Trip Date: Sunday, June 30 2019
Reference Trip: Three Passes Route
Quick ‘n Dirty Rating: Class 4- you fall, you are badly hurt or die.
Difficulty Notes: A difficult scramble from the west bowl and likely first ascent via the south ridge. Rick Collier ascended from the east via the southeast ridge and called it moderate.
Technical Rating: SC7; RE4/5
GPS Track: Download
Map: Google Maps
After biking, hiking and scrambling for many hours and many kilometers in the past 28 hours or so it was finally time for Phil Richards, Joanna Ford and I to attempt the highlight objective of our so-called “Three Passes” trip on a cloudy, cool July long weekend. So far the weather had been perfect for hiking and backpacking and a little cool for scrambling but with views remaining far reaching despite clouds. Despite a pretty dismal weather forecast, Sunday afternoon was looking to improve on Saturday’s cloud cover by a wide margin. Blue skies were opening up to the north as we started down the Peters Creek trail from where we crossed it after descending Shale Pass to the east.
Sidebar re: Our Route on Condor Peak
Originally our plans had us following Rick Collier’s 1994 trip up both Mount Peters and Condor Peak but due to last minute complications with an upcoming house sale, I had to shorten the trip to 3 days instead of 4. It turns out we weren’t quite following Rick’s route anyhow… Due to the shortening of the trip, we choose to cross Shale Pass instead of Condor Pass and bypass any chance of a shot at the difficult sounding Mount Peters. We could, however, still go for Condor Peak.
In my haste at putting together our route for the weekend, after our original plans were snowed in, I misread Rick’s route up Condor Peak. On hindsight, Phil did too. Because Rick approached Mount Peters from Condor Pass and Forbidden Creek we just assumed that he and Mardy Roberts set up camp somewhere along Peters Creek and ascended Condor from that side too. But they didn’t! It became very clear at some point during our ascent that Rick’s route had to be easier than ours. On coming home and reading it again he clearly ascended the SE ridge rather than the south one. And even more different than ours, his route is accessed from the east from Shale Creek, not the west from Peters Creek.
All of this doesn’t matter in the end, but it does make our story a bit funnier because each time our route looked improbable someone would say, “Rick did it, we can do it too”. Hilarious. One silver lining for us is that we likely did an FA of the west bowl / south ridge unless someone can show me different.
We’d heard rumors of the Peters Creek trail being a bit of a gong show thanks to the 2013 flood event. Apparently it was basically washed out and the route now required multiple creek crossings and fords as well as sections of off-trail travel. In a classic case of overthinking things we took this beta and made it happen rather than do the logical thing which was look harder for the trail when it vanished under our feet in the rocky Peters Creek drainage about 200m from our gear drop. We assumed this was the norm for the Peters Creek “trail” and simply charged off down the creek, trying to find the next obvious trailed section.
We went a few hundred meters which included some willow thrashing before I was tired of this mess. There was no way we’d make Condor Peak’s access drainage at this pace. I had the old trail marked on the east side of the creek and insisted we traverse a few hundred meters over to see if it was still there. Sure enough! It was! We followed a perfectly good trail down along the east side of Peters Creek for the next 3.5 km. Key word is “down”. After losing about 300 meters of vertical elevation we found ourselves under a mostly sunny sky looking up an interesting rocky drainage and the key access to the west bowl and south ridge of Condor Peak.
My first thought as the drainage narrowed dramatically was, “we’re screwed”. I’ve been up enough of these drainages under huge slabby terrain in the Rockies to know that almost all of them have tricky sections requiring hail-Mary bypasses that sometimes work but usually do not. Just one 6 foot waterfall with a deep enough plunge pool underneath and we’d have to turn back. Since we still thought Rick had done this route, we pushed on up the drainage despite our doubts, quickly gaining height on the fun, bouldery terrain. I loved this section of the trip. I could drink from the refreshing creek as I ascended and the terrain was fun – provided I didn’t mind soaking my feet. Every time the canyon narrowed there was a way through – including one potentially deep pool that we just skirted along its edge.
After only 30 minutes of rapid ascent through the tight access drainage I whooped aloud as the giant west bowl under Condor Peak became visible. We’d made it – this far at least! As we kept ascending I noted a nice scree ridge splitting the bowl and leading logically to the south ridge. I caught up to the speedy Phil and Jo and recommended we take the ridge rather than flirt with possible snow on slabs in the originally proposed route up the far bowl which was still out of sight at this point. They agreed and we proceeded to tackle loose scree slopes to the ridge high above. Another 35 minutes and we were on the ridge crest heading for the south ridge – a very easy route up mixed scree and snow now clearly visible.
