Sunday, June 01, 2008

Spring on Mt Daniel

I've waited a couple of months before writing this down, I wanted to collect my thoughts and put a bit of distance between the me and the event.

The Planning

Mt Daniel - Alternate RouteI love the logistics of trip planning. For me its almost half the fun, pouring over maps, route descriptions, trip reports and photos. I had been thinking about an early season trip up to Mt. Daniels for some time. The problem is that its in the heart of the Alpine Lake Wilderness at the end of a 27 mile road. Snow takes quite some time to melt out on the road, the last 16 of which are dirt, and so even when it does melt it can be quite muddy. Thus an early season trip is not really feasible. Last year I had thought enough about something in late winter/early spring to call around snow mobile rental units in Ronald to see what it would cost, but the cost was prohibitive. Last fall Seth and I, took a quick trip to Mt Daniel, but had been foiled at an attempt to climb to the summit by an early early snow storm, I was wanting to return.

In January I saw a trip report by Steve (Yukon222) on NWhikers, which described a snowmobile trip to Ingalls Creek. I had met Steve on the TNAB Winter Solstice hike. On a whim I dropped him an email and asked him if he was ever interested in putting together a trip up to Daniels. We traded correspondence and plans were made for March. We picked two weekends to maximize our opportunity for good weather. The trip was going to be an undertaking of grand enough proportions to not squander the journey on poor conditions.

As the winter wore on and the snow continued to fall, I worried about route below Cathedral Rock. In summer condition a rough climbers path makes its way along a steep slope under the cliffs of Cathedral Rock. In winter conditions this section would be dicey crossing especially depending on the snow conditions. Steve and I discussed it back and forth and looked at alternate routes, we knew we'd have to watch the conditions carefully and reevaluate on site.

Packing the SledSteve invited Jeremy and Tisha Schmidt along as well, who he'd done the Ingalls Creek trip with. After the weather looked crappy in Mid March we set our go date for March 21s the first day of spring. I arrived at Steve's house at 6:30 am, he'd borrowed another snowmobile from his brother and had them loaded on his trailer. We threw all our gear in his truck and set off for Roslyn. We stopped in Cle Elum for a quick trip for some breakfast. We drove up through Roland and past Cle Elum Lake to the end of the Salmon La Sac road and parked at the snow park. Light snow began falling, with high gray clouds in the sky. It took a while to unload the two snow mobiles and hook up the cargo sled to one of them. We then strapped our four full packs and snowshoes, I rode back of Steve and Schmidts rode the other. We were bundled up tight as the wind chill was cold as we drove the 13 miles at 15-20 mph. The scenery was fantastic, seeing the mountains covered in snow, the Cle Elum river winding down the canyon. Riding the snowmobile alone into the back country would have been enough, and this was only the begining. We arrived the summer trail head for Cathedral Rock around 10:30 am. We unloaded all the gear, and Steve and Jeremy stashed the snowmobiles back in the trees. We put our packs on and our snowshoes and paused for a before photo and headed across the Cle Elum river up the ridge line toward Squaw Lake.

TrompingThere was no use trying to follow the summer route so we tromped upwards through the large Douglas Fir towards the ridge line. Soon it got very steep, and the fresh powder was too deep to wallow through and we had to cut short switch backs up the slope. Steve and I punched trail up the ridge, its unblievable the difference between breaking trail in the lead and the #2 spot. The amount of energy to break trail has to be about 3-4 times that of those that follow. Despite the 30 degree temperature as we started, we were sweating as we climbed the ridge. Finally we arrived at the open snowfield of Squaw Lake where we paused for a very short snack and enjoyed a tiny bit of sun as the clouds broke for a brief moment. We headed around the lake and started climbing the ridge again towards Cathedral Rock. As we began to reach the top of the ridge and the trees started opening up a light snow was falling under high clouds mixed with blue sky, it was almost like walking in a snow globe.

The Meadow BeforeThe ridge became more gradual and we passed the meadows where in the summer small tarns nourish high alpine grass. Our first views of Cathedral Rock appeared through the trees and we stopped to gaze in awe at the snowy rock and take photos. Grateful for the lessening incline we tromped along the ridge till we came to Cathedral Pass at the base of Cathedral Rock where the Pacific Crest Trail. We took off our packs and plopped down in the snow for a snack and water all the while staring up at Cathedral Rock and the steep traverse on its western edge to Peggys Pond. This was the point of concern and we discussed the situation a bit.

