June 5, 2011

Big Four Mountain attempt (6160’)

——————– Trip Report Summary ——————–

Starting Point: Coal Creek & Stillaguamish River Bridge & Dry Creek Basin (hike & bushwhack via Mountain Loop Road & forest flats)

Summit Attempt: Big Four Mountain attempt  (climb to couloir via Dry Creek Route)

——————– Full Trip Report ——————–

With cautious optimism, Fay and I made an attempt at climbing Big Four Mtn last weekend. We had a bomber weather forecast and a healthy snowpack, but we knew the window of opportunity was closing down on the Dry Creek (Northeast Couloir) Route. This felt like our last good chance until next winter. On two previous attempts, I had not gotten past the start of the big couloir. The couloir as a whole forms the notorious crux of this route; it has been the scene of many frighteningly close calls with falling or sliding snow for so many other climbers over the years. In fact, two partners and I came scant yards from getting buried by a series of avalanches at the couloir base in June 2000. It would be an understatement to say that Fay and I were both “edgy” going into this climb, given the mountain’s ill-mannered reputation.

Following a Saturday night car-camp at the Deer Creek gate, we marched up the paved road in early morning darkness. Actually, I marched while Fay rolled; she was clever enough to bring a portable “Razor” scooter for this leg. I spent the whole 2-mile jaunt trying to keep up with her newfangled sub-alpine assault vehicle! We reached Big Four Campground at first light, crossed the impressive new pedestrian bridge over the Stillaguamish River, then dove into the valley-bottom jungle. This cross-country leg was slow and unpleasant, but by 6:30am, we were into the open slopes of Dry Creek.

With crampon assistance, we made steady progress up the snow chute that cuts through the lower cliff band, then we wound our way further upward to the expansive mid-mountain snow slopes below the upper cliff band. A long leftward traverse led over to the base of the dreaded NE couloir. Over the past eleven years, I have regarded this couloir as nothing less than the Valley of the Shadow of Death. Yet, today, it seemed quiet and almost benign. Perhaps we would be blessed with stable conditions today.

Suddenly, as I pondered that very optimistic thought, a rogue chunk of hard snow came tumbling out of the couloir and down the slope towards us. I shouted at Fay to be on guard, and I watched as she prepared to easily dodge it. At the last second, however, the snow chunk (about the size of a suitcase) careened slightly to one side and struck Fay squarely on her leg! The impact knocked her backwards into an adjacent snow trough, and I helplessly watched her slide headfirst down the trough—right into the path of more tumbling debris! Thankfully, the other chunks were smaller and slower. It was a great relief to see her finally stand up and climb out of the trough.

After regrouping, we determined that she had no broken bones but did suffer a deep thigh bruise, which made it difficult for her to walk, let alone climb. This injury, combined with our creepy feeling that Big Four was serving us an omen, called for a hasty retreat. We sadly turned around and retraced our route back to the car. On a day when conditions seemed as good as they get around here, we were once again foiled by the Scourge of the Stillaguamish and the Beast of Barlow Pass!

Stats: 5.3 hours up, 5.4 hours down.

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