September 1-3, 2012

American Border Peak (7994′)

——————– Trip Report Summary ——————–

Region: Northwestern Cascades

Starting & Ending Point: Winchester Mountain / High Pass Trailhead (Twin Lakes Road)

Way Points: Twin Lakes & Low Pass & High Pass & Gargett Mine & Gargett Basin (hike)

Campsite: Gargett Basin

Sidetrip: West Larrabee Slope & Northwest Larrabee Rib & Moraine Bowl & South American Border Saddle (hike & climb)

Summit: American Border Peak (climb via Southeast Face—South Ridge)

Approximate Stats: 10 miles traveled; 6400 feet gained & lost.

——————– Full Trip Report ——————–

Armed with a favorable Labor Day Weekend weather forecast, Fay and Eileen and I headed into the Nooksack Mountains to tackle American Border Peak.  This visually striking landmark of frightfully steep rock has had a grip on me for many years and on Eileen for the past several years.  Fay climbed it back in 2008 and enjoyed the trip enough to make a second ascent with us.  We were delighted to have her company—in no small part because the overall climb has a reputation for being long, complex, and fairly difficult.

In the end, I personally found “AmBo Peak” to be very long, very complex, and quite challenging but not unreasonable, with lots of exposure and many interesting terrain features along the way (for example, not just ONE but TWO cannonholes on the standard Southeast Face route!).  The convoluted nature of the summit climb has a character more like Cascadian mountains that are much larger, such as Mt. Goode, Mt. Stuart, or Bonanza Peak, and the Great Chimney feels like something from the Canadian Rockies or Alps.  That’s saying a lot for a sub-8000-foot mountain.

Day 1 – Trailhead to Gargett Basin:

We drove to bustling Twin Lakes, arriving around noon, and tried to find a parking place—along with everyone else from the Bellingham area, it seemed.  The day was surprisingly cool compared to our recent summer weather.

We hiked between the beautiful blue lakes and onward to High Pass, then down to Gargett Mine for a brief historical sidetrip.  Beckey mentions that this mine makes a good base camp, but we saw room for only a few bivy sacks.  As such, we dropped several hundred feet below the mine to a pretty little green basin (2.3 hours from car) and carved out two tent sites in the gravel bars.  The evening was pleasantly mild and completely mosquito-free.

Camp In Gargett Basin

Day 2 – Summit Climb:

We awoke to clear skies overhead but boiling clouds behind Tomyhoi Peak to the west.  Fay mentioned hearing some weather chatter about a low-pressure zone forming to the northwest, so we hoped this didn’t become problematic later.  Leaving camp about 7:30am, we began what Beckey aptly calls a long “footsore” traverse across the western flank of Mt. Larrabee.  This traverse involves a full mile of sidehilling across steep slopes of talus, scree, heather, and herbaceous plants, crossing Larrabee’s timbered southwest rib in the first ¼ mile.  Our route gradually rose to a small scree chute ending at a 6200-foot notch in Larrabee’s rocky northwest rib (1.5 hours from camp).

Traversing To 6200 Notch

Winchester Mountain and Mount Shuksan

On the other side of the notch, we descended a steep dirt chute between snow and rock, then contoured at 5800 feet above a small moraine bowl (Fay’s previous campsite for this climb).  Even after 3 hours of travel, our peak still looked far away at this point.  We angled northward from the bowl, going up and across a series of steep gullies and ribs.

American Border Peak In Morning Sun

Eventually, we reached a 6840-foot saddle (4.1 hours from camp) on the ridge crest directly south of AmBo Peak.  At this “lower south saddle” we got our first close-up view of AmBo Peak, as well as our first view of the legendary Mt. Slesse across Silesia Creek Valley.  Neither mountain gave me a feeling of confidence and certainty, but I knew my chances were better with the former than with the latter.

Fay and Eileen At South Saddle

We headed up the ridge crest on a faint climber’s path for 200 yards or so and then started traversing rightward on slabby red ledges until close to a rock rib.  The angle steepened considerably here, but we were able to scramble up a small Class 3.5 rock cleft closely left of the rock rib.

Heading Up South Ridge

More slabby ledges above ended in a flat step atop the rib, from where we traversed across a down-sloping bench to the mouth of a steep snow gully.

Traversing Toward Snow Gully

The snow had melted enough to leave a tall snow fin in the middle and a dirty moat on each side.  Fay chose to ascend the left-hand moat, whereas Eileen and I ascended the right-hand moat partway before climbing through an interesting cannonhole in the snow fin.

