Ascent of Luahna Peak on 2021-01-23

Climber: Eric Gilbertson

Date:Saturday, January 23, 2021
Ascent Type:Successful Summit Attained
Peak:Luahna Peak
    Elevation:8400 ft / 2560 m

Ascent Trip Report

Luahna Peak (8,400ft) and Clark Mountain (8,602ft)

Probable First Winter Ascent of Luahna

Eric Gilbertson and Ryan Stoddard

Jan 22-23, 2021

22 miles by foot, 7 miles snowmobiling

Clark and Luahna are two remote Bulger peaks in the Glacier Peak Wilderness. Back in December Ryan had climbed Clark Mountain but still needed to go back and get Luahna. I had previously climbed Clark and Luahna in late October 2017 but was looking to go back and get winter ascents of them. I’d researched Clark had been climbed once in winter (January 2014) but Luahna was apparently unclimbed in winter. Both peaks have unavoidable avy terrain to reach their summits, so required stable snow.

Luckily Saturday was forecast to have both stable snow and sunny skies, so we decided to go for both peaks. There are two main routes to get to the summits – either via the glaciated northeast slopes or the scramble routes on the southwest sides. Earlier in the week I had been nearby a few valleys to the east climbing Seven Fingered Jack and Maude and found the snow very icy below 5,500ft with breakable crust above that. Skis didn’t really make sense to use there until above 6,500ft. I expected similar conditions on Luahna and Clark since hardly any new snow had fallen since that trip. I was also reluctant to do prolonged skiing through icy tree wells at low elevation since I’d cracked a ski in half doing that last year.

Given that the approach was pretty far for Clark and Luahna, and we’d probably have to carry skis on our backs most of the trip if we brought them, we decided it would be faster and take less energy to just plan to snowshoe the whole trip. Given that we’d be wearing snowshoes, we decided to avoid the glacier routes so we could avoid the weight of glacier gear and take a shorter route on the southwest. Also, I was very familiar with this route in similar conditions since I’d previously used this route in late October when it was snow covered from trailhead to summit.

For the approach the Volken ski guide book notes that the road is plowed in winter to the Tall Timber Ranch, which is 4 miles from the trailhead. I hoped to use my snowmobile for those 4 miles. It would only save a little bit of time (maybe a few hours), but would save a lot of energy so should be worth it. However, Ryan remembered back in December the first few miles of road had been groomed for cross country skiing near the lodge. I was nervous about getting in trouble for messing up a groomed ski trail with my snowmobile, so emailed the lodge to ask. They said they aren’t grooming it now so I’d be permitted to snowmobile on it.

Ryan remembered some big blowdowns on the road, though, so we planned to bring skis just in case the road was impassable for the snowmobile. That way we could at least ski the road and then snowshoe for the rest of the trip. I would bring my axe in case the blowdowns were small enough to clear out.

We debated whether to do a big car-2-car trip or overnight. A single push would have the advantage of requiring less weight, but would also be trickier with timing and allow for less sleeping. I was nervous about the uncertainty of our speed on the approach road with the snowmobile maybe not even being useful if there was a major blowdown early on. So that meant if we did a single push we’d have to start Friday evening and pull an all-nighter friday night in order to get the summits before the weather came in Saturday night. We decided instead to bring bivy gear and bivy a few hours Friday night at the Boulder Creek Junction. We would leave our bivy gear there to give us the option of returning the way we’d come or dropping directly down to Thunder Creek on the way out to make a loop.

Friday evening we me up at the Tall Timber Ranch plowed parking area and loaded up all the gear. I was comforted to see a few other snowmobiles parked there, likely from people at the ranch. After getting past the snow berm we rode on an icy rutted track, but soon the ruts ended and we followed an old snowmobile track. The snow was very icy and I unfortunately hadn’t yet installed my ice scratchers, so we had to stop once to let the engine cool down as we packed it down with snow. I’m definitely going to mount them this week. After about a mile the other snowmobile tracks ended at a blowdown, but I was able to scoot over it after Ryan got off.

We encountered probably a half dozen other major blowdown areas on the way. Each time I stopped and axed them out and made it through. The trickiest ones were where a big tree had fallen deep into the snow creating a big trench with branches sticking out. I just chopped out the branches and piled them in the trench and was able to get through.

