Ascent of Whitehorse Mountain on 2010-05-08

Climber: Greg Slayden

Others in Party:Edward Earl
Florin T.
Date:Saturday, May 8, 2010
Ascent Type:Successful Summit Attained
    Motorized Transport to Trailhead:Car
Peak:Whitehorse Mountain
    Elevation:6840 ft / 2084 m

Ascent Trip Report

We planned to start hiking at 5 AM, roughly dawn, and figuring on a 2-hour drive to the trailhead and a half-hour of final packing/organizing, Florin and I left the Seattle area at 2:30 AM. But we made excellent time and were at the washed-out bridge at the end of Mine Road in Darrington at 3:50 AM, where we found Edward asleep in his truck and roused him. We hit the trail at about 4:15 AM, 45 minutes ahead of schedule—turns out we would need it.

We crossed the unsafe-for-vehicles bridge and headed up the wide road in the predawn darkness, using headlamps. We found the start of the trail at 918 feet and turned right, signing in at the register before starting the long uphill grind. We no longer needed headlamps as the dawn approached, and we made good progress. The trail was in great shape and there was not much blowdown. After passing through a slide alder area, we took our first rest at 2600 feet, and 100 vertical feet later, while crawling under a big log, I remembered that I forgot my GPS, so I ran back to get it, the extra vertical the last thing I needed today.

Just past the big log the trail took a sharp turn uphill in a slide area, with a cairn and red tape marking the way, so we headed more directly upslope on a fainter path. We started seeing snow pretty soon, and by about 3300 feet we had seen our last dry ground of the entire ascent. As we broke out of the trees we started postholing a bit, even though it was still pretty early in the morning, so we put on our snowshoes, which helped some. But the snow was pretty miserable all day, generally soft slush that varied from almost firm to bottomless sugar, with occasional patches of harder stuff and a healthy dose of avalanche debris snowballs thrown in.

With no boot tracks to guide us, we navigated by GPS and map to 3800 feet, where the marked trail on the topo map ends, then traversed left under rock buttresses and then across a very tricky little ravine. By now it was apparent that Florin’s brand new MSR snowshoes with bladed edges gave him superior traction and purchase in the glop than the older (and in my case, dilapidated) ones that Edward and I had, which would slide uncontrollably on steep terrain. So our rate of upward progress slowed dramatically was we entered the open basin below Lone Tree Pass.

Florin led on the traverse towards the pass, across a mess of avalanche debris, smooth semi-icy channels scoured by rivers of loose snow, and rapidly melting slush. It was sunny and warm, and we had several serious discussions about avalanche hazards. But it really did seem like everything had already come down already, and our main concern was on the way down. We elected to continue.

As we approached Lone Tree Pass we got a bit confused because I had waypointed the 4800-4840 saddle, left of the map label, as the pass on my GPS, since it was the low point on the ridge. But the pass is really at the 4880-4920 area under the “a” in “Pass” on the map. We got that straightened out and slogged up the final snow slopes to the pass, arriving at 9:40 AM. It had taken us 5.5 hours to climb 4350 feet, and we had a few concerns about the trip. The snow was pretty poor, the avalanche danger worried us, and our rate of speed was slower than we has hoped. But we still had lots of daylight, and decided to press on to see how the terrain and snow was ahead.

We followed the broad crest of the ridge east from Lone Tree Pass, and after several minor ups and downs interspersed with flat meadows, we saw the views of the awesome towering crags of the summit ridge ahead of us, blocking the way. We knew we had to drop down to our left to avoid them, so we started downclimbing, gently at first, then a steep 100 foot section that led to the clearly-defined lowest rock of a buttress at about 4620 feet. Edward and I were struggling with the snow along here and abandoned trying to use our snowshoes, Edward for good. I alternated the rest of the day—my threshold for postholing is pretty low, so after a few plunges up to my knee or crotch I would reluctantly don my battered, duct-taped snowshoes and plod along in Florin’s tracks until messy sidehilling or a brief section of firmer snow led me to take them off.

From our low point we traversed more meadows and steep forest, careful not to head uphill too soon, and our GPS-aided routefinding worked well as we broke out to a large open slope that led towards High Pass. We now has yet more traversing uphill across avalanche debris, snow channels, and mush, and Florin set a good track and pace as the pass came into view. It was similar to the approach to Lone Tree Pass—a long ascending traverse capped by a few hundred feet of fall line to the crest.

The skies had clouded up a bit, however, and we were chased up to High Pass by an approaching squall of graupel (styrofoam pellet) snow. We found a sheltered wind hollow in the snow for a well-deserved break—it was now almost 1 PM, pretty late, but we could see the summit just 800 feet above over a smooth and easy glacier, so we took off towards the top as the snow eased. Halfway there we were engulfed in a brief white-out, which fortunately cleared quickly as we got closer. We traversed uphill to a sharp snow arête, then directly up its crest as the angle of the slope steepened considerably. The drop-off on the other side of the arête was pretty scary, like a toilet bowl funneling everything down into a steep rocky chute.

We traded off step-kicking duties up the final slope, plunging our ice axes in to the head with each step for a self belay. About 50 feet from the top I was in the lead and got a little spooked by the exposure and Florin offered to take over. He went up a little bit, but then a large rock just below the snow surface made self-belay impossible. He traversed a few steps right, then up a near-vertical snow slope to haul himself up on to the summit crest. I followed—the steepness and exposure was exhilarating, but the snow up here was pretty good for kicking secure steps. I finally got my self-belay axe plant into the summit snow and heaved myself up.

