<-- Map of summer 2018
     climbing roadtrip 
     (click to enlarge)

Route: West Face (5.11+, 6p, 600')

TR #: 309

Category: Washington (HWY 20)       Summit Elev: 8,160 ft       Rock Type: Granite

Partner: Doug Hutchinson

The epitomy of North Cascades alpine climbing: 5 days for 6 pitches, but worth every bit of it.


In February 2011 and September 2012, I had the awesome opportunity to fly over the Gunsight Range of the North Cascades with my friend and aerial photographer John Scurlock. Every since, I've wanted to set foot in the range, furthermore inspired by tales that the Gunsight area contains some of the best and cleanest white granite in the entire Cascades. Some notable routes are the East Face of Middle Gunsight (10d, with excellent rock and position, FA 2006), Gunrunner Traverse (10-, traverse of the 4 summits of the range, FA 2007), and the West Face of North Gunsight (11+, one of the premier hard free climbs of the North Cascades, FA 1986 FFA 2007). Climbers would flock to the area if it weren't for the rugged 2-day approach. Due to the remoteness, the routes have relatively recent first ascents and might not even see a single ascent in a season. Here are some aerial photos I took in 2011 and 2012:

Finally, in 2018, I found the perfect partner for the adventure. Actually, to be correct, he found me. Doug had made the West Face of North Gunsight his primary objective for the summer. (Doug had made an attempt the previous summer, but turned around at the Dome-Chickamin Col when the Chickamin Glacier turned out to be too heavily-crevassed—3 days of rugged hiking, perfect weather, and no climb, painful!)Clocking in at 11+ (or 5.10 C1 or C2) and climbing directly up the center of the face, the West Face is one of the premier hard climbs of the North Cascades. The route features hard crack climbing and wild face climbing on small knobs and chickenheads. It is an amazing route in a spectacular alpine location. Interestingly, the FA (some aid) was in 1986, and it went 20 years before the second ascent and FFA, despite the routes inclusion in Jim Nelson's Selected ClimbsHere's a route overlay:

So Doug and I planned a 5-day trip. We decided we preferred to approach from the west via Downey Creek (the alternative is from the east, but this involves dealing with the ferry schedule in Stehekin, something we didn't want to have to plan our schedule around). Given a 2-day approach, a day for the climb, and a full day hike out, this left one extra day in our schedule; if the weather was good, we planned to use the extra day to climb a route on the South Face of Dome (Gran Torino or Indian Summer), and if the weather was bad (it's the North Cascades after all...), it gave us one more day to deal with. It turned out the latter was what happened, as we had to bail on our first attempt when we arrived after a 3-hour approach on the Chickamin Glacier at the base of North Gunsight with wet clouds shrouding the route. Fortunately the next day gave us a bluebird window and we nabbed the climb before the rains returned! 5 days for 6 pitches of climbing, and totally worth it! Here's the itinerary for our 5 day adventure:

Date What we did Stats*
*Doug took GPS tracks throughout the trio. The mileages are taken directly from the GPS tracks. Since the GPS tracks gave unrealistically high values of elevation gain/loss, I instead estimated the elevation gain/loss using various high and low points along the way; actual elevation gain/loss could be significantly higher due to minor ups and downs along the way (so perhaps those "unrealistically high values" are not so unrealistic!).
Day 1
August 1
Hike in via Downey/Bachelor Creek and camp on Itswoot Ridge. ~12.8 miles, +5700', -800', ~10 hours
Day 2
August 2
Move camp to Dome-Chickamin Col. Climb top 2 pitches of Gran Torino (5.9) on South Face of Dome for something to do. Itswoot Ridge to Dome Camp: ~3.2 miles, +2500', -250', ~3 hours
Explore/climb: ~4.5 hours
Day 3
August 3
From Dome-Chickamin Col, cross Chickamin Glacier to base of North Gunisight; decide not to climb due to poor weather; turn around and retrace route over Chickamin Glacier back to camp at Dome-Chickamin Col. One way (Dome camp to base of W Face of N Gunsight): ~2.15 miles, -1900', +800', ~3 hours
Round trip: ~4.3 miles, +/-2700', ~6 hours
Day 4
August 4
Climb West Face (5.11+, 6p, 600') of North Gunsight! This involved crossing the Chickamin Glacier twice, just like the day before. Approach part (round trip): ~4.3 miles, +/-2700'
Climb: +600', ~7.5 hours
Rappel: -600', ~1 hour 20 min
Total camp to camp time: ~16 hours
Day 5
August 5
Hike out from Dome-Chickamin Col to Downey Creek Trailhead. ~16 miles, -8200', +1050', ~12.5 hours



And here are lots and lots of photos, arranged by day. Enjoy!

