Saturday, May 21, 2011

Sahale Mountain

I had so much fun skiing Shuksan as described in my last post, that as the weekend neared I decided it was time for another ski adventure even though the weather looked like it might be marginal. Friday was an amazing sunny day, and after work my friend Mike and I headed for the north cascades, hoping that the weather would hold through Saturday. Mike was interested in climbing and skiing Sahale Mountain, and I was interested in skiing just about anything so Sahale it was. A bonus for me was that I had never been to the Cascade Pass area from which Sahale is accessed, so it would be fun to check out a new area.

We turned off Highway 20 at Marblemount and headed up the 20 miles of dirt road until we hit a closed gate that prevented us from driving the final 3 miles to the trailhead. We arrived at the gate at around 9:30pm, and began preparing our gear for the next day. I was in favor of starting to hike that night and then camping whenever it was convenient (since it had worked out pretty well the weekend before on Shuksan), but Mike was in favor of not carrying the tent anywhere and just camping at the car and getting an earlier start. I lost 2-0 in rock-scissors-paper, so camping at the car it was. We set up the tent and drifted off into a few hours of peaceful slumber before the alarm went off at 2:30am.

We rolled out of bed and boiled some water for coffee (I have an amazing camping version of a french press, so awesome!) then after eating a few blueberry scones for breakfast we strapped our skis to our packs and started walking up the dirt road past the gate. We started in our shoes, with the intention of swapping them out for ski boots when we hit snow. A few hundred meters (not yards) down the road it became clear why the gate had been closed, as we began encountering numerous downed trees that made for an interesting obstacle course in the dark:

We continued to cross trees as well as the occasional road washout from avalanche debris, and eventually we were on snow and could stash our shoes and strap on our skis. We continued along the road until near the trail head where we continued straight up the valley headed for Cascade Pass. We began encountering evidence of some pretty good sized slides, and were happy to be getting underway so early so that we would be off the mountain before things warmed up too much.

We made good time as we wound our way through avalanche debris up towards the pass, and as we started encountering some steeper sections things began to brighten up as dawn approached. It was pretty overcast at this point but not raining, so we were keeping our fingers crossed that the weather would hold.

At around 6:00am we reached Cascade Pass at 5,400 feet, and as we peered over the other side we could see a bit of brightness where the sun would have been rising had it not been for all of the cloud cover:

As we paused for drink we noticed that some cloud for rolling in, and a few minutes later it was a complete whiteout with about 20 feet of visibility. Here is the same view shown above, taken about 10 minutes later:

Stinker! We decided to hang out and see if it passed, and if not we would probably need to head back down. Fortunately after eating trail mix for about 15 minutes things began to open up, and the thick fog (and accompanying rain) moved out, allowing us to proceed up from the pass towards the Sahale Arm. Before long we reached the Arm, and continued up towards the Sahale Glacier:

The weather continued to fluctuate between being clear and wind/snow, and at one point the sun even tried to peek out a bit and we had some nice views of Eldorado Mountain to the west (the knife-edge east ridge of Eldorado looks awesome and definitely needs an ascent by me in the near future):

Here is Mike making his way along the Sahale Arm with the three sisters in the background:

As we neared the Sahale Glacier we stopped to don our harnesses before continuing on towards our objective, Sahale Mountain. I had read that there was a final stretch of class 4/5 rock before reaching the summit so I wasn't too optimistic about our chances in these conditions, but Mike was convinced that there would be enough snow to reach the summit while staying on the steep snow part. As we approached the summit (based on our altitude reading since it was once again a whiteout at this point and we could not see the top) things began to get quite steep so we swapped out our skis for crampons, roped up, and continued on. Here is Mike heading up this section into the unknown:

We eventually reached the final steep section that I had noted from the guidebook, and Mike set about trying to find a way up. Here he is trying to head up the west ridge, about 20 feet below the summit (around 8,600 feet):

We tried a few different approaches for reaching the summit, but in each case were shut down by either thin snow coverage on rock or rotten, unconsolidated snow. It might have been possible to get up, but down climbing would have been downright miserable (especially in the poor visibility) so after about an hour of probing around trying to find a way up we decided to call summit minus 20 feet good enough, and headed back down to where we had left our skis. I wasn't looking forward to skiing down in whiteout conditions, but thankfully as we reached our skis things cleared again and we once again had good visibility as we removed our skins and prepared to head down:

The skiing near the top was pretty good, and as we proceeded down the mountain things continued to get softer (it had never been all that frozen, the cloud cover had probably kept the freezing level quite high).

As we neared the pass we noticed that ski cutting steep slopes would trigger small wet slides of the top 6 inches of snow, so we were careful to avoid steep open slopes to the extent possible. From the pass we continued back down into the valley that we had ascended that morning, and along the way witnessed a few spectacular avalanches cascading over the cliffs on the opposite side of the valley:

Yikes! We eventually made it back to the road and the downed tree obstacle course where we were forced to load our skis onto our packs:

Before too long we were out of the snow and back on the dirt road where we switched over to shoes again and made it back to the car by around 1:30pm. Not too bad for 6,500 feet of elevation gain and loss! Here is the topo for our route:

And here is the profile (the really steep bit on the way up is a numerical artifact from the GPS):

And finally the google earth view:

I love mountains!

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