Story captured by Brooke Jarvie
On August 10-11, the objective was Mount Baker via the Coleman-Deming, and this trip was supposed to be particularly spectacular because it coincided with the Perseid meteor shower. It has been a hot and dry summer with very little rain, but this weekend, rain was forecasted (and not the it’s-misting-and-I’ll-be-fine rain, but put-on-a-rain-suit-or-bail, because things are about to get soggy). Sunday morning looked less severe than Saturday, and the team opted to go for the Easton instead of the CD, mainly due to increased safety on this route. Fast-forward to Friday evening, and the soggy forecast turned to extra soggy, and we decided to switch objectives altogether rather than postpone or brave the rain. Snowfield Peak, here we come!
On Saturday morning, we managed to fit five of us (Forrest, Amber, Brett, Artemiza, and myself) into one car, and we swung by the Marblemount Ranger Station to pick up overnight permits. Thanks to the rain forecasted (way less than on Baker!), this was a quick process without lines. We ditched some of our gear that we had packed for Mt Baker in the car (some of the crevasses rescue pieces because we were going to be on a flat, mild glacier as a group of five, some of our warmer layers, etc). It turns out I forgot my phone, and so began the process of me encouraging Forrest to take pictures every 10 minutes for the duration of the trip (Forrest: Of what?! Me: Everything!)
Part 1: The Warm-Up
In my mind, the trek to Snowfield Peak can be neatly divided into several sections. The first section is the warm-up, with some mostly mild incline for a couple of miles up to Pyramid Lake. Everybody worked out the kinks in their muscles and we discovered that Amber and Brett shared a love of Dad Jokes…cue a mile or so of entertainment, and mostly bad (but funny!) jokes. Pyramid Lake is a small lake full of logs, which has an excellent jumping rock and someone on facebook once said carnivorous plants. Forrest wanted to jump off the rock, and I wanted to search for the plants, but we decided that was a reward for tomorrow on our way out.
Part 2: Trail Scramble
From here, we skirted to the west of the lake and followed the climbers’ trail (you can also go around to the east side and up a scree field to a ridge trail, and eventually the two paths will merge. The west trail is more user friendly). The trail turns into a scramble, where sections of the dirt trail has kicked-in steps or roots and convenient trees that you can use to help ascend the steep sections. We promptly gained ~1400 feet in elevation and enjoyed the mossy trees and old growth forest. This went on for a while and eventually we broke out of the trees into a clearing, where we saw our first view of Colonial Peak. This area was also overrun with plump and beautiful blueberries, so we took a snack break and admired the views. It was overcast and cool, and so far, no rain, so we felt pretty lucky.
Begin the next trail scramble! If there is a crux on a dirt trail, this is it. The scrambles become a little more vertical, as roots and rocks become ladders for short sections at a time. It also began to rain, but spirits were high and we kept snagging fistfuls of blueberries and huckleberries as we worked our way out of the forest and into the alpine meadows, which afforded a phenomenal view of Colonial Peak, Colonial Basin, Pyramid Peak, and more. It was still raining, but the sun was peeking out and there was a big rainbow arcing over the view back towards Ross and Diablo lake. The leprechaun’s gold is in the dam!
Part 3: Transition to Colonial Basin
In the transition to Colonial Basin, it thankfully stopped raining. There was slab scrambling to make it to a long scree field with two waterfall crossings. The first waterfall had a precarious snow bridge over it, so we climbed below snow line to cross a stream below it. The second one was at the entrance to the Basin and there was a beautiful silty blue lake, complete with icebergs.
We trudged happily into camp next to the lake, dropped packs, and it promptly began to rain again…and this was the rain we were afraid of being caught in on Baker. Commence panicked rummaging through packs to get tents and rain flies up (Artemiza had cleverly folded her tent and rainfly so that the rainfly would keep the tent dry during set-up). Amber and Artemiza were in one tent, and Brett, Forrest and I were in the other. We crawled into tents, ate dinner, and promptly passed out. We had a tentative start time (wake up at 5 AM), but we weren’t anticipating the need for a true alpine start. We also wanted the rain to stop and let things dry.
Part 4: Snowfield Approach
At 2 AM, Brett convinced me and Forrest that is was 5 AM, and we confusedly looked out of the tent flap and were wondering why it was so dark outside. It was also still pouring, so we figured we would sleep for another hour and then check on conditions again. At 3:15 AM, Brett’s watch dutifully reported 6:15, and given that it was still pitch-black outside, we checked alternative sources. Turns out that Brett had somehow reset his watch, and we were NOT in fact in some sort of twilight zone where the sun didn’t rise. It was also still pouring. We went back to sleep.
