Chelan County Highpoint Trip Report

Bonanza Peak (9,511 feet)

Date: July 15-18, 2004
Author: Edward Earl

participants include Bob Packard, Ken Walters, and Edward Earl

The 9511' Bonanza Peak is the highest non-volcanic peak in the state of WA and, more importantly, has a reputation for being the most difficult county HP in the state of WA, if not the Lower 48. Until the summer of 2004 there was a veritable log jam of would-be WA completers who lacked only Bonanza. One of these individuals was the venerable Bob Packard, who invited me to join him and his long time hiking and climbing buddy Ken Walters for an ascent of this central Cascade challenge. With my technical rock climbing and glacier travel skills and a recent successful climb of Denali, I was happy to volunteer my skills to help Bob complete the Washington county HPs.

The optimal climbing season for Bonanza is very short, and in most years lasts only a few weeks. Before the beginning of July, heavy snow in the chute above the Mary Green Glacier complicates that portion of the route, making a mixed rock and ice climb out of what is otherwise a much more straightforward 3rd- and 4th-class rock-only scramble. Later than about July 20, the Mary Green Glacier becomes an impenetrable maze of crevasses.

The previous year, Bob, Ken, and another acquaintance of theirs were unsuccessful in reaching the summit owing to Bob's slow pace (he was almost 67 at the time) and the fact that that they had spent the night before their intended summit day at Holden Lake, some 4300' below the summit. While Bob would normally have no trouble with that amount of elevation gain in one day on a simple trail, technical challenges on the glacier and rock made things much slower, and the party turned back at 4 PM 700' below the summit and did not return to camp until after dark. Had they gone for the summit, it would have taken 3 hours more. We therefore planned on this attempt, Bob's second, to climb the peak in four days instead of three, with a high camp as high as possible so as to expedite the summit day, especially for Bob.

Our approach to Bonanza started with a two hour boat ride on Lake Chelan to the tiny road-inaccessible settlement of Lucerne, followed by a half hour, 11-mile bus ride to Holden at 3200', originally a copper mining camp, now owned and operated by the Lutheran Church as a camp/retreat. Here we began the roughly five mile hike on a well-maintained National Forest trail to Holden Lake at 5200', where we camped the first night. Our camp was not far from that of Bob Bolton, who summitted Bonanza that day and met us on his return. He gave us plenty of beta, and the news was mostly good. The Mary Green Glacier was in good shape. He warned us, as had many others, that there was much loose rock in the chute above the glacier. I had visions of a crappy climb up there with lots of 3rd and 4th class scree.

The next day was easy. We moseyed up an unmaintained but usable trail to Holden Pass at 6400' and dropped our packs for a long rest. It was still early, so Bob snoozed while Ken and I hiked farther up toward the glacier to investigate possible sites for our high camp. The use trail continued up the ridge NW from Holden Pass, crossed a "bridge" by a sharp deep slot in the rocks and soil, ducked under some brush, and faded among talus above whence we traversed west to a grassy ramp. At first it looked like a good place to camp despite the slope, but then we realized it was soaked with water from a waterfall coming down from the glacier above. So we eventually agreed on some flat slabs with a few patches of sand and gravel about 100' below the ramp. We then went back down to Holden Pass, rested some more, and shouldered our packs for the hike back up to the chosen site, which we estimated to be at about 6700' elevation.

The accompanying photograph of Bonanza shows the route on the upper part of the mountain from about 6900'. It was taken by John Roper in 1986 and not by anyone in my party in 2004, so the snow conditions shown are somewhat different than those we encountered. Numbered points of interest are indicated in the text below in parentheses.

(Click to view numbered points of interest.)

On summit day we started out at the crack of dawn, climbed up the wet grassy ramp, made a sketchy traverse past a waterfall, and climbed up some granite slabs with running water melting from the glacier, reaching the foot of the glacier itself at about 7000' about half an hour after leaving camp. We roped up (1) and I led the climb up the glacier. Though most of the glacier was heavily crevassed, we were able to avoid this maze by staying near the right (north) rim of the glacier, although the surface was a bit uneven along our route. A long traverse left across a "ledge" (2) eventually brought us to the base of the "snow thumb" (3). Here several crevasses almost blocked our progress, but we were able to proceed up the center of the base of the thumb between them where they had not yet opened up. We did take special care, though: at several places which were in line with an open crevasse, I probed each individual step and avoided going where it was softest, and I wanded the most critical spots.

We traversed up the thumb and to the right over a very uneven surface which, luckily, did not have any open crevasses, though it did have several sharp swales. A short steep traverse under the gaping bergschrund at the top of the thumb brought us around its right-hand end and onto the rock and our glacier challenges were over (4). The time was about 9 AM, almost seven hours earlier than Bob's party was at this same point last year.

We left our ice axes and crampons here and started up the steep (45 to 60 degree) rock chute. For me, progress was good. It was very good quality high-3rd and 4th class scrambling. The quality of this climb far exceeded my expectations. My concerns that this would be a crappy climb were totally unfounded. The chute is so steep that loose rock cannot accumulate on it. The concern about loose rock is not the footing at all; it's the fact that any rock knocked loose by a climber will fall many hundreds of feet down the chute, often all they way to the glacier below, while the rock ledges in the chute remain largely free of scree. Hence the danger is in getting hit by a flying rock from another climber, and not from the climbing itself, which is great.

Ken and I were able to climb the chute unprotected, but Bob needed a belay from Ken in some places. While they were doing that, I climbed up and looked ahead for a good place for an anchor for the next belay. Slightly more than halfway up the chute, it splits below a black rock buttress (5). We proceeded up the left branch, which narrows and becomes slightly more difficult class 4 owing to the lack of choices. The chute soon tops out on the summit ridge, which is guarded immediately above by a large boulder. Ken and I free-climbed the near-vertical 25' class 4 pitch and I relayed communications over the lip while Ken belayed Bob. A short scramble up the airy summit ridge is the final 50' to the summit.

Coming down the rock chute, we rappelled several pitches. Owing to the fact that the chute is not steep enough to throw the entire rope length down at once, I went first, throwing the rope in stages, so that Bob, who came next, would not need to do so. Ken came last, sometimes by downclimbing and sometimes by rappelling.

Because of the soft snow near the crevasses at the base of the thumb, Ken went into arrest position while I gingerly probed the route.

We arrived at our high camp while it was still daylight. After a brief consultation, we decided to proceed to Holden Pass to camp. That would get us in slightly better position to make the town of Holden the next day in time to catch the afternoon bus out that day, which we did.

Some final thoughts

All in all I found Bonanza to be a wonderful climb. The glacier was in good condition, and the final 900' of rock was an enjoyable challenge. Although Bonanza Peak deserves its reputation as the technically most difficult county HP in WA and possibly the lower 48, this is true only in an overall sense. Because it involves both glacier travel and rock climbing, climbers must possess a broad range of skills, and the large quantity of both these kinds of travel accentuate the need to be expeditious.

One redeeming factor for Bonanza is its notable lack of any particular crux move. At least two county HPs in WA, Mount Olympus and Big Horn, harbor cruxes that are harder than any move on Bonanza. Still, the fact that Bonanza is the main reason why John Roper was the only completer of the WA county HPs for ten solid years speaks for itself.