Bedal Peak (6,554') Attempt, Forced Cave Bivy... 6/8-6/9/10
THE PLAN 8 Miles RT And 4,500' Elevation Gain
Adventures into the depths of the wild, untamed Cascade Mountains always go as planned, right? Um, Not always...
You can put hours into planning, praying, researching routes and studying the conditions, but there is always a risk for unpredicted challenges. This is a story about unforeseen events, which made us commit to a forced bivy. I'm going to be vulnerable and transparent on this trip report so maybe others can learn from our experience. I'm warning you now that this is a long trip report, so no grumbling... you don't have to read it...
It was Tuesday, and a glorious day by any measures. Perhaps one of the better days we have had this spring, considering all the late snow and rain. I was itching to get out; knowing that after today the weather was going to take a turn for the worse.
I read the reports on Bedal Peak (6,554') and soon had the route printed, images downloaded and confirmation on weather conditions throughout the evening. Per NOAA, at 1AM cloud cover was going to arrive, followed by light rain. We planned to be home in a cozy bed well before 1AM. Grumpy Bedal had other plans for us that night.
My hiking partner Cham and I arrived at the trailhead around 3:30PM. I had to work that day, so we had a late start. We had figured that it would take 4-5 hours up (7:30pm-8:30pm Sunset Summit) and 2-3 hours down (anywhere from 9:30pm - 11:30pm Back To Car). It was a lot of elevation gain for an evening hike (4,500') but we knew that 8:30 was our turn back time regardless of a Summit or not.
We started out on an easy to follow climbers trail through the large, mossy timber. There was pink ribbon here and there, but it wasn't really needed. The trail had few switchbacks, but rather quickly gained some straight forward elevation gain. When we crossed boulder fields and patches of snow, the trail went away but the ribbons helped out. In some areas the pink ribbons were spread out hundreds of feet, which seemed to always happen when the trail was least visible. The afternoon was beautiful sunny skies, and the bugs were out in full attack.
We continued to make decent time as we traversed a ridge and skirted by Nels Lake. It was here that we discovered the legs of a small fawn that was eaten by a large Cougar. We knew it was a large cat by the size of its fresh scat next to the kill. Man, it was a huge pile!!!
Climbing Out Of The Gully
Soon we dropped into the snow gully ascending south. By this time there wasn't a visible trail or pink ribbon to be found anywhere. We used our map and compass a bit, but it was straight forward. We climbed out of the gully at the best spot we could find. Most every report I have read, hikers have gone to far south in the gully and have cliffed out. For some reason I was so drawn to keep going up, but Cham talked me out of it. He was sure that he found a good, safe line climbing out of the gully. It was pretty steep and slow, but some cedar branches and well placed steps made it a success. There was one for sure Class 3 move because of the snow melting away from the steep rock. Once out of the Gully it was a bit icy on the North Slope below a large rock outcropping.
Snow Climb To The Peak
We put on crampons here and begin to get freakin stoked to summit. At this point the skies were colorful and beautiful to the West and North. The winds started to pick up out of the south, but however we did not have any clear views in that direction.
Skirting around the large rock, we started to make the snow ascent. The snow felt good. The top 6" was soft, but firm below that layer. The views of Mt Pugh, White Chuck Mountain, Mt Baker, Mt Forgotten and Glacier Peak really stuck out. There were no signs of recent avalanches, but a couple large cornices had broken off within the last week. The only visible cornice left was a small one on the false summit block. The snow climb conditions were great as we ascended the first hump. At this point the true summit was not visible. There were some large rock outcroppings that had us wondering, but we knew that the true summit wasn't this close. Once we topped the first hump, we locked eyes on the highpoint. We continued up a steep, open snow field. Soon we were traversing at about 6,200' and we could see the final pitch to the summit ramp.
It was at this point that I noticed a couple flakes of snow fall down. I looked up at the summit and a few small, dark clouds had just peaked over the top from the south. They were moving in fast like military fighter planes. Then I looked back at Cham and I noticed that Mt Forgotten was gone, completely engulfed by a large, mean cloud.
