Lewis County Highpoint Trip Report

Big Horn (8,000+ ft)

Dates: June 30 - July 1, 2007
Author: Greg Slayden

Climbing Party: Ken Jones, Greg Slayden, Chuck and Barb (non CoHPers)

Summary: This is a serious mountaineering objective. Before attempting Big Horn, you should have: experience with steep, very loose Class-3 rock; someone who can lead a short mid-fifth class crack; ability of all party members to climb that with a top-rope; comfort with very steep snowfields (unless you go in very late season, maybe); a small party size (4 or less) due to extreme rock- fall danger; and the following gear: helmet, rope, harness, a few small cams or nuts, slings, ice axe, crampons.

No one who has ever done Big Horn wants to do it again. The short rock-climbing pitch gives this peak its notoriety but Bob Packard is correct when he says the hundreds of vertical feet of terrible loose rock and/or steep snow are the real challenge. This peak definitely deserves its "Apex" rating as one of the toughest 20 CoHPs.

Our Trip: Ken and I took three hours to reach the trailhead from the Seattle area. We took the WA 167 and WA 512 freeways to WA 161 south - the traffic on this road is often terrible as it passes several miles of strip malls in the South Hill area of Puyallup. At the blinker in Eatonville we turned left on the Alder Cutoff to WA 7, which in Elbe turns south to Morton. In Morton we took US 12 east for 33 miles to the turnoff for Forest Road 21, a right turn that immediately becomes a gravel road. We followed this for 13 miles, the road in pretty good condition with just a few potholes and a couple rocky washouts. We then turned left on Road 2150, signed to "Chambers Lake", and this led in 3 miles to the hiker parking loop (FS 2150.405) for the Snowgrass Flat trail, elevation 4,660 feet.

Barb and Chuck arrived ten minutes after us and we all got ready to go amid the fierce mosquitoes. At about 2 PM we set off up trail #96A, a cutoff trail for hikers that took us shortly to the main Snowgrass Flat Trail #96. It was flat for a mile or so, then crossed Goat Creek on a nice new bridge before climbing steadily but easily. There were nice views of the crags of Big Horn through the trees. Four miles from the parking lot we came to the junction with the Bypass Trail #97, leading right. We took that, and it shortly led to a crossing of a major stream at the "Bypass Camp" location on the USGS map. The water here was high from snowmelt runoff, and there was no bridge, so we spent a half-hour throwing logs and rocks into the stream to make a makeshift rickety crossing that worked surprisingly well.

The Bypass Trail continued to gain elevation slowly for another 0.75 miles. There were now large snow banks covering more and more of the trail but we were usually able to pick up the footway on the far side of them. Soon we reached a five-foot high cairn that marked the junction with the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). We followed this south over more and more snow banks for 1.75 miles as it curved into scenic Cispus Basin. There were a couple of tricky stream crossings of the innumerable little rivulets streaming down the grassy slopes.

We set up camp at about 6 PM just off the PCT at 6,150 feet, below the "Mile 54" mark on the USGS quad map. The weather looked to be holding and we spent a pleasant evening, happy to be above the current mosquito range.

The next day (Sunday July 1) we awoke at 4 AM and were hiking uphill by 5:30 AM, using our crampons on the large snowfields that were crusty from overnight chill. We headed up to the top of Cispus Basin, aiming for the highest gentle saddle just below the imposing crags of the Black Thumb - this was about at the first "A" in "National" on the USGS map. The going was on easy snow to the saddle and we kept our crampons on for the short rock traverse over to the snow on the other side, in the upper Klickitat drainage. Here we skirted the base of the steep cliffs and gullies to our left and headed up the third major gully, the one before the gully with the biggest stream. Ken and Chuck recalled from an earlier attempt that the first two gullies were blocked by cliffs higher up.

Our gully was steep snow for about 100 feet, after which we were forced on to steep, crumbly rock. This was extremely slow and miserable going and we had to be extra careful not to knock rocks on each other. We followed the gully a bit, then the rib separating it from the fourth "stream gully", then crossed the stream on a narrow section of snow bank. Then it was a couple hundred more feet of ugly, loose rock. Finally, at about 7,400 feet, the slope moderated a bit, the footing changed to big, blocky, stable talus (a real joy) and we rested just below the snowfield that filled a basin below the Big Horn and Little Horn crags.

