It was cold when we left the city, and even colder when we pulled up to Heather Lake trailhead for our New Year’s Eve adventure. The goal: summit Mount Pilchuck via the non-standard northeast route.
The day started off with driving decisions. The gate blocking the road up to Mount Pilchuck trail head was still open (it is now closed), but the road looked ugly and caused us to turn around quickly. If you had a pickup or jeep with clearance you would have a shot.
So we parked at the Heather Lake lot and started skinning up the established hiking path around 9AM. We immediately ran into an issue. There were large trees that had come down, blocking the trail and making it excessively difficult to travel on skis. I had earlier proclaimed this would be the trip in which I would monitor my body temperature diligently and not sweat. Optimism is one of my quirks.
The trees only lasted for 0.5 miles then the trail cleared up for easier travel. Within two hours we had reached our first objective, Heather Lake. At this point the trail ends and the route-finding begins. After considering Bob’s Couloir for a minute, we opted for a different couloir just to the northwest.
It looked gentle enough. Soon though, we happened upon some cliffs and had to navigate up, through, and around. At this point, kicking steps took approximately 9-10 strikes each time because the snow kept sloughing off the cliff. This was very sketchy and not recommended in early season. With another 2-3 feet of snowpack it would be a reasonable objective for a competent skier.
After topping out on Never Not Stopping Couloir (we named it) and attaining the ridge, we ate food, boiled some water, and kept going. This next section was also interesting. It was true north facing and had some deep snow and beautiful ski lines. Unfortunately we were still headed up and the beautiful ski lines made for difficult skinning. Also note there are many cliff bands in this section and the topo map likely needs to be updated. To get through it all, I recommend traversing west for 0.5 miles after the ridge and then heading up the mountain through some notches in the cliff band. You’ll have to maneuver a bit here but it goes.
Soon we came upon the snow field, where we got our first views of the summit and the second party in our group who were heading up the standard route. By this time we were about 8 hours in, it was dark, and we had to use headlamps as the moon had not yet risen. After eating and debating stopping, we kept going up the snowfield. Travel was fairly simple as we found the ridge again and followed it up to the summit block.
The final effort required traversing underneath the summit block and boot packing up Gunsight Couloir (east facing). It’s fairly steep, but the snow was good and it went smoothly. We topped out on the summit ridge at 10 PM. So if you’re doing the math it took us 13 hours up in total. I think we could have done it 2 hours quicker with more snow on Never Not Stopping Couloir and the subsequent snowfield. Nevertheless it is a long day.
The best part of the climb, though, was our friends waiting for us at the fire lookout with smiles, christmas lights, adult beverages, and open spots on the floor to sleep. We watched the new years eve fireworks splash across western Washington at midnight which was a nice distraction from what was going on to the north east, Aurora Borealis was in full form behind us beaming up over Three Fingers and dancing across the sky towards Mt Baker.
We descended via standard route the next day, which was mild skiing, but recommended if you are low on energy.
Upon full reflection, the non-standard route was a blast. I wouldn’t trade this trip for any of them. 2016 is going to be good
– Tim Patmont in collaboration with Charlie Coultas