BCC Devil's Basin Overnight
"This is a little beyond my comfort zone," and the less articulate, "Oh, s—!" were two of the reactions blurted out when we reached the final and highly exposed scramble to the summit of Devil's Thumb.
There was a small snow-covered drop into a saddle from the summit ridge followed by a short rock scramble on the other side to the true summit. However, the saddle was flanked with sheer drop-offs that plunged down hundreds of feet on either side. It was the sixth BOEALPS Basic Climbing Class trip and the first overnight. It was getting close to six in the evening and we had been hiking for nearly twelve hours. Everyone was tired and the steepness of the final approach to the summit had pushed many of the students' beyond the limits of their fear of heights.
Devil's Thumb is one of two short mountain peaks that flank the basin around Devil's Lake, the other being Devil's Peak. They are accessed via the Mountain Loop Highway between Granite Falls and Darrington. It is not one of the better known of the Central Cascades climbs; in fact most climbing guidebooks overlook Devil's Peak/Thumb. The only write-up they get is a brief mention in the magisterial Beckey climbing guides. There is no maintained trail to the basin so getting there involves a bushwhack once you reach the end of the forest service roads. That said they are a perfect pair of peaks for what is the halfway point the BCC. In the early spring they offer a moderately challenging mix of rock and snow climbing and the still snowbound valley offers a good lesson in snow camping. Devil's Basin was not the only destination for the overnight trip.
Devils Lake Camp
Other peaks tackled by BOEALPS BCC teams were: Mts. Washington & Ellinor and Jim Hill & Arrowhead Mts.
The day began when we made our usual BOEALPS-early start, meeting to carpool at the Greenlake Park & Ride at 4:30am. We rendezvoused with the rest of our team at the Verlot Public Service Center east of Granite Falls on the Mountain Loop Highway. The start of the hike was at the Deer Creek Road east of Verlot. We hoped the road would be open, but the gate was closed and regardless it was snow covered and un-drivable right from the highway. We started hiking at 6:35 AM optimistic that our early start would mean we would be off the summit well before our turn around time at 6 PM. Unfortunately, we misjudged the correct turn-off from Deer Creek road because we were using altitude readings from barometric altimeters that had not been calibrated. The turn-off was at approximately two thousand feet, but our altimeters were reading eighteen hundred feet. By the time we realized our mistake the backtracking cost us an hour. That was our first lesson of the day. If we had spent five minutes at the cars confirming the route on our maps and calibrating the altimeters we would have saved an hour.
The rest of the hike was straightforward. We followed the abandoned road to a set of switchbacks where we left the road and then bushwhacked to Devil's Lake keeping the creek that drains the lake on our right.
The previous Saturday was the "Experience" climb where we attempted to climb Mount Baring. It had been snowing all week before our Baring attempt and continued to snow the whole day of our climb. There is no such thing as cancelling because of weather in the BCC. Bad weather is considered part of the learning experience. The only concession the class makes to the elements is if the avalanche danger is too high, then a different peak will be selected for the day's climb. The final approach to Baring was through waist deep snow and the going was so slow we had to abandon the summit when we hit our turnaround time of two in the afternoon and we judged that we were still three hours away from the summit even though we were only thirteen hundred vertical feet below it.
The snow to Devils Lake was not as bad as Baring. The last few days had been sunny so the snow was more consolidated and easier to hike, but there was still a lot of it on the ground. The team fell into line and used the technique of step kicking and stepping out every thirty steps so no one got worn out form breaking trail. Everyone's backpack was lighter than they could have been. At the Wednesday night lecture we had all the students bring their fully loaded overnight backpacks and weight them with a portable scale. We then went through all the packs and figured out ways the students could lighten their loads. The payoff was on the day of the hikes we weight the packs again and the heaviest student pack (not including rope) was 38.4 pounds and the lightest was 30.0 pounds.
Devils Basin Panorama
We brought five ropes so most of the students were carrying one. A rope adds an additional 9.5 pounds, so at the heaviest the students were carrying less than fifty pounds.
We reached to our campsite at half past noon. Since we were camping at Devil's Lake it meant we had a later turnaround time. We setup camp, had lunch and then headed out for Devil's Thumb. We headed due north up the valley skirting the eastside of Devil's Lake, but staying below the avalanche run outs. There was ample evidence in the debris fields that there had recently been some large avalanches where some of the big cornices that overhung the valley had collapsed. Nothing big gave way when we were there but we did witness several small snow avalanches and rock falls.
