The forecast called for clouds and isolated showers; not ideal conditions given that isolated showers usually have a way of finding me, but I wanted to get out so I studied the maps and my photos. I finally decided to give the North Face of Eagle Peak a try. My reasoning was that 2 weeks ago north facing slopes were still powder and south facing slopes were corn – whereas a week ago south facing slopes had turned isothermal. I was hoping for corn conditions on north facing aspects – but I knew we couldn’t go if the sun was shining due to avalanche hazards. After much thought I figured the clouds would shade the route giving us the rare opportunity to ascend the route in spring conditions.
So I rounded up a team who all bit on the first cast: Dan, Eric, Bryce and Yvonne and at 5:30am on Saturday we met and were soon driving. We dropped off a car at the South Fork of Eagle river (thinking we might have to traverse the peak to avoid late afternoon avalanche conditions) and then drove to the Eagle River Nature Center and were hiking by 7am.
The North Face of Eagle Peak towers 6500′ above the nature center with a prominent gash straight up the North face. There’s a little viewfinder sitting right outside the center and we trained it on the route and checked it out while trying not to think about how steep it looked…then started down the trail.
We followed the regular Crow Pass trail to Echo Bend, then changed out of our long pants and began wading across Eagle River. The water was only thigh deep and soon we were across and thrashing through dense devil’s club in search of game trails that might take us up to the hanging valley between Eagle and Hurdy Gurdy.
We thrashed through dense devil’s club for close to half and hour passing a faint hunter / climbers trail that was choked with alder so we veered north until finally reaching the creek. We then followed this up stream for another 20 minutes or so before the creek was blocked by a waterfall. We then veered left, tunneling through dense alder thickets for another 20 minutes until finally reaching a decent trail that paralleled the river on a ridge. This quickly took us up to treeline and within 3 hours we of leaving the car we were sitting on rocks preparing to head out onto the rock glacier below Eagle Peak. An hour later we were all sitting at the base of the route looking up.
From the base of the route to the summit the north face climbs 2500′ in 1/2 mile. The route begins with a broad couloir that shoots you up close to 2000′ where you encounter a tiny notch – the crux of the route. Above the notch the route ascends another 500′ and deposits you directly on the summit.
We had 2 ropes, a handful of pins and a couple cams and nuts. Each of us carried a mountain axe, ice tool, crampons and picket. We started up sans crampons but with a few hundred feet all stopped and strapped them on. We also had our harnesses on just in case we need to stop and rope up but the initial section of the route looked fairly moderate. Then Eric and Dan set off at breakneck speed shooting up the route.
The route began with 2000′ of steep snow that began at around 35 degrees and steadily began to get steeper. By the time we were halfway up the couloir the pitch had steepened to 45 degrees and was held steady at 45 or steeper for almost 1000′. Conditions were perfect! Boot to shin deep snow that held crampons perfectly. We were all climbing with our axe and ice tool and every step felt totally solid.
Eric continued to blaze the way towards the crux of the route – a tiny notch that bridges the gap between the couloir and the upper face. They continued up and soon were kicking steps up the notch and then left to a tiny corniced perch where they sat down for a snack and to wait for the rest of us.
We soon regrouped and Dan set out climbing up and out of the notch on steep and deep snow. The snowpack had changed to powder and Dan was a bit tentative but felt secure enough sans rope and slowly climbed his way up the crux pitch which was close to 200′ of 60+ degree snow above a rock band. He was soon above it and continued up – the upper slopes less steep and the snowpack solid.
We followed one at a time – everyone soloing the crux without a problem. However 200′ below the summit Yvonne started to feel fatigued so she pulled over and dug out the rope (which I had managed to convince her to carry up the entire route!). I lead out and soon I was sitting on the summit belaying her up while everyone else was soaking up the view!
On the top the clouds parted and we sat around under blue skies enjoying the view in all directions. I took off my helmet to air out a touch and as I was walking around I somehow managed to knock my helmet off and watched it roll down the south side – disappearing over a 500′ cliff!
We then discussed options. Eric wanted to downclimb the route knowing the hike out south fork would be 4 hours of drudgery. However I managed to convince everyone that a traverse would be fun and soon we all gathered our stuff and set off – downclimbing the spectacular summit ridge and then heading down the couloir.
The couloir was in decent shape (after Eric had plowed a way down) and we made good time – plus 500′ down I came across my helmet lying in the snow! And before long we were all at the base of the south face lying on dry rock!
Then began the hike out – a mile of slushy snow followed by some rock hopping then out the never ending trail. We reached the car at 10:40pm – 15 hours and 40 minutes after starting! A long day – a classic route and a traverse!
First Ascent: Doug Billman, Steve Gerlik; September 20, 1980.
Rating: Steep Snow 6,955′
Route: Perhaps the crux of Eagle’s North face lies in reaching the base of the route. Basically you need to somehow get across Eagle River and head up the prominent drainage between Eagle and Hurdy Gurdy. In winter / early spring you can ski across Eagle river and up the creek but later in the year it’s a little tougher. We crossed at Echo Bend and then hiked downstream until the river makes a sharp bend to the east; we then began heading through the woods towards the drainage, following game trails and bush whacking through dense alders and devils club. Basically you want to head uphill, north and west. There is a very faint trail with some green flagging down low but it is pretty overgrown. We followed this for a while but then turned off and dropped down to the creek and boulder hopped / waded upstream for a while until a waterfall blocked progress. We then climbed out of the drainage and scrambled through dense alders to a ridge S of the drainage. Once on the ridge (around 1500′) there is a good trail that quickly takes you above treeline. Once you’re at treeline the route is obvious to the base of the couloir.
The route itself is a lot easier than it looks from the valley. Head up the obvious couloir for 2000′. This takes you to a small and obvious notch. Carefully ascend this notch; there is a safe spot just climbers left of the notch where you can regroup and assess the next pitch – but probe this spot carefully because it’s an obvious cornice. Above the notch you will encounter 200′ of steep (up to 60+ degree) snow. In some years this might be rock or ice so plan accordingly. Climb the steep pitch and then continue up another 500′ heading for the rocks above. Climb through the rocks (easy) aiming towards a huge boulder. The summit is 50′ above the boulder.
To descend the south face downclimb the ridge west towards the obvious notch and then downclimb the main gully for 1000′. The gully eventually forks and you must choose whether to continue straight down (4th class bouldering and steep scree) or to traverse 500′ east to an obvious mellow snow slope which quickly drops you to the base of the south face. The final notch is a waterfall later in the season so probe carefully. If the snowbridge is thin you can traverse 200′ skiers right to 4th class ledges that you can downclimb to bypass the waterfall.
This is a big north face with lots of snow and avalanche danger (Stephen Campbell was killed by an avalanche in 1984 while attempting an ascent of this couloir with Joe Yelverton and Barry Silver). The route is probably safest from mid-March – mid April or in late season (I hear it is an ice route in September). If you plan on climbing in late spring consider waiting for a cloudy day or try to be on the top before the sun hits it (10-11am).
Gear: Ice axe, ice tool, crampons, avalanche gear. I imagine the crux pitch varies from year to year so bring a light rock rack, rope and pickets. Later in the season the route is supposedly ice so bring screws. On the flip side – this route has also been skied, so conditions (and comfort levels) obviously vary.
Time: It took us 9 hours to reach the summit from the car. The route itself took us 4 hours. From the top to South Fork trailhead took us another 6 hours.