Argonaut Peak
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Climbing is dangerous! Every year many climbers are broken, maimed, and killed. Don't be so foolish as to trust your life to what you see here. I'm not a guide and neither is this web site. If you don't know what you are doing or where you are going, please take a course or hire a guide!

Argonaut Peak, Northwest Arete

July 7, 2002

"You think we can get Argonaut car-to-car Jens?"

"Sure. It's shorter than the Ice Cliff Glacier route."

The alarm wakes me at 1:30 AM. I hit the snooze button and quickly fall back asleep. When it goes off the second time I groggily arise and stumble downstairs to get dressed. Once clothed, I start the pot of coffee.

Jens is on time and shortly after 2:00 we head toward Leavenworth. Despite overcast skies in Issaquah, it is clear at Snoqualmie Pass; a good sign. The drive to the Stuart Lake trailhead goes quickly, as we drink coffee and eat breakfast. Surprisingly, only a smattering of cars dot the usually busy parking lot. Jens and I selected Argonaut because on July 15 the road to the trailhead will be gated for an "indefinite" period of time while the powers that be replace a bridge. So I expected others to take advantage of this last weekend of access to the north sides of Dragontail, Colchuck, Argonaut, Sherpa, and Stuart.

We finish packing, selecting a smallish rack and a single 8mm x 50m rope, and head up the trail at 4:45 AM, under just enough daylight to obviate the need to for headlamps.

Argonaut catches morning sun. Ascent in blue, descent in red (and green where obscured).

Wearing light cross-trainers and with day packs, the hike in goes quickly. At 6:00 AM we reach the first switchback below Stuart Lake, which is the point that the "Mountaineer Creek cross-country route" (Beckey) begins. For those who have not experienced this joyous approach to the north sides of Argonaut, Sherpa, and Mt. Stuart, it features something for most any bush-whacking aficionado: Open cross-country, wooded thicket replete with bone-dry deadfall, boulders from person to house size, and all manner of brush, from Devil's Club to slide alder to complete representation of thorned berry brambles. I've heard tell of a faint climber's track that runs all the way to the moraine below the Ice Cliff glacier, but in my three trips in I've never managed to stay on the 'trail' all the way.

The easiest place to pick up what little trail exists is immediately after crossing the creek. We stop briefly to set ourselves in bushwhack mode: Pants and boots. I hang my approach shoes in an 'obvious' tree so I don't have to carry them and so they will be easy to spot on the way out. Looking at the map, we decide to pick up the trail and try to traverse on contour, rather than gaining elevation to join the boulder fields. Watching carefully we somehow manage to stay on the track until it comes into the huge boulders that line the creek.

Which way now? Jens navigating through the boulders.

We take a bit more time that usual navigating and manage through the boulders with only a minimum of difficulty. On the far side of the creek, we make good time in open timber. We planned to leave the creek where the USGS map shows a branch joining in. Unfortunately the map doesn't show the half-dozen other creeks and creeklets that come in from the eastern slopes. So we followed our instincts instead.

Don't be fooled by the USGS map that shows open terrain down below 5000 feet: The green represents 'harvestable timber', which does not include other types of vegetation including slide alder, Devil's Club, raspberry brambles, and other assorted thicket. And so it was that we emerged from the woods and into a sea of brush. Despite some frustration and a near-constant string of expletives from me, we slowly progress through the BW3 terrain, occasionally suspended above the ground by mature slide alder.

Looking back at a sea of brush.

In less than an hour we make our way to a finger of talus. I'm bleeding, but not fast enough to need a transfusion or stitches. We kick steps up some firm snow and scramble past a creek into the lower northern basin below Argonaut Peak. We stop to take a break, eat, pump some water and assess the route to the upper basin. Within seconds clouds of voracious mosquitoes, midges, noseeums, and all other manner of biting, itching insects descends upon us. Thankfully, we're prepared and break out Jens' citronella bug spray. We gloat, but only until we notice that the bugs seems to be regarding the spray as little more than A-1 sauce on a nice slab of beef. We resort to Goretex.

