July 14-15, 2012
The Brothers: North Peak (6650′)
——————– Summary ——————–
Starting Point: Lena Lake & Valley of the Silent Men & Lena Forks Camp & East Lena Creek Basin & Lunch Rock (hike & climb)
Campsite: Lunch Rock
Summit: The Brothers: north peak (climb via Southeast Ridge—Great Basin—East Couloir—South Ridge [Route 1] )
——————– Full Report ——————–
Encouraged by a favorable weather forecast, Fay, Lisa L, Eileen, and I headed into the Olympic Mountains last weekend to climb The Brothers—the undisputed guardians of the southern Hood Canal. This iconic double-summited mountain is so visible from the Seattle/Tacoma metropolis that is seems to possess a magnetic attraction for serious climbers and ill-prepared hikers alike. We’re all familiar with the amiable “bigger brother,” but we soon found out that the often-forgotten “smaller brother” has a feisty disposition.
Lisa and Eileen and I headed up the Lena Lake Trail on Saturday morning and met Fay at Lena Forks Camp in early afternoon (3.6 hours from TH). Thunder was rumbling in the distance and the air was muggy, but we never felt rain. We all continued up the climber’s path to Lunch Rock, arriving at dinnertime (8.1 hours from TH). I had expected to find numerous bivouac sites here, but we could find only one (at about 5300 feet). Fortunately, it was just large enough to squeeze in four bivy sacks. The evening was clear and warm, with only a few mosquitoes around, and we ate dinner in full scenic view of Mt. Washington and Mt. Pershing.
On Sunday, we awoke to low valley fog and clear skies. It was going to be a gloriously sunny day, just as the weathermen said. We prepared summit packs, stashed our camping gear, and started upward at 7:00am. A short distance uphill, our group split in half: Lisa and Eileen headed left toward the South Brother, while Fay and I headed right toward the North Brother.
The Olympic Climber’s Guide provides little information about the start of “Route 1” for North Brother; it merely says to traverse around the southeast ridge and get into the large snow basin. Fay and I worked upward and rightward on scree, heather, and lumpy basalt, crossing many small ribs and gullies along the way. We eventually reached the ridge crest at a small notch around 6200 feet, but the other side was a 200-foot cliff. We needed to find a lower crossing point on this gnarly crest. Unfortunately, the valley fog had now engulfed us, making navigation even more difficult. We backtracked a ways, then traversed out on a series of exposed ledges with some Class 3-4 slots in between. These led to a small step in the crest at about 6100 feet (2.2 hours from camp), from where we could descend a steep snow finger into the snow basin.
We crossed the basin as the fog waxed and waned, then we climbed up a moderately steep snow couloir that seemed to angle toward the North Brother. At one point, I looked up and saw a hanging snow block about the size of a two-car garage. “That thing will probably break loose on some hot, sunny day soon,” I thought to myself, giving it a comfortable berth. The top of the couloir transitioned into a 45-degree snowfinger that necked down to only 3 feet wide in one spot. Somewhere during this snow ascent, I vaguely heard some shouts from above (this turned out to be Lisa and Eileen on the south summit). Fay and I cramponed up the steep snowfinger, carefully stepped into the adjacent moat, slithered up a short but tricky chimney, and then scrambled up easier rock to the summit ridge.
The ridge that connects the north and south “brothers” consists of giant boulders that form a jagged series of horns and pinnacles. Traversing this crest is a slow process—unless you happen to be 20 feet tall. We wound back and forth around the obstacles in heavy fog, heading northward in search of something resembling a summit. We eventually narrowed our options to three or four pinnacles that all looked about the same height. After further inspection, I had managed to convince myself that one particular pinnacle was slightly higher than the others. It was 25 feet tall and cleaved in half by a roughly vertical crack, leaving an overhanging chimney on one side. Unfortunately, there was no easy way to the top. We examined all aspects and concluded that every possible route involved Class 5 climbing with moderate to high exposure. Why was there no mention of this in the Olympic Climber’s Guide?
To make matters worse, the only thing skimpier than the route description was our arsenal of rock gear, which comprised one 25-meter scramble rope, one runner, one sling, and five carabiners. Heck, we were expecting Class 3 climbing! This situation left us with only one safe option: we would have to throw the rope over the summit and then climb up using a prusik sling for protection. I gave the rope a heave, and it miraculously went over the first time. We anchored each end to boulders, tied on a prusik sling, and then took turns climbing up a smooth but solid 5.3 face on the western side.
All of our hijinks on the summit ridge had taken quite a bit of time, so it was nearly noon when I touched the summit point (4.9 hours from camp). An old, brass, Mountaineer’s register tube lay on a flat rock a few inches away. Interestingly, this was not the common style with a screw-on cap but rather an unusual style with a snap-on cap. The register inside dated back to June 1974, and it included some familiar names—such as Mike Torok, Dan Davis, Stefan Feller, and Terry Hiatt—as well as many unfamiliar names. A Colorado team had signed in a month earlier, but the last entry before them was in 2007. Perhaps many climbs are done in early season, when the register is covered by snow.
By the time we began our descent, it had started to rain lightly. There was also the unsettling roar of a distant avalanche somewhere off in the fog. We scrambled back along the ridge, made two short rappels to the steep snowfinger, and then cautiously kicked steps straight down while facing in. Farther down in the couloir, we noticed that the two-car-garage-sized snow block was gone and that our up-track had been obliterated by sliding debris over a 50-yard-wide swath. Yikes! If we’d been here an hour earlier….
We continued retracing our ascent route across the snow basin, up the other snowfinger, and back along the southeast ridge. The steady drizzle made the lichen-covered rock greasy and treacherous. Finally, after one more short rappel down a slippery slot, we were back on relatively friendly scree and heather, heading for Lunch Rock. We reached camp at 3:30pm (3.0 hours from summit) and quickly packed up. Eileen and Lisa had passed through several hours earlier and were well past Lena Forks by now. Fay and I finished our rainy exit hike just after dark (5.5 hours from camp).
Notes: The USGS map shows a triangulated elevation of 6650 feet for North Brother, but the Olympic Climber’s Guide gives an estimated elevation of 6800 feet. I’m not sure which is correct, and we certainly didn’t have an opportunity to make a visual comparison in the fog. On another topic, I don’t have tons of Olympic summits under my belt, but North Brother is second only to West Anderson Peak in terms of overall difficulty. An Olympics classic!
Approximate Stats: 20 miles R.T.; 7800 feet gained and lost.
——————— Complete Photo Gallery ———————