Wilderness Sports Conditioning
Train Today for
Dome Peak 8/30-9/1/02
Dome Peak is listed in the Seattle Mountaineers Basic Climbs guide as a “5”, for “strenuous.” However, if you add the obstacles we encountered including a newly formed avalanche gully, white-out conditions, route-finding issues, and rain that made rock slabs, talus and heather fields extremely slick, the climb can quickly become what we laughingly referred to as a “6” for “grueling” or “666” for “the devil made us do it.” Fortunately we were able to maintain a sense of humor, turning a potentially miserable weekend into a wonderfully challenging adventure that drew upon all our alpine skills.
The plan was to climb Dome Peak via Dome Glacier on day 2 and then do an intermediate ice climb of the North Face of Sinister on day 3 of a long 4-day weekend. Ian Mackay, Doug Schurman and I left the Downey Creek Trailhead (1450’ elevation) at 7:30 a.m. on Friday, August 30 for the trek in to base camp, which we had anticipated would be at Itswoot Ridge at about 6200’. We had 4 days’ worth of food, ice and glacier gear, a few pieces of rock pro for the traverse to the summit of Dome, and new, light bivy gear to test out, to the tune of about 48-50# packs. We started at a leisurely pace, one that could be repeated and sustained for 4 12-hour days if need be, walking for an hour and then taking 10-minute breaks for pictures, water and food. The trail along Downey Creek gains about 700’ fairly quickly out of the parking lot, then meanders in and out of stream valleys (with three major stream crossings over logs) en route to 6 Mile Camp at 6.7 miles, 2400’ elevation. The ups and downs are much more painfully obvious on the long return trek but didn’t bother us in the least going in. Trail crews had been there recently to clear out several downed trees and patch the trails with sand, but as we neared 6 Mile Camp we encountered more frequent obstacles over, under and around trees.
We reached 6 Mile Camp by about 11 a.m. and picked our way across the log-jam in Bachelor Creek, before taking a little longer break. After 6 Mile Camp, the climb begins in earnest, winding through switchbacks that mostly follow the BC but at one point seemed to follow the DC drainage more closely – only to turn back just at the point where we were about to lose the sound of the BC. We dubbed this part of the trail “obstacle course” due to all the downed trees blocking the trail. Note to self: getting long glacier wands under all the snags without breaking them in half gets old very quickly. We were fortunate to have a rather overcast and foggy approach day, so we didn’t roast in the willow and slide alder fields. At 4000’ the trail crosses Bachelor Creek via large rocks (if the stream isn’t too high) or two parallel logs (trekking poles were useful for balance). We took a longer break at a large opening in a wooded area where there are several fire scars and a nice place to refill water bottles (a fast water filter is a must on this trip).
The next hurdle was the fairly new avalanche field at about 4600’. We traveled upwards on the right hand side of the debris (as you look upslope) regaining part of the trail in the still-intact woods after first crossing ice, trees and pine needles down low. Once the trail disappeared again, we continued to pick our way up the right side, gradually traversing up and left using the path of least resistance, placing 3 wands for an easier return trip. It took about 1.5 hours to scramble up and over all the fallen logs and back into the heather slopes, before we were able to find the trail. What a marvelous sight that was!
It didn’t take long to reach an open camping area at about 5700’ at which point the path we were following seemed to veer in 4 directions. Fog was fairly thick. Since we couldn’t see Cub Lake, and the second map we were using did not have the modern trail marked on it, we relied on the route description that said to continue to the ridge at 6000’. Having gained that elevation, we were then unable to find a clear path down to where we thought the lake should be, and anticipated running out of daylight before we could find it. 12 hours was enough; we camped up on a 3-bump ridge that turned out to be due south of Cub Lake and were fortunate enough to find a snow patch that we could access to melt water for dinner. We set up a tarp as much out of the wind as we could, and hunkered down for the evening. Doug surprised me by bringing up a birthday card and a wrapped film canister. Inside was a note that said: “notice anything about the ice tools?” I had indeed noticed that they weren’t the same ones we’d borrowed from friends for another ice climbing weekend – but I had not a clue that I’d been carting my own birthday present on my back!!!
We set alarms for 5 a.m. in order to use as much daylight as possible to get to Dome and scout out the route on Sinister. Fortunately, by 6 a.m. we were far enough above the fog that we could see Baker, Dome, and Glacier Peak. We also were able to locate a trail leading down to the lake, but Cub Lake itself remained buried. We started out from camp by 7:30 and dropped the 300’ to Cub Lake, stopping to fill our empty water bottles and arrange cute stone messages for others who might follow. Unfortunately, the fog smothered us again, and we lost several more hours gaining the wrong ridge and trying to retrace our footsteps. Finally, we located the correct route across the snow and through the meadow, reaching Itswoot Ridge at 6200’ around 11:30 a.m. The fog cleared and we had a great view of the entire route over to the snowfield, Dome Glacier, and the summit.
