When you think of Mt. Washington, you first think of the iconic mountain in New Hampshire, known for some of the worst weather in the world, well at least I do. While it would be fun to climb it someday, even though there is a road to the top, this was not the mountain I climbed last Thursday. I climbed Mt. Washington here in Central Oregon. Mt. Washington is a remnant of an old volcano. It measures 7,794 feet high so it is not very tall compared to some of the other nearby mountains. What it does have going for it is a very cool profile, from a distance it looks like a true mountain peak. What Mt. Washington is known for is having loose and crumbly rock. I have never climbed it, but I was looking for a climb I could do on my day off from work. There is really only one recommended climb on Mt. Washington, the North Ridge. This route starts on the Pacific Crest Trail near Big Lake and heads south for about 3 miles. There is a cairn on the east side of the trail marking the climber’s trail that takes you up to the North Ridge. Once on the ridge the climb follows it up to the saddle below the crux of the climb. A 75-foot section up to the “nose and then a scramble up to the summit. On the descent, I dropped down the snow-covered west face and hiked back out to the PCT and on to the car.
I had last Thursday off, and the weather forecast was finally favorable. I was not able to find someone to go with me so it was going to be a solo mission. Even though many people rope up on the crux of the climb, I figured I would go up and take a look and decide to proceed if it looked safe enough. It is about an hour’s drive to the trailhead at Big Lake, and since I was going through Sisters on the way I had to stop by the Sisters Bakery for my breakfast. Melissa had to get up early to go to work so I was on the road by 6:30. After picking up custard doughnut and cheese stick from the Sisters bakery I arrived at the trailhead at 8:00 am. There was one other car at the trailhead so I thought I might have some company on the climb. When I was getting out of the car, I was instantly swamped my mosquitoes. I quickly got back into the car to put on repellant before getting back out. Even with the repellant on there was constantly a swarm around me all the way until I left the Pacific Crest Trail.
The first three miles on the Pacific Crest Trail are a slight climb. The trailhead is around 4600 feet and winds its way through the Mt. Washington wilderness where there was a fire last fall. There were sections of green forest with other sections that were thoroughly burned. The closer to the mountain the less evidence of the recent fire and the patches of snow started to appear. At the climber’s cairn appeared and there was no trail to the left. Not that the trail was not there, but it was under the lingering snow. Occasionally, it would pop out, but for the most part I had to use my GPS to try to follow the right path to the North Ridge. The higher up the ridge the trees began to thin, and the snow did as well. I was able to get back on the trail, and as I got near the top of the ridge, the views started to improve.
The route along the ridge normally is along the east side, but this was still full of snow this time of year which was a pleasant surprise. I would much rather climb snow than dirt and there were steps already up the slope so all I had to do was follow them. The snow was a little slushy but not icy so it was great for hiking up. Occasionally, I had to get on the ridge to avoid precarious snow sections, but most of the climb was on snow. At the pinnacles, the trail drops down the west side of the ridge before climbing back up to the saddle between them and the final climb. The final climb is a 4th and 5th class scramble up to the summit. It is here that I finally caught up to the other two climbers I saw on the mountain that day. They were practicing their lead climbing on the 75-foot crux of the climb. I talked to them briefly as they were up near the top and decided to drop my pack at the saddle.
After pulling out my helmet and a snack I decided to take a look at the climb and proceed if I felt safe and comfortable. Even though the climb looks very menacing there are little chimneys and ledges up through it, and it did not feel overly dangerous. The climb up was easy, low class 5, and after a couple of minutes I was up at the top of the crux. I spoke with the two for a couple of minutes and found that they were from Eugene and was going to be practicing for a while on the climb. From the top of the crux (“the nose”), the rest of the climb is 4th class and not nearly as technical as the below section. The hardest part is picking out your path to the top. I reached the summit just after noon, and the weather was still holding with only a couple of clouds out and about. There are actually small flat spots at the top where you could actually bivy if you are so inclined. It reminded me of the summit of The Brothers of the Olympics in Washington State. On the top, there is also an ammo box with a summit log in which you can sign and put some notes in.
After hanging out on the summit for a bit, I sent some emails and text messages and then began to scramble down. I always find it easier to go up than come down, but the down climb was not too bad. Even the crux section was not difficult to down climb. The two people I met on the way up were still practicing as I headed down. While I was getting my pack back together the winds started to pick up, and you could feel the weather changing. I decided I was going to descend the west face as the snow was soft, and it looked like plunge stepping would be the best way. You could glissade the face as there was run out at the bottom, but I have no doubt it would have been out of control and very, very fast. The face ended up being mostly soft; there were a couple of small icy sections that took a bit more precision. Once down about 3/4 of the way I glissaded the final section which is always fun. From the bottom of the face, you could see the clouds had rolled in and the summit was now getting close to being covered. It really did not take long for it to change.
The bottom of the face leads to a drainage that can be followed down to the Pacific Crest Trail. On the way, you could see the damage from some of the winter avalanches where they had beaten up some of the trees. The lower I went the more mixed the terrain becomes with snow patches obscuring the trail. Fortunately, the PCT is wide and easy to spot. I hit the trail a short way past where I started up and had the same 3-mile section back to the car. After reapplying my mosquito repellant, I was ready to finish. Even though the sky was now cloudy and the wind had picked up, it was still a nice cruise back to the car. I arrived back at 3:10 PM; Seven hours after I started.
Overall, the Mt. Washington climb was a round trip just under 11 miles. There was a total of 3,200 feet of climbing. Even though I had read that this was not one of the preferred climbs in the cascades, I really liked this climb. I think it is definitely better in the early season when there is snow, without it the climb would be a bit more work. While I did not rope up on the upper reaches, some may want to depending on your experience. Bring some slings, carabiners, harnesses, and a rope, and you will be good. The main anchors and rappels are already in place to use. As always, your mileage may vary.
- Osprey Stratos 26 Backpack – Very comfortable pack with a well placed Ice Axe Holder. Nice to have a smaller pack with this feature.
- Haglofs Bioga Hood – Fit a little loose. A good mix of wind protection and breathability.
- Beyond Roughrider Pants – Comfortable pants. I like the options of adjusting the lower cuff width. Even when glissading on the slush, my bum stayed dry.
- Wolverine Pulsar Hiking Shoes – The people I met near the summit were surprised I was wearing shoes, but my feet were dry and climbing was a breeze in them.
- Leki Trekking Poles – I love the flip lock poles. I do not know how I ever went without them.