The Watchman is one of those peaks that hides in plain sight. Even though the peak is 6410′, its proximity of other large peaks causes it to be easily overlooked. From afar it looks like little more than a sub-peak of Benign, even through technically it’s a peak (as in there is 500′ of prominence separating the summit from the actual summit of Benign), and lies over a mile from the true summit of Benign. That said, with neighbors like Benign, Bellicose, Bashful and the Mitre it’s easy to understand why it’s often overlooked.
However, several people speak very highly of the North Ridge so when a sunny weekend finally appeared I trolled for partners until finally asking Nathan Hebna if he was interested. Nathan was interested , but he had other commitments. However, climbers aren’t really known for their reliability, and Nathan is well on his way to being a strong climber, so I wasn’t surprised when he called back to say he had cancelled his other plans and was game to give it a try.
We met in town at 6:30am, were driving by 7 and unloading the bikes by 8am for the 12-mile bike ride around the lake. Clouds hung low on the horizon,. But we kept peddling in the hopes that they would lift. Nathan had been up the trail twice that year already, so after ditching the bikes and fording the Eklutna river we were quickly moving up the trail.
|Nathan fording the Eklutna. Knee deep in the morning, thigh deep in the evening.||On the trail leading to treeline.||Finally above treeline and heading up the North ridge.|
We reached treeline 3 hours after leaving the trail and were soon on the ridge moving up. An hour later we reached the clouds and spent the rest of the ascent in a thick soup navigating by GPS and feel. Nathan had tried the route a few weeks previous so he guided most of the most the way with me checking the GPS every now and then to make sure we were on track.
|Approaching point 4120 in the fog. Just above this point we traversed right onto a broad tundra bench.||Around 5500′.||I believe this is a Swainson’s Thrush nest… however it was found well above treeline (near 5000′) so I’m not entirely sure.|
The North Ridge starts with a grassy ridge which you follow for almost a mile / 1500′ until you reach point 4120. You then veer out onto a large bench on the west side of the peak which you traverse for 3/4 of a mile until again gaining the North ridge proper. Once back on the North Ridge the route starts getting more exposed and you must traverse back and forth on either side of the peak piecing together snow ramps, scree gullies and sheep trails. The higher you get the more exposed the route gets, until finally you find yourself scrambling up steep exposed 3rd class ledges until finally reaching the summit pyramid.
|First view of the summit!||3rd class ledges around 6000′.|
The summit pyramid is worth a mention. It’s exactly 100′ of steep gravel over shattered rock with a snow tongue leading up partway. Later in the year the snow will have melted out, however we found soft thigh deep isothermal snow leading to steep loss gravel. But we had a rope, and right at the base of the snow was a large horn so we looped some cord around the horn and then I started up the rotten snow before finally easing gently over to the rotten gravel which I then tiptoed up and across until 75′ later I pulled over a lip into a dirty gully which I was then easily able to follow to the summit. Exactly 100′ later (I know this since all I we had was a 30m rope and Nathan was yelling “You’re out of rope!”) I threw a piece of cord around a horn of rock right next to the summit and brought Nathan up.
|Nathan on the summit looking across at Benign.||Looking down at Eklutna Lake.|
The entire ascent had been in thick fog, but while we were sitting there the clouds suddenly lifted and we were treated to beautiful views of the Eklutna Valley.
|Me at the horn you can belay off just below the summit.||Nathan looking back up at the summit.||Snow slopes around 5500′.|
And then reversing the route. We stayed roped up for the summit gravel slopes but once down we packed away the rope and scrambled the rest of the way back to the valley floor.
Videos of river crossings are always fun. If everything goes right you have a great video of someone in misery as they wade through frigid water. If something goes wrong then you’ve got a great video of an epic in the making. Win / Win!