Our first attempt never left the trailhead because of thunderstorms. Our second attempt faltered route finding on the glacier. Our third attempt went! This past weekend I climbed Sloan Peak with Mary and Melissa. This is an incredible route with some serious variety. Not all the variety was welcomed!
Nursing our summit-fever wounds from our recent turn around on Rainier, we had our eyes set on the alpine again this weekend. Mary and I had been eyeing Sloan for three years. This is the time of year to do it (actually, it’s a bit late, but we have a long snow pack this year). When we saw absolutely perfect weather we knew it had to happen. Rarely do you see sunny, 55 degrees on the summit, zero wind, and a clear day. I had also seen a recent trip report from Chenmin. The glacier looked like it was in great shape. Their party unfortunately had to turn around because of snow on the heather ledges. We mulled this over and felt that the recent warm weather might have left a clear path. So, we went for it.
We met again and drove to the trailhead. After the previous weekend’s midnight start, we were stoked for a luxurious 8am departure from the city and then the thought of a super-late 4am wakeup the next morning. A lot of climbers attempt Sloan in a day. With relatively moderate statistics, that makes sense. Who wants to carry a heavy pack with overnight gear when you can instead just carry a day pack? I do. The camping is incredible and, if you’re going to have to get up super early why not also go backpacking with your friends?
Anyways, we met up and began the now familiar drive out to the Bedal Creek trailhead. We hit traffic on the Mountain Loop highway, as we always do, and stopped for about fifteen bathroom breaks (all were welcome), but all up made good time to the trailhead. The trailhead is at the end of Forest Service road 4096, and the road is rough. So rough that most of my friends don’t want to drive up it. But, a good high clearance vehicle can navigate it with no problem. Just expect a few paint scrapes from branches.
The trail is particularly overgrown this year. At least compared to last year. About fifty feet up there’s some new blow down just to remind you that this is, in fact, a good cascadian adventure. The blow downs let up as you get further up the trail, and the five (yes, five) brushy overgrown sections add some spice to the ~1.6 mile walk in.
At some point you have to go uphill to gain the Bedal / Sloan saddle. There is some pink flagging from a SAR mission several (many?) years ago. This flagging marks a bit of a way trail that travels through the steep, open forest. Follow the flagging on the way up, and try your best to remember the lay of the land for the way down. At ~4350′ the best path walks along a little ridge. Remember this for your way down. Last year we get sucked into some brush by following the fall line on the descent. The brush is much less pleasant. A break about halfway up this is where I realized that I had left my ice axe in the car. What a dingus! We decided that the weather looked okay, and that there would be little danger on the snow this year so we as a group decided to proceed. Still, what a dingus. I still cringe thinking about this mistake.
After about 1000′ of this no-nonsense trail, you encounter a boulder field below imposing cliffs of Bedal peak. I was reading the Cascade Alpine Guide of peaks in the area. Beckey doesn’t mention this now-common approach to Sloan. He instead mentions an approach off Bedal creek that continues up the trail, up the Bedal creek basin, and then eventually through some chimney moves up to the summit block. He also mentions the now standard Cougar creek approach (called the Sloan Peak Climber’s trail). What I found interesting was that in a little footnote he mentions an alternate approach to Bedal peak that goes up open forests and then up a Boulder field. I think that’s the approach that we used for Sloan peak. I just thought it was cool that there was such diversity to approaches.
Anyways, I digress. Uphill nonsense over, the approach crosses some incredible, hills-are-alive, meadows. Last year these were full of blueberries and were wet as heck. This year was a different story – no berries, no water, and hot. On the balance, I’ll take boots that don’t slosh over berries. But just barely. The approach briefly enters some open forest before you gain the Bedal / Sloan saddle, which is marked by a murky looking tarn. Also, there are some rocks in the tarn that look a little bit like a monster just below the surface. At least to me.
Here we changed into our boots for the rest of the approach, since the snow became consistent. Here is also where I experienced my first of several visits to the great number 2 experience. I haven’t yet been able to predict when my stomach will agree with me on a climb and when it won’t. This time it decidedly didn’t.
After our brief stop we made terrifically quick work of the rest of the approach to camp. Again, the mistakes we made last year, and the better conditions this year, paid off. We didn’t gain useless elevation. We didn’t have to route find across any sketchy slab. It was cruising to the camp at about 5900′ on the north ridge. On this approach is when we saw the only other climbers of the day. Two parties of two, and each gave us useful beta. They both informed us that the route was cruiser and our excitement only grew.
The Sloan peak north ridge camp is incredible. You have views of big mountains like Baker and Glacier, mountains with stark prominence like Bedal and Pugh, and enough luscious valleys to appreciate your now bug-free life. Last year camp was dry, and we found a few small sources of water. This year there was running water about fifty yards above camp.
We made quick work of our chores. Melissa and I both had fairly medium Mountain House meals. I was hitting the bottom of the barrel on my impulse purchase of on-sale Mountain House a few years ago. I’d been avoiding chicken breast and mashed potatoes for several years and wasn’t stoked to tear in to it. I was, however, hungry. Besides requiring assembly (what the hell, Mountain House?) the meal was actually pretty good. A little plain flavored, but I guess what can you expect from chicken breast and mashed potatoes? I can’t fault them, it was actually pretty cool to see two whole chicken breasts freeze dried in a bag. Okay, I take it all back. It was a perfectly fine meal. Melissa had the teriyaki chicken which, while tasty, is pretty sweet.
