Words by Roger Strong
Photos Doug Hutchison, Andreas Schmidt, Will Hinckley and Roger
We are blessed with long, snowy winters in the Cascade mountains of Washington state. The range is kissed with spells of temperature spikes and its snowpack is stabilized with help of the occasional Pineapple Express system even during our biggest and deepest seasons.
The 2014/15 winter season was forecast to be a strong El Niño weather pattern, which translates in the Pacific Northwest to a warming of the Pacific Ocean waters for a 7-9 month period. The trends usually lead to a warm and dry fall and winter, a typically below-average mountain snowpack and less frequent lowland rain and snow events: not inspiring news to the average resort skier nor to someone like myself who thrives on weekly dawn patrols a few days a week and seeks face-shots at Snoqualmie Pass. I’m awake at 3:30 am at least 3-4 days/week, whether the alarm is set or not, largely due to my excitement for these early missions, a result of a full time job, fatherhood and the need for some sort of daily adventure.
On the bright side, El Nino can usually mean we’ll see bitter but dry cold snaps, producing outstanding ice, mixed and alpine climbing conditions.
One of my favorite early season playgrounds for both backcountry skiing and ice climbing is in the Heliotrope area on Mt. Baker. Some of the classic long routes that demand a long day, or easy access to gorgeous winter bivies on the immaculate Coleman/Deming Glacier. Routes like N. Ridge of Mt. Baker, the Coleman Headwall, and the Cosley/Houston on the N. Face of Colfax Peak offer engaging and sustained winter mountaineering to steep alpine waterfall ice climbing.
Most of my friends know that I thrive on winter in all its forms, and that ascending and descending ice and snow is what I dream about on a daily basis. I obsess and miss winter through the summer months after the skis, crampons and tools are put away and I am ‘limited’ to just rock climbing or my wife’s addiction to kite surfing.
I try to climb the Cosley/Houston route on the N. Face of Colfax a few times a season before the snow buries the 8 mile road that accesses the trailhead. A beautiful 5 mile hike with 5,000ft of elevation gain, straight forward glacier travel with an occasional nod to gaping crevasses and sculpted seracs gets you to the base of the wall. With luck, even a partly sunny day allows amazing vistas in every direction from the Cascade alpine, as well as stunning bivies on the glacier for those who indulge in winter camping.
Since my first trip up there in 1991 to ski from the summit Mt. Kulshan (aka Baker) via the Coleman/Deming, I was immediately drawn to the obvious looming ice formations of Colfax Peak. The only established route on the N. Face at that time was first climbed by Kathy Cosley and Mark Houston in 1982. The route is a wonderful line up the right side of the wall. A couple of moderate pitches that gain a short steep grade 4 pillar, followed by a long snow ramp to a short curtain ending with a long snow-slope bring you to the summit where stunning views await.
The first time I became aware of an attempt at the later-to-be-named Polish Route, was by local hard-men Andreas Schmidt and Tom Bridge in October of 1994. The group gained the first pitch with desperately thin ice, marginal protection with the huge hanging ice dagger above them, telling them it wasn’t the time for a full ascent. 4 years later, Andreas (easily one of the most understated, badass all-around climbers and skiers to grow up in Washington!) and I had the same objective in mind. We bailed as well with our tails between our legs and ‘ran up’ the immaculate Coleman Headwall on the maternal neighbor of Mt. Kulshan as a consolation prize. Many countless ski days in the Heliotrope area and laps on the Cosley/Houston allowed me 3 occasions to solo the first 2 pitches to the base of the wall that gains the base of the crux dagger. I hoped to find decent enough rock to hopefully allow either traditionally protected dry-tooling or resort to dragging the drill all the way up to create a variation. Inspired by many seasons and thousands of pitches of modern mixed climbing, I don’t mind placing bolts on a new route where it makes sense and for the enjoyment of future ascents. It’s all about having fun and keeping a sense of adventure for others right?
In October of 2000, Bellingham resident Robert Rogoz (AKA Polish Bob) took the route 1 pitch further through crux difficulties, claiming a rarely formed true pillar that connected to the steep smear. Legend has it that his partner at the time didn’t want to follow that pitch, leaving Bob the only choice of rappelling the route and saving the summit for another time.