Note: A handful of the photos are Doug's. Also, a few have route lines drawn on them. To distinguish these, they are color-coded as follows: #=Photo by Steph; #=Photo by Doug; #=Route overlay.

Day 1 - August 1 - Hike in via Downey/Bachelor Creek and camp on Itswoot Ridge. 
Stats: ~12.8 miles, +5700', -800', ~10 hours

Photo Descriptions:
1. Trying to bring enough gear but make our packs as light as possible.
2. Hiking the flat Downey Creek Trail.
3. Turnoff for path up the north side of Bachelor Creek.
4. A brushy section midway up Bachelor Creek. Make sure you stay on the trail - if you think it's brushy on the trail, just wait until you get off the trail!
5. Cub Lake. This is the only major descent on the approach—steep but short. Glacier Peak in distance.
 Camp on the lovely Itswoot Ridge.
7. The last rays of the setting sun on Dome Peak. The people in the photo are some hikers finishing off the Ptarmigan Traverse.

Day 2 - August 2 - Move camp to Dome-Chickamin Col. Climb top 2 pitches of Gran Torino (5.9) on South Face of Dome for something to do (Gran Torino is a 1000-ft route up the middle of the South Face of Dome, FA 2009 by Layton and Wallace). 
Stats: Itswoot Ridge to Dome Camp: ~3.2 miles, +2500', -250', ~3 hours; Explore/climb: ~4.5 hours
Photo Descriptions:
8. This photo shows the route we took from our camp on Itswoot Ridge to the Dome-Chickamin Col. The terrain is rugged but relatively straightforward.
9. Beginning the day's journey.
 Putting on crampons. The snow is faster than the boulders.
11. Approaching the Dome-Chickamin Col.
12. A cannonhole on the ridge of Dome Peak. I remember I stood in this cannonhole when I did the Ptarmigan Traverse in 2009.
13. Cool-looking spire just north of the Dome-Chickamin Col. You can see a campsite at the col.
14. West side campsite option. Flat, large, and windy. 
 East side campsite option. Small, hard, and calm. We went with this side.
16. Summit of Dome is an easy slog from camp.
17. A romp along the ridge to get to the SE Ridge of Dome to check out the routes on the S Face.
18. Looking down the SE Ridge. The S Face is on the right. The SE Ridge begins as a 4th class scramble, but halfway down gets to be a bit of 5th. Probably a good idea to make short raps off horns if trying to get to the Access Ramp below the south face. This seemed a bit too committing for the time of day, so we decided to scramble down the SE Ridge as far as we felt comfortable, and then cut into the S Face on a high ledge and climb the upper couple of pitches of Gran Torino.
19. Some sort of ore.
 A cool quartz crystal. Roughly 1-inch tall.
21. Indian paintbrush.
22. Looking up the upper South Face from our access ledge (note that this ledge is a lot higher than the official Access Ramp at the base of the face).
23. The ledge we cut in on to access the final 2 pitches of Gran Torino.
24. My finger marks where we started climbing.
 Route overlay for the South Face of Dome on an aerial photo I took on the September 2012 flight with John Scurlock. We climbed the top 2 pitches of Gran Torino. This is a somewhat wandery 1000-foot route up the middle of the south face put up by Layton and Wallace in 2009.
26. Our first pitch off the ledge (second to last pitch of Gran Torino). Mostly mid-5th climbing.
27. Last pitch of Gran Torino. This pitch had some 5.9ish stuff.
28. Almost at the top!
29. Looking down the South Face from the top. If we had had an extra day, I would have liked to climb this route from the true Access Ledge 1000 feet below.
 Sinister Peak. Also a small fire burning behind.
31. Gunsight Range and the Chickamin Glacier as seen from the top of Dome Peak.
32. Looking out at the Gunsights. 
33. Summit ridge.
34. In this photo, the Dome-Chikamin Col is on the left and the bergschrund/snow bridge access to the Chickamin Glacier is on the right.
 A closer view of the snow bridge. Without this snow bridge, we would have had to scope out another way onto the Chickamin Glacier. Beta note: A couple of weeks after our trip, a party went in to climb in the Gunsights. The snow bridge we used was indeed melted out, but they were able to get down onto the glacier via the rock rib coming down from the summit of Dome. They said the glacier was getting pretty dicy to cross. Here's an overlay Drew Katz sent me of their approximate line on the glacier.
36. There is no running water at the Dome-Chickamin Col, but my drysack and pack cover melted so much water we were pouring it out by the time we left a few days later.

