Ascent of The Pope on 2019-10-12

Climber: Eric Gilbertson

Date:Saturday, October 12, 2019
Ascent Type:Successful Summit Attained
Peak:The Pope
    Elevation:8264 ft / 2518 m

Ascent Trip Report

Six Washington Top 200 Mountains car to car: Apex Mountain (8,297ft), The Pope/Chewuch (8,264ft), Wolframite Mountain (8,137ft), Bauerman Ridge (8,044ft), Arnold Peak (8,091ft), Horseshoe Mountain (7,956ft)

October 12, 2019

Eric Gilbertson

59 miles, 11,000ft gain, 3:30am Saturday to 7:20am Sunday (28 hours moving)

Trailhead – 3:30am
Apex – 10:15am
Pope – 11:45am
Wolframite – 2:15pm
Bauerman Ridge – 4:30pm
Arnold – 10pm
Horseshoe – 11:30pm
Trailhead – 7:20am

I wanted to return to the remote Pasayten Wilderness to check out the fall colors and tag some washington top 200 peaks. There was a group of 6 peaks I hadn’t yet done just east of my trip from last weekend. It looked like I could string together a ~60 mile loop hike to hit them all, with a bit of off-trail travel. Unfortunately only Saturday looked like good weather in that area, and NOHRSC satellite images showed quite a bit of snow above 6,000ft. But it sounded perhaps possible to me to do this as a long day hike Saturday in the good weather. I’d day-hiked Reynolds Peak last October from highway 20 in a 57-mile, 21-hour day trip to avoid fire closures, so seemed feasible.

However, that trip was about 50 miles on trail with only 7 miles off trail, and had very little snow. This trip looked to be 46 miles on trail with ~13 miles off trail, with a lot of snow. Approximately 40 miles of the loop would be snow covered, and I would have nobody to share trail breaking duties with. Also, I would be climbing six mountains instead of one.

I figured I would give the trip a shot, though, and worst case I would probably just be moving slower than I hoped and the trip would spill over into Sunday morning. I planned to go as light as possible to maintain speed, so wouldn’t bring any overnight gear. I also made the significant decision to hike in trail runners and micro spikes instead of hiking boots. The biggest mileage I’d ever put on my hiking boots in a day was 40 miles, and my feet were in tough shape afterwards. So with so many miles on this trip, I decided to tough it out with cold wet feet most of the day in shoes that could get my feet through without blisters.

I also made the critical decision to not bring snowshoes. Satellite images were showing up to 12 inches of snow on the route, but based on my experience the previous weekend in a nearby area I thought that would be an overestimate (I was wrong). I judged the weight of the snowshoes on my back for the lower-elevation miles would make them not worth it.

The last decision was which trailhead to start at. Starting at the Cathedral Driveway trailhead (the standard trailhead for Windy Peak) would shave off about 5 miles from the round trip hike, but was at least an hour farther to drive to than the closer Thirty-Mile trailhead. I decided on the Thirty-Mile trailhead to get more sleep the night before, and since I had never been to that trailhead before.

Friday evening I drove out to Winthrop and arrived at the Thirty-Mile trailhead at 10pm. There was one other car in the lot, but nobody in it. I packed up and went to sleep by 10:30pm under clear and cool skies. It was tempting to start right then with the good weather, but I knew it would be important to get at least a few hours of sleep so I would move more efficiently for the long hike.

By 3am I was awake and moving by 3:30am. I packed as light as possible, with just some food, extra clothes, micro spikes, water, and mini gaiters in my pack. The trail was in excellent shape with no blowdowns. I cruised at a fast pace, occasionally jogging. I soon passed the intersection with the Cathedral Driveway Trail and continued up the Chewuch River. By sunrise I turned up the Tungsten trail. I was amazed that there was no evidence of any fires, which was a big contrast to my hike the previous week up the Andrews Creek and Lake Creek areas nearby.

Snowline started around 6,000ft and I saw two other set of boot prints in front of me, probably from Friday. I
guessed this could have been from the car at my trailhead. About 14 miles in I unexpectedly came to some old mining structures near the border with the Boundary Trail. It was apparently the remains of an old tungsten mine, and the living quarters were maintained and in excellent shape.

The snow got deep enough here that I put on my mini gaiters and micro spikes. I turned west on the Boundary trail heading for my first peak, Apex Mountain. The snow was just deep enough to be annoying to break trail, so to minimize trail breaking distance I avoided a big bend in the trail by bushwhacking straight across a big boggy meadow up to the pass north of Apex.

The larches here were bright yellow and really stood out against all the snow. From here I postholed up the north ridge to the summit of Apex around 10:15am. Surprisingly I actually found the summit register (I hadn’t been able to find any in all the snow the previous week). I signed in and admired the impressive view of Cathedral Peak nearby, then headed back down.

At the pass I regained the trail and saw a set of ski tracks. This must have been the guys whose tracks I had followed in the morning. But the snow was so thin and patchy there that they must have been scratching up their skis quite a lot. And they would have had to carry their skis in over 15 miles from my trailhead. I mentally referred to them as the optimistic skiers for the rest of the trip.

