Big Snow Mountain
June 17, 2000

I had been curious about the east buttress of Big Snow Mountain ever since the route description had been pointed out to me: "grade III, 5.7, 10 pitches on very firm granite." And all this less than 40 miles outside of Seattle! Of course, the south side of Big Snow is carefully guarded by the evil Middle Fork Snoqualmie River Road, which makes the drive to the trailhead take longer than a drive over to Leavenworth. Still, curiosity got the better of me, and I advertised a climb of the northeast shoulder to the students I had recently taught in the Boealps Basic Alpine Climbing course, figuring I could use the day as a recon for the east buttress, and it looked like a very pleasant climb in its own right.

Jenny was the only student to take me up on my offer, so we met early in the morning in North Bend and proceeded to drive to the trailhead. It took 45 minutes from North Bend to get to the "intersection" of the Taylor River Road with The Middle Fork Snoqualmie River Road, and then one hour and 15 minutes to drive the final 13 miles! The road is rough, the boulders big, the puddles deep, but a vehicle with moderately high clearance should be able to make this trip. Not sure exactly where we were in relation to where we wanted to be, Jenny and I first started by crossing the creek near the end of the road. Immediately after the crossing, we headed north through brush until this proved rather fruitless, and we were able to convince ourselves that we had crossed Hardscrabble Creek, and were on the wrong shore. Back across the fallen log we went (it looks like a new bridge is being built there and should be in place before the end of the summer), and started bashing brush on along the west shore. Our maps indicated a small lakelet not too far from the parking area, and from there we were pretty sure we'd be able to find the remnants of an old logging road. After 15 or 20 minutes of pushing through brush (BW 3, but no Devils Club) we were able to spot the small lake, and work our way towards its shore. From there we headed north, and easily found some old logging road or rail grades. We headed generally uphill until we found much fresher tread - graveled and graded, this was certainly an old road. A few minutes later found us clawing our way up a steep and loose slope to gain the next level of the road - a switchback had washed out, leaving us nothing but gravel and small stones to churn up to continue walking the road. From here, things got distinctly easier, and we could see that the road ran back behind us towards the western side of the lake. We made a note to check that out on the way back, and started moving at a better pace towards our destination. The road became somewhat overarched with willows and alder, but the tread stayed clear, if a bit muddy here and there. At one spot we found ourselves in a little marshy area with several small frogs swimming around. We stopped long enough for Jenny to catch one and pick it up, before releasing it back to its friends as we continued along our way. The tread eventually opened up into a large boulder field. Cairns marked the way across, but it was a bit tricky picking up the trail on the other side. The trail soon disappeared under snow, and with no prints to follow, we soon found ourselves scrambling over boulders, pulling through tree thickets, and in general moving very slowly north through not terribly thick undergrowth. Our persistence paid off, however, when we climbed up on top of a small boulder and were able to see Lower Hardscrabble Lake just a few hundred yards east of us. We walked through open forest to near the edge of the lake, and then sat for a well deserved rest and lunch break.
Jenny holding a small frog
Jenny holding a small frog
Waterfall coming down from Upper Hardscrabble Lake
Waterfall coming down from Upper Hardscrabble Lake
The way so far had been more difficult than expected, all the lunch treats tasted good, and the conversation flowed freely. Combined, they contributed to our taking far too much time for lunch before getting on our way again. We eventually were able to talk ourselves into continuing, though, and after lunch we walked down close to the western edge of Lower Hardscrabble Lake, and started traversing around towards the north end. The snow along the lake border was mostly melted and rotten, and we could hear running water beneath our feet more than once. We walked very lightly and carefully through here, still punching through now and then, but never so deep as to not be able to extricate ourselves or turn an ankle. Once on the north end of the lake we could see into the huge granite cirque that lies closely under the east face of Big Snow, and we could finally see the east buttress itself. It sure didn't look like 5.7 to me, and at this time of the year was still protected by avalanche runout and snow waiting to collapse down, so there was no question of investigating it much closer yet. It did look beautiful and impressive, and the lake would provide a perfect base of operations to do this as a two day climb if you so chose. Jenny and I were more interested in scoping out a way over to the east shore that wouldn't drop us into the lake, so we hopped across depressions in the snow, tried to walk mostly on avalanche debris, and generally skirted quite a ways north of where we thought the actual shoreline was. Once we had done that, we wandered back down to the base of a beautiful waterfall that was the major inflow to Lower Hardscrabble Lake, and refilled our empty water bottles. The views south over the lake were beautiful, while the views north into the amphitheater were awesome!
We took a look at the terrain above us that would lead us to Upper Hardscrabble Lake, and decided that we could climb the wooded benches between the two waterfalls easily. A little steep snow started up out, then gentle gradients lead us up towards the upper plateau. Along the way we scrambled a short, 10-foot rock section, but other than that it was easy walking. an easy looking hill stretched out to the south - on the USGS map there's a "USMM" marked near its summit. USMM means "United States Mineral Marker" - I was curious what we'd find there, but that curiosity will have to wait to be satisfied for another day - we were moving a bit too slowly for optional side trips. We walked up to the western shore of Upper Hardscrabble Lake, and crossed the outlet that flowed into the waterfall at a convenient snow bridge. We began walking up the slopes that made up the backside of point 6131, and started looking for our snow gully that would take us to the upper saddle. Jenny suggested climbing up and over a little ridge, and once we had done that, the basin really opened up in front of us and the way was quite obvious. Now it became an exercise of putting steps in easy snow, with the slope never more than 15 or 20 degrees. The views just keep getting better and better here, with some of the "Big Boys" of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness Area coming into view: Burnt Boot, Chikamin, Lemah, Chimney Rock, Summit Chief and Bears Breast Mountains all making their appearance. Once at the top of the gully, and standing on the saddle, the world to the north opened up as well, with Gold Lake close at our right hand, and Big Snow and Myrtle Lake below us to the left. Off in the distance was Lake Dorothy, and the peaks of the Cascades stretching out all the way up to Mount Baker - truly stunning!
Climbing up towards the saddle
Climbing up towards the saddle
Jenny setting steps up the final slope
Jenny setting steps up the final slope
The steep snow of peak 6131 was on our left as we turned towards the summit - we traversed soft snow here, but it was still deep enough to provide mostly good footing. The climbing became quite gentle, leading us to the ridge line along the top of the granite cirque we had viewed from Lower Hardscrabble Lake, then traversing a little bit of an exposed slope to lead us to the rocks at the base of the summit slope. Along the way, Jenny found a rock that looked exactly like a frog's head - the shadows in the picture ruin the effect, unfortunately, but it was a really cool looking rock!. The final snow wall was a little steep, and Jenny generously went first, setting very nice steps for this now weary body to follow to the top. From the top, the views are amazing in 360 degrees. The Olympics, Mount Rainier, Mount Stuart, Glacier Peak, Mount Baker, and everything in between. It was an almost cloudless day, and our views were unbounded. I put a new roll of film into my camera and started taking a summit panorama - after the second frame was exposed, however, the camera decided, for reasons unknown, that it was at the end of the roll, and proceeded to rewind the film. Arrrgh! It was the last roll of film Jenny and I had, so no triumphant summit shots of us were able to be taken, and most of the summit panorama will have to remain simply a memory.

