Saturday, February 10, 2018

Eldorado Peak

I woke up at 3am and struggled to cram down 3 pieces of bacon, 2 eggs, and 2 waffles. I never have much of an appetite this early in the morning but I knew that it would be a long day. I met Matthew and Nate at 4am and we headed out to Eldorado. The Cascade River Road was clear of snow and blowdowns so the drive went quickly and we made it to the trailhead a bit after 6:30am.

We took our time getting ready and didn't leave the parking lot until 7am. After wandering around for a while trying to find the best way across the N Fork of the Cascade River, we gingerly worked our way across some icy logs, careful not to fall in and doom the trip before it even started.

We picked up the trail and bumbled our way up through the forest, catching our skis on plenty of low-hanging branches. The snow started around 3,000' and made for easy booting.

Climbing out of the forest

At 3,900' we broke out of the forest into a boulder field. There was a hard crust dotted with pockets of wind slab. I started skinning across with my dull edges barely hanging on, imagining falling on a kick turn and sliding uncontrollably off the waterfall at the bottom. I decided that would be a stupid way to go and put my ski crampons on. With ski crampons I was able skin quickly as Matthew and Nate gingerly edged their way up. Nate opted to boot a short steep section and punched through the snow into the slide alder underneath. His skis fell onto his face, chipping one of his teeth. I worried for a second that our trip would be over, but Nate is a trooper so we continued on.

We continued up below steep east facing cliffs through the avalanche debris they had shed during the last storm. It felt more like June than February with the sun shining bright. We took off all the clothes we could without risking heinous sunburn.

After ascending the boulder field, our goal was to cross over the ridge separating the Eldorado Creek and Roush Creek basins. We had seen wind loading lower down and could see cornices hanging off the ridge above. Following Martin Volken's sage advice, we gained the ridge at 6,200' and found an easy boot down on the other side.

Skinning up the Eldorado Glacier

I found my rhythm as soon as we hit the glacier. A few inches of light powder on a supportive crust made the skinning easy. I was so happy to be in this beautiful place in the middle of winter with absolutely perfect weather. It really doesn't get much better.

I crested the slope onto the ice cap and waited up for Nate and Matthew. Nate had already skied Eldorado before and didn't want to continue and decided to wait for Matthew and I to summit. By now it was 1:30pm which didn't leave us too much time to do the 1,500' climb to the summit of Eldorado and make camp before dark.

Matthew and I set off across the ice cap. We skinned to a small gap in the east ridge of Eldorado at 7,800' where we found plenty of rime ice. The ridge itself was fairly windblown so I put on my ski crampons on again. Matthew followed, struggling a bit with the icy conditions.

At 8,300' the ridge steepens significantly. The right side looked quite wind loaded and there was a thinly-covered crevasse running along its entire base. I tried scouting it out but found that my ski crampons couldn't get any purchase on the dry, chalky snow. The left side of the ridge was wind blown, but a fall would send you down the steep cliffs of the S face into the massive bergschrund underneath. It would be no problem with ski crampons, but Matthew hadn't brought them. We decided to boot the remaining 500ft to the summit.

Booting the last 500ft to the summit
Photo: Matthew Koppe

We made it over the steepest section of the ridge with ease and continued up low angle terrain to the knife-edge ridge that guards the summit.

Matthew booting the upper east ridge

The knife-edge ridge was easy to climb, but I certainly wouldn't want to fall off of it! It's a beautiful position with the south face dropping to the ice cap on your left and the NW face dropping down to Marble Creek on your right.

The view was the most beautiful I have ever seen. We could see the entirety of the North Cascades from Snoqualmie Pass to BC, all the peaks cloaked in snow. Matthew made an excellent panorama and I labeled almost 70 peaks on it, including 18 of the 25 highest peaks in Washington. You can see the full resolution image here.

Labeled panorama from the summit of Eldorado
Full resolution image here
Photo: Matthew Koppe

From the summit we had a clear view of Goode Mountain, which my great-grandfather Othello Phillip Dickert first climbed with Wolf Bauer, Joe Halwax, Jack Hossack, George MacGowan on July 5th, 1936. I hope to repeat their route this summer.

The SW face of Goode

Goode or bust! My great-grandfather in the upper left.
Mountaineers: A History page 57

After enjoying the warm, windless weather on the summit, we down-climbed the ridge and walked back to our skis. We skied icy, windblown snow down the ridge then enjoyed powder to the ice cap.

Descending the knife-edge ridge

Skiing down to the ice cap
Photo: Matthew Koppe

We met up with Nate again and discussed what to do next. We had planned on camping on the ice cap but the winds were already ripping through and they were forecast to strengthen overnight. Not wanting to sacrifice sunny conditions today for a white-out tomorrow, we decided to head down and make it a car-to-car.

Enjoying sublime snow on the Eldorado Glacier with the Johannesburg looming in the background
Photo: Matthew Koppe

As soon as we started skiing the Eldorado Glacier I knew that we had made the right call. The snow was just as perfect as the view.

We climbed back up the ridge and dropped into the Eldorado Creek basin, skiing a combination of ice, breakable crust, and rock-hard avalanche debris back to the forest. After some of the best snow of my life on the Eldorado Glacier, this felt like some of the worst.

Sunset on Johannesburg's mighty North face with the Starship Enterprise cloud ready to take us home
Photo: Matthew Koppe

We made it to the forest at 5pm and swapped skis for headlamps. The descent was quite nice to start with plenty of snow to plunge step. As the snow receded and the forest closed in around us it became more difficult, but we were all in good spirits. After another sketchy river crossing on icy logs, we made it to the car at 6:30pm for a car-to-car time of about 11.5 hours.

Days like this where you can ski perfect powder under sunny skies high in the North Cascades don't come around often. I feel so lucky to have had this one.