Crossing AloneThe avalanche report for the weekend was considerable Thursday night and Friday morning and dropped to moderate Friday afternoon, which is right when we paused at Cathedral. There had been clouds pretty much all day, a few very short sun breaks. As we surveyed there was no visible rock fall or snow slides. We had two options before us, traverse high on the steep slopes just beneath the base of the more vertical bottom cliffs of Cathedral Rock, or descend around 800 feet and traverse along the bottom of the slope with all the snow above us, not to mention the fact we'd have to tromp back up the ridge at the other end to get to Peggys Pond.

One Last StretchThe slope beneath Cathedral was pretty steep, at the pitch where snow slides easily and quickly. Meaning it doesn't build up and hold long. Slides had already happened in the past and settled in some places. These were slides of 2-4 inches of snow at a time and had settled. We opted to stay high; for saftey's sake we made out across the ridge one at a time. Steve led, as he had much of the day, it was slow progress as each foot required careful placement, ensuring he could get a step in the snow. At this stage the snow was soft enough that he could easily create steps. After he would reach a the next ridge or line of sight, I would start out. I would quickly catch up to him by easily following in his footsteps. I would then pause, and wait for him to advance and Tish and Jeremy would wait in turn behind me. Slowly we made our way across the slopes under Cathedral. I was nervous, but not overly so.

Around 2/3rds of the way across the pitch got noticeably steeper and icier. Steve got out his ice ax, as did I. As he attempted to make his way round the base of a cliff, he slid down out of my site. I quickly humped across to the next point in the ridge and saw he had sled down only around 30 feet. The pitches are not consistent, they tended to be steep and then the slope lessens, so there was no danger of him sliding all the way to the lake. His poles got "left behind", so he dug a shelf for his pack, and climbed up to retrieve them and then made his way the last bit to the safe zone below the trees on the other side.

Pushing for the LineI didn't want to encounter the same steep section and so I downstepped from where I was, to the same elevation where Steve had slid to. While downstepping, I noticed a bubble in the snow, as I stepped over this, the snow fell in behind me with a 5-7 foot hole, mini covered bergschrund where the snow had seperated from the rock face, luckily I didn't fall into it. I stopped here and waited for quite some time for the other two in our party, Tisha and Jeremy to make their way up over the ridge behind me so I could warn them of the hole. Tisha had run into an area where she was slidding, and Jeremy helped her make her way across. After warning them of the hole, I quickly joined Steve on the other side and Tisha and Jeremy followed, though Jeremy yelled out that he had found my hole, but not before he fell in, though he was not hurt and was able to extract himself easily given that he fell backwards downslope but his shoes stuck in the lip above him.

Camp at Peggys PondAfter we all finished the traverse we breathed a lot easier and we started making our way up slope towards the ridge and Peggys Pond. I was surprised to find that last fall Seth and I hadn't camped at the pond at all, but at a tarn below the pond, which sits higher up on the ridge and is much larger. We arrived around 5:30 just as the sun was setting on a ridge among some trees looking down on the lake. The snow was so deep, it took us some time of stomping and tromping to flatten down an area for us to pitch our two tents. Steve brought his new Hilleberg tent and Tish and Jeremy set up there's. I dug out a pit area for the kitchen and we got out or stoves to heat up water for dinner. By then the sun had long gone down and the temperature had fallen to 17 degrees. The Schmidt's and myself had both brought canister stoves, which unbeknownst to me prior, don't do well in cold weather. They sputtered and the fuel wouldn't flow, I had to keep banging and shaking my stove in my hand to get it to stay lit. I was able to heat up enough water for me to pour into my freeze-dried Backcountry Pantry meal and melt a couple liters of water for the next day.

