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Mt. Garfield, South Route
August 19, 2001
"Garfield is a hazardous enigma... (it) offers the mountaineer more than a climb, for it is also a physical and orienteering challenge."
-Fred Beckey, Cascade Alpine Guide Volume 1, page 192 (1987 printing)
My fascination with Garfield began the first time I read the route description in Beckey's Cascade Alpine Guide. Beckey has a way of subtly understating the difficulties of many routes. Indeed, many a Northwest climber has spent a day or two trying to follow Becky's route descriptions. For example: "Approach cross-country. Follow talus to an obvious gully leading to easy scrambling to the summit. Time: Four hours."
I've learned to translate such things:
Anyway, you get the idea. So when Fred calls something a "hazardous enigma" I take notice. And when I saw that he used that nomenclature on a route devoid of fifth class climbing, I really became intrigued. In retrospect, I'm not sure why. I guess maybe I am an adventure climber, not a purist.
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Jens was not the least interested in Garfield. "Have fun up there. Wear long pants."
So I emailed Phil. Phil has a great climbing web site and a superb sense of humor. Though we hadn't met, he seemed to be a person who, like me, enjoyed the adventure of climbing and didn't take it or himself too seriously. He too was interested in Garfield, and he'd made a preliminary scouting trip onto its flanks. About the only thing better than a partner who brings along good food is a partner that knows the route on a bushwhack.
We both scrounged around the Internet looking for trip reports. We found all of one. We read and reread the Beckey description. The keywords permeated my thoughts: Dirt gully, slab, canyon edge, tiny notch, razorback, glade saddle, key ledge traverse, Y notch, #2 gully. Becky also said that twelve hours is an absolute minimum.
We met at the local QFC at 5:30 AM. I administered caffeine as we made the short drive out to North Bend and up the dreaded Middle Fork Road. Shortly after dawn we parked in the pullout and made ready. It was 6:45 AM when we started walking.
The single trip report we found indicated a trail as far as the key ledge traverse. Heartened by that possibility, and we made quick progress up the dry creek bed. Halfway to the 'dirt gully' the route leaves the stream bed and heads into the woods for the first time. We were treated to a small dose of the "scrumbling*" that would be the hallmark of the day. Pulling on whatever vegetation was at hand, we heaved our way up the pine-needle covered slope, following a mix of flagging tape and a faint trail.
About an hour in, at 2200', we came to the 'dirt gully'. We descended back to the creek and filled our bottles, then crossed the water and started up.
It was unpleasant. Loose rock and dirt, with some vegetation mixed in. Thankfully, we were on fresh legs and after 400 vertical feet the trail exited left into the trees. Notably, the treed ridge is absent of brush. The steep climber's trail mostly goes straight up for another 400' (which seems like 100', since it is so much less work that the dirt gully). Soon the slab, shrouded in mist, comes into sight. We stop to get a drink, curse the dirt gully (trying not to think about the descent), and reread the route description. After our respite, we start up the slab.
Following the intersecting dikes we are able to comfortably solo two pitches to the top. We continue up in the dirt above the upper left edge of the slab, still following the faint trail and intermittent flagging. Then the trail ends on a rocky outcrop. The map and route description come back out. "Ah, traverse under the rock outcrop..."
It is worth noting that the gradient doesn't really change from the slab back to the pine needle slope, just the substrate. So we are now back to scrumbling up 40 degree loose, dry pine needles by any means possible. Thankfully there is a proliferation of huckleberries, which make good handholds. The trail leads back to the right (east) edge of the ridge and eventually we reach a nice little perch near another rock outcrop. From that vantage we get our first glimpse of the summit, though the swirling mist. It disappears as I prepare to take a picture.
We take a quick break to hydrate, eat, and look at the maps. "Do you think this is the 'razorback' or the 'rock outcrop'?"
"Yeah, that's what I was thinking."
We clamber over the rock outcrop to a little notch.
"Do you think this is the 'glade saddle' or the 'tiny notch'?"
"Yeah, that's what I was thinking."
