We planned a two-day climb of Forbidden’s East Ridge Direct for August 22nd & 23rd. The idea was to bivy high Saturday night, close to the Solitary Gendarme, then run up the East Ridge Sunday morning, descend via the East Ledges, pack up and head home Sunday night. We had a very strong four person team: Scott McAmis, David Wittstock, Sherrie Trecker, and myself (Rob Busack.) Scott had very kindly gone up a day ahead of time to get a Boston Basin camping permit for us.
The small pullout for the Boston Basin TH was full with more than a dozen cars there. We barely managed to squeeze one more car in. Since all we had to do that day was get to our high camp, we started hiking at 10am. A smokey haze from the massive wildfires elsewhere in the state filled the valley. You could smell the smoke, and our noses reacted by stuffing up. We took a leisurely lunch break in the woods at noon, and we broke out into the open meadows of Boston Basin by 12:40pm. The stream crossings were easy rock-hopping. At 1:30pm we passed what I believe is the standard camp in Boston Basin at ~6300’, a nice spot with room for 8 tents in a row amongst rocky terrain, at the fringe of the grassy meadows. Don’t expect to camp alone there. Running water there, but no snow at this time. A little higher, at ~6600’ we walked around the first small snowfield. Concerned that there would be neither snow nor water source at the high bivy we were aiming for (considering what an unusually low snow year this was,) we each filled up 5 or 6 liters of water here, which made for much heavier packs, and were on our way again by 2:40pm. The Unnamed Glacier would let loose a big noisy ice fall from time to time, so we stayed well off to the right from it, never below it. The going got much harder, now scrambling on very loose rock up gullies following a baring of roughly 58° (northeast.) At one point we came to an ice sheet, which we expected to continue up for a quite a while, so we donned our aluminum crampons and axes. The ice was so firm that this felt sketchy, and we had to be careful with every step. It turns out the ice sheet doesn’t go very far, and we soon returned to rock scrambling, so it would be far faster to bypass it by scrambling the granite slabs to the west (climber’s left) and skip the crampons altogether. The gully funneled us up to a 3rd class exit that was kinda stiff to pull off with the heavy packs, and then we were on yet more loose rock to hike up, but soon after that we reached our high bivy spot at roughly 8000’, 300 feet of elevation below the Solitary Gendarme, at 5:30pm. It turns out there is a lingering dirty snowfield close enough to the bivy spot that we could have melted snow after all rather than lugging up all that water weight, but oh well. Overall our pace for the day was a little slower than what I’d expect from an average party, but it didn’t matter because we still got to our planned bivy spot with plenty of time for dinner and an pre-sunset bedtime. Johannesburg was just barely visible through the crazy amount of smoke.
We set our alarms for 5am. Headlamps weren’t necessary for long, with it being light enough to see by 5:30am. Although we had agreed to be on the climbing route by 6am, it turned out we weren’t roped up and climbing until 6:40am. Looking back, we were a little too casual about things, the team as a whole failed to generate the sense of urgency that’s necessary on an alpine objective of this size. Scott went first, belayed by David. I led on David’s heals when he started climbing, with Sherrie bringing up the end. We all swapped leads and even managed to link two pitches into one at one point, but the belay transitions were not happening as fast as I wanted them to, and we were moving slow. At 11:30am we had all arrived at the base of the 5.7 tower. The Beckey guide describes that much in 6 pitches, and the Nelson guide describes that much in 4 pitches. For us, we got there in 5 pitches. So far the climbing had all been easy and fun, with double-slings around rock horns being by far the most common type of pro. Now at this 5.7 tower, Scott & David opted to climb up it and rappel into the next notch, whereas Sherrie & I opted for the easier traverse dipping around the east side of it. This put Sherrie & I at the base of the 5.8 crux pitch at 12:40pm, before Scott & David had finished their rappel, so I gave leading the 5.8 crux a shot. The crux moves are about 3/4ths of the way up, and an awesome horn off to the right gives you really bomber pro before the crux. However, leading up to it I had been psyching myself out with nerves about this 5.8 move. I got half way through the crux moves, and backed off back down to the horn. I tried again, and jammed in a badly-placed #0.4 cam in a vertical crack mid crux. When I tried the crux again, I opted to rest on that small cam and gather my nerves for the rest of the crux. I asked Sherrie to take, and I sat back in my harness, and instantly the cam ripped out and I was in free fall. I came to a stop 15 feet lower hanging in the air from that bomber slung horn. My left foot had struck a ledge somewhere in the fall, but absolutely thank God it did nothing more than cause a very mild sprain of my left ankle. I had Sherrie lower me back to the belay. My nervousness had psyched the others out a bit, but David bravely took the lead at that point, climbed cleanly & strongly through the crux, and set a belay on the ridgeline out of sight beyond it. When Scott followed him, we had him trail the rope Sherrie & I had been using. I tied in at the middle mark, and Sherrie remained on the other end. This allowed all of us after David to do the crux on top-rope, with Scott belaying me up, then me belaying Sherrie up. On top-rope, the move was crimpy but doable, I think if I had just been more mentally confident coming up on the 5.8 move, I would have been able to just lead it in the first place. Around 2pm we were all past the crux. We simuled the rest of the climbing to the summit, and had everyone on top by 3:10pm. We enjoyed the view and ate some much-needed food for no more than 10 minutes, and started rapping at 3:20pm. Holy crap it’s late in the day, I had hoped we’d be doing this at more like 11am or noon.
