Wilderness Sports Conditioning
Train Today for
Eldorado Peak 9/28-29/02
The NE Face of Eldorado (8868’) is a lesser-done climb in the North Cascades that we chose to scout out as a new intermediate-level ice climb for the Seattle Mountaineers, so we didn't have a lot of beta to go on, other than another trip report from the previous year. It starts out as the Basic route up the East Ridge, but at the base of the East Ridge, you traverse around to the NE Face and climb from the base. We planned to travel fast and light, so we opted to limit the party size, as well, to 4. Kirk Alm, Brian Miller, Doug Schurman and I planned to climb up to high camp at 7500’ the first day, and then go to the summit and out the second.
When the weather forecast changed for Sunday, we devised a new plan to run up to Eldorado's NE Face in one day and see if we could get the ice climb in, then bivy high if we couldn't reach the boulder field before dark. We car camped Friday night so we could leave the trailhead at 2100' by headlamp at 4:45 a.m. Somehow we managed to safely find the trail in the dark after making our way across the stream over several enormous logs and started to head up the unrelenting trail. Unfortunately Kirk hadn’t had much luck sleeping the previous week, so he decided he’d be better off taking the weekend to catch up on sleep. We gave him the extra rope to take back with him to the car, redistributed the remaining gear, and began again, this time with a party of three. We made pretty good time, and reached the infamous boulder fields at first light (6:20 a.m.)
Boulder fields have been pretty tricky for me in the past, but I actually welcomed something other than the continuous steep roots and dirt we’d just climbed in the dark. That is, until I saw Doug take a pretty dramatic tumble right in front of me. My stomach dropped, as I was helpless to do anything but watch in horror and hope he’d be okay. Luckily, he suffered only some abrasions to the forearm, hip, and shoulder, but otherwise everything seemed to be working fine. It shook him up a little and made him more cautious as we continued up “Boulder Field A” from cairn to cairn; his mishap made me doubly wary of anything that looked like it might twist an ankle or move unexpectedly. Then on to some slide alder off to the right, where the trail becomes steep dirt again with a bit of “tree climbing.” “Boulder Field B” is considerably longer, but stickier rock (especially when wet! Beware mossy boulders in Field A if there’s been any recent precipitation!) and heads upwards along the far right of the field (away from the cliff band) and then, toward the top, traverses upward to the left to regain a heather/blueberry/dirt trail.
We exited the second boulder field at 5200’ around 7:34 a.m. where we encountered the first running water along the route. At 5400’ we stopped at a clear pool at the base of a waterfall to filter water (to this point, we’d only carried one full liter apiece to save on weight; not knowing how the water situation was up higher on the slabs, we carried two from here up.) Good views of Johannesburg, ripe blueberries, and changing fall foliage! And finally the sun caught up to us at 8 a.m. and we continued happily onward and upward. Everything was going as planned.
The trail finally “leveled out a bit” or continued less steeply, in any case, from 5400’ to about 6000, as we picked our way across glacier-polished slabs. Up at the notch around 6200' (by 8:22 a.m.) we stopped for some breakfast (a few annoying bugs, but not too bad), cached our bivy gear to lighten the load as much as possible, then continued down a large gully (the one with the big boulder slab in the middle) to the Roush Creek Drainage about 9 a.m. At 6540’ (9:25) we had run out of slabs to hop and opted for crampons and an ice tool for the ascent of the southeast edge of the Eldorado Glacier. Sticking to the right-hand side, just left of the cliff band, we headed to the large, flat “glacier bowl” and great views of Eldorado’s East Ridge at 7530.’
After only a short break for pictures and water, we continued for another 45 minutes around the E. Ridge to the base of the NE Face, and roped up 1/3 of the way up at about 8300’ at 11:20 a.m. By noon we were heading up the face on running belays with 3 pickets and 8 screws. Only 568' to go!! We were making great time. No problem. Or so we thought. Around 1 p.m. we reached 8560', and the crux of the climb, merely 300' from the summit. We came up to the lip of a huge bergschrund with Doug straddling the edge as his belay. I started quaking in my boots when I realized that Doug was out of pro. From the sounds of it, I was going to have to lead out. I took one look at the sketchily-snow-filled bottom, vertical-to-overhanging opposite side, and my heart dropped out. I had mentally prepared myself to lead anything up to 50 degrees, but not vertical alpine ice, and certainly not overhanging—those I’d follow. So I said an enthusiastic NO WAY. Doug said he'd try it and I could lead the last 300 feet to the summit. Fine, I was okay with that.
Since we had three people on a 60m rope, we ran into our first obstacle: having enough rope to get Doug all the way across the bergschrund AND up the bridge safely to an anchor where he’d feel okay belaying the other two of us to him, so Brian (on the middle of the rope) headed over to Doug’s mid-point anchor and prepared to belay him up and over the lip. Then, our second obstacle: Doug lost a crampon (a dire situation on front points!!) but it skidded to a stop on snow directly below him. Doug was able to carefully return to the belay anchor, where Brian locked him in and then belayed me over and down to retrieve the crampon. As I headed toward it, I poked and prodded the snow with both tools to make sure there was at least an inch or two of something beneath my feet, not really trusting anything at this point. Can you say high adrenaline?
