline, then cross huge glaciers, and finally get a short rock climb to the summit. Our big question was whether to bring skis or snowshoes. Skis would be fun and fast on the glacier, but would be heavier to haul up on the bushwhack, and our packs would already be
heavy with overnight gear and glacier gear. With the tight weather window, we opted to take snowshoes to speed up the bushwhack.
We left town Friday morning, filled out a self-registration permit at the national park ranger station (which still hasn’t opened for the season yet), and started hiking up the Pyramid Lake trail at 12:30pm. Within an hour we hit an intermittent snowline around 2000ft, and continued following the trail to the tiny Pyramid Lake.
I led the way to the right of the lake, occasionally seeing
a faint climbers trail in between snow patches. The ground was soon completely covered in deep snow, though, and we ascended steeply to the ridge above the lake. From here we generally followed the ridge, occasionally traversing right around cliff bands.
The snow was soft and slushy, but too steep for snowshoes to do any good, so there was quite a lot of difficult postholing. By 7pm we reached a flat shoulder around 5400ft and called it far enough for the day. The projected weather window still hadn’t materialized, and Pyramid Peak above us was enveloped in clouds as a cool wind blew across the ridge . Aaron set up the tent as I started melting snow, and by 9pm we were both in the tent ready for bed.
I poked my head outside at 4am and saw perfectly clear skies. The window had materialized as expected! We were suited up and moving by 5am as alpenglow came across the horizon. Our first challenge was what we expected to be the sketchiest part of the route – traversing a long avy slope beneath the overhanging cornices on Pyramid Peak. This was the safest time to do it, though, when all the snow was frozen up
from the night and the sun was not yet out to warm anything above us.
We soon made it across the slope in crampons, and switched to snowshoes in Colonial Basin. From here we followed gradual snow slopes up to Colonial Col,
and finally got our first view of Snowfield Peak.
It didn’t really look like any pictures I’d seen. In all the pictures it’s a black rocky pyramid sticking up out of the glacier, but today it was almost completely white. This year had been a cold and snowy March and April, and this high in the mountains it still looked like winter. So it appeared as though the whole summit pyramid was still plastered in snow and ice.
We descended about 200ft onto the Neve Glacier, then started marching up toward Snowfield. By 9am we reached the base of the West Ridge of Snowfield, and were treated to amazing views of other glaciated peaks in all directions. El Dorado and Mt Baker stuck
out as massive white peaks to the northwest and southwest, while the jagged black Pickets caught our attention to the North.
The bad weather was supposed to start coming in around 11am, so we had to hurry to not get caught on the glacier in a whiteout. We marched up the easy low-angle west ridge until the ridge ended in a small cliff. Couldn’t piece together where we were based on any route description, but that’s probably because the whole summit was covered in rime ice and deep snow, and I’d never read any report of anyone climbing in these conditions.
We put our harnesses on and got the rope out, but I couldn’t see any rock exposed to put rock gear in, so we decided to just climb up with ice axes. I traversed around left and ascended a gully to an obvious notch, and this matched a route description that said to then downclimb the other side of the notch. But the gully on the other side was steep and choked with rime ice feathers.
I climbed steeply up the ice slope to the left, and there met an exposed knife-edge traverse on more rime-covered sharp blocks. Aaron didn’t like the sounds of
those options, and I downclimbed back down the gully. I next looked over to the north face, which is normally a steep rock cliff but was now covered in snow.
This looked doable, and I traversed onto the face, being careful to kick in good steps and firmly place my ice axe in each time. I climbed up and soon reached another notch, with easy lower-angle terrain to the summit. Aaron followed, and I crossed back onto the south face, then climbed up an icey/snowy ramp and found myself on the summit.
The scenery was even more spectacular than before, with the whole North Cascades National Park opening up below us. We spent about 10 minutes on the top, and noticed that Mt Baker, which had previously been cloud-free, now had low clouds forming on the summit. It appeared the weather was coming as forecast, and we reluctantly started to descend.
This time, instead of traversing and downclimbing the sketchy north face, we dropped farther on the
south face and climbed up the rime-ice-choked chimney back to the notch we’d balked at on the ascent. Climbing up the notch was a lot easier than down climbing it, and a lot safer than traversing the north face.
Safely back at the packs, we quickly descended back to the Neve Glacier and switched back to snowshoes. We reached Colonial Col at 11:30am, just as clouds were forming in Colonial Basin below us. We quickly descended to the basin, traversed the avy slope below Pyramid Peak, and were safely back at camp by 1pm. By now more clouds were developing, but we were back at treeline and were in no trouble if visibility dropped.
We quickly packed up and started descending, as light snow and, lower down, rain started developing. Surprisingly, lower on the ridge we encountered fresh snowshoe tracks from someone else, but they turned around and we never saw the person.
We soon reached Pyramid Lake, and from there had an easy hike back to the car in the rain.