Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Lone Eagle Peak, North Face

Sometimes my running shoes are left behind and are replaced with sticky rubber. There was a time when I used to run to keep fit for rock climbing before it became an end in itself, but it has been difficult finding a consistent climbing partner in the US and running has dominated my outdoor pursuits. But an annual "boys vacation" has developed and this enabled a trip to the high country, and on this occasion it was for an overnight excursion to the remote Lone Eagle Peak.

Iconic mountain images conjure precipitous slopes and sharp peak summits. Just think of the Matterhorn in Switzerland. The very first time I saw a picture of Mount Everest and became aware of what it represented as a challenge, I recall how disappointed I was that it seemed to lack the dramatic profile I hoped for. While impressed with so much of the great climbing on Mount Blanc in France, its rounded snow dome seemed to take the edge off the Brenva Face and the Pear Rouge. Only on the more minor summits and ridges - such as the Peuterey Arete, Les Drus (not so minor) and the Tour Ronde - does the classic profile match expectation. The Pyramid du Tacul and the Dent du Geant also make the case. So when I first saw Lone Eagle Peak on the cover of Gerry Roache's Indian Peaks guide I was taken by the dramatic image. It encapsulated so much excitement and apprehension - was it really a sharp pinnacle summit? Were those summit cliffs really as vertiginous as they appeared? It simply demanded to be climbed.
Lone Eagle Peak with brooding thunder clouds as backdrop
The classic North Face was well within capability and undaunted by the 8 mile approach from Monarch Lake along Cascade Creek Trail, the plans were laid. It could be climbed in a single day trip but it seemed better to overnight at Crater Lake. The long walk in was surprisingly easy with only 2000 feet elevation gain. There were no persistently long steep climbs and a steady pace saw us at the overnight camp around 5.30pm. During the last 2 miles we were welcomed by heavy thunder but very little precipitation - so typical of afternoons in the high mountains. My freeze-dried Katmandhu curry failed to inspire the aroma of Tibet and a fitful night on hard ground brought the welcome dawn.
Closer view from our camp at Crater Lake
It's a short, steep pull to the start of the climbing - a short, water-streaked wall that ends on a grassy terrace. We followed this terrace up to the south for about 4 pitches of simulclimbing. It ended beneath a nasty, wet chimney that was really awkward to ascend with a pack. A nice crack towards the back of the right chimney wall encouraged my efforts and the wet rock posed few problems. It was just a strenuous thrutch and I got to the top with a feeling that effort triumphed over style. What followed was more grassy scrambling interspersed with short sections of proper rock climbing and I began to wonder what this climb was all about. I knew the crux pitch was just around the corner and it couldn't come soon enough.
Looking down the long pitch above the wet chimney

And there it was. A rising traverse onto the north wall ended in a steep drop. Across this drop a sling was strung around a flat spike signaling the belay at the foot of the pitch. It looked stupendous. A series of disconnected cracks and bulges rising vertically for about 150 feet. This looked the business and I hurried across the steep gully and brought up my partner.
At the top of the rising traverse about to cross the gully to the steep crux pitch

The guidebook (and various online websites, such as Mountain Projects) goes to great lengths to poorly describe the start of this pitch. It warns against choosing an earlier set of cracks to the left, yet omits the most important feature of all - the gully. "Climb the rising traverse to the right until you can cross a steep gully and belay at the foot of the crack system to the right" is the only description you need. It is that simple. The Roach guide writes five sentences and still gets this wrong. Maybe it was just too obvious to me? Anyway, stories of climbers getting off route on this section raise more questions about their competence and general judgment than they do about the descriptive quality of guide books...but the book descriptions could be better.
Looking at the belay below the crux pitch from the position of the previous photo
All concerns about this route disappeared once I left the belay and started up the wall. The climbing was exceptional. It was also quite easy...in fact, I found the chimney pitch mentioned earlier to be much more difficult. Yes, the climbing is at altitude, and it is steep, but the holds are huge and there are plenty of them. But these are minor quibbles. It was a feeling of kinesthetic and aesthetic joy that pulsed through my body as I cruised up the wall. The exposure was wonderful; the protection was excellent. There were supposed to be 4 metal pegs but I could only find 3 and none were really necessary. The movement was natural and composed. It was a disappointment when the pitch ended.
Topping out on the crux pitch

The remainder of the climb was easy - a short traverse to the left and a longish pitch to the summit and wonderful exposure on the narrow summit crest. At about 1 meter wide the summit ridge is really exposed and at its tip the precipitous cliffs seem to drop right to the ground about 2000 feet below. A beautiful calm summer day rendered the situation harmless and enjoyable, but high winds, cold and rain would dramatically alter this feeling.
On the summit

Descent route from the top of the climb. There are two gully options - we took the right hand one, but the left hand (yellow) option looked better. Either way you have to end up on the promontory at the top of the gullies.
Much has been written about the descent from Lone Eagle along the route of Solo Flight. The Roach guide isn't much good as it is written from the "ground up", but there are many detailed online descriptions and photos of where to go. They all seemed to make a bit of a meal of it to me. As I stood on the summit and pondered the options it all looked very obvious, and it was. Did climbers really try to descend that horrible gully? All anyone really need know is to climb up the horrible gully rather than descend. Far from being "tricky"the navigation across the descent was easy. Arriving on the shoulder overlooking the Lone Eagle summit we unroped and packed away our gear for the slog back to the campsite and the even longer walk back to the car.

An exhausting day, but truly memorable. I might even do it again just for that one pitch of perfection.


  1. Barry, thanks for posting; your description of the route was helpful, especially your advice about finding the start of the crux pitch after crossing the gully, and the photo of the descent. We tried the left (yellow line) gully option, which looked easy and relatively low angle, but it was total choss, so I would not recommend it. I tried to climb as carefully as I could, with loose rock everywhere, and I was afraid to pull on almost everything. If anyone tries it, make sure your belayer has plenty of cover!

  2. Thanks for commenting. Your experience on the "yellow" gully is really good to know. The gully we chose was horrible and unstable, but not particularly difficult. I don't recall any rocks or choss falling down as I climbed. But the Roach guide makes mention of a chockstone and we didn't encounter one, so I assumed the "yellow" gully was the correct route. I looked down this gully from the top and it seemed to be better than you described...which just goes to show how deceptive things can appear.

    I also read a description that suggests climbing the rock wall to the right of the gully and then working along behind the pinnacles above the promontory before reverse descending on some class 4 terrain. This didn't look obvious to me so I would be interested if any others have taken this option.