Leroy—Carne Loop on Ice
by Jim Brisbine
Seven-Fingered Jack (9100’)
North Spectacle Butte (8080’+)
October 4-7, 2017
For our annual Golden Larch Trip this year, Doug, Fay, Lisa, Steve, Deb, Brian, and Eileen joined me on the very popular Leroy—Carne Loop in the Entiat Mountains. We included a side trip to beautiful Ice Lakes and managed to tuck in some nice peaks along the way. The larch trees were close to being at their peak of golden color, and the weather started out pleasantly autumnal. But all of that was overshadowed by the incredible blizzard most of us experienced while camped at Upper Ice Lake on Friday night. It was a storm of near-biblical proportions that none of us survivors will ever forget.
DAY 1: We drove up the Chiwawa River Road to the Phelps Creek Trailhead on Wednesday morning. There were numerous cars in the parking lot, and we immediately bumped into our friends Dave and Milda, who were headed into Ice Lakes via Carne Mountain. Our group was headed to the same place, but we were entering from the north via Leroy Basin. We donned backpacks and hiked the 6 miles into the basin under sunny skies, arriving in mid-afternoon (4.2 hours from trailhead). There was time to do some exploration of the basin and check out the larch color. It appeared that we were about a week early for prime color; some trees were bright gold, whereas others were only green-gold.
From our camp in Leroy Basin, we could gaze directly up at the summit crags of Seven-Fingered Jack—our objective for tomorrow morning.
DAY 2: We awoke at 5:30am and were on the move with summit packs just after sunrise. Our plan was to climb the northwest ridge of Seven-Fingered Jack, so we headed north to the 7700-foot col separating Leroy Creek and Big Creek. Views of Buck Mountain and other peaks to the west were excellent in the clear October air.
We soon reached the Big-Leroy Col (1.5 hours from camp), which marks the bottom of the northwest ridge. Steve and I had previously climbed this route in past decades but somehow managed to forget that it starts at a steep face of rotten volcanic breccia or tuff. Whatever the rock type, it was enough to make Lisa, Deb, Doug, Steve, and Eileen retreat back to the more-standard west slope route. Meanwhile, Fay and Brian and I decided to take our chances with the steep face. It began with an exposed Class 3 ledge system but soon eased off to Class 2-3 scrambling with only moderate exposure.
The upper part of the west ridge served up some very interesting Class 3 scrambling around numerous horns and pinnacles, but Brian decided to turn around near the midpoint. Eventually, Fay and I rejoined our west slope comrades and continued upward together.
We topped out in late morning (4.6 hours from camp) and enjoyed the calm summit for nearly an hour. Eileen had carried up Ed Miller’s memorial traveling register to leave for future parties.
Views included the incredible north face of Mt. Maude to the south, the Stuart Range farther to the south and Entiat Meadows directly below.
We headed back down to Leroy Basin by way of the expansive southwest slope. Once back at camp, we packed up and headed south on the Carne Mountain High Route, following the old sheepherder’s trail up to 6900-foot Leroy Pass.
The pass offered us one last look back at Seven-Fingered Jack and Leroy Basin before we turned east and left the trail.
Faint footpaths led up heather, talus, and scree to 7600-foot Ice Lakes Pass. Late-afternoon shadows were stretching across Upper Ice Lake just as we arrived at the pass. We hurried down to the lake and set up camp on some conveniently flat—but very exposed—pumice terraces (2.9 hours from Leroy Basin).
DAY 3: After a comfortable night of being lightly buffeted by mountain breezes, we awoke to a gorgeous sunrise over Spectacle Buttes. Or should I call them “Spectacular Buttes”?
Upper Ice Lake was strikingly beautiful in an austere, lunar-esque fashion. I think that if the moon had lakes and larch trees, it would look very similar to this. Pink clouds streaked across the western sky and alpenglow lit up Mt. Maude.
During breakfast, Steve, Deb, and Brian announced that they would break camp and head out today, adding a climb of Mt. Maude along the way. Lisa, Doug, Fay, Eileen, and I, on the other hand, decided to make a day trip over to Spectacle Buttes. We began with a traverse around the shore of Upper Ice Lake.
We then dropped down to Lower Ice Lake, which has a user-friendly shoreline and an inviting larch-studded island. At the lower lake, Lisa and Doug veered off to climb North Spectacle Butte, whereas Fay, Eileen, and I proceeded in the direction of South Spectacle Butte. This involved a short descent into the Ice Creek valley, then a traverse below the north butte. We crossed over the top of a huge erosion gully along the way.