Day 3 - August 3 - From Dome-Chickamin Col, cross Chickamin Glacier to base of North Gunisight; decide not to climb due to poor weather; turn around and retrace route over Chickamin Glacier back to camp at Dome-Chickamin Col. 
Stats: One way (Dome camp to base of W Face of N Gunsight): ~2.15 miles, -1900', +800', ~3 hours; Round trip: ~4.3 miles, +/-2700', ~6 hours
Photo Descriptions:
37. Morning light on the spire just north of our camp at Dome-Chickamin Col.
38. It's pretty, but kind of a lot of clouds hovering on the Gunsights....
39. Crossing the snow bridge. We placed a picket on either side. However, if the bridge had collapsed with one of us on it, the rope and picket would probably just mean that only one of us was killed instead of both of us.
40. Descending the glacier into the mysterious darkness below the clouds.
41. On the final flattish section of the Chickamin Glacier, approaching the base of the Gunsights.
42. North Gunsight. We waited for a couple of hours at the base (thank goodness for audiobooks!) but the wet clouds showed no sign of lifting, so we decided today was not our day to climb it.
43. A rare lifting in the clouds just after we had decided to slog back up the Chickamin. We briefly debated whether we should climb it after all, but then the clouds lowered and we continued back to camp.
44. Heading back up the Chickamin Glacier. 3 hours back to camp....
 The toe of the Chickamin Glacier. You don't see this kind of glaciated beauty anywhere else in the US except Alaska.
46. The Chickamin Glacier has some big crevasses.
47. The final snow bridge before the Dome-Chickamin Col. 
48. Our GPS track across the Chickamin Glacier. We chose a pretty good path, and this GPS track would be handy the following day when we attempted the climb again.
49. A photo showing our route weaving through the crevasses on the Chickamin Glacier. Beta note: A couple of weeks after our trip, a party went in to climb in the Gunsights. The snow bridge we used was indeed melted out, but they were able to get down onto the glacier via the rock rib coming down from the summit of Dome. They said the glacier was getting pretty dicy to cross. Here's an overlay Drew Katz sent me of their approximate line on the glacier.
50. You can pay $80 for a pair of ultralight flip-flops, or you can make your own for less than $1.

Day 4 - August 4 - Climb West Face of North Gunsight! This involved crossing the Chickamin Glacier twice, just like the day before. 
Stats: Approach part (round trip): ~4.3 miles, +/-2700'; Climb: +600', ~7.5 hours; Rappel: -600', ~1 hour 20 min; Total camp to camp time: ~16 hours
North Gunsight, West Face (5.11+, 6p, 600')
FA: Clark Dietrich & Jim Nelson, 1986
FFA: Max Hasson & Jens Holsten, 2007
Here's another version, using a ground-shot (I was hoping to get a sun-lit afternoon photo, but it was not sunny in the afternoon on either day we were close enough for a good photo):
Photo Descriptions:
From east end of Chickamin Glacier, get onto ramp beneath the left side of the face, and scramble to the base of the route. A small cairn marks the start. Also, the route starts just after the ramp splits.
51. Blue sky - looks like we might have a good day for climbing!
52. View of the Gunsights just before we dropped onto the Chickamin Glacier.
53. Downclimbing to the snow bridge.
54. Now that we've already gone across the snow bridge a couple of times, it is more fun. But still...move quickly...
 On the Chickamin Glacier approaching the Gunsights.
56. We had 2 pickets which we used on some of the steeper sections higher up on the glacier.
57. Lower down the glacier becomes easier. Here we are unroped and Doug can be seen romping down the glacier in the distance.
58. Human on snowfield.
59. Approaching west side of the Gunsights, with much better weather than 24 hours before!
60. A small crack on the Chickamin.
61. Sinister Peak above.
62. West Face of North Gunsight.
63. Close-up of the west face of North Gunsight. There is only one established route (the West Face route we were to climb this day) but there is potential for so much more.
64. Doug starting across the Access Ramp.
 On the Access Ramp. The route begins at the middle of the face, just after the Access Ramp splits.

5.9+, 30m. Climb thin cracks, flakes, and occasional knobs up a shallow corner to a small belay stance with a horn. The gear is a bit small and tricky and the climbing is delicate. We started up a corner that I believe was just left of the route, but we were able to access the corner to the right by stepping on top of a block.
66. We started up the corner as pictured in the photo, but I think the route description is for the corner just right of this one, below Doug in the photo. Either way offers good 5.9+ ish climbing, albeit a bit delicate with trick/small pro.
67. Nearing the end of Pitch 1.
68. Doug doing some photography at the belay while I climb up the pitch below. Cool photo Doug!

