American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Hozomeen at Last

  • Feature Article
  • Author: Fred Beckey
  • Climb Year: 1947
  • Publication Year: 1948

STORM clouds were thickening. Herb Staley, Mel Marcus and I pushed rapidly up a steep rock buttress, apparently the only approach to the South Peak of Mount Hozomeen. When we reached the tip of the buttress, we could catch only glimpses of the gaunt summit tower amid swirling mists. What we saw looked incredibly steep; worse yet, a connecting ridge of startling pinnacles blocked the way. Before we could have another good look at the final problem, a drenching cloud engulfed both us and the summit, and forced us to descend to Willow Lake, 4800 feet below. Our return was anything but pleasant. We had made a 27-mile hike from Ross Dam, only to be foiled in our climb by the stormy weather of June 1946. Perhaps we should have taken the advice of the trainman who warned us, “You’ll never make it!” The previous fall, Wayne Swift and I had tried to reach the sheer peak from Allison Pass in British Columbia, only to be thwarted by poor roads, a misleading trail and eventually a rainstorm. But these defeats served only to stimulate us.

Years before, I had often seen Hozomeen from the western Skagit region. It is a large mass of greenstone rising abruptly from the alluvial Skagit Valley, a mile and a half south of the Canadian border. The North Peak (8080 ft.) is quite sheer, but has an easy ridge, found by an early survey party. The more precipitous and complicated South Peak (8020 ft.), one mile distant, has been described as “inaccessible” in a geological report; but to a climber this peak is a challenge. In 1944 a Canadian party coming from upper Lightning Creek made a reconnaissance, but attempted no climbing because of fresh snow.* Hozomeen rises over 6000 feet from the Skagit River on the west and from Lightning Creek, a Skagit tributary, on the east. Willow and Hozomeen Lakes lie at 2800 feet among wooded knolls at the base of the South Peak. The imminent flooding of the Skagit Valley by the Ross Lake reservoir will soon make the peak “rise out of the water.”

In 1947 the challenge beckoned again. Interest among other climbers proved to be acute. I restricted the party to six, and on Memorial Day weekend we set forth—Charles Welsh, Herb Staley, C. Molenaar, Duke Watson, Jack Schwabland and I. The problem of approach was greatly eased by a new road from Hope, British Columbia, to the northern shore of Ross Lake. We had a walk of only three miles to Hozomeen Lake. From the lake we had only a cursory view, for clouds hid the great upper cliffs of both peaks. The morning of May 31st promised little. We took to a raft and crossed the lake; but our old nemesis, the rain, set in and kept us beside our fires or on scouting climbs during most of the day. The next day did not dawn at all, so we returned to civilization.

The weather and Hozomeen could not hold us off for long. On June 14th Staley, Welsh, Marcus, Jerry O’Neil, Ken Prestrud and I drove up the Silver-Skagit logging road again. By flashlight we climbed over Jackass Pass and on to the lake. At 6.00 A.M., in fair weather, we struck out for the South Peak. A long rock gully took us past the tremendous cliffs above the lake. Once a volley of rock from the vertical cliffs clattered into the gully beneath us. At 5000 feet the gully was filled with snow. Soon we were on steep snow; and then, after a short rock climb and traverse, we finished the exposed ascent from the west at a saddle (6500 ft.). The morning ended with the entire party changing to sneakers, eating lunch and preparing for the final assault. We could look down at the long route taken from Willow Lake the year before. The sun shone brightly on the mighty Skagit peaks, but beyond them a dark layer of stratus was coming our way.

Our plan was to continue upward from the high tip of the buttress reached on the earlier attempt. At first, as before, a very steep and exposed 200-foot rock face proved difficult. Then we climbed simultaneously to the tip (7500 ft.). Looking northward, we peered at the incredibly steep peak with sinking hearts. Seldom have I seen a face so hopeless-looking. Even the knowledge that a face is distorted when it is seen head on did not encourage us, for here we had previously seen overhangs in profile. Moreover, the rock looked rotten, and the connecting ridge of pinnacles appeared to be impassable. Southeast of the summit, we observed, there lies an extended promontory from which one could stroll to the top; but the approach to this promontory, we thought, would be very difficult indeed. In the hope that a closer inspection might help, we decided to attack the pinnacled ridge—Marcus, Prestrud and I on one rope, and Staley, O’Neil and Welsh on the other.

