Sloan has a little of everything – stream crossings, scrambling up all sorts of rock, glacier travel, bushwhacking, route-finding, and spectacular views from the summit. It’s sometimes described as the “Matterhorn of the Cascades” because of its distinctive profile. I first saw Sloan from a peak near Stevens Pass and thought it would be a cool climb. The normal route is the “Corkscrew” route, which Beckey estimates taking around 13 hours from the trailhead. I’m sure that’s possible with a fit and very efficient team, but I’ve learned to add about 20% to Beckey’s estimates for mere mortals. It took us 15.5 hours.
The trail starts with three river crossings across pieces of the north fork of the Sauk River. When we did it, the crossings were on fallen logs and weren’t too sketchy, though I can easily imagine this being a more formidable obstacle if the water level is high. As we were doing it, I kept saying to myself, “Man, I hope we don’t have to do this in the dark…” I managed to completely submerge my right foot twice, requiring me to stop and wring out my sock each time. Ugghhh…
The trail is pretty overgrown – lots of fallen logs, Devil’s Club, and creek-crossings – but when we did it there were relatively frequent flags showing the route. At first I thought the flags were annoying and detracted from the more pure wilderness route-finding experience you’d otherwise have, but I was very happy to have them on the way down. The trail ascends somewhat steeply to the first crossing of Cougar Creek, next to a spectacular cascading waterfall.
Ascending about 3000′ from the road, you come out of the trees and onto a big snow and rock covered slope. We ascended up by easy scrambling to a snowfield, put on crampons, and ascended up and across to the glacier. This trip I was experimenting for the first time carrying a 3 liter water bladder in my pack instead of my usual 2.5 liter water bottles. The bladder is lighter, fits more naturally into the pack, allows you to drink more consistently, but of course makes it hard to judge how much water you have left.
By the time we got to the first snow field, I had already drank down my 2.5 liters and had to refill from another person in our party who had extra before we all stopped to pump. After once being very dehydrated on a climb, I now drink copious amounts of water – it both keeps your athletic performance where it should be and also just makes you happier! If someone gets cranky on a climb, my first reaction is to give them water…that often solves the problem. But staying fully hydrated on a strenuous climb is difficult, if not impossible, and you need to weigh the benefits with the drawbacks of carrying additional weight and the time it takes to pump. I often add a Nuun tablet to my water as well, to help keep the electrolytes balanced.
We ate lunch at the start of the glacier, roped up, and crossed. On the Corkscrew route, you go to the upper-SW corner of the glacier and exit onto a rocky ridge with a clear trail. When we did it, there were a few crevasses, but nothing too overwhelming. The glacier wasn’t too steep, but enough for me to protect with a picket when we would travel above one of the crevasses.
We cached some gear at the corner of the glacier and proceeded on the trail. You literally “corkscrew” around the peak until you reach a loose rock filled gully. Going up that, you hit some Class 3 and 4 scrambling, but the rock quality is very good and grippy, with plenty of fine holds. We brought our 30 meter rope but never ended up using it.
The summit views are spectacular, almost surreal. It never ceases to amaze me that these scenes of pristine alpine beauty are only two hours outside of Seattle! We summited at 2 PM, 8 hours after starting. I thought we moved reasonably well, not taking a huge amount of time for breaks and lunch, but still it’s a long slog. 6200′ in a day is no joke and takes a solid level of fitness and endurance.
The descent back onto the glacier was actually easier than going up. The biggest hazard was rockfall, so we went one-by-one down the chute. Once we were back on the glacier, we opted to descend much farther on easy snow to avoid having to scramble down the rocky slabs that we came up on. If you go NNE and aim for the left-hand side of an obvious and cliffy ridge, there’s a well worn trail. Of course, by then we were all out of water, which just makes everything harder. Once we were off of the glacier, we had another rock scramble down a crumbly slope, after which we finally pumped at a stream. It’s amazing how fresh water, a powerbar, and a Cliff Double Espresso gel can improve your entire outlook! From there, we rejoined the trail for the long slog back down. By the time we got back to the river, we had headlamps on, and re-crossing those log bridges in the dark was…interesting. Add to that a pretty serious level of fatigue and soreness and you really want to be careful. There’s no shame in the Butt-Scoot…
There were a few lessons learned for me on the trip:
1. I’d suggest starting at 5 AM and moving as efficiently as possible to avoid having to travel with headlamps on the way down. Even better, there were some really nice campsites along the way. I think a two day climb of Sloan would be pretty comfortable!
