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Eldorado Peak–8876’

Posted by joeabbott on August 20, 2013

P8170044I’ve started a spate of hiking outings largely on the invitation to climb this mountain: Eldorado Peak. Located in the North Cascades, it’s on my short list of “mountains I’d love to climb”. It has a gorgeous aspect, a strenuous approach, and lots of glacier beneath the boots; on top of that, it’s located deep in a cluster of other awesome giants and is on the Top 100 highest mountains in Washington state. When, six weeks ago, a friend asked me if I wanted to climb it, I gave an emphatic yes and started training.

Day 1 – Hike in and setup camp

We’d originally planned to head out Friday and summit on Saturday, but a late summer storm pushed in and we delayed our trip a day to enjoy better weather. While the experience of climbing this peak would be enough satisfaction, getting good views would make it all the better. So, with Saturday looking like “partly cloudy” and Sunday “clear”, we adjusted our calendars and set out early Saturday morning.

We arrived at the trailhead around 8:30AM and had a to sort group gear and complete packing before we were ready; we left around 9:15AM.

I had a heavy pack but was feeling strong and ready to get out on the trail, but the immediate and relentless direct gain in elevation tempered my gusto. The trail gains a brutal 1700’ in under a mile as it grinds up through a rocky forest that was slick enough with mud to have me concerned about the hike back down. Interestingly, the trip into Eldorado has the reputation for requiring good route-finding skills and it being essential for following the climbers’ trail (it’s an unmaintained trail); however, the many boots on this single track made staying on trail trivial, and even the notorious “don’t miss this water crossing” warning seemed goofy: the log crossing the creek is plain as day and visible from the road!


But, after the first 1700’, you pop out onto a stony talus field and need to rock-hop another 1000’ or so. Again, I was still feeling fresh (in spite of the steady sweat pulling from me) and peek-a-boo views of the many peaks in the area kept me motivated. I continued to chip away at the ascent and by noon was breaking out into the third phase of the ascent: the high upper basin at the start of the Eldorado Creek.

P8170008P8170013 Stitch

Here your brutal trail lessens to just merely “punishing” and you are able to stroll across scraped granite outcroppings and hop small rivulets on the way to a notch that drops you into the Roush Creek basin just below Eldorado Glacier. I got through the notch around 2:30PM and from there you negotiate boulders, slabby granite, and start heading up snow toward the Eldorado Glacier. About a half hour later I was essentially at camp but by this time, Chris (my climbing partner) was seriously flagging and it took him another 30 minutes before he joined me. By that time going further wasn’t in the books and we looked around for a spot to place the tent.

P8170026 Stitch

While there were no ideal spots, we did find a little shelter between rock bands that was serenaded by a couple of minor waterfalls. We were “home” for the night.


I carved out a tent platform while Chris went to pump water. By the time he returned, I fired up the stove for our evening’s meal and we enjoyed our respective freeze dried meals: I had a miserable teriyaki and he had the much more palatable lasagna.

It was about 7PM and the clouds and mist were still heavy about us and, unless things cleared significantly, we were in for a day without a lot of views. I was still hopeful and, after setting out my crampons and gaiters, harness, ice axe, and helmet, retired for a bit of reading and then to get some sleep.

Day 2- Summit and head home

P8180050P8180059We’d intended on waking at 4:15AM but the notion of setting an alarm seemed to have escaped both of us. I continued a fitful bit of rest and when I finally looked at my watch, saw that it was after 5AM. At a word Chris was up and started to sort out the morning activities: get a little breakfast, figure out what to wear, and then grab our gear. The “what to wear” was more about “how many layers” than “does this puffy jacket make me look fat”, but it was hard to tell what was right: temps were hovering in the 40s and it was still very misty; but I really wanted it to blow off. I just wasn’t sure what the day would do. In the end, I kept on snow pants but exchanged my down jacket for a Gore-Tex windproof coat.


While we were heading out onto a glacier, we opted to rope up at the top of the slope, rather than out of camp. Purist who say you should always be on rope on a glacier will take exception to our approach; others who have soloed the route will wonder why we roped up at all. Regardless, the ice is mostly solid but the occasional narrow crevasse will tell you that you are indeed on a glacier.

I was additionally motivated to rope up as we were in whiteout conditions with visibility some 10-20 yards.

At this point I was very happy to have my GPS. I’d never been on the route and unable to make out a single distinguishing feature; there wasn’t even a shadow or smudge or outline to see: just an endless foggy white and the rumpled surface of the dirty pink snow. It’s pink in many places due to some algae or other.

