Cover Photo: Seven Finger Jack Ridge en Route to Mount Fernow
I got an early start to Labor Day weekend with climbing friends Daria, Saul, and Michael DuBois. Daria had organized this climb on PNW Peakbaggers and I suggested that Saul who has become a regular climbing partner (we traversed Washington to Ellinor in the Olympics a week ago), join us, and also finally got to meet the famous Michael DuBois. Seems I have known Michael a long time given our connection on PNW Peakbaggers and also our recent series of climbs where I seem to be following in his footsteps – Enchantments the weekend prior. I have followed Michael’s climbing and running exploits since he was the first finisher of the 2021 PNW Peak Baggers Everest Challenge, completing the 29,000+ feet of gain in a few days! He possesses superhuman climbing speed and gets up and down mountains in half the time it takes me to climb. Needless to say, I was excited to climb with this group as we all brought a lot of positive energy to the climb in our mutual pursuits of summits and the Bulgers. And if you are a frequent reader you will recognize Saul from recent climbs and ultra pedestrian events, and Daria is one of my regular partners these days.
Mount Fernow is a Bulger, one of the tallest 100 peaks in Washington state, coming in at #8 at 9249 feet and it is also the 3rd tallest, non-volcanic peak, so bagging this one is a big deal (at least to me).
Our plan was to climb Mount Fernow Car-to-Car, c2c, meaning no camping and climbing the peak in a single push. We departed Seattle about 10:30 PM, and while driving, naively formulated a plan to also climb the adjacent Seven Fingered Jack (7FJ), also a Bulger. Mount Maude is also in the range and on the list of future peaks to bag. The ride to the Phelps Creek trailhead is 24 miles along with the rough Forest Service Road FS 6200, one of the longest and roughest roads I have driven, nearly 30 miles north of Lake Wenatchee – a very remote part of our state. The long bumpy road finally ended and we hit the trailhead at 3 AM!
Blessedly the trail in is 3.5 miles of flat forested trail. We made quick time to the cutoff at Leroy Creek which would take us up Leroy Basin and to the climbing route to Mount Fernow. The trail up to Leroy Basin was very steep, gaining 2000 feet in 1.5 miles. We made good time up to the basin in the dark and enjoyed the crescent moon and illuminating dawn as we gained altitude.
Dawn arrives and illuminates the heather carpeted basin of Leroy Meadows. The basin has many well-established campsites and plenty of freshwater. This is the site for the trail up to Seven Fingered Jack and Mount Maude. Our route to Fernow was up the gully of Leroy Creek, where we climbed towards the rocky upper basin. The sun was fortunately behind the peaks of 7FJ and Maude, providing shade along with the beautiful glow of the morning light.
As we made our way to the upper basin, Buck Mountain came into view – an absolutely beautiful mountain and another one we all want to climb. We continued up the Leroy Creek gully and finally came into the upper rocky basin, near the saddle we needed to cross and descend.
As we made our way to the saddle, we were joined by another climber who was camping at Leroy Basin. We got to chatting with Mark Hastings at the saddle (a fellow Mountaineer) and joined up with him for most of the climb. From the saddle, most of the Glacier Peak Wilderness came into view – Glacier Peak was prominent to the west, and Dumbbell, Chiwawa, Bonanza, and other Bulgers slowly came into view. Fortunately, we remained in the shade and the temperature was relatively cool. Sun and heat would make this a much more difficult climb!
At the saddle, we needed to drop into another basin, a moraine at the terminus of the Gloomy Glacier. There was a beautiful tarn below and a prominent rock formation, that was much more impressive than the topo maps suggest. Many folks choose to drop to the tarn and make their way around the rock feature. Another path is to descend to the right, across some sandy ledges, and drop down many large boulders to the basin. This route loses about 1000 feet which must be regained on the way out, one of the aspects making this a challenging climb. One of our other climbing friends Erik Schulz prepared the following elevation profiles of Fernow compared to his recent climbs of Robinson with Daria and West McMillan Spire with Jed. His assessment was that this was a long route for c2c and had a lot of vertical gain, especially with 1000 feet descent which would have to be regained after a long summit!
We crossed the moraine, made our way up the waterfall into the broad basin below Mount Fernow. Now the real climbing begins!
While ascending Leroy basin and following the massive cirque of Seven Fingered Jack, Fernow was not visible and we had difficulty visually identifying the route. As with many peaks, from a distance, Fernow appeared unclimbable. However once at the basin, it looked more reasonable. The route took us up some slabby ledges and follows the outlet flow of the upper snowfield.
The remaining 2000+ feet of climbing ascends some of the worst, loose talus and scree I have ever had the pleasure of sliding upon. I followed the path of the water as that provided about 500 feet of solid rock slabs to ascend, but eventually, I had to climb towards the wall of Fernow, using the solid rock for handholds while navigating the treacherous loose talus.
We had great views of 7FJ and Maude just across the ridge – an appealing challenge. Other Bulgers were also in view like Bonanza, Dumbbell, Copper, and Glacier Peak.
Realizing that it took us longer than expected to summit, we abandoned any hope of also bagging 7FJ this trip and we definitely wanted down the mountain, down and over the Gloomy Glacier moraine, and up and over the ridge, ideally to the meadows of Leroy Basin prior to dark – the race was on!
We made pretty good time down and across the moraine and up the final 1000 feet to the ridge. I took my time ascending the sandy ledges as I had some challenges finding a good route, with minimal exposure and I did not want to fall given I was getting tired. Finally, I popped up to join the others and was greeted with an amazing sunset over Glacier Peak.
We descended the ridge prior to darkness setting in, however, we were still on the upper gully above Leroy Basin and the meadows as we donned our headlamps.
We reached the basin and filtered water for the hike out. We ran into Mark the other climber who was camping for the night and had a good chat, and into a camper who was meeting AJ Blankenship for a 7FJ summit the next day (small world). We were hopeful to connect with him on the hike out, but we missed him by a few hours. The hike down and out was pretty fast and we returned to the car around 11:00 PM. It was a 20 hour day and we had nearly a four-hour drive back to Seattle. I love these c2c trips, but I think for the return for 7FJ and Maude, a night of camping in the basin may be in order. In part to enjoy the area, sunrise, and sunsets and not be so tired driving home after being up nearly 48 hours.
This was a truly wonderful hike with some truly awesome people. I love climbing with you my friends and I can’t wait until our next trip! Bulger #9 in the books!