Happiness is a Warm MealWe sat around the kitchen for a while eating some cheese and salami that Steve and the Schmidts had brought. I had purchased a couple of deserts from a back country websites, Berry Cheese Cake and an Apple Crumble, I prepared them by adding water and shared them round, both were delicious. Steve brought out his bottle of Yukon Canadian Whiskey, which is where he gets his Yukon222 moniker on nwhikers. Tisha brought out her Zune with some tiny speakers to play some music, however due to the cold the batteries only lasted like 5 minutes. We talked about a wake-up time tomorrow for climbing up Daniels, given the alcohol they consumed, plus the fact that none of us had been up the ridge in the dark, let alone in snow we opted for 8am which was just around sunrise. As we got ready for bed I wandered back down the trail a tiny bit where I had a view of the moon rising over Cathedral. I didn't have a tri-pod with me but I was able to get a few photos using the mono-pod.

Moon over CathedralAs we climbed into our tents Tisha complained she wasn't able get warm, even with all her layers and being in her bag. I offered up my puffy to her for an extra layer. I don't think she slept very well that evening. I was able to fall asleep, having had plenty of exertion to make me tired. I kept most of my clothes on and sinched the mummy bag over my head. Around 5 am I felt the call of nature and tossed and turned for 45 minutes before finally getting up around 5:45. Steve awoke with me and we started getting ready to make our way up Daniels. The Schmidts were a bit slower getting up and wanted to boil some water for breakfast. They told us to go ahead and they'd catch up with us a bit later. Given that breaking trail is slow going in 2 feet of fresh powder it wouldn't take them long following our tracks.

Heading UP!Steve and I set out across the beautiful meadows of rolling snow by Peggys Pond and set up the ridge line. Things were quite steep and we picked a descent line and powered up and up and up. Steve and I alternated breaking trail which was tough work in the deep snow. As the morning broke across the day there was bright blue skies and the sun rose over Cathedral as we climbed toward the top of the South Ridge. As we made our way up the slope the fields below the Hyas Creek Glacier were smooth fields of snow, several lone trees in all the whiteness stood starkly against the scenery. In the morning sun they cast long shadows across the snow, so sereene and regal in the stark landscape. As we approached the mid section of the ridge, Tish and Jeremy caught up to us, we pushed around a large rock and reached one ridge line to see another higher up. Before too long we had reached the top of the ridge where we could peer down into the Circle Lake cirque and out across to Citadel Rock and the 7000 feet peaks of Lemah and Summit Chief. They stood encrusted in snow with jagged peakks that looked more like the North Cascades than the Alpine Lakes Wilderness.

Our "Summit" for the DayThe bulk of Daniel peak still stood before us, at least another mile away. A large rock spur was before us with huge cornices, the time was 10 am and there wasn't enough day left to get to the top of Daniel. Not to mention that the conditions were questionable, the snow and ridgeline only got deeper and steeper the further up the mountain. We took solace in our crystal clear weather and views we'd enjoyed and started back to camp. The puffy snow slopes were a joy to jump down, tromping with huge steps down the slope back toward Peggys Pond. As we reached a high ridge with views of Cathedral we stared at our return traverse and talked for a bit about choosing a line that was more mid-range on the way back than the high path we took coming in. Back at camp we broke down and packed up and got ready for the return journey. By the time we started it was 1:30 or so. There had been no snow during the night, and there had been full sun with bright skies all morning. It was warm, and things were melting, the snow was soft.

The Route BelowAs we descended from Peggys to the ridge below Cathedral, we opted to spread out again, following a line around 200 feet lower than what we came across on. I led and we made it fine across the first chute where we paused at a clump of trees. I really didn't like the look of the next chute, there was an obvious 4 inch slab on the other side of the chute. I stated as much that I didn't like it. And as we stood there, small snow wheels were breaking off the snow above us and rolling down. I started out across and about mid way a cluster of snow wheels started tumbling down and building up steam. This was not a slide per se, more a cluster of snow balls that built up into a tumbling bunch of snow balls. I quickly turned around jumped back across in my snowshoes to the tree and leapt behind one of the trees. Over-reaction given what tumbled by, but spooked for sure. My nerves were jangled, I didn't feel like leading the next section so Steve went ahead, Jeremy and Tisha were second and third and I brought up the rear.

