Trip: Bonanza, SW Peak - West Buttress (a.k.a. "North Face")
September 12, 1975
Vyacheslav Onishchenko, Valentin Grakovich, Anatoly Nepeomnyashchy, Sergei Bershov, as part of a landmark Soviet climbing mission to North America, along with the esteemed Alex Bertulis, made the first ascent of what they called the "North Face of the SW Peak of Bonanza". At roughly 2300 feet, this is the steepest and tallest wall on the complex Bonanza massif, and a rival in size and difficulty to many of the biggest faces in the Cascades. Alex Bertulis described all this in a very interesting article in the 1976 edition of the AAJ that you should all check out (it can be accessed online by AAC members on the AAC website).
Nearly 37 years later, John Scurlock has been flying by Bonanza periodically for the past 10 years and was always intrigued by the imposing buttress dropping precipitously slightly to the north of west from the SW summit of Bonanza. He has called it "one of the greatest singular rock features in the North Cascades", and he was unaware that it had ever been climbed. Not being a climber himself, he suggested to Steph Abegg, who is a climber who flies with him often, that it would be a worthy objective. Of course she agreed. Initial research in Beckey's CAG indicated a "Soviet Route" that went up the "North Face of the SW Summit", which was confusing because there is no clear north face on the SW summit. The ridge that heads off to the W summit goes slightly east of north, which does not leave much room for a north face. However, further digging revealed the 1976 AAJ article, which had a clear picture of the profile of the buttress, indicating the route being roughly on the buttress crest. I would call it the West Buttress.
In any case, it seemed to have been unrepeated. This was very interesting to all of us. Several emails went back and forth between me, Steph and John, and then I asked Chad if he would be interested in joining Steph and I to try to pull this thing off for the second time, and in addition try to make the true summit, about a mile of ridge traversing away. He was immediately interested. None of us had ever been in the area (if you don't count flying, that is). Based in part on Chad's and my construction schedules, and in part on Steph's busy Cascade adventure schedule, we set aside some days in late August (the 20th through the 24th) and spent our free time in between gathering information and additional gear items to make this climb happen.
Monday, August 20
I was busy working on an apartment remodel all day, and Chad had a number of errands to accomplish, so we were not able to get out of town until 7:30 or so. Steph was waiting and doing logic puzzles at Tom's house just off the freeway in Everett, which is a very convenient place to leave a car, so that's where she left it.
We made the wise decision to stop at Ixtapa in Sultan to eat large Mexican (American interpretation) food. It was above average quality for that type of restaurant, we were quite pleased!
Chad's folks have a time-share condo in Chelan, and they happened to be there for the week. They happily welcomed us when we arrived at 11:30 and we slept comfortably on the living room floor.
Tuesday, August 21
In the morning, Chad's mom made us a feast of eggs scrambled with bacon and avocado, pineapple chunks and toast while we repacked our gear in the parking lot. We didn't have time to eat it before time constraints forced a rushed mile drive to catch the Lady of the Lake II, but she had packaged up our breakfast in a convenient to-go bag, and we spent much of the four hour boat ride repackaging the breakfast inside our stomachs. Oh, it was good!
From Lucerne, we took the bus to Holden Village, which is really the only reasonable option. Our bags were essentially "checked" through from Chelan to Holden, and came up on a different bus. Chad was dubious of their baggage handling skills, so he made sure to check the baggage bus in Lucerne before getting on the people bus to make sure our packs were on board. His concern turned out to be unwarranted; they had everything under control.
Being the only "hikers" on the bus, we had to sit through the Holden spiel before getting off the bus, and then we were pulled aside to pay our $15 each. The Holden villagers were all very nice people, and they let us store a few items in Moe (one of their snaffle-proof storage rooms). I bet you can guess what the other two storage rooms are called.
We took care of a few last personal hygiene tasks and filled our water bladders at the "Hiker Haus", and promptly hiked the 3.5 miles up to Hart Lake. Like the Soviets, we enjoyed a swim in the lake, which was not too cold for a hot day, but still cold enough that I didn't feel like hanging out in the water very long. I'm such a chicken about jumping into cold water. I need to get over that.
We followed the route description to ascend the slabs and bluffs below the Isella Glacier, a little exposed at times, especially with our ~50 lb packs. The slabs degenerated into our first taste of scree, which we traversed for 3/4 of a mile or so before gaining some beautiful heather slopes as the sun dropped below the horizon. We found some good flat tent spots in a grove of trees a couple hundred vertical feet below the Bonanza-North Star col. The weather seemed to be waffling - definite cloud cover in places, and some wind gusts increased in frequency and severity as the evening progressed.
