This was a 2-day ascent with a team of four. We started at the Staircase entrance on Friday and camped at Flapjack Lakes that night. We were fortunate to be able to get our permit for Flapjack the day of the hike in. The weather was perfect, with clear skies, and very few bugs.
This is a very enjoyable climb with a lot of varied terrain. It can take a long time to complete, so plan accordingly.
Approach Hike to Flapjack Lakes
This was rather uneventful and straightforward. The first half of the trail was fairly flat but then gradually ascended the 3,000ft up to the lake thereafter. Not much in the way of views during this 8 mile jaunt, unfortunately.
The Ascent – getting up to Needle Pass
We set out from camp at 5:30am. The 1.5 mile hike in the dark to Gladys Divide was pleasant and took us about 30 minutes. The couloir leading to Needle Pass is obvious and we left the trail just before cresting the divide and crossed a hundred yards of boulders and talus before hitting continuous hard snow. We put on crampons, donned our axes and helmets and began the ever-steepening climb up the snow filled gully to Needle Pass.
The snow was quite firm and heavily sun-cupped. What started as a pleasant hike up a gentle slope quickly turned into a 40 degree climb where a fall would have been serious (and likely impossible to self-arrest). We switched our ice axe technique from cane position to low-dagger and pressed carefully on. I personally was using a self-belay prior to any and every upward advancement of my feet through this section. Thus, my pace slowed considerably toward the top where the angle was highest. To add to the excitement, I had elected NOT to bring my mountaineering boots on this trip in favor of some new “approach shoes.” I was doing okay, but would have much preferred the bomber ankle support provided by my Scarpa Mont Blanc boots.
Around 30 feet below the top of the snow slope at Needle Pass, we entered the moat on the right, as it seemed much safer and less exposed. I was sure glad to be off the steep, hard snow. A nagging thought in the back of my mind though was the fact that we were somehow going to have to descend this same slope later in the day. I hoped that the snow softened up a bit to perhaps allow for plunge-stepping later.
The Ascent: Needle Pass traverse to south face of Cruiser
We left our axes and crampons at Needle Pass then began to scramble up and leftward over class 2-3 (maybe 4 at times?) terrain. The rock was relatively solid but there was plenty of loose stuff to keep things interesting. Testing each and every hand and foot hold with a good pound of the fist or kick proved helpful, yet made progress slow. We quickly reached the top of the ridge (what felt like a false summit) and got our first glimpse of the south face of Cruiser. We had all seen photos, but were still fairly intimidated by what we saw. I personally thought the climb looked quite impossible, but reminded myself that it is only supposed to be rated 5.0.
We then descended down a gully and traversed talus along the East side of the ridge. We never descended the West side of the ridge. We then encountered two small notches above us and elected to take the right-most notch and descended another gully. We then traversed more talus where previous parties have encountered a troublesome snow slope. Fortunately, there were only remnants of the snowfield (since we had left our axes and crampons behind at Needle Pass).
We found the gully leading up to the cannon hole and decided to rope up here. Karl led the first pitch (exposed class 4) and set up a fixed line upon which the rest of us ascended with prusik slings. We reached a belay ledge with several old slings and decided to do the second pitch un-roped as the climbing was easier up and through the cannon hole. Once through the hole, it was a short jaunt over boulders to the base of the south face of Cruiser (the southwest corner route).
The Ascent – South face of Cruiser
Bob elected to lead the first pitch and placed a nut 5 feet up the route. He then ascended around 50 feet without placing any more pro. Despite having studied the photos posted on this site just before beginning the pitch, we were not able to locate the intermediate pieces of fixed protection on this face until we were above them. If we had stayed far left – close to the ridge, we would have found the bolt, then later the piton and rusty bolt above it. At any rate, Bob was able to sling one small chicken-head at around 50 feet up the pitch, and then climbed the last 20 feet to the solid, newer 2- bolt anchor. Fortunately, the climbing was quite easy and there were plentiful holds. The rock was solid in general, though there were still occasional loose rocks. The face is very exposed, difficult to protect, and thus run-out. I sure was glad to be the follower on this route!
From the bolted anchor it was an easy (but very exposed) ridge-line scramble up to the true summit. We found one piece of intermediate protection on the ridge but doubted its ability to hold much in the event of a fall.
The views from the top were outstanding. We were able to identify Olympus, Anderson, The Brothers, Washington, and Ellinor among many other peaks of the Olympic Range. We could even see Puget Sound and the downtown Seattle. In the distance were Glacier Peak, Rainier, and Mount Saint Helens. It took us 5+ hours to all get up to the summit. Not a stellar time, but there were four of us; and myself and Eric are relative novices in this sport. An experienced team of 2 could have likely made this in 3-4 hours from Flapjack Lakes.
We did encounter one other group headed up on our way down. I was able to get this shot of the three of them on the route. It clearly shows the two pitches up from the southwest corner to the summit.
The descent back down was relatively straightforward though some down-climbing sections were spicier than we would have liked. We rapped only the sections that we roped up for on the way up – that is until we reached the snow gulley below Needle Pass. For this, we stayed in the moat for as far down as it would allow. This made for some interesting mixed snow and rock down climbing with wedging of backpacks and ice axes in tight spaces to continue staying in the moat. At around 60 feet below the pass, we ran out of moat and had to get onto the snow slope. Sunshine had NOT graced this snow (in several days or weeks likely) and it was just as firm as the morning ascent. We elected to build a bollard using the edge of the moat to help in the effort. We backed it up with ice axes and were able to rappel down about 150 feet using our two ropes tied together. We then got back in the moat for another 30-40 feet and finally faced the inevitable down climbing of the snow slope. At this point, it was a more gentle 30 degree angle and not quite so intimidating.
After getting back to Gladys Divide we all agreed that this snow slope up to Needle Pass was definitely the crux of the climb. Perhaps earlier in the season, the snow is softer, or the angle not quite so steep. Perhaps in leaner snow years, or later in the season, the snow is more melted out to allow travel on dry ground. Or perhaps, we are just a bunch of wimps (except for Bob who felt comfortable on the steep snow) who need to get out and practice more high angle crampon technique. Whatever the reason – it took us nearly 2 hours to descend from Needle Pass to Gladys Divide. Consequently, we were running a few hours later than planned.
We took a quick dip in Flapjack Lake to cool off, and then hurried on down the trail. We made it to the cars at dusk and didn’t have to use headlamps. Not exactly an “epic,” but a very long day as we were on the move from 5:30am till 8:30pm. Camping a second night at Flapjack would have been more luxurious, but our itinerary didn’t plan for this and thus family and friends back home might have worried had we stayed out a second night (read: my wife would have flipped out).
Trip StatsStaircase trail-head to Flapjack Lakes:
8 miles, ~3000ft gain, 3-4 hours
Flapjack Lakes to Summit:
~3miles, ~2,400ft gain, 5hrs; departed camp at 5:30am, hit Gladys Divide at around 6am, first person to summit at 10:30am
Summit to Flapjack Lakes
: ~3miles, 2,400ft loss, 6hrs; First person departed summit at around 11:15am, arrived back at Gladys Divide at around 4:30pm, Flapjack Lakes at 5pm
Flapjack Lakes to Trailhead:
8 miles, 3,000ft loss, ~ 3 hrs; left lake at 5:30pm and made it to cars by 8:30pm, just at dusk
Equipment notes: Standard rock gear, light rack with small pieces, extra slings, axe, crampons, helmet, two ropes if rappelling Needle Pass couloir