After descending over 100 feet on the north side of the buttress, we concluded that the overhanging wall of the first pinnacle was impossible; but here we spied a possible route around the pinnacles’ east face. A downward traverse led to a patch of snow. Thence we moved, by way of a “chinning pitch” that required some muscular effort, to a ledge around the corner. We were surprised to find that a very possible series of ledges extended beneath the pinnacles, on the east side, to the notch between the last pinnacle and the summit face. We climbed along these ledges quickly and with more enthusiasm, but very carefully, for the exposure was great. At the notch we glanced over the west edge, above a branch of Lightning Creek, and dropped a rock. It did not hit for 2000 feet.

Looking up, we could see only a very steep arête. The rotten face to its right was composed of a series of short overhangs and high-angle slabs, but it might be climbable. The face of the promontory, farther to the right, seemed to be uncompromisingly hostile: even to reach it would mean a most difficult and dangerous traverse. Marcus, Prestrud and I slowly worked our way up a series of ledges and tiny cracks on the east side of the narrow arête; Welsh followed, leading the second rope. We were taking great care with our belays, because of the exposure and the unsoundness of the rock. Soon an overhang of white rock blocked our route back up to the arête, and nothing useful appeared to the east. On the right side of the overhang, however, I found a vertical pitch that was feasible, and then moved across a treacherous slab to the arête again. As soon as the others were up, we continued the pattern, climbing diagonally upward on the east side of the arête. The arete itself had too many overhangs and too sheer a drop on the west side for us to want to use it.

Now we were halted by another overhang, extending completely across the face. When Prestrud had anchored himself securely on a convenient ledge, Marcus and I took turns at pounding in several pitons and giving the pitch a try. The rotten holds were of little use, however, and on the upper part of the overhang there simply were none. We tried several variations and attempted to fix a high aid piton, but returned to the ledge each time without success. The problem was annoying, and it was consuming valuable time.

Finally we tried a complicated maneuver. I anchored myself to a fairly sound piton and clung to tiny holds to the left of it. I was held by tension from Prestrud’s belay, some eight feet below. Marcus then threaded his rope to Prestrud, using a carabiner through a “moral support” piton two feet above my shoulders. The piton tension and single side-cling hold enabled me to hold his weight, even though my footholds were insecure. Having failed to find a piton crack, Marcus balanced himself on my head and then my right hand. With the added height, he somehow discovered a handhold and wriggled over the difficult stretch to a sloping ledge. Here he fixed a rappel rope, to speed the rest of us. Above ran a slanting crack. Belaying continually, we ascended this and a more difficult “chinning pitch.” One more rope length of precarious climbing on the arête brought us to the end of our problems.

At 3.30 P.M. we stood on the spacious summit and viewed the rugged scenery of the Northern Cascades: Mount Goode and the Cascade Pass peaks to the south, standing out sharply; to the southwest, the amazing Picket Range, crowned with snowy ridges; to the west, Twin Spires and the Chilliwack Peaks, towering beyond the Skagit Valley. The regions to the north and east were drier and less interesting to the climber. We could hear lumbering operations in the valley, and we tried to imagine how different the view will be when the reservoir has filled the valley. One glance down the northern faces convinced us that a direct ascent of our peak from Lightning Creek would probably be attempted in vain. Although skies were still blue above the Fraser Valley, the alto-stratus had already passed us from the south. Mount Baker and Glacier Peak wore cloud caps.

A little snow began to fall as we descended the steep upper pitches, mostly by rappels. Spurred by this new danger, we crossed the airy ledges beneath the ridge of pinnacles and climbed carefully up the now wet rock of the buttress tip. A fierce and biting wind made rappelling off the 200-foot lower face (S.E.) of the buttress very miserable. We scrambled to the saddle, climbed carefully down the rocks, and glissaded down the gully. Preferring rest to a descent by night, we traversed to a patch of timber at about 4800 feet. Huddled around a fire, snoozing under the trees, we had a long, damp night. Early on June 16th we descended wet, brushy cliffs to the lake, where we slept for a few hours. Then we left for the car, happy that we had climbed the South Peak at last.

* W. H. Mathews, “Mount Hozomeen,” C.A.J., XXIX (1944-45), 160-61.

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