I was starting to lose some steam thanks to the physical efforts of the past 30 hours by this point. Our family is in the middle of our first house move in over 18 years and the stress is palpable. I only had 5 hours of restless sleep the night before leaving and a maximum of 5 the night before at Tomahawk Pass. I really didn’t even have the time for this trip and last minute complications had almost cancelled it. I felt good enough to continue, but Phil and Jo are obviously on another level of fitness. Thankfully they didn’t mind waiting once in a while for the tired old guy… Phil kicked steps up to the south ridge from the scree ridge and we topped out to some pretty sweet views.
It was already 14:00 as we set off up the south ridge to a distant looking summit. The ridge didn’t look that easy either – narrowing alarmingly and looking like it might stop at a cliff drop-off at any moment. But again, we were taking comfort from Rick’s casual trip report which clearly avoided all difficulties on “climber’s left”. It seemed like the summit was pretty much in the bag. Joanna and Phil reached a high point on the ridge just ahead of me and I could see something wasn’t kosher. Instead of just dipping over the edge as they had numerous times before, they were walking back and forth and peering down the sides and nose of the ridge. As I got closer I heard Phil say we were likely turning back at this point.
Bummer dude! We’d come a long damn way and gone through a crapload of heartbeats only to turn back 75 vertical meters and a relatively easy snow slope from the top of this remote peak! Indeed however, when I looked over the nose of the ridge it didn’t look great. The situation reminded me a little of Wietse and my adventure on Mount Brewster back on 2016. At first I thought I spied a route down the nose but after trying it I realized only the bottom half would likely go. The top half was simply too loose and exposed. I was busy recommending a 200-300m height loss bypass down a steep and loose west face under the ridge when Phil offered to give a narrow downsloping ledge he and Jo had spotted a try.
I followed Phil down the terrifically exposed “ledge” (really more of an “edge”) gripping the most solid holds that we could find. Don’t misunderstand that last bit. There were ZERO solid holds. Some of them were just more solid (i.e. less loose) than others. Joanna watched us descend and decided she’d sit this one out. I don’t want to exaggerate but I cannot recommend anyone take this route unless they somehow find a decent anchor and rope up for it or rappel the nose. As we approached the nose of the ridge Phil spotted the line I’d seen from above and we both somewhat awkwardly negotiated the final slightly less deadly 15 feet of the downclimb onto a massive cornice below. I temporarily thought things were going to get really bad when Phil dislodged a volley of rocks from his downclimb but thankfully they were tertiarary to his most important holds. It did highlight the seriousness of this terrain however.
As I exited onto the cornice, I looked up at Joanna right above me – she decided to join us despite her first impressions. Yes. In case you were wondering, our exit from the crux was onto a giant cornice. The cornice was big enough to hold us but again, probably not a highly recommended thing to do on any mountain, anywhere. We quickly descended knee to waist deep snow back onto the south ridge proper and onto the easy summit slope, breathing huge sighs of relief. Now, as I sit here typing this report I am doing the armchair quarterbacking thing on our decisions. Was it really worth the risk? I’m not sure. I never am, truth be told. But it is what it is and we made it this time – again.
With a rush of adrenaline from the crux we quickly made the summit and by 14:30 we were enjoying some of the best views of the trip. In an extra (positive) twist we opened the summit register to realize we were the first party to sign in the 25 years since Rick rebuilt the cairn and placed the register and quite probably the 3rd ascent party since 1918 to summit this obscure peak. We also started to realize we’d come up a different route than him but decided not to dwell on this fact until later. Once again Phil and I named peaks Jo had never heard of. Once again, familiar peaks such as Willingdon, McConnell, Recondite and others looked much different from the east than the usual sightlines from the west. We signed the register and started thinking about our return route.
Initially I was pushing for a descent down a huge scree / snow bowl directly under the summit to the west. When Phil pointed out the choked, slabby terrain further down I backed off the idea and agreed that it was likely best to simply climb the crux and get it done and over with. I wasn’t scared (despite being called so by Jo! ) but I was concerned about spending more time on that terrain than absolutely necessary. I think my concern eventually got to the others but we were running out of time now and getting cold in the brisk summit breeze. We made a decision to ascend the crux and went for it. As usual, climbing up the tricky terrain was much easier than descending it blind, but it was deceptively loose and exposed nonetheless. I was happy to be done with it – put it this way.
The rest of the descent back to Peters Creek was fast and easy, first on snow and then on scree to the rocky drainage. The drainage was warm and pleasant and it was fun to descend the easy terrain and ponder our exciting and quite possibly FA of the south ridge. Once back along Peters Creek it was time to ascend ~4km and 300 vertical meters to our heavy backpacks. Thankfully we followed the trail all the way back, realizing where we’d lost it earlier and correcting that mistake this time around.
Our day was not yet over when we once again shouldered our overnight packs and headed up towards Divide Pass.