An effort with Jeremy B, who himself is looking to complete the Washington county high points. I highly doubt anyone who is not pursuing that list would find themselves on Big Horn. More on that below.
For what it is worth, this would be a very reasonable car-to-car effort, particularly when you look at the times we logged (2.5 hrs to Cispus Basin; 8.5 hrs on summit day; 2 hrs from Cispus Basin to TH). Others can likely move a bit faster.
Our initial plan was to leave Greater Seattle at 8 a.m. on Thursday morning, but we were quite lackadaisical after meeting up as we were waiting out the rainy morning that was forecast to let up in the early afternoon. Additionally, given our short approach to a base camp, we had plenty of time on our hands. Thus we arrived at the Berry Patch trailhead at 1 p.m. and were hiking by 1:30. The parking area was quite full, almost to overflowing, which was quite a surprise to us on a Thursday afternoon.
During our approach it continued drizzling on and off, but never so much that we felt a need to put on our rainshells. The number of people we encountered from the trailhead on up astonished us. This only increased once we hit the PCT, which we had expected to some extent, but the steady stream of people was a shock. Everything we had read and heard was that Goat Rocks Wilderness is a well-kept secret; clearly this is no longer the case. In fact we were told by a PCT thru-hiker (who was hiking it in sections over the past decade) that this is only 10% of "normal" due to COVID.
Thus there is a case to be made for an early-season approach on two counts: first, to avoid the crowds, and second, solid snow would likely render the gullies on Big Horn to be considerably less miserable.
We reached our intended campsite -- which fortuitously was one of very few that was unoccupied -- at 6100' in Cispus Basin a little after 4:00. It was cold, windy, and drizzly, so we set up our tent and bivy and napped a couple hours before supper.
As we slept through the night, some high gusts of wind and momentary bursts of rain led us each to think individually that perhaps a summit bid may not happen on Friday. However when we awoke, the skies had cleared and the winds were almost nonexistent. It was still quite cold as we made our preparations, so we took our time in our layers waiting for the sun to hit the upper reaches of the mountain and warm us up. Just as with our approach day, we had plenty of time on summit day as we were planning on sleeping at Cispus Basin a second night.
We started hiking up from Cispus Basin around 9 a.m. The elevation gain from here is pretty steady but not unreasonable. We picked our route through the meadows, generally tracing one of the streams whose headwaters seemed to be the general direction of our objective. Above the meadows, we caught our first glimpse of the ridgeline that we intended to go up and over toward the gullies of Big Horn. After the cold night, and yet to be hit by the sun, the snowfields here were quite hard, but they were also very brief. We only crossed snow when necessary, not wanting to invest the time in putting on and taking off our crampons. Once we gained the ridgeline, it was apparent that we would trace the rock walls above the scree slopes.
As other reports have mentioned, the 4th gully seems to be the most ideal. At least on our part, we did not identify anything that would make for more ideal travel. This gully was marked with a cairn. We quickly donned helmets and each picked slightly different routes so as not to kick rocks down on one another.
There are without question looser and more miserable routes out there. However I have yet to travel any of them. I cannot emphasize how on-point your scrambling skills have to be here and how comfortable you must be with unprotected exposure. At one point early on, Jeremy B grabbed a solid basketball-sized rock that immediately came loose and tumbled onto his lap. Both of us had countless experiences grabbing a solid hold on a large rock only to have it fall off in our hands. And this is nothing to say of the rocks we inevitably kicked loose by foot. While Greg Slayden suggests a party of no more than 4, both Jeremy B and I agreed we would not consider doing this route with more than TWO people. There is just too much loose stuff. In any case going without helmet would be suicide.
As we say in the PNW, the holds are perfectly fine, just put them back where you found them.
This gully section is only 500-600 vertical feet, but the time it took us to ascend using careful routefinding and testing each and every hold was considerable.
Once at about 7500', we found ourselves at the foot of the snowfield. Here we took a lengthy break and took out our ice axes and crampons. The snow up here had been in the sun for a time so it was thankfully pretty soft. We were able to front-point quite easily. This snowfield is quite steep and traversing it would be a waste of time (and it would not negate the exposure); some may consider bringing two axes for this, particularly earlier in the season. Reports we read had indicated the upper section is accessible via two snow-tongues. Our assessment was that the one to climber's left was the safer and more viable option. Once I got to the base of the snowtongue, I found it to be too narrow and overhung for my tastes, so I made the awkward transition up and over the snow and into the moat which was about 3-4' deep. On his part, Jeremy B gave it a little more of a go but transitioned to the rock just a few vertical feet above where I had.
We had to ascend the rock for a bit before we found an ideal spot to remove our crampons. From here on up the rock was blessedly solid and we were able to make very short work getting to the base of the class-5 section. To the base of the class 5 section the scrambling is probably class 3, but it can get highly exposed at a couple moments so vigilance is necessary.
At the base of the class 5 section we again transitioned, pulling out the pro and rope and harnesses. Jeremy B led the short 40' route with such acumen that I was prepared for an easy ascent. Only 2 pieces of pro were necessary -- one nut and one cam -- though I neglected to take note of the sizes. Jeremy B can provide that in his report.
In short order I took him off belay and prepared to climb. Just a couple moves up, though, I found no small difficulty in trying to jam my size-14 boots into the crack. Smearing on the face also proved ineffective. I fell off the route -- twice. Jeremy B had me on belay so I was unconcerned, just frustrated. Finally I managed my way up the route. It is no secret that rock continues to be my weakness, and this struggle served as further illustration.
