Warm and sunny spring weekends are dangerous. They make you yearn to romp in the mountains, basking amongst the gleaming white summits. But in the North Cascades they also mean heavy and unstable snow, with snow slopes peeling off right and left. Fortunately, there are a number of alpine adventures that are relatively safe from avalanches.
One such adventure is Oakes Peak and/or the nearby Salvation Peak (which is also known as Hellfire Peak, but for some reason — John Roper later pointed out the reason here — more recent peakbaggers have adopted the name Salvation, perhaps because salvation along with triumph better balances damnation and despair). This is where Tom and I decided to head for the day, given the recent snowfall of the proceeding week and the warm temperatures of the weekend forecast. Our plan was to ascend the south side of Oakes, and then continue over the summit towards Salvation/Hellfire. If time and conditions permitted, we also wanted to tag the summit of the nearby Damnation Peak. Although these peaks are relatively short by elevation standard, they rise right up off the valley floor and result in over a vertical mile of relief. Plus, they are nestled in the heart of the North Cascades, encircled by towering summits on all sides: Despair and the Picket Range to the N; Triumph and Thornton to the NE; Pyramid and Snowfield areas to the SE; Big Devil to the S; Diobsud and Logger and Electric Buttes, Bacon Peak, and Mount Baker to the W; Hagen and Blum to the NW. The views in this area are spectacular.
Access to Oakes Peak is via the Bacon Creek Road which leaves SR 20 just 5 miles east of Marblemount. There are a few possibilities for ascent route, depending on how far you can drive up the road. We drove the Bacon Creek Road about three miles, and parked at a spot just beyond the concrete car ford of Oakes Creek. This is at a demoralizingly low elevation of 650 ft.
This route pretty much just heads straight up the timbered slope just left (north) of Oakes Creek, crossing a few road cuts along the way. Fortunately, the timber is surprisingly open and pleasant. We headed up at a consistent 2000 ft/hr pace. Not bad for two people who claim to be slower than their usual selves (Tom because of an intense year of studying anatomy and me because of a recovering leg injury). Even when we hit snow (around 3500 ft) and put on snowshoes, we continued upwards at a good click, our early start rewarded by an early morning crust on the snow. We made it to the summit in 3 hours.
From the summit, the views abounded, and our traverse to Salvation stretched ahead of us. After a brief break, we continued onward. The first half of the traverse on the north side of Oakes was somewhat tricky at times, with small cliffs that required careful detours on steep snow-laden slopes. But it was definitely more enjoyable than arduous, as the whole time we were treated to a spectacular peek-a-boo display of the nearby Mt. Triumph and Thornton Peak.
From the 4790' low point in the ridge between Oakes and Salvation, we continued on to Salvation. We were now getting more of a workout with the softening snow and the numerous small ups and downs and zig-zags in this section of the traverse. But the broad open summit did not disappoint, providing perhaps even more intimate vantage of the surrounding peaks than Oakes did. Salvation also provides a view out to the headwaters of the East Fork Bacon and Triumph Creeks, a truely rugged and untracked wilderness.
We had initially tossed around the idea of tagging Damnation Peak, but by now the snow had softened considerably, and we were wary of the cornices and evident snowballing we saw on the traverse route across the upper north side of Damnation. So instead we relaxed on the summit of Salvation for over an hour, drinking in the views, watching for avalanches on surrounding peaks (hoping to see a cornice collapse on Damnation to validate our decision), eating lunch, and listening to The Mountain Goats on Tom's iPod. What better way to spend a Sunday afternoon!
Eventually the inevitable descent. The snow was almost slushy by now, and we squished our way along. We decided to descend the timbered slope from the 4790' low point, as a previous Salvation climbing party had done with relative ease. However (as our GPS track later confirmed), we got suckered too close to Jumbo Creek, to the point where cliffs forced us to either glissade down a slide path in the creek valley or turn around and re-ascend several hundred feet. We chose to chance a 5 minute 700' glissade down the slide path, stopping when we spotted a possible route through the cliffs and back into the timber. Fortunately, this worked, although even from here the descent was pretty tedious and lengthy. Either way, we decided that it beat sitting on the couch watching TV. Or studying anatomy.
We arrived back at the car a little less than 12 hours after we had left that morning, mountain recharged enough to make it through another work week...