It turned out to be the 'tiny notch'. Just a ways ahead we came to the 'razorback'. Then the trail went back into the woods and we went back into scrumble mode. At some point (it is a little blurry at the moment), we dropped all the way into a small dry creek bed on the west side of the ridge. This was a mistake and can be avoided by traversing above it. The creek bed led to some of the most desperate shrub-pulling of the day.
Back on route, we eventually come to the true 'Glade Saddle'. There we find a tight, but well used, bivy site for two. Another break. It was 9:45. I comment that we are making respectable time. Just above the 'glade saddle', the 'wooded ramp' reveals itself. I guess that the word 'ramp' is relative to the sheer cliffs and steep rock slabs surrounding it. After snapping a couple pictures we start up. A sporty twenty foot step highlights the ramp, with Phil taking the left variation while I climb on the right.
Past that obstacle the 'Key Ledge Traverse', '#1 Gully', and '#2 Gully' come into view. The clouds, thankfully, are breaking up. #2 Gully looks hard and exposed for 4th class. Not knowing what to expect on the traverse, we decide that a rope is in order and tie in with Kiwi coils. I lead out and across what turns out to be the most (only) overstated part of the route description. After the dirt gully and the 45 degree pine needle slopes, the 'key ledge' is almost a walk in the park. In short order we arrive at 'The Y Notch', which is the confluence of the #1 Gully and the #2 Gully and sits at the head of 'The Great Canyon'.
A short, exposed step around a rock band lands us in more ridiculously steep brush, which we now yard up with relative ease (thanks to all the practice), despite the rope which we are too lazy to pack up. After several hundred yards following a faint trail, which is sometimes in the form of a brush tunnel, we arrive at the base of the '#2 Gully'.
What can I say about #2 Gully? From a distance it looks hard. From a distance with binoculars it looks easier. Up close, well, it is a nightmarish combination of impossibly loose rock on one side and polished, mossy rock on the other. And when I say one side and the other, I mean your left foot is on a sand dune and your right foot is on a greased watermelon. Woe be to anyone who tries this route when it is not bone dry. (Beware of climber's hyperbole...)
We started up simulclimbing, with a few twenty foot belayed sections. When the going got harder, I led out a full pitch and belayed off a fixed ring piton that was probably set by Jim Crooks and Judson Nelson on the first ascent in 1940.
Phil led through, trending right onto the stepped slab, rather than the awkward heart of the gully. When the rope ran out Phil was hanging off crooked trees on a nearly vertical brush slope. I pulled the gear on the piton and followed up the easier ground below him. After a good bit of grunting and effort, he pulled the lip(?) and was swallowed by the brush. Eventually I hear him call out that he has a belay in. I follow, and struggle. His lead, though the terrain was unconventional, was impressive for its boldness and dearth of gear. He looked a bit drained when I reached him, so I led through. "When the rope comes tight, just pull the belay and follow."
By now we were no longer in the gully proper, but had launched onto what Becky calls the "Chimney Variation":
"One can avoid the chimney leading to the col by climbing above it; two leads easy class 5 (a diversion if the chimney is wet)."
In retrospect, I think we left the gully earlier that this variation intends (though once we saw the 'standard' route on rappel we agreed that ours was preferable). I led out a full 60m rope length through varyingly steep brush and trees, then we simulclimbed for another thirty feet. There, in view of the great south face, I set a belay and brought up Phil. We took another break and contemplated our options. The route description for the variation indicated that we needed to rejoin the standard route at the top of '#2 Gully', about 5200', and at the base of "easy slabs and steep heather" to the summit.
We decide to climb along the ridge crest for a while. I lead out and Phil gives me an imaginary belay. Fifty feet out on easy terrain I have to choose between angling up and left, or continuing straight. Straight looks easier and more direct, so I head that way. It gets steeper as I approach the crest proper, and the rock gets friable and loose. Most of the time I have at least one hand on a scraggly krumholtz. The crux of the lead is traversing a 80 degree face past a tree growing horizontally out of the rock. I get one arm around the trunk of the tree, then throw my left leg over, like getting on a horse. I can't see my feet through the branches, but I find something to step on with my left foot. When I weight it though, it gives way and a small rock slide cascades down, over the rope, but missing Phil. This is the first significant rock that either of us has kicked loose all day, but it is a harbinger of things to come. After a half a minute I remember to breathe, and start moving again. I gain the crest and climb another 20 feet to a nice tree belay.