I pointed us to the base of a long ridgeline and, disappointingly, we lost some 100’ or so heading straight toward it rather than contouring and ascending to a notch in that ridge. However, without being able to see any features, I was going off my GPS setting. Fortunately, winds were picking up and ripped away shreds of cloud and fog so we could make out the rocky outcrop beneath the final summit block. While it was here I started to pick up the pace and feel the adrenaline of the trip, Chris reined me in and kept our pace a slow and steady (with breaks) approach.


Once at the top of the ridge and keeping a rocky outcropping to our left, we threaded a few crevasses, and then started up the final ridgeline to the summit.

Eldorado is famous for it’s exposed knife-edge arete leading to the final summit rocks. While exhilarating, the near-whiteout conditions kept me from being too terribly excited. It was fantastic to get the summit of another of Washington’s top 100 peaks under my boots, but I was really looking forward to the great views of this well-located mountain. Unfortunately, for us, on this day, there’d be none.

I look like a junk salesman!P8180083

We spent maybe 15 minutes on top before we grabbed our gear and started down. Again I led out and retraced our steps to the rocky ridge where we departed our old boot path and descended through the notch to the below glacier. There again we plunged into whiteout and used the GPS to get us back to camp.

P8180087xP8180093P8180098 Stitch

In camp we wasted no time: remove our glacier gear, pull our camping stuff from the tent, pack up our packs, and start down. My pack was brutally heavy, but it was in large part due to my own choices.

Every hiking/climbing trip that I take without Suzy, I bring her back a small rock as a keepsake; a way of saying that I thought of her and chose to share a tiny part of the trip with her. Usually they’re about the size of my thumb and I slip them into a side pouch in my pack. Unfortunately for me, I spotted a shark-fin-like plate of rock that was flat but pitted with tiny craters: it said strange, alien, and volcanic all at once. And it weighed nearly 10#.

P8180105 StitchBut, traditions are to be kept up and I figured I could man up and muscle this one home for my missus. It was only later when I weighed the pack on getting home and found I was carrying about 55# that I figured I’d overdone it.

However, as we left camp I only knew my pack was heavy.

By this point Chris was whooped. While we both had 6-weeks to prepare, he has twin boys and wasn’t able to get out as often as I did. At the trek to the notch that would take us from the Roush Creek basin into Eldorado Creek basin, I waited about as long as I’d hiked before Chris appeared. As we negotiated the long exposed granite basin and scrambled talus field, we stuck more closely together but it was clear Chris was having troubles: he was frustrated at his own fatigue, annoyed that his ill-riding pack was so heavy, and had to stop often for food, water and rest.

P8180123Between 12:30 and 1PM we stopped for lunch beside a small waterfall and I pumped more water for us both. Under the gaze of a couple fat marmots, we munched and watched the low clouds rake the nearby mountains, giving us a look at what we might see better if we waited another day. But, we didn’t have another day to wait. And so with lunch over, I shouldered my load and started down the final ankle-breaking rocks to the point at which the trail enters the forest some 1700’ above the cars.

It was about 2PM when we hit that spot and we stopped again, but here Chris gave me the OK to go at my own pace down to the car. I waited as long as I could before the constant little black flies nearly drove me insane and I had to head out. I wasn’t running or even hurrying, but I was keeping a constant pace as I staggered down under a massive load on slick and steeply descending terrain.

And so it was that around 3:15 I came across the “unmaintained trail” marker, walked the log crossing, and found my car. I dropped my load, stripped myself of the thoroughly wet clothing (all sweat), pulled on clean dry cotton, and sucked down a Gatorade or two that I’d had in a cooler in the back. It was heaven. While I was spent, I remained alert and continued pacing the trailhead path, watching for Chris. Unfortunately, it was another hour before he broke from the trees.

P8180127P8180128While he said he was OK, just tired, the gash on his arm, the bruise on his bicep, and the deep red sunburn in his face said he’d had a heckuva trip down. Gatorades for everyone!


P8180129The climb of Eldorado was wonderful for many many reasons. While I wanted better views, I know I can get back for that if I need them; knocking off another Top 100 mountain so long after my last one was immensely satisfying. And, on the cusp of my 50th birthday, I have to say that my showing wasn’t bad at all. Now I just need to stay in shape for the next one!

Thanks for reading and apologies on the length; as Blaise Pascal is said to have written:

The present [blog entry] is a very long one, simply because I had no leisure to make it shorter.


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