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Ascent of Golden Horn on 2019-03-03

Climber: Eric Gilbertson

Date:Sunday, March 3, 2019
Ascent Type:Successful Summit Attained
Peak:Golden Horn
    Location:USA-Washington
    Elevation:8366 ft / 2549 m

Ascent Trip Report

Eric and Tyler
March 2-3, 2019

Saturday – 3:30am leave Yellowjacket Sno Park, ski 19.5 miles to camp at upper snowy lake by 3:30pm.
Sunday – Summit Golden Horn at 7am, ski back to car (22 miles total)

Golden Horn is a technical peak among the hundred highest mountains in Washington, and is located in the northeastern Cascades. As far as I’d researched it had never been climbed in winter. However, there appeared to be a safe route up to the summit that avoided avy terrain. It would involve a ~20 mile approach and technical climbing, but looked fun.

Tyler and I headed out of Seattle Friday evening and after braving difficult traffic on Route 2 made it to the Yellowjacket Sno Park in Mazama by 11:30pm that night. We slept in the car til 3am, then got packed up and started moving by 3:30am.

My planned route was to ski up the Methow River Trail, meet up with the PCT, then bushwhack up to upper snow lake. I had previously climbed Golden Horn in July 2018 approaching from Rainy Pass, so was familiar with the route on the upper mountain. During that trip I had also hiked along the PCT to climb Azurite nearby, so was also familiar with half of the approach from Mazama. I recalled everything should be easy to ski, though I was unsure
about the Methow River Trail. I had read reports from the summer that it was unmaintained, so our speed over that section was uncertain.

Snow conditions would also add uncertainty to our speed. The previous weekend I had climbed Palmer Mountain and averaged about 0.5 mph on the ascent due to deep, fresh snow on steep bushwhacking terrain. I hoped the snow would be more consolidated after a week of little precipitation.

The first 3.5 miles of the route was on flat snowmobile trails to the trailhead, and to ease our travel I had two plastic sleds which we pulled our packs in. This was much easier than carrying them on our backs. Within an hour we made it to the Methow River trailhead and surprisingly there was a skin track heading up the trail. We ditched our sleds in the woods and followed the skin track for a few miles until it led south across the river to some glades on a slope. We intended to go much farther, so started breaking our own route.

We started following the trail, but it eventually climbed high on south-facing crusty slopes that were slow to traverse. Luckily the river valley below was very flat, so we dropped down to find more powdery snow and broke trail there. The snow was much more consolidated than the previous weekend and we made fast progress.

We mostly stayed in the valley, occasionally meeting back up with the trail, and making one water crossing that required taking our skis off. After a few hours we reached the PCT intersection and decided to stay in the river valley instead of climbing steeply up the right side to follow the trail. This was my favorite section of the approach. The West Fork Methow River was filled in deep enough with snow to ski directly in the middle of the steeply-walled and narrow valley.

Eventually we left the river and met back up with the trail near Jet Creek. From there we followed the trail up to 5,500ft, then left the trail and bushwhacked through open forest directly to Upper Snowy Lake. It was 3:30pm and would have been tempting to tag the summit then, but it was snowing and visibility was very low. We could not see Golden Horn from camp, though I remember it being a great view in the summer time.

We quickly set up the tent, cooked some dinner, and were asleep around sunset. The forecast was for mostly sunny weather the next morning, albeit cold. It was supposed to drop to around 0F at the lake, so likely about -5F on the summit. Our plan for the next day was to try to reach the summit block at sunrise. This would allow us to do the technical climbing in the daylight and maybe even get a great view.

We were up at 4am the next morning and moving by 5am. Unfortunately the clear weather hadn’t rolled in yet, and it was still snowing. We essentially navigated by GPS and my memory from July up to the east ridge of Golden Horn, then followed the ridge. Eventually around 7,800ft the snow cover got very thin with rocks protruding, so we ditched the skis and continued in crampons.

Just before 7am we climbed up the last steep gully and scrambled over to the summit block. Even though I had been there before, it took a bit of thinking to recall exactly how to get to the base of the climb. I can see how some people have gotten off track and climbed the false summit instead of the true summit.

Tyler wanted to lead the summit block, so I gave him a few cams and we roped up with our 30m rope. In July I remember the route hardly requiring a rope, except for one mantle move at the top, but now when it was covered in snow, I was wearing ski boots and crampons, and it was below zero, the route seemed much more difficult.

Tyler climbed up to the base of the mantle move, stuck in a cam, then tried the mantle. It was about forehead height and basically required doing a pullup, which was difficult with a pack on. So he left the pack at the cam and mantled up. I followed, passing up his pack then mantling up to the top.

Amazingly the sun was just rising and we were surrounded by undercast. Only the tips of the tallest peaks above 8,000ft were sticking out. Tower Mountain was a rocky island sticking out to the southeast, and Azurite poked out to the northwest. It was windy on top and very cold, probably -5F.

We soon located the rap anchor on top and rapped back down to our stashed poles. We then retraced our tracks back to our skis and splitboard, but by that time we were back below the clouds and visibility was again low. The ski and snowboard back to camp was amazing, with soft snow and fun turns through the trees.

At camp we quickly packed up and headed down by 8:30am. We generally retraced our ascent route back to the PCT, then skid down to the bridge crossing the West Fork Methow. Tyler had a bit more difficult time on a snowboard, but managed to propel himself across the flat sections with his trekking poles.

After the bridge we switched to skins because the route was mostly flat from there. We followed our tracks back, making a few improvements on the route, and made it back to our sleds by 3:15pm. From there it was a quick ski back to the car. A few snowmobilers passed by, and they were impressed we’d made it all the way in to Golden Horn.

We got back to the car at 4:30pm to start the long drive back to Seattle.

Link to full trip report and pictures.
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