2. I need tons of water on a strenuous climb. Next time I’d pump earlier so I wouldn’t get as dehydrated on the way down. It’s certainly a time-suck to pump, but I think this is justified by being happier and stronger.
3. I chafed the hell out of my thighs and ankles. The same thing happened the previous weekend on an overnight backpack – something about my skin being in long-term contact with wet, salty clothing doesn’t agree with me. By the time we got back, it was really painful and I was totally gimp-ified. It was a relief to put on normal shorts and sandals! I was surprised by this since I’ve wore the very same stuff on my 30-day NOLS trip without too much trouble. Maybe it was the sheer duration of this particular climb… So I ordered synthetic, tight-fitting, moisture-wicking shorts (amazing what there is in clothing technology these days), better socks, and BodyGlide, which I’ve seen people use on marathons. I’ll try it on my feet, ankles, and legs to see if it makes a difference.
4. I tried a new pack for this trip – the First Ascent Alchemist 40. I’d been using two packs – a 105L Lowe Alpine Contour IV and a hand-me-down 47L Kelty Redwing. The Lowe Alpine pack was my NOLS pack that I’ve had for 15+ years. It’s super-durable, huge, and reliable. But as the trend in mountaineering is towards lighter and faster, it’s actually hard to find these gigantic packs anymore. For a one day trip, even with rope, rack, water, etc., it’s massive overkill. Because it’s only partly filled, it doesn’t ride well at all. And of course it weighs a ton. The Kelty pack is also super-durable, but is still a bit large for a one-day trip and wasn’t really meant for carrying rope, pickets, ice axe, and the like – it’s more for backpacking around Europe. The Alchemist is a bit on the heavy side and had a bunch of features, which was actually a disadvantage in my eyes (features = failure-points). I was tempted by the Osprey Hornet 46, which weighs a mere .46 kg, but you aren’t really supposed to carry more than 30 lbs. in it. As soon as you add rope, rack, pro, harness, and the like, you easily pushing into that range, so that pack wouldn’t really work for climbing. I settled on the Alchemist because it expands from 40 to 55 liters, has a built-in bivy/sit pad, and is designed around climbing. I was pretty happy with it – my gear fit easily inside (I didn’t use my normal trash compactor bag to waterproof, since it seems like the pack is reasonably waterproof already) and it’s easy to quickly lash on a rope, stow/deploy your ice axe, and clip on pickets. I also didn’t have any back fatigue at all after the trip, which was a big problem with my other packs – I think the Alchemist distributes the weight pretty well.
The one big problem I had, though, was that the quick-release ice axe/tool straps (in theory letting you grab your axe/tool without someone else’s help) were waaaay…too…quick-to-release! I re-attached my axe at least ten times when it would snap off while crawling under a tree. That’s a big problem for any sort of alpine-style climbing when you’re bushwhacking through forest, as you could accidentally leave your axe back on the trail… I’m fixing it by putting the axe through the quick release loop itself, which isn’t how it was meant to be used, but that’s a hell of a lot better than worrying about losing the axe! The other problem I had was the low-padding belt strap. With shorts, this can really eat into your skin and I had an angry-looking red rash after the climb just from the waist strap. It’s best to wear something else between the belt and your skin.
Sloan is a great peak for a real alpine experience, and offers a bit of everything. There are a number of rock variations you can do as well to get to the summit. For me, I’ll probably do it as a two day trip in the future, just because I like a more leisurely pace and would rather carry overnight gear to a base camp than push through all in one day. The views on a clear day are unbeatable.
Gallery photos courtesy of Alixandra Lamsa.