Cham took the lead to give me a break, and went another 150'. We were now roughly 200' directly below the summit. It was so close in reach, but we figured the final walk up the ramp could take up to 30 minutes. The time was now 8:45PM. The rain and snow was coming down pretty good, with dark clouds darting over the summit one after another. It was like they were coming from some hidden land, because to the north was still so beautiful. The summit block was blocking all views of the big weather coming in.
Retreat Into The Timber
We decided this was MORE than a sign to descend back down. I was really bummed to get this close to the summit, but knew that this was the right decision. I'm sure there are more experienced climbers that could have easily got the summit in these conditions, but the risk wasn't one that was worth it to us. It was then some glissades and quick snow running down to the gully in the remaining evening light. By this time it started to thunder/lighting, and the winds started to push the storm down our throat in the open snow slopes. We continued to follow our tracks in the snow down the gully and into the timber. Once in the timber it was dark, and the headlamps came on. We followed our tracks through the hard to follow, dirty, needle covered snow. We would lose our tracks here and there, but continued to hurry down. We would then find the path only for brief moments, only to lose it over boulders.
Losing The TrailIt was at this point, the winds calmed and the dense fog rolled in. The visibility became only 4' to 5', and our headlamps reflected against the moisture making it even harder to see.
This was our first lesson; we did not bring a GPS. This weather was unforeseen, but really typical weather conditions for a mountain. We assumed that the trail would have not been so hard to follow. Soon the trail was gone and we had descended hundreds of feet down (north). I turned on my Iphone and got into Goggle Earth GPS. It was a miracle that we had cell service. I ran a GPS track on our location. The first attempt, it showed that we were on Mt Baker... What The?!?! The second try it pulsed our beacon just west of Nels Lake, then the phone shut down on low battery. Cham asked to use his Iphone GPS to confirm, but we decided it was more important to save his battery at this point. We felt good that it was a correct location and it made sense.
We got my maps out and figured if we headed west, eventually we would hit the road. If we headed north we would hit the Sauk, but would never be able to cross it. It was a simple choice to head west in the dense, rainy fog of the night. The travel was extremely slow over steep, mossy terrain. Over blow downs, under blow downs, boulder fields and through brush we continued west as the owls hooted in the eerie night. We kept our eyes panning back and forth for the faint trail or impossible pink ribbon. We were eventually convinced that we would never find the trail, and continued west for the road.
The time was now 11pm. I took a couple small falls because my crampons would catch on sneaky branches and my legs were starting to get heavy. We had kept our crampons on in the timber, because it was such steep terrain. It was also so hard to see because of the thick fog, we were making every foot plant count. This was not the trail coming up, so we were constantly encountering drop offs and rock outcroppings in the forest. Our attitudes were good as we laughed throughout the miserable weather. At one point I fell face first in the mossy, steep forest duff and started to slide down hill head first. I flipped over and self arrested with my ice axe... It made for a good, frustrating laugh.
Our speed was painfully slow, as the storm continued to pound us with rain and fog. It was about 12AM when I came to the Cliff. We had been going consistently west for a couple hours now and the surrounding sounds had changed dramatically. I told Cham to come down to where I was at so we could shine two lights below. We could not see anything. The winds started to howl, the river below began to roar, the trees took on a different angle reaching outward instead of vertical and the space in front of me felt like a deep, dark abyss. The problem is that due west (our destination) was directly off the cliff. We couldn't tell how far down it was, but knew it was not doable with our limited gear.
