Monday, February 13, 2012

Mount Sefrit's West Peak In Winter

     So close to home and yet so hard to get to; that describes Mt. Sefrit, a craggy peak just over 7,000 feet high and just north of Mt. Shuksan.  Bordered by Ruth Creek to the north and the Nooksack River on the south, there is no trail up to Sefrit.  Like so many North Cascade gems it requires off-trail hiking through forest and some brush (less of the latter in winter when its covered by snow).  Several years ago I tried getting up to the main summit from Ruth Creek, but was thwarted by brush, rock slabs, and eventually a waterfall with a big dropoff below.  Winter I decided might be the better time to try the peak.
     That same year in early May I climbed towards Sefrit's East Ridge on skis as part of a three day ski traverse over all the peaks on Ruth Ridge and ending at Ruth Mountain.  It was hot that first day and the huge cornices on Sefrit's East Ridge didn't appear as though they would stay put; I chose to climb the peak another time.

Slopes above Ruth Creek leading to the Nachaktsen/Sefrit Saddle
     This winter we had a good spell of weather before Christmas, but somehow I didn't manage to get out much.  Then in early February another dry spell came along and I made plans to get up Sefrit one way or another.  From a summer scouting trip I discovered that a wooded spur rose above the confluence of Ruth Creek and the Nooksack River, and might be a good way to get up into the high country quickly and directly.  And although Beckey does not describe this approach in his alpine guides; even he doesn't know everything.  There were a few bits of orange flagging from hunters maybe or possibly other climbers?  And as it was June, I ran into snow quickly and didn't have any skis or snowshoes with me.
     Gil Laas had off Saturday Feb. 4th, that is without family commitments, and we made plans for an early start and one day climb of the West Peak.  I'd have liked to tried the main summit (about 300 feet higher and to the east), but the temps were looking very warm.  I figured the recent foot or so of new snow would not remain on the slopes very long in the hot sun.  Getting to the true summit would have involved traversing about a half mile of steep south-facing terrain.  So we planned on the West Peak.

Gil takes a break at 5600 feet on approach to the West Peak
    Once we had hiked about two and half miles of the Hannegan Road to the Nooksack Cirque trailhead, it was all uphill and in the woods.  We chose snowshoes for this little winter adventure, cause I didn't think we could skin much of the spur and would be mostly carrying our boards.  Gil charged on ahead breaking trail as I lauded his fine workmanship.  Our path went straight up and finally popped out on the ridgecrest below the West Peak.  The scenery was of course spectacular; Goat Mountain and Larrabee to the north, Shuksan to the south, and the perfect glistening white symmetry of Mount Baker to the southwest.  A mass of tiny metallic specs blanketed the ski area parking lot, like so many alien devices planted there.  How incongruous they seemed in comparison to the sparkling surroundings and craggy peaks of the backcountry.  And yet it was best for all that they stayed there, and we were up here.
     I dumped my puffy coat and stove into a garbage bag and left it at 5600, where if we needed it, it would be there on the descent.  No matter how fine the weather, I've found it prudent to carry these two items in the mountains in the winter.  Things happen and weather changes. Gill stripped off even more clothes as we were now marching in the sun; we figured it got up to 60 degrees that day.  On up the ridge we marched until the first rocks of the West Peaks Southwest Ridge.

Gil nearing Sefrit's West Peak
          At the first rocks we ditched snowshoes and ski poles, harnessed up, ate a snack and drank.  It was hotter than ever and the trick was to try and skirt the top edges of the steep snowfields, staying close to the rock, and not trigger any slides.  With me first (the senior avalanche poodle), one at a time we crossed the first 50 degree chute sinking into our thighs in places (no crampons today even though we brought them).  A tiny clump of Mountain Hemlocks on an arete between snowfields felt like an island of safety.  Then Gil took over and waded on up another slope to a second clump of trees; higher he could make out the ridgecrest running west to east between the summits.  The way was clear, we just hoped the slopes wouldn't slide.
Gil plows upward toward the ridgecrest
     We ditched our packs on the ridge, slung a boulder for a belay and uncoiled our 35meter 7mm Tendon rope.  It looked as though one lead might just reach the summit.  The pitch had some good bare rock where I place the occasional Stopper or sling, and patches of warm slippery snow over heather.  And although there was a very slight breeze, Gil was belaying in his T-shirt.  Some winter ascent!  At least it looked like winter, as eastward the many jagged spires of Sefrit were cloaked in snow and rime from the last storm.  In the distance Mt. Redoubt, Mt. Challenger and the Pickets were etched against a perfect blue sky.
Gil close to the summit, Sefrit's main summit in the background
     As Gil reached the top to join me, the eastward slopes started sliding in the hot sun.  It was a  place not to be.  We shouted with joy, took some photos, and slung a block for our first rappel.  We had spent seven and a half hours getting up, and still had a long ways to descend before it got dark.
The summit of Sefrit's West Peak with Shuksan and Baker
     Gil paid homage to the great ones; Nooksack and Koma Kulshan.  He thanked them for allowing us to trod on one of their lesser neighbor, and probably would have left behind some sort of human sacrifice if one were available ( a politician, tax collector or developer would have done nicely).  Instead we left a piece of nylon and began our descent.  Back down the even mushier snow, past the Hemlocks, deharnessed at the packs, snowshoes back on, and down the snowy ridge as the evening light washed over Shuksan's grand North Face and Nooksack Tower.

Shuksan in the evening
     It was the end to a fine winter day in the mountains, and I was reminded of the Scottish climber Tom Patey and one of his verses:

                                               Let the pitons rattle as we go to battle.

                                               Sound the ever ringing peal of steel on steel.

                                               Let the happy chink of the old snaplink.

                                               Echo oer the mountains and the snow.