I headed west on the Boundary Trail from the pass, and the ski tracks soon turned back to boot tracks. My next peak would be The Pope (aka Chewuch). This peak has 390ft of prominence according to peakbagger, so in theory wouldn’t make the 400ft cutoff to be on the top 200 list, but it is still on the official version of the list nevertheless. Luckily the trail goes pretty close to it, so it’s only a slight side trip.

I hiked to the bend in the trail below the southeast slopes, then hiked up the southeast slopes to the summit. The top was a big boulder field, which was tricky when partially filled with snow. The summit is only a few hundred feet from the Canadian border, and it was amazing to see the perfectly straight border swath cut from the trees in either direction.

My next objective was Wolframite Mountain, but I had a decision to make how to get there. I could go back to the trail, which would be fast but longer, or I could go cross country, which would be slower but shorter. It seemed like a 55-45 decision, which seemed common on this trip. I chose cross country, so I could tag another peak, Barchester Towers, on the way.

I followed the southeast ridge of Pope over Barchester Towers, then plunge stepped down gentle snow slopes to the
Barchester-Wolframite col. I post holed up the gentle west slopes as the skies got darker. By the time I topped out around 2:15pm the mountains to the southwest were socked in the clouds and it was starting to snow. This wasn’t supposed to happen. The WRF forecast had predicted clear weather here until around 11pm. But I guess the clouds weren’t aware of that.

Interestingly, I saw two sets of fresh boot prints on the summit of Wolframite. I suspected they were the optimistic skiers, though I did not see any ski tracks. From the summit I considered regaining the trail, but decided instead to shave off some distance and go cross country. I descended to the northeast basin of Wolframite, then crossed just below a talus field and climbed up to the 7000ft col. From there I bushwhacked down to the Boundary trail.

The snow depth on the trail was just enough that I wished I’d brought snowshoes, so about shin deep. If these conditions kept up, I knew I would be in for a very long day. While I didn’t encounter any more human tracks to help with the trail breaking, I saw lots of animal tracks. Two sets of tracks, in particular, were on at least 10 miles of the boundary trail, and did help me a bit with postholing if I carefully stepped in them. I took pictures of them and later learned they were mountain lion and wolf tracks.

I soon crossed sheelite pass and started heading up the southwest slope of Bauerman Ridge just after a trailsign saying 10 miles to Horseshoe Basin (there was no intersection, so seemed weird for a trail sign to be there). Here the snow got deeper, up to knee deep, and progress was slow up the steep slope.

Eventually around 4:30pm I scrambled up the last rock outcrop to the summit of Bauerman Ridge. By then the skies had cleared, and it looked like the snow squalls were over for the time being. The sun was starting to get low on the horizon, which made for great views of the mountains to the west. It was neat to pick out the peaks I’d done the previous weekend. Andrew and Amos were easy to spot, and Sheep very prominently visible. Skeptical Butte and Bauble Butte were also in the background.

I had originally planned to drop back down to the trail, but the view was so good I decided to follow the ridge a bit farther. I postholed across the ridge through some very deep drifts, then dropped down to the col below Teapot Dome. I was very tempted to tag Teapot Dome for another bonus summit, but instead descended from there to the Boundary Trail. With all the postholing all day my pace was already much slower than I had hoped, and I was certain to be summitting the last two peaks in the dark. I needed to be as efficient as possible to even make it back to the trailhead that night, which was optimistic given I was only about half way done mileage-wise.

I continued hiking east on the Boundary trail, through tiring post holing. The mountain lion and wolf tracks continued, occasionally accompanied by deer tracks. Sunset caught me rounding the southeast ridge of Haig Mountain, where I got excellent views of Windy Peak catching the last rays of light to the south.

The snow seemed to get deeper as I rounded this corner, consistently to my upper shin. I really wished I’d brought skis or snowshoes. The trail was at times quite difficult to find in these conditions, but luckily the animals seemed to prefer the trail, or at least where they were used to the trail being, so their tracks were often pretty reliable.

I eventually rounded Rock Mountain to an open area of deep snow and cut across toward Horseshoe Pass. Luckily it was a nearly-full moon that night, and with the skies half clear I had excellent views of the surrounding peaks and my route ahead. I saw a big peak to my left, and at first thought that was the one on my list. But on looking at my map I realized it was Armstrong Peak, not Arnold, the one I intended to climb.

Just before Horseshoe Pass I left the trail (or at least the place where I suspected the trail was buried under all the snow) and started up the southwest slopes of Arnold. This was pretty tough trail breaking, what I’ve heard referred to as pie-crust snow by early Antarctic explorers. It’s the kind where some steps sink in deep, but others don’t sink at all, and the unpredictability makes things very difficult.

