OverviewWhales are mammals, just like us. Some are well-known and often seen, such as the Orca whale. But some are mysterious, such as the largest of them all: the blue whale. Some are fictitious, like that Moby. And some, some aren't creatures at all. Some are mountain formations. Some mountain formations are well-known and often seen and climbed, such as Mt. Rainier right here in Washington. But some are mysterious, and though they're typically in plain view, they remain under the radar, or, to be witty, under the sonar.
There are several mountainous formations in the United States with a whale of a name. I can see how a large mountain or one resembling a whale could be given such a moniker. Concerning only officially named mountains, California seems to be fond of the whale usage, for there are two "Whale Peaks", two "Whale Mountains", a "Whaleback", and various others. As for Washington, there is an unofficially named "Whale Peak" (Pk 6559, 1079P) north of Whale Lake in the North Cascades. And then there is the only officially named cetaceous summit in the state: Whalehead Ridge.
Does Whalehead Ridge look like a whale's head? Well [whale], this may be so and I can understand the reference. Does it have a blow hole at the top? No; but an exposed root in the dirt was sort of like a hole and it was a fortunate "hole" indeed. Does it have a series of rock ribs on its flanks that look like baleen? In actuality, yes. The tightly-spaced columnar basalt exposures on the Northeast Face could be wildly imagined to be resembling baleen.
Whalehead Ridge is a narrow spine of rock (an extended fin) of metamorphosed basalt trending NW-SE over roughly six-tenths of a mile. The ridge is located 1.3 miles southwest of higher but much less interesting Purcell Mountain (5,442 ft). Both peaks are about 17 miles south of Mt. Rainier near the town of Randle. The peak and several others in the vicinity are located in the so-called Whalehead Ridge Roadless Area. I would agree there are no drivable roads within this area but there are old logging spurs. There is one that leads up to 4,600 ft on the west end of the massif and may well provide the easiest approach to the easiest route up (if there is any easy route up). A road just to the northeast of the massif comes closest to the summit at 4,400 ft. From here the route of choice would the Southeast Ridge ("Whalesback") due to its proximity. From where you park it is only about 1.6 miles to the summit along a fairly flat logging road. As such, the short approach combined with the technical nature of the mountain make it a great experience with minimal effort. But you have to be willing to put up with a lot of unprotectable rock.
RoutesThere is no easy way up Whalehead Ridge. Our route went up the Southeast Ridge and is elaborated on here. The Northeast Face is probably unclimbable. It features 500 vertical feet of manky old basalt some of which is vertical, some of which is overhung, and some of which is in the form of columnar basalt steeply pitched. I have to say it is one of the most formidable looking faces I have ever seen up close (from the relative comfort of the Southeast Ridge). The Southwest Face (south of the summit) features a slabby, semi-vegetated lower slope that gradually tips up steeper and steeper until it itself is almost vertical in places. There are a few gullies cutting the face but mostly it is comprised of a loose composite of dirt, rock, and heather. But don't let this fool you into thinking the face would offer a good or safe route. There's probably no pro or it will be very intermittent and very temperamental. The probable easiest route is from the west, maybe starting from a high traverse over Pt. 5178 but this point is no trivial matter. Another option is to climb up from the high logging road to the saddle between Pt. 4832 and Pt. 5178 then traverse low under the south slope of the latter (but not too high as it is slabby and obnoxious) to reach the West Face (west of the summit). The contours of this face are not as closely packed. However, it appears there is a rock step just before the summit (northwest of the summit) that is likely Class 4.
Getting ThereMy intent here is to provide driving approach information to the conjectured west route (described above) and the Southeast Ridge route described here. I do not know the status of the high logging roads west of the massif. They may be drivable, drivable but gated, undrivable, or undrivable and gated. Note that all of the roads have new drainage berms across them for mile after mile. Very annoying but what can you do? Some of these berms were quite high in their newness so low-clearance vehicles and flivvers may have a difficult time.
Approach for West Route
Drive Highway 12 to the town of Randle. About two miles east of town FR-47 goes north up Silver Creek. Some of this road is paved. Drive FR-47 for 8.2 miles to a junction forking off on the right at 2,360 ft. Take this right fork, leaving the main logging road. Drive the fork for 1.6 miles to another fork at 3,000 ft. Go right and continue 2.1 miles to a 4-way intersection at 3,850 ft. I think this road is drivable and I don't recall seeing a gate at its start. Go left for 0.3 miles to another fork and take this for 0.7 miles to an end at 4,560 ft closely west of Pt. 5178. These last roads may be overgrown.
Approaches for Southeast Ridge
Approach from the west (from Silver Creek):
Drive Highway 12 to the town of Randle. About two miles east of town FR-47 goes north up Silver Creek. Some of this road is paved. Drive FR-47 for 8.2 miles to a junction forking off on the right at 2,360 ft. Take this right fork, leaving the main logging road. Drive the fork for 1.6 miles to another fork at 3,000 ft. The main road continues left and climbs up 4.5 miles to the 4,420-ft pass closely north of Purcell Mountain. At just before the pass a road goes downhill to the right. Take this downhill road for 1 rough but drivable mile as it crosses under the north side of Purcell to a bermed end (4,480 ft) a half-mile northwest of Purcell's summit. The rest of this road (approx. 1.4 miles-worth) must be walked or biked and the last 0.3 miles can't even be biked (too overgrown).
Approach from the east (from Davis Creek):
Drive Highway 12 to a point about 7 miles east of Randle. Here the Davis Creek Road (FR-63) exits from a road parallel to the highway. To get to this parallel road it is necessary to drive either 0.8 miles west or 0.6 miles east of the highway-creek crossing. Drive up FR-63 for 9.5 miles to the 4,420-ft pass closely north of Purcell Mountain. At just after the pass a road goes downhill to the left. Take this downhill road for 1 rough but drivable mile as it crosses under the north side of Purcell to a bermed end (4,480 ft) a half-mile northwest of Purcell's summit. The rest of this road (approx. 1.4 miles worth) must be walked or biked and the last 0.3 miles can't even be biked (too overgrown). Note that at 4.6 miles up the creek you will come to the trailhead for the Purcell Mountain Trail at 2,950 ft.
When to ClimbThis is probably best done only as a spring, summer, or fall climb. The access to the mountain is more difficult in winter and avalanching would be a major concern for Whalehead's barren slopes. But it is worth noting that the Southeast Ridge would be quite sporting in winter and that a winter ascent of this peak may never have occurred. Go for it!
On the whole I would say climb this peak in the spring when snow still covers some brush or in the fall after the brush on the final approach road(s) has lost its leaves. But DO NOT climb the Southeast Ridge route if there is snow on the summit dome as you may not be able to find an anchor with which to rappel the route.
CampingThis climb can be done as a day-trip but if you wanted to camp you could car-camp just about anywhere (this is logging country).
Mountain ConditionsWest slopes of Central Cascades
Localized mountain forecast