Mt. Jefferson P5K

Mon, Jun 5, 2006

With: Matthew Holliman
Rick Kent

Story Photos / Slideshow Map Profile


With our first good weather forcast in four days, we jumped on the opportunity and chose to do the hardest peak we had planned for Oregon with an ascent of Mt. Jefferson. The peak is located in a large Wilderness area, and all the trailheads are more than 10 miles from the summit. Added to this is the low starting elevation, just over 3,000ft, which means more than 7,000ft of elevation gain to reach the 10,500-foot summit. It is not a peak that is frequently dayhiked, even less often with so much snow on the ground. With so little activity in the last three days, we were eager to get a hard workout. We were not disappointed.

We were awake before 4a in order to be at the Pamelia Lake TH around 5:30a. As we came to find at this time of year in the PNW, daylight starts early and we could easily have started before 5a without using headlamps. We were happy to be able to start without snow on the ground, and we made good time up the trail to Pamelia Lake. We made it to the PCT junction above the lake in an hour, where we got our first views of Mt. Jefferson looking up Milk Creek. It looked pretty high up there, if not too many straight line miles - still 6,000ft to go.

We started following the PCT towards Shale Lake to the SE, but encountered snow after only about a mile and a half. For a few minutes we tried to follow the trail over the snow but the futility of that was soon evident - too much up and down over the snow humps. Instead we just started uphill, angling more to the right to avoid uncertain cliffs we could see ahead to the left. It was an interesting, though odd weaving over snow and around trees on the steep hillside. At times it seemed as if we were moving over more than twice the straight line distance. Our saving grace was that we were in the shade and the snow was quite firm - doing this as a slushfest would have been utterly exhausting. As it was, it was only moderately exhausting.

Reaching the top of the hillside we were happy to see we were nearly out of the trees, but we were now fully in the sun and would not be able to avoid it for most of the remaining day. At a small steep section leading to one of several ridges on the southwest side, I just managed to make it up the slope without slipping back down to the others. Looking at my model performance, they both took off their packs and dug out their crampons. I continued up to the ridgeline itself which was mostly free of snow. I was contented with the easy scrambling, no more than class 3, and then only to avoid snow. The others stayed lower to the right, happy to stay off the ridge and on the snow. In two parallel paths we made our way up to the South Ridge which we gained at around the 8,000-foot level. Only 2,500ft to go. Here we stopped to put on our crampons and take a short break while we took in the views.

The weather was fine as we followed the South Ridge towards the summit. We could see Three Fingered Jack, Washington, the Sisters, and other peaks to the south. The temperature was cool, comfortable for climbing, and the clouds that dotted the sky added to the charm rather than threatening poor weather ahead. This was the image of climbing in the Cascades we had before the trip began and we hoped to see more than one in four days like this. The climbing was straightforward if not a little tricky as we wound our away along the ridge avoiding rime-encrusted steps on the west side or steep dropoffs on the right.

Around 11:30a Rick and I topped the last point along the ridge (called the Red Saddle) before the summit pinnacle. What we saw before us was at the same time fantastic and scary. The west face of the pinnacle was coated with thick rime ice, the result of the bad weather from the last week. The south and east sides were mostly snow free, but they were near vertical and offered no climbing alternatives. Our route, we knew, lay across a steep snow traverse on the west side to the easier ground on the north side of the pinnacle. The slope was not only steep, but had a runout of 5,000ft, dropping far down into Milk Creek, snow all the way, all of it icy hard. We were both more than a bit nervous.

If we had had to make an instant decision on whether to continue or not, we might very probably have decided to turn around. But we had lots of time - Matthew was struggling with a sore knee that slowed him considerably, and he was just over an hour behind us. This gave Rick and I a chance to walk out to test the slopes on the West Face, practice kicking steps, and evaluate very carefully this next section. Avalanche was certainly not a danger, at least not at this time. A layer of rime perhaps half an inch thick coated the top layer of snow. It was possible with strong kicks to break through the top coat and kick decent steps into the underlying snow. In order to set the axe for self belay it was necessary to ram the point home with force to sink it in to the hilt. We debated whether to bring the rope and other climbing gear, in the end it seemed the wiser choice to bring it since we didn't know what the class 4 north side looked like.

When Matthew finally appeared over the last bit of the South Ridge, his impression of the summit block was the same as ours initially, though stronger. He was surprised to find that we were ready to give it a go, and was definitive that he himself would not. We were certainly grateful that he had at least climbed this far, particularly since he was the one carrying the rope. After another ten minutes or so in which we swapped some gear and packed up lighter packs for ourselves, Rick and I headed out on the traverse, Matthew staying behind. I told Matthew it might take us three hours to return to the Red Saddle, as we certainly wouldn't expect him to wait for us that long. It had already grown quite cold just waiting an hour.

