With the weather forecast for the foreseeable future in the Mt. Baker area suggesting "partly sunny," I tricked dicey into agreeing on a three day trip. I threw out some suggestions and we agreed on Ruth Mountain and Icy Peak. Dicey has been to both before, Ruth more than once, but was happy to return. She and I were actually planning on Ruth and Icy a couple of years ago on our way back from Mt. Challenger but terrible weather forced us to abort that attempt before it even really began.
We thought this might be a good time to visit this locale as the road is drivable almost all the way to the Hannegan Pass trailhead! Not having five miles of roadwalking was really appealing for some reason.
Some high clearance vehicles had even made it all the way to the trailhead, but the last half mile is deeply rutted snow that my Geo Prizm was happy to avoid. In fact, there were three more cars up there than I was expecting to see (i.e., three total). We set off up the road at around 8:30, loaded with heavy packs full of all kinds of crap!
For those that have never been up the Hannegan Pass trail - here is a short summary: it is a long traverse up the valley toward Ruth Mountain. And I mean long. On our way back from a six day trip to Mt. Challenger a couple of summers ago, I though the last two somewhat flat miles would never end. Unfortunately, and we had warning about this from a helpful cc.com trip report, much of the first part of the traverse involves crossing lots of old inconvenient avalanche debris with a few gullies thrown in for good measure.
The only solace we had during this section was the massive bulk of Mt. Sefrit looming above us across the valley.
This traverse is hideous. Really, truly, hideous. Still, in a winter where actual snow fell once in a while, you'd need truly stable avalanche conditions to venture here. However, there is so little snow that the numerous avalanche chutes are a mere inconvenience as opposed to life threatening doom.
It was during this trying time, less than two hours into the trip, that the following exchange occurred:
dicey: "My finger hurts."
Me: "Oh, poor thing, would you like me to cut it off?"
dicey: "Sure! Would you like me to kick you to death with my crampons?"
Me: "This trip is off to a good start!"
dicey: "I told you we should have invited more people!"
Though I didn't really have doubts before, after that conversation I knew it was going to be a great trip!
Eventually, after what seems like several lifetimes of treading across avalanche debris and a generally pathetic snowpack, the trail enters the forest. This is a relief from the debris but is uncomfortably icy and slanted in a couple of sections. We donned snowshoes somewhere along this stretch, which helped both the postholing and the iciness.
It seems that this has mainly been a skier locale, as there were no other snowshoe tracks, just skin tracks and occasional bootprints from the people ahead.
Around 4400', the trail breaks out into a flattish area below Hannegan Pass. We made our way up toward the pass to follow the summer route to Ruth Mountain while some of the skin tracks continued a rising traverse toward Ruth. This is when we discovered that the snow conditions were such that we could really only go up very gentle snowslopes without slithering backward.
It had taken us 4.5 hours to get this far.
We took a brief break and considered the route ahead - a steep few hundred feet that dicey had described as a "wall of mud" on our last trip to Hannegan Pass. "Wall of Snow" may not sound nearly as disgusting and unpleasant, but in fact we could not actually snowshoe up it. Oh, we tried. First we hit it head on - slithering ensued. Then we tried angling - no luck. Finally, we just had to take the snowshoes off and boot up. This was exhausting but at least it worked!
While on this slope, we turned to see two skiers approach. At first I thought they'd skin up after us, but they vanished into the trees near the pass instead.
At the top of the slope we once more donned the snowshoes and proceeded with a traverse around a high point between Ruth Mountain and Hannegan Pass. This area would be pretty hinky in terms of avalanche potential if conditions were not stable. We turned a corner, having to climb over a forming cornice, and got our first closeup look of Ruth Mountain and the rest of the route. We could see the group of skiers/snowboarders whose tracks we'd seen diverge earlier heading up toward the summit.
The ridge is pleasant and never steep, and the views just get better and better the higher you go.
Several hundred feet below the summit, the group of skiers/snowboarders zoomed by, having a good time and enjoying the good snow conditions (good for them, not for us ). I turned to watch them once in a while and they would stop and stand around for quite some time, apparently in no hurry despite the fact that it was past 3:30.