Above us is a steep granite slab partially covered with snow. Our plan is to climb the lower snow section, then traverse a sloping, narrow shelf to easier ground. Jens starts across the ledge, but is foiled by a single, wet, exposed crux move. I take a look and then we agree to try our luck higher on the snow.

Jens on the slab ledge. We were foiled at the little step, which was quite wet.

With just a bit of monkey business, we clear the slab above and make it into the upper basin. It strikes me as a tamer version of the cirque of the Ice Cliff glacier. By now a high overcast has blocked out the sun. We stop and scope out the various routes: The complete Northeast Couloir route, the 1971 Northeast Buttress route, the 1958 Beckey North Face route, and the 1972 Northwest Arete. The couloir is partially melted out, so we eliminate it. Beckey calls his North Face route fourth class. Uh huh. I won't make that mistake again. In the end, we agree on the Northwest Arete: The couloir leading to it seems inviting and I think it is a pure-looking line.

We take turns kicking steps up the ever-steepening couloir. I'm glad to have my crampons on at the top, which is 40+ degrees. The notch turns out to be a pleasant place. We arrive at 9:45 AM, five hours from the car. The clouds are getting gray as we spread out to take a break and get ready for the rock section, which Beckey describes in a miserly way: "Seven pitches (class 4 to 5.6)."

Me kicking steps up the couloir.

As we laze about and peruse possible starts to the route. I comment that it looks harder than I expected. Then the rain starts. First drizzle, then harder and harder. Looking to the southwest, it is raining as far as I can see. It isn't going to stop any time soon. We gather our gear and scurry under a ledge to wait.

After 45 minutes we venture out from the ledge to explore the other side of the notch. We scramble 2nd and 3rd class terrain to a snow finger leading down from the West Ridge. Thinking that we may be able to access the mythical 2nd class route to the summit through the notch, we start up. In a classic "we just got kicked out of the Mountaineers" decision, we climb the steep, runout couloir without our axes and crampons, which we left under the overhang. Some tricky and tenuous moves give way to the notch and disappointment: There is no broad, low-angle slope to the summit like the south sides of Dragontail and Colchuck.

Jens downclimbing from the notch.

We agree that we may be able to climb to the summit from there via the west ridge, but not without our gear. The sun breaks out as we reverse the moves down the couloir. By the time we reach out gear it is downright hot. Water is steaming off the mossy rock.

A sure sign of improving weather.

By the time we've gathered out gear, we decide the roll the dice on the NW Arete. It's 12:15, we've lost 2.5 hours and are now looking at navigating back to the trail in the dark. I start solo up the first pitch past a fixed cam (now a part of Jens' rack), then get scared by a hardish move on wet rock. I start down while Jens starts up another way. He also finds wet rock and Beckeyish 5.6 moves. He plugs in some gear, ties in, and tosses down the rope. With some grunting and running commentary about the wet, mossy rock, he finishes the pitch. I meet him at the belay and we have a discussion.

"That was harder than 5.6. We're gonna be walking out in the dark, Jens."

"We can do it. We can do this."

"We need to be fast. As much as I feel like a schmuck for it, you should do most of the leading because you are faster."


Jens is a 5.12 sport climber. On a good day I can bumble up well-bolted 5.10 routes. I don't like being led around, but it was the best decision given the circumstances. So he led off.

I belayed until the ropes ran out (a doubled up 8mm x 50m half-rope), then broke down the belay and we simul-climbed. As per our usual routine, the leader set a belay and brought up the follower when he ran out of gear. When I joined Jens I figured we'd dispatched about 2.5 pitches. We re-rack and Jens leads off again, with a headwall looming above us. We send more pitches, none of them particularly easy and each with a solid crux, until we reach sandy ledges. Traversing the 3rd class terrain to the right, we come to a beautiful slab pitch, much like the south ridge of Ingalls, though shorter and with more vegetation.

Jens near the top of the slab pitch.

Past that another headwall looms. Jens sets a belay, I join him and hand over the gear. He passes the headwall via a cleft and chockstone. An ancient, faded sling hints that we are on route. I follow and join Jens at a meager belay. "5.6 my ass, Jens. Those were 5.8+ moves."

