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[TR] Forbidden - Northwest Face 07/18/2021


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Trip: Forbidden - Northwest Face

Trip Date: 07/18/2021

Trip Report:


Last weekend, AC, AN, XT and I had a very humbling and unforgettable experience on the Northwest Face of Forbidden Peak. 

Some lessons learned -- always factor in ample time for routefinding; emergency bivvies, Nuun tablets and Justin’s nut butter are worth the weight; never take descents for granted; and a good attitude and level head are key in the mountains.

Our epic journey began on Friday afternoon. After lunch at Mondo’s, we got a leisurely start from milepost 20 around 1:30pm. It was overcast and foggy when we reached low camp and we hoped for better weather as we swatted marmots away from our campsite and prepped our meals and packs for the next day.

We left camp around 5:30am in a heavy fog. As we marched toward Sharkfin Col the fog broke and Johannesburg appeared behind us.


By 7:30am we reached the base of Sharkfin Col bypass gully, which we recognized from the obvious snow finger. This we took until it petered out into loose rock that felt pretty miserable to navigate in crampons.


(Left: The beginning of the Sharkfin Col bypass gully. Right: After the snow disappears, leaving loose rocks.)

We missed the turnoff which would’ve led us to a rap station that supposedly would have brought us to Boston Glacier in one rappel. Instead, around 8:30am we reached the top of the gully at over 7800ft with a long and sketchy rappel path to the bottom. 

This mishap cost us several hours. Where we’d expected a single rap to take us down to the glacier, we instead required four unsavory rappels over hanging snowfields and loose rock. We found rappel tat in several places from parties that had found themselves in the same situation. Partway through, a falling rock struck AN’s rope leaving it coreshot about 15 feet from one end. We tied it off and used a biner block to rappel off the other rope. The final rappel took us over the lip of an enormous snowfield and a large bergschrund, from where we walked onto Boston Glacier.


(Left: Rappelling off the snowfield. Right: A view of the hanging snowfield from below.)

We touched down on Boston Glacier around noon. We were already 3 hours behind schedule but figured we could make up some of that time on what looked like a relatively flat glacier crossing. “The hard part is over!” we thought. In any case, now that we had made the sketchy raps over Sharkfin Col we had no real option to turn back. 

We had been worried that the hot summer had opened up the crevasses but AN navigated us across Boston Glacier skillfully and we reached the North Ridge around 2:30pm. Although prior trip reports had mentioned two possible crossings, the only one we recognized was a corner that others had described as a “dirt pitch” with the consistency of “potato chips.” It required some finagling to get to this pitch as the snow had melted out from the base of the notch leaving a moat. We prepared to arrest as AN carefully navigated around the edge and then lowered herself into the moat and brought the rest of us in.

It’s hard to overstate how nasty the climbing is on this “pitch” — gravel and dirt held together by who knows what (gravity?) and unprotectable unless you count the picket in the snow. Other reports suggest that earlier season (or in a cooler summer) you can get directly onto the pitch higher up, but with the snow melt we had to climb up from the base on very loose terrain. AC led up in his aluminum crampons, kicking off loose dirt and gravel, and set up a fixed line for the rest of us. 


(Left: AC leading up the dirt pitch. Right: The moat from where we started.)

The careful climbing took us more time, so it was 4pm by the time we were all on top. Thankfully from here we could walk directly onto Forbidden Glacier and for the first time could see our route. We were hopelessly behind schedule but decided to keep going to see how far we could get before dark. But at least now the hard part was definitely over, right?!


(Left: View after crossing the North Ridge. You can see the severely broken up snow near the Northwest Buttress. Right: Crossing Forbidden Glacier with a view of Moraine Lake.)

To avoid the many crevasses, we decided to stay high and hug the toe of the Northwest Buttress, which we reached by 5pm. However, once we reached the toe we found no obvious way to gain the rock. A curving snow bridge provided the only visible way to get around to the west side where the route began. AN put in a picket and walked carefully across the bowl. To our right was a wall of seracs, and we could hear ice/snow breaking after a full day in the sun. Once we were all on the other side, AC went up on belay with a picket to see if he could find the start of the climb, but as he continued higher all he found was hard 5th class climbing.


(Left: The curving snowbridge to pass under the toe of the buttress. Right: Seracs to the right of the buttress.)

We reconvened and decided we needed to reset. Because of crevasses, the only way to backtrack would have required us to loop back around the glacier. To save time and energy, we decided to set up a rappel. We slung a boulder with some cord, backed it up with a small cam, and lowered ourselves back onto the glacier.


