September 2-5, 2006

Royal Peak (6960′+)
Mount Clark (7528′)

Labor Day Climbing Trip:  Olympic Mountains

Gunsight Pass Loop:  Constance Pass to Royal Pass

——————– Summary ——————–

Starting Point: Dungeness River Trailhead

Way Points: Boulder Camp & Home Creek & Home Lake & Constance Pass & Sunnybrook Meadow & Del Monte Ridge & Gunsight Pass & Deception Creek & Lower Deception Basin & Upper Deception Basin & Royal Pass & Upper Royal Basin & Lower Royal Basin & Royal Lake & Royal Creek (hike & climb)

Ending Point: Dungeness River Trailhead

Campsites: Home Lake & Upper Deception Basin & Upper Royal Basin

Summit: Royal Peak  (climb via West Ridge)

Sidetrip: Surprise Basin & Surprise Col  (hike & climb)

Summit: Mt. Clark  (climb via Corkscrew Route  [Route 1] )

——————– Full Report ——————–

For several years, I had been eyeballing a potential loop trip in the Buckhorn area of the eastern Olympic Mountains.  My plan was to hike up the Dungeness River to Constance Pass, traverse along Del Monte Ridge to Gunsight Pass, wrap around Mt. Mystery to Deception Basin, go over Royal Pass to Royal Basin, and then hike down Royal Creek to close the loop.

This basic loop looked to be about two-thirds on trail and about one-third off trail (with a lot of uncertainty revolving around that off-trail portion).  In terms of bonus features, the loop would provide access to major-peak neighbors Mt. Deception and Mt. Mystery, as well as to some interesting secondary summits (including Little Mystery Peak, Mt. Fricaba, and Royal Peak) and the highly charismatic Mt. Clark.

Given an unusually favorable weather forecast for Labor Day Weekend, Eileen, Janet, Kevin, Peggy, Steve, and Suzanne enthusiastically joined up.  They all relished the idea of a four-day Olympics trek into an unfamiliar area shrouded by a moderate amount of mystery (pun intended).  It turned out to be a first-class adventure marked by summery weather, gorgeous terrain, two great summits, and wonderful camaraderie.  When all was over, our group concluded that this loop is “totally repeatable”!

Day 1  —  After a ferry ride to Kingston, a drive to Gardiner to pick up vermin canisters, and a stop in Sequim to pick up Kevin, we arrived at the Royal Basin Trailhead around 10:30am.  Not surprisingly, the parking lot was a busy place on this sunny Saturday.  We started hiking shortly after 11:00am, following the Royal Basin Trail for 1.0 mile, then branching onto the Dungeness River Trail for another 2.3 miles.

At Camp Handy, we veered onto the Constance Pass Trail and followed it for 5.3 miles to Home Lake, passing popular Boulder Camp along the way.  All of these trails were well-maintained, so the unseasonal heat was the only impediment to our travel.  We arrived at Home Lake in late afternoon (5.9 hours from car), set up a campsite, then cooled off in the lake.  Dinner was later served overlooking the lake, amidst a horde of annoying gnats.

Home Lake and Warrior Peaks

Day 2  — We awoke with the gnats at first light and were back on the trail to Constance Pass by 8:00am.  At the pass, this trail abruptly turned westward and followed an open ridge crest with nice views to the north and south.  About a mile beyond the pass, we dropped packs and scurried up to a local high point for even better views.  Interestingly, some very ambitious campers have carved out several sleeping platforms and constructed substantial windbreaks here.  If not for the lack of a late-season water supply, this would make a dandy campsite.

Group On Ridge Knob

Our group of seven continued westward along the trail as it switch-backed down to attractive Sunnybrook Meadows (2.4 hours from Home Lake).

Hiking Down To Sunnybrook Meadow

Water bottles were filled from a spring-fed creek here, in anticipation of several hot hours before finding another water supply.  We bade the trail farewell (it continues descending to the Dosewallips River Trail) and started a rising traverse through scrub forest, light brush, talus, and steep scree.  Kevin managed to collect three stings from angry hornets along the way, but we all made reasonable progress getting to the ridge crest just west of 6666-foot Twin Point.

At the crest, we were surprised to encounter two other climbers.  They were completing this loop in the opposite direction, so we traded information about conditions ahead.  Our hearts sank when they described horrible brush between Gunsight Pass and Deception Basin—and strongly advised us to bivouac at Gunsight Pass tonight rather than attempting to reach Deception Basin in one day  We thanked them for their advice, but I knew that we wouldn’t be heeding it.

