Ascent of Mount Bigelow on 2020-01-20
|Date:||Monday, January 20, 2020|
|Ascent Type:||Successful Summit Attained|
| Elevation:||8440 ft / 2572 m|
Ascent Trip ReportMount Bigelow (8,440ft), Switchback Mountain (8,321ft), Martin Peak (8,375ft)
Possible First Winter Ascents
Fred and Eric, Jan 19-20, 2020
32 miles, 9,000ft gain
I’m working on climbing Bulgers in the winter and it looked like a weather window in the Sawtooth area of eastern washington for the weekend. Interestingly, as far as I’d researched, Bigelow, Switchback, and Martin peaks had not been climbed in winter. I had climbed them solo in late March 2016, but it was technically spring then by about a week. I’d climbed all the peaks other times in the summer and fall, so was pretty familiar with the terrain.
In January 2019 Jake and I had climbed Raven Ridge, which shares much of the same approach. On that trip we verified that the road is plowed to within about a mile of the national forest boundary, and there is a plowed parking area, meaning it is not necessary to park at the South Fork Gold
Creek sno-park. Unfortunately the regular summer trailheads do not become accessible by car until the snow melts out in May. In the winter they are only accessible by foot or snowmobile from that plowed pullout.
We planned do a big 32 mile loop to hit all three peaks. We would go up the foggy dew road and access Switchback via Merchant Basin. We’d then follow the ridge to Martin and descend to camp at Boiling Lake. Then we would ascend the west ridge of Bigelow, return to camp, and ski out via horse head pass to the crater lake trailhead. This route avoided avy terrain by sticking to low-angle slopes or ridges.
Saturday evening we left town and made it to the pullout on the North Fork Gold Creek road about 4 hours later. After probably not enough sleep we were skiing up the unplowed road the next morning at 3:30am. I often like to pull my gear in a plastic sled expedition-style on the flat roads, but it didn’t really make sense on this trip. The road had not been packed down by snowmobiles since saturday’s snowstorm, which made pulling the sled a bit more difficult. And since we were doing a loop, we couldn’t pull sleds the whole way to the end of the road since we were going in and out different trailheads. We packed light, though, so it was no problem just carrying all the gear on our backs.
We took turns breaking trail and reached the Foggy Dew trailhead a few hours later. It was funny to see a sign at the trailhead warning of winter conditions ahead. I think it was put there during an early-season storm last September, though it was technically still correct in January.
The trail was reasonably easy to follow with only a few tricky blowdowns to negotiate. It was soon light enough to not need headlamps, and a few patches of blue sky even appeared. By noon we arrived at Merchant’s Basin. I had thought a backup plan in case the snow conditions had been more difficult would be to camp at the edge of treeline in the basin. But we were making fast enough progress that it seemed we could get up and over Switchback and Martin before sunset.
Unfortunately the visibility was deteriorating and the summits were socked in the clouds. But navigation would be straightforward since we were mostly following ridges, so we weren’t too concerned. We skinned up to the col on the southeast ridge of Switchback, then roughly followed the ridge to the summit. The ridge was scoured of snow, with many rocks and bushes sticking out. It was snowing lightly and a bit windy, but not too bad.
We topped out around 2pm, and took a break to reassess our plan. Our hopes of skiing from the summit were dashed when we looked at the ridge below. It was much rockier than I had remembered in late March, and I guess it was still early in the winter season and snow hadn’t filled in the gaps yet. We reluctantly strapped the skis to our packs and started hiking down the north ridge.
At the col the snow was deep enough that we put skis back on and began following the ridge. The waves of sastrugi snow were sometimes challenging, and ice was developing on the windward side of my sunglasses making visibility difficult. Clouds were thick and daylight waning, with maybe 150ft visibility. We continued north on the ridge, at times removing skis on the bony sections, and carefully navigating the steep dropoffs. About 100ft below Martin we strapped skis to our packs and scrambled up the final boulders, topping out around 4pm.
As before, the summit rocks were not filled in enough to be skiable. Fred led the way booting down the north ridge. The going was slow with the partially filled-in boulders. I had originally planned to go to the Martin-Cheops Col, but we found a more direct line straight down to the west on boulders, soon gaining treeline on a broad ridge.
In the dimming light we strapped the skis on our feet on got in our first turns of the trip, dropping around 1,000ft. As the terrain leveled out around 6,900ft we put on headlamps and traversed around the west end of the west spur of Cheops. We then put skins on and ascended the Middle Fork Prince Creek up to Boiling Lake by 6:30pm for a tough 15-hour day. I’m not sure how the Boiling Lake got its name, but it unfortunately wasn’t hot. It was very solidly frozen over.
We quickly got to work melting a bunch of snow and setting up camp. We were going ultralight with a megamid and
bivy sacks. By 8:30pm we were all packed up ready for bed.
Monday morning dawned much more clear than Sunday, with all the summits out of the clouds. Our objective for the day was Bigelow, and we left camp with light packs around 7:45am aiming for Hoodoo Pass. We made a gradual rising traverse around the west face of Bigelow, then found some good trees to zig zag up through a bit before the pass. The snow reached all the way to the northwest ridge of Bigelow around 8,100ft before changing to a wind-scoured boulderfield.
We ditched the skis at the edge of the boulders and scrambled up to the summit by 9:30am. This time the view was spectacular. We could see glacier peak, and entiats, and tons of snowy mountains to the west. To the east was a magnificent undercast sheltering frosty trees in the valleys. There was hardly any wind and the sun was even poking out, making for a much more pleasant summit experience than we’d had on Martin and Switchback.
We hung out for a while, then scrambled back to our skis. After I fixed a minor boot issue we started skiing down. It started out icy on the ridge, but soon turned to fun powder. We generally followed our tracks back all the way to camp.
By 11am we were packed up and moving. I was glad we had decided to do a loop and not go back up and over Martin and Switchback as I had originally considered. I broke trail up to Horse Head Pass, then we skied down the east side. We tried hard to stay high to avoid transitions, but eventually got cliffed out above Eagle Lake. We had to do one more transition to skin back up to near 7,100ft and finally regained the trail.
From there it was easy skiing on the gradually-descending grade for miles. We only occasionally had to side step uphill, but it was mostly smooth skiing. Surprisingly, we saw what looked like some old ski tracks closer to the Crater Lake intersection, though we hadn’t seen them up higher. Not sure where they went.
Eventually we reached the Crater Creek trailhead around 3pm. We had been hoping a snowmobile might have come up to pack down the snow, but unfortunately that was not the case. The travel was still much faster than on the trail, though. We quickly glided down the first 4 miles until the gradient decreased and the snow warmed up. Down near the North Fork Gold Creek intersection the snow got very dense and sloppy, making progress difficult.
Unfortunately there were still no fresh snowmobile tracks, so we continued breaking trail on the flats and gliding slowly on the descents. We eventually reached the Foggy Dew turnoff and found a set of snowshoe tracks. They had actually compacted our ascent tracks even more, which made our skiing out much faster. We glided and pushed ourselves out the remaining mile, reaching the car just in time for me to not need our headlamp. We soon packed up and were back to Seattle at a reasonable hour.
Link to full trip report and pictures.
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