Our original plan for this weekend was to climb Mt. Rainier via the Emmons route. Three of us had recently completed the Spokane Mountaineers Search & Rescue Mountaineering Skills Training. Rainier had been intended as our first real time opportunity to put those skills to work. When we met Friday morning to leave town for Rainier a couple of us had pulled current and forecast weather and it did not look good. The forecast was for rain, wind, snow, and fog all weekend on Rainier and we felt that the chance of summiting was slim, not to mention the fact that the days leading up to summit day would likely be pretty miserable.
After a group meeting in Ritzville we formed a plan to head east of Spokane where good weather was virtually assured. Our destination was Mt Cowan, an 11,206' peak in southeastern Montana near Bozeman. Some of our group had been on Cowan before and climbed via the standard scramble route. The plan this time was for some of our group to do the scramble route while some of the group would ascend the Northeast Arete route. We had some beta on the Northeast Arete route and knew that it would be a multi-pitch technical rock route but likely an easy one at 5.3-5.6.
We originally had 10 of us going to Rainier but with the change in plans we lost 3 of the group for a total of 7. The people on the trip were Kevin Klim, Dean Braunbeck, Julie Swenson McLellan, Rob Brewer, Steve Llewellyn, Scott Foster, and Chad Skidmore. All are members of the Spokane Mountaineers, with some also members of the Search & Rescue/Mountain Rescue Team.
Day 1 - July 20, 2007
We ended up driving most of the day to get to the trailhead at about 7:30pm (all times in this TR are in Pacific, even though we were in the Mountain timezone). Everyone did some repacking to remove gear and food for Rainier and lighten packs for the long hike into Elbow lake, which was our planned camp.
The trail into Elbow Lake is about 9 miles with 3,600' of elevation gain from the trailhead to the lake. The slope is pretty moderate throughout most of the hike but is rolling, and it is a well maintained trail. I'm not too proud to say that the hike in kicked my butt. After getting up at 4:00am and driving all day I was more tired than I had thought. One of the good lessons learned for me was to think all the way through the day and switch off drivers to keep up enough energy to handle the hike.
We finished the approach hike into Elbow Lake at about 12:45am Saturday morning. That was a long hike with some of us moving pretty slow. I was able to move much faster after redistributing some of my weight to two of our stronger guys (thanks Kevin and Dean). One other in our party was feeling pretty weak on the uphill hike and another had tweaked his back earlier in the week and towards the end of the hike it was really giving him some trouble.
After some quick food and camp setup everyone crashed for the night and I fell asleep wondering if I would be able to do the technical climb the next day. At that point I was feeling like I should probably stay in camp or do the scramble route so that I would not slow down the group doing the technical climb.
Day 2 - July 21, 2007
Dean came by the tent and woke Julie and I up around 6:45am. During the entire trip, Dean had a great positive attitude that really transferred to those around him, and I know that really helped get you moving after a few hours of sleep. I was feeling good again and had slept really well. Dean, Kevin, Julie and I planned to do the technical route and the other three guys decided to do some hiking around camp, see if they could find the scramble route up to the summit (not easy) and enjoy the wonderful countryside.
After stripping down our packs, getting our climbing gear together, harnesses on, etc. we finally set out for the approach to Mt. Cowan at about 8:00am. The approach does not have a well defined climbers trail and is a bit of bushwack out of the lake area and up onto a plateau. From there it is a lot of boulder hopping and scrambling through rocks to make your way around the mountain and onto the Northeast Arete.
From our camp at Elbow Lake, and on the approach to the climb, we could not see the summit of Cowan. There is a series of four smaller peaks that sit directly to the south of the summit and mask the summit from view. These peaks are called Eanie, Meanie, Minie, & Moe and are wonderful large chunks of granite. These peaks "kept us company" during our approach around their south and east sides on the way to the route up Cowan.
After crossing the platue with the boulder field and another little lake, we proceeded around a ridge and up a little gulley. This gulley led up to a higher plateau that gave us our first good view of the northeast arete to Mt. Cowan. From there we took a break and scouted the route a little to see what the best path to gain the arete might be. It was quickly determined that we would need to descend to a little snowfield and down a gulley to get around a smaller ridge and into the narrow gulley that would get us to the start of the technical climb. It can be a little disheartening to be up high and then have to descend 600' or more just to climb back up again but thats the way it goes.
After ascending the gulley back up, we hopped down into another little cut with a quick Class 3/4 climb up onto a nice ledge. From near this ledge we began the technical part of the climb. We were not sure how many pitches it would take, but we felt that it would be quite a few based on our current altitude. We swapped out boots for rock shoes on the ledge and started gearing up. While we were doing that we heard some rockfall in the gulley we had just come from. A few seconds later we could see an adult mountain goat come screaming through the gulley and down the other side. He soon emerged onto the snow field well below us and wandered around for a while. A little later as we were starting pitch 2 I noticed he was laying down in the snow and looking up at us, likely wondering what the nutball humans were up to.