After chatting, Steve joined the two men for a quick romp up Twin Point (one of the men was obsessed with the demonic elevation numerals) while the rest of us continued traversing northwestward along Del Monte Ridge toward Gunsight Pass.  This ridge crest turned out to be a cross-country delight:  it was probably the smoothest alpine crest any of us had ever seen!

Hiking Along Ridge

Just before the crest became rocky and jagged (near Point 6514), we descended to the basin below Gunsight Pass.  Our dreamy ridgetop stroll quickly turned into a hellish sidehill traverse on steep, hard scree slopes.  While most of us tried to save elevation on the slippery scree, Peggy wisely dropped all the way down to the basin floor, allowing her to slingshot past us.  Our group reconvened at 6400-foot Gunsight Pass around 2:15pm (6.4 hours from Home Lake).

Group At Gunsight Pass

Given the early hour, the lack of water, and the scarcity of bivouac spots, there was no question of pushing on to Deception Basin, despite being warned about the terrain ahead.  Shucks, how bad could it be?

Heading down snow and talus on the northwest side of the pass, we soon reached an elevation of 5400 feet, where thick brush below terminated against the sheer walls of Mt. Mystery above.  This looked like as good a place as any to begin contouring, so we made a hard right.  The next several hours was spent squirming through narrow strips of brush and scrub cedar, scrabbling up and down scree bands, and skirting beneath cliffs.  All in all, it was pretty reasonable terrain for an alpine traverse, and a far cry from the horrible conditions described by the two climbers we’d met earlier.  (They had probably traversed around Mt. Mystery at a lower elevation, whereas we stayed between 5200 and 5400 feet the whole way.)

Contouring Around Mt Mystery

We eventually wrapped around to intersect the north fork of Deception Creek, then ascended open talus along its left side.  By 6:00pm, we had all popped over a rocky lip and strode into the flat, verdant expanse of lower Deception Basin.

View Over Lower Deception Basin

Another half hour of easy travel got us to a splendid campsite among the heather and gravel bars of upper Deception Basin at 5850 feet (10.9 hours from Home Lake).  This beautiful meadow, nestled between the dramatic cliffs of Mt. Mystery and Mt. Deception, had been our “carrot” all day long, and it did not disappoint.

Mt Mystery From Deception Basin

Day 3  — We were again up at first light and moving by 8:00am.  After picking up the bootpath on the basin’s northern slope, we followed it to 6600-foot Royal Pass.  This gave us our first view down into scenic Royal Basin.  Because the terrain directly below the pass was steep and unappealing (as is often the case here in late season), we skirted below a rocky outcrop on the southern slope and swung up to a higher saddle just east of the pass.

Mt Clark and Upper Royal Basin

Group At Royal Pass With Mt Mystery


The terrain leading down to Royal Basin looked much easier from here, and this saddle provides a convenient jumpoff point for nearby Royal Peak.  At the saddle, we encountered a solo hiker who had been camped at Lake Mystery and was heading out today.  Here’s one from the “Small World Department”:  after some quizzing, it was discovered that this fellow works in Portland with a close friend of Eileen’s!

Six of us took a sidetrip up to 6960-foot Royal Peak, which can be reached via a pleasant Class 2-3 ridge scramble.  Although not unofficially named, this summit might very well be the finest viewpoint in this area.

Group On Royal Peak

The panorama includes stunning close-ups of Mt. Mystery, Mt. Deception, and all of the Royal Needles.

Mt Deception From Royal Peak

Upon ogling the handsome façade of Mt. Clark, there was now no question that it would be on our afternoon agenda.

Mt Clark and Sundial From Royal Pass

We scrambled back to our saddle above Royal Pass, then followed a well-traveled bootpath down to upper Royal Basin (3.8 hours from Deception Basin).  A large flat area near a turquoise-colored tarn provided a roomy campsite for our group.  After lunch, Steve, Suzanne, Eileen, Kevin, and I organized summit packs and headed up to climb Mt. Clark.

Surprise Col and Mt Clark

We ascended heather and talus to the rim of a glacial moraine surrounding Surprise Basin, then dropped down to the basin’s snowfields.  The direct sun and afternoon heat made our climb to 6920-foot Surprise Col seem longer than it really was, but this put us in good position only 600 feet below the towering summit.

