High Chiwaukum Traverse
September 2-6, 2016
By Jim Brisbine
Big McWaukum Peak
Big Chiwaukum Peak
Big Chiwaukum Peak
Unsettled weather over Labor Day Weekend sent many of us scrambling for alternative trips. Eileen and I ended up doing a high alpine traverse through the Chiwuakum Mountains, hoping for better conditions. We had both spent several decades exploring the many nooks and crannies of the Chiwuakums, and this traverse served as a way to connect some of our favorite locations, such as Larch Lake, Grace Lakes, Ewing Basin, and the High Meadows of the Scottish Lakes. It also gave us access to the five principal summits of the Chiwaukum crest: Big McWaukum Peak (7423’), Deadhorse Peak (7534’), Big Chiwaukum Peak (8081’), Snowgrass Mountain (7993’), and Ladies Peak (7708’). Along the way, we were able to tuck in the three peaks that we hadn’t both climbed before.
Day 1: Our trip started by stashing mountain bikes at the Whitepine Creek TH, then driving over to the Lake Ethel TH. We headed up the well-maintained trail in the late afternoon. It was cool, windy, and a bit rainy during our 5-mile hike to Lake Ethel. We found a spacious and spotlessly clean campsite nestled in deep forest near the lake shore.
Day 2: Our second day began with partly clear skies and morning sun on the lake. This gave us some hope that the weather was improving, but it turned out to be a false hope.
We packed up and followed the trail toward a knoll above the lake, then went cross-country to reach a 6000-foot saddle between Lake Ethel and Loch Eileen. The former lake features a large, distinctive boulder sitting by itself out in the water, as can be seen in the photo below.
Several small cairns and faint boot tracks led easily through a short cliff band beyond the Ethel-Eileen Saddle. Soon we were strolling through the beautiful rock-and-larch gardens of High Meadows.
We wandered southward, crossing under the open slopes of Mt. Baldy and ending up at 6640-foot McWaukum Pass. This pass marks the “T” intersection of McCue Ridge and the Chiwaukum crest. Moody clouds created an interesting scene around us.
Big McWaukum Peak is a straight-forward ascent from McWaukum Pass, so we dropped packs and headed up the east ridge. The metamorphic geology throughout the Chiwaukum Mountains leads to some striking topography, as seen here. One side of this ridge is a uniform slope, whereas the other side drops off in a series of vertical steps and overhangs. Don’t try this one in the dark!
Everything to the west was fogged in, but we could see beautiful Larch Lake—our eventual goal for the day—to the south.
After returning to McWaukum Pass, we descended a Class 2 ramp that spilled us out on a broad scree slope above Ewing Basin. Rather than dropping southward directly into the basin, we decided to traverse over to historic Ewing Mine located on the western side of the basin.
The mine has a well-preserved tunnel heading into the cliff. Someone with a pair of rubber boots and a bright headlamp could have a lot of fun exploring this tunnel.
It had been threatening to rain all day, and by late afternoon the drops came aplenty. We finished our hike into Larch Lake on a wet trail. Surprisingly, nobody else was camped at this popular lake.
Day 3: The rains subsided overnight, and we awoke to colorful, partly sunny skies.
Morning alpenglow lit up Deadhorse Peak above our camp……and Big McWaukum Peak off to the north.
We broke camp and started hiking toward Cup Lake, a short distance above Larch Lake. The meadows seemed particularly lush and green, both up valley…
…and down valley.
Above Cup Lake, loose talus slopes ended at a 7360-foot saddle overlooking the huge Glacier Creek cirque.
From Cup Lake Saddle, we could see the long, jagged crest of Big Chiwaukum Peak.
Snowgrass Mountain and Ladies Peak were visible farther to the south. A skiff of fresh snow covered many of the highest pinnacles.
The upper portion of the cirque is a wonderland of glacially polished rock, heather benches, and sparkling tarns. This place cries out for a high camp.
The Chiwaukum schist here exhibits incredibly artistic textures, with convoluted bands of colorful minerals.
We dropped our packs below the cliffs of Big Chiwaukum Peak and headed up with light climbing gear, initially following a left-slanting ramp. This ramp provided an easy Class 1-2 route through the cliffs until just below the ridge crest, at which point we encountered a steep dihedral gully. One roped pitch of very exposed Class 4 climbing got us past the gully and onto the crest.
Easier scrambling on the west side of the ridge brought us below the steep summit pinnacle. Despite the intimidating appearance, there is a reasonable Class 3 route up the pinnacle.
From the summit, we looked down on Grace Lakes, our intended campsite at day’s end. Smooth slopes appeared to provide a direct route down to the lakes, but our backpacks were on the other side of the mountain. Furthermore, one of our goals for this trip was to find a reasonable east-west ridge crossing.
Big Chiwaukum Peak’s summit register dates back to 1975 and was placed by the Alpine Roamers from Wenatchee. The register is contained in a venerable “Roamers tube,” which is proudly made of Alcoa aluminum. Not many of these are left in the mountains. A party of two had signed in just a few hours ahead of us that day (we had seen them on the summit ridge earlier).
A frigid wind and dark skies chased us off the summit sooner than we wanted. We descended via our up-route, retrieved our backpacks, and continued traversing southward. A long, gently sloping snow ramp served nicely as a “white sidewalk” for much of our way down to a prominent rock buttress.
We rounded the buttress, then curved back up to the northwest to gain a 7720-foot saddle closely south of Point 7804. This was the “Snowaukum Pass” that we’d hoped to find between Snowgrass Mountain and Big Chiwaukum Peak. It provides a good east-west route across the main crest. Inviting tundra and talus slopes led readily down to Upper Grace Lake, where we pitched our tent on a gravel bench.
Day 4: Cold fog moved through intermittently all night and into the morning. During a clear period, we scoped out a route up a narrow talus chute ending at a col just north of Point 7955. This chute turned out to be loose and unpleasant, but it effectively got us to 7560-foot “Grace Col” and back over to the eastern side of the crest.
We traversed in a southeasterly direction above Lake Charles until due south of the lake, then we turned right and ascended to a 7480-foot saddle.
The southern side of the saddle has a high, vertical cliff that blocks passage. However, a good ledge system leads off to the west across the top of the cliff. Several cairns and ducks along the way indicated that this is probably a common route to Lake Charles.
Once off the cliff, we began a long traverse over to Ladies Peak at the far side of another large cirque. Despite the distance, a series of heather benches made for enjoyable travel here.
Our traverse route took us above Lake Flora and Lake Brigham, two of the Chiwaukums’ finer gems.
When directly below Ladies Peak, we headed straight up the east face to gain a saddle high on the southeastern ridge. This ridge extends down to Ladies Pass, and a well-traveled climber’s path runs from pass to summit.
From the summit, we could see Lake Mary—our final campsite for the trip—and nearby Lake Margaret. The views were tantalizing, but an icy gale once again chased us off the summit before we were ready.
We descended delightful grassy slopes to the southwest and eventually intersected the hiking trail where it crosses over Mary’s Pass. We hurried down to Lake Mary, arriving scant minutes before dark.
Day 5: It rained steadily for much of the night but stopped just before dawn. We packed up for the last time and hiked over to Frosty Pass, then continued down the Wildhorse Trail. By the time we reached the trailhead and retrieved our mountain bikes, the weather had turned warm and sunny. A 6.5-mile bike ride down to US-2 and back up to the Lake Ethel TH completed our splendid five-day adventure.
Approximate Total Stats: 28 miles traveled on foot; 12,500 feet gained; 12,100 feet lost.
Skill and Fitness Level: 3
Map: The map below shows our route, campsites, and summits.