(Left: Rappelling back down to the glacier to try to gain the route from further right. Right: Heading up the steep snow ramp at sunset.)

This time we stayed low and approached from the larger ramp on the far west side of the buttress. It was unexpectedly steep and lined with crevasses you couldn’t see until you were upon them. AN led us carefully over the snow ramp to what we could now see was the base of the climb at around 7600ft. 


(Left: The rocky ramp that marks the start of the route. Right: Simulclimbing after sundown.)

At this point it was 8pm and the sun was dropping behind Eldorado. We snapped some photos of the sunset over Moraine Lake and prepared mentally for an unplanned bivy up on the ridge. We rested, packed our water bottles with snow, and finished gearing up.

We started simulclimbing around 9pm in our headlamps and reached a ledge at around 7700ft right before the knife edge pitch. 

We anchored ourselves in and tried to find a way to Tetris/penguin-huddle our bodies onto the small platform. We had one emergency bivy for the four of us so we each picked our favorite leg and stuck it in for warmth. By now we were low on food and water, but still miraculously high in stoke (we credit the Nuun tablets).


(Above: Packed into the bivy ledge watching the sunrise.)

At 5am the sun started peeking over the North Ridge and the view was a nice consolation to a long and cold night. We divvied up a chocolate croissant while watching the clouds drift by. 

Once the sun hit the ledge our limbs began to thaw and we were ready to move. We assured one another, “now the hard part is most definitely over!” and that this would be a quick day. We racked up and AC and XT started up the knife edge around 7am. The knife edge was beautiful, exposed climbing on good rock and with unbeatable views. This side of Forbidden is rarely climbed and the isolation is both serene and intimidating. 


(Left: Sunrise from the bivy ledge. Right: Morning sun hitting the knife edge.)

After the knife edge pitch, we continued up a crack with an old piton. This led to a very tight, featureless and poorly protected chimney. We opted to drop down and left to a decent ledge that led to easier climbing and likely bypassing the crux. From here we continued with a mix of pitched and simulclimbing on blocks, jugs and cracks. 


(Left: AC leading up the crux pitch. An old piton is stuck in the crack. Right: AC on the final pitches near the summit.)

Routefinding became a challenge once the ridge blended into the face, and a “choose your own adventure” approach led us into harder terrain a few times. Towards the top, we stayed too far right and continued up a sketchy lichen-covered face where we should have veered left through a wide blocky corner. 

AC and XT moved swiftly and reached the summit around 2:30pm, and AN and I around 3:45pm as we had pitched out a couple of the trickier spots. 


(Above: XT at the summit.)

We had a quick celebratory moment on the summit, but once the high was over, the lack of water, food and sleep caught up to us. “But the descent will be quick,” I thought to myself, as AC and AN had both done the West Ridge before. By now I should’ve known better!

AC led the way with rappels down the West Ridge, putting in directionals to minimize risk of swings. After four rappels, we simulclimbed down to the “airy step” and then jumped over to the notch. Hardly a straightforward descent.

We hiked down Catscratch Gully which was loose and trashy, as expected, to the first rappel station. The sun was nearly gone by the time we began our rappels around 8:30pm. We moved as quickly as we could, but with 7 rappels, 4 people and having to search for the rappel stations in the dark we did not touch back down onto snow until midnight. 

Exhaustion had fully set in. We had been carefully rationing food and water but by now it was all long gone except for a stale energy bar I couldn’t bring myself to eat because it just made me thirstier. We put our crampons back on and as we plunged down the snowfield, I made the mistake again of thinking to myself, “Thank god!! It’s almost over.” No such thing. Walking down, AC’s aluminum crampon had finally had enough and broke, causing him to fall and sprain his knee. 

We reached the edge of the snowfield and continued onto slick, wet slab. In the pitch black dark, it was hard to tell what was snow or rock, and we hit several dead ends. At one point we realized we had missed the trail for high camp, but figured we could cut low through the slab and grass and connect to the trail. Nope. Moss turned into high grass and brush and we bushwacked zombie-like across the meadow. However when we finally reached Boston Creek we were too low and could not find a passable route.

