July 1-3, 2006

Hozomeen Mountain: South Peak aka “Hard Hoze Peak” (8003′)

——————– Summary ——————–

Independence Day Climbing Trip:  Upper Skagit Mountains

Starting Point: Hozomeen Lake & West Hozomeen Gully & West Hozomeen Slope return via Hozomeen Creek  (hike & bushwhack)

Campsites: West Hozomeen Slope

Summit: Hozomeen Mountain: south peak  (climb via West Gully—West Notch—South Face—West Ridge)

——————– Full Report ——————–

Over an uncharacteristically warm and sunny Independence Day Weekend, I joined Mike T., Fay, Dave, and Beth for a climb of Hozomeen Mountain at the head of Ross Lake.  Our team goal was to tuck in both the north and south peaks from a camp (or camps) high on the mountain’s western flank.  Actually, I was interested only in the south peak but was willing to do a repeat of the north peak because it would have been by a different route than what I’d previously done—and because the company was too good to miss.

As it turned out, Hozomeen Mountain is well-equipped to rebuke such ambitious climbing goals.  We soon discovered why Dallas Kloke considers the south peak to be one of Washington’s ten most-difficult-to-reach summits.  It could appropriately be called “Hard Hoze” using the Mox Peaks model.

Day 1  —  Our quintet started up the 4-mile trail to Hozomeen Lake at 11:30am, prepared for a long, hot afternoon of hiking and bushwhacking.  We hoped to establish a high camp somewhere above 6000 feet in a west-facing basin between the two objective peaks.  Upon reaching the lake, however, we realized that the high temperatures and stagnant air would make for difficult travel up the steep hillside.  If we’d had any idea how difficult, we might not have gone past Hozomeen Lake! Naively, we continued off-trail around the eastern shore.

North and Southwest Peaks From Hozomeen Lake

It took an hour to hike around the lake before we could start angling uphill toward the high western basin.  Travel was slow and tedious because of the countless blowdown trees and moderate brush.

North Peak From Basin

This northwestern part of the Pasayten Wilderness, encompassing Hozomeen Mountain and Castle Peak, features the scruffiest and most annoying forests I’ve ever had the displeasure of crashing through.  We crossed a dry, cobbly streambed at 3100 feet and kept angling up to the left, eventually coming upon another dry (but not cobbly) streambed at 3300 feet.  Realizing that the cobbly streambed was actually the channel we should be following, we switchbacked to the right.

Gradually, the forest steepened, the afternoon sun moved onto our west-facing slope, the heat increased, and Mike became more vocal about his discomfort.  Worse yet, our water supply was becoming depleted.

We kept moving up and to the right, hoping to find water higher in the cobbly streambed.  Somewhere around 4000 feet, we encountered the streambed, and there was water flowing down it;  unfortunately, the channel had become a 50-foot-deep canyon with no access in sight!  Our spirits sank as we realized the seriousness of the situation:  we needed to find water within the next hour or so, otherwise our entire weekend plans would melt away.

As each of us ran completely out of water, our progress ground down to little more than a fast crawl.  It took over an hour to gain the next 500 feet, and group morale hit bedrock by the time we flopped down on the steep forest slope at 4900 feet (7.5 hours from car).

Dave had just reconnoitered the terrain up to 5200 feet and returned with the discouraging news that there was no water or flat terrain within view!  It became obvious that our trip was coming close to an ignominious ending in the late-afternoon heat of Day 1.  A retreat to Hozomeen Lake seemed imminent, but we needed water just to facilitate our retreat, so we decided that three of us would drop packs and go scouting for some sort of access to the stream canyon.

I filled my summit pack with empty water bottles and started contouring to the right (south) with Dave and Mike.  The tantalizing sound of running water grew louder, and we eventually came in view of the stream.  By good fortune—or clean living—we popped out near the only visible access point in either direction.  Minutes later, the three of us were slaking our thirst with cold mountain water!