There were occasionally patches of melted-out grass on south aspects that helped, and by 10pm I crested the summit at a half-circle rock structure. As with all the summits but Apex, I didn’t see any summit register and figured it would be very difficult to find under all the snow.

I wandered around to make sure I absolutely tagged the true highest point on the broad summit, then plunge stepped back down. It’s worth noting that I was wearing trail runners and micro spikes through all the postholing and, other than my feet being wet, I had no problems. I think I managed to make this work because I never stopped moving for more than about 5-10 minute food breaks on the whole trip, so never let my feet cool off enough to be a problem.

I reached Horseshoe Pass around 10:30pm and took a break on a dry patch underneath a tree. I was running pretty low on food by that point, having underestimated the calories I’d be burning with so much postholing. I think I had one cookie, 2 bars, and half a bag of salty trail mix left to get me the remaining 25 miles back to the trailhead. Under that tree I seriously contemplated bivying for the night. It seemed like it would be so nice to just curl up and go to sleep, since I had already been going hard for 19 hours.

But then I remembered that the weather was supposed to be bad the next day. And that I was not really prepared to bivy in bad weather. I could probably wear all my layers and lay down on my pack, but I would likely just be doing situps and pushups all night to stay warm. If I wasn’t actually going to be sleeping, I figured I might as well be hiking while the weather was still good.

I soon started moving again, and broke trail up to a point just west of Horseshoe Mountain. From there I headed straight up the slope, postholing through difficult pie-crust snow, to reach the summit at 11:30pm. For some reason it seemed satisfying to have summitted each of the six peaks in the same day, which wouldn’t have happened if I were 30 minutes slower.

Just as I sat down to eat my last cookie I felt a few flakes of snow hit my face. The storm was coming in approximately when the WRF had expected, but luckily this was the last major above-treeline section of my planned trip. I quickly plunge-stepped back down into the trees as the snow picked up. My planned exit route was to hike south over Windy Peak, then drop down to the Cathedral Drive trailhead and meet back up with the Chewuch Trail.

I had two options, though. Trail 360 diverged just before hitting Windy Peak and went near Topaz mountain and back down to the Chewuch River. That had the advantage that it did not make me go above treeline at night in a snowstorm, but unfortunately it did not seem like a popular trail. One of my maps did not have it, and I hadn’t noticed it intersecting the Chewuch River trail on my hike in. I suspected it was at best abandoned and lightly used, which meant it would be impossible to find in the current snow conditions. So essentially, I would be choosing to bushwhack down if I tried to take that trail.

I generally find that bushwhacking at night is rarely faster than taking a trail. So I decided to go over Windy Peak, but may try to take shortcuts if possible to minimze being above treeline. I’d already climbed Windy Peak twice, so didn’t really feel like tagging it again in this situation.

Back on the trail I soon reached Sunny Pass and saw human footprints! I suspected they came up from the east end of the Boundary trail where there’s a trailhead 5 miles away. I followed the footprints on my intended route for about 10 minutes, but then they ended. About that time the snow intensity picked up and it was very difficult to see with my headlamp light reflecting off the falling snowflakes.

I lost the trail a few times, but eventually refound it. I was tempted to jut bushwhack, but remembered there would at least be fewer blowdowns on the trail. The trail descended to a swampy area, then started ascending to Windy Peak. At the northwest ridge of Windy Peak I got to an intersection that pointed to trail 306 around Topaz mountain. That trail looked like pure bushwhacking as I suspected, so I continued towards Windy Peak.

For some reason I thought I could take a shortcut around the west side of a bump on the ridge instead of taking the trail around the east side. This resulted in some spicy scrambling around some cliffs, which was probably not advisable at 3am in a snowstorm. I eventually regained the trail, then traversed around the peak at 7,700ft at the edge of intermittent treeline. I soon gained the southwest ridge of Windy Peak, a route I had taken before and was familiar with. This was pretty comforting, knowing that I would not be covering any new terrain between there and my car.

I plunge-stepped down the slope, and eventually found the trail next to windy creek. I followed the trail down until the snow ended around 5,500ft and turned into a cold rain. The trail then actually cut straight across to the Cathedral Drive trailhead, which I reached around 5am.

I took a short break under the outhouse roof to eat my last bar and take off my microspikes. It would have been very nice to have my car at that trailhead and just go to sleep, but I still had another 7 miles to hike back. I jogged down the Cathedral Driveway trail, and soon reached the Chewuch River trail, at the intersection I had passed about 24 hours earlier. The cold rain persisted as I hiked back the remaining 5 miles. I finally reached my car at the trailhead at 7:20am, just a bit after sunrise. I checked my GPS and had traveled 59 miles, which was a new personal best for me. Amazingly I didn’t have any blisters on my feet, and wasn’t even sore. I was pretty tired, though.

I quickly cooked up some ramen noodles for dinner (breakfast?), sheltered from the rain under the back hatch of the forester. I then threw out the sleeping bag and took a nap for two hours. By 11am I started driving back, and made it to Seattle at a reasonable hour.

Link to full trip report and pictures.
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