Someone finally pointed out that it was already 3am and we froze -- we’d been wandering for 3 hours?! Deflated, we sat down in the grass and decided to wait until pre-dawn light could help us regain our bearings. In the distance we could see a couple of lights toward the direction of camp but could not make out a path to get there. I wondered whether someone had called search and rescue early, though we had our doubts since we were not yet overdue. AC suspected that it was just another party getting an alpine start. XT, at the end of her proverbial rope, began to flash her headlamp and shout for help. As soon as she saw them return the signal with their headlamp, she grabbed her pack and took off in their direction. 

Perplexed, the rest of us stayed put to wait for pre-dawn light. While AC and AN somehow continued conversing in complete sentences, I laid with my head in my arms and wondered dimly whether those porky marmots had trashed our camp while we were gone. At the first hint of light around 4:30am, we pulled ourselves up and were able to see where we could gain the high camp trail. We also noticed that a headlamp was still hovering around the other side of the creek, and it followed us as we hiked back up.

Near the high camp trail, we connected with the owner of the headlamp, Ryan, who had been heading out with his partner for a one-day climb of Sahale before he heard XT shouting for help. In an admirable act of kindness, he and his partner had decided to forego their climb and instead wait for us to make sure we were all safe. (Ryan, if you’re out there, thank you!) We chatted a bit, confirmed that XT was safely back at camp, and then headed back ourselves, finally reaching low camp around 6am. Exhausted but relieved, we shared a couple of Mountain Houses, packed up our camp and headed back down around 8:30am, reaching the car at MP 20 around 11am on Monday.


(Above: Digging deep for smiles on day 2 of our epic.)

This route took us on a literal and figurative journey. We knew the route overall was committing (as once you pass over Sharkfin Col there is no easy way to bail), but underestimated the technical challenges that made each juncture committing also. Much of the terrain was steep, nonobvious, complicated by snowmelt, and backtracking was either dangerous or time-consuming or both. Even without routefinding mishaps I don’t think we could’ve done it in one push from and back to low camp. I am deeply grateful to this team who showed serious grit and heroic cheerfulness in unplanned situations, to good samaritans like Ryan for demonstrating that even among strangers there is a community that looks out for one another, and to this monster of a route for a humbling lesson. For the rest of the summer you’ll find me cragging at Index. 

Gear Notes:
Doubles 0.3-2, lots of slings for simulclimbing. Axe, crampons (aluminum ones broke), emergency bivy!

Approach Notes:
See above

Edited by jkh359
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2 hours ago, Bronco said:

You guys made the right call to stay put until light.  The slabs between you and camp have been the site of several accidents, some fatal.  Good job on the climb!

Yikes!! Though I'm not surprised -- there were several steep & slippery sections, which made progress in the dark very slow.

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Congrats on your climb! This report reminded me of when I was benighted on the N ridge of Forbidden when we had planned for just a day out (in 1994--so probably better snow back then). The sunrise from our unplanned bivy on the east face traverse remains a fabulous memory.

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2 hours ago, dugdaled said:

Congrats on your climb! This report reminded me of when I was benighted on the N ridge of Forbidden when we had planned for just a day out (in 1994--so probably better snow back then). The sunrise from our unplanned bivy on the east face traverse remains a fabulous memory.

In some ways I think the unplanned nature of it makes it even more memorable!

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Fantastic Trip Report!  It's amazing what the human spirit can endure.

“That which does not kill us makes us stronger.”   Friedrich Nietzsche.  

I've been thinking about climbing this peak for years.  I've heard that there is a 4th Class route up this but it is probably a trap.

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Wow, excellent adventure! I think all of us who have been tromping around these peaks for years have stories like this. Sometimes it’s from youth and naivety, other times it’s from a series of unfortunate circumstances. Either way, they are powerful experiences that help us learn and grow. The older I get the less I am proud of summits and more proud of challenging myself to make good decisions in the mountains. Cheers for surviving to climb another day. 

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11 minutes ago, Nick Sweeney said:

Oooooof. I’ve been there…. Shiver bivies aren’t fun, but you know you’re trying hard when they happen! What do you think went wrong for you on this one? Hard to imagine that upper face taking more than a couple of hours.

Yeah, I really don’t know! 5.8 is well within our limits and we were expecting at most 4 hours on the rock. I’m wondering if it was exhaustion, lack of food/water that was making us slow and indecisive.

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9 hours ago, jkh359 said:

Yeah, I really don’t know! 5.8 is well within our limits and we were expecting at most 4 hours on the rock. I’m wondering if it was exhaustion, lack of food/water that was making us slow and indecisive.

That makes sense. Good job sticking it out and getting down safely.

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