Eileen Crawling Thru Snow Cannonhole

We all rejoined at a high southeast notch and cast eyes on the Great Chimney across an intervening chasm.  My neck hair bristled at the sight of this vertical slot cutting through the southeast face;  it was straight as an arrow for 150 feet, and it looked dark as a coffin inside.  We have to climb THAT?  I was waiting for Fay to casually announce that “oh, it lays back when you get closer,” but she never did.

The Great Chimney From SE Notch

We roped up and crossed a narrow, undulating, highly exposed ledge ending at the base of the chimney.  Thankfully, it didn’t appear quite as intimidating from here;  in fact, it turned out to be the highlight of the entire trip.  Because we’d brought only two 25-meter ropes for the three of us, we had to climb the chimney in two short pitches with an intermediate belay at the midpoint.

The first pitch has some initial Class 5.3 moves to gain entry into the chimney bottom, followed by a series of easier chockstone steps.  The second pitch includes a smooth Class 5.4 face climb to surmount a large chockstone, and it ends at a ridiculously small cannonhole that requires you to push your pack up ahead while you execute a sequence of twisting and grunting maneuvers to squirm through (rated Class 5.monkey).  Even Fay, whose weight tops 100 pounds only after a big dinner, had some trouble here;  this cannonhole would be extremely difficult for a large climber!

Eileen Squirming Thru Rock Cannonhole

Just above the cannonhole, we went left around a corner and scrambled up a sketchy, dirty, slabby trough that ended at a sandy saddle high on the peak’s south ridge.  From this “upper south saddle,” we scrambled over and around a long row of horns and gaps.  The northernmost and highest horn is steep but fairly solid rock with a dramatically exposed step-across move in the middle.

Fay and Eileen Scrambling Along Summit Ridge

We topped out at 4:15pm (8.4 hours from camp).  The summit register was a small booklet left by Fay during her 2008 climb.  There was a 2009 ascent, no ascents in 2010 or 2011, and then one ascent last month.  Due to the late hour and the arrival of dark clouds from the west, we limited our stay to 15 minutes, departing at 4:30pm.

Mount Tomyhoi Thru Cloud Window

Jim and Eileen On Summit

Eileen and Fay On Summit

We scrambled back to the upper south saddle and made one rappel down the slabby trough.  Our first 75-foot rappel down the Great Chimney involved squeezing back through the cannonhole—probably the craziest rappel I’ve ever done—and our second 75-foot rappel (from a mid-chimney chockstone) ended at the narrow ledge.

Eileen Rappelling Down Great Chimney

We carefully crossed back to the high southeast notch and made another rappel down the snow gully, going through the snow cannonhole halfway down (why stop at just ONE cannonhole rappel?).

Fay and Eileen At SE Notch

Fay Rappelling Thru Snow Cannonhole

More down-climbing led to the southeast rib, where we made one last rappel through the rock cleft.  Because darkness was now setting in, it was inevitable that our rope would get stuck as I was pulling it down.  Several fruitless attempts to retrieve it ended with a decision to untie the midpoint knot and sacrifice one rope to the mountain.

Mount Slesse In Evening Light

Using the last few minutes of dusk, we hurried down the remaining ledges and bootpath to reach the lower south saddle at 8:30pm (3.9 hours from summit).  We donned headlamps and prepared for the 1½-mile traverse back to camp.  Clearly, it was to be a long night, starting with a tricky descent of the steep gullies and ribs leading down to the moraine bowl.  After what seemed like an eternity of groping around on steep, confusing terrain, we crossed the bowl with great relief.  It didn’t take long to climb back up to the 6200-foot notch, arriving at 11:30pm (6.9 hours from summit).

Our long sidehill return across Larrabee’s western flank was aided by a full moon rising above the ridge, but the nighttime dew made the herbaceous vegetation slippery and treacherous; after numerous slips and falls, this turned into a “footsore and hipsore” traverse.

Some confusion in the final timber rib cost us an extra 30 minutes, so it was 1:45am when we finally stumbled into camp (9.2 hours from summit) at the end of this wonderfully convoluted, crazy, and tiring18-hour day.  I vaguely recall dry clothes…dinner… hot drinks…lights out at 3:00am.  Ahhh!

Day 3 – Gargett Basin to Trailhead:

We slept in until 9:00am and slowly worked through our morning routine.  It was 11:30 when we finally started heading back to the trailhead, passing many Labor Day hikers along the way.  One hiker/climber-looking fellow was particularly interested in what we’d been doing with ropes and helmets way back thataway.  “We climbed American Border Peak,” Eileen responded with great satisfaction.  He scrutinized the three of us for several moments and then concluded, “No…you’re joking, aren’t you?”  Oh well, I guess we just don’t look the part.


——————– Photo Gallery (click to enlarge) ——————–