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Ascent of Mount Jefferson on 2006-07-30

Climber: Greg Slayden

Others in Party:Edward Earl
Duane Gilliland
Adam Helman
Richard Carey
Don Nelsen
Date:Sunday, July 30, 2006
Ascent Type:Successful Summit Attained
Peak:Mount Jefferson
    Location:USA-Oregon
    Elevation:10497 ft / 3199 m

Ascent Trip Report

Saturday, July 29, 2006:

I woke up at 4 AM, quickly and quietly dressed so as not to disturb my sleeping wife and cats, and hefted my heavy pack and duffel bag outside to wait for my ride to Oregon. Duane had told me he would arrive between 4:15 and 4:30 AM, so I waited outside. At around 4:30 I heard a car trying to get into a neighbor’s driveway, thought it might be him, and decided to wait inside in case he tried to call me. That was a good idea, since shortly afterwards the phone rang—I hurried to answer it so no one would wake up. I gave Duane directions from a block away, and sure enough his Ford Explorer appeared up our dark, hard-to-find driveway.

I had carpooled with Duane (who lives in Mt. Vernon) to Oregon last year on a Mt. Jefferson attempt that never got started (due to poor weather and route conditions)—I had driven last year, so this year he volunteered to pick me up. We were soon heading south on I-405 and I-5, making good time in the pre-dawn. We were scheduled to meet Edward and Adam at the Mt. Jefferson trailhead near Detroit, OR at 9 AM—our departure time meant we would probably be a bit late, but we figured they wouldn’t leave without us.

We were also picking up another team member, Don, in Vancouver, WA, just before Portland. After a gas fill-up (I paid) right off I-5 and a few blocks from his house, we arrived at about 7 AM, and Don quickly loaded his stuff into the cavernous rear area of Duane’s Explorer. We were off, and had just gotten on I-5, when we realized we had no Forest Service parking pass. So we had to exit, return to Don’s house on back roads, pick it up, and get back on I-5 again. It was almost 7:30 when we got going for good.

As we drove south of I-5 to Salem and then east on OR 22 to Detroit, the three of us got to know each other better—I had briefly met Don last year over a group dinner, and he was a very fit trail-runner who had an endless supply of good humor. Both Duane and Don were friends of a noted Vancouver hiker named Bob, and they had been turned on to peakbagging largely by him, I think.

We turned off of the OR 22 highway beyond Detroit for the short drive up a partly-paved road to the Pamelia Lake trailhead, and we quickly identified Edward’s blue Nissan truck. We were late—it was about 9:30 AM on a beautiful morning—but no one seemed to mind as our team met, got introduced, and went through group gear. There was another group of people meeting and getting organized with climbing gear, and I presumed it was a Mazama climb of Jefferson.

Ours was a six-man party: Adam and Edward, avid peakbaggers from San Diego with whom I had climbed Glacier Peak with a couple of days ago; Duane and Don from Bob’s circle; Richard, another San Diegan who had arrived independently, and myself. We were all fit and experienced with many long, hard days in the mountains, but only Edward and I had any real technical history with ropes and protection. The top of Mt. Jefferson had a steep, snowy traverse and a semi-technical summit pinnacle, so we divvied up 2 ropes, 4 pickets, slings, and some rock pro among us. I considered sharing a tent with Duane, but in the end all of us except Edward and Adam brought our lightweight one-man tents or bivvy sacks.

We didn’t get started until 10:35 AM, when we started up the crowded and popular trail to Pamelia Lake. We were in a line, and had to get out of the way of hikers (and even some horses) coming down. I hiked behind Richard, the one member of the team I had not met, and we chatted about our common interests—he owned the “peakbagging.com” web site and I the “peakbagger.com” site. He had a lot of climbs in California and the southwest to his credit.

