Introduction and Approach
As I was on my way back to Washington from Montana I was searching for someone to climb a good peak with and Dane was up for the challenge to attempt the direct northeast face of Mount Formidable. I always knew Formidable was one of the iconic Cascade peaks however the thought of climbing it was a last minute decision among some of my other choices I had in mind. After some Facebook conversations, we agreed to give it a go despite the weather forecast calling for thunderstorms on Wednesday. So on Monday July 15th I made the long drive to Seattle from Red Lodge, Montana to pick up Dane and we I finished the drive up to Marblemount. We crashed alongside the Cascade River Road at 3:30 in the morning and agreed to sleep in as long as possible.
Around 9:30 Tuesday morning the sun woke us up and we drove up to the Cascade Pass Trailhead and organized our gear. It wasn't long before we were headed up the stupidly inclined trail to Cascade Pass. 36 switchbacks later, just before reaching the pass I see a marmot and a coyote battling it out. Just as the coyote was about to start biting the marmot to death it hides into a hole and the coyote tries pulling him out but upon seeing us he scatters. For the next 5 minutes the marmot cries an annoying yelping sound. Interesting sight to see! After a short break at the pass and a brief talk with the ranger, I put my big boots on and we start hiking south up towards the Cache glacier. The first part of the path was snow free and I was wishing I still had my sandals on. We hit snow soon enough though and I am easily able to kick steps to Cache viewpoint. We descended a short ways and roped up for the Cache glacier crossing. Although there are only a few small crevasses on the lower section of this glacier we still decided to rope up for the way in. After an hour or so of hot, sweaty and blinding snow hiking we arrive at the large cornice blocking the way to Cache Col. A five foot vertical climb and some thrashing with my axe gets me up and onto bare ground at the col. Here we unrope and plunge step our way down mellow snow to Kool Aid Lake. Here we set up camp on a nice flat section and relaxed, taking in the views of Mount Formidable across the valley. We head to bed early since the plan was to get started at 4am for the climb. Well, that didn't exactly happen...
Thunderstorm Induced Delay
So around 11pm that night it started to rain...hard! I thought to myself "I hope this passes" but alas, 4 in the morning came around and I was awaken once again instead this time it was a huge clap of thunder. Looms like the forecast was correct. It stormed with a fairly constant flash and boom for the next few hours and we briefly talked it over in the tent and agreed to simply sleep in and see what the weather does later in the morning. At around 9, it cleared out and we emerged to see some residual clouds over Formidable but a clear western sky. We decided to make the climb up Formidable the following day and try to hike back out right after. "That would be a very long day" Dane said but I replied I was up for the challenge. We relaxed and waited for the skies to clear a little more and decided to do a short climb up the east ridge of Arts Knoll. So from Kool Aid Lake we hike up the snowfields to the saddle between Hurry Up Peak and Arts Knoll. The snow was exposed to the direct sunlight and we were sweating bullets on this short 800 foot ascent to the saddle. Once we got to the saddle though the breeze picked up and cooled us off just the right amount. We scrambled up some very loose class 3 and 4 terrain for a hundred feet or so until I was able to locate the correct start to the route. Dane belayed as I climbed around a small tower and up to some old slings at the base of a right facing chimney with a smooth slab to the right side. I clipped into the slings (which I also backed up with my own), and Dane climbed up. We stashed boots and extra gear here and I led up the chimney which had a somewhat tricky 5.7 start where I had to smear my right foot on the slab and pull through a small overhang to get into the easier section of the chimney above. There were some loose death blocks but the rock was solid where it needed to be. Once above the 5.7 start it was a fun and easy stem up the chimney for 100 feet up where the terrain eased and I found a few solid cracks to set an anchor and belay Dane up. I thought there would be one more pitch for Dane to lead but once I rounded the corner I realized the summit was 5 feet above me. Doh..."Sorry Dane" I remember saying. Regardless, it was a fun climb to make the day a success. Most people who summit Arts Knoll walk up the easy west ridge on their way through on the Ptarmigan Traverse.
