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best of cc.com Colonial Peak

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Here is a message (and trip report) my climbing partner Forrest wrote to Jim Nelson after we heeded his suggestion to make the second ascent of the N. Face of Colonial Peak.


Unfortunately for us, we did not heed your advice about hard snow conditions

- the snow was hard in the trees and in the valley bottom, but as soon as we

hit the snow slopes above the first rock band, we were postholing on every

snowfield all the way up. Minimum of 4-5 kicks per step. We kept thinking it

would get better, and it wasn't particularly slide prone, but it was very

slow and tiring. Where there was ice, however, it was generally solid.

Your description states 6-10 hours. I can only barely imagine anyone getting

up the route in 10 hours from the road in perfect conditions, much 6. Twight

and Bebie took 5 hours on hard snow from the upper basin (you could easily

bivy as high as 5000-5500 feet) - and anyone who could get from the car to

that point in less than 4 hours should be winning gold medals in the

Olympics and not climbing mountains. Even in perfect conditions, its 3500

vertical feet and a circuitous route which includes bushwacking. I would say

that 10 hours would be the absolute minimum, even if you soloed the lower

ice. I think in good conditions, we could have done it a single continuous

14-15 hour push, and we're reasonably fast climbers. With a half-bivy and

the crappy conditions we had, we took almost 31 hours from the car to the

summit. If we were super fit we could have shaved some hours, and saved some

more by not getting tired out by spending so much time ascending in tough

conditions; but with the conditions last weekend, I don't think we could

have cut that much off.


Parking: There is no plowed pullout, we excavated a ramp in the plow-wall at

colonial creek campground and drove up off the highway. This took about 45

minutes with shovels and ice axes. If there is no new snow, there is a

slow-vehicle lane just east of Colonial Creek where some skiers parked the

same weekend, but I don't know what would have happened if they had had to

plow. I guess a lot of years there is no snow here at all and you can park

in the campground, which is officially open all year, though not plowed out.

Approach: From about 50 feet south/east of the Bridge over Colonial Creek,

head steeply up the slope, staying to the left of the sidehill that drops

into the creek bed. After about 800 feet, after passing some small cliff

bands, begin a gradual traverse parallel to the creek, breaking out of the

trees at the base of the open slopes at around 2700 feet.

Route: In between the valley bottom and the base of actual steep face is a

long snowy basin and a band of cliffs at valley level. There are many ways

through this cliff band. From the head of the valley, a gully that leads

sharply left accesses the snow fields without ice; there are several gully

systems that break the cliff bands in the middle, most of which look

climbable. You could choose from WI 2 to WI 5, and if you wanted to, you

could climb as many as 4 or 5 pitches, but you could also get up to low

angled ground in 2 pitches or less in many spots. To us, the most appealing

route up to the mid-valley snow slopes was an obvious narrow, rock lined

gully snakes through the snowslopes to the upper basin. Unfortunately, it

ended in a not-quite-touched-down ice pillar, so we did a short pitch up

some rock and cornices on the right side, then traversed sideways into the

gully. This was fun, 20 degree alpine ice and hard snow with occasional

"cruxes" of 35 degs. This gully fades out into snow slopes after a few

hundred feet.

Three features form the primary landmarks on the face: an overhanging

cascade of ice in the middle of the lower face, and two ice pillars, one

directly above the other. These features were connected by a complex series

of steep snowfields. We soloed snow up to 50 degrees to the base of the

curtain. We bypassed this on the left, encountering snow of various depths,

sometimes shallow, sometimes deep. We belayed one 20 foot section of mixed

snow and rock, then made a long rightwards traverse back on snow up to 60

deg. to the base of the first pillar. The pillar is about 80 feet tall,

consistently 80 degrees mixed alpine and water ice and quite sustained. We

encountered relatively thin ice, especially at the bottom. Rock belay below

and 15' left possible, but craftiness required. We placed one knifeblade

here which we left fixed. Connect snowfields to the second pillar. 100'

long, WI 3 or 3+, solid blue water ice. Traverse leftwards 400 feet to the

base of a short (40') moderate-mixed chimney which leads up to another short

snowfield. Many possibilities; we crossed leftwards over a fin into a gully,

which led directly upwards for 300 feet of real-deal mixed climbing. I have

no idea what to rate it, but it felt like climbing 5.10. Weave around the

cornices at the top (some scary floundering inevitable) to reach the

ridgeline. (We traversed right under one cornice until we could turn it by

throwing a leg over and climbing it cowboy-style.) Follow the ridgeline

another 30 feet of very tricky mixed climbing to pop out onto the exact


Descent: Rather than a "col" between Colonial and Pyramid, there is more of

a high plateau formed by Pinnacle, Pyramid, Colonial and Paul Bunyon's

Stump. This plateau is closed off from the lower basin by a terminal

moraine. To reach the lower basin without rapelling, it is necessary to

traverse the edge of this basin (or follow the top of the moraine)(or do a

descending traverse along the slope facing the Colonial Creek basin) all the

way around (northwest) to below Pyramid Peak, then descend avalanche slopes

to the valley floor. As far as we could tell, there is no more direct route

that would not require several rappels. This is pretty easy to scope out

from the basin on the way up, but would be very hard to see in bad weather

and is not visible from above.