It was only about 2.25 gentle uphill miles through deep ancient forest to Pamelia Lake, and here we dropped our packs at the nearby trail junction and went out to the actual lake, where some large logs near the shore provided a nice viewpoint for Mount Jefferson towering above. From here we needed to take a cutoff trail up to the Pacific Crest Trail, and Don got us pointed the right way. It turned out that he had taken many trips to this area over the past decade, and had a thorough knowledge of all the trails, routes, and campsites on the southwest flank of Mt. Jefferson. Also, Don had a super-fancy GPS that he always kept on and worked well in the forest, so we were always deferring any routefinding decisions to him.

The mile-long cutoff trail climbed gradually through more dense forest and had passed some overgrown areas when it intersected the PCT, where we turned south at 12:22 PM. For the next 4.7 miles we followed this gently rising trail as it slowly gained altitude, resting every hour or so to eat, change clothes, put on sunscreen, or just sit. The conversation was lively, as we all seemed to have a lot in common to talk about. Don had been on a remarkable hike to Kauai’s high point in Hawaii and talked about that a bit, and Adam impressed us by doing a bunch of complex calculations in his head to determine how many calories per hour we were burning, using his knowledge of chemistry and physics.

The forest became more dry and open as we hiked, and we were in hot sun for some long sections. Views of Pamelia Lake below opened up below, and at exactly 3 PM we arrived at Shale Lake at 5900 feet, a traditional camping spot for Jefferson climbs. We took a twenty minute rest here, and noticed that the lake had sunk below the level of its dry outlet brook. The entire area seemed very dry, with no running water to be seen anywhere. I think the Mazama group from the parking lot was trying to camp near here.

We, however, wanted to camp higher, to make our summit day shorter, so at 3:20 we left Shale Lake and the PCT on a climber’s path that led towards the vast southwest slopes of Mount Jefferson. Don knew of a good campsite at 7800 feet that was our intended destination, and he led us through the open, scrubby forest with his GPS. However, the trail we were on soon petered out, and we found ourselves bushwhacking a bit—I realized that I had not done very much off-trail travel like this with a full overnight pack, and it was not fun. Don seemed to know we were heading the right way, so we all blindly plunged uphill over rocks and through trees. It seemed that this mountain did not get enough ascents for well-formed climber’s trails to form.

After ascending a particularly rough and steep rocky slope we found ourselves in a nice protected cove area at about 6800 feet. There were snowbanks around, but no running water. Tired, we decided to drop our packs here while Don and Edward explored ahead for better sites, and the rest of us looked for water. I tried digging holes at the bases of the nearby snowbanks, but they did not fill up with water as I had hoped. By the time Don and then Edward returned from their reconnaissances, we had pretty much decided to camp where we were, and they didn’t really have any significantly better options up ahead. Our site was, coincidentally, exactly halfway in elevation from our trailhead to the summit.

We pitched our tents—Adam and Edward were the only ones sharing a tent, and Richard set up his 1-man right next to them, with Don’s super-lightweight job uphill a bit behind some rocks, Duane’s little bivvy sack on some grass across from Richard’s, and my one-man tent away a bit, in the shelter of some scrubby trees on a little rise. We looked for water, and most of us melted snow, while Adam did find a stagnant pool below one nearby snowbank. Either way, any water we got had to be boiled, which was a nuisance. I had never seen such a dry mountain in the Cascades—I think that perhaps the soil somehow absorbed water so it did not flow on the surface at all.

We had arrived at camp at 4:40 PM, and were pretty well set up by 5:30, so for the rest of the evening we hung out, cooked our dinner, socialized, and planned our climb. Duane and I shared his stove, and I had a hearty dehydrated meal while making sure I had 4 quarts of water ready to go for tomorrow. The weather was not looking too good—it had become windy and overcast—so there was some apprehension there. After our meals, Edward called us to a meeting where we went over our plans for the technical snow traverse. Our plan was that I would belay him while he set up a fixed line with rock pro and pickets, and then I was to make sure the others were clipped in as they crossed, attached to the line with a sling and carabiner. We also thought we might need to protect the rocky summit block, and perhaps rappel off.

