Trip: 3 days north of Snoqualmie - Thomson W Ridge, Huckleberry W Face, Alaska, Kendall Trip Date: 08/11/2022 Trip Report:
Blue collar alpinism.
I am many things, and as a climber, only a few (tree beautifier and occasional murderer, recently unmotivated pebble wrestler, occasional *blue*collar*alpinist, and mostly a steep cave sport choss wrangler), and recently all of those climbers inside my earthly shell have been tugging around the term blue collar alpinism. All that goes with it - lack of aesthetics, a sugar bowlful of chossy andesite, a bunch of unpleasant walking, rarely visited (or often visted) summits, frequently climbed (or never climbed) paths to those summits. Actually, this term has been bouncing around my head since more than a year ago, when @JasonG off-handedly awarded myself and Zach the 'blue collar award of the week' for some stupid romp up Guye.
I read trip reports on this site for truly outstanding ascents and FA's in the NC's, where ice and snow and rock collide for national-park-worthy pictorial territory - like @waynesaid at some point recently the golden age of the Cascades is now. I spent a delightful 5 or so hours once reading through a collection of TRs that @Blake collected on his blog more than a decade ago, so many under the radar hard, cool, scary, cutting edge routes going up in corners of the range yet-undiscovered.
But as I venture from the truck to explore even more deeply my corner of the range, the 3 forks of the Snoqualmie (a blue-collar river if there ever was one), and find hidden crags, secret swimming pools, a wealth of dramatic glacier-carved terrain, rarely visited peaks, goat carcasses, hard new bolting & scrubbing experiences.... I am reminded how Cascadian they truly are. Walking up the PCT and staring over to the basin to the north of Alta Mountain: how many people have ever been there? It doesn't go anywhere, only a 800 foot bushwhack from Gold Creek or a chossy traverse & descent from Alta would get you there. And now that I've visited the Wasatch and other such ranges, I'm eternally grateful that this backyard I happen to have is so damn crazy. The Wasatch is predictable, the Rockies are predictable, the Sierra is predictable, but the Cascades deliver stunning amounts of unclimbed ridges, faces, steep heather slopes... yall know what I'm trying to say here... even along the PCT as far south as Snoqualmie Pass. Blue collar alpinism, yes! But blue collar in the best sense of the word.
The idea for such a trip had been floating around since last year between Zach and I, and he finally lured me out of World Wall and the Actual Cave to sack up and ride the trail to the choss wonderland that is Thomson, Huckleberry and their compatriots. As we began tromping, heavily laden, up the Commonwealth trail, I thought more about the blue-collar nature and where it would lead after this trip: more 'white collar' climbing at WA Pass? Forays into the North Cascades to test our finger pads?
Getting ahead of myself, I thought.
We made great time to Gravel Lake and hurriedly pitched camp at 11am.
Part 1: The Blue?
Our first thought was to Thomson, and off we went to pluck it, I with a rope, Zach with a rack, and no one (yet) with the shivers. Bumblebee Pass was a slog after 8ish miles of hiking but thoughts of water in the basin gave wings to our feet. Immediately, we wished we'd camped there instead.....
Surprisingly pleasant talus kept us moving up to the base of the west ridge. Zach took the first pitch sliding up through some discontinuous corners. It wasn't here where this realization came (that was back at camp Day 2 with a joint), but the andesite we have at the crest in this part of the world is a Blessing in Disguise. Granite doesn't overhang the way this metamorphosed andesite does. Finding the safe and clean path through a maze of chossy andesite roofs (so good if bolted, if only...) is a Blue gift from the mountain gods. I wholly appreciated the challenge of P2, though a small challenge it was, getting to pull a roof even at the end! Zach led up to the base of the slab mid-route, which provided good picture opportunity. Knowing the hard part (hard? more like Blue) to be behind us I romped on up the slab and pranced happily toward a steeper bit of choss - too much prancing perhaps, Zach called up behind me 'are you gonna put a piece in?' Doubtless it wouldn't hold, but that isn't sad, it is Blue, and a challenge to be appreciated.
The belay ledge had a detatched block I threw two cams in and tried not to weight as Zach ran up to the false summit. Once in the notch, a further fun (Blue) pitch brought us to the final summit. A text was sent to let my sport-choss-wrangling buddies know that we weren't swallowed by the Blue just yet.
The descent was straightforward, some raps, an inappropriately timed coiling of the rope, an inappropriately timed uncoiling of the rope, another rap, an appropriately timed coiling of the rope, and some marmot-like gamboling across the talus during which I decided I didn't want to hear anything for the rest of the trip that wasn't about marmots. Zach responded with 'a sizeable middle finger approaches.' Back to camp, swallowed food, water pumped, and the great chase of Sleep began as the Blue faded, and gave way to the Collar.
Part 2: The Collar?
I awoke to a chorus (that I neither heard nor heeded, but which was there all the same....): The Blue has been summitted and the Collar rises in your horizon to provide a test for the ages. Breakfast was eaten and a start was made at 7:30. (No indeed, an alpine start it was not...) Along the PCT heading north we made a simultaneous impulse decision to scramble the clean white granite ridge of Alaska Mtn. A pure joy to bring us back to reality: humans don't belong in the Andesite Choss World, and we tread there lightly and quickly. Back down the ridge we went and along to the west side of Joe Lake, where a decision was to be made.
