Tag Archives: scrambling

Where There’s Smoke…

This is it. I’m declaring Blog Bankruptcy. I’ve gotten so behind with summer travel and outings that I can’t possibly dig out of the hole. So here’s what I did this weekend. I may go back and cover selected trips from June-August, highlights of which included 2 weeks in Turkey and Romania, summer skiing at Mt. Rainier, and backpacking near Glacier Peak.

Mt. Howard and Mt. Mastiff

7063′ peak elevation

12ish miles

6000′ gain

7:40 car to car

DATELINE: Chelan, WA. After one of the driest springs and summers on record and with a minuscule snowpack, Washington is burning. Lake Chelan, the Methow Valley, and Mt. Adams are ablaze and the Okanogan Complex is the largest in the state’s history. With the North Cascades Highway closed due to fire, the options for getting in the high country are more limited than usual. Looking for a fun summer scramble, hiking pal Becca and I settled on a doubleheader near Stevens Pass, hopefully sparing us most of the smoke: Mt. Howard and Mt. Mastiff. Mt. Howard happens to be a 2000′ prominence peak, a nice bonus.

On the drive in we noticed a puzzling haze in Monroe – it couldn’t be smoke, could it? We were 100+ miles from the closest fire. As we continued along US 2 it became evident that the forecasted NW wind hadn’t materialized – Easterly wind was pushing the smoke our way. Despite the potential for disappointing views, the smoke wasn’t thick enough to irritate our lungs or eyes so we elected to do the trip as ash fell from the sky like a dusting of snow.

Howard-Mastiff Loop

Our plan was to do a loop route starting and ending from the Merritt Lake Trailhead, climbing Mt. Howard first before continuing on to Mastiff and descending off trail on Nason Ridge. Fully half this route is off trail, so decent routefinding and navigation skills are definitely required.

The Merritt Lake trail has nice efficient switchbacks through mostly shade. The Nason Ridge trail though needs some work – it’s brushy and loose in places but easy to follow. It continued through a looong traverse over to Crescent Lake including several hundred feet of elevation loss (beware to those doing the counterclockwise loop!) There are several little bowls that look like the S. face of Howard – make sure you’re in the right drainage (ie. not Royal Creek) before you head upward.

Crescent Lake

Crescent Lake is big and shallow. It looked like elk bed down in the long grass nearby – comforting, as we had just been startled by some sort of large mammal in the woods and we were really hoping it wasn’t a bear. We filled up water and started up the South face of Mt. Howard (about 2000′ vertical) off trail. We took the talus field at the head of the lake (directly below the obvious cliff band) then brush bashed through some woody plants without too much hassle before reaching an upper talus field where we drifted right to get around the cliff. There are several gullies here – we picked the one we thought was easiest and it was easy but loose, dirty class 3. I wouldn’t want to have to descend this part if I could help it.

Above this crux band of 100′ or so it was easy cruising on talus and dirt climber’s trails to the summit. Continue reading Where There’s Smoke…

McClellan Butte

McClellan Butte


3400’ gain

Class 3 scramble (easy but very exposed)

This weekend the weather wasn’t looking promising anywhere, so I hopped on Summitpost to see what was around I-90 that I hadn’t been to the top of yet. I was planning on running a mountain just as a workout even if I couldn’t see anything from the top in the clouds. McClellan Butte had been on my radar for a while – I had seen it in every proximity search but never clicked through to the page. Once I saw folks describing the route as a scramble at Class 3 or even Class 4 I knew that I had to give it a shot.

The trailhead is relatively close to Seattle, right at Exit 42. This was my first time checking out the south side of the valley but it all looks fairly similar. McClellan Butte’s trail gains elevation fairly gradually for the first couple of miles, crossing the John Wayne rail-trail at just before the one mile mark.

John Wayne trail

After the road crossing, the route gently pitches up until I ended up walking some of the steeper upper sections (the whole thing is runnable, I’m just not in my best shape right now). The upper mountain started to drizzle on me.

