On Friday night June 16th Wayne Todd called us and invited us on an attempt of the North Face of Pioneer. Wayne figured that since there was more snow than usual this summer, what is usually a March – May route was doable and safe this late in the year. For years I had lusted after this route and had never gotten the chance to give it a try so I jumped on the invite.
The North Face of Pioneer is a classic alpine climb that pretty much starts right from the car and ascends snow, ice and rock all the way to the 6,398′ summit. You begin the route at 100′ and over the course of 1.8 miles climb 6,300′. The route involves a couple easy (5.2ish) rock steps at mid height, followed by close to 2000′ of 40-50 degree snow. The final exit pitch steepens to around 60+ degrees and the step is usually ice. To descend the route you must climb 300′ of easy but exposed rock (5.4ish) to ascend up and over “Counterpoint” (a false summit to the east) and then rappel twice before finally dropping down into scree gullies and slopes to the bottom.
The next morning Yvonne and I met Wayne, Carrie, Ross and Randy at 6 am on the side of the Glen Highway at the Old Glen Highway exit. We then drove the final 5 miles to the base and by 6:30 am were hiking up the initial scree slopes that line the bottom of the route.
The initial section of the route went quickly as we hiked up a massive avalanche path and remnants until we reached a waterfall that blocked our progress. We passed the waterfall by traversing to the right and climbing 500′ up a gully choked with alder and devil’s club. We were then able to traverse back to the gully by monkey-barring though a dense thicket of alders.
Once back in the gully we quickly hiked up a long snow gully until we reached a rock band that forced us to traverse right to a rock gully.
Wayne led the rock gully by scrambling up the rock unroped and then tossing the rope back down to everyone else. We then took turns belaying and ascending the rope while Wayne led the next pitch which consisted of 150′ of moderate but extremely friable and loose rock. At the top of this second pitch Wayne found two old pitons and rigged an anchor. We then all followed him up to a stance. After everyone was belayed safely up, we ascended 100′ of snow to another piton anchor and finally another 100′ of 4th class rock up to a stance at the base of the final snow slopes.
At the top of the rock steps everyone unroped and ate lunch and then began hiking up the snow. Yvonne wasn’t comfortable with the exposure so she and I opted to climb roped up with pickets. Randy and Carrie traversed left towards a rock band while Wayne and Ross ascended a snow gully directly above us and then traversed left across the face. Yvonne and I opted to follow Wayne and Ross.
As we started out we had the only rockfall of the day: a basketball-sized boulder came bouncing down towards Randy who had to play dodge ball for a second.
The snow section of the climb went rather quickly; even with Yvonne and I climbing as a roped team and having to stop every 500′ so I could collect the pickets from her. The climbing was steep and exposed with an angle that began around 40 degrees and steadily steepened up to 60. On the way up we passed a number of rap anchors so apparently people descend the route on rappel in the winter.
At 3 pm we reached the final pitch of the couloir. Wayne was in the lead and hunted in all directions before finally choosing a route straight up the middle (and main) couloir to the summit ridge. The snow was sugary with a layer of ice on it and at the top of the ridge Wayne kindly fixed a rope and tossed it down so everyone could have a backup for the last bit.
At 4 pm I reached the ridge and belayed Yvonne up. We then unroped, coiled the ropes and scrambled up the final scree slopes to the summit.
After our summit shots we began the arduous descent: first we had to downclimb a chimney and traverse a ridge to the base of the rock spire that is called Counterpoint. Randy lead the pitch up Counterpoint protecting it with a handful of slings looped around horns. He then fixed a rope and we all climbed it one by one expedition style with prusik knots as our anchor. While not technically too difficult (maybe 5.3) the ridge was insanely exposed with the drop off to the north side dropping over 1000′ below us.
After topping out on Counterpoint we then did two more rappels to reach a scree gully which we were then able to descend down till we reached the east-facing scree slopes. After that the descent was very straightforward; we descended the east ridge until we reached a notch on the northeast face. We then bombed down this and were soon bashing through thick devils club and alders until before we knew it we were back on the highway and at the cars!
In all the route took us 16 hours. 10 hours to the top and 6 hours back down. We had put 6 people on the top in 10 hours yet it took us 6 hours to descend. 6 people is about 8 too many for the route but it was a beautiful day and we were all in a great mood so no one seemed to care too much. This route is an incredibly fun and classic route (with a very easy approach) . June might be a little late for the climb; I would suggest a March ascent if you want to climb the ice section down low and a mid-May ascent if you just want to get up the route.
The route is an obvious avalanche funnel and has seen a couple fatalities so choose your day wisely!
Note: I did not take any of the photos below. I actually dropped and lost my digital camera on this climb so the photos were all taken by Randy, Ross or Wayne.