Phil quickly follows, and leads through into a small thicket. "Looks like it is going to be easy scrambling for a while, Loren."
"Good, I can use a bit of that."
A few minutes pass.
"Uhh, getting steeper again. And the rope drag is atrocious. I'm going to bring you up from here."
I follow up and take the rack as I pass. I'm now getting concerned that I am aiming too high to make the top of the gully, so I begin traversing to my left. It is easier ground, more slabby and less steep. I sling a tree or two along the way, then reach the edge of the cliff above the gully. With a couple awkward moves I downclimb onto a nice ledge about 150 feet above the gut of the gully. I bring Phil over from a marginal slung tree branch equalized with a large stopper. I can see the top of the gully 150 feet to my left, at the same level. But the direct route there is more than I care to lead. We make one short rap to a bush fifty feet below, where Phil slings a collection of small branches (I think Phil used the word "Twig") and I lead out, traversing toward the top of the gully and the "easy slabs and steep heather" (per Beckey). I try to protect the traverse, but all I can fiddle in is a bad micro. At the col I scan for the easy slabs. I see slabs, but they don't don't fall into my 'easy' category.
Phil follows and is very gracious not to call my micro what it is (shit). "You take what you can get, Loren."
I lead up the slab, which is pretty much unprotectable. 75 feet above the belay I make the hardest move of the day (for me). A slopey finger traverse with bad feet. With no pro below me I take a deep breath, make the move, and gain easier ground, and a tree to sling. From there I am back to scrumbling up the "steep heather". Phil calls out when the rope is up. I call down for him to simul some so I can reach a comfortable tree belay twenty feet above. I sling the tree and bring him up. The summit is somewhere nearby, but I can't pick it out of the many rock towers.
At this point I am pretty spent. The mental fatigue is starting to erode my concentration and we've been on the move for almost eight hours with just a few short breaks. The ground above us looks to be second and third class, so I pull the belay and grab the pile of rope and we start up together.
Somewhere along the way we run the rope out again. I am following the path of least resistance and a faint trail along more steep heather and scree. In a few minutes I reach a broad gully. A tower sits on each side of the top of it. I'm hoping that one is the true summit. I start up the third class terrain, putting in one sling and fixing it with a chockstone. At the top of the gully I can see that the summit is to my right, the west. I traverse easy ground and make the last few steps to the top.
I can see Phil nearing the top of the gully. "Alright, we're there."
It is 2:45 PM when we are together on top, 5519'. Far below I can see the clearing where the car is parked. Remarkably, the route we followed is only 1.5 miles, not including the 4400 vertical gain. We take some pictures, rest, eat, and worry silently about the descent. The day is near perfect: Cool and partly cloudy, with nice views. We are reminded of the outlaw nature of the Middle Fork by the automatic weapon report from the valley below us. I figure there is a 50% chance that the windows will be shot out of my car when we get back.
"I'd just like to make it to the top of the dirt gully before dark, Loren."
"Agreed. We need to move carefully and consistently. I am tired, but I'd rather be benighted than get hurt."
We look through the summit register. One entry from August 12, a mere seven days ago. The next previous entry is from 1998. Names like Shoening and Doorish are there. Pete Doorish apparently put up two Grade V routes on the south side in the late 80s or early 90s. Both 5.10 and over 20 pitches. And done within two weeks of each other. Pete's last entry in the summit log: "Okay, I think I've had enough of Garfield now." Me, too.
At 3:30 PM we start down. We scramble down to the top of the easy slab, where we rig a single-rope rappel that lands us at the col. From there we scramble down to a freshly bolted rap station that I spied on the ascent. I'm not a big fan of bolts in the mountains, but folks, don't knock these until you've climbed the route and seen the alternative. We added a piece of webbing (the most recent was dated 1998) and made a double rope rappel. At Phil's suggestion we brought two 8.1 mm 60m ropes. And I'm ever so glad. We landed in the heart of the gully and pulled the ropes.