Nevertheless, above the short class-5 pitch we were able to walk right up to the summit. Not a register nor a benchmark in sight. (Well, about the benchmark...the survey marker is situated quite amusingly atop a pole about 40-50' below the class-5 route. Both of us got a laugh out of imagining the USGS surveyor who got to the base of the class-5 route and said, "I am not getting paid enough for this," and called it good.) From the summit, we noted a relatively new-looking rap station atop Black Thumb. It was befuddling for either of us to consider why Black Thumb might be considered a worthy climb.
We had considered a traverse over to Gilbert Peak, having read Daniel Mick's report; however, once we'd reached the base of the snowfield on our ascent we began to have our doubts about any possibility of finding a safe route. Atop the summit of Big Horn, we both agreed Gilbert was not in the cards for us on this day. We knew descending was going to take significant mental energy, and neither of us felt up to the risk of even more highly exposed loose rock. To make the traverse between these two peaks, it seems to us that one of two things is necessary: 1) descending nearly to the base of the gullies to more solid rock before making a traverse to Gilbert; 2) having adequate solid snow cover to make for a much smoother traverse.
It was at the summit that we heard our only signs of other humans since departing Cispus Basin. Somewhere below, we heard hoots and hollers, and our endorphin-fueled egotism led us to believe those could only be directed at us. So we returned the greeting before making the descent. We rapped down the class 5 section and then opted to utilize the rap stations down to the snowfield for safety's sake.
Rather than glissade down the steep snowfield, we opted to once again use crampons and ice axes, downclimbing to the rock below. The snow had gotten even more slushier in the brief time we were at the summit, such that kicking in steps became a bit more tedious. We did find that we could easily arrest while front-pointing, however.
As we removed our crampons, we took time to consider the task ahead. Neither of us was particularly looking forward to downclimbing this section. Just as soon as we started descending the nasty rockfall plagued us. And yet, we could not find a more solid route from above, so we elected to take the same gully we had followed on the way up. We stayed close together so any rockfall would not be injurious. The descent did not take as long as we had anticipated, and we were elated to be at the base of the gully. From there it was a short and easy walk back to our camp at Cispus Basin. The round-trip had taken us 8.5 hours including breaks.
We briefly considered hiking the remainder out, but Jeremy B had not had opportunity for many nights out this year, and those boxes of wine were not going to drink themselves, so we stayed another night. This second night we were surrounded by even more company.
Overnight, the clouds rolled in and we awoke to a misty morning. We very clearly lucked out on a solid weather window. After packing up, our hike out was fast and uneventful at a little over 2 hours.
With Karl and Ron. Was supposed to be the prescursor to Goat Citadel but this one took us so long and after seeing what the Goat Citadel would entail, I am happy we managed to do this one. The route from the saddle to the base of the summit gullies is, um, interesting. We climbed snow where we could, squirmed up wet, mossy moving mud, and knocked enough rock down that I am sure we promoted erosion by at least 500 years. The snow traverse to the base of the gullies looked steeper than it really is. We did protect the last bit of it curling around to get on the rock. The scramble to the summit seemed like Class 4 in more than one spot, or at least exposed Class 3. The final crack climb was awkward but short. We descended a different line because the gully we took up was definitely not the normal one. We never saw any cairns and it was mostly hard rock with pebbles over it like ball bearings on a hardwood floor. Spent a lot of time taking crampons on and off when we came to snow that looked better than the rock. Did the last snow traverse back to the saddle with headlamps. We earned our dehydrated dinners that day. I would say the route will not be "normal" still for another couple weeks at least. So much snow this year. It would have been better with either more snow or no snow. Glad to get this one done though. Alwasy enjoy climbing with Karl and Ron, lots of laughs along the way.
As a side note, we saw where Redwic and those guys climbed a couple weeks before and wondered how that rock rib looked better than the snow?? Looks like pretty exposed scrambling. Also saw what we thought was your rap line (one was grey webbing no rap ring, blue thin webbing no rap ring, etc.). We were able to find a few established rap stations and having 10m longer rope helped. We did put new webbing where you had the grey webbing (if that was you guys), doubled up a 30 foot strand and left rap ring. Figured you rapped off the webbing and weren't going to use that. Definitely interesting conditions for mid-August.
No goats! Except for some people packing in stuff on the PCT using billy goats as pack animals. Did see a family of pine martens scampering about near camp.
I didn't have any expectations going into this climb so it was a great surprise that it turned out to be a real mountaineering experience.
I really enjoyed this trip, for various reasons. First and foremost, this was my 38th (out of 39) Washington County Highpoint summited, leaving only Mount Baker for the list completion. Second, I got to enjoy the trip with a good team. Third, we got to see A LOT of mountain goats roaming around. Fourth, it is a great peak and a great area.
With that said, I agree with most people that once you summit Big Horn you unlikely will return. I think that is safe to say, in my regard. However, I now want to explore the Goat Rocks Wilderness much more in the future because I found the terrain to be quite interesting.
Special thanks to Greg Slayden, one of my peakbagging friends, for leading our team and being the only person (that I am aware of) who was willing to return to Big Horn a second time.
Beautiful area. Climbed with Edward. Nice scramble higher up, but lower the scree and talus slope was a bit miserable. Went on to do Curtis Gilbert this day.
I joined a Mazama climb for the purpose of bagging the highpoint of Lewis County. We climbed from our camp along a robust spring-fed stream draining the Snowgrass Flat area. This climb capped off a great summer of weather in the northwest, and it got me to within two counties of completing the state.
Posted on 16 Jan 2007: With great sorrow I announce the passing of our esteemed leader on this climb. Ed Holt was a senior climbing leader with the Mazamas, and he was a friend who had recently retired from my place of work. He had a heart attack while skiing on Mt. Hood on Saturday 13 Jan 2007. He will be sorely missed by many. In the picture below Ed is standing on the summit of Big Horn with Mt. Rainier in the background. Ed, may you rest in peace my friend.