With all our futzing around and long lunch break, it was 4:30 when we summited, so we weren't able to hang out on top for long before starting the trip back down. the snow gully provided plenty of opportunities for Jenny to glissade, but I had foolishly neglected to bring anything waterproof or thick enough to keep my buns from freezing as I slid down the snow slopes, so after just one glissade I elected to plunge down the remainder of the way. Before dropping completely down into the lake bowl, I came up with the bright idea of forcing our route closer to the buttress that leads to point 6131, ostensibly to "save time". Well, we all know how that goes - 30 minutes later, after being forced to downclimb a mossy waterfall we reached the lake shore that would have taken us 10 minutes if we would have simply retraced our steps! It was starting to get late now, so we started moving a bit more earnestly, hoping to make better time on the way down than on the way up. the short rocky downclimb between Upper and Lower Hardscrabble Lakes posed no problem, and we stopped at the bottom of the waterfall for one more water bottle fill up. We rounded the western shore of Lower Hardscrabble Lake, and attempted to find any kind of foot path through the open forest that would show us the "easy" way back to our boulder field. Foiled again! Eventually realizing we weren't going to find any evidence of any other human ever having come the way we were, we started pushing our way through tree branches and over boulders until we finally found a rock chute that would lead us back close to our original boulder field. Dropping back down towards Hardscrabble Creek, we were happy to find remnants of the trail that lead back the way we were headed. The boulder field crossing went quickly, and soon we were rolling along the old logging road towards the point that it overlooked the small lakelet. Reaching the overlook, we noticed a really good section of the road continuing, in what looked like the right direction to get us back to the trailhead (Oh, no!) - yes, we ended up following it for quite a ways before it became obvious it wasn't heading back to where we had parked the cars. Nuts. Now we had a quarter mile hike back uphill, steeply, to where we could see the lake again. Frustrated with bad route finding on my part by now, and just wanting to get back to the car, I asked Jenny if she'd be willing to follow me down a steep boulder slope, and then bush bash our was around the lake and back to the parking area. She was a great sport and agreed to follow, so off we went, trying to find the path of least resistance to, then around the lake. Once on the south shore I was sure we were close to the parking lot, but it still took another 30 minutes to push through the undergrowth, across the fallen trees, clamber down the steep slopes and eventually find our way back to the cars. Phew! Unfortunately, I had told Maren I thought I'd be home between 7:00 and 8:00, but here it was, 8:30, and we were just back at the car. Knowing we wouldn't get any cell phone coverage for quite a ways to let Maren know I was fine, just late, we quickly changed into clean, dry cotton, hopped in the car, and started driving as quickly as possible (which isn't very fast!) along the Middle Fork Road, back towards civilization. Unfortunately, with the slow driving, I wasn't able to get a signal on the phone until 10:35, just 5 minutes after Maren had decided we were late enough she should call the Search and Rescue folks - yikes! Fortunately, she was able to call them right back and cancel the call out before any pages had been sent out to would be rescuers! Being part of Search and Rescue, Jenny found that a bit amusing, and was kind of hoping she'd find a page on her pager (which she'd left back at her car in North Bend) to come and rescue herself! She was also a little worried, because Big Snow isn't climbed very often, and most of her Search and Rescue friends knew that's where she was headed. If they were sent out to check for overdue climbers at Big Snow, she knew they'd be worrying about her.

So, a recap. Big Snow is in an awesome position, providing views deep into the Alpine Lakes Wilderness Area, and the Cascades in general. The road in is very rough - allow an hour for the last 12.5 miles. Yep, 12.5 miles, not 13. After getting back and talking to many of my climbing friends I learned of the major mistake we made which cost us so much time and bush whacking effort. That logging road that we were following on the way out that took us past where we were parked? That was the correct way out! It spurs off of the main road about a half mile before the parking area at the end, and provides a much easier, and much quicker, path to what we had to fight and claw our way up. On the plus side, the east buttress looked superb, the rib leading up to point 6131 looked interesting, and I'd still like to see what a U.S. Mineral Marker looks like, so I'll be back. And this time, I'll know where to start from!


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