September 2-6, 2016
Labor Day Weekend Trip: Chiwaukum Mountains
High Chiwaukum Traverse: Lake Ethel to Lake Mary
Big McWaukum Peak (7423′)
Big Chiwaukum Peak (8081′)
Ladies Peak (7708′)
——————– Trip Report Summary ——————–
Region: Central Cascades
Starting & Ending Point: Lake Ethel Trailhead (Gill Creek Road)
Way Points: Gill Creek Ridge & Lake Ethel & Ethel-Eileen Saddle & High Meadows & McWaukum Pass & Larch Lake & Cup Lake & Cup Lake Saddle & Glacier Creek Cirque & Snowaukum Pass & Upper Grace Lake & Grace Col & Lake Charles Pass & South Chiwaukum Creek Cirque & Ladies Peak notch & Florence/Mary’s Ridge & Mary’s Pass & Lake Mary & Frosty Pass & Wildhorse Creek Valley & White Pine Creek & White Pine Trailhead (hike & climb); White Pine Road & US-2 & Gill Creek Road (bike ride)
Campsites: Lake Ethel & Larch Lake & Upper Grace Lake & Lake Mary
Summit: Big McWaukum Peak (climb via East Ridge)
Sidetrip: Ewing Mine Shaft (hike & climb)
Summit: Big Chiwaukum Peak (climb via East Face—South Ridge—West Face)
Summit: Ladies Peak (climb via Southeast Ridge; descent via Southwest Ridge)
Approximate Total Stats: 28 miles traveled on foot; 6.5 miles traveled on bike; 12,500 feet gained; 12,100 feet lost.
——————– Full Trip Report ——————–
Unsettled weather over Labor Day Weekend sent many of us scrambling for alternative trips. Eileen and I ended up doing a high alpine traverse through the Chiwuakum Mountains, hoping for better conditions. We had both spent several decades exploring the many nooks and crannies of the Chiwuakums, and this traverse served as a way to connect some of our favorite locations, such as Larch Lake, Grace Lakes, Ewing Basin, and the High Meadows of the Scottish Lakes. It also gave us access to the five principal summits of the Chiwaukum crest: Big McWaukum Peak (7423’), Deadhorse Peak (7534’), Big Chiwaukum Peak (8081’), Snowgrass Mountain (7993’), and Ladies Peak (7708’). Along the way, we were able to tuck in the three peaks that we hadn’t both climbed before.
Day 1 – Trailhead to Lake Ethel:
Our trip started by stashing mountain bikes at the Whitepine Creek TH, then driving over to the Lake Ethel TH. We headed up the well-maintained trail in the late afternoon. It was cool, windy, and a bit rainy during our 5-mile hike to Lake Ethel. We found a spacious and spotlessly clean campsite nestled in deep forest near the lake shore.
Day 2 – Lake Ethel to Larch Lake:
Our second day began with partly clear skies and morning sun on the lake. This gave us some hope that the weather was improving, but it turned out to be a false hope.
- Lake Ethel
We packed up and followed the trail toward a knoll above the lake, then went cross-country to reach a 6000-foot saddle between Lake Ethel and Loch Eileen. The former lake features a large, distinctive boulder sitting by itself out in the water, as can be seen in the photo below.
- Lake Ethel From Ethel-Eileen Saddle
Several small cairns and faint boot tracks led easily through a short cliff band beyond the Ethel-Eileen Saddle. Soon we were strolling through the beautiful rock-and-larch gardens of High Meadows.
- Walking Thru High Meadow
We wandered southward, crossing under the open slopes of Mt. Baldy and ending up at 6640-foot McWaukum Pass. This pass marks the “T” intersection of McCue Ridge and the Chiwaukum crest. Moody clouds created an interesting scene around us.
- Mount Baldy From McWaukum Pass
Big McWaukum Peak is a straight-forward ascent from McWaukum Pass, so we dropped packs and headed up the east ridge. The metamorphic geology throughout the Chiwaukum Mountains leads to some striking topography, as seen here. One side of this ridge is a uniform slope, whereas the other side drops off in a series of vertical steps and overhangs. Don’t try this one in the dark!
- Heading Up Big McWaukum Peak
Everything to the west was fogged in, but we could see beautiful Larch Lake—our eventual goal for the day—to the south
- Larch Lake and Cup Lake From McWaukum Pass
After returning to McWaukum Pass, we descended a Class 2 ramp that spilled us out on a broad scree slope above Ewing Basin. Rather than dropping southward directly into the basin, we decided to traverse over to historic Ewing Mine located on the western side of the basin.
- Eileen At Ewing Mine
The mine has a well-preserved tunnel heading into the cliff. Someone with a pair of rubber boots and a bright headlamp could have a lot of fun exploring this tunnel.
- Ewing Mine Shaft
It had been threatening to rain all day, and by late afternoon the drops came aplenty. We finished our hike into Larch Lake on a wet trail. Surprisingly, nobody else was camped at this popular lake.
- Larch Lake
Day 3 – Larch Lake to Grace Lakes:
The rains subsided overnight, and we awoke to colorful, partly sunny skies.
- Morning Sun On Larch Lake
Morning alpenglow lit up Deadhorse Peak above our camp…
- Alpenglow On Deadhorse Peak
…and Big McWaukum Peak off to the north.
