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Eric Gilbertson
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Eric Gilbertson
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PostMon Feb 22, 2021 9:04 pm 
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Big Snagtooth (8,330ft)

Feb 20, 2021

9 miles skiing/climbing, 22 miles snowmobiling

Eric, Chad, Mik

Big Snagtooth is a Bulger peak that is known for its unique and tricky summit block. The final 20 vertical feet to the summit are guarded by a smooth block that is steep or overhanging on all sides with no good cracks for protection or aid. It is often climbed with the help of a shoulder stand to get up the steep section at the bottom onto the lower-angle slab on the top. Other methods include using an improvised alpine ladder or lassoing a rock near the top and climbing up the rope.

Below the rap route looking back towards Willows Tooth
Below the rap route looking back towards Willows Tooth
The route
The route
The start of the skiing off highway 20
The start of the skiing off highway 20

In June 2018 I climbed Big Snagtooth with Steven Song and the trick I used was to just put on rock shoes and solo up the short 5.7 balancey moves on the bottom, then belay Steven up from an anchor near the top.

I wanted to try to climb Big Snagtooth again, but in the winter. As far as I researched it had never been climbed in winter. There were a few late April or early May ascents, and for those it appeared the summit block had been snow free and dry. I thought perhaps it could be easier in the winter if the notch below the summit block were filled in deeply with snow and a climber could maybe just walk up. But most likely it would be just covered in rime ice and much harder.

It looked like an okay weather window Saturday in the Washington pass area, with less than an inch of snow predicted and sun breaks possible. Saturday night an atmospheric river was forecast to hit, but it looked like enough time to try for a day-trip of Big Snagtooth. I plotted out a route that avoided avalanche terrain by following low-angle slopes to the west ridge and then following the ridge to the summit. The route had the benefit of having easy navigation along the ridge if the weather deteriorated.

Looking back up towards Cutthroat Peak
Looking back up towards Cutthroat Peak
Skinning up Willow Creek
Skinning up Willow Creek
Looking back towards the Wine Spires and Burgundy Col
Looking back towards the Wine Spires and Burgundy Col

In the summer Steven and I had done Big Snagtooth in a quick half-day trip, but in the winter I expected it to take all day. Travel would likely be slower in the snow bushwhacking in from the road, and the first 11 miles of road to the start are unplowed in winter. We planned to snowmobile in on the road to save time, and I had just scouted out the road conditions the previous weekend and it was in good shape.

Friday night we met up at the Early Winters Campground staging area and camped out at the end of the plowed road. Saturday morning we loaded up and got moving around 6am. I was a bit nervous taking three people in on the snowmobile for such a long distance. I had done it once before climbing Abernathy and the Gardners in January, but that was only 4 miles in. That worked out fine, and this approach ended up working out well also. Our strategy was for me and Mik to ride Canadian style on the snowmobile standing on the sides and we’d tow Chad on skis like a water skier. Riding Canadian style meant we could go faster over all the whumps in the road, which would be kind of uncomfortable if we were both sitting.

We got to the pullout just past the cutthroat drainage shortly after dawn and were packed up and skiing around 7am. Surprisingly there were other ski tracks heading off the road right there, likely from a day earlier. We doubted they’d go all the way to Big Snagtooth, though. We dropped down 200ft to Early Winters Creek and crossed easily on a snow bridge. We continued following the skin up the other side and were treated to great views of Liberty Bell and surrounding peaks and the sun intermittently broke through the clouds. Interestingly, we saw a helicopter fly up into the drainage above us, and we suspected the heli skiers were skiing some lines up there.

Big Snagtooth in the distance
Big Snagtooth in the distance
Low visibility on the ridge
Low visibility on the ridge
Dropping over Pt 7709
Dropping over Pt 7709

We followed the skin track to around 5,600ft, but then it diverged towards the Burgundy Col area so we started breaking trail up Willow Creek. I soon let Chad take over breaking trail, and he led us through the deep powder up to a flattish area around 6,100ft. There we actually stumbled across another skin track, which looked fresh from that morning. This was kind of confusing, but we figured perhaps the helicopter had dropped of some skiers up on the ridge and they were skiing down and skinning up to do multiple laps.

The going was much faster on the skin track, and eventually we saw two groups of skiers at a bench at 7,400ft. It looked like two groups of five, and they soon started skiing down. The terrain was all low angle, so made sense as a safe choice for the conditions that day. Above 7,400ft we had to break our own trail again, and by the time we reached the west ridge of Big Snagtooth at 7,500ft the wind started picking up considerably. We got our first glimpse of Big Snagtooth in the distance, and it looked a bit more intimidating than I had remembered in the summer.