We took sunset photos for about two hours and then eventually made it to bed. Despite having plenty of time to get a good night’s sleep, I finally made it to sleep around 11pm. Five hours later, and a few midnight star gazing trips to deal with the water I drank on Saturday, the alarms went off and we got ready to go. We left at 5:15am, just before first light.
We followed some old tracks up the easy north ridge and roped up when we started traversing onto the glacier. The travel was incredibly easy. Within ten minutes we had passed where we got stuck on our previous attempt. The snow was great for walking in. The sun rose and the sky turned from pink to orange to blue. The sun lit the imposing face of Sloan.
As we gained the east ridge, we found some steep, exposed snow on the far side getting to the heather. This was one of two times on the trip I really wish that I had my ice axe. The snow was pretty soft, so travel was very easy and I used a picket to self belay just in case.
We were FINALLY at the heather benches part of the route and immediately found a nice happy little bootpath to follow. Following this trail was pretty easy. Until it wasn’t. There’s just enough snow to cover parts of the trail and force you onto some heather hopping moves. Remember, kids, heather is lava. This path is exposed, but doesn’t feel overly so. How often do you fall down while walking, especially if you’re paying attention? Every time the trail turned a corner we were rewarded with more incredible views.
We rounded enough corners and found what we assumed was the dirty gulley. Mary recognized it from photos (she’s really good at recognizing places from their photos) and up we went. The gulley was snow covered, and having forgotten my ice axe, I decided to scramble up the rocks on climber’s right. This went, but required a few moves with concentration-inducing exposure. Melissa followed me and said that she didn’t have fun here. See, exposed scrambling.
The dirty gulley leads to a notch in the ridge where there’s a fourth class step. And, boy, the route wasn’t obvious. We scrambled up the off width crack (seriously) and then to another thing that I didn’t think was the route. So I went left and was like “we should go on these exposed ledges.” Thankfully sanity prevailed and we went up what was a relatively easy few moves. Melissa was ahead and shouted “it’s trail!” so we knew we were on the right path.
More dirty scree brings another gulley with more kitty litter and loose rocks. There’s a decent trail through here and the route finding wasn’t terrible. A weird patch of snow forced us across a crappy, muddy step. This was probably the sketchiest part of the scramble so far.
We had been waiting for the bear hug move for ages and it was finally upon us. Photos don’t do it justice. It’s fun. It’s fine. It’s a bear hug. Hug the rock and go across and then scramble up to the summit. Everyone seems to talk about the bear hug move, but they don’t talk about the other mandatory exposure and weird scramble moves to get to the summit block. It was all fine, of course, but we agreed that the scramble on Sloan was pretty sandbagged.
Four hours and sixteen minutes after we left camp, we arrived on the summit. Mary was excited to find an old brass summit register. I was, too, but I was also excited to sit down and then visit another blue bag (see earlier, when I knew this trip was going to involve this kind of fun). We hung out for a while, ate some delicious pizza, and soaked in the views. I’ve used the word incredible several times to describe these views. That word alone isn’t enough to do it justice. Go. See for yourself. I implore you.
The summit register was brand new! A crew of folks from Saturday replaced it (thank you Josie L. and Tim E.!!!). I took the old register to give back to The Mountaineers. In the old register I found some familiar names, including Eve Jakubowski, who’s trip report was part of the inspiration for this trip.
After a not-so-brief summit laze, we decided it was time to turn around and head home. We ran into our first (and only) other people of the day when we saw a party of two at the base of the snow-covered dirty gulley. By the way, I descended in the moat and then snow this time, not wanting to repeat the exposed scramble.
We made it back to camp in a few hours (how the Mountaineers thinks you can get from summit to camp in 2 hours is beyond me). Of note, we saw several new crevasses that had just opened up overnight. And, on our way out, we think the snow dropped at least a foot. The alpine is melting FAST y’all.
I don’t really like walking out, and I don’t like talking about walking out. This is why I’m a skier. Downhill is fun on skis. Downhill through boulder fields, bushwhacking, and steep open slope isn’t. We did better on the descent this time. We had paid attention to the better ways to go up and down, and avoided many of our mistakes of last year. We were able to take 20 minutes off our time.
A few things we found really important:
- On the ascent, just past the tarn, don’t gain a bunch of elevation. Contour in drainage for a while. In fact, getting to the tarn, go straight / left rather than going right and bushwhacking through the woods.
- Remember where you exited the meadow and entered the woods. This is how you want to get back to the meadow. There’s an obvious drainage that brings you to a pretty crappy crossing of the meadow instead. The one you want is actually a bit higher.
- On the descent, once you exit the boulder field you want to contour rather than descend. If you descend you’ll get sucked into a lot of brush and some devil’s club. It’s not great.
- I have many of our mistakes marked on this map.
I brought leftover snacks from Rainier and STILL have too much food. A wrap on Saturday, bagel with Everything but the Bagel seasoning on Sunday, and two slices of PCC pizza. On the way back you better believe we stopped at McDonalds for a big mac, fries, and a giant coke.
- 08:30 meet up to carpool
- 11:30 at trailhead
- 12:00 depart trailhead
- 5pm arrive camp
- 4am wakeup
- 5:12am depart camp
- 9:28am arrive summit
- 10:15am depart summit
- 1:15pm arrive camp
- 2:30 depart camp
- 5:51 arrive cars, sit down, drink cola and eat chips