Edward was next, and I gave him a minor hand belay on my stomach to help him over the top. We were now all on the summit crest, a pretty narrow knife edge of snow, with no rocks visible at all. We briefly exulted, took some pictures, and walked about 20 feet over to the very highest point of snow—the views were spectacular under a low, leaden cloud ceiling. But we were hit with another graupel squall while on top, so given the bad weather, precarious perch, and late hour (we summited at 2:40 PM) we couldn’t stay long.

Edward and I were nervous about the first 30 feet off the summit, the near-vertical snow slope, so after thinking about a series of belays we finally decided to rappel. We didn’t like leaving a picket and runner on the peak, but it would save time and effort, so we dug a dead-man trench, buried a picket, and easily rappelled in turn over the top steep step and now-exposed rock area to a safer spot below. After downclimbing our bomber footstep path along the snow arête face-in, we had an easy plunge step decent to High Pass, since the snow on the glacier was not the bottomless mush it was below.

At High Pass we had our “summit rest” and gobbled down some snacks, but once again there was no real time to relax given the late hour. The weather has improved—the snow squall clouds were now gone, but the intermittent sunshine had turned the snow below us into a truly soupy mass. It was OK going down the steep fall line from the pass, but once we had to traverse it was messy. Florin set the pace with his nice MSRs, Edward soldiered on with just boots, and once again I alternated, slow due to changing my footgear. I had also forgotten to bring gaiters, so my feet got utterly waterlogged.

We followed our track through the long traverse back to Lone Tree Pass, eliminating any routefinding issues, but the 400-foot gain back up to the ridge was most unwelcome. At the pass by 6:30 PM we took another break before plunging downhill again, once more easily down the fall line at first before the traverse across the now-bottomless lower-elevation slush. It was slippery, messy going. I was able to do some sitting glissades, some of them intentional, others not. My poor snowshoes did hold up to the abuse, though, despite being held together with duct tape.

Near the bottom of the open slopes, as we approached the little ravine we has crossed in the morning, we saw the only other people on the mountain all day, three guys planning to camp up at Lone Tree Pass. One of them had scavenged a ski pole I had left on the trail below, not realizing that anyone was above, and gave it back to me—I was very happy to have it for more stability on the snow.

We took a better route from the ravine to the 3800-foot trail end area, and from there it was more ugly snow down through the trees. Finally, at about 3300 feet, we hit the first dry ground since the same spot this morning, and happily stowed our snow/ice gear and bushwhacked briefly before finding the red flagging tape of the trail. The final descent was uneventful, just more foot-pounding on a good trail as darkness fell. Florin and I used headlamps on the road walk, and we arrived back at the cars at 9:30 PM. I was home by 11:15.

Postscript: Our trip, at over 17 hours, was remarkably slow—most trip reports I have seen talk about doing Whitehorse in a day of 12-14 hours or so. I think that the snow conditions were the main culprit, and that another week or so of warm temperatures and melt-freeze cycles would have consolidated things much more nicely and allowed for much faster overall travel. However, we did hit the summit block covered entirely in good step-kicking snow, which may be preferred to any moat or rock-climbing issues that likely will arise as the snow melts.

Many might prefer to camp for a trip like this, although flat spots are scarce below Lone Tree Pass.
Summary Total Data
    Total Elevation Gain:7090 ft / 2160 m
    Total Elevation Loss:7090 ft / 2160 m
    Round-Trip Distance:12.3 mi / 19.8 km
    Quality:8 (on a subjective 1-10 scale)
    Route Conditions:
Road Hike, Maintained Trail, Unmaintained Trail, Open Country, Bushwhack, Snow on Ground, Snow Climb
    Gear Used:
Ice Axe, Crampons, Rope, Headlamp, Ski Poles, Snowshoes
    Weather:Snowing, Cool, Breezy, Low Clouds
Ascent Statistics
    Gain on way in:6690 ft / 2039 m
        Gain Breakdown:Net: 6290 ft / 1917 m; Extra: 400 ft / 121m
    Loss on way in:400 ft / 121 m
    Distance:6.2 mi / 9.9 km
    Route:NW Shoulder
    Start Trailhead:Mine Road  550 ft / 167 m
    Time:10 Hours 30 Minutes
Descent Statistics
    Loss on way out:6690 ft / 2039 m
        Loss Breakdown:Net: 6290 ft / 1917 m; Extra: 400 ft / 121m
    Gain on way out:400 ft / 121 m
    Distance:6.2 mi / 9.9 km
    Route:NW Sholder
    End Trailhead:Mine Road  550 ft / 167 m
    Time:6 Hours 15 Minutes
GPS Data for Ascent/Trip

 GPS Waypoints - Hover or click to see name and lat/long
Peaks:  climbed and  unclimbed by Greg Slayden
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Note: GPS Tracks may not be accurate, and may not show the best route. Do not follow this route blindly. Conditions change frequently. Use of a GPS unit in the outdoors, even with a pre-loaded track, is no substitute for experience and good judgment. accepts NO responsibility or liability from use of this data.

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