We suited up with goggles and jackets and pushed west along the ridge crest. The wind was blowing very hard from the north and visibility deteriorated until we got into the shelter of some trees on the other end. We then ascended point 7709 and took the skins off to ski down the ridge to the north. There was a short steep area just off the top, but it was interspersed with trees and not too concerning. We skied down, then scooted along the ridge until it started ascending again.

Tunneling up to Willows Tooth
Tunneling up to Willows Tooth
Just below Willows Tooth
Just below Willows Tooth
Big Snagtooth from Willows Tooth
Big Snagtooth from Willows Tooth

We put skins back on and navigated around some thin coverage with rocks poking out and icy snow. Visibility dropped again with all the blowing snow but we pushed on to just below Willows Tooth. In the summer I’d traversed on the southwest slope to get around Willows tooth, but we were a bit concerned about cross loading on that slope now. So instead we ditched the skis and postholed and scrambled up Willows Tooth. We then cut across up high and started along the ridge south to Big Snagtooth. There was one short pocket of snow we were concerned about, so Chad belayed me across just in case.

We stayed roped up as we walked up to the base of the climbing on Big Snagtooth. To reach the summit block the main routes are either to climb a short pitch of low 5th class up the rappel route on the northwest ridge, or go around and climb a 4th class gully on the southwest face. In 2018 I had climbed the rappel route, and it avoided avy terrain, so we decided to do that again. I flaked out the rope, put crampons on, and started up.

It was certainly more difficult in the winter than I recalled. The rock was covered in rime and the wind was blowing pretty hard. The air temperature was 13F so the wind chill must have been very cold. I wriggled up, got in a good hand jam, then cleared out some ice and snow from a crack and got in a good #1 cam placement. I stood up a little higher and the route above was filled with a mini cornice of snow. After getting my feet in solidly I started punching and digging at the snow with my left hand. I had to scoop it all out directly down onto Chad and Mik, but there wasn’t any other option. After a lot of digging I was able to push myself up and wriggle through the little tunnel I’d made.

The crux on the standard route
The crux on the standard route
Climbing up to the top
Climbing up to the top
On the summit
On the summit

I stood on a bench on top and managed to dig out one of the rap anchors on a horn. I then belayed up Mik and Chad, and we scrambled over to the crux of the climb, the summit block. I quickly noticed there was no thick snow bench to allow an easy walk up to the summit. The snow in the notch was shallow enough to not be helpful. The summit block looked to be covered in rime and snow, which wouldn’t be great for the smearing techniques I’d used in the summer.

Mik and Chad are much better mixed climbers than I am, so we let Mik take a turn to see if he could lead up with two tools and crampons. After a few attempts he couldn’t find any solid pick holds, it looked like it wouldn’t go. We talked about trying a shoulder stand, but the problem was the icy slab up higher really required crampons to avoid slipping off. But it was unclear how to do a shoulder stand while wearing crampons. I recalled seeing a small wooden ladder at the base in 2018, but that would be impossible to find in all the snow, if it were even still there.

The last resort was to try to aid up with the rope. My friend Damon said he’d lassoed a horn near the summit by throwing his rope up from the notch. Unfortunately with the high wind that seemed liked a difficult task this time. I thought maybe, though, we could get on opposite sides of the summit block and flick the rope up and over the horn. It was worth a shot. I scrambled around to the overhanging west side and Chad and Mik went to the overhanging east side. I flicked and swung the rope up as high as I could and they did the same, managing to get it fixed in a crack on that side.

Rapping off the summit
Rapping off the summit
Rapping off the summit
Rapping off the summit
The final rappel
The final rappel

After Mik ran over and confirmed the other end was fixed I tied myself on with a prussik. I pushed the prussik up as high as I could to near the lip. I then balanced my front points on small ledges under the overhang and pulled up on the rope while inching my crampons up higher. Eventually I pulled myself over the lip onto the slab. Once on the slab the rope no longer acted as a top rope and I was basically unprotected, but it was low enough angle that I could scramble up to to a flat area at a boulder. I got a cam in in a small crack, and then started searching around for a better anchor.

I’d read a report from Val Kung on peakbagger back in september 2020 that there was a bolt on top then (there wasn’t one in 2018). I’m not usually a big fan of bolts, but in this case I figured we should use it. I had no idea where it was, but dug around in the snow for a while and found it! I tied in to the bolt, then pulled the rope up. We decided the safest way up would be for Chad and Mik to ascend the rope directly, so I tied it to the anchor and lowered an end down to the notch.

