July 3-8, 2013

Independence Day Weekend Climbing Trip:  Ptarmigan Mountains

Gunsight Peak attempt (8198′)
Agnes Mountain (8115′)

——————– Trip Report Summary ——————–

Region: North-Central Cascades

Starting & Ending Point: High Bridge Guard Station & Campground (Stehekin River Road)

Way Points: Agnes Creek Trailhead & Agnes Creek & Three-Mile Campground & Swamp Creek Campground & Upper Agnes Creek log & Spruce Creek log & Spruce Creek slope & Upper Blue Basin (hike & bushwhack)

Campsites: Swamp Creek Campground & Upper Blue Basin & Three-Mile Campground

Sidetrip: Icy-Spruce Pass & South Gunsight Notch & Chikamin Glacier

Summit Attempt: Gunsight Peak (climb to moat via Chikamin Glacier)

Sidetrip: Icy-Spruce Pass & South Agnes Ridge (snow climb & scramble)

Summit: Agnes Mountain (climb via South Ridge—West Gully—Northwest Face)

Approximate Total Stats:  34 miles traveled;  13,000 feet gained and lost.

——————– Full Trip Report ——————–

For our Independence Day Weekend trip this year, Fay, George, Eileen, and I headed up Lake Chelan and ventured into the Agnes Creek drainage.  Our collective goal was to climb Gunsight Peak and Agnes Mountain.  These two outstanding peaks form the southeastern tip of the scythe-shaped chain of “Ptarmigan Mountains” extending southward from Johannesberg Mtn to Dome Peak (the handle) and then curving out to the southeast (the blade).  Gunsight Peak had been on Fay’s wish-list for several years—and not just because of its compelling name and renowned granite.  Agnes Mountain had been my most coveted summit for several years.  The frumpy feminine name of this peak belies that fact that it is a desirable and surly mistress with few peers in the Cascades.

Day 1 – Fields Point to Swamp Creek Campground:

We all met at Fields Point Landing and rode the Lady Express up to Stehekin.  After missing the shuttle bus due to some humorous confusion, we eventually made it to High Bridge, our jumpoff point for the trip.  The hot afternoon was spent hiking 8-½ miles up the Agnes Creek Trail (PCT) to Swamp Creek Campground (5.2 hours from High Bridge).

Wilderness Sign On Agnes Creek Trail

Day 2 – Swamp Creek Campground to Upper Blue Basin:

We cached some food and gear at Swamp Creek, then hiked up-trail to find a suitable log across Agnes Creek.  The normal log mentioned by Beckey seems to be gone now, but thanks to some precise coordinates provided by Beth B, we located a nice log farther up Agnes Creek (around Mile 10), and another log across nearby Spruce Creek.  However, our good fortune with the creek crossings was almost overshadowed by bad luck in selecting a cross-country route up the hillside northwest of Spruce Creek:  we gained the first 1000 vertical feet in thick brush and scrub trees.  Above Elev. 4000 feet, the brush thankfully started easing off, and we reached “Upper Blue Basin” by late afternoon (10.0 hours from Swamp Creek) without too much more floral misery.  A small knoll of rock and heather provided a nice high camp for the next three nights.

Crossing Log Over Agnes Creek

Day 3 – Gunsight Peak Attempt:

After waiting for the sun to warm up our campsite, we all headed up to “Icy-Spruce Pass” and continued westerly above Blue Lake toward Gunsight Peak.

Gunsight Peak From Icy Spruce Pass
Blue Lake and Saddle Bow Mountain

The snow travel was relatively easy and scenic, but we lost some time crossing Gunsight’s south ridge by following Beckey’s advice to use the second col south of the south peak.  It is an error to use this second col;  the correct col is actually the first col south of the south peak.

