I hadn’t been out climbing for way too long, and there had been talk between my dad (Pete) and I of heading up to Devil’s Lake and climbing both Devil’s Peak and Devil’s Thumb in a weekend. The weather report for Sunday/Monday looked perfect, mostly sunny. Time to turn that talk into action. Pete was able to take Monday off, and the plans were set, we would leave Sunday morning by 4:30 and be hiking by 6:00 a.m. (yea, right, like that’s possible). Get up to the lake, set up camp, and head on up to the peak. Then get back to camp that night, and wake up early the next morning to climb the Thumb and head home that evening.
I threw all my gear together Saturday night and got to bed way to late for a 4 a.m. waking time. It probably would have been easier to just stay awake all night as my alarm hit me like a feather and I wasn’t even awake until 4:45 (past the time we were going to be driving out the driveway). When Pete got up he was feeling pretty sick, and was thinking of calling it off. But luckily, the DayQuil was found, large doses were taken, and the day could go on. After the normal slow morning we were finally driving by 5:30, already an hour late. Oh well, what’s the fun in climbing if everything goes the way it was planned?
We pulled into the trailhead at 7 without any other cars parked in the turnout, it looked like it was going to be a good trip so far. Sufficient time was spent contemplating to cold air outside, and the nice warm interior of the car; but there was climbing to be done, so we geared up and started the slog up the old logging road half an hour later. We had brought snowshoes with us in the car, and even had them strapped to the packs. But for some reason, and I don’t remember why, (probably because it was completely absurd), we decided that they wouldn’t be needed. VERY BAD IDEA. Only a couple miles later would we realize the stupidity of this decision.
Me on the approach, without snowshoes.
We got to the spur road quickly and started up the endless road of enormous water diversion ditches. For those of you who haven’t been here, these are not just any small ditch or log across the road. For some reason who ever closed down this road, decided it would be necessary to construct some fifty odd, three foot deep ditches across the road so anybody who used the road would have the joy of climbing through each and every one. But that wasn’t a big problem as the perfect weather and great views of Big Four compelled us to continue further. The morning air was crisp and the frost in the tops of the birch trees glistened in the sun as we moved up the road. After a few miles we arrived at the clearing on the approach road that has unobstructed views of the snowy mountains to the south. We decided that this would be a good place to take a break. By now we were wallowing in the deep snow, and had wonderful thoughts of the snowshoes sitting nice and dry in the car at the trailhead. Continuing up the road we got to the first switchback and cut through the woods to upper section of road, crossed the bridge and came to the stream that leads to Devils Lake. This was actually our second attempt here, as the first time we learned that there are really two streams when the map only shows one. We had followed the wrong stream the first time, which lead us to a completely different area than we wanted to be in. This time though, we knew better and were able to head in the correct direction.
Ascending the slopes up to Devils Lake can be a chore at times as the forest becomes very thick and steep; but isn’t that the point of climbing in the Cascades? I continued kicking steps up the hill, pulling on trees here and there as required. Eventually the slope eases off, but there was still a mile to go to the lake. And this is where we realized just how incredibly useful snowshoes can be. But we were over three quarters of the way there, so we trudged on. Up high we passed by several old growth trees that had broken off about fifty feet up but continued to live. It’s always pretty interesting to walk by trees that are 10 feet in diameter, and only as tall as the second growth trees around them.
We got to the lake at 2:30 P.M., realizing that mountaineering is quite possibly the slowest form of travel ever. It had taken us seven hours to go three and a half miles. Camping in a valley without a single other person around, perfect weather and awesome view completely made up for the not so pleasant approach though. So, the plan was to climb Devil’s Peak today, but after listening to the ample slides come down the hill, we decided that spending the rest of the day relaxing in camp was not such a bad thing after all. We set up camp, got some food, and sat down to watch the snow-wheels careen down the slopes. Some of those things can get huge!
Pete at our campsite by Devils Lake for the night
With the sun still shining in the valley it was a perfect temperature to laze around in a tee-shirt. But we were quickly sent scrambling for the fleece and parka’s when the sun dipped behind the ridge. It was going to be a cold night. After dinner there wasn’t much to be done except go to bed, it was only six o’clock, and the alarm was set for six in the morning. Twelve hours of sleep while out climbing? Who would have guessed. As the temps dipped into the teens that night, layers of clothes were piled on and the draw-cord for the hood on my sleeping bag became tighter and tighter.
