American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

North America, United States, Washington, North Face, Cascades

  • Climbs And Expeditions
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 1957

The West Black Butte, Cascades. During the past summer the first ascent of the West Black Butte, Mount Lincoln, was accomplished by a group comprised of Fred Beckey, Wes Grande, John Rupley, and Herb Staley. The Black Buttes are crumbling volcanic arêtes that flank the western slope of Mount Baker, visible from Seattle on a clear day and familiar landmarks to climbers and skiers in that area.

We left Kulshan Cabin campsite at 4:30 A.M., July 22, after a fitful night marked by the pre-dawn exuberance of a large group assaulting Mount Baker. We climbed the lower moraine, crossed the snowfields bordering Coleman Glacier, and reached the crumbling spine of Heliotrope Ridge at 6 A.M. A reconnaissance made in 1946 failed us there; the impressive north flank of the Butte was effectively separated from us by the 1500-foot-deep gulf of the spectacular Thunder Glacier. Much valuable time was lost at that point while we alternately scouted the broken cliffs for a way down and discussed the greater wisdom of basking amid lupine and fireweed for the day. A dubious route was finally found, involving an interesting glissade over decayed slabs, gravel, and muddy snowfields below the glacier. After brunch and a brief sun bath we embarked upon a steep two- mile traverse along debris-strewn snowfields beneath the west face of the Butte. We were rewarded upon reaching the south slope by attractive heather meadows aflame with flowers and tiny residual glaciers. There was a magnificent panorama of the red peaks of the Twin Sisters range to the southwest.

After a brief reconnaissance we were in unanimous agreement that the south face presented the only logical approach to the upper mountain. As seen from below, the West Butte presented a vast forest of lava rock in various stages of decay. Above the steep glacier at its base was a maze of dark gullies veined with snow and capped by four towers of seemingly uniform height. Because of the difficulty anticipated and the impending race against time, we decided to rely on Beckey’s 1946 reconnaissance and proceed up the largest gully toward the crown-shaped tower second from the left. After ascending the glacier, we were on rock. A rounded step 100 feet high and exposed to the depth of the moat below required a few cautious moments, after which we traversed upward to the left for some distance over rotten slabs and short littered steps onto the softening snow of a parallel gully. The hollow echo of falling rock above revealed the presence of an anti-social billy goat within 300 feet of our summit choice.

Summoning pride, and because of the lateness of hour, which precluded anything as technical as expected, we decided to abandon most of our drills, bolts, slings, and assorted hardware and to rely on good fortune plus the common sense of the aforementioned goat. We ascended the gully as rapidly as possible for more than 1000 feet on loose snow and rock approaching 55 degrees in angle. The gully was guarded effectively by loosely assembled walls on either side. At 1 P.M. we reached a narrow skyline col above the north face. We turned to the left, 150 feet below our chosen summit tower. Clouds had gathered in the depths below and had begun to well upward upon a cold wind. Through veiled windows in the clouds we could look briefly to the spot on Heliotrope Ridge where we had been that morning, and beyond to Coleman Glacier with the ant figures of climbers descending. The next 150 feet, requiring great caution, was climbed singly over loose blocks, a 40-foot rotten stemming chimney, and an exposed narrow crack of reasonably solid rock. The top of the tower proved interesting in that it revealed the presence of the true summit 80 feet higher and separated by a troublesome 40-foot gap which required a rappel plus a fixed rope on the return. The summit tower was exposed, but apart from uncertain rock, not as difficult as anticipated. At approximately 3 P.M., well chilled and cheated of a view, we emptied a sardine can as a register and affixed a jaunty red ribbon to our cairn.

The descent was a race against oncoming dark, spiced by rockfall and handicapped by the great caution required on the steep unprotected snow. A final rappel onto the glacier was followed by an interesting glissade and the long, unhappy slog back over Heliotrope Ridge to Kulshan Cabin. The round trip required more than 15 hours. Had greater difficulty been encountered, the climb would not have succeeded. The elevation of the West Butte is 8500 feet, although on at least one map it reads more than 9000. Basically, the climb is a problem in route-finding, but the attendant hazards more than compensate for any lack of technical difficulty. None of us would care to repeat the climb or to recommend it.

Herb Staley

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