We arrived at the summit of Ruth Mountain at four o'clock, seven and a half hours after leaving the trailhead. Yikes!
The day had been sunny and mostly clear, and though the amount of clouds increased as the day progressed, we were greeted by wonderful views in all directions. Only Mt. Baker was hiding in the clouds. Sunset soon turned the snow clad mountaintops interesting colors.
We looked around for a sheltered spot to set up our tent and decided to dig out our tent platform about 20 feet to the west of the summit. It was pretty well protected from the ever present breeze which, while never very strong, sucked away warmth amazingly quickly. We had dinner, drank warm beverages, and melted lots of snow before retiring for the evening. The weather forecast for both Saturday and Sunday nights called for "mostly cloudy" so I was a bit surprised to wake up to the sound of snow hitting the tent some time in the night. It snowed on and off (though overall not much accumulation) during the night. This was inconvenient as we had brought a single wall tent with no vestibule. I actually had a dream that someone had rigged a huge vestibule for us with a giant tarp, but there was no trace of it when I woke up in the morning.
It hadn't been hideously cold overnight, but this didn't prevent my boots from freezing, so I had a really entertaining time shoving my feet into them in the morning.
Though it started out pretty socked in, as the morning progressed mountains appeared one by one.
We got a bit of a late start at 9 am toward Icy Peak waiting for the weather to improve ("partly sunny" according to the forecast!). This involved descending the west ridge of Ruth Mountain for about 200'. The ridge crest was windblown and icy, so we walked in the snow to the right of it until dicey discovered that the nice soft snow at some point became a giant cornice, so we chose to put on crampons and descend the windblown icy part. Since dicey had been here before, we easily found the gully one descends to get to the ridge leading to the Icy Glacier. Typing the word "icy" so much is making me cold. BRRRR!!!!
The gully was pleasant, well packed snow that made for an easy descent of about 600' before we could exit and get on the ridge.
At this point, the weather looked promising and Icy Peak loomed clearly in front of us.
Once on this ridge, we traversed around a high point, where we were baked nearly to death by the sun. The sun apparently didn't realize for a few minutes that it is in fact still supposed to be winter.
Here's a look back at the gully route:
Alas, "partly sunny" for Sunday apparently had an entirely different meaning than "partly sunny" for Saturday as soon after the baking traverse, the clouds rolled in and visibility decreased drastically. Luckily we could still see rock formations in the distance so we skirted near the edge of the Icy Glacier toward a mass of rocky peaks. After struggling through deepening slushy snow on the glacier, we finally put on the snowshoes which made progress easier, but still pretty slow.
The clouds and the glacier blended so well that when I was breaking trail I had to look back at my tracks to see whether or not I was still going uphill!
Soon we were near the top of the glacier, where we circled right (west) around these subpeaks:
Around the corner was more traversing and the summit magically appeared before us in a blaze of sunlight.
However, it just as quickly vanished from sight. The summer route, dicey informed me, goes up a gully visible in the photo above just to the right of her. At any rate, even when we could see it, it looked a little too spicy for a winter ascent.
Having spent some time looking at the other side of the peak from our perch on Ruth Mountain, I suggested traversing east to a saddle just west of the summit block and trying to approach from that direction on what looked like steep snow. Dicey wasn't overly enthusiastic since we couldn't see very much at this point, including the runout of our steep traverse. Still, the snow was pretty good, so we skirted the rock wall of Icy's lesser peaks to the saddle. This was made slightly more exciting by the brief moment of sunshine which apparently was just enough to cause some small ice chunks to fall in our path.
After some crawling around on blue ice near the windswept saddle, I found a way through to a small, relatively gentle bench hugging a cliffy section of the summit block. The view on the other side was almost nonexistent and all I could see below was a white void - it was either a gentle part of the Spillway glacier or a hideous death drop. I really couldn't tell. I skirted the rock wall and came to a short, steepening snow arete which led to some steep ice. I was here, so I might as well give it a go, right? The runout was fairly safe and would land me in a pleasant, flat bottomed moat if I fell (not that I was really planning on that). I had my axe and an ice tool, and the going was pretty good for about 30 feet where the ice became really cruddy. It would not support the axe, the tool, or any steps I tried to kick in. Giant chunks just sheared off if I so much as glanced at it. About 20 vertical feet above me I could see a lesser angled snowslope but I had no way to get to it.
