July 27-29, 2006

Mid-Summer Climbing Trip No. 4:  Lower Skagit Mountains

Thornton Pass Loop: Meadow 3777 to Thornton Lakes

Mount Despair (7292′)

——————– Trip Report Summary ——————–

Region: Northwestern Cascades

Starting & Ending Point: Thornton Lakes Trailhead (Thornton Creek Road)

Way Points: Thornton Creek & Meadow 3777 & Thornton Ridge & Thornton Pass & Thornton Meadows & Lower Thornton Lake & Trapper’s Ridge & Thornton Creek (hike & bushwhack & climb)

Campsite: Thornton Pass

Sidetrip: Upper Triumph Creek Basin & Triumph Pass & Lake Regret & Upper Despair Lake (hike & bushwhack & climb)

Summit: Mt. Despair (climb via Southeast Face)

Approximate Stats: 24 miles traveled; 12,000 feet gained & lost.

——————– Full Trip Report ——————–

For this year’s fourth installment of our annual Midsummer Climbing Trip, Eric, Jon, Ryan, and I (“the regulars”) were joined by Adam, Justin, and Matt (“the uninitiated”).  Our goal was to climb Mt. Triumph and Mt. Despair over a four-day period. However, as often happens in the North Cascades, things didn’t exactly go according to plan;  a combination of stifling heat, hideous brush, rugged terrain, and lousy route-finding decisions gave our goals and souls a good thrashing.

When all was said and done, we had managed to compress four days of climbing into three days, tucked in only one summit, and experienced far more despair than triumph.  Nonetheless, we all viewed the trip as a big success and are already looking forward to next year’s adventure!

Day 1 – Trailhead to Thornton Pass:

Our first route-finding error came very early in the trip.  In fact, it was before we even left the Thornton Lakes Trailhead.  We debated over three main options for approaching the 6100-foot pass above Thornton Lakes:  (1) follow the winding trail 5½ miles to the lakes, then head up to the pass, (2) follow the trail 1 mile to Thornton Creek, then head cross-country up to the ridge and over to the pass, per Cascade Alpine Guide recommendations, or (3) head cross-country directly upward from the trailhead to the ridge and then continue over to the pass.  We settled on Option 2, thinking that CAG surely wouldn’t lead us astray.  (Yes, I can hear all of you mountaineers out there, snickering and chortling at this fallacy.)

We hiked the road/trail for a flat mile to Thornton Creek, backtracked about 50 yards, then plunged into the bushes.  Travel was actually quite reasonable—steep but open forest slopes—for the first 1000 vertical feet, which validated our decision.  However, things got ugly in a hurry.  First, we ran into a series of cliff bands that pushed us over to the left, through thickets of slide alder.

After much unpleasant contouring, we encountered a ferny talus slope above a 3800-foot hanging meadow (encompassing Point 3777), but this talus ended abruptly in a dense forest of scrub cedar. For the next two hours, we battled straight uphill through 1000 feet of nasty cedar limbs and thick brush, in full afternoon sun, with blackflies biting and wasps stinging (Adam and Ryan both got stung on their faces).  Group despair was in the red zone, and if our retreat route hadn’t been so repulsive, we might all have bailed out of the trip right there!

Eventually, we reached a rocky shoulder at 5300 feet on Thornton Ridge, above the brush and cedar.  Our moods improved greatly, along with views of the surrounding peaks.

Ascending to Thornton ridge
Mount Despair and Mount Triumph

We traversed northward over rock and heather, staying on or east of the crest.  After circumventing a 6200-foot horn on the right, we angled up to the crest at a point just west of Thornton Lakes and closely south of 6050-foot Thornton Pass.  It was already 6:00pm (7.5 hours from cars), so we established a camp among some flat benches on the crest.  Our goal of reaching Triumph Pass today had withered in the afternoon’s brush and heat—as had our energy and desire.

View From Camp
Thornton Peak From Camp

A new game plan was drafted over dinner, while we watched the sun setting behind Mt. Baker.

Mt Baker To Mt Shuksan Sunset

Due to concerns about wet weather possibly moving in by the next evening, we decided not to move camp over to Triumph Pass.  Instead, we would leave our camp here at Thornton Pass and attempt a day-trip over to Mt. Despair.  This plan made logistical sense, even though Mt. Despair looked disconcertingly far away.

Sunset Swirls Over Mt Triumph

Tomorrow would obviously be a long day, but it was probably advantageous to our plan that we didn’t know just how long!