Recently, in mid-November of 2014, Doug Hutchinson and I took advantage of the Fall’s first real cold snap and high pressure to run a lap on the Cosley/Houston and indulge in a few thousand feet of early season ski turns. We were also interested in seeing if there was any ice forming on the rest of the N. Face of Colfax. That morning’s initial view of the wall was not only beautiful with the growing light of dawn, but revealed the most ice I’ve seen from top to bottom of it’s most obvious line. The familiar looking dagger halfway up the wall was huge and the ice quality of the lower pitches looked unusually fat, tempting us to shift plans and hop right on it. Knowing that the forecast called for consistent high pressure and cold temps, we stuck to the plan and had an absolutely perfect day running a lap on the C/H and nearly perfect turns to the base of the Coleman Glacier.
Two weeks later, we were gifted with another cold spell under clear and windless skies prompting us take a shot at finishing the Polish Route. The first two pitches were of outstanding quality grade 4 ice. Doug’s quick lead up the snow ramp to the base of the next tier allowed me to start up the steep smear in hopes of figuring out how to climb through the ominous looking dagger in one long pitch. We had left the car at 6:15am with temperatures in single digits, concerning us with trying to stay warm while on the route as well as climbing on brittle ice. Placing a screw behind the dagger, I deciding to place a 2nd to equalize an anchor and bring Doug up so I could take a rest and examine the suspect formation. After a few moves into it, the looming dagger felt unstable and upon sharing the concern with Doug, a loud crack at waist height told me to carefully down-climb and bail. I admit that we would have loved to send it to the summit that day, but my attitude with “failure” in the mountains can be some of the most rewarding and fun experiences. In my little view of the world, it’s all about the journey, adventuring as much as possible, and sharing the stories that inspire others to do the same. The 4,000 feet of velvety turns under the bright moonlight were dreamy. At one point I couldn’t help myself but stop, click out of my bindings, flop on my back and make a snow angel in the 25cm that had fallen a few days before.
On January 11th of this season (2015) young Bellingham crushers Will Hinkley and Braden Downey bagged the coveted repeat and first reported ascent to the summit while met with challenging visibility and hard climbing. When I first heard of this it truly made me smile, knowing that there are more than just a few of us who appreciate the backyard access of Mt. Kulshan and all it’s neighboring sub peaks. Awesome job guys! “This attention grabbing pitch requires feeling good about the stability of the ice and offers great climbing in a wild position. We ended up topping out in the dark. Having Braden and a GPS along was critical for getting down in the dark!”, recalls Will Hinkley.
This above image was more inspiration to take advantage of our low snowpack. With another another forecast of high pressure and dry road to the trailhead, Doug and I set out again on March 6th followed by dear friends Colin Haley and Sarah Hart who tried to finish the route in November of 2013.
This photo was taken on our November 30th attempt. We were able to skin right to the base of the route and climb with ridiculously light AT boots. The next photo from March 6th shows how warm and wet it’s been over the last 3 and a half months.
This photo shows about a 5 meter drop in the bergshrund, adding a thought provoking traverse to get to the base of the 1st pitch.
Thankfully what little ice on the traverse there was turned out to be high quality, took a couple of 10cm Stubbies and decent dry-tooling.
The first couple pitches were in the best shape I’ve ever climbed them in, so good that we literally ran up them forgetting to place gear at times. Thankfully I remind myself that I’m a father now, it’s not just about me and try to put in as much protection as possible.
The dagger was perfect this round, quite steep and took a bit of effort, but pulling through was bittersweet relief of another chapter of giving in to patience. I’ve been so blessed over the last 30 years with what climbing has taught me, in all its glorious forms. I honestly felt a little disappointed that the ‘difficulties’ were over. I can think of many more routes that I’ve done that have either dished it out harder or spanked me silly, but the beauty of the position, perfect weather and sharing it with great friends – I really didn’t want it to end.
For those of you who know me well, know I’m a big sap and comfortable with tearing up at times of joy. This was no exception after throwing in a quick bomber belay to bring up Doug.
Just another 600ft to the sunny summit.
Time to run back down 6,000ft to the car for dinner and beer in Bellingham!