Jens works a few more "5.6" moves on the chimney/chockstone pitch.

Facing more steep climbing above, Jens continues right up a chimney to the West Ridge and disappears. I follow, gaining and the traversing the crest of the ridge. I have my scare of the day when a nubbin of granite that is my 5.6 handhold breaks off in my left hand and I teeter on the crest of the ridge. I pull back in balance and, after a short downclimb, join Jens on easier ground. We scramble another pitch and reach the summit at 2:15 PM.

Me on the summit with Sherpa and Stuart in the background. I get bonus style points for the knicker-like pants-tucked-in-socks look.

Jens watched climbers on the North Ridge of Stuart with the binoculars. Say, those clouds are building back in...

It is hot. I put on sunscreen and we eat, drink, and watch people on the north ridge of Stuart through the binoculars. After an hour we start down, scrambling east toward the high, steep snowfield that separate the twin summits. At the base of the snowfield Jens finds a trickle of running water.  He digs a small pit and we use the filter to suck water from it into out bottles. I drink a quart and pack a quart. Then we grab our packs and scramble boulders looking for the rap station. I didn't realize what a foolish mistake I'd made.

Thanks to Greg Mueller's trip report from August, 2001, I knew which of the several rap stations was the correct one. I set up the rap and went down. While Jens rapped and pulled the rope I continued scrambling down, looking for the next rap.

Jens rapping the crack pitch.

I down climb a ridge and come to the top of the Northeast Gully. I can see where I want to go, and can avoid a rap by downclimbing the couloir. All I need is the axe off the back of my pack. I reach behind to unbuckle it and all I feel is the empty loop where it should be. I know in an instant what I have done. "F*ck!!!!". I scramble back up to Jens, who has just finished pulling the rope. "I left my Godd@mned axe where we got water Jens."

It was a stupid, amateur, chump mistake. And much to my chagrin, the best solution was for Jens to solo back up and get it while I finished scoping the descent with his axe. So he went up and I went down. I find the next rap station and have it all set up when Jens arrives with my axe. I rap first and clip off to the next station. While Jens follows, I start downclimbing the last 100 feet to walking terrain. Then the rope gets stuck. I climb back up to help tug, but it is solidly stuck. I put Jens on belay while he climbs up and frees the stuck end of the rope. A bit frazzled, we opt to make one more rap to easy ground, rather than downclimbing.

Jens at the end of the rappels.

We had debated about the easiest way to get back to the trail: Descending via bushwhack directly to Mountaineer Creek, or losing some elevation, then climbing back up to Colchuck Col, which we could see. My tennis shoes, hanging in a tree far below seal the deal: We walk the ridge, which is pleasant and would make for a spectacular camp, and then drop onto a snow finger we'd scoped earlier in the day. Several long, easy glissades allow us to drop 1200 vertical in a matter of butt-freezing minutes. The clouds are starting to build again as we shake the snow out of our pants fight off more mosquitoes.

Instead of dropping directly into the brush, we traverse the open slope right under the west face of Colchuck, to a stand of timber: We're highly motivated to avoid any more brush. Descending the steep, cliffy timber we eventually reach Mountaineer Creek. We walk along the creek and somehow manage to exactly retrace our steps across the creek on the giant boulders. I eventually relocate my shoes, cross the Stuart Lake branch of the creek, and land back on the trail. It is 7:30 PM. We made the trail before dark, but the sky is heavy with rain, and lightning is flashing. We take a break to change gear and get under way at 8:00. I'm wearing a Goretex jacket to protect me from the mosquitoes, but when the skies let loose at 8:15 it also does a nice job keeping me dry. On a casual pace in the pouring rain, we reach the parking lot at 9:15, just as darkness falls.

My shoes in the tree, with Argonaut in the background.

The drive home is the last crux of the day. We have to trade off several times because neither of us can keep our eyes open. At 12:30 AM we pull into my driveway. Long, great day in the mountains. I'm very tired. Goodnight.


This page was last edited on Tuesday, August 30, 2005
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