Ascent of Gray Peak on 2019-10-26

Climber: Eric Gilbertson

Date:Saturday, October 26, 2019
Ascent Type:Successful Summit Attained
Peak:Gray Peak
    Elevation:8082 ft / 2463 m

Ascent Trip Report

Buttermilk Ridge (8,267ft), Courtney (8,392ft), Gray (8,082ft), Baldy (7,810ft), Finney (8,110ft), Cheops (8,270ft), Beefhide (8,030ft), Seance (8,067ft)

48 miles

14,500ft gain

12:15am – 10:15pm (22 hours moving)

I had Saturday free to go for a hike, but needed to be back in town by Saturday night. I was excited to get into the Sawtooth range to climb some more Washington top 200 peaks, and decided on a loop to hit seven of them. The weather was supposed to be sunny and snow cover looked surprisingly not very deep or widespread for this time of year, so I planned to go for a big day.

Friday evening I drove out east to Twisp, then up the West Fork Buttermilk Road. I got to a point about 3 miles from the trailhead at 7:30pm, then was stopped by a big tree fallen across the road. It had been very windy all day – I even got a text message alert of dangerous conditions in Leavenworth – and I think the wind must have brought the tree down very recently. The tree was too big to push out of the way, and too well-connected to the roots to pull out with my tow straps. I had a hatchet but that would have taken forever. There was a cliff on the right and a steep dropoff on the left, so no way to drive around.

I cursed myself for not throwing my mountain bike in the car, even though I had considered it. It would be possible to hike from there, but my itinerary was already supposed to be over 40 miles, and adding an extra 6 round trip was not appealing given my time constraints.

On my map, though, I saw that if I drove back to Carlton and up the Libby Creek road it would connect to the same trailhead I wanted, the West Fork Buttermilk Trailhead (somehow I overlooked an even more direct road). There was no way that road could be blocked too, I thought.

So I turned around and drove back to Carlton and up Libby Creek. Sure enough, about 10 miles from my trailhead I found another big tree freshly fallen across the road. It was looking like I might have to modify my plans. I would at least give a shot at removing this tree, though. I quickly got out my tow straps to go connect to the tree, but on close inspection I found a critical crack in the tree body. I pushed hard and managed to break the end off the tree.

The tree still spanned well across the road, but now I was able to clear some brush from the side and drive around. I called this bushwhack driving but aside from some wheel slippage in the mud the forester had no problem.

By 9pm, after clearing out 3 more minor trees I reached the trailhead. Unsurprisingly I was the only one there. I
crawled into my sleeping bag at 9:30pm and tried to sleep, but there was a mouse in the car chewing on things, and it took me a while to actually fall asleep with the noise.

I wanted to get an extra early start since I needed to be back to Seattle Saturday night, so got up at 11:45pm and was moving by 12:15am. Somehow those ~2 hours of sleep had left me ready to hike. I decided to go in my hiking boots with microspikes given the cold temperatures and the possibility of needing to kick steps up some steep slopes. Also, my trail runners had gotten pretty beat up over the past few weeks and my toes stuck out holes in the front.

I cruised up the West Fork Buttermilk trail for a few hours until I hit snowline. There appeared to be human tracks from the past few weeks that made it very easy to follow the trail. I switched to microspikes then left the trail around 7,200ft to bushwhack up my first summit, Buttermilk Ridge. I hiked through easy snowy terrain up to the Courtney-Buttermilk col, then scrambled up the southwest ridge to the Buttermilk summit. It was about 3am, cold, and windy, but still clear out. Unfortunately there was no moon, so I could only see the dim outline of surrounding peaks by starlight. I found a summit register in a black PVC pipe, but it was frozen shut.

I scrambled back down to the col, then scrambled up the northeast ridge of Courtney. I’d already climbed Courtney twice before when working on the Bulgers (washington 100 highest), but it was on the way to my next peak so made sense to tag it again. There were faint footprints in the snow near the summit, and I wondered if this was Luke Helgeson, who logged an ascent on Oct 12 on peakbagger. There was no register on Courtney, but I did find a horseshoe on top.

From Courtney I descended the west ridge, passing over some steep slabby sections that seemed sketchy in the dark and snow. At the Gray-Courtney col the terrain changed from scrambly talus to easy frozen scree hiking. I soon hiked up to the summit of Gray and took a break. This time I signed in on a pink register and recognized some familiar names from September.

It was still well before sunrise, and I descended back to the col in a strong cold wind. From the col I made a
descending traverse across frozen scree and snow slopes to just below Star Lake. Here the snow got deeper and I was sinking in up to my lower shins. I had decided not to bring snowshoes because NOHRSC was showing a majority of my route would be little or no snow cover, and the extra weight of the snowshoes sounded more energy-sapping than a bit of postholing. (That would turn out to be very incorrect).

I broke trail along the summit trail to the pass southeast of Star. The sun was finally just starting to rise across Switchback and Martin peaks to the east. From the pass I broke through some cornices and traversed along the ridge to the top of Baldy Mountain. This peak wasn’t on the top 200 list, but it made sense to follow the ridge since it was along the way to my next objective, Finney Peak.

I kept following the ridge until I found a good spot to drop down into the 6800ft basin above Surprise Lake. Around 8:30am I ascended to a small frozen tarn at 7,100ft and stopped for my first food break of the trip. It seemed like, given the snow conditions and my pace, I was still on target to get back to the trailhead by 7pm, which was my goal.