A 100 yard traverse across slabs took us to the second bolted rap station, on the cliff-top on the east side of the gully proper. We added a new sling and removed an old one, then made another double rope rappel.
Lather, rinse, repeat. Twice more we traversed across to the east side of the gully and rapped off established points on trees. We packed the ropes and started downclimbing. As I mentioned, the rock on the west side of the gully is loose. Very loose. I was knocking stuff down and feeling tired and clumsy. In our fatigued state we resorted to descent scrumbling: Sitting on our butts and sliding.
Near the base of the #2 Gully I put my right hand on a large (500 pound?) rock to lower myself. As I weighted the rock a thought flashed through my head, "Hey, that thing could cut loose."
And it did. It rolled out of the dirt just as my right foot hit the ground. It hit the back of my right knee, and then my left. Somehow I had the sense to not tense up and resist. I just sat down and tried to ride it. It only went ten feet or so, but when it stopped I was sitting in front of it, pinned by my pack. Phil came up to steady it as I made a quick injury inventory. My lower right leg was sore, but not too bad. With Phil steadying the boulder, I managed to free myself and clear out. Other than some scrapes on the back of my knees and right calf, and a pretty good bruise, I escaped unharmed. It is my closest call in the mountains. I shudder to think about what would have happened had my leg been broken; a rescue up there could take days. Now I know what bowling pins feel like.
My lower right leg gets stiff and sore, and that slows my progress. We continue down, with the range of motion in my ankle limited. I am knocking shit loose left and right and Phil finally invites me to go first.
Garfield does not let up until you are back at the car. And even then, there is a two mile drive down a badly rutted road. We crossed back over the 'Y Notch' and the 'Key Ledge Traverse'. We made a single rope rappel off the steep section of the 'wooded ramp' and made it back to the 'glade saddle'.
Much of the technical terrain that we'd easily soloed in the morning gave me pause, as I fretted about my leg, and had to accommodate my fatigued body and mind. We lost the faint trail a few times and had to split up to hunt, but we worked well together to stay close on the route.
I don't know what time we made it to the top of the slab, but it was before dark. We made two double rope rappels to the base of the slab at 2900'. There we stopped for a rest and to get our headlamps out. We did make the last of the raps in daylight, but we were benighted as we packed the ropes. With headlamps, we descended the wooded ridge for 400 vertical feet, then reentered the dirt gully. The 400 vertical feet in the gully was hard. At times I couldn't see my feet through the brush and when I could see them it was only because we were on ground that was so loose that nothing could grow.
It was 9:30 PM when we got to the bottom of the gully, at 2100'. For those of you contemplating this route, the base of the dirt gully is the last 'for sure' water on the route. We drank and ate more and looked up at the stars. I was happy that the technical part of the descent was behind us.
We climbed up the slope opposite the dirt gully and promptly lost the trail. After wandering around for twenty minutes Phil got us back on track. We got slightly off a couple more times. Phil, with his Tikka LED headlamp, would stand guard where the trail disappeared, while I wandered around with my halogen headlamp looking for flagging tape or trampled ground. 'Unrelenting' is a very appropriate word to describe Mt. Garfield.
Just after 10:30 the trail led back down to the dry creek bed. We welcomed the cobble for two reasons: It was relatively stable under foot, and it indicated that the car was near. At 11:05 I saw a tail light reflector shining just ahead. We made it.
It was late, but not too late to enjoy a beer and reflect on the day. The Milky Way was faintly visible above, just like the hint of trail we'd been following all day. I poured a day's worth of debris out of my boots.
On the way out we stopped to take a picture of a Middle Fork ornament. Phil tried it out for size.
I got home just after Midnight. I got in the shower to clean out my wounds and was amazed at the amount if debris that had accumulated on my body. Pine needles permeated every crevice on my body, a good handful in total.
I took 800mg of Ibuprofen and my wife squirted liberal quantities of Bactine on my wounds. My bed sure felt good. Zonk.
Want some more? Read Phil's route report here.
Scrumbling: Similar to scrambling, but on loose, frequently brushy terrain, and/or with much less grace. Origin: "MtMikey" <return to story>
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Tuesday, August 30, 2005