We all got to bed pretty early, at about 9 PM or so. I was happy to be in a tent by myself, and also happy that I was not trying the sleep-under-the-stars thing like I had on Glacier Peak. It was very windy that night, and a few times I thought I heard rain, although I was not sure.

Sunday, July 30:

I woke up at 5 AM, and it was just getting light as I walked down to the main campsite area from my tent. The weather was not great, with low clouds blowing by just overhead and fierce wind. Others were stirring, and no one was very excited about getting up with this weather. But it was not raining, although Edward also heard rain on his tent at night like I had. We ate, got dressed, and got organized, and we thought we saw a clearing trend, but by 6:30 AM we all decided to sleep for another hour so we could more accurately gauge what was happening. So we retreated back to our tents.

At 7:30 AM we re-emerged and were heartened to see that the cloudy ceiling had risen a bit (we could see Goat Mountain across the valley now) and the wind had died down, so we decided to go for it. There was definitely a clearing trend, and it seemed best to start up and get into position at least. Adam was still pessimistic, but he saw the logic in heading up a bit.

We left camp at 8 AM and again let Don lead the way—a few years earlier he had hiked to the Red Saddle, the place at 10,250 feet where the technical climbing starts—so he knew the terrain the best. Our camp area held about the last trees, so our route was mostly on rotten volcanic rock, with snowbanks every now and then. Not long after leaving camp we crossed paths with a party of about 10 climbers, heading down from their higher campsite, and we had some brief conversations (they said their campsite had water), but nothing substantial about the route. These were the only other people I saw on the mountain all day—most likely, other potential parties were scared off by the weather.

So for the next 4 ½ hours we hiked up the steepening, rocky southwest slopes and ridge of Mount Jefferson. I would say that 75% or more of the time was on rock, and a good percentage of that was really nasty ball-bearing scree where you lost half of every step by sliding back. The snowbanks were nice, especially lower down where they were lower angle and soft, but once up a ways they were too hard and we didn’t feel like putting on crampons for short stretches. So it was endless zigzagging up rock, trying to find the least scree and the most solid boulders. We eventually aimed for a sharp ridgecrest, the real south ridge of the peak, but the footing was no better there. At no point did we ever find a well-defined climbers trail—they either were faint, short, or scree-chutes for downhill hikers.

Thankfully, the weather continued to improve. The clouds lifted over us, and when we got high noticed that most of them were now below us. The wind died down, the sun came out, and the only real concern was chips of rime ice that covered the leeward side of the big rocks—it was ghostly and beautiful, but we didn’t want to have to climb over rocks like that on the summit pinnacle. But by the time we neared the Red Saddle all the rime had evaporated away.

The last hundred vertical feet of hiking on the ridge were nice—the rocks were solid, giant boulders that were a relief after the scree, even if it was steep going. Atop this little rise we could suddenly see the massive summit block of Mt. Jefferson in our faces, like the prow of a giant gray battleship. Between the very minor sub-peak we had just climbed and the huge monolith of rotten rock in front of us was the Red Saddle, well named after the color of the rock. We all took a rest at the flat area just shy of the saddle, and got ready for the dreaded traverse. We could see it well, and there was about 200 horizontal feet of very steep snowfield to cross, contouring to the left (west) side of the summit block. It was 12:40 PM.

We all put on our harnesses, Edward gathered all of the pickets and rock pro, and he and I ventured out across the rocky, easy first part of the traverse. He set up an anchor with 2 nuts, tied our 100 foot static rope in to it, and I got into a belay stance as he set off on the boot path that crossed the snowfield near its top edge. It was a long way down, and very steep—even though there were good steps in soft snow on the boot track, protection seemed like a good idea. He put in a picket early on, to prevent a nasty pendulum should he fall, and then another rock nut fifty feet later. At a route section where the path crossed a flat rocky lip above the snow, the rope ran out, so Edward anchored the other end of the rope.

