Skagit County Highpoint Trip Report

Buckner Mountain

Date: August 23, 2008
Author: Greg Slayden

We decided to do this peak as a day-hike, even though we realized it would likely be over 7,000 vertical feet of gain. We were both in relatively good condition after spending the previous week doing big climbs in Glacier National Park, and we did not want to take two or more days and haul a full pack. A lot of the distance is on a good trail, too.

There are two main approaches to Buckner Mountain, both of which begin by hiking to Cascade Pass from the west. The first route descends the east side of the pass for 1800', then ascends the Horseshoe Basin trail into the upper basin and the southeast slope scramble route up Buckner.

The other route ascends Sahale Arm, and then drops into the upper Horseshoe Basin via a rib and a gully, losing 1100'. We opted for this route, which is shorter and offered less elevation loss, although we mistakenly thought the loss would only be about 700'.

Edward car-camped at the Cascade Pass Trailhead (3620'), and I met him there shortly after 5 AM. The drive from the Seattle area took me exactly three hours via I-5 north, WA-20 east, and the well- maintained Cascade Pass Road (22.5 miles total of paved roadway/good dirt) from Marblemount, WA. We took some time getting packed up and we started hiking at 5:20 AM. It was still dark, but there was just enough dawn light so we didn't need headlamps.

The trail to Cascade Pass is 3.7 miles of very well-graded switchbacks and then a long traverse, with awesome views of the face of Johannesburg Mountain and its constant rockfall. We went a very short way beyond Cascade Pass (5420') and turned left on the Sahale Arm Trail, which led steeply uphill through grassy meadows that provided awesome views of what is perhaps the most spectacular Alpine panorama in the entire 48 states.

We thought we could begin our descent into Horseshoe Basin at 7200', so we left the trail and started traversing east. However, the terrain forced us uphill more, and we found ourselves in the area of the Sahale Arm campsites, rock tent shelters at 7600'. It is best to stay on the trail to this point, we realized. From the camps we were able to head east easily on broad snowfields, before the lower snowy lobe of the Sahale Glacier offered a wide ramp downhill.

This snowfield ended at some cliffs and waterfalls below, and here the route gains the crest of a rock rib to the left. A good way-path led us steeply down this rib, which, despite its reputation, seemed like it was your basic Class-3 terrain on relatively good rock. Maybe our experiences with the crud in Montana made us appreciate this more, but the rib had good handholds, footholds, and veggie belays. Near the base of the rib the route turns left and descends a narrow gully, which was mostly snow. This "snow finger" was steep and a bit scary, but we were able to kick steps while facing inward with good ice-axe self-belays. Deep moats on either side of the narrow finger were threatening, and getting on to the undercut snow from the rock was treacherous. In late season of dry years, this gully might be a horror of loose rock and hard dirt.

We had a short stretch of this loose dirt/rock junk below the snow finger before gaining a much more low-angle snowfield that led us into the wild, remote cirque of the upper Horseshoe Basin at 6500'. We had lost 1100' from Sahale Arm.

Now we had to traverse east-northeast towards Buckner. At first we made good progress across a bench of huge exposed slabs, crossing innumerable brooks cascading down from the Davenport Glacier above. The slabs ran out a bit less than halfway across, near a prominent moraine littered with old mine debris, including a short length of abandoned railroad tracks. From here we made a mistake and started gaining elevation to traverse close under the cliffs of Ripsaw Ridge, trying to take advantage of the better footing offered by the snowfields instead of traversing miserable talus and scree. But it did not help much, and as we neared the peak we could see that the best route was below us. So we had to make a descending traverse (loss of 100') to the base of a snowy gully that had footprints leading uphill (about 8100').

From this point we ascended the fall line straight uphill for about 1000' almost due northeast towards the summit. We had our choice of steep snow or steep loose junk, and for a short while in the middle we actually found a stretch of pretty good class-3 rock to clamber up. It was here we saw the only other climbers on our hike, a couple descending to their camp in the lower Horseshoe Basin. We exchanged route info, but they were not the source of the footprints we had been following on the snow earlier today.