- Alpenglow On Big McWaukum Peak
We broke camp and started hiking toward Cup Lake, a short distance up valley. The meadows around Larch Lake seemed particularly lush and green.
- Heading For Cup Lake
- Larch Lake Meadow
Above Cup Lake, loose talus slopes ended at a 7360-foot saddle overlooking the huge Glacier Creek cirque.
- Climbing Above Cup Lake
From Cup Lake Saddle, we could see the long, jagged crest of Big Chiwaukum Peak.
- Big Chiwaukum Peak From Cup Lake Saddle
Snowgrass Mountain and Ladies Peak were visible farther to the south. A skiff of fresh snow covered many of the highest pinnacles.
- Ladies Peak and Snowgrass Mountain From Cup Lake Saddle
The upper portion of the cirque is a wonderland of glacially polished rock, heather benches, and sparkling tarns. This place cries out for a high camp.
- Tarn Below Big Chiwaukum Peak
The Chiwaukum schist here exhibits incredibly artistic textures, with convoluted bands of colorful minerals.
- Chiwaukum Schist Texture
We dropped our packs below the cliffs of Big Chiwaukum Peak and headed up with light climbing gear, initially following a left-slanting ramp. This ramp provided an easy Class 1-2 route through the cliffs until just below the ridge crest, at which point we encountered a steep dihedral gully. One roped pitch of very exposed Class 4 climbing got us past the gully and onto the crest.
- Belaying Across Exposed Ledge
Easier scrambling on the west side of the ridge brought us below the steep summit pinnacle. Despite the intimidating appearance, there is a reasonable Class 3 route up the pinnacle.
- Scrambling To Big Chiwaukum Summit
From the summit, we looked down on Grace Lakes, our intended campsite at day’s end. Smooth slopes appeared to provide a direct route down to the lakes, but our backpacks were on the other side of the mountain. Furthermore, one of our goals for this trip was to find a reasonable east-west ridge crossing.
- Grace Lakes From Big Chiwaukum Peak
Big Chiwaukum Peak’s summit register dates back to 1975 and was placed by the Alpine Roamers from Wenatchee. The register is contained in a venerable aluminum “Roamers tube.” Not many of these are left in the mountains. A party of two had signed in just a few hours ahead of us today (we had seen them on the summit ridge earlier).
- Big Chiwaukum Peak Summit Register
A frigid wind and dark skies chased us off the summit sooner than we wanted. We descended via our up-route, retrieved our backpacks, and continued traversing southward. A long, gently sloping snow ramp served nicely as a “white sidewalk” for much of our way down to a prominent rock buttress.
- Snow Ramp Below Big Chiwaukum Peak
We rounded the buttress, then curved back up to the northwest to gain a 7720-foot saddle closely south of Point 7804. This was the “Snowaukum Pass” that we’d hoped to find between Snowgrass Mountain and Big Chiwaukum Peak. It provides a good east-west route across the main crest. Inviting tundra and talus slopes led readily down to Upper Grace Lake, where we pitched our tent on a gravel bench.
- Camp At Upper Grace Lake
Day 4 – Grace Lakes to Lake Mary:
Cold fog moved through intermittently all night and into the morning. During a clear period, we scoped out a route up a narrow talus chute ending at a col just north of Point 7955. This chute turned out to be loose and unpleasant, but it effectively got us to 7560-foot “Grace Col” and back over to the eastern side of the crest.
- Snowgrass Mountain From Upper Grace Lake
We traversed in a southeasterly direction above Lake Charles until due south of the lake, then we turned right and ascended to a 7480-foot saddle.
- Traversing Above Lake Charles
The southern side of the saddle has a high, vertical cliff that blocks passage. However, a good ledge system leads off to the west across the top of the cliff. Several cairns and ducks along the way indicated that this is probably a common route to Lake Charles.
- Crossing Over Lake Charles Pass
Once off the cliff, we began a long traverse over to Ladies Peak at the far side of another large cirque. Despite the distance, a series of heather benches made for enjoyable travel here.
- Ladies Peak From Lake Charles Pass
Our traverse route took us above Lake Flora and Lake Brigham, two of the Chiwaukum’s finer gems.
- Lake Flora and Lake Brigham
When directly below Ladies Peak, we headed straight up the east face to gain a saddle high on the southeastern ridge. This ridge extends down to Ladies Pass, and a well-traveled climber’s path runs from pass to summit.
- Ladies Pass From Ladies Peak
From the summit, we could see Lake Mary—our final campsite for the trip—and nearby Lake Margaret. The views were tantalizing, but an icy gale once again chased us off the summit before we were ready.
- Lake Margaret and Lake Mary From Ladies Peak
We descended delightful grassy slopes to the southwest and eventually intersected the hiking trail where it crosses over Mary’s Pass. We hurried down to Lake Mary, arriving scant minutes before dark.
Day 5 – Lake Mary to Trailhead:
It rained steadily for much of the night but stopped just before dawn. We packed up for the last time and hiked over to Frosty Pass, then continued down the Wildhorse Trail. By the time we reached the trailhead and retrieved our mountain bikes, the weather had turned warm and sunny. A 6.5 mile bike ride down to US-2 and back up to the Lake Ethel TH completed our splendid five-day adventure.
——————– Route Map & Annotated Photos ——————–
- Descent Route From McWaukum Pass
- Ascent Route To Grace Col
- Descent Route From Lake Charles Pass
——————– Photo Gallery (click to enlarge) ——————–