From the lake there was a steep thousand-foot climb to the ridge below the summit. At the ridge one of the students suffered a panic attack from the height and senior instructor François set up a belay station while lead instructor Morten tied a bowline on a coil around the student's waist and then tied a short rope to his harness to give her enough sense of security to get her to the safer, less exposed place on the ridge where we staged the final climb.
Summit Rock Climb
The student was able to relax, but decided she was not going to continue on to the summit. We all respected her for articulating her fears before she got to a place that would have more difficult to extricate her from. There was a small 4th class rock climb that Morten set up a fixed line for. From there the final approach was a broad ridge that narrowed quickly to a very exposed traverse. With Morten belaying me I setup a fixed line to the summit placing pickets in the snow at intervals of about forty feet.
The route description in the Cascade Alpine Guide includes a classic bit of Fred Beckey understatement. He describes the final scramble as featuring "some exposure". It was very exposed, but was not visible until you got close to it, thus the surprised reactions when the team reached it. Only about half the team were able to make it to the summit.
We were past our turn around time and not everyone was comfortable with the exposure. François set up a rappel for descending the 4th class rock climb, since rappelling is faster and safer than down climbing.
We did not return to camp until 9:15 PM. We ate a late dinner and I got to sleep around 11 PM. Before going to sleep my last act was to fill one of my Nalgene water bottles with boiling water, which I then placed in my sleeping bag. I have been climbing for fourteen years and hiking/camping for thirty plus years, but it was only at Devil's Basin that I first learned the hot water bottle trick. It made my sleeping bag toasty warm and shifting the bottle to the bottom of my bag thawed out my chilled feet.
A lot of the team was exhausted and frazzled from Devil's Thumb so there was not a lot of enthusiasm for climbing Devil's Peak on Sunday. There was also some doubt about whether we even could. One other BCC team was in Devil's Basin that weekend and attempted Devil's Peak on Saturday but turned around because they judged the avalanche danger too high. So instead on Sunday morning we practiced setting up z-pulleys, which are used to pull a climber out of a crevasses.
After the z-pulleys François led a demonstration of techniques for evaluating avalanche risk: avalanche pits for evaluating the snow layers, a Compression Test, a Rutschblock Test, and a demonstration of how avalanche probes are used to locate a buried person.
I was disappointed that we did not climb Devil's Peak, but I felt it was the right decision.
By coincidence I participated in the Devil's Peak/Thumb overnight ten years ago as a BCC student in 2002. I knew from my own experience that Devil's Peak is a good climb; the highlight is the 90-foot free rappel off the summit. For most of the rappel you are dangling in the air. The free rappel photos are awesome.
My only other regret is that BOEALPS no longer allows us to bring Duraflame logs. It used to be BOEALPS tradition that for the overnight everyone would carry one of the fireplace logs up to camp. Saturday night everyone would pile his or her logs into a pit and we would have a roaring bonfire right on the snow. It worked surprisingly well. However, sometime between when I took the class in 2002 and now BOEALPS decided that hauling chemical-drenched decorative fireplace logs into the wilderness was not inline with the group's Leave-No-Trace principals. I totally understand and respect the decision, but the bonfire was a lot of fun.
Devil's Peak 2002
Devils Peak 2002 Devils Peak Rappel 2002
A Northwest Forest Pass is required to park at Deer Creek Road. The Pass can be purchased at the Verlot Ranger Station / Public Service Center, even afterhours. They now have a machine next to the payphone that dispenses Forest Passes and takes either cash or credit cards.
Beckey, Fred. Cascade Alpine Guide: Climbing and High Routes
. Vol. 2, Stevens Pass to Rainy Pass. 3rd ed. Seattle: Mountaineers Books, 2003. Pgs. 119-120.
LinksLeave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics
Kendall Peak with BOEALPS Basic Climbing Class (1 of 5)
Devils Thumb with BOEALPS Basic Climbing Class (2 of 5)
Sun and Fun with BOEALPS Basic Climbing Class (3 of 5)
Crevasse Rescue Training and Trail Work with the with BOEALPS Basic Climbing Class (4 of 5)
Little T Graduation Climb with BOEALPS Basic Climbing Class (5 of 5)
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