Finally at mile 3.6 we were stopped for good by a massive avalanche slide over the road. It was only 0.4 miles to the trailhead then, so wasn’t worth trying to create a heroic path over it for the snowmobile. I turned it around, then we unpacked and started on foot. We left the skis at the snowmobile since we were close enough to the trailhead that they wouldn’t be too helpful anyways. It had taken us about an hour to get in there with all the stops, so only slightly faster than if we had just skied it, but at least it saved energy and would certainly save time on the exit since we had cleared out all the blowdowns.

We climbed over the 15-ft tall avy debris mound, then crossed a second one and eventually made it to the trailhead. Old ski tracks went towards Mt David but we took the untracked trail on the right side of the creek. Under the trees the snow was solid ice with deep tree wells and tons of fresh blowdowns, probably from the Jan 12 storm. I was very happy to not be navigating all that in skis. The trail was difficult to distinguish but we approximately followed it for about 2.5 hours until we reached the Boulder Creek trail junction. We layed out our bivy sacks there, topped off water from the White River, and were asleep by 8:30pm.

We got up at midnight and were moving by 12:30am up Boulder Creek. We eventually found the switchbacks and followed those up to the big basin below Boulder Pass. There were some fresh mountain lion tracks in a few soft patches of snow on the way up. We cut left at the basin, roughly following a GPS track from Fabien L, (which was better than the steep route I’d remembered taking on my previous ascent). Just as alpenglow was starting in the east we crested the ridge south of point 8373. I remembered an improbable gully here, and we had hit it exactly. We switched from snowshoes to crampons and downclimbed the gully.

At the bottom the slope eased and we marched across. There was soon a brilliant sunrise and light undercast in the White River Valley below. We gained the southwest ridge of Clark and cramponed up to the summit by 8am. Amazingly there was zero wind. I kind of wished I had skis then, but we would have had to carry them up so far to reach soft snow it probably wouldn’t have saved any time or energy.

From the summit we dropped back down the southwest ridge until we found the notch I had used on my previous climb. I’d remembered it being a 3rd class downclimb, but now it was just a steep snow gully heading west. We downclimbed until we got above a cliff, then traversed climbers left back to the northwest ridge of Clark. Eventually the slope angle decreased and we were able to hike around point 7970. I recognized a small bench that I had camped on in October, and we aimed for that.

At the bench we traversed steep rocky slopes, then kicked steps steeply up the southwest face of Luahna to a big flat wind lip underneath a cliff. There we dropped our packs to do the final scramble fast and light. Ryan led the way, kicking steps up an even steeper snow slope, then doing some mixed and exposed rock-ice-snow scrambling behind a small rock tower and up the face. By 11:15am we crested the summit, which was fortunately not corniced. We peeked over to the southeast slope, which also looked doable but more exposed.

Views were great again, with Glacier Peak looming to the northwest. I picked out Seven Fingered Jack and Maude to the east. It was great to be on the summit while it was still morning, so we had plenty of time to get back below treeline before darkness and the approaching weather system that night arrived.

We soon downclimbed the route back to our packs and debated how to get out. We could follow our tracks back out, but that would involve elevation gain and postholing to get around Clark. It looked appealing to just drop straight down to Thunder Creek. That’s how I’d exited in October. I recalled some miserable bushwhacking in slide alder on that route, but the good thing about winter is all the slide alder is covered up by snow. So it actually sounded like the fastest way to get back.

We postholed directly down to a basin filled with tons of avy debris, likely from the Jan 12 storm. If snow conditions were less icy that would make for an amazing ski descent. But the current conditions of breakable crust below 7,000ft would have been treacherous on skis. Back in the trees we alternated back and forth between snowshoes and crampons. Instead of following my fall route, which crossed Thunder Creek twice, we stayed high and stayed on the northeast side of Thunder Creek all the way down to the White River.

There we crossed several enormous avalanche debris fields, interspersed with long sections of trail breaking through breakable crust. At least all the slide alder was covered up, though. By sunset we reached our bivy site and soon packed up. Interestingly, on the way out we noticed some fresh ski tracks coming in. They must have come in that day, and we guessed maybe they were doing a Dakobed traverse. Hopefully they encountered better snow conditions than we did up high.

By 8pm we reached the snowmobile, for a 19.5 hr push for the day. There was another snowmobile there, probably from the skiers. We were soon packed up and riding out. The ride went much more smoothly since we’d already chopped out the blowdowns, and we soon made it to the car to start driving home. I finally made it home around 1am for a 25-hour day.

Link to full trip report and pictures.
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