After filtering water from a trickling rivulet from one of the melting snow patches and airing out the tarp, we dropped down from the ridge and started across the trail leading across heather, rock slabs, and snow fields. At one point the snow slope got a little steep and slick, so before starting up the main portion of the snowfield we put on crampons to make travel a little faster. Slope probably reached 30 degrees at its steepest part. We were fortunate to stumble across a cairn marking the 7300’ camp that Jim Nelson had told Ian about, and we dumped our overnight gear there.
At 4 p.m. we started off from Camp 2 and in 20 minutes encountered a party of four on their way back down to their high camp at 6900’. We roped up on the flat portion just at the edge of Dome Glacier, although we encountered very few crevasses. A large bergschrund had opened below the south peak, and we heard a major WHUMP indicating that more snow or ice had calved off into it, but we didn’t see any avalanches. There’s an interesting snow-rock slab crossing we don’t recommend doing in crampons, especially since the very loose talus on the other side of the rock slab is miserable enough crossing in boots, much less crampons. After a quick scramble up the loose talus, we were back on snow for the final push up to the summit traverse. There in the col was another possible high camp, though we were glad we weren’t carrying full packs up that miserable loose slope in high winds. The wind continued to whip fog and clouds all around us as we set up a belay for the traverse, but we got a few sneak peeks of Sinister before the clouds closed in for good; once we tagged the summit we scurried on back to our packs and raced down to the talus slope to pick our way down safely to camp in what daylight remained. We returned to our high camp by headlamp and boot prints at 8:30 p.m. after a 13-hour day of travel and then had to set up the tarp in the wind and darkness. The plan was to see how we felt (and how the weather was cooperating) at 3 the next morning to make our final decision about attempting the ice route on Sinister.
The tarp continued to flap in the wind all night long, and about 1:15 a.m. it started to rain. At 3:30 a.m. Ian decided to call the climb of Sinister and woke us up to tell us to keep sleeping. At 6 the wind and rain seemed to worsen, so we quickly threw all our wet gear into our packs, shook out the soaked tarp to the best of our ability, and headed back the way we’d come up, keeping close to our tracks as it was tough to see more than 30 feet ahead of us. We’d left a cairn at the junction between snow and rock slabs, and then the fun really started – travel across dry sloping slabs is no big deal, but rain, fog, and navigation issues really compound the difficulty. Several times we ended up too high on the rocks and had to descend snow fingers in order to regain the boot trail. But despite the poor conditions, we managed to find our way back to Itswoot Ridge and happened upon several people in bivy sacks waiting for the weather to clear in hopes of getting to the top of Dome that afternoon. We continued on down the slick, very muddy path on the other side of the ridge, where for a few horrible seconds I could only gasp and watch as Ian slipped in the mud and tumbled down part of the hill, stopping himself with an ice axe in heather before he could get too close to the edge. We gingerly picked our way down to him and were relieved to find that he was okay. We retreated to Cub Lake and ran into two other acquaintances who shared fresh cantaloupe slices with us while we filled water bottles for the final ascent back up to the ridge.
The wind had died down, and at times it looked as though the sun was going to make an appearance, boding well for our friends on the ridge, but for the most part the mountain remained in clouds. We sped through the avalanche debris with the help of our wands, took a shoe and sock break at the forest opening, waded through the brush that had seen more than a few travelers since we’d been through it 2 days earlier, and ducked over and under all the downed logs once more en route to 6 Mile Camp. I had an encounter with more than my share of devil’s club, resulting in a nasty rash of what looked like tiny mosquito bites all around my knees; and when I felt a sharp prick on my left arm and saw a bee digging into the skin, I couldn’t help but wonder if I was allergic to bee stings. While the area around the sting swelled up to the size of a silver dollar, I never went into shock, but I sure found out how quickly we could move when Ian called out that we’d disturbed a whole swarm and move it!
At 6 Mile Camp we took time to soak our tired feet in the stream, which helped immensely on the final 6.7 miles out to the truck. We’d hoped we could make it before nightfall, but needed headlamps for the last half of a mile. It was another 13-hour day. We reached the cars by 8:30 and dropped the 50# packs one final time. Thank goodness for fresh, dry clothes! As close to an epic as Doug and I had been on, and a wonderfully challenging alpine adventure for my birthday weekend!
A few final tips: Dome is definitely a strenuous climb, not for the faint of heart or new alpinist. If you haven’t yet done it, we recommend you try it, but for expediency, go with someone who has already done it once, as route-finding difficulties can add a significant amount of time (and in some cases frustration) to the climb (unless you’re a purist who likes the challenge of finding your own way). Travel as light as possible so that you can move quickly and remain fresh for the duration of the climb; and take a camera, so when you do get a break from the clouds, you can enjoy the views!
Following are pictures in order taken.