Day 2 – Mt. Despair Climb:

We were up at 5:00am and moving by 6:20am.  From Thornton Pass, we descended steep heather to about 5300 feet, then started contouring northward to Mt. Triumph’s southwest buttress.  This involved an hour-and-a-half of flailing through shoulder-high scraggly brush, slipping over steep, dewy grasses, and crossing a deep erosion gully.

Sunrise On Mt Triumph

We eventually came to a cascading stream that flows over bedrock slabs adjacent to a forested rib.  Making good use of route beta from Chris Robertson and Mike Torok, we down-climbed the slabs for 200 feet, then cut into the forest and plunged down super-steep duff for another 500 feet.

At Waterfall Creek

At 4600 feet, we traversed northward across mossy cliffs and entered the pleasantly open basin below Triumph Pass.  An ascent of steep talus and grass got us to the breezy, 5500-foot pass by 10:10am (3.8 hours from camp).  Mt. Despair, which was 2 miles away as the crow flies, still looked so distant, but we figured our progress would be much faster from here on.

Group At Triumph Pass

We quickly descended a north-facing snowfield to 4900 feet, traversed around partially frozen “Regret Lake,” and gained a moraine on its west side.  After re-ascending to about 5300 feet, we began a long traverse across heather and slabs and several ravines to reach 5100-foot Upper Despair Lake at noon (5.6 hours from camp).

Mt Despair From Upper Despair Lake

This scenic location called for a lunch break and, for lake-loving Eric, a quick swim. Knowing that our return to camp would be fairly strenuous, Justin and Ryan opted to relax here rather than continuing up Mt. Despair.  We were all tempted to keep them company at the sunny and seldom-visited lake, but the summit beckoned.

After lunch, Eric, Jon, Matt, Adam, and I headed up a heathery ridge east of the lake and then ascended talus and snow to a cliff band below the peak’s southeast face.  I suggested surmounting this cliff at an apparent weakness on its left (southwest) side.

The entire climb reportedly involved only Class 3 scrambling, so we were all somewhat surprised to encounter uncomfortably steep, down-sloping rock here.  Out came harnesses, rock gear, and one 25-meter scramble rope—along with some dismay at the fact that our other rope was down at the lake!

We had no choice but to climb via several short pitches using our one half-length rope.  This was certainly not going to be the quick scramble that we had envisioned. Adam announced that he’d had enough excitement at this point, so he headed back to the lake.

The remaining four of us surmounted the cliff band via two short roped pitches on solid but mossy granite, with Matt taking the crux Class 5 lead.  Above, a heather-and-rock face swept upward to the summit block.

Scrambling High On Mt Despair

A few snow patches clung to the face, but their thin, overhanging edges and bad runouts didn’t make them appealing.  We carefully scrambled upward on steepening terrain.  Approximately halfway up, Eric decided that “climbing on rocks held together loosely by dirt and heather” just wasn’t his cup of tea;  he found a place to wait while Matt and Jon and I continued up.  We all were getting concerned about the time, but the summit seemed irresistibly close now.

Jon and Matt High On Mt Despair

I arrived at the base of the summit block first and was discouraged to see no obvious scramble route up the final 100 feet.  More despair!  The best option appeared to be a short, vertical dihedral on the right side.  We didn’t really have time for another roped pitch, but none of us wanted to turn away now.

I quickly roped up and led the enjoyable Class 5.0 dihedral to the sharp crest.  From there, we easily scrambled to the summit, arriving at 3:40pm (9.3 hours from camp).

Climbing Final Crack

We stayed just long enough to peruse and sign the old Trailblazers register, which indicated that our ascent was the first since 2004 and only the tenth since 1999.

Jon Signing Summit Register

It was probably a good thing that swirling clouds obscured our view of the surrounding peaks, because there was no time for gazing.

Fog Swirling Around Mt Triumph

However, there was time to honor one of Jon’s personal mountain traditions:  being photographed on a summit while eating his grandmother’s homemade cookies.

Leaving the summit at 4:00pm, we rappelled over the dihedral and carefully down-climbed to where Eric was waiting below.  Getting past the cliff band was a big concern now; our short rope was going to require two or three time-consuming rappels, and anchor points could be hard to find.

Eric saved our bacon here by finding an easy Class 3 down-climb route along the east ridge (obviously, this is the standard route that we should have found during our ascent), and soon we were all safely below the cliff band.  At 5:30pm, we rejoined the rest of our party at Upper Despair Lake.

