Primus Peak Attempt - September 2012
This trip certainly was a defining moment for me in my ever so fast paced and quickly evolving mountaineering career. Here I would be tested mentally and I needed to use my previous experience and knowledge to make this trip the success it was, despite not making the summit. I had been getting messages on the NWHikers forum from someone who has been wanting to go on a climb. However since he was a true vagabond he wasn't up in northern Washington until later in September. The time finally came when he made his way north and I tried to think of a potential group of Bulgers in the North Cascades we could do knowing he was new to snow travel and such. I thought about the Ragged Ridge Traverse, Mount Logan, Golden Horn and Tower Mountain but I finally decided halfway to Burlington that we should do Primus Peak. This decision was both good and bad but turned out to be a huge blessing in disguise. Below is the story about our adventure and a good accomplishment for me despite missing the summit.
We made our way to the Thunder Creek Trailhead where we gathered up our things and started up the trail pretty quickly. Paul was carrying a whole lot of stuff and after 15 minutes on the trail he realized he forgot his food in the car. I thought to myself how that was possible he was already carrying almost as much as he could carry. So I wait for him to go grab his food and he comes back with an enormous bag of homemade yams, apples, pears and bananas. Now he did tell me he never eats wheat or grain products so I expected him to bring fruits and veggies however he brought enough to feed an army for over a week!
As we continued up the trail it was very evident we were not going to make the climb up the steep ridge of Tricouni Peak that day so we decided to just hike to the McAllister camp after seven miles and bring bivy gear up the ridge the next day. Thank goodness there is a bridge over Thunder Creek here or no one would ever get across this raging river like creek! I told Paul he needed to leave half his stuff and food behind or he would never make it. So we rolled into camp, cooked a nice meal, built a six foot cairn along Thunder Creek and went quickly to sleep. The weather was very warm and the sky was clearing. The dense canopy of trees made it dark much earlier than I had been used to all summer long. But the season was winding down and the days were getting shorter.
After a nice rest, we re-packed, hung the spare food and started up the long, long ridge. This ridge is technically called the "lower north ridge of Tricouni Peak" and it sure is a real pain in the ass. We ascended 800 feet on a steep boot path (which was a surprise to find) to an opening where we saw our first views across McAllister Creek towards Snowfield Peak. This climb just got steeper as we had to skirt around a series of cliffs but eventually we got to an area where the trees were very small and very close together where the terrain flattened slightly. But it got worse quickly and the worst part of the climb was an area of bad slide alder right before a big view point. We stood atop a nice rock for our first panoramic views of the trip. I was in awe at the immense beauty I was looking at. I was home...
Just beyond this viewpoint, the ridge became flat for a ways where the boot path was harder to follow. I just stayed on the crest of the ridge and when it steepened once again the trees began to thin out and we started to see much more color. This was what I had been waiting over two years for! Finally I got to see for myself the true Cascades fall foliage. First I saw bright red in the maples down low, then the small bushes closer to treeline were orange and red and finally, as we rolled into the bivy site at the base of Tricouni Peak I saw my very first golden larch trees.
I was speechless and at a loss for words at what I was seeing. Certainly far more beautiful than anything I have seen in Colorado. When the nice soft dirt and shrubs turned into rock and talus on the ridge we located the bivy site and set up shop for the night. By the nature of the clouds that afternoon I knew we were in for a sunset of just epic proportions. So I waited and relaxed at one of the best places I have ever been. A beautiful green colored lake lie at the base of the dying Borelis Glacier. The route up to lucky pass looked difficult at best and I was unable to locate a nice route up through the ice or the loose rock to the climbers left which was to my disappoint but in a place this beautiful, I could hardly complain. I was so in awe about the beauty the summit just seemed secondary.
The Reason I Climb...
