Getting Some Hands To Climb An ArmIn my ongoing quest to summit county highpoints and peaks with a lot of prominence, Buckner Mountain has been high on my "to do" list. With some mountaineering friends knowing this, I was recently invited to join several other fellow peakbaggers for a summit attempt of Buckner Mountain, which at over 9112' is the highest point of Skagit County and one of the highest points in Washington.
The plan seemed simple enough. Ascend Buckner Mountain via its southwest slope, considered by many to be the least technical route. As such, this route potentially had the best chance for success if conditions allowed. With an expected trek of nearly 20 miles roundtrip in two days over a wide variety of terrain, we knew it might not be an easy trip. However, with a good team and positive attitudes, we were motivated to succeed.
Eric Noel initiated much of the initial planning and group setup. Dennis Poulin, Dean Molen, Ken Russell (a.k.a. "Dundeel"), and I were each invited on the trip. Adam Walker (a.k.a. "Gimpilator") was also invited to join the team, but he already had a Glacier Peak trip scheduled for the same weekend as the Buckner trip. However, within two weeks of the scheduled Buckner trip, Dean had to back out of the plans due to family commitments and Adam's Glacier Peak trip was cancelled (allowing him to join our Buckner team). The five-man team (Eric, Dennis, Ken, Adam, myself) for the trip was set.
(Sahale) Arm WrestlingOur trip began the morning of July 10, 2010. We met at the Cascade Pass Trailhead at 7:00 AM, and began hiking by 7:30 AM. The plan was to ascend to Sahale Glacier Camp that day, and then the second day traverse east into the upper sections of Horseshoe Basin en route to Buckner Mountain. It was already known that Adam and I considered possibly attempting Sahale Mountain that day. After an hour of hiking up the trail we got Eric's permission to continue on ahead of the group so that we would have extra time to possibly make a Sahale Mountain summit attempt that afternoon. Eric, Dennis, and Ken, in contrast, had all day to enjoy the scenery and reach Sahale Glacier Camp.
Adam and I reached Cascade Pass at 9:45 AM. We turned to our left (north), and saw the next major section of our ascent: Sahale Arm. Shortly before reaching the pass, we encountered several snow slopes. Shortly after leaving the pass, we switchbacked up the Sahale Arm Trail, weaving between snow-covered slopes and melted-out meadow slopes. We reached a small saddle at approximately 6000' elevation, and then began traversing left (northwest) for a short distance. We could see the beautiful colors of Doubtful Lake and it's broken-ice top below us, to the north. Soon, Sahale Arm began trending northeast. This mid-section of Sahale Arm was mostly melted-out. Marmots were seen throughout the meadow ridgetop.
Adam and I reached Sahale Glacier Camp at 1:00 PM. The few other tents in the area were located behind small rocky outcrops on the ridgetop. However, we felt the best way to avoid a lot of wind exposure was to put our tent in a small snow basin near where we reached the Sahale Glacier Camp area. In the long run, it might not have mattered. The wind seemed to reach each of the tent sites, although I personally noticed much more wind velocity on the ridgetop than in our small basin. We kept looking up at Sahale Mountain looming nearby to the northeast, and were ready to try locating a low-technical summit route for that peak, if possible.
We began ascending towards Sahale Mountain by 2:00 PM. We reached the point where snow met the summit block within one hour, only approximately 50' vertical elevation from the summit. In the days leading up to our trip, as well as during this particular day, we had correspondence with multiple people regarding a possible YDS Class III scrambling route up Sahale Mountain. Our goal was to locate that specific route, if possible. We traversed to the area where the route was supposed to be located. Unfortunately, current conditions eliminated that option in several ways: a snow cornice was located there, multiple rock moats were located there, and multiple boulders had exposed ice on them there. We then traversed back around the summit block to look for other scrambling options.
Within two weeks of our arrival, we knew of other people who found a snow ramp going up to the summit but that appeared to be long-since gone. Eventually, we saw our three climbing partners arrive at Sahale Glacier Camp below us. We decided to head back to camp to eat dinner and rest for the following day's goal, Buckner Mountain, which was my main goal for the weekend. Adam was aggravated at not finding a low-technical route for Sahale Mountain that others had claimed. I tried keeping his spirit high for the rest of the evening by reminding him of the larger mountain that we were to attempt the following day.
Buckner... The "Easy" Way?After meeting up with our team, having dinner, and going over the plan for the following day, I went back to our tent and decided to take a nap. While laying in my sleeping bag, as the sun went down behind some ridges and the outside air cooled, Adam woke me up to tell me about a strange phenomenon. Millions of tiny black snow worms littered atop the snow surface. I chose not to get out of my sleeping bag to see them, but they were still out when we awoke at 4:00 AM the next morning (July 11).
