Ugh, this route! I’m 0 for 3 on it. This past weekend Nov. 20th & 21st, was my third attempt, and third turnaround.
At least as of Nov. 21st, the Cascade River Road is indeed drivable to milepost 20, the normal summer trailhead for Eldo. (And gated after that.) The log crossing has changed again already (at least since this past April.) We used a smaller log that’s about 150′ downstream from where the river is closest to the road, which worked out just fine. (Not that you need coordinates for it, but if it makes you feel better: 48.493061, -121.123988) It’ll probably be different again by next spring.
On Thursday, Nov. 18th, fresh snow that fell that exceeded what was forecast, managed to stick as low as 3000′, and has draped the boulder field in a 6″ to 12″ blanket of unsupportive fluffy powder, turning it into a rocky posthole nightmare that took 3 hours to cross. Above that, snowshoes could be used, but mostly deep fresh snow still made for tiring trail-breaking, limiting average pace to about 500′ of gain per hour. Despite leaving the trailhead at 7am, we made camp where dusk forced us to at 4:45pm, at only 6700′. (Testing with an avy probe indicated snow was just shy of 5′ deep there.) The math no longer made sense for our summit-day schedule: we were too far below our planned camp, and travel times were clearly taking longer than our planned schedule accounted for. Most of all, we feared that the NW Couloir itself would be full of this same unconsolidated snow, potentially turning it into a sketchy 55°-60° wallow with no good holds, no good sticks, and no good pro.
Even Starting An Attempt is Hard
It’s already been a long history of unsuccessful endeavors chasing technical winter alpine climbs for me. It’s just so challenging to get everything to line up correctly. Just the basic conditions to allow a winter alpine ice climb to even be possible already requires hitting the bullseye of a 3-way venn diagram:
- a reasonable weather-window,
- pretty good avy conditions,
- a hope that some ice has formed on your route and that there’ll actually be a thing to climb when you get there.
Beyond that already-rare line up of things you cannot control, it’s still kinda challenging to also line up your personal details, all those things you (theoretically) can control:
- You have to be physically ready. Let’s be realistic, staying in tip-top physical condition for big days in the alpine is not as easy during the wetter & grayer months. You don’t get the “free” conditioning of summer where you’re naturally active every weekend, so you have to be more deliberate about doing less-fun exercises in less-fun conditions. And to succeed at a winter route, with shorter days and more trail breaking, you have to be more fit.
- You have to have partners lined up who both have the necessary skills & experience for winter technical (which is naturally a smaller pool of partners than I’m willing to draw from for summer objectives) and actually want to do this sufferfest that is winter alpine climbing, with it’s chilly belays, spindrift, and just generally everything being harder.
- You and your partners have to be available when the opportunity happens. Not everyone can take off days from work anytime at the drop of a hat. Those of us who mostly can are privileged, and even then, the odds that someone will have an unmissable commitment in the front-country are high. So, you gotta have enough people interested that if one person can’t make it, it doesn’t sink your attempt.
I think one of the biggest challenges to winter alpine climbing is: It’s a lot harder to build & maintain stoke for a thing that is unknown, and un-guaranteed. Maybe the trip will happen, maybe it won’t. What dates do we expect to go? Who knows. If we obsessively check weather forecasts every day for months, maybe we’ll get a one-week heads up before it’s suddenly go-time, end even then the forecast could shift last minute and cancel things on us. In the meantime, let’s make sure we’re all exercising long in advance as if this trip will happen, even though it might not. And don’t make too many other hard commitments on your calendar. All of that makes working to keep the stoke full feel like ladling water into a leaky bucket over a long period of time. It affects my recruitment of partners somewhat, but even more so, I find it’s a mental struggle for myself, to make sure that I keep myself engaged & diligent about exercising & checking the weather week after week after week, in the face of so many doubts about when or even if it will pay off.
My History On Eldorado
I’ve summitted Eldorado 4 times before, all via the Basic Route (walking up the east ridge.) My very first time up the mountain was a winter overnight ascent, during February 2015, a memorable trip with Sherrie, Greg L, and Evan B. (However, the 2015 winter was a very weird low-snow year, and the majority of the boulder field was snow-free making it notably easier, very uncharacteristic of February.) I’ve led two Mountaineers Basic climbs up it, a group of 7 in July 2018, and a group of 9 in September 2019, both with car-to-car times that were 13 hours and change, which I’d say is pretty good for that group size and with some students for whom it was their very first time on a glacier. Finally, in April 2021, just Jessica and I did it in a day on skis, plus some bonus road-walk with the gate closed at milepost 18. (Our April timing proved perfect, with no snow until maybe 200’ before the boulder field, and then pretty good coverage & compactness on the boulder field that we could actually skin across.)