Finally, crampon within reach, I attached it to a carabiner on my harness, sharp points swinging close to my right hip with every poke, poke, prod, prod of my tools, and I made my way over and across a big ice chunk over which they'd both climbed, then stemmed two ice blocks up toward them, legs balking with each step; I reverted to my “little engine that could” mantra: "I THINK I can, I THINK I can!" although I will admit sheepishly that several times my counts of "1, 2, 3" for each leg movement got stuck at "2.5"… Then, all three of us on the narrow belay bridge, Doug's crampon retrieved and firmly strapped back on his foot, he led out once more, cursing at the soft snow that wouldn't hold a picket, screw, even his ice axe. The clouds started swirling around us as the winds picked up in that predicted front moving in from the west, and since we were on the northeast face, in the shade, we all got to shivering noticeably.
Doug had placed one screw to prevent him from taking a pendulum fall all the way into the bottom of the crevasse, but when I saw what he was having to deal with (on his knees, traversing at an angle up a thin ramp with an overhanging, bulging wall protruding on his left side, unable to really swing the tool with any power because of the angle) I admitted to Brian: "I can't watch. This is just too scary." What must have been just a few minutes later, as Doug neared the edge but started to panic (for Doug) because he couldn't secure another piece of pro in order to protect the crux, I posed three options to Brian: 1) we have Doug back down and Brian try the lead; 2) we try the other ramp (wider, but steeper and more snow), 3) we retreat and search for the other end of the bergschrund around the corner; or 4) we downclimb and ascend the summit via the East Ridge.
We opted for retreat. Doug chose to leave his ice screw in as a somewhat safe belay for backing down, though he admitted he didn’t fully trust that piece to begin with. Better to lose a piece of gear than to risk a leader fall – or worse, an accident. We retraced our footsteps, and just as we made our way below the crevasses around 4 p.m. the crampons started to ball up so we took a little break to assess options. Doug had been working on adrenaline for at least an hour, and the scariness and exhilaration of what he’d just put himself through was starting to set in. At my absurd proposal that we race up and tag the summit anyway via the East Ridge, before heading down to bivy, we looked at the daylight remaining and the exertion we’d already put ourselves through. With the bivy stuff perhaps 1.5 hours away, and the round trip to the summit and back a good 1.5 hours (maybe more given the snow conditions we might encounter with more soft snow, exposed rock, or more problems with crevasses) with max 3 hours of good daylight left, we decided we probably should stick to being safe, and carefully make our way back down to set up camp.
Had we chosen the easier route, we would have had absolutely no trouble reaching the top and getting back to the cars safely in a day. Our choice was the more difficult ice route. Had we selected the left, more direct ascent up the “dirty snow” (ice) instead of veering right at the ‘schrund, we might have had better snow conditions. If we’d gone earlier in the morning so the snow had been firmer, we might have been able to get over the lip with protection. Hindsight is always 20/20. What we’ve discovered is the climbs that do NOT summit are the best experience/educational climbs, and this was certainly no exception. We tested our skill limits, got great experience climbing up (AND down) alpine ice of various degrees of difficulty, and we got a lot more comfortable placing ice pro. But it still hurts to retreat 300 feet from the top, stuck merely 10 feet below the crux.
As we made our way back to the Eldorado Glacier side, the wind continued to howl, and the summit remained buried in clouds (it didn’t look very inviting at that point!) As we descended the last 400 feet or so, the top 1-3 inches of snow were soft, but below that the ice remained solid, so crampons would have balled up, but without them, walking was rather treacherous; I was grateful for the ski pole and ice tool to help me stay upright. We safely reached the bottom of the glacier at 5:20 p.m. with a few successful self-arrests and back to our bivy gear 6. After a brief bite to eat, we dropped to a good bivy site (with running water) at 5700' and set up for the night. By 7:30 it was already getting dark, and while we could have made the boulder field in time to cross pretty safely before dark, going down the steep dirt in the dark didn’t appeal to any of us. Sleep came pretty easily, and at 3 a.m. the predicted rains started in earnest. Fortunately about 6 a.m. they started to die down, and by the time we started down Sunday morning at 7:15 a.m. it was just drizzling lightly at times. We made great progress to the waterfall at 5200’ (15 minutes), through the boulder fields (45 minutes; slick!), and back to the cars by 9:15 (3600’ drop in 2 hours), where we were relieved to see Kirk waiting for us.
An epic? Not really; everything went according to plan with the exception of not getting that last 3000 feet; a good experience in alpine climbing? Yes! Would we recommend it? Definitely, IF you can find the right line up the glacier. In retrospect, if we’d taken one look and decided to seek an alternate route, we might have been able to reach the summit, but the route we chose looked possible IF it had been protectable. Blame it on conditions. It wasn’t meant to be. And we find as we climb more and more, we keep nudging the envelope of "fear", "acceptable risk", and "danger." Fortunately with that envelope comes "experience," “knowledge” and “acceptance” – of what you can take on both mentally and physically. We hope that whatever level you’re climbing at, you can continue to have many excellent adventures and growth related to climbing beyond your “learning years.” I know this has been, by far, our best "learning" year of climbing and look forward to many more.
Following are pictures in order taken.