(Photo above: The Flagpole)
Articles and photos by John Plotz
Four years ago Kyle Flick, Steve Tift and I took two days to approach the Flagpole by hiking up Ingalls Creek trail then up the Crystal Creek drainage just below and east of Little Annapurna. This lengthy approach left us exhausted and rattled that by the time we got to the base of the Flagpole, we were tired, nervous and thankfully just about out of daylight. We shelved this one-pitch climb on an exposed finger of granite for a future date.
Recently I came across a photo of Little Annapurna and the Flagpole by the venerable aerial photographer, John Scurlock, which revealed to me a quick and seemingly easy approach to the climb by way of a short gulley that cleaves Little Annapurna’s main summit and its west buttress. I’m ever fascinated by cramming as much adventure into a day as is humanly possible, I immediately interpret this photo as my ticket to climbing the Flagpole in a 24 hour period. I knew the Flagpole was unfinished business for Kyle, and he was as enthused to add this climb to his extensive alpine resume.
There were a few unknowns about this climb. One, the bolt hangars on the climb (Flagpole is a bolt-ladder climb) would not take traditional carabiners. But would they take neutrinos (Black Diamond’s smallest carabiner)? Also, what did the anchor on top look like? Was it reliable for a rappel? What would we do if the anchor was not sound? Our packs with our climbing gear would be heavy enough–we didn’t want to include a bolt kit too. We decided we would cross that bridge when we came to it…
At 4:30a.m. we shouldered unreasonably heavy packs, and set off up the Stuart Lake trail to Colchuck Lake. This represented Kyle’s fourth trip to the area this year, and my third. We could have done it blindfolded. As always, we reached the lake in about 2 1/2 hours, and the top of Aasgard 1 1/2 hours later. The forecast predicted a 40 percent chance of precipitation, but we stayed dry the whole day and actually climbed in sunshine. What we did encounter was a cold, relentless wind, usually gusting to 20-plus mph. The climb had a western aspect, so we were exposed to this chilling wind the whole time.
We reached our descent gulley west of Little Annapurna and dropped about 800 feet to just below the slope that would take us to the roped climbing. We reascended about 1,000 feet to about 300 feet below the Flagpole. It’s immediately recognizeable as a solitary finger of granite which Fred Beckey says is, “visited by more birds than humans.”
We roped up and climbed two short pitches to a small notch just below the Flagpole. Again, there was no respite from the wind as I made my way up the pedestal at the start of the climbing. Gaining this pedestal, one peers over on the east side. The exposure and remoteness of this climb became apparent here as I peered a thousand vertical feet down the east face.
(This photo and next: On The Flagpole)
At the first bolt, I had to cut old webbing from the hangar. Kyle later mused that it was probably the webbing that he placed there when he and Freeman Keller attempted the Flagpole about eight years ago. I struggled with my composure as the strong wind threatened to toss me over the void and as I cut the webbing free. I unsuccessfully tried to fit a Neutrino into the hangar. The hole was too small. I ended up girth hitching my own cord into the hangars, and also used my wired rivet hangars which also worked well. I moved slowly from bolt to bolt in my aiders, getting into the rhythm of aid climbing praying that the old bolts wouldn’t blow out on me.
I got to within about 15 feet of the top, and after the eighth bolt, there was a wide crack that I had no idea how to climb. I certainly didn’t have gear big enough to protect it. I placed a stopper behind a flake to get a better look around the corner and before I knew what was happening, was flying through the air. I had time to think that I was now going to test these old bolts the hard way! I came to a soft stop by Kyle’s reliable belay. I realized the flake where I had placed the stopper had blown out as soon as I put weight on it. It had gone flying down and landed a couple feet away from where Kyle was sitting. That was the good news. The bad news was that it landed right on our pile of ropes, nearly severing them in various spots.
(Photo below: The offending rock)
Kyle lowered me and we carefully inspected every inch of both ropes. We found maybe five core shots and had to cut the ropes several times to make them functional enough to rappel back down. Kyle mentioned that moments before my fall he had been sitting exactly where the rock landed, which was roughly the size of a large serving plate with sharp edges. We agreed that had he been hit by the rock any rescue would have been difficult at best given our remote location and the elements.
(Below: View from Little Annapurna)
We humbly gathered our gear and made our exit out the snow couloir just west of Little Annapurna’s summit. Once on top of the couloir we ran over and tagged the summit of Little Annapurna. From there it was an easy hike to Aasgard Pass, and quick snow plunging down the last remaining snow of the pass down to the lake. At the lake we had that strange sensation that something was missing: The wind! We enjoyed the calm silence of the lake, only broken by intermittent voices of backpackers camping for the night. We hiked the last bit of trail back to the car, reaching it by 11:30 p.m., totally spent, but with a renewed respect for the sometimes precarious games we play in the mountains.
Naturally that respect is not enough to deter us from going back. Soon. But on a sunny, windless day. And with lighter packs.
- We spent 19 hours on the approach and attempted climb.
- Northwest Forest Pass required to park at the trailhead.
- The approach is very straightforward as you can see from the with line drawn on the photo below, but is probably best done in the spring when it’s snow covered. Othewise, it would entail much scree surfing and might be difficult to knock-off in a day. Without the snow you could do it as a comfy two-day trip, but where’s the suffering in that?
- John Scurlock’s link to his aerial photo of Annapurna.
- Our rack was way overkill considering the hard climbing is a bolt-ladder. Carry a light alpine rack to 3.5 inches. However, add a #6 Camalot for the wide-crack finish–otherwise I don’t know how to protect that last part.
- Other gear: headlamp, helmets, stick clip for the reach between the 5th and 6th bolt. I have a very long reach and could barely make this clip while top stepping.
- Right now (June 2008), all the bolts are nicely threaded with brand new, reliable cord and rivet hangers, so the small hanger holes are a non-issue. After these slings have weathered, you’ll want tie-offs and rivet hangers on your rack or you’re not climbing the Flagpole.
- Regarding the anchor at the top for the rappel, we didn’t find any new beta about its age or quality. The anchor used to be a single, old bolt and it would be safest to assume the anchor is unreliable and that you should carry a bolt kit. New beta about the top anchors is listed below in the Epilogue.
- Epilogue (the information below was added one week after the original post was written). We finished the Flagpole finally. We approched on the west side of the W. Buttress of Little Annapurna on class 3 ledges. It was very straightforward. No rappeling, no exposed areas, and completely free of snow. We did have to cross a steepish snow slope at the end of this gully, but it wasn’t too bad. On the route, Kyle led up on the gear that we left behind, so it went much quicker. Plus, it was a gorgeous, windless day. We brought a #6 Camalot to protect the wide crack finish. This worked out great. Once on the arete there is a bolt that protects the final 5.7 moves to the summit. On the summit, there’s a rusty 1/4″ bolt, a solid knifeblade and a brand new 3/8″ bolt. So, the top anchor seemed solid, plus we left a locker and sling to back up the existing webbing and rappel rings. On the return, we scrambled back up the the S. Face of Little Annapurna, and climbed a route that was two pitches of 5.8 on excellent rock with fun climbing right to the summit.
Leave It Better than You Found It. This should be every user’s goal. Pick up trash left by others, pull noxious weeds along your route, throw branches over unwanted spur trails, etc.
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