From here down is the more descriptive account, read only if you're


Colonial Peak, North Face (Watusi Rodeo)

2/12-1/23, 2000

After getting out of town pretty late Friday night, and the usual stops for

gas, groceries, etc, we pulled up to the Colonial Creek campground around

10:30. Since there is no plowed pullout for several miles, we spend 45

minutes with shovels digging a ramp into the hard-packed snow so we could

drive the car up and off the highway. It was beautifully clear, windless and

cold, so we slept out next to the car. Though I was already sleepy, I slept

poorly, continually woken up by vaguely menacing dreams.

We got up at 4:15, but weren't ready to move until 5:30. We hiked up the

road to Colonial Creek and prepared to head into the woods when I remembered

that we hadn't packed the rope. It was still in Dan's ropebag, buried under

our sleeping stuff. Dan went back to get it, and we headed into the brush on

the northwest side of the creek. 10 minutes later, Dan realized that he had

left his second ice tool at the car. Back to the road. By the time we were

ready the third time, it was 6:30 and just getting light. We figured that if

we realized that we'd forgotten a third thing, it was a sign to go home


It actually worked to our advantage, though, because on second thought, we

really wanted to be on the other side of the creek. We headed up steeply for

about 800 feet through mostly open woods. Snow covered most of the brush,

and was firm enough to generally support your weight without breaking

through, except when it wasn't and you would break through into the air gap

beside a log or under a bush. After gaining most of the altitude on the

slope perpendicular to the road, we struck a long, mostly level traverse

into the open basin, breaking out into the trees about two hours out of the


A more avalanche-ridden valley I have never seen, the valley bottom filled

with piles of avalanche debris that had been torn and worn away by other

avalanches starting further up the valley. But the snow in the valley bottom

was firm - we thought that might mean good, hard snow up high. After all,

the higher you go, the colder it is, right? A line of cliffs rings the

valley on the Colonial side, broken by a number of gullies. Only the ones at

the farthest ends of the valley lead through to the upper slopes without

technical ground. Frozen floes guard other gullies, enough that the basin

could be a reasonable ice-cragging location in waterfall-deprived

Washington. We punted - the most appealing route up to the mid-valley snow

slopes was a narrow, rock lined gully that unfortunately ended in a

not-quite-touched-down ice pillar, so we did a short pitch up some rock and

cornices, then traversed sideways into the gully. This was fun, 20 degree

alpine ice with occasional "cruxes" of 35 degs. After a few hundred feet, we

were forced out of the gully onto the snow slopes and the work really began.

Despite our hopes, the snow was soft. It didn't seem particularly slide

prone - in fact we never saw any avalanche activity - but the going was

slow, requiring 4 or 5 kicks for every step. So we slowly worked our way up

towards the steep part of the north face proper.

The bushwack approach from the highway to the open basin gains about 1500

feet. The cliff bands eat up perhaps 400 feet. The headwall itself is no

more than 2000 feet tall, depending on where you start counting. Since the

summit is 7800 feet, That leaves another 2500 feet of moderate angled snow

that separates the steep slopes above from the basin below. Those 2500 feet

killed our time. It was both slow and tiring, and in fact, the experience

was extended onto the face itself. Hours crept by as we crept up steepening

gullies and snowfields. We finally put the rope on around 5800 feet. Three

prominent features are mentioned in the AAJ account of the climb and form

the primary landmarks of the face: an overhanging cascade of ice in the

middle of the lower face, and two ice pillars. The second pillar glowed blue

even from the valley bottom, but the first pillar glinted a dull brown,

foreboding thin ice. These features were connected by a complex series of

steep snowfields. Above the second pillar was the least clear portion of the

route. In Becky's guide, it is described as a "short mixed chimney, or a

spectacular but scary pitch directly below the summit."

Bypassing the ice curtain on the left, as had Twight & Co, the snowfields

changed from the gullies we had been soloing to rock slabs covered

(sometimes deeply, sometimes shallowly) with snow. So we tied in to pass a

sketchy section, then continued simulclimbing back right and upwards towards

the first ice pillar. We arrived at the base just at dark, having taken just

one rest long enough to sit down in 12 hours. But we were less than halfway

up the face. We were climbing very slowly - the first ascent party sent the

entire wall from the upper basin in five hours. We had hoped to summit in 14

or 15 hours from the car, but given the snow conditions, that was not a


We needed a break, so we flattened out a small snow ledge under an overhang,

put on all our clothes, and hunkered down. We made hot milk, hot couscous

and tried to sleep, with a predictable lack of success. Around midnight, we

had had about as much "rest" as we could handle and started to stir. We

melted snow and stared out into the night. Frequent spindrift avalanches

poured over our overhang. It was snowing lightly and verging on whiteout

conditions. I belayed Dan over to the base of the pillar, and we spent some

time getting in a bomber anchor, a continual problem in the crappy rock of

the north face.

