Klawatti Ice Cap Traverse (Klawatti, Primus, Tricouni and Austera peaks) - April 2004
While mulling over potential candidates for, in Tod's words, a "Super Tour" (interpreted to be a long, remote and scenic weekend tour), I casually suggested doing something around Austera Peak. The Austera Peak description in Jim Nelson's Selected Climbs in the Cascades (volume 1) guide book - "...it is the view into the heart of the McAllister Cirque itself that stays with you, those twin icefalls tumbling into that pristine wilderness valley, as wild as any place in the range", had me particularly motivated to visit the area. In hindsight, Jim was absolutely correct. The summit of Austera Peak is a place you simply do not want to leave. The scenery from this wild and remote corner of the North Cascades is dramatic; a view that's enhanced this time of year by a winter blanket of snow draping the high peaks and valleys alike. But, why stop at just Austera? The area surrounding Austera Peak is actually a small ice cap, punctuated by numerous peaks of interest. Arguably the only true ice cap in the lower 48, the "Klawatti Ice Cap" is without an equal in the Cascade Range. It is without surprise, therefore, that the Klawatti Ice Cap Tour was born, with the promise of offering a unique and unparalleled alpine experience.
I honestly can't remember the last time when planning a weekend trip like this generated such a flurry of emails. A party of five certainly takes its toll on one's inbox. Come Friday we had finally hashed out the details of our trip. Our ambitious itinerary included 4 summits (Klawatti Peak, Austera Peak, Primus Peak and Tricouni Peak), foregoing Dorado Needle's Northwest Ridge in favor of leaving the classic SW Buttress for some future climb. We would also be crossing 5 glaciers (Eldorado, Inspiration, McAllister, Klawatti and North Klawatti) on our traverse. Needing to return on Sunday, Jerry, Tod and John opted for the Friday night trailhead bivy and first-light start. Paul and I, on the other hand, planned on staying until Monday and so chose to leave Seattle early Saturday morning instead (~ 4:30am).
The creek crossing was uneventful; there are a couple good places to cross the gravelly bifurcating streambed roughly 50 yards downstream from the parking area. Once across, we thrashed through brush for several yards, spotted some orange flagging off to our right and soon located the trail. As a general observation, the trail began directly across the creek from the parking area. The steep ascent through the forest was mostly quite boring (my third time) save for the frustration of occasionally getting our skis snagged on low branches not to mention the tight squeezes between trees. We reached the infamous boulder field, fortunately still snow-filled, in about an hour-and-a-half and began donning our boots and skis. The first hundred feet or so of skinning was hell. In the heat of the morning sun, the snow had attained a sloppy, water-saturated consistency, making skinning a laborious affair. I recall noting that the snow pack here was already considerably less than what I had encountered on my first trip to the area in June several years ago.
The skinning did eventually get easier as I ascended into the upper basin, happily following what I'm sure were Tod and John's splitboard tracks from earlier that morning. Reaching the divide between the Eldorado Creek and Roush Creek drainages, I encountered a party of three returning from a day ski-trip on Eldorado Peak. Watching their descent (2 skiers and one boarder) left me stoked for the turns I hoped to get in the next few days. With Paul now in-sight, I descended (in ski-mode) into the Roush Creek drainage and began skinning up the Eldorado Glacier. Crossing the flat expanse of the upper glacier, I rounded the lower shoulder of Eldorado's East Ridge and continued across the magnificent Inspiration Glacier. Looking across, I could faintly make out what appeared to be a camp set up at Klawatti Col and figured it had to be Tod, John, Jerry's bivy gear.
The traverse across the Inspiration is mainly level, save for some gentle ups and downs. Before long, I found myself nearing "Camp Klawatti", finding, to my surprise, the three still milling about. They had planned on tagging Primus, Tricouni and if nothing else, Austera on their first day out. We exchanged a few words before they embarked on their late afternoon tour over to Austera Peak (upper Austera Ridge/Klawatti Glacier visible from camp at Klawatti Col). With limited remaining daylight, I dumped my overnight gear and continued the short distance over to Klawatti's South Face. The hot afternoon sun had done a number on the face; most of the snow had sluffed off exposing only more unconsolidated snow. Clearly, the ski tracks I observed (later determined to be CC.com's very own "JoshK" and "Skisports") had contributed to the sluff activity. Looking back across the Inspiration Glacier, I could now see Paul traversing Eldo's East Ridge.