Getting DownWe made it across the snowball chute to the next small ridge, where we were below a large snag. The next chute was much steeper and icy; rather than switch out to crampons and cross Steve decided to go up and search for a better way across. Unfortunately the route up was very icy and very hard, I could barely dent the surface with an ice ax. The slope was steep enough that Steve didn't have a place to safely take a full pack off, put on his crampons so he scrambled up the the slope in snowshoes. While we were waiting, since we had a small protection and shelf, I hammered out some steps for standing, took my pack off and put on my crampons, one foot at a time balancing on the slope. Tisha and Jeremy were just above me and they also took off their packs. They had just purchased crampons before this trip, but had bought the clamp in variety and this was their first time putting them on in the field, let alone on a slope. I helped them tighten and fasten while we waited for some word from Steve. After getting everything on, Steve had crossed the other chute and yelled across and down that he was cliffed out and suggested we descend by another 200 feet and cross down below.

The slope below us was steep, steep enough to glissade. I descended a few steps to get below the rock. I called up to Tish and Jeremy and asked how their self arrest skills were, Jeremy shouted back that they had never done it. They descended to where they could see me and I gave them a quick tutorial. Given where we were, how steep it was rather than remove crampons, I opted to slide down, not in full glissade on my butt, but on one leg with dragging my axe tip for direction and speed. I arrived at the bottom of the slope and traversed out of the chute a bit and waited and watched Tish and Jeremy. They appeared to be a bit nervous coming down the slope, and were either avoiding the glissade or were attempting to descend a bit to get a clearer line. As I was waiting, two chutes over from us in the first chute that I had led out across, a huge patch of snow cut loose from high on Cathedral and came roaring over the cliffs and down the chute. My heart started racing and I felt fear. Jeremy and Tish both swore, and I yelled at them : "We need to get down now!"

Saftey's SeatFirst Jeremy and then Tisha glissaded down the slope. We made our way across the last chute to the trees and rested for a brief moment. I went through the trees to the edge of the next small ridge to see what lay ahead of us : a much gentler slope and trees, 500 feet to the pass, but 500 feet that looked safe. I sat down in the snow and started taking off my crampons, I felt safe for the first time in an hour. Jeremy waited for Steve to work his way down as Steve slid down the slope and attempted to avoid the cliffs. He later said that he doesn't often fear for his life, but he was worried about making it through the cliffs, and just kept hoping he'd get the 5 more minutes he needed. Steve stopped safely 25 feet above us, and after a rest for food and water we strapped on our snowshoes and made the long, but safe slog, up the hill to Cathedral Pass.

The After PhotoFrom the pass we followed our tracks back, wandering tiredly down the ridge to Squaw Lake. We paused very briefly for more water and a snack. By this time clouds had blown back in and the sun was a pale hazy disk; a storm was coming. We started down the steep ridge towards the trail head, the melt from trees left some crusty ice over snow which made for an interesting traverse in a couple of places. When we came to the super steep section we had plowed up the day prior we jumped and slid down the powdery hill. Soon we were back into the large Douglass Fir and the hanging moss. I arrived first at the bridge over the Cle Elum River where we paused for the final after group photo. After retrieving the snowmobiles we made our way back down as dusk feel towards the truck. We had to stop a few times and go retrieve Jeremy's sled as it kept overheating from running on the hard packed snow vs. the light powdery stuff, I guess some snowmobiles are snow cooled. We loaded up the truck and drove back to North Bend where I tiredly threw my gear in the car and drove the short 15 minutes home.

Looking back from the warmth and saftey of my office, its easy to arm-charm analyze. The safest thing on the return would have been to descend 500 feet to begin with and cross below in the trees where the slope is much milder. Several other things I'd have done differently is had a more open honest skills assessment of hiking partners I had just met like Tisha and Jeremy. Their experience was stellar for summer trips, route finding and orientation top notch, but no alpine winter experience, not that mine is much more and not that I would knock them for where they were starting from or not have wanted to go with them, but we should have had a skills and conditions discussion before hand. The experience definitely built up within me a healthy sense of reserve and caution for events, elements and unplanned. I didn't like the feeling of being out of a situation I could control, nor am I happy we didn't go lower sooner. I am glad to have returned home safely, and I do look forward to getting out again, though with a bit more control. Adams sounds nice for its safety in comparison.

Roundtrip stats: 27 miles on the snowmobiles, 10 miles on snowshoes with 5300’ gain (includes extra 600’ drop towards Deep Lake). 7 1/2 hrs up to Peggy’s, 2 1/4 hrs from Peggy’s to 7100’, 5 3/4 hrs from Peggy’s back to TH.

NW Hikers trip report.

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