I have to say, psyching up to lead that pitch was the hardest part of the

climb for me. My headlamp wasn't strong enough to see the top, so I wasn't

sure how long it would be, but you could clearly see rock just below the

surface in many spots. It wasn't vertical, perhaps 80 degrees, but it was

constant - no low-angle bulges to place gear from. Add to that that it was 2

in the morning, snowing and in the middle of an alpine face, 80 feet of WI4

was not exactly what I was in the mood for. I placed a screw standing at the

base that hit rock less than halfway in. It's a sickening feeling, because

not only is it not all the way in, but unless you're lucky, you have to back

it out half a turn to get the eye pointing downwards. I've read that if you

can get all the threads in the ice, it's better to clip the eye than to tie

it off short because the strength of the threads resisting pulling out is

more important than the absolute shear strength of the screw itself.

Whatever, either way its scary. Ten feet up I tried again, solid rock after

2 inches. Already too high up to easily climb down, so up again. Finally a

solid screw at 25 feet. Whew. Climbing by headlamp is odd, because with a

helmet and pack you can't direct the beam of your headlamp more than 10 feet

above you. The climbing was good, plastic water ice, and by meandering from

left to right on the 15 foot wide flow, you could generally avoid vertical

ice. That is until the top, where a short vertical section was the only

feasible option in between hollow pockets on one side and black rock visible

just below the surface on the other. In the end, I placed six screws, the

most ever on a pitch - but only two of them were worth anything I

accidentally put in a final one just below the top because I couldn't see

that I was just below the top. I was glad to have it, though, pulling off

the face. The sketchiest move on the pitch was as the angle eased, from one

tool placement it went from solid water ice to bottomless sugar snow. Well

enough, as the angle was only 55 degrees, but trying to get my

solidly-placed lower tool out, with front points in below on ice and the

other tool wallowing in loose crystals was a little terrifying. I ran the

rest of the rope out up snow to where some rocks emerged from the sidewall.

After Dan came up, we continued on, simulclimbing up more gullies. Somehow,

I managed to make my memory of the face match the terrain, and we navigated

by the shortest possible route to the base of the second pillar. Again, the

soft snow slowed us way down and it was fully light by the time we reached

the second pillar. It looked a lot more mellow, steep sections broken by

large bulges and lower angled sections. Unfortunately, it wasn't quite as it

appeared. True, there were lower angle sections, but since the first was

larger than it appeared, the average angle was actually greater than it

appeared from below, and the steep portions were steeper. But in its favor,

it was solid, thick, fat ice and none of the steep sections was more than 20

feet before there was a lower angle bulge. Dan led it, his hardest ever ice

lead at WI 3 or 3+, not too shabby at 7400 feet on an only-climbed-once

north face.

From the top, a long sideways traverse leftwards on very steep (60 degrees?)

snow put us directly below the summit, which we reached in one long

simulclimbing pitch. This was the coolest climbing on the face, continually

hard, occasionally desperate, no-holds barred, mixed climbing. The most

treacherous part was the constantly changing snow - sometimes it would be

hard enough to sink a tool into and hang completely, other times it was

loose and too unconsolidated to support any body weight at all. Rock moves,

drytooling, it wal all legal on that pitch. At one point, you had to

traverse under a small cornice on a subsidiary ridgelet. The problem was,

there was only about three feet of snow below it, above the abyss. So you

had to duck-traverse sideways and down, bumping the underside of the cornice

with your helmet and pack, hoping it wasn't going to drop onto your head.

The last few feet to the ridgeline were some of the hardest, gymnastic mixed

moves on rock and completely untrustworthy cornices of bottomless sugar

snow. Just like in the movies, literally as we stepped onto the summit, the

clouds dissolved, revealing amazing views of seldom seen peaks like

Snowfield and Paul Bunyon's Stump and the hidden Neve Glacier. It was 1:00.

The descent was straightforward. Skis would have been nice as we slogged

down beautiful slopes of shin-to-thigh deep powder. Everything suddenly

seemed different. We were off the face, it was sunny and beautiful. We were

warm, tired but no longer scared. Above 5000 feet, it had snowed more than 6

inches while we were on the route. Fortunately, it was snowing onto

relatively low-avalanche-danger snowpack. Even so, we set off a few soft

windslabs, although they were only the top 6 inches and so soft that they

would stop running after about 30 feet. The descent takes you all the way

around the basin under Pyramid peak (to avoid those cliff bands), then

forces you to pick your way down 1000 feet of hard frozen avalanche debris.

We slogged down the woods, tired and sore, arriving at the car at around 5.

Dan performed a heroic feat of driving home without falling asleep; I tried

to stay awake to keep up conversation, but I couldn't. The joy of sacking

out in a warm bed? Indescribable.


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Nice going on the second ascent. I went in about five years ago to check out this route and was turned back by poor snow conditions. Had I known it was waiting for a second ascent I might have been more persistent. Anyway, keep the posts coming, I enjoy reading about your exploits.


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