Descending via the East Ledges
We did two double-rope rappels and one single rope rappel, though in hindsight rappelling another 100’ more would have helped. Go as far straight down as you can until you get cliffed out above the Boston Glacier. Don’t be tempted to stop rappelling too early, or to start traversing east too early. All rap anchors were fairly close to straight down and easy to spot, though many could use some maintenance with new cord and better rap rings. Unfortunately, on our second rappel, the rope got stuck while pulling it. We put David on belay and he scrambled up to free it, then scrambled back down. He said it was just a weird freak thing, where the rope end had wrapped itself around a horn. It may have been faster for us to do all single-rope rappels, especially if it could have avoided this, and the rap stations are each well under 100’ apart. At 5:30 the last rappel rope was pulled and coiled. From there, the scrambling traverse on the East Ledges was horrible, stressful, and felt impossibly long. The going was extremely slow and tedious. Everything was loose, and you had to test every single handhold and foothold. It was all 3rd or 4th class with terrible exposure and a single slip or failed hold would have been fatal. Don’t be tempted to ascend, if anything you need to make a descending traverse. At one point a block the size of a toaster oven rolled down and struck Sherrie, knocking her legs out from under her. Her hand hold held, and she managed to hang on for dear life. If she had not… I don’t even want to think about it. This was extremely terrifying, and it happened when we were no more than half way across the traverse, and it was horrible that we had to continue to expose ourselves to such danger even after that because we had no option other than to finish the traverse and get out. We considered roping up and simuling this, but there was no where to place pro, and everything moved so even if you did get pro in it would not hold, so the rope would simply be a suicide pact. We had to continue to free-solo. This is the most awful thing I have ever done in the mountains, and I have no intention of repeating it. Finally, around 7pm, we arrived at the gully that brings you back up to the Solitary Gendarme. (The Solitary Gendarme is visible for the latter half of the scrambling along the East Ledges.) We entered this gully just a little over 200’ below the ridge crest, and it is 5th class at points in there. There is a better entrance in the gully about 90’ below the ridge crest, but I didn’t know that until I passed it later. Thankfully, David had been the first to top out in the gully. He built a gear anchor in the solid rock of the ridge crest, and tossed down a rope, allowing Sherrie & I to attach prusiks to this fixed line to provide some protection as we climbed up and out. I was so incredibly thankful for that, I was mentally drained by all the exposed scrambling, and I badly needed the psychological boost that the rope provided. Scott had lagged behind, but eventually joined us in the gully. We climbed out one at a time, due to the loose rock raining down the gully as each person climbed. Since Scott was last, he tied into the end of the fixed line, and I belayed him up, finally topping out at 8:00pm, just minutes before the red sun dipped below Mount Torment to the west. Considering the long descent that would be required to reach the cars, and how much loose rock we knew we’d have to scramble there too, and the fact that Scott had forgotten to pack a headlamp entirely, and especially the pent-up stress we were already laboring under from the long day, it was clear that we had no choice but to spend a second night on what was supposed to be a one-night trip. At least we were right at our bivy. Intermittent cell phone signal allowed us to tell a few people that we’d miss work on Monday, and my DeLorme InReach got the rest of the messages out when the cell signal crapped out.
We set our alarms for 5am again, and had packs on to hike out at 6:30am. At 7:30am we were back to the ice sheet we had used crampons for on Saturday, but this time we bypassed it via granite slabs on the west, which was much quicker. At 9am we made it back to where we had filled up so much water on Saturday, where we took a food break (we all still had at least some snack food left, though not much) and made sure everyone had at least 1 full liter of water for the rest of the descent. On the move again by 9:30, we descended past the standard camp, and through the meadows past many active marmots, entering the tree line at 10:40am. The descent seemed to drag on forever, but eventually we hit the trailhead at 12:45pm. We drove to Marblemount at stopped at Mondo Restaurant at little after 2pm to eat gigantic omelets, milkshakes, and beer. Every plate was cleaned. We got back to Seattle around 6pm.
