A mountain never serves up the same trip twice. Light, wind, temperature, rain … the conditions conspire to transform each outing into something unique.
For Dave, Chrystell, and me, the unexpected element was fog. Not only in our heads, but in the form of low clouds as well. We hiked the PCT from Rainy Pass to the meadow below Tower Mountain’s west face on Aug 11 under bright skies with bright hopes for sunny scrambles of Golden Horn and Tower Mountain the following day.
The weather Gods, however, had different ideas. It rained through the night and we awoke to what a real estate agent might call a “territorial view.” Here is what we could see of Tower Mountain from camp:
Never one to be deterred by a little weather, Dave popped out of his bivvy sack and said, “We’re still doing this, right?”
Of course we were. Ever the sane one, Chrystell stayed back to sip soup and catch up with the latest Harry Potter book. I suspect this is largely because she had to justify carrying that 95-pound tome up the trail. Not as literate, Dave and I will have to wait until the movie comes out.
We first headed past the two Snowy Lakes on our way to Golden Horn. Tom Waits claims that “A little rain never hurt no one.” But a little rain squelched my desire to jump into the lakes. Here is what they looked like later in the day, when things were clearing:
I am sure that under different conditions the hike up Golden Horn’s SE slope offers rewarding vistas and sweeping views. Our vista, however, remained territorial. And here is where the story gets, well, foggy. You see, we left our copies of the route descriptions in a restaurant in Burlington. As we speak, some guy in the men’s restroom at Shari’s diner is getting all hot and bothered reading “Summit Routes.” Not exactly an image I want to ponder.
On the mountain, the immediate implication of our forgetfulness was that we could not remember the description of the short class 5 move at the top of Golden Horn. Was it 20 feet, or 20 meters? This would not matter if we could see where we were going. It probably would not matter if we were crack navigators. But as reported elsewhere, I was climbing with a navigational moron. You’ll have to trust me on this. Do not ask Dave to verify this fact. I am the one writing this report. If Dave wants to set the record straight, er…, I mean, tell you his side of the story, he’ll have to write his own dang report.*
Ambling along the SE ridge of Golden Horn, Dave and I came to what seemed like the final short class 5 pitch. Peering up into the fog, the climbing did not seem difficult. But then, it was supposed to be easy. Since we had hauled the rope that far we figured we might as well use it. So I started up what seemed like a 30-foot pitch.
As we peered through the fog, however, it soon became apparent that we were no where near the top. As if to mock us, the clouds parted just enough for a taller tower to appear up and to our left. So we sheepishly put the rope away and hiked in the direction of the apparition above us. Here is Dave rolling his eyes at the top of our first false summit:
I wish I could say we learned our lesson. But a second time we came to the base of a class 5-looking pitch, and a second time we hauled out the rope. I scrambled all of about 12 feet before noticing a sandy ledge to the left.
“Hmm, let me look around that corner,” I said to Dave.
It was just about then that the fog lifted enough to see the actual summit. The good news is that we were on the final summit block. The bad news is that we were climbing up its right side, when the route description (back in Burlington) says something about circling to the rear of the block.
So backpedaling a bit and sheepishly coiling the rope again, Dave and I scrambled to the left side of the summit block. It was here that I remembered something about “a final class 5 section of about 4 meters…”
It really is not even 4 meters. We had the rope out and were tied up, so I held on to the rope – valiantly prepared to keep Dave from falling all the way down the mountain if he jumped off the rock – as he mantled the one move at the top. I followed him and we took these pictures that could have been taken, well, just about anywhere:
Did I say that the views were territorial?