Maybe our climb could be salvaged after all, we thought, but there was still the matter of finding a campsite. Upon returning to our packs with several gallons of fresh water, Fay and Beth informed us that they had found several low-grade bivouac sites among some boulders about 50 feet upslope.  These sites were decidedly sub-par, but it was now almost 8:00pm and we were desperate.  I checked into Room 5 of the Hozomeen Hotel, bedded down on a lumpy mattress, and wondered what tomorrow would bring.  Day 2 couldn’t be nearly as grim as Day 1, could it?

Mike and Dave In Forest Camp

Day 2  —  We were up at first light and on the move with summit packs at 6:00am.  It was delightfully cool and clear, but we knew the day would be hot again.  After contouring over to the stream gully and refilling our water bottles, we headed straight up the gully invert.

Scrambling Up Stream Gully

Two hours of trudging up unstable boulders brought us to fairly clean, slabby bedrock below a ridge connecting the south and southwest peaks.  We enjoyed another hour of scrambling up these slabs toward a high (about 7100 feet) notch at the left side of the connector ridge, but the ever-steepening angle eventually prompted us to cut sharply rightward on a well-defined ledge system.  We aimed for a slightly lower (about 6900 feet) saddle located directly below the southwest peak.

Scrambling Toward Notch

Where our well-defined ledge ended at a little erosion trough, we were forced to climb straight up 30 feet of steep, exposed, loose rock to the ridge crest.  Dave topped out first and shouted encouragement to the rest of us, who were shakily climbing in a tight spacing.  It was at this point, while I was desperately clinging with white-knuckled fingers to loose handholds, that someone closely above me dislodged a laptop-computer-sized rock in my general direction!  I somehow managed to move 5 feet to the right in a fleeting moment of horror, but my heart didn’t stop pounding until 15 or 20 minutes later.

North Peak From Below Notch

From the ridge crest, we easily scrambled another 100 feet northeastward to the top of a rock knob between the 7100-foot notch and 6900-foot saddle (4.0 hours from camp).

Fay Scrambling Up Knob

Here, we got our first view of the south peak, and it wasn’t pretty:  menacingly steep slabs, ribs, rubble chutes, and snow patches led up to an incomprehensibly vertical summit wedge.  Every one of us had serious doubts that we could even reach the base of the summit wedge, let alone get to the top of it!  I wanted to go home.

South Peak From Knob

Dave gingerly down-climbed very exposed (but thankfully solid) Class 3-4 rock to the 7100-foot notch and then descended another 200 feet of heathery Class 2-3 rock until he could start traversing eastward.  We followed him down and over, crossing a series of three moderately steep (35 to 40 degrees) snow patches and their intervening Class 3 rock ribs.  After leaving the third snow patch, we stashed ice axes and zigzagged upward on unnerving, scree-covered, down-sloping ledges.  About 100 feet higher, the rock became considerably steeper.

Heeding the vague description in Cascade Alpine Guide, Dave started up to the right on Class 4 rock, but the rest of us balked at this idea.  We all felt that a rope and protection were necessary to continue.  However, the geology of Hozomeen Mountain does not offer much in the way of cracks and horns;  the rock has a pillowy texture that renders stoppers, cams, and slings virtually useless.  (A bolt kit would be the only means of protection, but we’d left that back in the 1970s.)  Furthermore, the terrain above looked more like Class 5, which was not what the brochure advertised.

Our situation was totally demoralizing, and for the fourth time (or was this the fifth time?) in the past 24 hours, we felt that the climb was over.  No, this time we knew our climb was over.  Everyone sat down on the raveling scree and began dreading our retreat off this god-forsaken hill.  Everyone except Dave, that is.  He had crossed over to the left and discovered a shallow trough that looked slightly promising.  Displaying unexpected optimism, he barked:  “I think I can get up to the summit-ridge col this way, but I need someone to come with me!  I’m can’t do that Class 5.6 face by myself!”

There was a long silence as Mike, Beth, Fay, and I looked at Dave, looked at his proposed route, and looked at each other.  Nobody wanted to move.  It seemed so futile.  Then, inexplicably, I stood up and started traversing over.  As badly as I wanted to get off this terrible mountain, the guilt of letting a teammate down—combined with the shame of squandering what was undoubtedly my only chance at a summit that I dearly wanted—was just a little bit worse.

