March 6, 2010
Inspired by Steph Abegg's recent trip report, EastKing and I started discussing the possibility of heading up to Eldorado ourselves to give the mountain our best shot. Eldorado has been on my to do list for a few years now but I've felt a little trepidation about that famous knife edge finish to the summit. Seeing Steph's photograph of the unusually wide east ridge settled things in my mind. I wanted to climb this peak while the upper reaches were covered in fresh snow. We decided If we got another break in the weather. Eldorado would be our goal. We hoped to do this trip the last weekend in February but with increasing avalanche danger we went to North Chiwaukum and Middle Chiwaukum instead. Fortunately, the following weekend provided the weather we had hoped for and also very low avalanche danger. Leaving my house at 1130pm Friday night, we drove to the trailhead. I knew that most people did Eldorado as a two day climb to break up the 6700+ feet of vertical gain. But I felt confident that with an early enough start, we could do it in a day. There would be six of us making two rope teams of 3 for crossing the Eldorado Glacier and the Inspiration Glacier.
Dave, Greg (SP member EastKing), and I met Josh, Mark, and Michael at the trailhead in the middle of the night and were moving through the dense forest by 3 AM. Later I would wish we had started earlier. The first obstacle was crossing the Cascade River. We found the log jam which is the common crossing point but to our dismay we found that it was covered with a thin layer of icy frost. Nobody fell in the river but to keep from slipping we had to use extra care. It has been noted in the past that finding the start of the actual trail is not easy. This is true. I think we were actually bushwhacking for some time before anything like a trail opened up in front of us. The trail, which contours the west side of Eldorado Creek, was steep and difficult to follow in the dark using only our headlamps. This was the third or fourth climb I had done without changing my headlamp batteries so they weren't quite up to par.
At some point we broke out of the trees and immediately we found ourselves climbing steep crusty snow. The real nightmare about this part of the route was giant talus sprawled about on this steep slope intermixed with half-melted snow. There were wide moats around nearly all the boulder sized talus rocks. This combination of jagged rocks, thin snow formations, and deep crevices was a perfect recipe for a twisted ankle or broken leg. Thankfully it didn't come to that. Higher up we reached slopes that were fully snow covered and predawn light started spilling into the valleys. The most impressive view from this approach was the imposing giant which is Johannesburg Mountain, known locally as J-burg. A summer view of this peak is impressive enough with its many cliffs and hanging glaciers. Seeing it's north face in the winter covered in snow flutings was no less impressive. The sun came up and dramatically changed the colors on J-burg.
Reaching the top of the Eldorado Creek drainage we faced an enormous headwall. At this point it would be necessary to climb over the ridge to the west and drop down into the Roush Creek drainage. There were plenty of recent slides visible that had come off of this ridge but none of them looked very big and most had probably happened in the late afternoon, after hours of sunshine. We made it to the ridge top and at this point Dave (SP member) decided to throw in the towel and head back to the car. He had my full sympathy because he had worked a twelve hour day, then without rest he had driven all through the night from his house in Wenatchee to pick us up in Edmonds, 3.5 hours (135 miles), and then from there drove another 3 hours (110 miles) to the trailhead. So on top of all that, the 4000 feet of gain to the ridge top had just taken too much out of him. At this point, rather than having a tired climber descend over some dangerous spots alone, EastKing volunteered to go down with him. It was a difficult choice but a very honorable one. He later told me that Dave took a fall in bad place and could have been injured and in trouble if he had been alone.
The remaining four of us dropped down off the ridge and found a nice flat spot to rope up. Although we weren't on the Eldorado Glacier yet, we would be soon enough. Mark (SP member) led for awhile and when he got tired, Josh at the other end of the rope took over. After an hour or so we reached the flat plateau which marked the edge of the Inspiration Glacier which is the third largest in the North Cascades. Now the summit and east ridge were literally in our faces. Looking up at the sun I had my doubts about whether or not we would have time to summit. Nobody had remembered to bring a watch and from the looks of it, it was getting late. We decided to go at least as far as the base of the ridge and see how long that took to get there. Once we were there, without pausing we continued to climb higher and higher. Josh was doing a good job leading but as things iced up in a few spots I recommended that we all take our snowshoes off and this made it much easier. We also untied from the rope since the ridge top was not part of the glacier.
It took a long time but we made it to the bottom of the "knife edge" and found it to be just as wide as Steph's picture had shown. In minutes were all rejoicing on the summit. At number 25, Eldorado is one of Washington highest mountains. We knew that climbing it in a single day and also with early spring snow was something to be proud of. Mark freely admitted that it was the hardest thing he had ever done. I felt very happy to have assisted two 17 year olds to the summit of one of the Cascades most famous peaks. Everyone on the rope had proven their strength and stamina. Now it was time to get down, as fast as safely possible. As much as I regretted it, I sort of became a drill sergeant to keep everyone moving. I put time limits on breaks and constantly reminded everyone to keep up the pace. We made it off the glaciers without incident and thankfully Michael (SP member) offered to carry the rope down which I had carried up. When we crossed over the ridge back into the Eldorado Creek drainage we found that a few hours of shade had formed a new hard crust on the snow. So much for those long glissades we had hoped for. As a consolation prize, neighboring Sahale Mountain was lit up with alpenglow. Dark was fast approaching now. I wanted to get past the nasty steep snowy talus before nightfall. We did not make it in time.
The snow conditions deteriorated to the worst I have ever seen. There was a hard crust on top from the cool night air but below that were several feet of unconsolidated snow which had been softened throughout the day. For awhile it was too steep to wear our snowshoes. Many times I would take a step and then sink in all the way to my waist. When were finally able to put on our snowshoes, we still found ourselves sinking in to our knees. Yuck! Strap failures on the snowshoes caused us to stop for frequent breaks. I tried to remain calm while I thought about the evening I wanted to spend with my girlfriend Sarah slipping away. Among the talus slopes we came to a steep drop -off. Remembering the way we had come up this section I decided it wouldn't be any better to try to find the exact spot. I chose a class three gully with plenty of rocks to hold onto. There was no snow in this gully but it was steep and the rocks were wet and down sloping. I went down first and then held my breath while the other guys came down one at a time. I knew that there was real potential for injury at this point, especially since we were doing it in the dark. I felt real relief when we were all down unscathed and I knew the worst was over when Mark found the trail.
The rest of the way we did our best to stay on track. When we came to the Cascade River we didn't even bother looking for the log crossing. Wet and exhausted, we just walked through the water, letting it fill our boots. By 9 PM, Dave and Greg at the cars were a welcome sight.