Tower mountain - 8444' / Golden Horn - 8336'
Josh and I had big plans to head up the N Cascades Highway to climb Tower and Golden Horn in a day, then climb Sinister and Gunsight Peaks over the next 3-4 days, however with the freak, unpredictable bad weather that came in Sunday night, we only did the first two.
With Sunday being great, we started from Rainy Pass at about 8am and hiked the PCT to Cutthroat Pass, with the final 500 feet up to the pass still covered in snow. We were able to boot straight up to the pass without issue on the firm snow. Unfortunately I forgot my sunglasses, so I was hoping we wouldn't have too much snow, otherwise it was going to be a painful day for my eyes.
Once we arrived at the pass, we saw the trail as it crossed over and traversed northward. There was a decent amount of snow on these east facing aspects, and with the sun glaring down it was very bright. I had Josh kick steps on these traverses where the trail was still snow covered, so i could shield my eyes and only look right at the ground where I was stepping. Thankfully, when we reached the switchbacks above Granite Pass, we could see the remainder of the trail that traverses on the SW slopes of Tower Mountain, and the route all the way to Snow Lakes was snow free. So we ran down to Granite Pass, and made quick work hiking to the Snow Lakes trail junction.
The short trail up to Snow Lakes was mostly dry, with just a few small patches of snow covering it. The lakes themselves are roughly 50% melted off. After a quick break at the lower lake, we began traversing over to the obvious gully on the SW side of Tower. There was a considerable amount of snow covering the talus on the lower 800 feet of the route below the ledge, which was nice for ease of ascent, but again, bad for my eyes.
We reached the ledge without incident and scrambled up to the infamous large cave. This was really, really cool, and went into the cliffs a good 15-20 meters or so. We navigated around a small snow patch covering the ledge here, and emerged at the base of the long gully. Ascending this gully wasn't too bad, despite the remaining snow cover (some of which was nearly 45 degrees) and wet slabs. The crux was climbing some Class 4 slabby section with water flowing over it, but we were not on the easiest line here. As we approached the white "V" at the top of the gully, after weaving back and forth trying to stay on rock (since we were only in trail runners), we encountered the steepest snow. 100 feet of 45 degree snow which was luckily soft enough to kick steps in dumped us off at the second rightward ledge traverse. From here it was a simple traverse right to the ridgecrest, then a short Class 2+ scramble to the summit, where I was greeted by a monster cairn.
After a nice 30 minute stay, we descended, and I went ahead since I still had to climb Golden Horn. Josh took his time descending, and would take a nap at the lower lake where I would meet him since he did Golden Horn years ago. As I descended, and was finishing the lower traverse back to the cave, two car sized rocks I was briefly standing on decided to start tumbling down the mountain, and if it wasn't for some quick reflexes for me to take a flying leap off of them, I would probably be at the base of the talus somewhere below the lakes.
After that close call (one of the few I have ever had), I made it back safely to the snow below and plunge stepped back down and quickly made it to the lower lake, then began an ascending traverse to the low saddle between Golden Horn and Tower. I found small trails occasionally, and made the mostly snow free slog up the scree to the summit pyramid. I crossed over to the NW side and followed the cairns to the final 20 foot scramble. At first it was easy class 3, but I believe there was one easy 5th class move to make the rightward move into the horizontal foot crack, which I shimmied right in using the summit for hand holds. The large rap sling was still in good condition, but being solo had no use for. I didn't stay long, and carefully made the downclimb, traversing back left with my feet in the crack, then having to bend down and undercling the horizontal crack with my right hand in order to drop my left foot down.
Once off that, I ran down the scree back to the lower lake where Josh was sound asleep. I had some great reflection views of Hardy in the upper lake along the way. We decided to descend Swamp Creek instead of hike all the way back around over Cutthroat Pass, and hopefully catch a hitchhike the 2.5 miles back along the road to Rainy Pass. Although the descent down Swamp Creek was very easy, utilizing logs to cross all the swampy bits, we never did find someone to pick us up so we ended up walking back up 800 feet along the road and got back to my van just as darkness was upon us.
As we drove back west on Highway 20 to make our way around to the Suiattle (as we planned to next climb Sinister) we were bombarded with high winds, heavy rain and a large show of lightning! We were surprised as the weather predicted perfect skies all week! We decided to camp just outside Rockport for the night and see what the morning had in store for us.
When we woke up, it was still raining so we bailed on Sinister and decided to drive back east up to Harts Pass to try and climb Mount Ballard. We ate lunch in Winthrop and one of the ladies at the Mexican place said they had 75 mph winds the previous night! Crazy!
Once up at Harts Pass, we enjoyed great views of clearing skies and good lighting with some nice IPAs up at 6800 feet on the Slate Pass Road (the upper PCT TH), where remnant snow was blocking the first switchback preventing further driving. We went to bed early, planning to wake early for Ballard (and Azurite for Josh) but when we woke, it was snowing, and 32 degrees outside! I was like "Really??"
Not wanting to climb Class 4 rock with snow on it, we simply decided to return to Seattleland where I dropped Josh off in Lynnwood, and battled traffic back to Renton.