Kevin led all the pitches (9 total) and Julie pulled the second rope up behind her. Dean self belayed his way up and I cleaned the route. Dean and I had the easy job and made great time, while Kevin and Julie had a lot harder job. The first 4 pitches were pretty easy stuff with moderate to low exposure. The 5th pitch was the first that I recall having anything that took a little work and thought, but there was still fairly moderate exposure. Either the 6th or 7th pitch (I'm thinking it was the 6th) had a section that got out on the arete with some good exposure to the south. I don't know how far down it was from that point to the ground, but it was enough to get my attention. Kevin had placed a cam up a little step and out on the exposed face of the arete and I remember smiling to myself thinking that he might have placed it out there just for me. I reminded myself I was on belay and cleaned the piece without issue. The route that the rope followed was over some less exposed rock but the easier route was a little more exposed than the area I was in. I elected to not look back or down and just cruise up the more exposed but easier section. All went well and I finished out the pitch without issue.
The 7th pitch had one memorable section. I could tell it must have been a little hairy on lead because Kevin had placed two pieces pretty close together right around an exposed corner with a smooth sloping slab ledge that dropped you out into space. It was much easier for me on a top rope and cleaning the route. Pitch 8 was uneventful but had some slightly more difficult sections and pitch 9 was a nice short little run to the summit area. We ran out nearly all pitches with the 60m ropes except for one near the end and the very last pitch.
I came up onto the summit after finishing pitch 9 at about 6:30pm. That is pretty late to be on the summit of a mountain like this, afterall, we still were only half way. We now had the long descent down the scramble route to get back to camp. We knew we would be descending in the dark and now we all were highly motivated to descend as far as possible before it got dark.
The scramble route is a wandering route down some ramps from the summit and then down little drops, across ledges, etc. We could see the high lakes below the summit the entire time, with the pothole lake still blue and icy. We were all tired and out of water by the summit. I had felt very strong on the climb but was now feeling the effects of a late hike the previous night and a long day of climbing.
Finding the gulley leading down to the upper lakes took some work but we manged to find it. It is a narrow little thing that drops right down to pothole lake. From there we traversed along the lakes and out to the start of the upper waterfall which led down to the lower lake and camp. We trudged along down the hill through boulders, rocks, dirt, and pebbles. Eventually it got dark and we flicked on our headlapms and continued the descent. Kevin and Julie were moving faster than I was on the descent so they moved ahead. Dean (being the great guy he is) stuck with me for the descent. The route wandered around some, crossing the stream and waterfalls several times. Well past the point where I thought we were descending into the depths of hell, we saw Julie's headlamp. We were finally at the bottom, but not at the lake yet. Dean set out in the lead as we bushwacked our way back to the lake. We could see our other group's headlamps across the lake, at this point it was pretty late so we figured they were starting to get good and worried.
We beat our way through the brush, through mud (quicksand to Kevin in his sandals), over logs, and everything else you could imagine, and finally came across a trail. Our other group came out to meet us and we were very happy to find that they had freshly filtered water for us and had started boiling water for drinks and dinner. It was about 11:00pm when we rolled into camp at 8,600' so we had done over 2000' of vertical up and then again back down over 6.6 miles in about 15 hours. After getting some much needed water and food, we all turned in for the night to get some sleep for the 9 mile hike back out the next day, followed by a 7+ hour drive back home. It had been a long day of climbing and hitting the bags felt good. I should also mention that Kevin, to the best of our knowledge, now holds the FCA (First Chaco Ascent) for this mountain. If you know anyone else that has done the Northeast Arete route (or any other for that matter) on Mt. Cowan all in Chaco sandals please let me know and we'll retract this FCA claim.
Day 3 - July 22, 2007
The three guys that did not do the technical climb were up early and getting ready to go the next morning. They wanted to take their time and move slower, plus they were more rested than those of us that did the technical climb. The rest of us woke up a little later and slowly got breakfast going and packed up camp. We were on the trail about 2 hours after the first group and moved out at a moderate pace. Since most of our hike in was in the dark, it was a good time to enjoy the scenery on the way out. Going down hill on a nice easy trail felt great after the previous day's downhill scramble and boulder hop. When it came to the uphill sections I definately felt it, and slowed way down. The country was great and it was a wonderful sunny day, but a bit too hot. We got back to the trailhead sometime around 1:00pm and all dropped our packs while our legs and backs gave a sigh of relief. Fortunately there was a nice cool creek running by the trailhead and we all took advantage of that to wash some of the stink off and get cooled down before the long car ride home.
For me it was a great trip! I would have loved to be on Rainier, but not in the weather that was on that mountain and this was a great backup plan. I really enjoyed the technical route and it was a great first experience withi multi-pitch alpine climbing. A big thanks to the group for being so patient with my slow butt on the hike in. Thanks to Kevin, Julie, and Dean for a great climb. And a big thanks to Dean for hanging with me on the descent from the summit in the dark when my right knee was starting to hurt. I couldn't have had a better group to do this trip!
Lastly, a big thanks to Kevin Klim and all of those that assisted in the SMSAR Mountain Skills Training. This and the previous Mt. Adams trip were good opportunities for me to put the sklls I had learned to work and I don't think I could have had a better instructor.
You can get to a more image rich version of this trip report on my personal home page at Mt. Cowan Trip Report
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