Cloudy hillside

After mile 4 or so, the trail crests a ridge and juts to the (south?) in order to avoid some cliffs. It traverses along the upper mountain until reaching the final summit scramble.

Cliffy from here (the route curves around to the much easier opposite side)

Continue reading McClellan Butte

Kaleetan Peak

Kaleetan Peak

~4500′ gain

~12 miles

With a beautiful sunny weekend ahead, Ryan and I set out to do some spring snow climbing and chose a prominent summit in the Snoqualmie Pass area, Kaleetan Peak (meaning “Arrow” in the Chinook language). With the shockingly low snowpack this year, we weren’t exactly sure what sort of conditions we would encounter.

We opted for a lazy alpine start of 6am leaving from the Denny Creek trailhead in order to minimize the already-small risk of wet loose avalanches on the descent (in warm afternoon conditions, “solar” aspects can often become destabilized).

Our plan was to ascend the peak via an East facing couloir to access the normal scrambling route from there to the summit. We packed for non-technical snow climbing including ice axe and crampons, both of which turned out to be essential on this route in these conditions.

The Denny Creek trail to the pass is very pleasant – dense forest, waterfalls, and nice views down the valley as the trail gradually gains elevation to Hemlock Pass..

Keekwulee Falls (Credit Ryan H)

Intermittent ice and snow can be found just below Hemlock Pass but it should be gone fairly soon. Arriving at Melakwa Lake early in the morning, the air was cool enough to break out the gloves as we admired the thin glaze of ice on the water from the freeze the night before – a good sign that snow conditions would be nice and consolidated on the path ahead. Continue reading Kaleetan Peak

Defiance Ridge Run

Putrid Pete’s Peak – Mt. Defiance ridge traverse

GPS track (partial – lost reception on the climb to P3)

~10 miles

~5100′ gain

It’s November – the gloom has finally arrived, and temps are starting to drop in the mountains. I had run many well-traveled peaks in September and October and I wanted to try something off the beaten track before snow forces a switch to skiing instead of running.

After weighing a number of considerations (safety on a solo run, exposure with wet rock, driving time, familiarity with the area) I ended up selecting Putrid Pete’s Peak as an objective and figured I’d improvise a way down once I made my way back into terrain I have seen before. Arriving at the Ira Spring Trailhead along the customarily potholed road, the temperature lingered at around 37F. This was going to be a chilly day. It was also raining, so I was concerned about temperature management, especially if I got injured and took longer than expected to make my way out or wait for rescue. I threw in an extra puffy jacket into my running pack just to be safe.

Route map (black is off trail running and scrambling, red is established forest service trails)

I started off running and kept going straight instead of taking the first marked switchback (the Ira Spring trail). These Summitpost instructions got me started on the faint use trail to the summit of P3:

“Begin at the Ira Spring / Mason Lake trail. Follow the trail 1/10 of a mile to the first switchback. Instead of turning to the right, continue forward over the sticks meant to block the way onto a faint path which quickly becomes well pronounced. After 1/3 of mile the trail begins switching back as it climbs steeply along the mellow ridge leading up towards the east summit.”

Much of the lower half of the route was sort of brushy – with the recent rain and dew, I was totally soaked to the skin from brushing against all the vegetation. It was going to be a long, chilly day.

From there, the route steepens considerably and ascends virtually direct to the summit. The last ~30′ to the summit block is low third-class scrambling which was quite secure. At the top there is a very steep dropoff to the north and a waterproof canister for the summit register.

The visibility was… not great

P3 summit view (not sure which direction – does it matter?)

The next portion of the route was a bit of an unknown quantity – I just knew I needed to follow the ridge ESE to Mt. Defiance. The ground here was pretty rugged for the first half of the traverse, with potential for dangerous falls in both directions, so I proceeded with a lot of caution.