One by one, the others stood up and came over too.  Yes!  If we were fools, at least we were all fools together.  This would prove to be the emotional turning point in our trip, but certainly not the end of our difficulties and doubts.

Dave’s route to the col turned out to be a reasonable scramble up moderately steep, but relatively solid, rock.  Within minutes, all five of us were standing in the col and gazing up along a most intimidating summit ridge.

Scrambling Up To Col

The numerous gendarmes and notches on the crest, and the incredibly precipitous left side—this wall plunges vertically for a full 1000 feet to a northeastern cirque—made safe progress seem very unlikely.  Nonetheless, we were inspired enough to keep going until the mountain put an insurmountable obstacle in our path.

Mike and Fay Climbing Above Col

Class 3 scrambling on or closely right of the crest led us to the first obstacle:  a 30-foot step with an overhang on the left and a slanting ramp on the right.  We stashed our packs and roped up, expecting this to be the beginning of our final push, however it may play out.

Because the ramp looked like something I could actually climb, I agreed to lead the first pitch.  It turned out to be about 50 feet of enjoyable Class 5.0 climbing on solid and surprisingly protectable rock (I placed four stoppers and one cam but bypassed a rusty piton).  I anchored the rope and the others climbed up using self-belay prusik slings.

Beth Climbing Class 5 Ramp

We found ourselves standing on a level rock gable (this can be seen in photographs as the distinctive shoulder feature halfway between the col and summit)terminating in a 15-foot-high buttress.  Dave quickly scrambled up this Class 4 buttress and fixed a prusik line for the rest of us.

Setting Fixed Rope On Class 4 Step

We continued traversing a series of ledges on the right side of the crest and eventually came up to a heinous-looking face that bulged outward slightly.  To the left was a sharp corner leading around to the sheer north face;  to the right was a long vertical wall.

Clearly, we were at the infamous 12-foot-high Class 5.6 step.  It was reassuring to know that we were spot-on the route but distressing to see that the step looked higher than 12 feet, the climbing looked harder than Class 5.6, the rock looked crumbly, and there was no protection.  Does this peak ever give up?

Mike, Fay, Beth, and I each evaluated the situation and came to the same conclusion:  if Dave—by far our group’s best technical climber—couldn’t get up this thing, our summit bid would die here, a mere 100 feet below the top.  Fay has often talked about her “moments of doubt,” which nearly all climbers face on occasion, but this peak was giving us “hours of doubt”!

We waited anxiously while Dave scrambled up and examined the bulging rock step. He agreed that it looked dicey and unprotectable but was willing to give it a try.  Mike put him on belay, and he spent several minutes checking out various handhold and foothold options, backing down each time.  The sequence of moves would require a huge commitment to questionable holds, and the risk showed in his facial expression.

Dave Leading Crux Bulge

Once again, we were getting a strong, bitter taste of defeat.  Then, in quick succession, Dave completed the moves and disappeared over the bulge.  We clapped and shouted our approval!  On tight belay, the rest of us joined him above, with spirits soaring at having overcome the last obstacle.  Or was it the last?

Just beyond our belay point, the crest eased back and then stepped up again.  It was an exposed 10-foot-high Class 4 step, but Beth wasn’t waiting for a rope this time; she scrambled up and over, then made a beeline across scree slopes and up a Class 2-3 gully.  While Dave and Mike dealt with the ropes, Fay and I followed Beth’s route over the step, across the scree, and up the gully.  We wouldn’t let ourselves believe that the summit was actually just a short scramble away, yet we couldn’t help noticing that there were no more obstacles in view.

Powered by summit adrenaline, I raced up the Class 2-3 gully, with Fay 20 feet behind and with Dave and Mike closing in.  However, our glee suddenly turned to shock when I dislodged a trio of softball-size rocks down the gully!  I screamed “ROCKS…ROCKS” as they bounded directly toward Fay, who had only enough time to duck her head and helplessly wait for the impact!