At any rate, it was already 3 o'clock, so I retreated back to the saddle where dicey was waiting for me not so patiently and we began our trudge back to camp. Later the next day, upon closer inspection, it looked like there might have been less insanely angled snow slopes if I had kept traversing, but we could see none of that in the fog. It was a bummer turning around less than 100' vertical from the summit, but our options and time were exhausted.
The traverse back to and the descent of the Icy Glacier was quick, and even though the ascent back to our gully tracks seemed like it took forever, it too was actually fairly efficient. The gully was much less pleasant on the way back, and we had to kick steps up it, but we just put our heads down (there was nothing to see in the darkening fog anyway ) and motored on up. I had hoped to not turn on headlamps until we were done with the gully, but we actually ended up making it all the way back to camp without using a headlamp.
I did, however, have to use a headlamp to check the time of our arrival: 5:56 pm, 9 hours after we'd left. I'd brought some wood for a fire so we could keep warm, so we got right on that.
When I heard snow falling on the tent during the night, I was disappointed but not surprised. However, at some point I opened the tent door (which, with this tent, always ensures getting a healthy dump of snow on yourself) some time in the middle of the night, I was surprised to see very low clouds below us and nothing but stars above. Though I was happy about this, it also meant colder temperatures, and indeed the thermometer inside the tent read 24 degrees. I went back to sleep and had another wishful thinking dream in which I woke up and the thermometer read 39!
However, when I actually woke up at dawn, it was a chilly 19! Nonetheless, being a big fan of sunrise, I scrambled out of the tent, did the "shove my unwilling feet into cold, frozen boots" dance, and ran around taking pictures and video.
The low clouds were creating one of my favorite effects - rocky, snowy islands embedded in a turbulent sea.
I gleefully awaited the alpenglow that was sure to occur and I was not disappointed.
Because I was also warming up water while taking photos, I'd run back to camp and add more snow to the pot, then go back up to the summit. I think I "climbed" to the summit of Ruth at least 20 times.
My fingers nearly froze off but I couldn't help it but take more pictures, darn it!
It was a lot of work getting here. Brutal, really. With a heavy pack, most of the route being a tedious traverse. I felt like I was crawling uphill most of the time. But these types of experiences are what makes it all worthwhile. There is nothing quite like opening your tent door and seeing this:
The clouds were roiling, moving, changing all the time. No one spot looked the same every time I turned that way. I didn't know where to look, because as soon as I picked a spot, I wondered if something more exciting wasn't happening 30 degrees away. Oh, to have such problems!
Another thing that was really prominent on this trip was the silence. Other than the wind at the summit and the occasional snowfall at night, it was very still and quiet almost the entire time. It was an almost deafening silence, so devoid of noise that your brain fills in with that high pitched whine because there's nothing there, and surely there must be something, right?
Despite my excessive photography session, I somehow managed to pack along with dicey, though neither of us were eager to descend into the lurking clouds below. While still packing up camp, dicey noticed a glory caused by the low cloud cover. I'd seen these before, but this one stuck around for a good half hour, "following" us over 1000' of descent from the summit!
It was a triple one, too, though dicey's polarized sunglasses apparently made it even bigger!
Eventually, it was time to leave.
Though we dropped below the clouds, they were fairly broken up and we enjoyed some warm sunshine.
We made quick progress to Hannegan Pass. Interestingly enough, we saw the two skiers we'd glimpsed on the way up at exactly the same place we'd seen them (going down, this time)!
The traverse down the valley was once again simply hideous. Hideous. The only thing that would have made it worse is if we'd have been skiing! The forested sections were sloped and icy, the open sections were mushy. Oh, it truly was terrible, but if it wasn't, there might have been quite a crowd up there, camping on the summit of Ruth!
Wow!! Goood job!
I have been wondering about R/I with the low snow year. We did Ruth but not Icy last August and camped between the two. I defintitely want to go back and finish Icy this next year!
Thanks for the pictures.
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