Because we had to traverse lower than the normal route across the West Face used later in the season, the distance was longer, more than 100 yards across the face to the ridgeline we could see on the far side. Rick went first, kicking steps and using an ice tool in addition to his axe. I had only an axe myself, and softer boots that were more painful for step-kicking. I was quite happy to let Rick lead the way across. To not feel completely useless, I spent the extra time I had while following to "improve" the steps he'd kicked. I stomped down through the rime to create a trenchline across the snow, packing it down to make the return considerably easier. It took us about half an hour to go those 100 yards. After traversing the steep west side, we crossed a minor rib that led on to the NW side. Here we found - more traversing. Though the slope had eased, the snow grew harder the closer we moved towards the north side. Rick continued to kick steps though it, but it became increasingly difficult. I finally climbed out of our nice steps and suggested it was time to give up on steps and use just our points. It was clear that rick was a bit more uncomfortable with that option than myself, but he recognized the snow was too hard for steps now. Off we went French pointing.

I started up a bit too early on the northwest side and found the slope uncomfortably steep above. Below me, Rick had moved further to the left towards the vague North Ridge and found a more manageable route, and I dropped in behind him. Rick did a fine job of leading the way up a rather steep section, frontpointing and driving both of his tool picks in above him. Ice chips sprinkled down on top of me, not doing any real harm, but making me aware that if Rick fell I would be in his path. This was one of the dicier moments and we were both at full attention. Rick called this section "ice," but I don't think that is an accurate description. It was more like a plastering of rime ice over hard snow which provided good traction for the crampons, but proved impossible for driving axe handles into for self-belay. Had this been real ice, my less-than-sharp crampons would have stood no chance and I would have been wetting my pants and praying much harder.

We reached something resembling a ridge for the final 100 feet or so. This was a great relief since we now had mixed rock and snow and the angle was much less frightening. We ran into a rock step that had no easy way around and would have possibly been a show-stopper had we not brought the rope gear with us. We used a couple of pickets driven into the ridge for an anchor, then Rick climbed the near-vertical 10-foot step while I belayed him. That turned out to be the crux and last difficulty, about 30 feet below the summit. It took us two hours to cover maybe a quarter mile, and for our trouble we were elated. We'd barely noticed the clouds moving up from below, and within a short time our views were almost completely obscurred. With the wind blowing strongly at the very top, we wasted little time, snapping a few pictures before starting back down.

Reversing the rock step was easier than expected, and we shortly had the rope and gear packed back up. Traversing back to the west side, we were a bit surprised to find that the snow had softened considerably. Our trench was intact, but every third step broke through the base and it seemed as if the whole slope would eventually slide out in a wet mush. Ice chips from above came down at regular intervals, loosened by the sun and fed by gravity. They struck our helmets a few times (we kept them angled up the slope for just this reason), my axe hand once (ouch!). We wasted little time on the traverse, trying to avoid as much fallout as possible. It took us only an hour to reverse our route to the Red Saddle, and we were glad we weren't an hour later. We had actually considered a glissade for the 5,000-foot descent down the west side, but it seemed a rather dangerous manuever with the slope as soft as it was. We had also left our poles back on the South Ridge which made a descent of the South Ridge mandatory.

Once back to the Red Saddle, the rest was easy, taking less than three hours to return to the trailhead. We glissaded as much as possible (soaked boots and pants resulted), finding a better route on descent than we had taken going up. It had less trees and more glissading, making for a very quick return romp. We stopped for a short time when we stumbled back on the PCT, taking some time to pack up our poles axes that we had used on descent (Rick prefers to use an axe, while I preferred poles).

Matthew had started back a few hours before we had returned to the Red Saddle, so we didn't really expect to catch up to him. Still, our shortcut and some jogging once we were back to the trail made up much of the difference, and when we returned shortly before 6:30p we found Matthew had been waiting only a short time. He was a little surprised to find we had made it to the summit, perhaps disappointed to a degree because he'd have to find someone else to make a second attempt in the future. Matthew didn't hide his disappointment well - it had been a frustrating day for him primarily due to his knee giving him a great deal of pain. For Rick and I it had been a rousing success, and I was so thrilled that I wouldn't have cared if it was the last successful summit of the trip. Fortunately it would not be, and the weather was now fully cooperating with our ambitious schedule.


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