There are many reasons why I climb mountains however one of the biggest reasons is to see for myself the wonders of this Earth we live on. I am not going to say much because words cannot describe what I saw during those next 15 hours. The phrase a picture is worth a thousand words carries great weight here and I invite you to enjoy for yourself the beauty of this place that I want to share through my photos. Although they do no justice, I hope they can bring joy to others during the holiday season. They are the best photos I got in 2012 which says a whole lot because I have been to a lot of places this year.
We slept under the stars that night and it was very moist in the air. It was a bright full moon but at times we saw fog roll through. Our stuff was very wet and frosty the next morning but this sunrise ranked the best sunrise I have ever seen without a shadow of a doubt. The crystal clear air, the gorgeous colors, the fog below us in the valley, and the rugged peaks surrounding us all came together perfectly.
My Primus Attempt
Paul decided he wanted to stay back and relax but I had to at least make an attempt at climbing Primus Peak. With the route to Lucky Pass out, the standard east ridge which is nothing more than a walk wasn't available. I scouted out other options. The north ridge from what I was able to see from our bivy didn't look too bad so I started by hiking east around Borelis Lake and climbing up to the crest of the North Ridge. I went up beautiful meadow land with alpine larches at their peak which then turned into gentle snow slopes until I reached the crest of the north ridge. The gentle look of this ridge I saw from camp changed into a jagged, serrated loose pile of crap ridge that certainly was at least 4th class. So I decided to cross over and try to find a way up on the west side of the ridge. I tried traversing the rock above the unnamed glacier on the peaks NW side to no avail. This rock was all very loose and I even sent a big one tumbling down the glacier. Next I tried travering in the big moat trying to get to the West ridge which I knew was only class 3. However I ran into bullet ice on the rock from dripping snow above me and I could not risk falling deeper into the moat and risk getting stuck deep under the glacier to freeze to death. I was already underneath massive amounts of snow as it was. So I retreated and tried to traverse the glacier on the edge at the surface. If someone was with me this would have been very easy as I could have just traversed across to the west ridge and scrambled to the summit. Although I may have been fine doing it solo especially since the snow was so hard I just didn't want to walk across a glacier alone. The west ridge was so close but I saw huge cracks in the glacier and knew if I went across and something broke it wasn't survivable.
Without further adieu, I tried my final option...the North Ridge direct. I knew nothing about the route but inside I hoped it wasn't 5th class. I started my way up the really loose rock and quickly made some 4th class moves. The exposure was increasing dramatically as I ascended. I got to a notch and traversed left onto the east side to avoid a cliff but soon came to a steep jump in the ridge that was most certainly 5th class. With no one to belay me I was stuck. The route looked 5.6 with no alternatives so I was forced to retreat. I even had to set up a couple rappel anchors as I had climbed up things I didn't want to down climb. Luckily I brought my 30 meter alpine rope with me which came in handy. I conceded and allowed Primus Peak the victory this time but noted I would be back during a weaker time for the mountain...when it is sealed closed under lots of snow. Late September is just way to late in the season in this area. With that the case though, I still captured part of Primus Peaks' soul within my photos that I hope you enjoy.
So I retreated back down to camp where I met up with Paul once again. He had a great time relaxing and enjoying the scenery. He was very happy to have joined on the trip and was satisfied with his time in Washington. We talked a lot about where he was going to be headed in the next couple years. He had plans to head to South America, Europe and Asia and was traveling the world. I was very envious. We started back down the ridge (which I was NOT looking forward to descending) and almost instantly we got off route and into major bushwhacking. Why is it that going down you always manage to miss the route I don't know but for some reason it always happens. We had to side hill on very steep bushy terrain to get back to the ridge crest and continue down the right way. We got back to the flat section of ridge and quickly made our way across. The rest of the descent was long and uneventful all the way back to McAllister camp where it got dark on us and we spent a second night there. The next morning we packed up and hiked the 7 miles to the car.
As I said, although I didn't summit anything on this trip and upon reaching the car I branded this trip a failure, I soon realized especially after reviewing the photos at home that this was one of the best trips of the year for me. This was a blessing in disguise. See below for a map of Primus Peak and its routes and our approach.