Since we had the rope we used it to get off the top of Golden Horn:
From Golden Horn we traversed over to Tower Mountain. Tower is a remarkable mountain. From beneath its west face it is like several distinct towers, each separated by deep clefts. Traversing from Golden Horn we maintained elevation by not dropping all the way down to Snowy Lakes. By this time in the day the fog was beginning to burn off, and we had occasional views down to the lakes:
The Summit Routes description mentions “strategically placed cairns” along the way. We saw no such cairns, and soon realized that this is because it is more common to enter Tower’s main gully from the ledges below its right side. Our traverse brought us to the gully from the left. Along the way we passed by the huge cave at the base of the mountain:
It is enormous:
The cave also is unmistakeable in this picture of the mountain taken on the way down:
A short traverse right from the cave took us to the base of the main gully:
The gully is loose and a bit nerve-wracking, but at times the climbing was enjoyable:
Here is a view higher up the gully:
Scrambling this gully, I would like to propose that “class 3” is not sufficiently descriptive of the different types of scrambling that fall under this category. Black Peak, for example, is a delightful class 3 trip that Dave and I did with our kids a couple of years ago. There is no way, however, that I would enjoy taking my daughters up Tower Mountain’s gully. Maybe we need a distinction between “class 3–fun” (e.g., Black Peak, Lemah) and “class 3–crappy” (e.g., Tower). “Class 3-crappy” could also mean “class 3–your nerves will be shot if you take your kids with you.” As our friend Doug wrote recently, “My kid is not replaceable, so we are going someplace easy.” Maybe “class 3-crappy” could be refined to “class 3-your nerves will be shot if you take one of your irreplaceable kids with you.” It will be ok if you take one of your replaceable kids with you.
Or maybe forget the whole thing. We have enough classifications as it is.
Eventually Dave and I climbed to the white wall mentioned in the Beckey and Summit Routes descriptions:
Here we picked up the trail of rock cairns on a series of ledges leading to the right, which we followed to the top. The huge cairn at the top of Tower is indeed an oddity, raising various metaphysical questions posed here:
Summitting the rock cairn without knocking it over required a shoulder stand. Unfortunately, Dave and I could not agree on whose shoulders would be used first, so we got into a vicious argument and no longer are on speaking terms.
No, just kidding. We took pictures as the clouds continued to lift. Here is a view down to our camp:
“You know,” Dave quipped as we looked over at Golden Horn, “I think we went up the wrong summit on Golden Horn. I think we have to go back and do it over again.”
Ha ha, the prankster. This time I really did almost throttle him.
We picked our way slowly down the gully, picking up a trail of rock cairns that are further to the SE (the right-hand side as you face up the gully) than the way we came up. Overall, the trip down was not as bad as we had feared, although the dread factor rose every time we kicked off a rock that would crack like rifle shots as it caromed down to the bottom. At the bottom of the gully we retraced our steps by the big cave and then went straight down the talus and scree to our camp in the meadows below. As if on cue, the sun poked through the clouds just as we reached the base of the gully.
My hiking partner then expired:
That night the sky was clear sprinkled in star paradise. The Perseid meteor showers are in full display, but I saw only a single shooting star before climbing into the tent and snuggling up against the cold. The next morning we lounged around camp as Chrystell filled us in on the latest adventures of Harry, Ron, and Hermione. We could have used some of their magic to see through the clouds and avoid climbing toward two false summits on Golden Horn. But that would not have been as much fun.
(*In all seriousness, Dave is an outstanding navigator. I've been learning from him since my first trip up a mountain (Mt. Stuart) with him 18 years ago.)
Thanks for the pics and the entertaining narration.
The pics of the white wall especially bring back memories.
But I don't remember every seeing the cave. Somehow I failed to notice it.
Neither of my kids are replaceable, but having kids has also made me more concerned about replacing myself. There are a lot of places I used to scramble up with too little attention, where now I check the holds very carefully, because I don't think my kids would appreciate having to replace me (despite their occasional comments to the contrary).
-------------- “As beacons mountains burned at evening.” J.R.R. Tolkien
Superb!! Way to stick with it despite the weather. That's rare for over there -- usually it's a heat stroke, super parched experience. Ah, the Cascades and their infinitely unpredictable weather. Gotta love it.
Yes, the entrance on the right is a little less involved than the cave on the left. An easy ramp dumps you right into the gully. But, I'm glad you went that way as the picture of the cave is very cool.
-------------- "Find out who you are and then do it on purpose."
www.summitroutes.com : Guidebook to the 100 highest peaks in Washington
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