After eating a breakfast sandwhich, some cheese, and a cliff bar I resumed breaking trail. The snow got up to knee deep but I powered up to the saddle just north of Finney Peak. I’d read reports from Eric Eames and Bryan Kraai that the west side of Finney was the line of least resistance to the summit, so I tried to follow their routes.

Unfortunately that meant an indirect route for me with additional elevation gain. I had to drop down the west side of the saddle, then wrap around to the west side of the peak. I scrambled up the snow- and talus-filled west gully and reached the summit around 10am. It’s hard to tell which peak on the ridge is exactly the highest, but the summit register is on the west peak, and the team that placed it said they used a surveyer’s level to measure the west one 1-2ft higher.

The views from the top were excellent, with the larches still mostly yellow and fresh snow all around. I could even see Lake Chelan to the west. My next objective, Cheops, looked awfully far away, though. I figured most of the miles would be on trail so shouldn’t be too bad. But the clear skies of the morning were getting overtaken by snowstorms coming in from deeper in the cascades in the direction of Goode and Storm King. I hoped they wouldn’t be too strong.

I returned down the gully, back up to the saddle, then took a bit less sketchy snow descent route to my breakfast lake. After filling up water I bushwhacked back down to the 1249 trail above Surprise Lake. There was shin-deep postholing that decreased as I descended, until the trail was completely snow free below 6,000ft. Around 5,600ft I reached a shelter and stopped for another food break at 11:30am.

Progress was still pretty fast, and I was moving again by 11:45am. I had been on this trail before, in late September 2018 doing a 50-mile day-hike of Oval Peak from the Foggy Dew trailhead to get around fire closures, so the area was still familiar to me.

I descended below the shelter, then started climbing again, eventually hitting snow line. I post holed up to a ridge at 7,000ft, crossed over to the south side, and was relieved that the trail became momentarily melted out down to the dirt. Around the corner I could see Switchback, Martin, and Cheops, my next objective. I jogged down to Middle Fork Prince Creek where the snow materialized again in the shade.

I filled up water in the creek, then powered through the deep snow up to the pass just west of Cheops by 2:30pm. It was very cold and windy, but I was burning a ton of energy struggling through the snow so kept warm. The scramble up the ridge from the col was pretty fun, and I topped out on Cheops soon after. I’d been to the base of Cheops a handful of times on other trips but never tagged it, but it was nice to have an excuse to return to the area again.

I had entertained thoughts of tagging Switchback, Martin, and Bigelow if I were ahead of schedule since they were so close, but the snow was slowing me down too much for that to make sense. So instead I scrambled back down to the col and dropped down to Boiling Lake.

From the frozen tarn I headed toward Hoodoo Pass, trying to stay on south facing slopes to minimize snow depth. Just before the pass I powered through deep and steep snow up to point 8010 to the west of the pass. Interestingly, I encountered what looked like a horse trail near the summit on the melted-out southwest scree slopes. I think it traversed down to Dry Lake.

I stayed high on the icy snow, though. Unfortunately both my microspikes had broken in all the intermittent ice-
rock-dirt terrain, so I had to rely on kicking steps. I followed the ridge northwest until I topped out on Beefhide Butte at 5pm. It looked like I might still be on schedule to get back if the ridge to my last peak, Seance, were easy. However, the ridge from Beefhide to Seance looked much sketchier in reality than what I had inferred from topo maps, satellite images, and Google Earth. It looked like a sharp, exposed knife-edge.

To get to Seance I had to descend the southwest ridge of Beefhide, the opposite direction I wanted to go, then near point 6784 descend into the basin west of Beefhide. From there I postholed up the basin to the southwest slopes of Seance. I topped out at 6:45pm, just as the sun was setting. The skyline to the west was brilliantly lit up in red, with the outline of Bonanza and the Entiat range in the distance.

I ate a quick cliff bar, then started my descent. I had planned to take what looked like easy north slopes down and bushwhack back to the west fork buttermilk trail. However, it was too dark to discern a good route. The north slopes looked too steep and icy to go down without crampons or microspikes.

I ended up hiking to the point on the ridge northwest of Seance and trying to scramble down the blocky northeast ridge from there. Soon, though, I got cliffed out. I then traversed exposed snow slopes to gain a gully coming down. The snow was soft in the gully and I plunge stepped down until I encountered a small ice step. The terrain eased below it, so I carefully downclimbed using just the bare rock around the ice. I jumped down to the snow, then continued plunge stepping.

Eventually I reached the trees, where I’d hoped my speed would increase. But unfortunately the fires last year must have reached this area, because there were tons of downed trees. My progress was pretty slow as I crawled under, over, and around them in the snow by the light of my dimming headlamp. I followed a stream down until it converged with the main branch of the west fork buttermilk. From there I bushwhacked up the other side and finally reached the trail at 9:15pm.

I jogged down the trail and emerged at the trailhead at 10:15pm. I checked my fitbit and I had done 104,000 steps and 48 miles. It would have been smart to just sleep right there, but I’d promised I’d be back to Seattle that night, so reluctantly started driving.

Luckily there were no more trees over the road and I was able to drive around the major blowdown like before. I topped off gas in Twisp, at a sandwhich, then drove back to Seattle, arriving around 3:45am.

Link to full trip report and pictures.
Summary Total Data

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