Morning sun on two unnamed peaks in the valley.
The next morning we got up with the alarm, packed and started cruising up to the head of the valley. We made a rising traverse as we moved; trying to gain some elevation to avoid doing it all at once up the gulley. We had a good route picked out up the gully, then to a small rock pitch and following the ridge to the summit. Things were looking great. At the top of the valley we found a steep 45 degree snow ramp that led through a rock band to the gully we were aiming for. We kicked steps through some trees on the side of the gully all the way until about 2/3 of the way to the ridge. The gully itself was only about thirty degrees to the top and we quickly gained the ridge. Realizing we were walking onto a very large cornice we hung back from the top a ways and traversed our way over to the rock pitch.
Pete moving from where we gained the ridge to the rock pitch.
It looked fairly simple and short with a steep section of snow above it. We decided to solo the rock and Pete led off first. After giving me a good scare when his feet blew out, Pete made the final moves to the top of the rock. I followed up, and about half way through I heard a “Click, Thud”, I quickly looked down to see the brand new GPS unit we had along rocketing down the avalanche gully, [insert profanity here]. There wasn’t much I could do now, so I continued up to the top of the rock. At the top we found it would have been a good idea to put the crampons on at the base of the pitch as the snow was frozen solid, there was nowhere to sit and don the crampons and the next 20 yards or so was about 55 degrees. With the crampons in the packs, we decided this was a perfect opportunity to practice the old art of chopping steps! Pete continued up the steep portion cutting perfect steps up the snow, as I hung back for a few minutes to avoid being directly below the bombardment of falling ice and snow. When Pete was a ways up, I started the climb, and we reached the top of the steepest portion. From here on up it was a simple snow climb.
Pete moving from the rock pitch to the ice/snow above. I was about halfway up the pitch when I took this picture.
When I got further up I realized the last thirty yards or so was a knife edge ridge with a large cornice hanging above a long drop down the side of the mountain. We were only ten feet or so lower than the summit and with only one picket the traverse just didn’t seem worth the risk. I wasn’t the least bit disappointed though, we had incredible views in every direction. Baker and Shuksan were visible up north, Glacier Peak to the east, Big Four to the south, and Three Fingers and Whitehorse were dominating the western skyline. We lounged on the summit for a while and joked about what the maximum speed on the GPS would read.
One of the amazing views from where we stopped short of the summit.
Eventually it was time to go, we figured a rappel of the rock would be in order, so we harnessed up, donned crampons and got the rope out. On the way down we found a small shrub that was sufficient to hold a rappel down the steep section of snow and the rock. To make things speedier, we used a prussic for a back up and just walked down the snow, then rapped the rock section. As I stepped down onto the snow at the bottom and got my weight off the rope, I felt the snow give way beneath me and fount myself in a large moat next to the rock. Luckily I was still on the rope and all that was required to extricate myself was some skilled wallowing. Pete came down, expertly navigated the hole I left for him, pulled the rope and then we headed down the gully.
Me rappelling next to the rock pitch, about a 25 ft. rappell.
On the way down I looked down and saw a yellow dot, kinda weird I thought…..wait a minute, the GPS! I cruised down and sure enough, there was the GPS sitting on the snow. It even still worked and the screen had miraculously not been mashed by the impact with the rock above. Unfortunately though, there was no maximum speed reading as the impact had apparently shut it off.
The rest of the descent was a piece of cake, we cruised on down to camp for an hour or so of lounging before we packed up and headed out. If we thought the deep snow was a pain in the ass before, now we were really regretting not bringing the snowshoes. The sun and melted out our steps and they were blowing out as we walked. We just kept trudging on and eventually after several hours made it back to the car an hour after dark.
We only got to try one mountain, and didn’t summit (almost though), but this was still an incredible trip. We were close enough to the summit to make me satisfied and we had perfect weather with incredible views. I would love to give this one another go, but probably later in the season when the snow is firmer and the cornices have fallen off.