This is a route with a little bit of everything and a big bit of fun. There's a short, nearly level approach, a good view of the peak on this approach, a semi-brushy final logging spur but with a manageable path along it, a short 'shwack through small regrowth firs to the big trees of the saddle southeast of the peak, then a short hump through steepening forest to get to the beginning of the exposed ridge. There's Class 2, 3, 4, and 5 portions of ridge. There is a sketchy traverse or two. There is a brushy pitch. There are trees choking choice parts of the crest. There is choss. There is unprotectable choss. There is unprotectable heather and dirt. And yet there are enough places to protect the climb to feel at least somewhat safe. It's not a difficult route but one must be able to up-climb and down-climb steep terrain without being fully anchored to the mountain. There are double and single-rope rappels. There is even a free-hanging rappel (if you were to rappel where we did).
3-5 hours up, 2-4 hours down, depending on skill/comfort level
2 miles (4 miles roundtrip) max
1,300 feet in, 500 feet out
It may be impossible to find a suitable rappel anchor at the summit if the summit is covered in snow. As such, I DO NOT recommend climbing this route if the summit is snow-covered.
See the Southeast Ridge driving approach on the Main Page for driving directions.
From the parking point roughly 1.3 miles NNE of Whalehead, step over the berm and continue up the road as it makes two switchbacks to gain a higher shoulder of Purcell Mountain. It is possible to cut off these switchbacks to save time and distance. Continue south along the road. At about 0.9 miles from the car the road begins to descend a couple hundred feet. At this point the road gets obscured by overgrowth but is still followable to the switchback at 4,400 ft. Leave the road and fight through a tenth-mile of regrowing clearcut to the tall, undisturbed trees at the 4,540-ft saddle ESE of the objective peak. Turn right (west) and hike up the forested saddle until it reaches the first (lowest) rock wall at 4,800 ft.
Mounting the Whale's Back
The rock wall at 4,800 ft is a formidable first barrier. It is 200 feet high, overhangs in a few places, and is pretty much unprotectable. Fortunately, there is a bypass...
Find a narrow ledge directly under the right side of the wall. Rope up here. Traverse rightward (north) to the end of the ledge then across an unprotectable Class 3 gully for 50 feet to the relative safety of a minor, wooded rib. Climb up the rib (Class 3/4) either just left or right of the choking trees. When the rib disappears move right into steep, open woods a short distance then up and right through bands of alder to avoid mossy cliffs to the left. Continue to the rocky-vegetated crest (c. 5,100 ft). The last moves can be Class 3, 4, or 5 depending on the route chosen.
Running the Whale's Back
The Southeast Ridge from here to the final summit tower is largely scrambling terrain that can be done un-roped. There are three notches to negotiate to get to this tower (the final notch being at the base of the tower itself). There are plenty of trees to sling and even a few horns but for the most part the rock is unprotectable, crumbling basalt. Though the trees offer the protection, they also seem to get in the way a lot. One such tree is massive--about as massive as a tree could get on such terrain.
Once on the crest at 5,100 ft you are still about 300 yards from the summit. Simply follow the crest, never veering more than 15 feet to either side. The first obstacle on the ridge is a rise of about 100 feet with a tree at halfway. Getting past the tree is the exposure crux but none of the climbing is harder than Class 3. Take the time to look around the left side of the tree to get your first view of the summit. The summit looks real steep and featureless. It doesn't look climbable. But things often look daunting from a distance.
The first rise flattens out (Class 2) then descends slightly (Class 3) on loose rocks to the first notch. On the other side of the first notch is a Class 3+ step. You can keep directly on the ridge to do a 12-ft Class 4 face or sidle left on a sloping ramp for 10-15 feet (Class 3). Once past the step the route goes back right to above the Class 4 face to meet a chaparral of stunted pines. Fight through the pines, cussing at the rope work problems they create.
