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Mount Washington

Excursion Time: 13.5 hours car-to-car
Carpool Ratio (people/cars): 1.8

A Santiam Alpine Club team made a challenging summit of Mount Washington (in Oregon) on June 26, 2010! The team consisted of 2010 climb school students Jeremy Gish, Chris Relyea, Mike Wilson, and Peter Urban; 2009 students Duane Darrow, Victor Whitacre, and Sarah Martin; guest Tom Williams; and myself, Fritz Capell. Victor served as Assistant.

In this highly unusual precipitation year, we had little idea what to expect on this mountain. I went by there the weekend previous to check on the conditions, but the visibility was very poor and I was unable to see the mountain at all. Based on my observations of nearly zero snow around the trailhead, my guess was that snow would not be an issue. As we arrived Friday evening to camp at Big Lake, we got our first view of a very wintery-looking peak, and quickly made a complete assessment of what traction devices we had all brought along in defiance of the official gear list.

We departed the trailhead at 7:30am on Saturday, and the Pacific Crest Tail almost immediately became buried in snow. We followed tracks and felt like we were on the right route for much longer than we actually were, and by the time I consulted the GPS we had meandered pretty far to the west and completely missed the cairn marking the usual departure from the PCT. By this time the surface was all snow, and we had to bushwhack and guide mainly by eye up to the ridge. The going was rough, and we probably lost a half hour or so.

The ridge was clear along the top, but the eastern side was a huge, deep snowfield. For most of the ascent, we could choose to pick among the rocks, or stomp up the snow. It was a hot, clear and sunny day, so the consolidated snow had a pretty good mush layer on top, and offered good and stable footing. None of us ended up needing our crampons or traction devices. In a few places the snow had collected into an unexpected obstacle, but nothing that we couldn't safely traverse.

We saw only two other teams during the day; one pair of skiers who were playing on the eastern snowfield, and one other pair we encountered near the summit block, but who had turned back at the saddle. We offered to help them up, but they declined. We reached the saddle about 12:30pm.

I set up protection on the first pitch, and spent nearly two hours getting everyone up to that anchor. That crux is always a challenge. It's usually windy up there, and difficult to throw the ropes down to the climbers below, but this time it was even worse, because most of the saddle was covered in a slippery and exposed snowfield, leaving only a very small target toward which to throw the rope. Many times it blew off uselessly over the cliffs to the east, many times it fell uselessly on the snowfield to the west, and many times it got snagged up in the rocks, requiring me to rappel down and untangle it. Very frustrating and time-consuming. Especially Victor's yellow rope seemed to have an attitude all its own.

By 3pm we were still working that first pitch, and I hadn't even been able to leave the station long enough to check out the rest of the summit block or set anchors up above. With a 4pm turnaround time, it was looking like we may not make the summit. Finally, with everyone up that wanted to tackle the summit block, we took one rope and one anchor and pressed for the top. Though there were a few tricky bits, everyone felt comfortable enough to take them on with a little coaching, and fortunately on that mountain the more difficult climbing bits don't correspond with the more threatening exposure, with the exception of the first pitch that we had roped. There were a few puddles of snow, but nothing that caused us any difficulty. We made the rest of the ascent without roping up.

We reached the summit at about 3:50pm.

For about ten minutes we enjoyed the view of some very snowy Sisters, an imposing Jefferson, and a craggy little Three Fingered Jack. We took our summit shots, which we may never see, since I seem to have set my camera down at the belay station and neglected to pick it up again. It was a beautiful clear day up there, and we wished for more time, but as usual, the press of daylight pushed us on.

We picked our way carefully down the summit block. Rockfall is always an issue in that area, usually kicked down by your teammates, but everybody did really well at placing carefully, and warning each other where the loose ones were. Only one major rock fell, requiring Jeremy to artfully dodge behind a cornice. Everybody rappelled the last pitch, a beautiful ride off the cliff and back to the saddle. For a final complication, that yellow rope refused to come back down, and I started preparing to lead that crazy pitch yet again to untangle it, but it turned out it was only me it didn't like - as soon as somebody else pulled on it, it obligingly returned to the team. We packed up and headed out.

We descended down the ridge, instead of the alternate route down the scree field, which was now a very steep and intimidating snow field. The ridge descent was very pleasant, the slush allowing us to slide a lot on our feet or butts with minimal effort.

At the end of the ridge, we descended toward the PCT, and almost immediately lost the trail, but it made little difference. We stayed in clear areas as best we could, and made sure we were going between North and West, eventually finding the PCT just above the cairn. Another hour or so of snowy trail, and we reached the cars again by about 9pm.

Another successful and challenging Santiam Alpine Club climb! Thanks everybody for coming along, and for being careful and responsible up there! Hope to climb with you all again soon...

Fritz Capell

Santiam Alpine Club


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