Now our descent was a little interesting to say the least. We were unable to find any good rappel anchors to rappel the route (since we had gear at the base to retrieve). While I was searching for an anchor I noticed the low angle slab route that Loren and Jens used on their first ascent trip in 2002 (which we were using their beta for our climb on Formidable). I had the idea to lower Dane down this slab (which was a much easier route) off the same anchor I used to belay him up. On his way down he would put some pro in the large cracks and I would downclimb and pick them up on my way down. Although this took much longer, it worked perfectly. From the base of the slab, there were two slings lying next to a large boulder which we used to rappel the rest of the way down to the snow below the sketchy part we scrambled. On the way down I swung over and got our stashed gear. Once we were on the snow, it was a short traverse back to the saddle. From here we ran down the snow back to Kool Aid Lake and was back at camp around 5pm. We ate a nice dinner and went to sleep early.
"OK Lets try this again" I remark...4am start time?" Dane replies yes and we are off to sleep. I occasionally open the tent to photograph the sunset. Formidable still had some clouds around it but I knew the next morning it would be clear and the valleys would likely have fog below us.
Mount Formidable Direct Northeast Face
At 4am we got up right on time and it only took us 15 minutes to get our stuff together and start towards the red ledge. With my plastic boots on, hiking across talus was a little painful but I managed. Crossing the red ledge wasn't too hard, just kick some steps and walk across the 5 foot wide ledge. Once across we continued traversing until we found a logical place to leave the Ptarmigan Traverse path and descend about 600 feet to a flat section in the Middle Cascade glacier at 5,500 feet elevation between two huge icefall sections. We roped up once we hit the end of the talus slopes and walked out onto a wild place. Chunks of ice, piles of rocks and lots of corn snow was all mixed together in a mess of summertime glacier. I said to dane we should cross this section of the glacier and ascend a few hundred feet up the Formidable Glacier as quickly as possible to avoid getting hit by falling debris. It was clear by looking at the huge piles of junk on the snow that stuff falls here all the time! So off we went, quickly ascending in a serious fall zone. Luckily it was still early in the morning when everything was still frozen in place. After the initial ascent onto the Formidable glacier, we began traversing to the right all the way to the west end of the glacier away from the fall zones. Once we finished this traverse, we continued the ascent up the glacier weaving around large crevasses. This was the most heavily crevassed glacier I have ever ascended. The snow never really exceeded 45 degrees which made the ascent fairly easy.
Around 7:30am, about three hours from the time we left, we reached the top of the glacier and I began looking for a place to cross the serious moat. I located a small snow bridge that bridged the 50 foot abyss and gently crossed it which involved stepping over onto a small ledge which would be our first belay ledge. I set up an anchor once on the ledge and belayed Dane across. There was barely enough room for both of us. I racked up and just as I was about to stat climbing the first pitch, the bridge we just crossed fell into the abyss of the moat!! "Well, I guess we are committed now...even before the first pitch" I recall saying. I start up the mostly solid but rubble covered class 4 pitch which involved simply scrambling up delicate terrain. I continued up and used the entire length of the 70 meter rope only placing one piece! I call for Dane to start simul-climbing as I am midway up a steep rubble filled gully and can see a good place to set up a belay 15 feet above me. I manage to pull up with some stemming and quickly set up a belay in the only solid cracks I have seen so far. I belay Dane the rest of the way. Even though this long 80 meter pitch was rubble covered, the baseline rock was mostly solid. From my large belay ledge, I clearly see the neve couloir we will climb.
Dane starts on the second pitch which was mainly a traverse across a large dirty ledge towards the base of the neve couloir. He climbs a short snowbank and makes a nice anchor at the base of the couloir, using most of the rope. I follow and quickly start my way up the couloir for our third pitch. I decide to take a picket and an ice screw. As I head up, I quickly realize the snow is easy to kick steps in and about 50 feet up I place a picket. The snow then steepens to at least 65 degrees in a couple spots and I find some good cracks to place rock pro in the right side. I remember wishing I had a second picket though. Just before I reach the end of the snow couloir, Dane called out "end of rope". I yell back to begin climbing and I pull through the overhanging chalkstones at the top of the couloir to another large ledge where I set an anchor and belay Dane up. Once at the ledge atop the couloir, we take a quick break and unroped, we walk around a rib and locate the base of a long section of low angle easy climbing. It's Dane's turn to lead and he starts up the mainly 4th class and low 5th class terrain. When the rope runs out I begin climbing. We probably simul-climb an additional 70 meters making our 4th pitch around 140 meters or so. When Dane reaches a steeper section just below the duolith, he makes an anchor and belays me up. We quickly switch packs and I start up the first of two 5.6 pitches of the route. I traverse to the right, then back ledge working my way up a short vertical section to the duolith. This feature is a 30 foot tower of rotten granite with a 3 foot wide crack splitting it down the middle. I climbed past this feature on its left side and made an anchor in a bomber constriction crack just above the duolith using about half the rope.
