Ascent of Windy Peak on 2020-01-25

Climber: Eric Gilbertson

Date:Saturday, January 25, 2020
Ascent Type:Successful Summit Attained
Peak:Windy Peak
    Elevation:8333 ft / 2539 m

Ascent Trip Report

Windy Peak (8,333ft), Horseshoe Mountain (7,956ft), Armstrong Mountain (8,117ft), Arnold Mountain (8,091ft)

Sat Jan 25 12:45am to Sun Jan 26 8:15am (31.5 hours continuous moving)

Eric and Fred, 53 miles, 10,000ft gain

Back in October I’d done a big loop to hit some Washington top 200 peaks in the Pasayten Wilderness, but I’d accidentally forgotten to hit one peak, Armstrong Mountain. It would have only been a ~1 mile detour, but I didn’t know it was on the official list, so skipped it. (The trip ended up being 59 miles in a 29-hour push, mostly postholing through snow fresh snow).

It’s not known for certain whether the true summit of Armstrong is the point in the US or the point just across the border in Canada, and this location would determine whether or not the peak qualifies for the Washington top 200 list. It’s recommended to climb both points just in case.

Fred is working on Washington top 200 peaks, so we teamed up, planning to climb a few other top 200 peaks nearby (Horseshoe and Arnold), then try to get a winter ascent of Windy Peak, a Bulger peak. Interestingly, while Windy Peak has been climbed in winter at least once (By Don Duncan in December 2000), I couldn’t find any records of winter ascents of the other peaks.

One reason may be that access to this remote corner of the Pasayten Wilderness becomes considerably more difficult in the winter when the roads to access the trailheads are snowed over and undriveable. We considered several trailheads in the area and settled on the Iron Gate trailhead. We confirmed with a call to the Kwik mart in Loomis that the road would likely be driveable to the South Junction Campground on Toats Coulee road. This would mean a 14-mile approach to the trailhead, and we hoped the road might be packed down by snowmobilers.

The iron gate trailhead would give us the most direct access to Sunny Pass, which was in the middle of our planned group of peaks and we might use as a base camp if we decided to bivy. The Boundary Trail to Sunny Pass also appeared from satellite images mostly out of burn zones which affected trails farther west, so we hoped the Boundary Trail might be the least affected by blowdowns to access the area.

The weekend looked like marginal weather most places except the northeast corner of the cascades (sort of). Our planned route completely avoided avy terrain, and I had verified that most of these peaks were doable in bad weather at night in the snow from my october 2019 trip, so they seemed doable with the given forecast. We thought it would be fun to hit all the peaks in one long car-to-car trip without camping, but given the uncertainty in our trail-breaking speed over so many miles we brought along some light bivy gear just in case we needed to break the trip into two days.

Friday night we drove to Loomis, then continued to Toats Coulee road. The road was completely snow free just outside of Loomis, then the snow depth gradually increased as we drove farther. The road was plowed until around 2,400ft, then still barely driveable until the South Fork Junction Campground at about 2700ft when it got too deep. We found a wide area on the side to park for the night and were asleep in the car by 10pm.

After a two-hour nap we got up at midnight and were skinning up the road by 12:45am. Luckily the road was packed down from snowmobiles and progress was much faster than last weekend when we were breaking trail on the road to Bigelow, Martin, and Switchback. The skies were clear as a brief lull between storms started. The weather was forecast to be snowy during the day Saturday, with a short break Saturday evening, followed by a bigger storm starting Sunday morning. We hoped by starting early maybe we could do the trip in one push and beat the Sunday storm.

We skinned up about 8 miles to the Iron Gate turnoff. By then all the snowmobile tracks had turned around except
one set that luckily continued up our intended route. We followed the tracks another two miles until they stopped and we were forced to start breaking trail. Our speed was immediately cut in half. We took turns breaking trail, and it was pretty tough going. My skis are kind of skinny, which is great for saving weight and skiing icy summits, but not great for deep snow. I tended to sink in pretty deep, even going in tracks after Fred had broken trail.

Sunrise finally came when we were near Hodges Horse hill. We transitioned to skiing to descend a few hundred feet to the trailhead, where we took our first break. We soon started on the Boundary Trail. It gradually descended and traversed to Clutch Creek, then started ascending. Unfortunately there were quite a few blowdowns in the mile before and after Clutch Creek. We got pretty efficient at the half dozen methods of getting past the blowdowns. There’s knees on skis crawling forward, taking pack off and ducking under, taking skis off and climbing over, sideways alternating skis over, sideways roll over, carefully tiptoe over, and probably more.

Eventually the blowdowns ended and we skinned up open forest to Sunny Pass by noon. There had been a few snow showers in the morning but by noon patches of clear sky were materializing. We dropped our bivy gear at the pass, then started skinning up Horseshoe Mountain. I had already climbed this one last October, but decided to climb it again anyways. We skinned up low angle slopes, eventually getting socked in a whiteout near the top.

We were able to ski directly on top of the summit cairn, which was plastered in rime ice. From there we got our first real turns of the trip, skiing west directly down to the Boundary Trail. We then descended to Horseshoe Pass, transitioned to skins, and started ascending Armstrong. The clouds began parting as we zigzagged up the south ridge, and we got amazing views of the setting sun in the Pasayten below us.