It didn’t require too much math to figure out that we’d be getting back to camp after dark.  The only question was how much nighttime travel we would have.  Our intermediate goal now was to reach the waterfall stream before darkness fell.  From there, we would ascend to a high talus field that we’d seen from Triumph Pass, then traverse below the long palisade of Thornton Peak until we could angle up to the northernmost saddle of Thornton Pass.  If this worked, we could avoid nearly all of the bushwhacking we’d done during our morning traverse.  Traveling by headlamp, however, meant that any unexpected obstacle would likely lead to a cold bivouac on the talus field.  I dearly hoped that our group karma bank was full.

One or two at a time, we left the lake and began the 2-mile traverse over to Triumph Pass.  Adam blazed out front, whereas Matt and I started last and reached the pass at 7:45pm (3.8 hours from summit).

When I arrived, the others were sitting somberly on the lee side of a boulder as a misty wind blew up from the south.  I sensed that something was wrong and inquired about the group’s status.  Justin informed me that his insulin regulator had malfunctioned during his aerobic climb to the pass, leaving him with a dangerously high blood-sugar level.  He’d just made appropriate adjustments, but it would take about two hours for his level to return to normal.  For a typical diabetic person, this situation might require a two-hour rest, which would result in all of us being benighted at the pass.  But Justin isn’t typical; he’s a remarkable endurance athlete who runs marathons and rides double-centuries.  Digging deeply into internal energy reserves, he shouldered his pack and headed out.

Our group of seven stayed close together while descending the treacherously steep grass and talus slopes to 4600 feet.  Jon led us the entire way downhill, then across mossy cliffs into the forested rib, and then up to the waterfall stream.  We’d achieved our goal, arriving there at 9:30pm just as darkness fell.

Justin happily reported that his blood-sugar level was back to normal—for the time being—and we all took in food and water at the stream.  Headlamps went on, and the next leg of our trip began.  It was an epic in the making.

The next several hours are blurry in my mind.  There was some initial thrashing through brush, an ascent of a narrow rockslide, kicking steps across a steep snow chute, and endless traversing over a mile-wide talus field.  Seven headlamp beams cut weakly through the inky blackness and light fog of this moonless night.

Ryan led much of the way, up and over rocky outcrops, down and around snow tongues.  Several times, we stopped so that Jon could review the photos on his digital camera in hopes of identifying terrain features.  His photos showed talus extending up to the pass, but we repeatedly bumped into vertical cliffs whenever we reconnoitered upward.

At one point, I found a chockstone-choked chimney that seemed to reach the crest above, and I was ready to rope up for a short climb.  Fortunately, the others thought it was more prudent to keep looking; who knows where this chimney might have led?  We continued traversing into the night.

I think it was around 11:30pm when a whoop broke through the quiet.  Eric and Ryan had spotted what seemed to be a breach in the cliffs.  We eagerly followed their voices and found ourselves on a ridge crest.  Our campsite had to be somewhere on this crest!

Feelings of triumph soon turned to despair, however, when we realized that the crest was interrupted by a series of rocky horns and clefts.  In daylight, this would be simple to negotiate, but in foggy darkness it could easily lead us to an impasse.  We pressed onward at an agonizingly slow pace and started to take note of possible bivouac spots underneath boulders.  It was after midnight and our campsite seemed to be a sunrise away.  I regretted not bringing more clothes in my summit pack.

At 12:20am (8.4 hours from summit), Ryan’s headlamp beam caught Jon’s yellow bivvy-tent nestled among some rocks.  CAMP!!!  Shouts of delight rang out!  After a full 18 hours of travel, we’d arrived back home.  Within minutes, stoves were roaring, snow was melting, and belated dinners were being prepared.

Our reactions ran the gamut:  Jon repeatedly and exuberantly announced how ecstatic he felt;  Ryan, Eric, Adam, and Justin quietly acknowledged feeling renewed energy;  I felt overwhelming relief;  Matt doubled over in fits of vomiting and dry heaves from exhaustion.  By 2:00am, all lights were out and we were sound asleep.

Day 3 – Thornton Pass to Trailhead:

Our campsite slowly came to life  in the morning.  Thornton Ridge was sandwiched between low clouds and valley fog, and a few drops of rain fell.  During breakfast, we recounted our surrealistic memories of the previous day and night.

Neither the weather nor our collective mood prompted additional climbing for this trip, so we packed up and headed down to Thornton Lakes.

Thornton Lakes From Camp

Stopping only for lunch at the lowest lake, we enjoyed a pleasant hike out through shady forest and cool air.  Along the way, our trail banter included a discussion of options for next year’s trip.  Nothing was decided except that it involve less brush and less intrigue than this one!

————————- Route Maps —————————-

Mt Despair Map Part 1
Mt Despair Map Part 2


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