I’ve also made two attempts at Eldorado’s NW Couloir, prior to this recent one. Both were with an excellent climbing partner and friend, Jacob W, in the 2018-2019 winter season. We already understood that you couldn’t plan dates ahead of time for winter alpine climbs, so long before winter started, we made a pact that when good conditions appeared to line up for it on a weekend, we’d drop everything and go for it. The first weekend that lined up for it was December 1st & 2nd, 2018. We knew that the Cascade River Road was gated at milepost 18, and we thought that arriving there at 8am would be an earlier enough start. However, that meant it was 9am when we reached milepost 20 (the traditional Eldorado TH,) then 11am by the time we reached the start of the boulder field (i.e. we gained that 1800’ in the forest in 2 hours, which I felt was decent considering we had 52lb & 53lb packs.) However, the boulder field was that worst-case scenario of snow cover: enough to hide the gaps, but not enough to support you, so picking our way up it was slow going and painful (sometimes literally, when a leg would post-hole 3+ feet deep into a snow-obscured gap between the boulders, which led to some minor blood & scrapes on our shins.) Although we had been moving at just shy of the benchmark 1000’ per hour before the boulder field, it suddenly took us a full 3 hours to gain the next 1000’ in the boulder field. By the time we got to the small waterfall that marks the upper end of the boulder field, it was 2:15pm. Knowing that sunset was about 2 hours away, and that there was no chance we’d get anywhere near our planned camp spot up at 7600’ (at the toe of the east ridge) in that kind of time, we opted to throw in the towel and turn around at that point. We knew our chances of still getting to climb the couloir were pretty much nil by that point, so we might as well go home to warm beds rather than endure a winter overnight for no payoff. It took us 1h45m to walk in our own fresh tracks back down to base of the boulder field, 1h15m to descend the 1800’ in the forest, and 45m to walk the 2 miles of closed road back to my car at milepost 18, arriving there at 6pm. In our retrospective of that trip, we identified the short daylight hours as one of the main things working against us. Within a month of winter solstice, the sun is only up for 10 hours, and down for 14. The days were just so short that there wasn’t any forgiveness at all in schedules for things like the boulder field taking 3 hours to cross because of difficult partial snow cover. And on mountaineering trips, there’s nearly always something that causes an unexpected delay somewhere, that eats up more time than it ideally should. We decided we needed to wait to try again sometime when there were more than 10 hours between sunrise and sunset, which meant waiting until at least the end of February.
The weekend of March 2nd & 3rd 2019 showed a high-pressure system in the forecast, with promise of delivering both stable avalanche conditions and bluebird days on the weekend itself, so Jacob and I were on for a second attempt of the NW Couloir! We were especially stoked that dawn was 6:20am and dusk was 6:20pm, giving us an even 12 hours of no-headlamp-time, which we felt would really up our chances. However, we couldn’t get clear beta about where Cascade River Road was drivable to. When we got out there, we found that there was snow on the road itself. We put chains on my Forester at milepost 10, and got the car stuck entirely a little past milepost 16. After some shenanigans, we managed to back it out and return to a pullout by the Mineral Park Campground entrance to more properly “park” the car. Unfortunately, by then it was 9am. We still went ahead and booted the 4 miles of closed snow-covered road, reaching milepost 20 & Eldorado’s summer-trailhead by 11am. This time the thicker snow cover made the climbers trail through the forest much harder, it was fully buried and we lost it constantly, ended up full-on bushwhacking instead. Realizing that we were going to be even worse off than our previous attempt, we made the call to turn around. At the embarrassing low elevation of 3000’, at 12:30pm. Again, nothing we could do then would salvage our chances of climbing the couloir the next day, so again we opted to shed the sunk cost, and return to Seattle and warm beds for the night.
Since then, Jacob ended up moving to Colorado. A good move for him, but it did create a bit of a barrier to us making future Pacific Northwest weekend plans together. I stayed in Seattle, but also had a move of my own to a new place in December 2019, after seven years living in my previous apartment. Even though I didn’t go far, actually accomplishing the move took my full bandwidth, and climbing was off my radar for at least a month before & after it. It seems that led me to miss an unusually perfect weather opportunity for snagging the NW Couloir during November 2019. Before I started recruiting new potential partners who’d be capable of this route for spring 2020….. well, we all know what happened in spring 2020. With a new virus sweeping the world, my girlfriend and I more or less didn’t leave our house for 2 months straight. It was hard to watch a lot of beautiful weather spring weekends go by while we stayed indoors, but there was so much that no one knew back then, including how transmission worked, so we didn’t want to in any way risk being part of the problem. So we did nothing, and hung out with no one. Until May, when we formed a bubble with one other couple and finally started venturing outside again, although we stuck to hiking & backcountry skiing as our only sports. We did do some cool glacier travel and scramble alpine objectives during summer of 2020. As far as technical climbing though, I did next to none. I didn’t feel that the risk of climbing indoors at my old regular gym, Vertical World, was worth it until we were finally able to get vaccinated, in April 2021. And during that time of not having the base-fitness of gym climbing every week, my arms were pretty week and any outdoor climbing quickly proved demoralizing, so I didn’t do much. After getting vaccinated, I was back to the gym, and within a month or so I was climbing stronger than ever on outside rock. But by then it was mid-June, with talk of a “once in a 1000 years” heat-dome phenomenon coming in the forecast; not exactly the season for the NW Couloir, so I mentally filed away any plans of returning for the coming November.
Coming in to November 2021, Eldorado NW Couloir was high on my mind, with dreams of finally pulling off a trip similar to those CascadeClimber trip reports from Nov. 2019. However, this November was hit with atmospheric river after atmospheric river, and the rain was relentless for weeks. I believed sooner or later an opportunity would come, and I forced myself to train, doing I-90 hikes in the rain, and really struggled to not let my spirits dampen. Finally, hope for a weather window appeared, with long term forecasts suggesting there might be 5 days with minimal or no precip, from Wednesday Nov. 17th through Sunday Nov. 21st. Perfect, that lines up with a weekend, simplifying things a bit. It was on Thursday the 11th when I first realized that window might be coming, so started emailing a few potential partners here and there, but couldn’t get any takers. Finally, late at night on Tuesday the 16th, I decided to just cast a wider net and post about it on the Mountaineers website and on Facebook. I got a lot of different responses, the usual mix of “Don’t do it!” and “Do do it!” and “I have no climbing experience but can I come?” (No.)
(Need to finish writing this later…)