Don had been waiting a long time, so once the fixed line was all set, I made sure he had a sling attached to his harness and he was clipped in to the line. He then confidently walked over to Edward, passing the picket with dual carabiners. He also had to remove the intermediate rock pro, not needed any more, using a chock pick we had given him.

Duane, Adam, and Richard followed, and I came last. All of us were now on the snow/rock lip area, and I gave Edward the 50 meter (165 foot) dynamic rope for the next, longer section of traverse, also taking time to get out my helmet (I was the only one who had brought one). I then threw my cordalette around a massive, solid rock as an anchor and got into a good sitting belay stance and Edward took off—it felt good to be using the old commands like “belay on!”, “climbing!”, etc. for the first time in many years. I perhaps had more experience in mountaineering rope work from my days instructing the Mountaineers climbing courses, but I was definitely rusty compared to Edward’s recent climbing activity, so it was best he led.

Edward placed two pickets on the last section of traverse, and was almost out of view on some rocks when I shouted to him that he was out of rope. After what seemed like a long time to those of us waiting, we got the go ahead to continue, and I made sure that Don, Adam, Richard, and Duane got off across OK. The plan now was for me to wait here for instructions from ahead—if the climb to the summit required a rope, I was to break down the fixed line and get belayed across; otherwise, I could leave it in place. So I waited about fifteen minutes, wondering what was going on ahead. I was glad to have a helmet—the sheer cliffs of rotten choss above me rained down some rocks at one point nearby. I think we were also fortunate that it had been a cold morning with rime ice, perhaps holding rocks in place longer than if it had been a warm, sunny day.

At long last I heard Duane shout back to me that no rope was needed for the summit, and I should come across the fixed line and leave it in place. So I clipped in and hiked across the steep snow, and also up some dusty, scree-filled rock slopes, to the end of the fixed line. I unclipped, and on the faint path through the rocks I saw a pile of ice axes that I added mine to. I assumed at this point that there was one, simple, direct route to the top that all of us were following, so I tailed Duane, the last of the 5 people ahead of me. But we didn’t see anyone above us, and, as usual, the trail died out, so we found ourselves rock-hopping uphill haphazardly. We decided to head for the spine of the north ridge, rather than attack the broad northwest slopes. We could see Don and Adam above us, so we thought this was the way.

Once on the north ridge, though, the exposure was dizzying and the terrain very steep. So Duane and I headed back to where we saw Don and Adam, on the northwest slopes. We climbed up a steep rock step, where an ice-axe lay at its base—we figured it was probably Don’s, cached for the descent. Surmounting this block led to more difficult, class-3 terrain, but at least it was solid rock, mostly giant basalt boulders. Back toward the absolute spine of the north ridge, I could hear Don describing the route to Adam below him—“This goes, just get up this step, crawl past this, and you are there!” I saw Adam (who had wisely left his pack back at the Red Saddle) climb a difficult class-4 chimney, and I futzed around a bit, having some trouble with it, partly due to my big pack. After investigating a narrow crack as an alternate, somehow Duane and I climbed the chimney, and then had a couple more blocks to pass, including a crawl along a narrow ledge. Just past this was the tiny, airy, summit, a true pinnacle in the sky. We arrived at about 2:50 PM.

All of us were there except for Richard. Edward had come up from an “open book” corner to the west, which he felt was class 4, and had arrived first, before the four of us had negotiated the north ridge. I took out my pack and we all congratulated each other—this summit was especially meaningful and emotional for Adam, who had now climbed all the county high points in Oregon, after two years of aborted trips to this difficult peak. I was worried about Richard, though, since he was nowhere in evidence at first. He finally came into view, below Edward’s open book route, and we coaxed him up—that route was like a ladder, vertical with good holds, and he had soon joined us.

