Sunday, September 9, 2007

YAB & Tomyhoi

Yellow Aster Butte and Tomyhoi Peak
7,451 feet
Semicircumnavigation Route
September 8 - 9, 2007

This was the weekend Kirsten and I had reserved to take off and do a nice summer trip on our own. After a couple weekends in miserable weather, we were ready for an easy, sunny, dry, warm trip with no snow, freezing wind, rain or rime ice nor temps in the teens nor pre-dawn alpine starts. After consulting our hiking and scrambling books, searching for something mellow and appropriate for a two-day trip, and not requiring any off-trail hiking, we settled on the Tomyhoi and Yellow Aster Butte ("YAB") combo. When Kirsten was at REI on Friday, she ran into Maria and found out she and Randy were heading in to do Tomyhoi, too, and Jim was going to come out Saturday night and meet them. We figured by far the most important requirement for this trip was the warm and dry part, so let's make a party of it. And Kirsten called Becky that evening and recruited her into skipping The Tooth and joining us instead.

When Kirsten, Becky and I pulled up the forest road near the trailhead suddenly cars were parked everywhere. At least a hundred of them. We couldn't figure out what was going on. Here we thought we had found this jewel of a trip, buried obscurely in the Cascades north of Mt. Baker and Mt. Shuksan, yet we wound up in the middle of some kind of trail parade. After hiking the short picturesque trail, we arrived at Yellow Aster Butte Lakes and looked around for a campsite big enough for five people. We found one just off the trail, but we didn't get the glorious views of Baker & Shuksan from camp. A ranger stopped by and chatted for a bit, apparently there had been a write-up in the Bellingham newspaper about this hike the day before, and that is why the throng of people were there. But it was mostly people on dayhikes, so as afternoon turned to evening it thinned out considerably.

We pitched camp, then hiked up to the false summit of YAB. It was a very quick but steep hike through pretty fall colored heather, and the view from the top was oustanding: Pickets, Shuksan, Ruth, Baker... all just right there in your face. We ran the ridge to the true summit, snapped a few pics, then headed back. Randy and Maria showed up shortly after we returned to camp. We opened some single serving wine bottles and chattered idly while we cooked dinner and soaked in the alpine vistas. As the sun was setting, Jim finally wandered into camp. After Randy read some North Cascades history to us, we attempted to sleep through the chilly night.

The next morning we set off for Tomyhoi. It was a pleasant hike and we took our time, pausing to take pictures every five feet. A few hours in, we reached the edge of the Tomyhoi Glacier. According to the guide and topo we were following, we needed to descend down the glacier, around a buttress, then climb back up to the ridge. The scale was difficult to decipher and we noticed a set of tracks going up the ridge when, we thought, based on the route description, that they should be going down around a rather large rib of rock. This is where things got interesting. I forgot my crampons back at camp. Jim intentionally left his crampons at home. I would much rather have left them at home than have shlepped them all the way in to camp, only to leave them there as tent weights. In any case, we forced our significant others to unwittingly participate in a little experiment of wearing just one crampon each. We tried wearing it on the downhill foot and on the uphill foot. I thought downhill would be easier and Kirsten thought uphill would be easier. Turns out she was right, for those of you interested in the technique.

After slowly working our way around the buttress to the point where we thought we should ascend back up to the ridge, we were greeted with an enormous bergschrund separating the glacier from the ridge. The expanse was much to great cross without any kind of climbing equipment, so we pushed on to the other edge of the glacier looking for a reasonable way off. Time was eroding, and we were not making any progress. Randy ended up in a moat trying to find a way to climb onto the steep-walled ridge. Jim ended up scrambling a low fifth class buttress, and Maria eventually followed him because he was actually making progress. The rest of us weren't comfortable soloing that kind of terrain and ended up working back across the glacier to that first set of tracks going up to the ridge. We scrambled up a smooth, wet rock finger that extended down onto the glacier and found ourselves on the ridge.

Finally we seemed to be making progress, and we continued along the ridge until we reached the base of the final scramble to the summit. It looked impossible. We couldn't see any way up it. We searched all over the place trying to find a way up that made sense, until eventually Jim and Maria materialized way up on the summit from the other side and waved to us and we realized we were probably out of time. They started down, and with them perched at the top of the ridge providing some scale, the route popped out at me. I got some nerve and scrambled up. It went pretty easily, but it was definitely exposed, so I just tried to move smoothly and not look down. Jim and Maria waited for me at the top, then Jim guided me around to the summit.

On the way down, we realized what had thrown us off about the route description. The glacier has receded so far, that the relevant south lobe is only half as big as it is on the route description. We thought we needed to cross a fair amount of glacier before we ascended to the ridge, but in reality there is now only about 100 feet of glacier left to cross!