We stayed up a bit and headed south along the cliff, but the cliff would not give up its sheer drop. As I was on a lower notch, I spotted a nice, small dry cave. It was about 8' wide, 4' deep and about 2' tall. Nothing much, but it was bone dry. I told Cham about the cave, but I could see the adrenaline in his eyes to keep moving. We continued to go south and tried to get around the cliff, but it proved to not let up its rocky, sheer face. We started to get into some bushwhacking, when I called it quits. I didn't like the idea of these cliffs in the dense fog. It had been raining on us for hours, and I was really starting to lose my morale. Cham and I had an overview of our options; there really wasn't any if I remember correctly.
The cave was our best option. We could have built a shelter, but why do that when you have a sweet cave? The cliffs in the fog proved to be too dangerous in these conditions and at our slow, careful speed it would have been daybreak by the time we hit the road. As we headed back to the cave, I started to second guess if we could even fit in the dang thing. I remember when we got there, I said, “Ya, it’s kinda small, maybe we can look for another cave somewhere else." Cham laughed and said, “You really think we are going to find a better cave at this time of night, in these conditions?" It got us both laughing again.
The cave was basically a flat spot under a rock ledge cantilevering out. The convenient thing was that this cave decided to live about 5' back from the large cliff we found earlier. That was a bit uneasy, but we didn’t grumble. We noticed that the cave had some small 2' x 2' boulders that we pulled out to make more room, and to also buffer us from the cliff. There was cell service outside the cave and we texted our family to let them know that we had food, water, dry shelter and that we would be walking out at first light. We also said do not call SAR. We got confirming texts back, and we rolled into the cave. My temperature gauge read 38 degrees, which became chilly during the night. I only had one bivy sack, so I used it as a blanket over Cham and me. It was a shivering night. We were too tired to build a fire, but we also had Jet boils if we needed to make a hot drink. We were able to control our core temperature throughout the night. This cave wasn't nice and cozy; it was more like a dry coffin. I love sleeping in the woods, but I didn't get much sleep that night.
The Next Morning
The first glimpse of grayish light came around 4:30AM and I started to notice that Cham and I were shivering pretty well. I told Cham we needed to get up and get moving. He agreed, but it took a lot to leave the small bit of heat we were keeping under the blanket. It was probably the annoying drop of cold water in my eye every once in awhile, dripping off the mossy ceiling of the cave.
It was 4:45AM and we were up, bright eyed and bushy tailed... sort of.
It was time to get off this freaking mountain. It was beyond acceptable to still be up here, but now we had light. Light to confirm that the cliff was at least a 120' drop off. Yikes. We were glad that we made the decision to stop our night travel. It could have been very dangerous to carry on through the fog.
We continued south and found a real nasty avalanche shoot that was due west. We down climbed into it with some slippery, exposed class 3. I rode out the muddy, unstable ground and did a couple self arrested. Cham passed on getting super muddy, and took a higher approach. The muddy self arrest down the avalanche shoot was not planned, but made for another round of laughs. It was soon groves of thick Devil's Club, Vine Maple, Slide Alder, Wild Rose and Salmonberry... yah for plants... not really, IT. WAS. AWEFUL. I guess you could say it was a bushwhacker's dream. How much bush could a bushwhacker whack if a bushwhacker could whack bush?
So Ya, after 3 hours of this misery heading west through some of the worst terrain Bedal could throw at us we hit a nice pleasant forest. The terrain became a bit more open and flat, and we started to gain speed jumping over blow downs and what not. We saw some of the biggest Cedar and Fir trees I have seen in a longtime.
We were probably in an area that doesn't usually see a lot of people. It was about an hour of this and we hit the road. Thank God. We didn't hit Mountain Loop Highway; better yet we hit forest road 4096. Even better than that, we punched out 100 yards up the road from our rig. It kind of made me sick knowing that we went through so much, when the trail was so close by. It did make me happy knowing that my compass still works.
Lesson learned; Bedal isn't the best afternoon hike, always carry a GPS, never trust the weather report and always be prepared for an emergency bivy. You never know when things will take a turn for the worst. It’s better to be prepared for the worst, than be in the worst feeling helpless.
Bedal might think that it got rid of us, but we will be back. Of course, starting early in the morning.