The pines end and for a short 50 feet there is a respite from the xylo-hell. But a bulwark awaits: the largest damn tree you'll ever see in such terrain. Crawl through the boughs of this tree on its right (north) side then make a short downclimb to a rock step downward to the second notch. This down-step is Class 4 but is short. A fall here would not be wise. At this point marvel at the columnar basalt formations on the Northeast Face. Guffaw at the prospect of someone even attempting to climb this face. It is, to be honest, one of the most remarkable rock faces you will find in the Cascades.
Climb out of the second notch by keeping slightly left of the crest to round a corner (Class 3). Once around the corner, scramble steep heather, dirt, and rock to a flat, unprotectable, and exposed crest (Class 2) to where it abuts the final rock climbing problem at a minor notch (the final notch).
And onto the Whale's Head
To finish this climb it is necessary to free-climb 15 feet of rock. I rated this Class 5.3. Others may find it easier or harder depending on how they take on the step. There is a small, stunted pine no more than two feet high and with a two-inch trunk on the right at the final notch. This pine offers a small measure of anchor satisfaction but I don't know if I'd trust it for an extended fall. The pine is on the northeast side of the crest and the rock climbing is on the southwest side, so if the pine would have to hold a fall, at least it would be with a small uphill pull. Ha ha ha ha! I guess you'd have to be there.
The easiest route up the rock step should be obvious as being a few feet left of the crest. Scramble up to the step (Class 3) then immediately begin climbing and tugging on loose rocks, thin holds, and some vegetated holds. Look for cracks; find none suitable. Once above the step (maybe 25 feet above the pine), turn slightly right and continue on up easier terrain to the summit where a small cairn will await you. No, we didn't create the cairn (but we did rebuild it). Leave a hole in the center of the cairn: the whale's blow hole. Ha ha ha ha! I guess you'd have to be there.
To return the way you came you will need/want two 60m ropes. We did a total of four rappels (two doubles and two singles). One of these rappels could be omitted. For all of the other descent portions, we downclimbed.
Rappel 1 (from summit to base of rock step)
Find a thick heather root about 15 feet southeast of the summit cairn. The root is horizontally situated and is exposed (visible) at the border between heather and rock. You will probably find our black sling and rappel ring on this root. Do a double-60 rappel back down to the base of the rock step. Beware of rappel-induced rock fall.
Rappel 2 (into the first notch)
You can rappel from the chaparral of stunted pines back down to the first notch. This is a single-60 rappel. This rappel can be omitted with careful downclimbing.
Rappel 3 (near the end of the ridge)
Once back to where you initially gained the crest at 5,100 ft, continue 100 feet down-ridge to where it narrows to an unclimbable and unrappelable knife of rock. On the right (south) at some snags is a bypass for the final knife edge. A single-60 rappel gets you to a heather/huckleberry bench. Taking this bench leftward (skier's left) for 200 feet gets one to the final rappel...
Rappel 4 (off the ridge)
This rappel goes from 5,000 ft to 4,800 ft and gets you back to the beginning of the climb at the narrow ledge where you roped up. From above the rappel looks iffy and you can't see the bottom as it falls out of sight into the tall trees. But, rest assured, with a double-60 rappel, there is just enough rope length to get to safe ground. If you rappel where we did you will get to experience two different free-hanging sections with the second being about twice as long as the first. Woohoo! Black Hawk Down! Black Hawk Down!
Our rap station here was from a big tree (look for a red sling) where the bench begins to slide southward. The rappel goes eastward directly toward the saddle connecting to Purcell Mountain. The rappel begins by going down a concavity with small trees at its bottom. Beyond the trees the fall line goes out of sight and into the shaded realm of the forest. It's kind of cool.
The Rest of the Return to the Car
For the rest of the descent, simply go back the way you came, hoping to choose the best line back through the clearcut to get to the overgrown logging road.
2 60-meter ropes
10-12 slings with carabiners
Cams, cams, cams (I don't think nuts would be very useful)
Rappel ring possibly
Sunscreen if sunny (this mountain is one exposed lump of whale blubber...but not quite as soft)
All the water you'll need (there is none on route that is reliable and there was no ambergris either)
Helmet (rock fall and flensed blubber are a problem)