The plan was to leave by 5:00 AM, but several of our partners were not quite ready and still needed to eat some breakfast before starting the climb. We ultimately began our climb by 5:30 AM. We each brought harnesses, and the team had a long rope, but ultimately those items would not be needed. We began by traversing east towards a large rock rib (ridge) angling southeast from Sahale Mountain. Before reaching the rock rib, we descended ~400' elevation down a steep snow slope to the rock rib. We had been advised by several other climbers that although it was possible to traverse down steep snow slopes the entire gully until reaching Horseshoe Basin, it would be much safer to scramble down the rock rib until reaching the basin. With the current snow (and especially snow melt) conditions within the gully there were plenty of hidden stream channels under the snowpack, as well as slick boulders and icy sections. The rock rib definitely seemed like the best option, although perhaps later in summer when less (or no) snow is in the gully that option might be better.
The scramble down the rock rib was fairly straightforward. However, there were enough sections with loose dirt, loose rock, and the necessity of "veggie belays" to warrant extra caution. If the rock rib had been wet, I would never recommend traversing along it. At approximately 6750' elevation, we found a notch containing a steep snow finger heading down into Horseshoe Basin. We had heard about this particular snow finger being a possible entry point for the basin, but with the current conditions (we had seen several avalanches on nearby ridges during our trip) and the uncertainty of the snow slope (and angle) we opted to find another way to the basin. I mentioned the possibility of side-traversing across the large snow gully and then downhill ~200' elevation to a large rock outcrop that marked an entrance to the basin. The traverse involved briefly crossing steep snow slopes that passed over a stream under the snow, but the snowpack was still deep enough and firm enough to pose any fall-through or rock moat issues. While taking a break on the rock outcrop, a three-man mountaineering team passed by us, also en route to Buckner Mountain.
It's amazing how sometimes snow can alter depth perception and slope angle perception. From where we entered Horseshoe Basin, the traverse to Buckner Mountain did not look appear to be a long route. But then, as we continued eastward for a while the basin seemed to just get bigger. As we watched the mountaineering team ahead of us become dots in the distance, it became clear just how big the basin really was. Similarly, the southwest slope of Buckner Mountain looked like a very steep (60°) slope from a distance, but as we approached closer it appeared to be only a 30°-40° slope. That also became much more clear as we watched the mountaineering team ahead of us.
Adam and I found ourselves leading our team for a majority of the time from when we first entered Horseshoe Basin until reaching the steep snowy southwest slope of Buckner Mountain. Dennis followed right behind us, but Eric and Ken were consistently finding themselves behind the rest of the team. Eric and Ken took a long break at a rock outcrop while Adam, Dennis, and I continued up the steep southwest slope of Buckner Mountain. By the time the three of us were over halfway up the slope, we noticed that Ken had turned around and headed back towards camp but Eric had started continuing behind us again.
We were saddened that Ken chose to turn around, but we knew he would just retrace our snowy route path and he had a "SPOT" locator beacon in case of an emergency, so a lot of our concerns were alleviated by those things. With Ken's departure, we were actually shocked at how fast Eric ended up ascending the southwest slope. Eric liked to joke how he was fast downhill but not uphill, but this definitely went against that thought. Adam, Dennis, and I reached a small rock outcrop at a saddle approximately 150' vertical elevation from the summit, with only a scramble section remaining. We decided to wait for Eric. To our surprise, he showed up only a short time after we had. We did not know if it was because he was following firm steps already in the snow or not, but his time ascending the long snow slope was still impressive. He is a much more gifted mountaineer than he lets on.
After taking a break at the rock outcrop, we left our gear there and the four of us reached the summit at approximately 11:30 AM, six hours after we left our camp. We enjoyed the 360° panoramic views for about 15 minutes, but saw clouds approaching in the distance. We briefly considered also traversing to the northeast peak, but large snow cornices and potentially treacherous rock moats obstructed the possible routes there. Although a small number of climbers think the northeast peak is the highest point of Buckner Mountain, a vast majority of climbers (including me) believe the southwest peak is truly higher... even if by only 2' elevation. Given the conditions, it would have been too dangerous and reckless to attempt the traverse to the northeast peak. I am content with that decision, as I am content with the thought that I was on the true summit of Buckner Mountain.
Adam recorded a short video while at the summit. We soon scrambled back down to the small saddle where we had left our gear. Even after spending a short time snacking and reshuffling our backpacks, we descended the steep southwest slope. If the slope had been icy, firm, or partially melted-out (i.e. half-rock/half-ice), it might have been difficult to descend. However, with soft midday snow we were able to make good plunge-steps and great descent time. Eric made the descent look quick and effortless, even adding a short glissade at the bottom of the steep slope. Adam and I followed, plunge-stepping the entire way down. Dennis followed behind us, but had a brief fall on the final steep slope which required a lengthy self-arrest before he stopped. He was uninjured, and we fortunate that would be the closest incident to injury for any of us the entire day.
