Friday, September 25, 2009

Mt. Cruiser - 9/13/09

This past weekend I headed out once again with the Mazamas, this time to climb Mount Cruiser in the Sawtooth range near Olympic National Park.

Our team gathered early Saturday morning at the leader’s house in Portland to carpool to the Staircase Ranger Station in Olympic National Park.
John, Mike, Kim, Jessica, & Chad at a rest stop about half way in

Upon registering at the ranger station we were told that we needed to be out by 6 p.m. Sunday. Apparently the area was being closed so they could replace the temporary patch with a permanent fix for a section of road that had been washed out.

We were told that our cars would be stuck in the parking lot once they tore out the temporary section and we might not be able to get them out for a week. This meant we were going to be very tight on time to reach the summit and hike all the way back out on Sunday, but no pressure. ; )

After gathering our gear we set out on the 8-mile hike in to Flapjack Lakes. Flapjack Lakes is a popular limited-use area equipped with bear wires, vault toilets, and is staffed by a wilderness ranger most weekends during the summer.
Flapjack lakes with Sawtooth in the background

The trail started out fairly mellow, but then we began to ascend the ~3,100’ in the last half. Somehow I managed to remain glued to the heels of Chad, who is a fit marathon runner, as he led our hike for most of the ascent. The exertion provided a good outlet for my masochistic tendencies.

During the hike in, leader John and I began talking about the Mazamas Advanced Rock class, which I took last summer. He asked if I would be interested in leading the 5th-class section that led to the summit on Sunday. It’s rare that I’ll turn down an opportunity to lead rock that’s within my ability, so I anxiously took him up on the offer.

We headed for the group campsite that we’d reserved at Flapjack Lakes, eager to set up camp and relax before our early rise Sunday for the climb. The campsite was vacant, with the exception of five tents belonging to a Boy Scout troop, so we headed down to the lake to hang out while we waited for their leader to return so we could sort out the campsite situation.

The resident ranger eventually rolled into camp and we were able to verify that there were other open campsites, so John graciously offered to let the Boy Scout troop remain in the group campsite. We also discussed the road closure situation a bit and determined that the work probably wouldn’t start until Monday morning, but that we should be out by at least 8 p.m. or we might get locked in.

We were off to a bit of a rough start with the surprise road closure and the campsite reservation debacle, but it all worked out. We decided to start a bit earlier than originally planned on Sunday to make sure we were out on time.

4:30 a.m. came way too early, but we had a deadline so we got moving fairly quickly. There’s a nice trail from Flapjack Lakes up to the base of Needle Pass where we left the beaten path to scramble up a loose rock-filled gully to the crest of the range. The going was a bit sketchy as the six of us made our way up to the pass trying not to send rocks down on each other.

Ascending the gully to Needle Pass

From Needle Pass we had to traverse the ridge crest over to the base of Mount Cruiser. There was a lot of exposed 4th-class scrambling and some route finding required to make our way across the ridge, which added to the adventure of this trip.

We dropped our packs at the base of a chimney leading up to a large platform at the base of Mount Cruiser. After mustering some courage we ascended this gully un-roped and squeezed through a small hole in the rock to gain the platform that would serve as our staging area for the technical portion of this climb.

Mike squeezing through the hole at the top of the chimney

As we waited for the rest of the group, Jess and I located the belay ledge and scouted the climbing route. Unfortunately, the climb began with a bulge just above the belay ledge which made it impossible to scout the route from the bottom.

Once John arrived he handed me “the rack”. I should mention that I had not planned to lead this until I was on the trail, so I didn’t bring any gear of my own that I would usually use for leading, I was in hiking boots, and I could hardly see any of the route I was about to climb. Fortunately I was feeling confident that day, so in my mind this added greatly to the adventure. “The rack” that John had brought consisted of 5 stoppers, 2 cams, 3 tri-cams, and not nearly enough carabiners and slings. For those of you reading this who are not climbers this is about ¼ of the gear I would usually carry up a climb like this at the crag, and about ½ what I would usually take in the mountains. I was a bit nervous about heading into the unknown being so sparsely equipped, but I knew that the rock was easy.

Once I started up the route I was glad to see that the climbing was easy so that I could focus on finding gear placements to protect my ascent. This turned out to be quite a challenge as the rock in this area has very few cracks. It took some significant creativity to complete the pitch with what I had on my harness. The guide book says this is a 70-foot pitch. What I discovered is that 70’ only gets you to a belay ledge from which you have to traverse across a very narrow exposed ridge to the summit. I knew nobody in our group would want to climb this un-roped and that belaying each other one at a time would take forever, so I clipped the belay anchor as I passed and pushed on to the summit where I was able to fix the end of the rope to a large horn. After completing the pitch and fixing the rope I had two carabiners left and zero slings. That’s as close as I’ve ever come to running out of gear on a route.

This is a photo of a private group of Mazamas who climbed the same route right after us

With a fixed line in place I called down to the rest of the group to head on up. We took turns on the small summit before rappelling back to the safety of the staging platform below. From here we rappelled back down through the keyhole and the chimney to our packs.

Descending the chimney back to our packs

We ended up setting about four fixed lines on our descent since down climbing this steep terrain was quite intimidating for all but the most experienced climbers. Although the rope provided much more safety it also tended to knock down a lot of loose rock as we rappelled down the loose gully from Needle Pass. Fortunately everyone made it down safely and we began the short jaunt back to camp before heading down the mountain.

Once in camp we refueled and packed up before heading for the cars. I burned down the trail like a horse headed back to the barn in an effort to hike out before darkness set in and the gate was locked. We managed to knock off the 8 miles back in less than 3 hours, which put us at the cars at 8 p.m. We quickly packed up and headed down the road hoping the gate had not yet been locked.

Fortunately the Rangers had left it partly open so we could get through. We stopped for burgers at a tavern in Hoodsport and then drove home. I arrived home exhausted after midnight.

I must say I wasn’t good for much at work the next day, but it was an awesome adventure and I’m glad we did it.

More photos of the climb, and another trip report from Jessica:
Jessica's Trip report
Jessica's Photos
Kim's Photos
Brad's Photos

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