Once daylight hit, the rain stopped and we set off on the approach to Snowfield. We skirted around the left side of the lake and scrambled over a large boulder section, and then through a small scree field to get to Colonial Glacier. We donned our crampons and crunched our way over the ice. The glacier was completely exposed blue ice with no snow bridges, so you could see all the crevasses and holes clearly. We then worked our way up a steep snow slope to Col between the Neve and Colonial glacier, where the snow disappeared and some of us worked on our crampon-on-rock skills.
We descended down to the Neve Glacier, which we couldn’t actually see except for some glimpses through the quickly moving clouds. The first half of the Neve glacier has a relatively flat portion, which cascades downward in two directions and is filled with crevasses and jutting ice (which is one of my favorite views!)
We roped up to work our way through some open crevasses and snow-bridges. At that point, the sun started finally poking through the clouds and we were given more expansive views of what surrounded us. Mountains flitted in and out of view, and as we worked our way over the glacier, several of our climbers were able to look down into open crevasses for the first time. We debated which peak was Snowfield Peak through the clouds, unroped and worked our way over to the base of the west ridge, only to realized that there was a gigantic plume of smoke rising immediately behind the mountain. Normally there is a cornucopia of mountain views, and instead all we could see was a thick haze. At the base of Snowfield, we dropped packs and followed a network of paths leading up to a rocky notch. In that notch were a couple of easy scramble moves, which led to the third-class scramble potion of this route.
Artemiza started up what turned out to be the correct gully, while the rest of us decided to explore some alternative routes. After a couple of false starts and downclimbing, we re-routed over to the correct gully and followed Artemiza to the top. It was extremely hazy, and there were still zero views. Artemiza had claimed a rock and was napping and waiting for us to join her—we snapped some quick pictures and scrambled back down to our packs.
The smoke was growing thicker, although the clouds had retreated so we now had views of the full Neve Glacier and surrounding peaks. Brett and Artemiza kept surreptitiously snapping photos while Forrest kept pushing everyone along, because we were considerably behind schedule and still had a big push to get back to the car.
Our group summited Snowfield, and on the way down took an epic group photo with Paul Bunyan’s Stump, Pinnacle Peak, and Pyramid Peak in the background.
Part 5: The Descent
The journey back to camp was uneventful (except Brett saw a goat!), and we packed up quickly, refueled, and set out on the trip back to the trailhead. Here’s the thing about this section: you don’t remember just how much elevation you gained, or quite realized how many short but steep sections there were, one after the other. Then there are some places that you remember (that place where we tried to knock over a dead/rotted tree because it looked like it could present a serious hazard for unsuspecting climbers) and far more places that you don’t, but the ones you do remember never seem to appear until far later than you expected. Everyone’s knees were angry, and we were racing against the setting sun. We divided into two groups and regrouped at Pyramid Lake right as the sun set. This was a bittersweet relief point, because the crazy trail scramble was over, but we still had two miles out and everyone was tired. It was also dark now, so we put on headlamps and made our final push.
Forrest made it out first (he was carrying two backpacks, and so wanted to move fast), and the rest of the team trickled in behind him. We were very excited once we started to see signs of civilization through the trees (lights!), although they looked like buildings rather than cars, so we weren’t totally sure if they were near our parking lot or not. At one point, Artemiza and I realized we could see the road, and I believe one of us gleefully yelled, “ROAD!” Forrest was stretched out on his back, shoes off, and looking for any remaining meteors from the Perseid meteor shower when we arrived in the parking lot.
Artermiza recounts the highlights of the trip from her perspective:
I absolutely loved this trip. The most stunning scenery I have seen, combined with a wonderful mixture of terrain. It’s hard to pick a favorite part of this hike. The stunning waterfalls, the steep peaks and rock walls surrounding us, the wonderful glaciers, the lake, and yes, even the scramble up to the peak – they were all of breathtaking beauty. It feels that the area is a hidden gem, and the main reason it’s so well hidden is that it is blood painful to get to it (and out of it!). But that also makes it that much more worth it and rewarding once you get there – if it was a 15 min walk from the road it just wouldn’t feel the same. Going up and down from the camp site felt like Mailbox peak (old route) tripled. The rain through the night unfortunately hid away the meteor shower from us, but was very peaceful and put me back to sleep after every awakening. It also helped that I was super tired from the first day climb. The glacier crossings were awesome – I just love glaciers. I felt strangely good about the scramble up the top to the summit, and being on the summit was an awesome experience. The worst part was the descent, feeling that it would never end. Towards the end of the 14-15?? hour day my knees were in utter agony, and my feet were covered in blisters, and every time we stopped I was fighting myself not to fall asleep sitting upright - I was that tired. So I had to keep going and push for the finish line. I never felt so good lying down on the gravel with my shoes off – and catching falling stars in the night sky. Thank you!
Here's to Climbing for More Than A Summit!
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