Argonaut Peak (8453’, prom 733’)
-NE Couloir, ski (Stuart Range)
June 11, 2011
Scott McAllister and Franklin Bradshaw
Weather – Warm sun with some scattered clouds –mostly blue skies (cum. Clouds in the NC)
Celestial – Sunrise 5:05a, Sunset 8:59p; Moonrise 4:36p, Moonset 1:59a, 4 days until full moon
Short of it
A warning - by no means do I recommend any of the routes I take. Often off route and in situations that could put a hiker in danger. Use good judgment and decide upon the feasibility of your chosen route carefully. Just a heads-up. The couloir of this route I classify as one to approach with due caution. Many places allow for no error. –thanks
With an early start we took Stuart Lake trail with some bushwhacking to the snow field below the north face and up the NE Couloir of Argonaut. Steeper in the col than we expected and longer to kick up. Some mid class 5 rock with skis on back and ski boots/crampons. Then a traverse to the saddle and relaxing sun time on the summit. Two other followed and we shared a rap back to the col, leaving them to “ski” the NE col. Good skiing top and bottom, but not “in” in the middle. Runnels, snice and narrow at the constriction. Fun easy skiing the lower face and less than a mile in the trees down Mountaineers creek til we ran out of snow. A long, tiring and rewarding day. Sounds much more interesting the write up below.
Scott and I had some unfinished business in the Stuart Range. After our April attempt on Argonaut was a turn-around due to high winds and a near whiteout, we’d been waiting for schedules to align with conditions for another shot at the NE Couloir of Argonaut. The Icicle creek road had been cleared of the mudslide that closed it early April at Eightmile CG, so now we could hike direct from the trailhead and not from the CG again. Weather forecast was 20% chance of precip. For the Eastside, I look at that as most likely clear. The night before we made quick plans. Not a lot to figure out, we thought we knew what to expect…
Road closed or open
Part way up Highway 2, I got an email warning that Icicle Creek road was closed at Eightmile CG. Yikes, now what? I pulled over and a call for to PiB to check it out. Between our two searches we found a slew of conflicting info of multiple slides. One from earlier in the daywas at Fourth of July creek (further up the road from the turn off to Stuart lake). I turned around to get more map info, just in case. Then turned back to take my chance. PiB was kind enough to email some maps to other trip options just in case. At least I’d have a fall back if the road was blocked.
Passing Eightmile CG, no road closure and a turn left and past Bridge Creek, showed all normal. The road to Stuart Lake trail was like a parking lot of campers either side camping in the woods. Arriving at the half filled trailhead parking lot at 11p, I was tired and ready to close the eyelids. With a 2:15 wakeup, at that point I’d hoped to get couple hours sleep… I drifted off with the light of the bright moon streaming through the trees, thinking of tomorrow.
A dark start
Morning came waayyyy too early. Still tired after only 2 ½ hours of sleep, I downed some oatmeal while I made the final pack loadings. Another party of two slipped up the trail at 3am. Never did find out where they were heading. After they left and a half hour later the outhouse still reeked of weed… Loaded a ready, we got a go at 3:50. A few minutes up the trail, I remembered I’d forgotten my ski socks –oops. I dropped the bag and jogged back. I’d be oh so glad later to have clean dry socks : ). (note – for the stats of this report, I’ll leave off the extra .2 miles for the socks).
So many times up this trail. I’ve not been much for repeats. Good thing this time it was different. It was dark. Booting up the trail in the dark went by smoothly, snow free with not too wet mud patches here and there. Soon enough I caught up with Scott (he was going slow so I could re-join). In short order we crossed the bridge with the swollen Mountaineers creek thundering below. Last time over the bridge we had been about four feet up at the height of the guard rail, trusting on a thin band of snow. There were a few snow patches before Colchuck trail (2m, c4540’, 58min), but they will be gone in short order. After the Colchuck trail we continued on Stuart Lake trail to increasing snow patches and water on the trail. At 2.7 miles we passed the spot of the Beaver action we saw in April. Then the avy debris from the flows off the gullies of the east side of Axis. The trail got wetter and snow patches longer and deeper. Passing the swamp to our left no snow white in sight. Through an opening of the trees we had our first glimpse of the peaks ahead in the growing light of the early dawn. And soon the first hint of alpine glow heralding a sunny day ahead.
Where’s the snow or even a trail
This time with the lack of snow we didn’t want to mess with the swamp. But I didn’t know where the climbers trail was, so when to head up valley. We didn’t want to end up at Stuart Lake. The trail headed back into the woods and slightly up. A faint hint to the left gave the impression we may be heading up the north side of Mountaineers Ridge, so time we left the trail (3.2m, c4625’, 1h32m). A turn south and time for bushwhacking. Oh, the fun. Skis and boots catching brush, ducking under and crawling over logs. Even with all that, it appeared we had found some sort of trail. In a few minutes we were at the creek and a largish long log over a wide stretch (creek was from Stuart Lake).