Wet, sloping rock on the P3 – Defiance traverse

This section of the route had no identifiable trails so I generally tried to stick right to the crest of the ridge and the whole thing went at Class 2 with a bit of  minor exposure in some points. My biggest challenge was simply the temperature. I was dressed for trail running with minimal insulation, and the temperature was probably 33F or so. After I stopped climbing, my aerobic output didn’t help keep me warm and I soon started to shiver. Continue reading Defiance Ridge Run

Making the tough call on Mt. Daniel

Mt. Daniel is a perfect target for a summer climb. At 7960′, Daniel is the only county highpoint “twofer” in the state of Washington: it is the highest summit in both King County and Kittitas County (it straddles the Cascades Crest, and hence the county line).

Respecting the late summer melt off, we chose the non-technical SE ridge to avoid glacier travel. With something close to 5000′ of elevation gain, Mt. Daniel can be summited as a very long day, but we chose to camp one night instead to shorten the summit day.

We headed East on I-90 from the Seattle area on a Friday evening, stopping in South Cle Elum for some Smokey’s BBQ (will be a fixture of all my following trips over Snoqualmie Pass I think) before continuing north on the Salmon La Sac road to Tucquala Meadows trailhead. Under the light of the moon and headlamp, we made our way to the intersection of the Pacific Crest Trail near the turnoff for Peggy’s Pond. After stumbling around in the dark trying to find the spur trail to the pond, we gave up and found a very nice campsite right there.  Overnight, there was a bit of a drizzle and we awoke to unsettled clouds.

Morning view of Daniel’s East side from the trail to Peggy’s Pond

The four of us made it to Peggy’s before a pair chose to stick around and spend the day exploring the area instead of going higher. Two of us continued on the climb. To the west of the pond, there is a maze of “social” trails in the grass, and we missed a key turnoff and ended up climbing a creek and ending up in the Hyas Creek Glacier basin before traversing back to the south to rejoin the ridge (which we managed to do without losing too much elevation). The next section was marked by cairns, which helped us navigate in the poor visibility conditions. After gaining close to 2000′, we made it above the cloud ceiling and the views really opened up.

Gap in the clouds from low on the SE ridge

This portion of the ridge is pretty fun – it’s Class 1/2 walking for the most part with careful route selection and we moved efficiently toward the bend in the ridge heading north.

The views to either side of the ridge are simply spectacular. It really feels like a remote part of the Cascades.

Circle Lake
Cruising on the upper SE ridge

When the ridge takes a bend toward the East Summit, the rock quality becomes really broken and poor. We found ourselves dropping down ~50′ off the ridge into a gully with loose scree. Taking a tumble here would be pretty uncomfortable.

Venus Lake

Unfortunately, the route description calling this ridge “a walkup with a couple of Class 3 spots” doesn’t quite capture the seriousness of some of the scrambling steps. We were stopped in our tracks right below the false summit at the biggest gendarme on the way to the East Peak.  Our path crossed a very awkward rock step over thin air. A fall here would have been a 40 foot slide down a slick slab and would have been quite serious, likely fatal, especially considering the remote location.

The rock was slick and wet from the previous night’s rain, so we elected not to continue past this point. We saw a foot trail right on the other side, so it was clear that we weren’t off route – I wonder if we just didn’t see the right move or if a key foot placement had broken off or something. The pictures really don’t do it justice.

So close, yet so far...
So close, yet so far…

I think we were being cautious but we tried to scope out the move for a long time and didn’t get quite comfortable with it.

Roughly where we

Reviewing trip reports later, it seemed as though many parties choose to traverse the snow slope below which would have been a much easier and safer option if we had crampons with us. I’m not sure exactly where one would access the snowfield from low on the ridge but evidently it’s straightforward.

Stuck on Daniel

The clouds dropped back a bit to make the views on our trip down a great consolation prize.

Benefits of turning around: being intact to see views like this


We even got a little peek of Peggy’s Pond on the way down, though Cathedral Rock was cloud covered the entire day.

Peggy’s through a gap in the clouds.

After reuniting with our friends lower down near the PCT intersection, it was a quick and pleasant trip back to the cars. The clouds parted even more and it turned into a beautiful sunny day.

It looks like a big mountain from down here!