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.