Mesahchie Icefall & Couloir

Page Type
Washington, United States, North America
Route Type:
Glacier Ice Climb + Rock
Time Required:
One to two days
WI3, AI3, Class 3+

Route Quality: 3 Votes

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Mesahchie Icefall & Couloir
Created On: Mar 18, 2004
Last Edited On: Oct 23, 2008

Driving to the Trailhead

Note: The Trip Report for this climb can be found here.

The approach for this climb is via the Easy Pass Trail. To get to this trail, drive east from Newhalem on the North Cascades Highway (SR-20) about 32 miles. On the right, a short road leads to the trailhead (c. 3,480 ft). Alternatively, if coming from the east, the trailhead is on the left 6 miles west (northwest as you're driving) of Rainy Pass.

On The Easy Pass Trail

The trail climbs to Easy Pass (6,520+ ft) in 3.3 miles. Later in the year water can be scarce at the pass. The trail crosses a stream at 4,700 ft then Easy Pass Creek a couple of times a little higher up. It is probably a good idea to refill water at one of these streams before ascending any further. It can get very hot in summer on this trail in the morning (it faces east).

Once at the pass this is where the real un-fun begins. The trail drops down into Fisher Creek on the other side. You won't be taking the trail (though it is an option to do so if doing Mesahchie via anything other than the glacier route). No, instead, your objective is a minor basin about 1 mile WNW of the pass. It is in this basin at approx. 7,000 ft that you will find the standard bivy site (room for a couple of tents or eight or so bivy bags).

Getting to Camp from the Pass

There are basically two ways to get to this bivy.

The first way is to take the trail to the west end of the pass to where it finally starts heading down to Fisher Creek (this may be obvious at a switchback c. 6,400 ft). At this point, leave the trail and sidehill WNW across alternating grassy slopes and talus/scree draws. The going can be tedious despite the fact that it's less than a mile to the bivy site. About two-thirds of the way to your destination there are ugly cliffs and gullies in the elevation range 6,400-6,800 ft. The best thing to do is, when you leave the trail, to gradually ascend about 500 feet so that when you get to the aforementioned cliffs you'll already be above them. It may also be possible to contour below them but this will not be as direct. Once beyond the cliffs, continue contouring around a gradual corner. The last bit is downhill on grassy and/or sandy slopes to the bivy, which will be a small knoll at the outlet of a little snowfield the size of a little league baseball field. There is water at this bivy site (run off from the snowfield).

The second way to get to the bivy from Easy Pass is to go high right from the start. At the top of the long pass a grassy slope on the north side leads up toward the ridge crest between Pts 7690 and 7230. Begin climbing up this slope. Eventually, bear left (WNW) into bands of trees. You won't be going all the way to the ridge crest (not yet anyway). Begin climbing WNW slightly below the crest across minor gullies and ribs occupied by all sorts of annoying scree. At about even with Pt. 7690, climb up to the ridge crest. There is a flat area immediately west of Pt. 7690 that would provide a suitable bivy site (c. 7480 ft)--especially if the lower one in the basin is already taken. There is water at this upper bivy provided by snowpatches on the north side of the ridge (may need to melt snow for water; take a filter just in case there are pools of water). The nice thing about going this way is that, at the upper bivy, you can look down on the lower basin bivy to determine if it is occupied. If it is occupied, you can simply drop packs and set up camp where you are. The other nice thing is that you are just as close to Mesahchie Col (the next morning's first destination) as the lower bivy. To get to the lower bivy from the upper one, simply descend a short, moderate slope (talus/scree/grass) of no difficulty.

Do not climb up to Mesahchie Col (7,440+ ft) expecting to find a suitable bivy. There really isn't one. The Col is almost entirely rock--most of it sloping.

Approach to the Ice Climb

From the lower bivy, climb up to the col (15 minutes). From the upper bivy, it is more of a traverse than a climb (also about 15 minutes). At the west end of the col where it abuts the rockwall on the left, take a 15-ft slab gully to a finger of snow that leads down to the Mesahchie Glacier. Drop onto the glacier and contour around the north side of Cub Peak (Pt 7985). The Icefall will finally come into view for you. Depending on the time of year, it may look heinous or easy (also depends on your ice climbing prowess). The right side of the icefall is steeper and icier than the left side but the left side is more crevassed and awkward for climbing. You'll probably be climbing up the right side. Since you'll have ice climbing equipment with you, it won't matter that it's steeper and icier. On the approach to the icefall there are not many if any crevasses. However, just below the icefall there are some cracks that should be heeded. It also may be wise to rope up/gear up for the climb before you get to the base of the ice as the base is on steepish ground. There may be some rock outcrops below the ice but don't count on it (you should be able to see if they're there from a distance).

The Ice Climb

Begin by climbing WI3 or AI3. The first pitch is the steepest (45 degrees maybe). It ends about where the icefall begins tipping back. Beware of rocks sliding down and off the icefall. Rocks that tumble off the mountain and onto the upper lobe of the glacier make their way down to the icefall. The next "pitch" is on shallower ground (30 degrees or less) that crosses several cracks and crevasses. It is about at this time that the couloir portion of the climb will become visible on the left. You basically want to aim for this couloir. However, crevasses high on the glacier lobe may require you to bear right first to do an end run around them. The upper glacier is simply firn. No ice.