The six of us barely fit on the tiny summit, and we could not move around from the precarious perches we staked out on the various rocks. We found the register and signed in, ate our summit snacks (my Pop-Tarts had become pulverized), took pictures (Don even took a short video), and drank in the view. The clouds were mostly gone now, but still covered most of the valleys below us to the west in a layer about a couple thousand feet below us. We could see the Sisters, a forest fire off that way, and Mt. Hood to the north rising above the cloud layer. It was hard not to feel acrophobic up there—this was about the most airy peak I had even been on.

We discussed how we were going to get off of this pinnacle—on my climb up the direct north ridge I had been thinking that downclimbing this way would be dangerous without a rope. Edward’s open book route looked a lot easier, and we all decided that was the best way down. So at 3:15 PM we left the summit, and once a couple people were down the open book Duane and I thought that the gully to the left of that was even easier, and sure enough, this route allowed downclimbing while facing out from the mountain, and once down a bit you traversed right, below the open book, and then headed north to the easier terrain. This would have been the easy way up, too.

We all spread out as we hit the large talus field to the northwest of the pinnacle, and Duane and I waited while Don climbed up to retrieve his ice axe, left at the base of the difficult section of our ascent route. Hiking at our own individual paces, we all soon gathered at the start of our fixed rope. The plan here was for Adam, Don, Richard, and Duane to go across, then Edward, who would belay me as I cleaned out the pickets and rock pro.

This worked well—I was left alone at the anchor, and after waiting a while Edward yelled that I was on belay. I took down the anchor, tied in, and gathered up hardware as Edward reeled me in—the worst part for me was the short descent down the scree slope, just above the main snow traverse. It was truly slippery stuff and I was very happy to be on belay. At the rock/snow lip transition area we did the same thing for the shorter snow traverse section, and by the time I reached the end of the traverse I was burdened down with a rope around my shoulders, 3 pickets, many slings, and several rock pieces—I felt like a strange kind of robot. I got a picture of myself in this strange attire at the Red Saddle resting place, and then happily shed many pounds of weight.

I was happy the technical part of the climb was over and that we had no incidents at all (the only mishap of note was Edward cutting his thumb while removing a stubborn nut from a crack). Many serious climbers might question our skill levels and our presence on this route (for example, four of us didn’t know how to belay), but to me our climb was a triumph of peakbaggers’ poise. None of us, even Edward or me, were super handy with ropes and other such gear, but we all had many years of hiking and scrambling experience in real mountains in all kinds of conditions. Our success was due, I think, to the hard-won skills and confidence of the hard-core peakbagger, plus just enough technical climbing knowledge to get by.

At the Red Saddle we all took off our harnesses and stowed our ropes and other gear, trying to be quick since it was now almost 4:30 PM. It had taken us almost 4 hours to get from the Red Saddle to the summit and back—even allowing for a 25-minute rest at the top, that was still over an hour and half each way. Setting up protection is always slow business. We were soon over the blocky subpeak on the other side of the Red Saddle and heading down the endless slopes of scree and loose rock.

The six of us pretty much split apart and each went our own way down to camp. Richard, who had lagged on the way up, was the fastest down—at camp he admitted that he was always fast on descents. Don, Duane, and I were together most of the way, but I hung back at times to make sure that Adam and Edward, well behind us, were OK and moving along. For about 1000 vertical feet, from 9500 to 8500 feet, there was tons of ball-bearing scree that we skied and plunge-stepped down easily, the only penalty wear on our boots. After that I sought out snowfields wherever I saw them and ripped off standing glissades whenever possible—at one very steep snowpatch I had to be a bit more careful and kick in with my heels.

