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Ascent of Cannon Mountain on 2020-02-02

Climber: Eric Gilbertson

Date:Sunday, February 2, 2020
Ascent Type:Successful Summit Attained
Peak:Cannon Mountain
    Location:USA-Washington
    Elevation:8638 ft / 2632 m

Ascent Trip Report

Enchantments: Cannon Mountain (8,638ft), McClellan Peak (8,364ft)

20 miles, 10,000ft gain

2:15am to 5:30pm, Eric Gilbertson (solo)

My favorite time of year to visit the Enchantments region is the winter, when the views are great but the summer crowds are gone. On one trip in September I had to hike in a mile along the road packed with parked cars just to get to the trailhead! But of a half dozen trips in the winter I’ve never seen another group.

Access to the Enchantments is much more difficult in the winter, however, with the last three miles of the mountaineers creek road to the Stuart Lake trailhead closed. Also, stable snow conditions are generally required to access the plateau. This past Sunday looked like stable snow conditions and sunny weather. I still had a few peaks in the core zone that I hadn’t yet climbed in winter, Cannon and McClellan, so planned a trip in.

On previous trips I’d climbed Cashmere, Colchuck, Dragontail, Little Annapurna (twice), and Enchantment as ski or snowshoe trips. This time the snow conditions were an interesting combination that made me decide to bring both skis and snowshoes. Saturday had been a rain event up to around 7,000ft, followed by a hard freeze Saturday night. So by Sunday morning I expected all low-elevation snow to be solid and icy, with possible powder conditions up high.

I decided to ski in on the road and flat trail, then use snowshoes and crampons up higher in case it was steep and icy. I planned to climb Cannon via the direct west ridge route which was the shortest route to the summit, though it did require some bushwhacking. One advantage of this route is the only steep avy-prone sections are down at or below treeline. These elevations would have very stable snow conditions after the Saturday rain event. The normal route up Asgard Pass seemed riskier to go solo since it was a steep slope closer to Saturday’s snowline elevation, and the route was longer.

Saturday night I slept in the car on Icicle Creek road at the plowed winter parking area, then was up and moving by 2:15am. I wanted to give myself enough time to tag McClellan if I was feeling motivated, so wanted to start early. I skinned from the car around the gate at the bridge and up the Mountaineer Creek road. It was icy with a small bit of powder on top so my skins could grip. There were a lot of post hole tracks and a few snowmobile tracks.

After 90 minutes or so I reached the Stuart Lake trailhead. The trail was broken by some postholes and I continued into the woods. After about a mile I reached the horse ford sign and turned left into the woods. I ditched my skis and ski boots behind a tree and changed into my mountaineering boots and snowshoes. I had contemplated just hiking up in ski boots, but both McClellan and Cannon have sketchy summit scrambles that I felt could be awkward in ski boots.

The terrain immediately got steep, and I was glad I had the snowshoes. It would have been too icy and steep to reasonably skin up, but the snow had a crust that I broke through in bare boots. Snowshoes were definitely the right tool for the job. I generally ascended southeast aiming for the basin between Cannon and Enchantment peak. I had studied the satellite images of the route and was prepared to cross a big snowfield around 4,500ft, but it was very melted out so was instead a tricky partially-filled-in talus field.

By 5,200ft I reached a steep section that I had heard from Ryan Stoddard’s peakbagger report was the site of an accident this past November on a steep cliffy section. Luckily the sky was just barely becoming light enough to see the features above me, and I picked out a reasonable route through the cliff band. I didn’t need to do any sketchy scrambling, just hiked up to some frozen waterfalls and cut right through the trees.

Above this band I entered a flat basin at 6,200ft and the snow got more powdery. I ascended the trees all the way to the west ridge of Cannon. The sun was rising on Stuart and Cashmere across the valley, making for great photos. In hindsight the region from 6,200ft to 7,500ft up that slope would have been very fun glade skiing in powder snow.

Once on the ridge the snow got icier and wind scoured with rocks pointing through. I eventually switched to crampons and scrambled up 3rd class boulders and kicked steps up some steep rime ice sections. By 9:30am I finally crested the end of the ridge at the base of the famous summit boulder. This would be the crux of the climb on Cannon, a big boulder on the very summit that required some semi-exposed slab scrambling. I’d done this scramble in the summer, and it was fairly easy in my trail runners on dry rock. I’d also done the scramble in snowy october conditions in hiking boots. I remember that being kind of sketchy but doable.

This time would be full-on winter summit conditions and I wasn’t sure what to expect. I’d heard of experienced mountaineers retreating from the summit block in November. I also could not find any reports of winter ascents of Cannon, so wasn’t sure what to expect. (There are many reports of skiers skiing the Cannon Couloir, some in winter, but none of anyone continuing on to do the summit scramble which is a nontrivial distance from the couloir).