At this point I should have guessed I was still asleep or insane. Loaded up with skis and boots weighting the pack, I started walking across the wet bare log. Wet shoes, wet soaks, wet log, slippery. My mind started a conversation. How come the log is over the widest part of the creek? What if I lost my balance? Yikes, the log is getting smaller and slimy, White stuff on it ahead, wait… I’m nuts! Now what? How do I get to a safe cheval? Grunt, creak, and a few other noises and wild thoughts shooting through my head. Finally low on the log feet dangling over the creek, the last 10 feet butt scooting. Not to get up. Oh the fun of skis tangled in brush trying to stand up and get off the log without going swimming. Looking back, Scott was wiser than I and making good progress across the log.
On the east side of the log a tent stake had been driven deep into the log and ahead a cairned trail leading south. This side the going was easier, still with some dodging to do. Soon the trail lead to a boulder field (3.6m, c4705’, 2h3m) with patches of snow starting as we veered left and added occasional potholing to our repertoire. There were boot prints of tracks about a week ago. We followed their post-holing, walking softly to stay on top of the surface. Progress was slow trying to walk softly with the occasional post-holing. We hung on with trail shoes longer than we should. It was past time when we stopped to don boots and skis (3.8m, c4680’, 2h30m).
Oh, it felt so good, sliding through the woods, over logs, past our April camp and along the east side of the creek. More tracks, boots and snowshoe marks, looking like from last week (?). Along the creek again and out of the trees to the lower end of the avy field. Morning light bright illuminating a direct view of the north basin of Argonaut (4.2m, c4815’, 3h5m). On our left Colchuck and up a valley on the right Sherpa with its distinct balanced rock.
The north approach looking much different
Scott going all-terrain
The view so different than a few months ago, and this time we’d both expected much more snow. Good time to take in the views, we stood there pondering, sun on the upper reaches. The slope recognizable yet so different. How to get to it past all the brush trees and avy debris of many years strewn in front of us and onto some solid snow. Our main point was skiing and so far hiking miles far outnumbered ski miles.
A thought from Carla and Randy crossed my head. What would the Honey Badger do? Full steam ahead, in all terrain mode we worked through the maze to finally being at the bottom of solid snow leading up.
Snow, nice hard snow
The piste was hard as. Once on our way up the gentle snow field and over the creek we packed the skis and headed up with the help of sharp points. It was faster ascending booting up direct toward the NE Col. The NE Col, our target growing larger and closer. It was a great morning, snow and sun : ).
We veered slightly east, the NW Buttress route on the right and a little higher and the opening to the NE Col. It’d taken us nearly 2 ½ hours up the open slope, but time had slid by quicker than I’d thought (5.3m, c6960’, 5h57m).
The mouth of the NE Couloir opened wide and soft as we started up (after a break). Mellow slope from 30 degrees growing steeper as we went. Now 40, getting steeper. Closing in on the constriction, snow firm enough to front point and a measurement steeper than 55 degrees. Front pointing got tiring, was much easier to rest-step in buckets, though it was taking 4-5 slams to get a good bucket. As it got steeper the buckets were a nice relief. The snow was hard and much effort getting the ax in for a good stick. Some places hard enough for the pick, but not really.
How tall was this thing? Would it ease up? Gees, a hell of a long ways down. Hard runnels to cross, this didn’t look to be in for skiing. What were the options for a fun (and safe) descent. Options ran through my mind, as I kicked on, step after step, kick after kick.
It really was steep (photos of me by Scott)
Middle of the col, in my haze I thought I’d heard voices far away, but then again. I can’t hear much so must be my imagination. The pitch eased a bit and poof, we were at the top of the col –Yippee! (5.5m, c8050’, 12 noon). This was taking a load of time, it’d been 2 ½ hours to get up the col that slid by quickly. Another break and taking in the view of Colchuck and Dragontail. An amazing beauty with the shadows of the clouds tracing over the snow contours. Looking down on the ridge running east we were above where we’d made it last attempt. Now to figure where to go…
Where the heck is the summit
We traversed the slope to enough to see the east snowfield that goes to the eastern saddle. A point on it SE. I hope that’s not the true summit. The map showed the summit to the west. Above us rock that would need climbing to attain the ridge of the upper snowfield. We’d read there was mid class 5 rock (one report claimed a dihedral class 5 with a 5.6 area). Well, this looked like it. Too bad I didn’t look better. Back to the north toward the col about 50’ was a snow finger that stretched within 20 feet of the ridge and only class 4 rock to surmount. Buggers, would have been sooooo, much easier.
Time to break out the rope and pro. The lower part had halfway decent holds, with hard ice below the surface. Choice was an exposed slab or into a dihedral. The dihedral it was, skis snagging and doing a little acrobatics past some “interesting” parts. Smearing higher on the side with crampons to shimmy up a bit more and a few good hand/finger holds. I found some good placements for cams between ½- 1 ½” (BD purple, green & red) and some horns to sling. Some pull ups and a few choice words and a good belay spot. About 15 feet into pitch two, we were on the upper snow field. Soft snow over knee deep and the slope steeper than I thought. And the runout… if the snow went it wouldn’t be pretty.