Just When You Think Things Will Go Smoothly...Adam, Dennis, and I reached Eric at a small rock outcrop near the base of the southwest slope. After taking a short break, the four of us agreed to split into two groups: Adam and I as the first team, and Dennis and Eric as the second team. This was because Adam and I had to be back to our vehicle (and home) that evening due to scheduled plans the following day, while Dennis and Eric planned to camp overnight again at Sahale Glacier Camp. Another area of concern (at least for me) was the steadily lowering of clouds filling the entire sky and covering over all of the terrain above 8000' elevation.
Adam and I made great time crossing Horseshoe Basin. On the other side of the basin, when we reached the eastern edge of the rock rib, we had two choices: traverse around the rock rib as we had during our trek earlier that morning, or ascend the steep snow finger which was more clearly in view than earlier that morning. I was concerned with the unknowns of the snow finger, but Adam was concerned with traversing back around the rock rib. Seeing recent footprints (from within one day of our arrival) up the snow finger, Adam began traversing up the snowy slope and I trusted his judgment and experience enough to follow. Ultimately, it turned out to be the correct decision as it was fairly straightforward with soft snow (but would have been more dangerous/technical with firm or icy snow), and it saved a lot of time.
From the notch on the rock rib, we retraced our route from that morning and ascended the rock rib back to the snow slope. By the time we reached the final snow slope leading towards Sahale Glacier Camp, we noticed three main things. First, the three-man mountaineering team was only a short distance ahead of us, halfway up the final slope. Second, there had been a lot of rock fall on the north side of the slope during that day. Third, the cloud-cover was thicker and lower than before, making the top of the final snow slope appear to have near-whiteout potential. The assertion turned out to be correct, as visibility decreased substantially near Sahale Glacier Camp. Fortunately, I had my GPS track log to guide us, when needed and when our general scope of the terrain was "clouded over" (so to speak). Eventually, we found Ken at his campsite, and our campsite was only a short walk downslope from that location. We arrived at our camp by 3:30 PM.
Ken, Adam, and I (as planned) each gathered our belongings, tore down our campsites, and got ready to begin descending to our vehicles together. Before we left, Dennis and Eric returned safely to camp. They needed to filter some water, so they borrowed Adam's filter for about 20 minutes. During that time, thinking Adam and I would catch up, Ken began heading down Sahale Arm. After Dennis and Eric were done borrowing Adam's filter, we each said our "good-byes", and then Adam and I began our descent at 4:30 PM. After dropping approximately 200' elevation from Sahale Glacier Camp, we found ourselves below the cloudline. However, where the clouds ended the wind began. The wind gusts must have easily been 30-40 MPH while we traversed the ridgetop of Sahale Arm, before the final switchbacked slopes leading to Cascade Pass. Once we reached the pass, we found Ken there waiting for us. Adam and I were slightly shocked that Ken made it down to that location so fast. In fact, he had been waiting there a while (as we had earlier seen him there from higher up on the route). Ken, Adam, and I then hiked down the final 3.7 miles together back to our vehicles.
We arrived at our vehicles at 8:00 PM. Being late on a Sunday night, our hopes of finding a suitable place to eat that was still open was unlikely. However, Ken knew of an Italian restaurant in Sedro-Woolley that was open until 11:00 PM. In theory, we had plenty of time to get there. Unfortunately, within a few miles of driving, immediately before reaching the Eldorado Peak Trailhead, my back driver's side tire had a full blow-out. I quickly pulled into the trailhead parking area and stopped the car. Ken, who was driving right behind me, stopped to assist. We soon had my spare tire put on, although I had to drive much slower than I had hoped from that point on. We made it to the Italian restaurant at 10:35 PM, and they were happy to still seat us and allow us to order before closing. Although no other customers entered the restaurant after we had, the owners waited patiently while we ate... and we were happy to give a generous tip in return for the hospitality.
Ken, Adam, and I left the restaurant at 11:15 PM, with Adam and I finally arriving back at my house by 12:30 PM. Thinking that nothing else could possibly happen, I entered the house to find... my dog missing. Apparently he had quietly walked outside when somebody had our front door open about 1h30m prior to our arrival, and nobody realized his departure. The general assumption was he was sleeping. With a rainstorm now in full effect, and giving up hope of somebody opening the front door, it appeared he sought shelter from a nearby bush-tree within a block down the street. He came as soon as I walked to the sidewalk and called him. At least he was safe and sound (albeit very wet), and it put an extra asterisk onto what will be one of the mountaineering trips I will look back on fondly in the future.