Wednesday, August 22
The morning was cold and windy as our alarm went off at 3:30. It wasn't too hard to get out of bed. We ate our quick breakfasts, each fitting our unique nutritional needs and desires, collapsed our FirstLight tents and put rocks on them, and headed for the col at 5:00. There was a large snow patch at the col, and the basin on the other side was mellower than I thought it would be, but certainly covered with talus of all styles. We crossed some snow patches but mostly rolled around with the talus for an hour, reaching the base of the buttress by 6:00. Racking, roping up with my two Beal Ice Lines, getting our harnesses and shoes on took only 15 minutes and Chad was off on the first block, with me and Steph each following at the end of our respective ropes, and the climbing roughly lined up with the best description of the route we had - from Beckey's CAG (presumably from conversation with Alex Bertulis). The climbing was easer than expected, and about as loose as we expected, and Chad was able to link up 7 pitches of mostly low-5th with perhaps a few 5.7 to 5.9 moves here and there. A couple times we encountered low-angle benches where Steph and I would run up past Chad to find a good belay spot at the base of the next steepness. I evacuated my bowels on one of these benches. Just so you know. It's well buried though.
Chad ended his block on the prominent horizontal ledge that cuts across about halfway up the face. We traversed the ledge easily to the south aspect of the buttress, and enjoyed the first rays of sunshine. It took us a while to decide where to go from there. We looked at the high resolution photos on my iPhone, tried to match up with the route description, and didn't see anything that definitively looked right. So we resorted to our own best judgment, and I took the sharp end and led up vertical faces and grooves, very featured and often loose, with tricky and scarce protection. There were definitely some 5.10 moves. I had to weave back and forth a bit to find the POLR, and it took me to some beautiful and scary places. Each of the hard pitches were basically full 60m. The first pitch off the ledge was up a shallow chimney that gradually got more pronounced, slightly rightward but mostly straight up, and I found a belay just as the rope was running out at the top of an indistinct "pillar" that formed one side of the chimney. The second pitch was up and left, with a traverse underneath a vertical section with red rock (but not on the red rock), and then up and slightly right to a belay that seemed to match up with the "cave" reported by the first ascent party. The third ascended out of the cave and slightly right to start, then left again, with more 5.10 and sketchy protection, and ended by traversing quite a bit to the right to a lower angle exposed belay. The final hard pitch followed the description perfectly and was shorter than expected, out to the left into some grooves that led to the top of the "first step".
Easy climbing along the ridge line that turned quite sharp led to a bypass of the gendarme on the left just before the notch connecting to the upper "step" of the buttress. I led that as one long pitch and continued up to the first reasonable belay above the notch, which required Chad and Steph to extract their anchor and simul with me for a while.
After that, Chad took over one more time, and we removed one rope from the system and I carried it while Chad tied into the middle of the other one. He led straight up the crest to just underneath and Steph and I followed, simul-climbing on each end of the single rope. Underneath the obvious overhanging red headwall, Chad went left on very loose rock and decided to belay at the base of a gully while we got through the loose cruxes. Then he continued up the groove. A few rocks hit me in the head while we followed, nothing my helmet couldn't handle, but it was still disconcerting, and I made those around me aware of it.
But, at the top of that pitch, we stood on the SW summit! In the sunshine. About 5:30 pm. It was a beautiful place on a beautiful day. Steph took some shots of Billy with his party ribbon. We rejoiced. That was 14 belayed pitches with 4 moves of belay, definitely less than the 22 pitches reported by the first ascent party. And no bivy! That's why you don't carry bivy gear, because then you won't bivy.
We looked over at the true summit. Uh…. that's farther than we thought. And more rugged. Could we make it there before dark? We decided to give it a shot. In the process, we identified a way to descend off the W summit that we thought would be more straightforward than going down to the Isella and around the south side of the mountain.
Most of the first part of the ridge between the SW and W summits we could bypass on ledges below, on the Isella glacier side, after making one strategic half-rope rappel. Then it started to get a little harder, but we were able to scramble up and over the ridge to the west/northwest side, and catch the last rays of sun as we ascended to the top of the W peak. So, it took us two hours to get that far, and the ridge between the SW summit and true summit was more convoluted. We would surely have to be doing it in the dark. We took 15 minutes to talk about how much we wanted it, and finally decided we didn't want it bad enough to subject ourselves to the extra suffering that it would certainly entail. We had a largely unknown descent ahead of us, so we figured it would be best to cut our losses and just use the rest of the daylight to find the descent as best we could.
The W summit has a slope of talus that drops off on the NW side and rolls down to a wide swath of slabs that looked reasonably low angle. The slabs emptied out into the same basin the the west buttress, so we knew if we could get down there, we could just cross the basin underneath the route and go back up to the col to our camp. We descended a long way on talus and scree, sometimes rolling rocks toward each other and yelling to get out of the way. It was sort of a rightward traverse to a long skinny snowfield that we could see from above. We kept descending to the right of the snowfield, looking for the start of the slabs, and finally there we were. By then it was fully dark. The slabs were too steep to confidently downclimb in the dark, so we looked for a rap anchor. I found a crack in a little overhanging roof that fit a #4 BD nut nicely, and we used one of Steph's leaver biners. Chad was dubious about rapping off one nut, so we backed it up, and he and Steph went first, then I pulled the backup before I went. It held.