5.11+, 30m. The crux pitch. Climb thin cracks and knobs several feet to the left of a large corner, moving left under a small roof, and moving through a small overlap into nice cracks. Belay at the base of some thin cracks below the major corner (note: although there is a nice belay ledge just below the flakes, there is no good gear, so it might be best to sacrifice comfort for safety and belay just below this nice ledge).
69. Doug starting up Pitch 2. It is a really aesthetic pitch.
70. Doug higher up on Pitch 2.
71. Zoomed in. This part is above the 11+ crux and really awesome crack climbing. You don't get this sort of stuff much in the Cascades alpine.
72. The crux section of the pitch/route. It can be aided by pulling on gear.
73. Fun pitch to follow.

5.10+, 25-35m. Start up the thin cracks with some tricky moves on tricky gear (look right for a bomber yellow alien), eventually getting to some wild climbing up flakes. Belay in a wide crack (I belayed at a chickenhead, making it a 25m pitch, but you could probably go higher too.)
74. Me starting off Pitch 3. There are some committing moves right off the belay with a ledge below you, and the gear is not so great. I did find a great yellow alien placement though. Offset cams would be nice too.
 Wild climbing up the yellow and orange flake.

5.10+, 35-45m. Continue along the flake and crack system, with occasional knobs. The rock is a bit grainy but the climbing is good. Belay at the first ledge.
76. The start of the pitch.
77. Higher up on the pitch. If it weren't so gritty, this would be a 5-star pitch.

5.9, 20m. Stem over a steep initial section and then climb a corner up to a final mantle move onto the flat terrace below the summit block. 
78. Starting up Pitch 5.
79. Stemming is the way to go.
80. The corner above the stem.
81. Doug enjoying the day.

5.6, 15m. Move rightwards along the flat terrace (we went right of a cairn with the summit register) until you look up and see a chimney system that leads all the way to the summit. Downclimb or rap off some slings back to the ledge. 
82. The summit block. Go right around it to access the correct 5.6 chimney to the top.
83. Not this one (it dead ends and goes into a harder chimney).
84. This one.

yay! Note that the summit register is actually at the cairn on the terrace below the summit block. Sign it because not many people have been here!
85. My hand is on the summit.
86. Summit register. Doug and I were perhaps the 5th ascent of the route?
87. Toe of the Chickamin Glacier.
88. Toe of the Chickamin Glacier.
89. NE Peak.

Make 4 double rope rappels back to the base of the route. Surprisingly easy for alpine: Long rappels with clean pulls, directly back to your shoes/packs. Here is what we did:
  • Rappel 1: ~50m. Located on the north end of the flat terrace below summit block. Rap down ridge to north (North Ridge). Locate a rap station on the North Ridge.
  • Rappel 2: ~50m. There was tat already here but we reinforced it with new tat (black). Here you have two choices: either make one more rap down the North Ridge to a small notch (see MP comments from Berdinka, 2009), or rap straight down the face (this is what we did). If you rap straight down the face, locate a rap anchor on a flake (black tat).
  • Rappel 3: ~50m. Rap down face towards packs below. The terrain eases towards the end of the rappels. Locate a rap station on a horn (red tat) or make your own as there are options. 
  • Rappel 4: ~20m. One more short rap to packs. 
90. Rap 1.
91. Rap 1.
92. Rap 2.
93. Rap 3.
94. Rap 3.
95. Doug at the anchor for Rap 4, pulling the rope. The terrain was moderate enough that I was walking around looking for another anchor, which I never found (we put the red tat on the horn).
 Muted evening light before the storm.
97. The entire 3 hour slog up the Chickamin Glacier we were treated to a genuine thundershower. Unrelenting rain, lightning, and thunder for a few hours. It is hard to capture this in a photograph. Fortunately we had both learned long ago to always bring your rain gear in the North Cascades.
98. We were soaked when we got back to camp. We stripped our rain gear and dove in the tent.

Day 5 August 5 - Hike out from Dome-Chickamin Col to Downey Creek Trailhead. 
Stats: ~16 miles, -8200', +1050', ~12.5 hours
Photo Descriptions:
99. Drying out our stuff in the morning sun.
100. Just after Dome-Chickamin Col.
101. Hiking the section between Dome and Itswoot Ridge.
102. The last stretch of the high alpine. 
103. Trying not to fall in as I go around Cub Lake (my pack had pulled me off a log at the beginning of the trip causing me to free fall 10 feet to the stream below, so it is not unrealistic I would fall in the lake too!).
 Wouldn't be a North Cascades adventure without a bit of 'shwacking.
105. Hiking out Downey Creek. This is a beautiful forest. The trick is to enjoy it after 10 hours of hiking already...