I skinned a short ways up the steepening face before resorting to booting up the knee-to-waist deep mush. Zig-zagging a couple of times to avoid hidden moats near the hourglass, I continued up the 40 - 45 degree face, hoisting myself up a short but steeper section just below Klawatti's Southwest Ridge. The summit was just a few yards farther along the ridge. Wow! Talk about an impressive 360 degree panorama! Certainly, Klawatti's central position, relative to Eldorado Peak, affords it the superior views. The unrelenting wind and my apprehension about the ride down had me a bit on-edge. By now, the sun had fallen below the horizon and the snow had developed a thin layer of breakable crust over the warmer, softer snow below. Some hesitant side-hilling (I couldn't even commit to making a turn) back down the Southwest Ridge to the South Face drop-in point was all I needed to convince myself that perhaps I had better boot it back down instead. Snow-wise, I had missed the descent opportunity for the day...at least for my comfort level. Facing in, booting back down my steps from earlier, I reluctantly descended the face on foot. By now, Tod, John and Jerry had returned from Austera Peak (~2hrs round-trip) and feared the worst of my whereabouts. Everyone was greatly relieved when they finally saw me traversing back to camp. Interestingly, the Austera party reported seeing "JoshK" and "Skisports" making their late afternoon ski descent on the Southwest Face of Primus Peak. Jerry later informed me that he also briefly witnessed the two skiing down Austera Ridge from camp at Klawatti Col earlier that afternoon. Man, I missed out on the action!
While I flailed on Klawatti, Paul had arrived at camp and set up the tent. A hasty dinner was cooked and consumed after which we retired to our respective shelters. The wind picked up that night and dark clouds drifted by overhead, but, they posed no real threat. Sleep, for me, was sparse as usual and before I knew it, it was morning again. With a leisurely start, well after sun-up, we all made our way across the comparatively short upper margin of the McAllister Glacier to the Klawatti-Austera Col. A long descending ski/board traverse across the upper Klawatti Glacier brought us to Austera Ridge for a nice, long slope of shred-able corn. Turning a tight left around lower Austera Ridge on a wide, sloping bench (avoid the temptation to slash turns on inviting wind lips a little father down, else cliffs will force you to boot back up), we took our first glances for the day of the impressive North Klawatti Glacier and the complete Southwest Face of Primus Peak.
The remaining tour up Primus was relatively straight forward, save for some sketchy ice-skinning near the summit (Paul and Jerry resorted to booting up the still icy slope). Tricouni Peak was calling Tod and me, and so, after a quick snack we rode down Primus's East Face to "Lucky Pass" (head of the Borealis Glacier) while the others chose to return the way they came. From "Lucky Pass", we booted up the West Gully (at bottom center) of Tricouni to gain the rocky summit ridge. It felt as if we were truly in the middle of nowhere. This is about as remote as it gets in the North Cascades! The broad Thunder Creek Valley lay at our feet, cutting an impressive NW - SE gash through the heart of the North Cascades. To the north stood Snowfield Peak and its subsidiary summits, while the Mount Logan complex and Mount Goode, dominated the view to the southeast. Farther east, Ragged Ridge stood tall and prominent. Looking back from where we came, Austera, Klawatti, Eldorado and the unmistakable Forbidden Peak and Mount Buckner all seemingly rise from expansive sheets of ice and snow. I couldn't help but thinking I was looking at something in BC's Coast Range. Time was ticking and we had to make haste in order to meet Tod's commitment to be back at his car before nightfall. From the summit, we traversed rock and snow on the west side of the summit ridge (our skin tracks traversing below lower Austera Ridge visible at center left in photo) before stepping onto our boards for another perfect descent down the South Ridge and Southwest Face of Tricouni, stopping finally at the flats of the lower North Klawatti Glacier. Back in touring mode, Tod led out, climbing around the icefall looming above by skirting the northern edge of the glacier. A suspect but passable snow bridge at this spot had me wishing I was roped into something. Once above the icefall, we located our Primus up-tracks from earlier that morning and made our way back beneath Austera Towers to the edge of the Klawatti Glacier.
