News of the North Cascades Highway opening over Washington Pass spread like wildfire around the office this past week. Goran and I quickly agreed that, given the weather forecast and likelihood that visibility wouldn't be good enough to warrant an ascent of Glacier Peak or another big mountain, Washington Pass was a solid choice.
Southeast Couloir on South Early Winters Spire
We left Seattle around 7am and made it to the Blue Lake trailhead in about 3 hours, slowed slightly by a quick bout of motion sickness and painting of the shoulder with oatmeal not far from our destination. We pulled our relevant gear out of the car and quickly started skinning. The approach went quickly, with a short section through the woods and a longer section out in the open with enough visibility to see the spires on our left and not much more. We made it to the base of the couloir in just under an hour and switched our skis out for crampons and mountaineering axes.
There was a veritable boot-pack highway up the couloir and solid snow cover, so ropes were far from necessary. Things steepened and narrowed a bit as we went, but we made it up the chute very quickly. There was a group of mountaineers at the top, preparing to rappel the route. We said hi and scrambled the quick low 5th class move on frozen rock with our crampons to gain the summit. It was exceptionally soupy—we could barely see down to the valley floor in certain directions and definitely couldn't make out the other spires. With no view to take in, we quickly scrambled down and down-climbed the couloir, which went even faster than our climb up. Goran stopped at the wider section to slap on his skis and enjoy a few tight turns. I was not so bold.
The descent was pretty easy, but my knee was still hurting from our day on Baker, so I took things pretty slowly and had a few low-speed falls that must have been pretty funny to watch. We were quickly back at the car where I made salami and cream cheese sandwiches while Goran navigated the hairpin and road to Mazama.
It was about 3pm by the time we made it to the parking area for the Goat Wall, but we were feeling frisky and decided to try and make it up as much of Prime Rib, a classic 11-pitch 5.9 , as we could before dark. We racked up quickly (thankfully with no trad gear) and quickly made the approach. Judging by the number of shoes left at the base, a number of groups were already high on the route. We started simul-climbing and swung simul-leads for the first 5-6 pitches. We were ticking off a pitch every 20 minutes, so we made it to the higher section with more consistent and exposed climbing in no time.
The clouds were ominous and the wind was picking up, but it didn't look like we were going to get caught in anything too nasty, so we pressed on, narrowly avoiding a little rock fall from some groups rappelling above us. We caught the next group just as we finished the 11th and final pitch. Up at the top, the wind was howling and we felt like a couple of windsocks with our hoods blowing back and tugging at our necks. The raps weren't terribly memorable or fun and involved a bunch of 3rd class walking between stations. Nonetheless, we finished the raps before dark and headed for the car with visions of burgers and beers dancing in our heads.
The 20-minute drive to Winthrop involved a number of "I can't believe we just did that" moments and high-fives. It was a big day to have started in Seattle. We made it to the brew pub with 5 minutes to spare before the kitchen closed. The burger and imperial stout could not have tasted better. There was even a live band to keep us from falling asleep on our table—it was awesome.
After a night at the Early Winters Campground and a decadent breakfast at the Mazama Store, we started the approach to Sisyphus. Unfortunately, mother nature frowned on our plans and a big snowstorm pushed through the valley. We still finished the approach, but it was obvious that we wouldn't be climbing any rock. We could only be so bummed after such a solid Saturday.