Whew! Despite the extra night, and temporarily repressing the memory of the horrible East Ledges descent, it was a really great trip!! To quote David: “I know there were ups and downs and a few things we would have done differently in hindsight. For a climb of that commitment level, I would have been a little disappointed or surprised had we made it through without any lessons to take home and am happy those lessons came without anyone getting hurt. I’m incredibly proud of what we accomplished; it was, for me, the hardest alpine climb I’ve done. All of you were great partners and at different points I appreciated and leaned on your experience, ability and decision making, which I think was always sound and safe.” What he said is true for all of us. Also, I have to say, David was the MVP of the climb, saving the day on three separate occasions: leading the crux pitch for all of us, freeing the stuck rappel rope, and tossing down a handline for the final gully out of the East Ledges.
The East Ridge Direct climbing route was awesome, I would happily climb it again!! However, the East Ledges descent was horrible, and I have no intention of repeating it. I suppose the way I would do this next time would be to do a carryover, climbing up the East Ridge, and using the West Ridge as a descent route. Camp at the standard camping spot in Boston Basin (at roughly 6300’.) Set off as early as possible in the morning. Each climber could carry a small summit pack (rather than bringing one shared one per rope team to trade off when following.) If ice axe & crampons are needed, bring aluminum ones, and each climber carries their own on their summit packs. Boots will need to go in there too while actually climbing, so approach shoes would probably be much better than boots, thanks to the weight savings. On the East Ridge climbing route, I could have led every pitch (except the 5.8 crux pitch) while carrying a small backpack like that, since most of the climbing isn’t terribly hard. On the 5.8 crux pitch, perhaps let the leader leave their pack behind while rope-gunning the pitch, then haul the pack up after they’ve topped out there. I have not tried any of this yet, but I think it’s the best way to tackle the East Ridge Direct as a climb. Second to the carryover, I think the next best descent option would be to down climb the entire East Ridge Direct route, doing so would definitely be more protectable and more enjoyable than the East Ledges.
A few useful GPS coordinates
- Trailhead: 48.480256, -121.079581
- Possible low camp: 48.494821, -121.063727 (location estimated from map, we saw 2 tents around here)
- Rough location of the standard camp: 48.50181, -121.0645 (location estimated from map, about where we saw spaces for 8 tents, and I’m sure you’d have company there)
- Our bivy spot: 48.508269, -121.056292 (Exact.)
- Climbing route begins: 48.509729, -121.055850 (Exact. This is also where the East Ledges exit gully tops out.)
- BD C4 cams #0.3 to #2, with doubles of the #0.75 & #1
- 8 nuts, BD sizes #4-#11
- 4 tricams, black, pink, red, brown
- 6 single runners
- 6 double runners
That rack worked really well for Sherrie & I. By far the most common form of pro on the route was slinging horns, I’d strongly recommend having at least 6 doubles, maybe 1 or 2 more. On a few pitches we completely ran out of slings, which I guess just proves that we didn’t bring more than necessary. We tend to err slightly on the side of overprotecting, so we were glad to have doubles of the green & red cams, and would not have minded having a second purple cam. If you tend to go lighter on pro you’d probably be fine not doubling anything. We barely used the #2 cam. On the crux 5.8 pitch, there’s an awesome horn to your right waiting for one of your doubles just before the hard moves. Half way up the crux, maybe a #0.3 could be stuffed in that skinny vertical crack, but David led it without one. After the crux, a purple #0.5 is useful.
Other gear notes
- Ice axes & crampons -> We brought aluminum ones, but they are not necessary right now. We absolutely needed them to cross a steep ice sheet on the way up, but on the way down realized it was possible to arc around this ice sheet on it’s west side, staying completely on rock which was much faster going. We ran into a pair of guys who had descended Forbidden’s West Ridge a day before us and they said axes & crampons were never needed for them there either with these current very-melted-out conditions.
- Camping at the high bivy spot -> Space is limited, the dirt patch we used is just barely big enough for four people to lay in. Two people used bivy bags, which worked really well. Two people slept under a tarp, which also worked really well. Plenty of heavy rocks around to tie tarp guy-lines around. The bivy spot is really narrow, so pitching a real tent probably wouldn’t work, even a very small one. At the actual start of the climbing route up on the ridge crest, there was another spot that had been setup for one or two very snug people to bivy.
- For water at the high bivy spot -> Since there is a dirty snowfield that should be large enough to last another month, I’d recommend a JetBoil or MSR Reactor, extra fuel to melt snow, and a pump filter to suck water out of the pot without getting tons of grit.
- Boots vs approach shoes -> While I like my boots, Scott proved you could do the whole approach comfortably in approach shoes, even strapping aluminum crampons to them when necessary.