An ascent through a high larch basin ended at 7300-foot Spectacle Col, between the two buttes. Beckey’s original Cascade Alpine Guide indicates that South Spectacle Butte can be readily climbed from this col, so we were game to give it a whirl. The first 600 feet was straightforward and enjoyable, but we soon encountered an impassable notch at 7900 feet. After several attempts to get beyond the notch, we reluctantly decided to retreat and traverse over to North Spectacle Butte.
We contoured around the eastern side of the north butte, then scrambled up the northeast ridge, arriving on the summit in late afternoon (7.0 hours from camp). The skies had been growing dark and ominous throughout the afternoon, and a light snow started to fall just as we left the summit.
We raced down the peak’s west ridge, dropped into Lower Ice Lake, then hiked back up to our camp at Upper Ice Lake. Gusty winds spit graupel pellets in our faces as we made the final traverse to camp (1.7 hours from summit). Doug and Lisa had arrived an hour before us, having tucked in North Spectacle Butte earlier in the day.
NIGHT 3: After eating a hasty dinner in the brewing storm, we all retreated to our respective tents around 7:00pm. The winds continued to grow in intensity throughout the evening, and the snowfall increased. Before long, it became a full-blown blizzard. Somewhere around 10:00pm, I got out to re-stake our wind-battered tent with rock anchors, and then I stumbled off to check on the others. Doug’s single-wall Megamid tent had suffered a blow-out at the apex and collapsed on top of him; he had no choice but to lie under it like a tarp. Fay’s lightweight double-wall tent was still standing, but it deformed badly under the wind loading and was filling with spindrift; she and Lisa were doing their best to hold it up from within.
I scurried back to our tent and jumped inside. For the next 2 hours, the winds became even more ferocious. To make things worse, the gusts continually changed direction; one gust would roar in from the west, circle around Ice Lake, then roar back in from the east. We later estimated that they reached speeds in the range of 60 to 80 mph at their peak. I spent most of that time with my feet pushed up against the corners of the tent ceiling, trying to keep it from folding over under the tremendous load. Eileen got out at midnight to replace anchor rocks that had been moved and stakes that had pulled out. Around 1:00am, the gusts abated slightly, and we both dozed off. This rest was short-lived, however, because we were awoken at 2:00am when our tent partially collapsed due to a broken pole. With no means to repair a tent pole during a blizzard, our only option was to huddle inside and accept the incoming spindrift. It was a long night.
DAY 4: At 5:20am, I announced to Eileen that it was time to move. I emptied the spindrift out of my boots and got dressed in my full battle armor, then crawled out to rally the others. Doug was more than happy to get out from under his flattened pyramid. Likewise, Fay and Lisa were very ready to escape their snow-filled cocoon. We all packed up in the still-howling wind, being careful to keep a grasp on each item lest it be whipped off to the Entiat Valley. As we ate breakfast behind a windbreak, the eastern sky gradually lightened and began to splash dawn colors across the frozen landscape. It was a visually stunning aftermath to a wild night.
We trudged up to Ice Lakes Pass and took a short break to soak in one last view of Upper Ice Lake to the east. To the west, dark storm clouds battled with patches of deep-blue sky. We spent the rest of our day hiking through a snowy wonderland along the Carne—Leroy High Route and down to the trailhead.
Around midday, we encountered Dave and Milda, who had also been camped at Upper Ice Lake the night before. We shared survivor tales with them, and laughed at the helplessness of our respective situations. For all of us, we felt that we’d lived through MOAB: the Mother Of All Blizzards! Fay later summed it up perfectly by saying, “We had a once in a lifetime experience; one not to missed but one not to ever be repeated.” Amen.
Leave It Better Than You Found It. This should be every outdoor user’s goal. Pick up trash left by others, pull some noxious weeds along your route, throw branches over unwanted spur trails, don’t ride or walk wet trails when you’re leaving ruts/footprints deeper than ¼ inch…
Disclaimer. Treat this information as recommendations, not gospel. Conditions change, and those contributing these reports are volunteers–they may make mistakes or may not know all the issues affecting a route. You are still completely responsible for your decisions, your actions, and your safety. If you can’t live with that, you are prohibited from using our information.
Approximate Total Stats: 28 miles traveled; 13,700 feet gained & lost; 3 tents damaged.