From here Little Horn looked higher and a steep arm of the basin snowfield led to Big Horn, foreshortened to the left. Chuck led off kicking steps up the steep snow, which was rapidly getting softer as we moved into the sun for the first time today. He made an arc to the left, traversing the 50-degree snow slope to the rocks on the crest of the south ridge of Big Horn. Here, I alone decided to make one more switchback up the snow arm to minimize time on loose junky rock but I slipped and fell, luckily landing mostly unhurt in a moat a bit below. Still, I was a bit shaken up and we rested here a bit for me to recover, deciding to stay on the rocks from here on up.

So after our rest we scrambled up steep class 3 gullies - not as loose as the stuff down lower but steeper and more exposed. We were just below the crest of the south ridge and after some difficult moves along slippery snowfields and slanting rock gullies (where the sloping rock strata didnít give you any handholds), we arrived at the spot where the route climbed to some slabs directly on the south ridge. Just above, we could see that the infamous "10 foot 5.4 crack" loomed, so here we put on our harnesses and set up an anchor, since Ken and Barb felt more comfortable belayed from here.

This short technical section took some time. Chuck led and I belayed as he scrambled up the ramp to a good platform and then he put in a couple cams and nuts as he climbed the 10-foot cliff. We were all grateful for his lead- climbing skills. At the top of the cliff Chuck set up an anchor and he belayed the rest of us up on top-rope. The sloping ramp was easy but the crack gave us all some problems - the holds were very narrow for our boots and I helped Barb and Ken place their feet as they climbed up. We later found a Mountaineers trip report where they rated this crux pitch at 5.6 and we felt it was a pretty tough for a 5.4.

From the top of the cliff it was a few airy, easy steps to the summit of Big Horn. It was 11 AM on a clear day, with just a few high clouds, and we drank in the views of Rainier, Adams, Saint Helens, far off Mount Stuart, and other peaks. We did not find a register and, since we had not brought our packs up to the very top, after a few pictures it was time to get down from this sharp spire.

The descent was pretty harrowing. We rappelled down to the base of the sloping ramp and then started carefully scrambling down the steep gullies. Shortly, at a particularly steep spot, we decided to rappel again and luckily there was a rare solid rock horn for a rappel sling that I, last in line, set up for us. This rappel took us down to a small snowfield and from there more precarious scrambling led over a rib to another gully, where we needed a quick hand-line set up, plus a makeshift sling-around-a-horn, to safely get our group down this difficult terrain. We finally arrived at rest spot where our route led back on to the steep snow and here we rested - I stowed the rope, which we didnít need any more.

Chuck then led us across the arc-shaped path of footsteps across the steep snowfield, all of us not wanting to repeat the fall I had taken earlier. We used self-belays, jamming our axes in to the hilt, and kicked solid steps. It was slow going but the distance was not far before the angle moderated and we could walk down the snow face-out to the blocky talus. Below that, we spent an hour or more down-climbing the rotten, miserable loose rock of the gullies. It was impossible not to dislodge rocks and we just tried to make sure that when we moved no one was below in our line of fire. To me, this descent was the crux of the entire climb - every step was a labor and sliding down on my butt like a crab was often the safest and most effective way down this nightmare of garbage rock.

We did a pretty good job of following our upward route - I did see some cairns at one point but it was debatable how much following any route would have helped. At last we came to the snow in our "third gully", rested, and happily plunged stepped down, finally off of the dangerous part of this mountain. Once at the base of the gully, we traversed across the easy snow to the pass, then glissaded or plunge-stepped back to camp in short order.

I had thought about a side trip to Gilbert Peak, high point of the Goat Rocks range but that would have involved more traversing on rotten rock from the snowy basin and a solo descent of the worst stuff. Gilbert is easier from the Tieton side, a route Chuck, Barb, and Ken has done a few years ago. There simply was not time for it today. We were back in camp by 3:45 PM - it had taken us about 5.5 hours up, and 4.75 hours down, a total of over ten hours to go up and down 1,850 vertical feet. We elected to head out for the car that night, so we packed up and were heading down the PCT by 4:30 PM. The bridge we had built at Bypass Camp was still intact, and we arrived at our cars by 8:30 PM, tired but happy.

Ken and I repeated to ourselves on the drive back to Seattle, "Hey, we climbed Big Horn!"