West Face Of Mt Clark From Col

From the col, we went straight up a talus slope to some cliffs, then skirted rightward beneath these cliffs for about 100 yards on a southwest-facing Class 2 ledge.  Where the cliffs became split by a Y-shaped gully system, we went straight up to a big boulder and then veered right to gain a notch in the southeast ridge (Class 2-3).   The climb had been very straightforward to this point, but now things got interesting.

According to the guidebook’s description for “Route 1,” we were supposed to descend the ridge’s other side to reach an east ledge.  We could see the ledge about 50 feet down, but there was no obvious descent route.  After 10 minutes of poking around and rejecting various alternatives, I finally spotted a way to downclimb to a diagonal crack system, which terminated at the east ledge.  It was very exposed, but the rock was solid and well-featured.  We all managed to scramble down unroped, and this diagonal crack proved to be a key to our entire climb.

Downclimbing To East Ledge

We easily followed the east ledge (Class 1-2) northward for about 50 yards, to the bottom of a shallow gully that led upward to the summit rocks.  Despite being somewhat loose and rubbly, this gully offered a reasonable scramble to the base of a steeply inclined dihedral ramp.  From there, I roped up with Eileen and Steve to climb the ramp (Class 4) while Kevin and Suzanne scrambled a broken face (Class 3) on the left.  We eventually regrouped at the base of the summit block.  Actually, it wasn’t clear where the summit was until Kevin and Suzanne scrambled up a higher-looking horn to the northwest and then realized that the true summit was an intimidating block directly above us.  The only feasible ascent route seemed to be a shallow slot cutting up through its north face.  This slot turned out to be a fun Class 3-4 climb with excellent holds and good protection.  We used a rope here for purposes of a belay or handline, and by 4:40pm (3.6 hours from upper Royal Basin) our “Mount Clark Five” climbing team was standing on the airy summit.

Mt Clark Five On Summit

We spent 20 minutes enjoying close-up views of the amazing horns and spires of the Royal Needles, and far-away views of Puget Sound.

Royal Needles and Mt Johnson

The summit register comprised several scraps of paper in a large, stout tube.  We signed in, then made one 60-foot rappel (with 55 feet of rope) off the summit block.

Suzanne Rappelling Off Summit

Suzanne then teased out a Class 3 downclimb through the broken face and over a cliff to the right, entirely bypassing the loose gully.

Downclimbing Class 3 Slot

We easily climbed back up the steep diagonal crack and down to Surprise Col.  An hour or so later found us splashing in our turquoise-colored tarn for a pre-dinner clean-up.  The mosquitoes seemed to appreciate our good hygiene;  they swarmed us relentlessly while we ate.

The Sundial From Royal Tarn

Day 4  —  For the third morning in a row, we awoke to cloudless skies and mild temperatures.  Our agenda consisted only of a 9-mile hike down Royal Creek on good trail.  However, Eileen’s feet were now so badly blistered and battered that this trail hike wasn’t looking so easy for her.  The situation was resolved by having her wear my Size 12 aqua-shoes—complete with extra socks stuffed in the toes—instead of her boots.  Amazingly, she completed the 9 miles with happy feet and high spirits, and we all reached the trailhead before noon (3.9 hours from upper Royal Basin).

Loop Stats (car to car, excluding sidetrips):  27 miles, 8300 feet gained.

Loop Stats (car to car, including sidetrips):  30 miles, 10,700 feet gained.

Route Comments:   In typical fashion, the Olympic climber’s guidebook provides only a sketchy description of the standard route (“Route 1”) up Mt. Clark.  This is not necessarily a bad thing, though;  we actually enjoyed filling in the blanks and teasing out the route.  Overall, the standard route is complex, varied, interesting, challenging, exposed, and a real blast.  Considering how it spirals a full 270 degrees around the peak, I think the name “Corkscrew Route” would be accurate and appropriate.  I’ve attached a sketch of our route, for those who like to have more details.

Link to Route Sketch for Mt Clark … MtClarkCorkscrewRouteSketch

————————— Route Maps ——————————-

Corkscrew Route Sketch

Gunsight Pass Loop Map Large

Gunsight Pass Loop Map Small

————— Complete Photo Gallery (double-click to enlarge) ——————