At the base of the couloir bear to its right side. You will probably find a pseudo-moat adjacent to the rock wall that would be a good belay alcove (this is what we did). The right side of the bottom of the couloir has a schrund and/or steep snow wall. It can be avoided on the left. Climb directly up the couloir. Some outcrops on the left side may take protection, else set pickets. Save a picket for the top so you can use it for an anchor to belay up your partner(s). The max angle of the couloir is probably about 55 degrees but it is a sustained 45 degrees from top to bottom (maybe about 350 vertical feet of climbing, meaning some part of it will probably require simul-climbing). The top of the couloir is flat snow (c. 8,100 ft).

The Rock Climb

Now here's where it gets really tricky. The rest of this description will be lifted verbatim from my trip report:
From the top of the couloir (est. 8,100 ft), descend the prominent south-facing gully ~100 vertical feet to where it meets a beige-colored gully leading up the mountain. Take this gully. It goes up less than 200 vertical feet and ends at a pyramidal black headwall. Climb to the obvious notch left of the headwall (class 4 in deep cut on left side leading to notch is easiest but not as aesthetic as low class 5 rock on right side leading to notch). At the notch, the rest of the way up to the ridge crest reveals itself by way of a class 3 gully. It even has some heather patches in it. And above this gully: well, that's not the summit but one of about five false summits. Near to where this second gully heads there is a leftward scramble over to the top of the next-most southward gully. Once in this next (third) gully, a rock pitch (the second false summit) will impose itself and seem as if it will require technical climbing. But this is not the case for it can be surmounted on the right (north side). On the other side of the second false summit, the climbing alternates between south side, ridge crest, and north side for a couple hundred yards until FINALLY the real summit is attained. There is a register. A note about the false summits: they're not really false summits but humps on the ridge. However, the way the climbing is, they are a let down in that when you get past one, another pops up. It's hard to see them in advance. You won't need a rope to climb to the summit or for any rappels. I saw nary a rappel station. Besides, though I didn't really check, setting firm anchors might be difficult. The mountain is very chossy.

The Descent and Hiking Out

Beware of party-induced rock fall! There's more than enough loose stuff to kick down accidentally whether in the gullies or between gullies. Climbers should stay close together and zigzag down the gullies whenever possible. In fact, completing any of this climb without causing at least one medium-sized rock to bound down the mountain would be an achievement to say the least.

Hiking out:
There are three options:
1) Descend into Fisher Creek valley and take the trail back to Easy Pass. This is certainly a viable option if doing climb as a day hike or a carry over. I would recommend looking at this option while on the way in. It eliminates any and all of the awful traverse. It could even be taken on the way in if not doing the ice route (leaving trail when southeast of Mesahchie and ascending meadows and heather and what appeared to be an inconsequential rock band). 3 hours max to pass and then 1.5 hours to trailhead (one hour longer than traversing but much less prone to put blains on your toes). This is also the best option if darkness rapidly approaches as the trail is much easier in twilight than any traverse would be.
2) Make a descending traverse around Pt. 7,985 to the basin below the regular bivy site and continue traversing to Easy Pass. This way will see a lot of scree followed by heather followed by more scree and then trees and heather on way to the pass. 2 hours to pass then 1.5 hours to trailhead.
3) Make a largely level traverse at ~7,400 ft around Pt. 7,985 to the regular bivy site. The scree below Pt. 7,985 is lame but the intermittent cross-gullies and rock outcrops are not as pronounced. Once around Pt. 7,985, keep an eye out for a climber's path cut into the scree just above a heather bench and just below the "scree slope of all scree slopes". This climber's path helps speed the traverse and numb the blains. Once at the bivy site, make the quick ascent east up to the ridge line, pass the ridge bivy, and continue on the south side of the crest through scree gullies and rock outcrops to the meadows above Easy Pass. 2+ hours to pass then 1.5 hours to trailhead.

Is this a One-Day Climb?

My opinion as a day trip: It's a long way, a lot farther than what a map might show because of the terrain encountered. Ergo, I wouldn't recommend it in a day--especially if doing the ice route. Ice climbing necessitates bringing heavy gear, so it's not as if one would travel really light for the traverse. A two-day endeavor with a bivy at either of the bivy sites would be the best option. In this case, get an early start on the second day to ensure ample time to get out before dark. Climbing to Mesahchie Col and then descending to near the start of the ice climb should not be a problem in the early morning crepuscule. If the other climbers in your party are not fast or as competent, then a day hike is out of the question. A two-day hike may even be questionable depending on the time of year and the number of daylight hours. Speaking of time of year, I'm not sure the traverse would be much easier with snow covering it.

Essential Gear

Ice climbing gear. At a minimum, three screws and one picket per climber. Use less if you're more experienced. Take a very small rack (no more than six pieces) for the couloir. The rock portion of climbing to the summit is largely Class 3 and doesn't really require belayed climbing. No rappels are necessary. The one Class 4 gully segue can be downclimbed or handlined.

Mesahchie Icefall & Couloir

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