We tagged the southeast summit, then skied over to the border marker, a metal obelisk marking the US-Canada
border. Just on the Canadian side we skied up the northern summit, skiing all the way to the top of the rime-covered summit cairn. I regretted forgetting my surveyor’s sight level to take measurements of which peak was taller. Though, with clouds rolling in and out and visibility not great I’m not sure the measurements would have been too reliable anyways.

After changing to ski mode we started making turns back down the south ridge. Some pesky rocks were hiding under the snow and Fred took a nasty fall when some grabbed his skis (skiers refer to these as sharks). After that we decided he would avoid Windy peak since he’d already done it. We weren’t sure how fast we’d be able to move out with Fred being banged up, so we decided he would just tag Arnold (since it was right there) while I would skip Arnold and just get Windy solo. I’d already climbed Arnold and was more interested in getting a winter ascent of a Bulger peak.

Windy was kind of far away, adding 8 miles round trip, so I estimated I would get back to Windy Pass at least 4 or 5 hours after Fred did. He could use that time to take a nap with the bivy gear we brought. Then when I returned we would decided whether we wanted to do an official bivy or just ski directly out.

I got back to Sunny Pass a bit after sunset, then quickly melted a few liters of snow for drinking water and cooked up some ramen noodles. I got too impatient for the water to boil, though, so just ate crunchy warm noodles. By 6:45pm I began my trip to Windy. This reminded me a lot of my trip in October. On that trip I was at Sunny Pass around midnight postholing through the deep snow solo in a developing snowstorm. I hiked most of the way up windy, but decided to skip it at 3am and instead make progress back to my car down at the 30-mile trailhead.

This time I would also be ascending solo in the dark in the snow, but would have skis instead of no flotation, and the weather wasn’t bad (yet). I descended the west face of Pick Peak through mostly open trees, carefully making turns that I could follow back when I returned. I descended from the pass at 7,200ft to a saddle at 6,600ft to pick up the Windy Peak trail, carefully checking my GPS to make sure I was on route. I then put the climbing skins on for the ascent. As I stepped off my skis I actually sank in up to my waist in the snow! It would have been impossible to make progress without flotation.

I skinned up roughly following the windy peak trail, though it was impossible to tell where the trail was exactly in the snow. I eventually reached treeline, then skirted around two local maxima north of windy. After a rising traverse up the icy northwest face I finally reached the summit block just before 10pm. The final rock outcrop was covered in rime ice and too sketchy to ski, so I ditched my skis 10ft below the summit and made the final scramble up at 10pm.

Just about then I noticed the stars were no longer visible and there was a lot of moisture in my headlamp beam, like I was in a cloud. It appeared the sunday storm was perhaps coming in a bit earlier than forecast. I scrambled down to my skis and started making turns. I shredded through big rime ice feathers at the top, then through icy faces and finally to some thin powdery snow. I had to weave through boulders at the top, then reached more open terrain. It was pretty thrilling to be doing this at night in such a remote place above treeline.

I had to side step uphill in a few places to skirt the local maxima north of Windy, then reached treeline. The snow was fun powder skiing below treeline as I followed my tracks back down to the 6,600ft saddle. From there I put skins back on and skinned up my tracks back to Sunny Pass, arriving at midnight on the dot.

Fred was taking a nap in his bivy sack, having been there since around 8pm. It was snowing and kind of windy, and we agreed we would head immediately out instead of setting up camp. We were concerned significant snow might cover our up tracks and make for much slower going on the flat parts of the exit. There was also a chance of rain reaching a high elevation with the warm storm, and we wanted to avoid getting stuck in that.

I melted a few liters of water as Fred packed up, and we were soon skiing out. We got in some very fun turns in the powder below Sunny Pass, then scooted and skied our way down the Boundary Trail to the blowdown area around Clutch Creek. From there we put on skins and got to repractice our techniques of crawling over and under blowdowns again.

By around 4:15am we finally reached the iron gate trailhead and took an official break. I sat down to eat a cliff bar, and noted this was the second time I had actually sat down on the entire trip. It felt pretty good. On all the other breaks I guess I had just eaten while standing.

We continued skinning up the trail until it reached a crest, then took the skins off and started skiing. Unfortunately I think the people who built this road did not have skiers in mind. Instead of going continuously down, it was interspersed with long flat sections and a few uphill sections. So we still had a tough job scooting and pushing out, with occasional fun skiing.

Finally we reached the snowmobile track and started making good time. One of my friends calls this “magic carpet skiing” (where you just stand on seemingly flat terrain but somehow glide forward). This lasted until we reached FS 39, which was unfortunately very flat. We unhinged our heels and kicked, glided, and scooted our way along the road for a few hours. The last few miles eventually got steep enough to ski, just after the sun officially rose for the second time on our trip.

By 8:15am we made the final turns down the road and at last reached the car. It had been a long 31.5 hours of almost continuous skiing and my feet were very eager to get out of the ski boots. We quickly threw the gear in the car and set out sleeping bags for a much-needed nap.

Unfortunately after just an hour of sleeping I was woken up by a lot of commotion outside. Some snowmobilers had arrived and were unloading their sleds right next to our car. They knocked on the door to check up on us, understandably concerned about a non-truck vehicle with people sleeping in it way out there at 9:30am. I assured them we were ok and thanked them for their concern. It was too noisy to get any sleep, so we packed up and headed out, arriving back in Seattle at a reasonable hour.

Link to full trip report and pictures.
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