Eagle Peak, Northwest Buttress

Trip Report

Eagle Peak (9340', in the Sir Donald Group at Rogers Pass), Aug 9-11, 2001.
Northwest Buttress (done first in 1972 by D Jones, solo)
Old guidebook (Fox) rating: Grade II-III, 5.7.
New guidebook (Jones) rating: Grade IV, 5.7; 7 hours from road to summit.

Personnel: Stan Wagon, 50, Silverthorne, Colo.
                  David Nebel, 54, Estacada, Oregon
                  Katie Larson, 36, Montezuma, Colo.
Background: We had just gotten spanked badly on our primary objective, the NE Ridge of Bryce. A mudslide blocked the logging road two miles from the end. We shouldered our loads and went in gamely, but the longer approach was too much, and we camped halfway up the steep slope to the proper camp. We decided not to move camp and tried for the central summit only from our camp, but we were intimidated by the route and the general terrain. We did glimpse the true summit towering over us, and I now have immense respect for James Jones, who pioneered the N Face with a very long approach back in 1972 and for Joe McKay, who did the first winter ascent of the route we were on in 1990.

So we cut our losses and headed to our secondary objective, the NW Buttress of Eagle at Rogers Pass. From the older guide it seemed appropriate for a team of three. But the new guide rates it a grade IV (equal to, say, Snowpatch Spire), and perhaps a team of three is not such a good idea on a Grade IV rock climb. But we persisted.

The hike to Avalanche Crest was great and the campsite a beauty. Camping is disallowed there now (Joan and I had camped there years ago) unless the party is doing two summits. Since we planned to use our extra day for Avalanche Peak, that worked for us. The warden said the route was challenging, we would have to move fast, and that there were 8-10 pitches. The campsite (7300') is unsurpassed for alpine beauty: beautiful meadows and great views of all the peaks and glaciers of this very historic region of the Selkirks surrounding Rogers Pass. We had a good look at the climb, which can be called a face climb as it goes straight up the NW face of Eagle, and it looked adequately broken up to be not too difficult.

August 10: Up at 5, moving by 6:15, starting roped climbing at 7:45. The first pitch was tricky. I tried left but failed, then tried right and made it work, but it was hard: a committing 5.7+ layback flake. I belayed my partners and attacked the second pitch. That too was hard, a subtle finger traverse again at the 5.7 level. When all three of us had finished these two short pitches it was 10 a.m.: David observed that we would surely be benighted if we continued. Well, the weather was absolutely perfect -- not a cloud in sight -- and who knows, the climbing might get easier. So on we went.

Pitch 3. Easy. Some fifth class. Found some old rap slings, fixed nuts, one piton in this general area. So we seem to be on route.
Pitch 4. Some easy 5.6.
Pitches 5 and 6. Easy, some fifth class. To big ledge.
Pitch 7: Some 5.7.
Pitch 8: Easy, some fifth class.
Pitch 9: Very hard: I found a devious route around a blank obstacle that involved swinging. I had to grab a nut to do it, but it was pretty controlled, and I guess I could have done it without the nut, and I call it 5.8. Partners took small tension.
Pitch 10: A very difficult dihedral that I could not lead with my pack. I left the pack and managed it, grabbing one sling. Again, it probably would go at 5.8. It seems possible we were off-route on these two pitches, as there might have been an easier way around to the right. But if you try a complicated 5.7 route you had better be prepared for a little 5.8.
Pitch 11: Very easy. Class 3.
Pitches 12: 5.4 I made a bad mistake here, putting two nuts in to create a zigzag that made it nearly impossible to pull the rope through.
Pitches 13, 14. Loose but easy, small amounts of class 5.

So overall we had 14 belayed pitches, with five of them at 5.7 or more. I led them all since I was in a groove after the first couple and had plenty of rest time as my partners came up. The protection was great throughout. Katie was in the middle and climbed well (she had double knee surgery in March). She would arrange the rack and ropes as David climbed up, so we were reasonably efficient. There were no falls by anyone.

At pitch 12 we looked up and were surprised to see a para-glider above us in the sky. He had apparently come through the Uto-Sir Donald col and most likely started from Golden. A very bold flight! Also illegal I think, since he was now in Glacier Park.

Well, we were rushing now as it was 7 pm. The top of pitch 14 put us on the easy N Ridge route, perhaps 100 feet of scrambling below the summit. But, laboring under the delusion that we could get off the mountain by dark and then back to camp by headlamps, we skipped the summit and headed down. But this was slow, with some belaying. At 10:30 we found ourselves at Eagle Col, just at the bottom of the N Ridge route, but above the descent from the col to the valley.

Our site was cool: A flat spot between the ridge and the start of the gigantic Avalanche Glacier. My only other unplanned bivouac was on Sir Donald 20 years ago, and we spent that night on ice. Rock is much warmer! We had food and water, used the ropes for insulation, and settled in to watch the moon cross the sky. I did get a little sleep (maybe 30 minutes at most). We all had long underwear, fleece, and rain jackets, so though there was some shivering, it wasn't too bad. Air temperature was probably 38 degrees.

The view from the site was interesting, as Uto and Sir Donald appear as very steep spires to the south.

Finally Venus and Jupiter showed up, and then the sun. We stayed until the sun was on us (6:40), and then headed down. Unfortunately, we were not at the exact best place for descent, and it took one short rappel to get off the rock and onto the scree. Well, that was acceptable, but where we were on the scree was atrocious. The rock was totally unstable; I have never been on a looser scree slope. Each step would send rocks flying down. Of course, we traversed for safety, but one batch I loosed had one wayward rock that flew sideways after a bounce heading right toward Katie. She turned to see a large rock whiz by just above her shoulder.

Back at camp at 9:40 am, pasta for breakfast, rested a bit, and then spent 12-2 descending the steep trail. Comparing the guidebook time of 7 hours car-to-summit to ours of 28 hours, camp-to-camp, one might think we were pathetically slow. But it sure didn't feel like it. It was a big effort and though the rock  is not as spectacular as Snowpatch Spire, the route provides a fine example of hard climbing in a mountain environment, and on a face that is in a spectacular position.

Final stats: The climbing route is 450 meters (almost 1500 feet), and from a map I deduce the overall angle of the face to be 59 degrees.  For comparison, the W Face of Sir Donald is 52.5 degrees.


Eagle Peak at Sunset

High on the Route

Bivouac Site

Avalanche Crest Camp

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