Topping the steep upper NE snowfield. Best pitch to it is to the left of the pointy rock in center
A traverse west and up under a little buttress. Last bit was 50-55 degree snow to the far east point. I’d gone up a little too early. Sticking my head up above the ridge to see bare rock to the west and much higher. The summit! (5.6m, c8384’, 2:56pm).
Scott tops the last ridge to get view of true summit
Ultra wide pano from the false summit east of the saddle
Last bit of cl2-3 rock and through the rock gap
We dropped over the ridge and down about 20’, left the boards for an easy cl2-3 rock scramble on the south side of the ridge to the summit. Well, no rock seems that easy when you are doing it in ski boots, but a cake walk compared to the rock to the upper snow field. Just below the summit a walk through a large leaning boulder. Then lady bug dodging up the 6-8’ to surmount the top of the summit (5.6m, 8453’, 3:20p).
Top of the world
Looking north up Mountaineers Creek from the summit of Argonaut
For some reason I had a feeling of being at the bar at the end of the galaxy. A birds-eye view looking down on everything. Sun all around, with thick clouds way north. Some spots of local clouds over the Enchantments casting shadows on the snow contours. The views spectacular and a great reward.
Sherpa –is the balanced rock higher?
Stuart with tracks from false summit to summit
And looking east –saw at least four people on Colchuck today
We relaxed and read through the register of familiar names back to 1987. The other two hung out below then came up to join on the warm and dry summit rocks. From our talk, I think they appreciated the col having buckets bottom to top. After some good lounging and visiting with the other group we decided to head out (4:08p).
A few sweet turns on the top snowfield, a rap on the other teams rope to the top of the col and we bid them a good trip. They headed down the east snow field to traverse over to Colchuck Gl as we clicked in to ski the NE Couloir (c8070, 4:50p).
Are we really skiing “That”?
I’d looked at this Col for years wondering about dropping into it. Now looking at it and the sampling on the way up I was thinking it was not in and not hot to head into it. I suggested other options, but Scott had his heart set on tasting the col, whether good or bad.
Top of the NE Couloir
Click, click and down he went. The top got steep quick with nice sun softened snow for some turning. Above the lower constriction hard snow and runnels made for “less than ideal.” Even Scott concurred that part was not too “fun”. Above the constriction he dug a platform, so we could check out the constriction, take off the boards and down-climb to the ski-able snow below.
Playing it safe through the constriction
Boards back on some more turns out the mouth of the couloir to the wide open slope. Now in the wide open snowfield we took turns putting turns in the butter and taking pictures. At the avy crap at the bottom we used the Honey Badger method. With a pause for some water collection to replenish and hydrate.
Where did the freeway come from
Entering the woods (7.3m, c4780) we opted for a change in the route we’d come in twice and out once. Into the trees, we immediately crossed the creek, then another. Short crossing and good logs.
Dirty now with more and more tracks from other groups appeared heading out. A group with snowshoes and several with boots had postholed in the ever softening dirty snow. Soon, it was a freeway of postholes winding through the woods. About a half hour of sliding through the woods following the track and it was time to pack the boards and join the postholing. Luckily, the snow didn’t last long as we followed tracks more left than our route in on a cairned and defined path.
Of all the cruxes and obstacles –über steep snice, steep exposed glop, mixed climbing with skis snagging, icy runnels… none had me on edge as much as thinking of the long slippery log cross at the end of the day. Maybe this other route we were following would lead to a better log crossing? If not better we had the log we came in on. Path gone, then found again, prints in now sparse snow patches leading to a short crossing with a luxurious old log over the creek from Stuart Lake. A deep sigh… whew! Now all would be good with a little bushwhacking and trail close by.
8:14p we tagged the Stuart Lake trail about 3-400 feet uphill from where we went in. The trail was wet and frequent snow patches. We kept the ski boots on being easier to plow through then tip-toe around in shoes. So many times down this trail. It always seems at least twice as long the distance walking out. Views of alpine glow on Argonaut, Colchuck, Dragontail, Aasgard Pass…
The NE Col in the alpine glow –and steep upper snowfield
Zoomed out view of north side of Argonaut
View across the swamp of Mountaineers Creek – Colchuck, Argonaut and Sherpa
Setting light on Aasgard Pass
And a last look on a future route (Dragontail)
Almost 9:00 at the Colchuck trail, we figured the trail mostly dry from here on out and changed to trail shoes. Ahhhh, oh so nice taking off the steaming boots and having another snack. We wanted to make good time, yet in no hurry from our breaks.
The light fading as we crossed the bridge over Mountaineers Creek and into the deeper darkening woods. The familiar patches of mud here and there and before we knew it we were at the cars. It’s been a longer day than expected with some technical obstacles to spice it up. Not a typical walk up peakbag, it was nice to have a few challenges, though somethings I could do without. We had been blessed with good weather and conditions. I’m sure Scott is happy after several attempts to have made it up and had a chance to ride the NE Couloir. Thanks Scott for the fun trip.
Hope you all get out there while there’s still a little snow. Thanks for reading.
Ascent: 5.8m, 11h40min, 5220' ascent
Descent: 5.8m, 5h40min
Total: 11.6m, 17h40min, 5370’ ascent
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