I was getting pretty low on energy by this point and Tod managed to put quite a bit of distance between us. Man, that endless ascending traverse back across the Klawatti Glacier, in the sweltering afternoon heat was murder! I had originally planned to make a short detour and tag the summit of Austera Peak on my return, but, the thought of doing anything other than collapsing at camp couldn't have been further from my mind. Finally, I reached the Klawatti-Austera Col and readied myself for the final, but, painfully clumsy, descending splitboard "ski" traverse back across the icy upper McAllister Glacier. Tod and John had packed up and started making their way back across the Inspiration Glacier by the time I arrived at camp. They had little more than two hours of daylight left, I figured, and I did not envy their having to race darkness back down to the car. After having skied Klawatti's South Face with John earlier that afternoon (possible first snowboard descent?), Jerry decided to stick around for another night. Paul, like me, fell far behind John and Jerry while crossing the Klawatti Glacier and was just reaching Klawatti's summit as I arrived at camp. Also, like me, Paul chose to descend on foot.
Monday, April 5th - Paul, Jerry and I got another leisurely start the next morning and once again made our way across the McAllister Glacier to the Klawatti-Austera Col, on our way to Austera Peak. In under an hour we were standing on the narrow summit ridge contemplating the 20 feet, or so, of exposed "mixed" climbing to reach the true summit. Judging by Tod's tracks from Saturday (he was the only one to successfully reach the summit), one would have to make a short, but, exposed descending traverse (in snow) on the west side of the summit ridge to reach a low notch and the narrow gully leading to the summit. The gully looked steep, almost vertical from our perspective, and the snow in it looked to be frozen hard. Tod previously reported that there was at least one funky move of mixed climbing where the snow had melted away leaving behind a smooth section of rock at the gully's narrowest point. None of us felt particularly motivated to give the gully a go, not with ski boots and not without the security of some protection. I felt good not to be a "Top 100" purist, knowing Paul would make himself come back out here in the summer for that measly 20 feet of class 4 scrambling.
True summit or not, the views from Austera are superb! Nowhere else on the tour can one really see the McAllister Cirque. Here, with the North Klawatti Glacier to my back, I could see both the Klawatti Glacier (left) and Backbone Ridge (right) above McAllister Cirque with the McAllister Glacier spilling away out of view into the depths below. Just Beautiful! Prying ourselves away from that majestic perch, we retraced our steps back to where we stashed our skis and returned to camp to pack up. After a long grind across the Inspiration Glacier and the flat, upper margin of the Eldorado Glacier, we were more than ready for some turns. The ride down the Eldorado was a blast, despite a pack full of overnight gear. We booted a short bit back up the Roush-Eldorado Creek divide, and struggled to link turns in the heaviest mush ever conceived on the descent to tree line. The lower boulder field had melted out considerably since Saturday. Littered with hidden sinkholes and exposed boulders, the final slope was now virtually un-skiable, and claimed my tent as payment for passage without injury. Finally back on trail, we descended through the forest, crossed the creek and made short work of the beers Paul had stashed in a pile of snow near the car. Moments later, we would meet "JoshK" and "Skisports" returning from their ski tour. From Primus, we had seen their tracks descending Tricouni Peak towards Klawatti Lake, and wondered where they had gone from there. It turns out that their tour continued up over Forbidden Peak's north shoulder, onto the Boston Glacier, over Ripsaw Ridge and down Horseshoe Basin, returning via Cascade Pass. Damn, and to think I was impressed with what we had accomplished!
Anyway, thanks to Tod, John, Jerry and Paul for making this trip happen. I don't think we could have had better weather or conditions. It's too early to tell for sure, but I'll probably look back on the "Klawatti Ice Cap" tour as being the most satisfying trip of the year.
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