I went up to tag the summit as they ascended the rope. Then when I was back at the anchor Chad and Mik scrambled up the icy slab and tagged the summit also. There were actually some good sunny views while we were on top, but there were ominous clouds all around us and we knew the break was fleeting. After snapping some pictures we started rapping down. The wind really picked up as we were rapping, and it blew the rope horizontal and almost knocked us over in the notch.

Skirting around Willows Tooth
Skirting around Willows Tooth
Skiing down
Skiing down
Skiing down the west ridge near Pt 7709
Skiing down the west ridge near Pt 7709

We soon scrambled back to the lower rappel anchor and rappelled back down to the ridge where I’d stashed my pack. We roped up again to cross the small snow pocket below Willows Tooth, and then reached our skis. The wind was really howling now and blowing lots of snow. My goggles had gotten frozen up so I tried to tough it out with no eye protection. With skis on we cautiously side slipped down the icy slope. After a few big gusts I stopped and put on my sun glasses, which helped a lot.

I scraped on some rocks while navigating the thin scoured section, but soon made it to more level terrain. I was happy to be following a ridge in such low visibility. We eventually reached the base of point 7709, then took off skis and booted up. From there we put skis back on and were able to ski and scoot back along the ridge and finally drop down north into the Willow Creek drainage.

It felt good to be back in the trees and out of the wind. It was good timing, too, since the sun had just set and we would soon need headlamps. Now we were back in terrain the heli skiers had skied, which meant we were in for some fun turns. We made quick time skiing deep powder down through the trees to the heli pickup zone at 6,200ft. We continued down into the trees, skirting right around some cliffs, and eventually reaching denser forest where we turned headlamps on.

Dropping into the trees
Dropping into the trees
Skiing down Willow Creek
Skiing down Willow Creek
Snowmobiling out
Snowmobiling out

Chad and Mik lead through the trees along the creek bed. The boulders were filled deeply with pillows of snow and the powder soft enough that the numerous short jumps were easy and fun. We followed Willow Creek down to Early Winters Creek, then met back up with our skin tracks. By 8pm we were back at the snowmobile and soon loaded up. Chad got towed behind again and we had a fun ride back out to the cars by 9:30pm.

I was supposed to be back in Seattle that night, and wanted to not get stuck east of the crest in case the passes got closed in the big storm Sunday, so I quickly headed out. The passes were very snowy and I took my time, getting back by 4am Sunday morning. I later checked and the passes had closed just a few hours after I snuck through. In fact, later in the day Sunday Stevens, Snoqualmie, and White Passes were all closed at the same time, so I was very happy to have pushed through that night!

Link to more pictures

Video of the rappel off the summit (18 seconds, kind of noisy with the wind)
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awilsondc
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PostTue Feb 23, 2021 8:22 am 
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Really strong effort in challenging conditions.  I've been enjoying your videos you usually include at the end on your trip reports on your website.  This one was especially good, I liked the periodic captions throughout too...

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Stefan
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PostTue Feb 23, 2021 8:54 am 
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love the blowing snow videos.  hope the fingers did not get cold while doing that!

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Art is an adventure.
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Cascader
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PostTue Feb 23, 2021 3:42 pm 
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I remember doing Snagtooth with my dad at 10 years old back in 2011. Nice report.
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cascadeclimber
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PostTue Feb 23, 2021 4:18 pm 
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Nicely done. Solid Type-2 fun in that weather.

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If not now, when?
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Eric Gilbertson
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PostTue Feb 23, 2021 7:12 pm 
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Quote:
I've been enjoying your videos you usually include at the end on your trip reports

Thanks! Fletcher inspired me with his awesome mountaineering videos.
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puzzlr
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PostTue Feb 23, 2021 8:12 pm 
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That looks hard under good conditions, and you were doing it in a blizzard!

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Mid Fork Rocksflickr
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Brushbuffalo
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Location: there earlier, here now, somewhere later... Bellingham in between
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PostThu Feb 25, 2021 8:25 am 
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You guys are hardcore and this TR  makes for good armchair mountaineering. Throughly enjoyed the details. Your account reads as if  Eric Shipton was  writing about  a Himalayan giant.  Superb!

Stefan wrote:
hope the fingers did not get cold while doing that!

That rappel video automatically makes my  once- frost bitten fingers feel colder. eek.gif

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Passing rocks and trees like they were standing still
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