Sinister Peak and Dome Peak From Gunsight Col
Traversing Toward Gunsight Peak
Agnes Mountain From Gunsight Col

Despite our unintended detour, we arrived at the base of Gunsight’s stupendous west face around noon (4.0 hours from high camp).  Our summit hopes quickly faded, however, when we discovered a deep, scary moat separating us from the rock face.  There seemed to be no way of accessing the face without climbing into the abyss—something none of us wanted to risk.  We threw our towels into the moat and slowly headed back to camp, enjoying the sunny scenery along the way.

Day 4 – Agnes Mountain Climb:

Having already tucked in Agnes Mountain on a previous trip, Fay spent a leisurely day near camp, while George and Eileen and I headed out at 6:00am.  We crossed over Icy-Spruce Pass, then made a rising traverse over snow, talus, and rock slabs to reach the crest of Agnes’ south ridge.

Eileen Climbing Up South Ridge

Starting on a level area south of Point 7760, we roped up and climbed several pitches of Class 4-5 rock on or left of the crest.  When the crest became too craggy, we down-climbed one pitch to a ledge system, then followed this northward to a rubbly whaleback.  This whaleback gave us our first head-on view of the incredibly steep, foreboding summit block, and it was a bladder-emptying sight.  We descended 200 feet to the 7480-foot south col (6.2 hours from high camp).

Agnes Mountain Summit Block

From the south col, we traversed a high snowpatch, then ascended a broad Class 2-3 ramp located closely left of a distinctive snow-filled gully.  This ramp went straight up, then dog-legged right to reach a short headwall.  George led up the headwall but discovered that the ridge above was blocked by a large horn.  We crossed over a small rib, descended 25 feet, and found ourselves at the top of the previously observed snow-filled gully.   Beckey mentions that a 30-foot Class 5.5 chimney can be climbed to exit the snow gully.  I eagerly led up what appeared to be the correct chimney, but this ended at yet another impassible horn.  It was now mid-afternoon, and I could feel the summit slipping away from us.

We rappelled back down the chimney to the snow gully and found a second chimney immediately to the right of the first chimney.  George, who is an excellent rock climber, led this second chimney pitch and declared it to be a solid Class 5.8—certainly the crux of the entire climb.  After one more roped pitch, we were able to scramble the final 100 feet to the much-anticipated summit, arriving at 4:30pm (10.6 hours from high camp).  The summit register dates back to 1969 or so, and it shows that Agnes gets one climbing party every 3 or 4 years on average.

George and Eileen On Agnes Mountain Summit
Gunsight Peak and Dome Peak From Agnes Mountain
Forbidden Peak and Mount Buckner From Agnes Mountain

We left the summit at 5:00pm and made three rappels to reach the upper gully.  Once back at the south col, we checked out a possible descent route down an east-facing snow couloir, which Fay had recommended.  This couloir looked much faster than climbing back along the south ridge, so we descended it 1400 feet, using snow flukes and running belays for protection.

First Rappel From Agnes Mountain
Descending Snow Couloir On Agnes Mountain

At the couloir mouth, we began a long rising traverse southward to a 7400-foot snow col near Point 7458.  The last hour of our climb to the col was by headlamp, as was the next 2 hours descending to Upper Blue Basin.  Fay’s signal light was a welcome sight as we slowly weaved and rappelled our way down to camp in the darkness, arriving at 1:50am (8.8 hours from summit).

Day 5 – Upper Blue Basin to Three-Mile Camp:

We slept late, following yesterday’s 20-hour adventure.  Once packed and underway, we generally retraced our cross-country up-route from Spruce Creek.  Fortunately, however, Fay and George were able to tease out a mostly brush-free route below Elev 4000 feet.  We crossed Spruce Creek and Agnes Creek on the same logs (after I made some carpentry improvements to the latter log), then hiked about 7 miles down Agnes Creek before collapsing at “Three-Mile Camp,” a small, rudimentary, trailside campsite 3 miles from the trailhead (10.7 hours from high camp).

Day 6 – Three-Mile Camp to Stehekin:

After a 3-mile morning stroll down to High Bridge, we caught the 9:00am shuttle bus back to Stehekin.


——————– Route Map / Sketch ——————–


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