September 2-4, 2011
Mount Formidable (8325’)
——————– Summary ——————–
Starting Point: Cascade Pass Trailhead (Cascade River Road)
Way Points: Cascade Pass & Mixup Arm & Cache Glacier & Cache Col & Kool-Aid Lake (hike & climb)
Campsite: Kool-Aid Lake
Sidetrip: Red Ledges & Middle Cascade Glacier & Spider-Formidable Col & South Formidable Saddle (hike & climb)
Summit: Mt. Formidable (climb via South Face—East Ridge)
——————– Full Report ——————–
Eileen and I teamed up with Beth over Labor Day Weekend to tackle Mt. Formidable in the Ptarmigan backbone area. This mountain had floated upward in our respective wish lists, so we were prepared to give it all we could. As we discovered, the mountain is appropriately named, and we had our plates full.
Day 1: We hiked up to Cascade Pass and onward over Mixup Arm, following the well-trodden Ptarmigan Traverse route. The Cache Glacier offered quick travel up to Cache Col (4.7 hours from car), where the moat crossing was easily made. Mt. Formidable’s incredibly rugged and glacier-clad north face greeted us from the col. Surely this is one of the classic sights in the Cascades.
We continued downward over alternating heather slopes, talus tongues, and snowfields until near Kool-Aid Lake. Somewhere before the lake, we all dropped backpacks and ascended into the southwestern cirque of Magic Mtn. Although this peak seems quite demure compared to its neighbors, its cirque forms an impressive arc of steep, furrowed rock. Eileen and I spent an half-hour scrambling around the steep cliffs, looking for an easy summit route, but all options seemed to turn into Class 4 or 5 rock rather quickly. We retreated to Kool-Aid Lake, where Beth had already set up her tent on a nearby hummock. We pitched our own tent and then enjoyed alpenglow on Mt Formidable while eating dinner.
Day 2: We awoke to blue skies and a cold breeze coming off the high ridges. By about 7:30am, we were underway toward the Middle Cascade Glacier. Our long southerly traverse took us across countless bands of heather, snow, and talus. The only variety was provided by the famous (or, for some, infamous) Red Ledges, which were thankfully snowfree and benign. The glacier itself was perfectly crispy and spectacularly scenic.
We reached the Spider-Formidable Col in late morning (3.3 hours from camp) and took a snack break to gawk at the fabulous panorama of Ptarmigan peaks. It would have been wise for us to also spend a little bit of time checking our route beta, because we made a bone-headed error here: we tried to descend from the dangerously steep western side of the col rather than the easy eastern side. DOH!! By the time we corrected this blunder, nearly an hour had slipped through our fingers. This lost hour would come back to haunt us later…or would it?
From below the S-F Col, we traversed mellow snow slopes over and up to a broad saddle located southeast of Mt Formidable. This offered a good viewpoint for scoping out the south face route. I found the face to be very complex and our route descriptions to be confusing. Fortunately, Beth had a bead on this summit and quickly traced out a suitable route; she took control of the steering wheel for the rest of the climb. We descended a snowfinger directly below the ridge saddle, then traversed upward to a prominent rock rib extending southward from the peak’s face.
We gained this rib on a broad shoulder composed of horizontally bedded sandstone. Where the rib flattened into the face farther up, we ascended a large snowpatch to its upper-right corner, then exited onto rock. Sandstone steps led upward to a low-angle sandstone ramp that extended leftward to mid-face. The crux of our route turned out to be a deep cleft that cleanly bisected the sandstone ramp.
We roped up and belayed across this Class 4-5 cleft, then continued upward about 600 feet on broken Class 3 rock, reaching the summit at 4:20pm (8.7 hours from camp). The splendid views demanded a half-hour stay even with the inevitability that we’d be returning to camp in the dark.
Our descent of the south face was cautious but fairly efficient. I recalled that a fatality had occurred on a descent of this face several years ago and so treated every hold with skepticism. Soon we were back on the comforting sandstone shoulder and heading for the south saddle. The last rays of sunlight tinged our ascent of the snowfinger, as well as the LeConte Glacier to the southeast.
To the northeast, Spider Mtn glowed with red-orange alpenglow.
This was magic time in the mountains! We hurried back over S-F Col, then cramponed down the Middle Cascade Glacier in the last hint of twilight, all the while pushed by a cold tailwind. As we wound our way through this amazing alpine landscape, it occurred to me that so often my fondest mountain memories are the product of errors, misjudgments, and other purely unintentional events. Would I really want that lost hour back now? Naaahhh!!
Upon reaching the glacier’s edge, we pulled out headlamps and began a long, tedious contour back across the talus and snow slopes. The Ptarmigan Traverse route appears to be well-defined in broad daylight, but when seen in 10-yard segments, it becomes a route-finding challenge. We benefitted from Beth’s new role as a techno-geek, because she had marked many waypoints on her GPS. Nonetheless, it took all of our combined efforts to stay on the trodden path. The Red Ledges, in particular, seemed distressingly narrow and slippery in the dark. Our surreal journey finally ended at 11:30pm, when our headlamps reflected off our tents (6.8 hours from summit).
But the evening was not over so soon. The nighttime winds in camp were so strong that they had moved our tent several feet from its moorings—despite the 50 pounds of rock I’d placed inside—and were threatening to crush it. After a stressful hour of trying to support the tent walls from inside, Eileen and I decided to pack up the tent and sleep in the open air. This worked quite well, and at 12:30am we dozed off beneath the gale.
Day 3: I was relieved to awake to gentle winds in the morning. While Eileen and Beth were still sleeping, I went in search of wind-blown gear. My efforts recovered one sock and one bra in the trees below camp, but our water bucket was AWOL (probably halfway to Marblemount by then). We had a lazy morning before heading back toward the trailhead. Upon reaching Cache Col, I was greeted by three climbers who were each lounging on rocks and smoking cigarettes. They looked as though they had just stepped out of a Marlboro advertisement. A while later, two mountain goats strolled past us without a care. This appears to be the place to view wildlife of all sorts! We reached the busy Cascade Pass TH by late-afternoon (6.1 hours from camp) with a wonderful adventure under our belts.
Approx Stats: 22 miles, 10,600 feet gained and lost.
—————— Photo Gallery (click to enlarge) —————–