I caught up to Don and Duane just as we entered the trees and had to navigate some confusing areas, happy to have Don’s GPS as a guide. Don had been off exploring a bit, finding the campsite with water at 7800’ he had seen on his earlier trips. The three of us then arrived at camp at 6:15 PM—uphill from camp to the Red Saddle had taken us 4 hours, 40 minutes; downhill only 1:45. Adam and Edward were five minutes behind us, Adam mildly miffed at being left behind, but I knew he had the camp as a GPS waypoint on his unit.

Duane and Don were keen to hike down to the car this evening so they could get home tonight. I was more hesitant, even though I liked being home. I still felt bad about leaving Adam and Edward early on Glacier Peak a few days earlier, my tent was in a very nice and quiet position, and an evening of relaxing with climb companions after a hard day was a very pleasant prospect. But I was tied to my carpool-mates, and I agreed to head down with them at 7:30. So I had a little over an hour to get all packed up, eat, and bid farewell to half the team. Among all the exotic food Adam had brought was a delicious “chocolate babka” cake, and I had a last bite of that as I said goodbye to Adam, Edward, and Richard.

Don, Duane, and I at this point knew each other’s capabilities and that we were all fast hikers, so we were optimistic that we could buzz on down to the car in no time. We took off down the slope just southeast of camp, and instead or our upward track from yesterday, we headed to an open grassy valley a bit further on. There we hit upon a nice, well, defined climbers path, and this led us quickly almost to Shale Lake, through pretty meadows and open woods. The trail did die out eventually, but we followed the GPS track to the lake, where we arrived after 35 minutes of hiking from camp. Now we were on the highway-like PCT, with no risk of getting lost in the dark, so at 8:15 we took off down this trail.

The PCT was gentle and easy, but far longer than we remembered. Two-thirds of the way to the cutoff trail junction it had gotten too dark to see, and we had to break out our headlamps. The headband of mine was too loose from years of stretching it around hats and helmets, so eventually I had to carry it in my hands like a flashlight. We hiked as fast as we could (except for Don the trail runner, who probably felt that the 3 to 4 mph pace of Duane and me was too slow) and realized that we would be later than we thought. We trudged on, and in the darkness we crossed a small stream, the first running water we had seen on the mountain all day. Not long after that was the junction with the cutoff trail, where I took a short break and fell behind the others, even though I could see their lights ahead in the forest.

We regrouped at Pamelia Lake, and hiked the last 2.25 miles down the wide, gentle trail in pitch darkness—there was a campsite off to one side where we saw lights and smelled a campfire, but that was the only other sign of humans we had seen since the climbers descending early this morning. Near the end of our forced march I lagged a bit, very tired, as I softly sung to myself to keep my mind off of my fatigue. At 10:45 PM, we arrived at the parking lot, and happily took off our boots and threw our stuff in Duane’s Explorer. We had hiked down from camp in 3.25 hours, compared to six hours up, and our totals for the day were 14 miles hiked, 3700 foot of elevation gained, 7400 feet lost, and a couple of hours of serious technical climbing. We were beat.

Of course, there was no way I was getting back to Seattle that night (nor Duane to Mount Vernon), so we took up the offer Don had made back at camp to crash at his house in Vancouver, WA that night. So Duane drove us down OR 22 to near Salem, and I then drove us north on I-5 through Portland to Vancouver to give him a break from driving. Don had spare couches and beds for us in his bachelor pad, and by about 1:30 AM or so we were showered and sleeping well.
Summary Total Data
    Elevation Gain:7377 ft / 2249 m
    Distance:22 mi / 35.4 km
    Route:Southwest Slope
    Trailhead:Pamelia Lake TH  3120 ft / 950 m
    Quality:8 (on a subjective 1-10 scale)
    Route Conditions:
Maintained Trail, Unmaintained Trail, Bushwhack, Snow on Ground, Scramble, Exposed Scramble
    Gear Used:
Ice Axe, Rope, Tent Camp
    Weather:Pleasant, Calm, Partly Cloudy
GPS Data for Ascent/Trip


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Peaks:  climbed and  unclimbed by Greg Slayden
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