Toppling Tower sits on the ridge to the north of Edds Lake, which sits below the northeast side of Thomson and about 900 feet below the PCT. We had the thought of combining its summit with Huckleberry, that day, but peering over the ridge at the bushwhacking, and elevation, and talus, and then the climb, then the talus, the elevation, and the bushwhacking we'd have to do.... Huckleberry seemed a much more certain objective for the day, and less painful! What can I say... we're only human.
(Certainty? Lack of Pain? Did the Collar win, so early in the day? Not so... a branch of the Collar provided a sunburst of humility we walked through with grace, leaving the true mountain to climb... being the true mountain itself.)
So on to Huckleberry! I'd vaguely read this TR on the west face of Huckleberry being a more pleasant option than the classic east ridge. It was also closer to us, and I hate hiking. We dropped off the PCT in a nice meadow, leaving my pack for the return journey, as I took up the rope yet again. (And still, no shivers....) After a short detour where we realized we had no water and I returned to the pack for the filter so as not to raw dog dirty swamp puddle filth, we began up another talus field to a short 3rd class step, then delightfully into the shade, and not so delightfully into the mosquitoes. Bug Boy, we call him. I'd forgotten much about the TR except the pitch description, so we started, as directed, left of a large loose chimney. When Zach was halfway up the pitch, I started simuling to escape the mosquitoes, which were horrendous. It hurts to call them Collarful; too soon, they were simply horrendous. What was Collarful was the first pitches: vertical to overhanging tree and moss climbing up about 250 feet to a big ledge.
At this point the Collar was upon us, and Zach and I were certain to be off route. I scouted the upper headwall for something that would go; there were cracks I was confident I could climb, but where would they lead me? Not to anywhere I could rappel from if necessary. Eventually, I traversed the ledge (and perhaps the Collar as well) to find exactly where we needed to be, at the base of a fourth class ramp. I lead and brought Zach up to below the final pitch, 2 small steep dihedrals cutting up to the summit. Now it was time for my superior rock skills to shine. While still folded in the Collar we may be, I saw the light on the outside and had only to claw my way skyward.
I began up a dihedral placing on the left and the right. Standing in a stem for what must have been 10 minutes, I cleared dirt from a crack to place my first bomber piece of the day, a #1 in a well-attached big slab/block. With this confidence, I put my knee in my armpit, my right forearm on dirt, and mantled hard. Now I was standing on heather. The last dihedral looked BIG, and detatched, and overhanging, but not dirty. I bumped a #2 up the nice hand crack until the final moves. It was clear I could pull up and over, but how attached was the block above me? (The Collar had been flicked closed, and I was losing sight of the light...) The other option was a high step, roof pull, and mantle to the left. I extended the #2 and reajusted the placement to hopefully hold a fall. A cackle arose in my throat, remembering the adage about the Mox Peaks: 'If you don't like where the hold is, just pick it up and move it to where you do!' I warned Zach and started pulling holds of the ledge I was to mantle on, scrubbed some lichen off a foothold, and committed to the move. Rubber met the road, chalked fingers met welcome jugs, and I was on the summit.
The descent was an adventure involving poor rappel anchors, limited tat, breaking old tat with my hands, and downclimbing 800 feet of scree. But by that point we were out of the Collar, and almost on to the Alpinism.
(Or, from here on, the Alpinist.)
Part 3: The Alpinist
If there's one lesson we might've learned from the movie, was it 'know when to stop?' No, it wasn't, that kind of oversimplification does poor justice to LeClerc's memory, but it's the lesson I'm choosing to drag out and apply here. We could have gone on to Toppling Tower the next day; I'm not sure what was in Zach's head, but he clearly wanted it, and so did I. A rarely visited summit with many unknowns and challenging climbing? Of course we selfishly desired to have said we'd done it. The glory of such a climb is fleeting at best and nonexistent at the real state. But the lessons we'd internalized (never verbalized until now) through the Blue and the Collar were clear, when doing our little corner/pitiful imitation of blue-collar Cascades alpinism, know our limits. It wasn't the tower that would stop us in our tracks. Dropping over Bumblebee Pass and 1200 feet down to the lake, around the bushwhack of Edds, up to Toppling Tower itself, doing a climb, getting off some way or another (20 year old rap anchors?) then all that back again, then down the PCT 8 miles.... we simply weren't fast enough at navigating such blue collar Cascadian terrain.
Such was the decision we tentatively made before we even went up Huckleberry. The ascent of the Berry Mountain confirmed it even more (the 3 hour descent) and when we awoke to mist and fog, we didn't even have to discuss plans. We ate, packed up, and headed homeward. A scramble up Kendall (which neither of us had enjoyed before) took some of the sting out of it, but there was no sting, really; 4 summits in 3 days plus 28-ish miles of travel is nothing to sneeze at for us at least. Thus ended the trip of the PCTfor Zach and I; we must have passed 130 people on the Saturday morning way out (big yikes...) Shakes at the Dairy Freeze, shower, and a long period of photo organizing and trip report writing, and here we are.
If you read all that, thanks, it was essentially a very long way to justify posting this TR at all on what is increasingly a Cascadian all-star roster, so if you enjoyed this truly blue-collar trip report (if maybe not a blue collar trip? although I quite seriously tried to convince you it was), you're welcome.
Anyone been up Toppling Tower recently? How was it?
As I discovered 35 minutes ago, we did go the correct way up the west face of Huckleberry. Anyone else repeat that route in the last two decades? What was your experience? I think @Kuckuzka1 did a route on the south face maybe? How did that stack up?
Gear Notes: we kept it pretty fuckin light Approach Notes: feet