Thursday, August 23
The full 60m rap took us to a shallow ledge with not a lot of options for another rap anchor, but finally Steph found a dirt-filled crack that looked like a knifeblade would pound into. Chad did said pounding, and the characteristic increasing pitch ring reverberated through the rock as it went in to the hilt. Bomber. Steph donated her other leaver biner to the cause, and off we went on another 60m rap. This one took us to a nice ledge, which, after briefly considering another, we decided we could downclimb. A few meanderings to find the POLR brought us to some interconnecting gullies and then to the lovely scree once again.
It was very challenging getting across the scree slope to below the buttress. There were sections of large rocks, small rocks, mostly steep (30-35 degrees), and one section of hardened mud embedded with rocks that was close to 45 degrees and very very difficult. Every step was insecure, ice tools would not hold well, and it required constant body tension to keep from taking the big cheese grater slide. Chad and I made it to the other side, and Steph almost got there when the gravity of the situation momentarily got the best of her and she froze up. I climbed up a bit and tossed the end of a rope down to Chad, who tied a loop in the end and tossed it to Steph, who wrapped it around her shoulders and I belayed her the rest of the way across. She never was so happy to see regular ol' loose rock scree!
The situation gradually improved as we crossed the basin, and finally we got to one of the snow patches we had crossed in the morning and saw our tracks. By the time we got up to the col, the wind had started to pick up again. We found our camp at about 2:30 am, and settled in for a weird night - Chad crashed before he could eat dinner, and I tried to wake him up to use the water I had boiled and he hardly responded. I then put my head down and went to sleep with my headlamp on. Chad woke up and realized what was going on, woke me to turn my headlamp off and then he cooked his dinner.
I didn't remember anything after that until there was light on the tent. After gradually gaining consciousness, I realized we needed to make a decision about whether to go out that day or be stuck hanging out up there for another full day - we knew the bus left Holden Village at 1:45, and based on our time getting to camp, we'd have to leave about 8:30 to make it. That was less than an hour. I woke Chad up and asked him what he thought. He was definitely in sleep mode, and at first sounded like he wanted to keep sleeping. Steph had already been waiting for a sound from our tent, and took the chance to say that we could stay there if we wanted but she was going to hike down to Holden. We both knew that would have been silly, so that prompted us to action. We didn't even eat breakfast before getting our crap together and heading down.
Steph suggested we try the direct descent down the valley from the Bonanza-North Star col instead of traversing the scree under the Isella, and that's a thought that had occurred to me also, so we decided to go for it. It was bushy, and our hope that it would take a lot less time than the other way turned out to be lost, but it didn't really take any longer and it makes for a more interesting route overlay line. There was one cliff band that we had to find a weakness to scramble through, and lower down there was some full-on slide-alder schwackin', but we were able to follow goat paths through a bunch of terrain that saved us a lot of time. And then, we popped out into a grove of trees, and there was the trail!
Everything else went very smoothly. We skipped the second dip in the lake, and made it to Holden with plenty of time to spare. Moe still had our stuff, we took our bus ride down, and had to wait for about a half hour for the boat. The lake was choppy, the wind was still quite strong, and Steph wasn't feeling good with the motion. We all spent most of the ride lying on the floor.
Taco truck in Wenatchee was a go. Benny's tacos. MMMM!
So all in all, it was a super fun trip and we all felt very satisfied. It was a great team, everyone was in sync pretty much the whole time. For being in recovery for her severe tib-fib fracture in 2010, Steph was not slowing us down at all on the up and hardly at all on the down, she is a world-class scree scrambler and bushwhacker, let alone a completely solid partner on a very intimidating route. Thank you, Chad and Steph, for making this come together! And also thanks to John Scurlock, who watched the weather forecast with keen interest in our pursuit and without whom the seed for doing this route would not have been planted.
On the climb, we did not see any evidence of prior ascents or any human activity the whole day, except a few jets going overhead. Does anyone know of any other ascents?
Steph Abegg posted her version, with more pictures and videos and her typical amazing route overlays here:
Steph Abegg's Bonanza Trip Report
Protection was scarce, and mostly small. We brought two #2 Camalots, but nothing bigger, and didn't wish for anything bigger. We brought triples of most of the smaller pieces and were glad for it. We left two nuts, one knifeblade, two biners and one Dyneema sling on the descent.
From Holden Village, it was 4.5 hours (minus swim time) to our high camp near the North Star - Bonanza col. From there only one hour to the base of the route.