Southeast Buttress of Cutthroat Peak
June 26, 1999

This was the second of my Intermediate Class experience climbs, and it turned out it was also my last. Nothing really went wrong on the climb - I just realized that I wasn't enjoying doing the climbs as part of a class, and it seemed silly to be expending this much time and effort into something I wasn't enjoying. It was a fun day, with good people, and interesting rock - I'd like to go back and finish the route some day, but with just a small group of friends, not in a class setting.

We left Seattle at around 4:00 and made good time up to Washington Pass, meeting up with everyone just at 7:00 at the Blue Lake trailhead. We waited around for one additional instructor who had said he might be joining us, but after 15 minutes or so we decided he wasn't going to make it, so we drove back west a few minutes to park along the shoulder of the road in front of the meadows leading up to Cutthroat. It was foggy and misty up high, so we couldn't see the peak itself, but the first portion of the route was visible to us, and we could see that we'd be in snow almost from the start. After gearing up, the 6 of us (one of the reasons we didn't get higher than we did - too many!) dropped down from the road and started working on the first crux of the route - finding a way over the creek! We meandered first west, then east before finding a very small log jam that allowed us to cross without getting our feet wet. From here things got easier, just heading up into the valley just west of the SE buttress. You can go straight up the buttress here as well, but that might be more attractive when there's either more or less snow. We wandered up to near the base of the south face, and then headed up the second of two snow gullies. Actually, four of us chose this way - the first two members of our party headed up the first gully and eventually had to work their way back towards us. The snow never got very steep, maybe 30 degrees in places, but as you got higher you started climbing above a large moat around a rock island. This, coupled with the fact that it was a warm day, and I wasn't trusting the snow to always hold, caused me to ask for a rope for the final 150 feet to the first rock band. By this time a group of 4 Mountaineers had caught up with us, so it didn't really slow things down very much as we already had congestion on the route.

Once we had everyone back together and at the base of the first rock gully we decided to let one of the students lead the gully pitch, fixing a line as he went. The rest of us could put prusiks around the rope and self-belay ourselves to the notch up above. We were hoping this would save some time, since we wouldn't have to set up belays for each climber, but I'm not sure that was the case. The climbing was awkward in spots, and to have to get into a position that you could get your hands free to slide your prusik knot up every few feet made things take quite a while. I was the second student up, and while I was sitting there we watched the Mountaineers start moving along the ridge. Not 20 feet from us, one of them yelled very loudly "Shit!!!". Thinking he was getting ready to fall or something I looked over his way to figure out what was going on, but he was just standing there very calmly, his hand resting on a large boulder. I asked him what was wrong, and he said as soon as he had touched the boulder his hand was on, it had shifted, and was now ready to hurtle down into the gully the next student was climbing up. This boulder was the size of a desk, and would most certainly kill anyone it hit. We quickly communicated to the next climber that they needed to hurry to the top of the gully, and that the climber following them needed to get back down and away from the gully. We just had to hope that when the boulder was released it wouldn't cut any ropes. Once the next climber was up, and the following climber was safely tucked behind some other rocks, we told the Mountaineer to go ahead and let go. He did, and the huge rock toppled once, twice, and then jammed into some other rocks, not 10 feet from where it had started out! Disaster averted, our group started climbing again. Although this was late June, much of the route was in this kind of condition, with a lot of rock loosened up by the winter freeze-thaw cycles, but not enough traffic had been through to "clean off" the loose rocks yet. We had to be very conscious of lots of loose stuff all day.

We waited for everyone to get to the top of the ridge (another time mistake) before my partner and I started out along the route. The climbing was quite easy here, with only an occasional step of 5th class climbing to contend with. We used fixed pitches however, instead of running belays, another time killer. The first pitch was very easy, with the only difficulty being a large (bus sized) chunk of snow we had to break through. There's a good belay spot there, and I took the second lead as well, working my way up a low angled gully. There's two trees very near the start of the gully that sling well, but for the next 100 feet or so, you're climbing easy, but downsloping ledges, covered with BB gravel, with few good holds, and fewer places to put protection. The climbing isn't hard, but the results of a slip would be very painful, and I was tip toeing pretty carefully as I approached a small tree near the end of the pitch, very cognizant of the fact that my last protection point was well over 100 feet below me. There are some nice large ledges to belay from here, and we also decided to drop our packs here and change into rock shoes. The first few moves off of the ledge were kind of tricky, and definitely 5th class, but immediately after, the going got easier again, and it was mostly walking to the next belay station. From that station, we moved east 30 feet or so, and headed up a large crack system above us. Again, the climbing wasn't hard, but I ended up backing off just 20 feet up, unsure of my hand jam, and not thinking that I could have pulled on the #3 cam I had just solidly set. I followed this pitch to the next belay stance, which was a dead tree and some very small nuts placed in a hairline crack. The next pitch looked "interesting" as well, so declining the lead I clipped into the anchor and belayed, then followed the pitch. There's some awkward stemming here, but some great nut placements on the left hand wall to protect your progress.

At the top of this pitch, we were at another of the huge, flat, sandy ledges. About a half hour before this, the weather had started to turn, and there were hail stones dropping around us. Now, the hail was turning to snow, and some of the ledges were starting to turn white. It was already 4:00, and the four Mountaineers above were already starting to rap down, giving up their summit bid. Since we would now be following them down, and it was obvious we weren't going to summit that day, we decided it was time to focus our attention on getting down rather than continuing upward. From what I hear, we were just at the start of where the true 5th class climbing starts - considering how long we had taken to get there, heading down was definitely the right choice. Four of us made it up to the big ledge, so we rigged a rap and dropped down to the next obvious rap station. The last two of our group met up with us there, and concurred with our decision to descend. We finally started moving fairly efficiently, the six of us rapping faster than the four Mountaineers ahead of us were, frequently having to wait for them to finish rapping and clearing the station before we could continue moving. One lesson we learned here - on blocky and non-steep terrain, you'll move much faster doing a series of single rope rappels than double rope raps. We stuck with single rope raps in each case and never had a stuck rope. The Mountaineers, however, tried double ropes on a couple of pitches, and got their ropes stuck a both times, drastically slowing them down. We did a total of 6 single rope rappels to get back to the top of the first gully, and here the angle was steep enough to use a double rope rap. I was feeling tired and not confident of my footing, so we set up two more double rope raps to get down the steepest portion of the snow slope above the mini-schrund that had my attention on the way up. We glissaded from here down into the valley, and after coiling and dividing up ropes, we started plunging our way back down towards the roadside valley. We tried following other's footsteps to find a good stream crossing, but when we saw where they had crossed, we decided we didn't want wet feet (some of the folks were going to climb again in the morning), and we worked our way back east to where we had crossed in the morning. Another thirty minutes or so of wandering generally roadwards brought us to the final steep bank up to the cars. We arrived back at the cars just at 9:00 as the sun was going down. Too late, we decided, to head into Winthrop for beer and tavern food. Instead, we drove a short distance down the road to the Lone Fir campground, fired up the Whisper Lites, and very shortly after eating dinner rolled into our sleeping bags for some much desired sleep.


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