The first condition I noted was that snow had filled in much of the base of the boulder, making the exposure less than I had recalled compared to September or October. It was still enough to make a fall unadvisable, though. But most of the boulder was plastered in a thin layer of verglass and rime. The rest of the boulder had a bit of snow dusting, but the holds were exposed.

I took off my pack and started up. With my left foot I delicately balanced my crampon points on a few little features of the slab, while I slowly pushed my right crampon points a quarter inch into the rime, careful not to knock any ice off. I pushed my left palm down on features and balanced with my right. After a few moves I reached the summit, and snapped a few pictures.

The way down was a bit sketchier, but I delicately reversed my moves and made it back to my pack. I took a quick food break and surveyed the surrounding peaks. It was a great view of the Enchantments, with Stuart and the Sherpa Balanced Rock in bright sunshine.

I looked over toward McClellan, and was encouraged by the snow features. The standard route up McClellan goes up a steep but short snow slope on the north face, and requires stable snow conditions in the winter. I saw what looked to be rocks poking out down low, and icy debris on the slopes. If the slopes had slid Saturday during the rain event, they would likely be very solid today. My view was from a distance, but it looked encouraging enough for me to check it out. I had plenty of time left in the day, and thought at the very least I ought to enjoy the sunshine in the enchantments more instead of turning back.

I plunge stepped down to the plateau east of Cannon, then descended an icy ridge off the plateau. When the terrain leveled I switched to snowshoes and hiked over to Prussik Pass, then descended to Leprechaun Lake. Much of this terrain would have been skiable, but much of it was also very icy. I followed the ridge just east of the lake all the way to the base of the north face of McClellan. I had taken this north face route in September and in October, and both times it was an easy 3rd class scramble to the ridge, then another 3rd class scramble to the summit. This time the whole north face was a big snowfield.

McClellan Peak was climbed in winter for the first time in 1958 and I assume it was from this same north face route. Luckily for me the snow was icy and solid, as I had hoped. I stopped at a boulder at the base of the snowfield and switched to crampons. I marched up some icy bits, then as the slope steepened I started frontpointing. The conditions were mostly perfect snice, with easy but solid dagger placements of my whippet and solid crampon kicks a few inches in. The slope was solid enough that I wasn’t worried about stability, but soft enough that I wasn’t too worried about falling.

I quickly climbed up to the ridge, then hiked around to the summit block. It was icier and snowier than I remembered, but a bit less sketchy than the Cannon summit boulder. I ditched my poles at the base of the scramble, and carefully started up. I had to make a few moves balancing my crampon frontpoints on some slabby features, but then reached some thin rime to kick into. Eventually I weaved around to more solid boulder features, and topped out just before noon.

I had another great view of the whole enchantments area, though low-level clouds were building to the south and pushing into the edge of the plateau. I took a 5-minute food break, then carefully downclimbed back to my poles. From there I retraced my route to the top of the north face, then downclimbed facing in and using my footholds from the ascent.

Back at the pack I loaded up my snowshoes then marched down the icy slopes back to Leprechaun Lake. I had a bit of a dilemma at the lake. I really wanted to hike out down Asgard Pass to make a loop and reduce elevation gain. My plan to hike out the way I’d come in meant I’d have to go up and over Cannon Mountain again. Asgard was about 1,000ft lower, and would require zero bushwhacking on the way out.

However, it wasn’t certain that the snow on Asgard would be as stable as on the north face of McClellan. Even if it were, it might be a sheet of ice that I would have to down climb facing in, like on McClellan. Either way, if I’d have no way of knowing til I got there, and by that point it would be late enough in the day I’d feel pressured to descend it anyways. If I just returned the same way I’d come it might be longer and harder, but I knew exactly what the conditions were and that they were safe.

I reluctantly headed back the way I’d come. I snowshoed back up to Prussik Pass, across a lake, then up my steps to Cannon. I walked around the base of the summit boulder but didn’t bother to climb it again. So by a margin of about 10 ft I only climbed Cannon once, not twice on the trip. At the boulder I switched to crampons and scrambled back down the west ridge, then plunge stepped down to the 6,200ft gully. I followed my tracks down through the cliff band and reached my skis at 4:30pm.

I quickly switched to ski boots, strapped on the skis, and started gliding down. The snow was very icy and it was tough work controlling my speed. The trail was a postholed trench so it was best to stay to the side. Unfortunately there were a significant number of slight uphill sections on the way out, but the iciness allowed me to mostly push myself up them with my poles. I occasionally had to take the skis off though. I reached the trailhead a bit before 5pm, then zipped down the road in about 20 minutes, reaching the car a bit before I would have needed the headlamp.

The whole trip I didn’t see a single other person, which would be unfathomable in spring, summer, or fall. But that’s pretty normal in the winter in the Enchantments.

Link to full trip report and pictures.
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