Dane followed and started up the 6th pitch which began as a climb up an easy leftward ramp then ascended steeper rock and zigzagging until the rope drag became a serious problem. He set up a belay in an awkward spot after using half the rope but he was unable to pull the rope through. I quickly ran up the easy ramp and helped him free the rope a bit so he could pull it. I then began climbing and the upper part of this pitch was actually a bit tricky with my plastic boots on and carrying the heave pack. I traversed back and forth testing every hold since the rock was pretty loose. I let loose two huge blocks on the way up which went tumbling down the entire northeast face! Upon reaching Dane, we didn't even switch packs and I continued up much easier terrain (Class 3 and 4) for another 30 meter pitch until I reached the crest of the north ridge. Here I sling a boulder and belayed Dane up. Once we were both on the ridge we could then relax and take in the amazing views. We ate a quick snack and I began up the last portion of the north ridge. I told Dane to tie in at the halfway point and we could simul-climb the rest of the way. Once I had a good stance, Dane tied in and we finished the route, reaching the summit at 3:10pm, about 10.5 hours from leaving Kool Aid Lake.
After reading the summit register I logged it and we had a nice long break on the summit taking in the glorious views of many prominent peaks in the Glacier Peak Wilderness and North Cascades NP. Around 3:50pm though it was time to start heading down. We had the SummitPost route description for the standard south route which would prove very helpful (Thanks Paul!). We started by scrambling down very tedious class 3 and some class 4 terrain a short ways until we found a slabby section we didn't want to down-climb. I located a nice horn to sling and we made one full rappel down to some easier terrain below. We continued down traversing to the skiers left and working towards the large snowfields below. Steep cliffs barred passage to the snow below but when we got to the ledge which traverses the steep snow chasm, we decided to simply sling a huge boulder and make an overhanging rappel down to more mellow snow below, instead of trying to traverse some 55 degree snow and walk on a ledge we had no idea where it would lead. Once on the snowfields below, we plunge stepped down to the cleaver which divides the two basins on the south side of Mount Formidable. The route said to descend to 7,400 feet on the cleaver where we were then able to scramble down to the large basin. From here it was an easy snow traverse across the basin towards the crossover saddle. A short 150 foot climb brought us to the saddle where we were greeted with amazing views of the Spire Point area and White Rock Lakes below.
By now it was about 6:45 in the afternoon and I spotted the Ptarmigan Traverse tracks 100 feet below me. We met up with them and traversed easy snow and made the short ascent back to the Spider/Formidable col and roped up. The descent down the Middle Cascade Glacier was straightforward with a few large cracks opening up. By this point, my feet were in great pain since I had been wearing my plastic boots with Intuition liners and my feet were baking all day. We continued on the path traversing back to the red ledge. The sun had set with some vibrant colors just as we reached the ledge and it was almost 10pm when we arrived back at the tent. There was no way we were going to be able to hike out back to the trailhead tonight. I had blisters on my feet since they were so warm and sweaty all day and we both were exhausted. We went right to sleep and finished the hike out the next morning. This was a day later than we had anticipated but the thunderstorms are to blame for that. Luckily we were able to contact family and friends at a reasonable time later that morning. Unfortunately my drive from Seattle back to Renton took a couple hours due to a large amount of traffic. Just the thing I was hoping for on my welcome home back to the Seattle area!
This now stands as the best climb I have done in my life and one I will remember for years to come. I feel I have made many personal advancements in my climbing career with this ascent and am very happy to have shared the experience with Dane. I'll just have to see what my next climb will be but until then, I am very satisfied! Thank you for reading and I hope you enjoyed the photos.