Two rocks bounced over her body but the third rock hit her on top of the shoulder. Mike and Dave and I waited several agonizing seconds as she assessed the damage.  What a relief it was when she reported that her shoulder was sore but apparently uninjured.  Nevertheless, I felt terrible.  This brief incident served as a harsh reminder to keep climbing with great care and vigilance.

One at a time, we proceeded up the gully and walked the final few yards to the summit (9.0 hours from camp), where Beth was waiting expectantly.

Group On Summit

There were grins and handshakes all around—as well as a numb, incredulous feeling.  After absorbing so much doubt about whether we’d even get close to the summit, and after mentally accepting defeat several times, we couldn’t quite grasp the reality of being on the summit.  More importantly, we couldn’t quite grasp the reality of how we were going to get off the summit and back to camp.

The summit register bore witness to the difficulty of climbing Hozomeen’s south peak;  inside a simple glass jar was a notebook that hadn’t been signed since 1993!  We added our names, snapped some summit photos, and then began what was sure to be a long, hazardous, nerve-wracking descent.

North Peak and Silvertip Peak

Jack Mountain From Hozomeen

 

A short but scary rappel got us over the Class 5.6 bulge, then some very careful down-climbing took us past the Class 4 step.

Dave Rappelling Over Bulge

After making a 50-foot rappel over the Class 5.0 ramp, we continued scrambling down the crest, the crux of which was a blind slither-move over a small horn with breathtaking exposure.  It was after 4:30pm when we all convened at the col.  From there, two double-rope rappels got us cleanly down to the third snow patch.  We retrieved ice axes and reversed our route back to the rock knob (2.9 hours from summit).  It was now 6:30pm and we knew that our return to camp would be pushing darkness.

After scrambling down to the 6900-foot saddle, we all followed Mike as he teased out a nice ledge traverse back to the right (north).  The remainder of our descent to the stream-gully access point involved a blur of clean slabs, steep dirt, shifting boulders, and aggravating rubble.

Before making the final traverse over to camp, we refilled water bottles and washed off grime in the stream.  It was around 10:00pm when the last of us rolled into camp by headlamp (6.6 hours from summit).  My mattress at the Hozomeen Hotel was just as lumpy as the night before, but this time I slept the deep sleep of a weary battle-survivor.

Day 3  —  Our campsite came alive sluggishly in the cool morning air.  We ate a leisurely breakfast and nursed our many wounds.  Any prior goals of tucking in other nearby summits had vanished;  our new goal was merely to get to the trailhead as quickly and painlessly as possible.

Rather than retracing our up-route around the southern end of Hozomeen Lake to pick up the trail, we made a westerly beeline for the trail’s midpoint.  This meant descending steep forest slopes between the two dry streambeds, crossing Hozomeen Creek at 2400 feet, and veering northwestward to catch the trail at its closest point.

Amazingly, our descent plan worked.  We were subjected to only a mile of brush and deadfall near the creek;  the upper slopes were almost brush-free.  It was shortly before noon when we arrived at our cars (3.6 hours from camp), and we eagerly took a refreshing dip in Ross Lake before heading home.

The restorative power of cold lake water is truly something to behold.  While soaking cuts and bruises under the towering eminence of Hozomeen Mountain, Mike, Beth, Fay, and Dave were already planning their assault on the north peak.  I, on the other hand, am happy to close my book on this remarkable mountain.

Stats (car to car):  15 miles, 7500 feet gained.

Route Comments:  The scarcity of water on this route makes it unappealing to do after the snow melts out.  May or early June seems like the most advantageous time for an attempt.  Any time of year, one can expect to find abundant steep and loose rock, relentless exposure, sustained Class 3-4 climbing, and scarce protection.  When these conditions are combined with the grueling approach, it’s not too surprising that most of us regarded this as, overall, the most difficult peak we’ve ever climbed.

Gear Comments:  We used a few small to medium stoppers and cams for belay anchors and intermediate pitch protection.  We also used numerous single, double, and triple runners for belay and rappel anchors.  For the crux Class 5.6 bulge, a ropegun is mandatory.

————————— Route Map —————————-

South Hozomeen Map

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