Exhausted, we neared the summit, following the couple's bootprints in shallow snow and loose ball-bearing scree. Our route topped out on the peak's south ridge, where we turned left and scrambled easily up big blocks to the airy southwest summit of Buckner Mountain, 9114'. It was 2:10 PM and it had taken us almost nine hours to climb this peak, but we probably lost an hour or so by taking a too-high traverse in the basin.

We had planned to scramble over to the northeast summit, but it was late and we had no time. So we took a half-hour rest and sighted over to the NE peak with my level. Though we could not reach any firm conclusions, it did seem that our SW peak is a few feet higher, like most others have reported. I took a digital photo from the level of the SW peak, and later Edward analyzed it pixel-by-pixel in relation to background peaks for angles and determined that the NE peak is indeed almost certainly a foot or two lower.

The descent was a long haul. The most dangerous part was the 1000' down from the summit on loose rock and steep snow. The south facing snow was very mushy by now under a hot sun, but it was so steep that it took nerve to plunge step down while facing out. We both slipped a couple times, but were able to arrest easily in the glop. I took advantage of the snow as much as possible, while Edward used the more solid rock when he could.

We now knew that it was best to traverse Horseshoe Basin by staying low and dropping to the 7400'-7200' level as soon as practical, so we had an easier time than on the way up. There was still a fair amount of junky scree, but the slope angle was less, and going slightly downhill is always easier on loose rock. We reached the mine area near the moraine at 6800', and when we reached the pleasant slabs we took a nice rest at the first brook, where we filled our near-depleted water bottles.

We followed the slabby bench back to the snowfield which took us up to the snow finger. It was now late in the day and the snow was getting hard, so we had to put on our crampons and do some impromptu unprotected ice-climbing to ascend it, using our axes as tools — fortunately, it was not super-steep and the pitch was only about 100 vertical feet. Above that we climbed the rocky rib, following the boot path, and oddly we enjoyed this exposed scrambling on good rock despite our fatigue and the lateness of the day. Over on the snow of the lower Sahale Glacier we trudged uphill for a few hundred more feet, crossed a meltwater stream, and at long last finished off our uphill for the day at 7600'.

There were a number of people camped in the shelters at Sahale Arm, enjoying the sunset, but we didn't pause long before regaining the trail and heading downhill.

I was now concerned that I might not be home until long after midnight, and my wife might be worried about me. We tried to hike as quickly as possible, but it was a long way down. We encountered a very slow-moving couple of hikers, and reached Cascade Pass at 8:25 PM — darkness was not far off. Here Edward wanted to take a long rest and eat, and descend at his own pace to the pass and sleep in his car at the trailhead. I wanted to get to a phone to let my wife know I was OK, and get home tonight, so we parted ways here. I felt bad, but it made the most sense. I gave Edward some food, took a short rest, and took off down the trail at 8:30 PM.

I hiked from Cascade Pass to the trailhead in one hour—for the first part, I took Edward's advice and gave the rods in my retina a workout by not using a headlamp, but once in the forest down low I started to stumble and had to break it out. I reached my car at 9:30 PM, and I was at a payphone in Marblemount at 10:20 PM, and home at 12:30 AM, having been gone for 22˝ hours.

Edward made it down safely an hour or so after I did, and he encountered the couple we had seen near the summit, on their way out from the longer route using a lower Horseshoe Basin camp.

In retrospect, this was probably too long of a day for us. Most climbers will want to take two or three days and camp at Sahale Arm, but that means hauling a full pack uphill for 4000' (all on trail, though). The route over Cascade Pass to lower Horseshoe Basin avoids the difficult descent of the rock rib and snow finger, but it has its own problems--gaining the upper basin via a hard-to-find old miner's path through brushy cliffs is reportedly not easy.

Webmaster's comment - After noting to the author a personal interest in climbing this peak, Greg S. adds these important considerations.

You may want to make sure there is a rope in your party when you get to Buckner, it may make you feel more comfortable in the snow finger. Alternatively, you could camp in lower Horseshoe basin and avoid that section entirely. You have 1800' of loss instead of 1100' of loss, but you only have to haul a full pack uphill for 1800' by going over Cascade Pass, vs. 4000' by camping at Sahale Arm.