September 12-13, 2009.
Staircase RS –> Flapjack Lakes (camp)–> Mt. Cruiser summit, and back again
Mt. Cruiser is a relatively indistinct peak on the Sawtooth Ridge, just outside Olympic National Park in Washington. Our group got together at the Staircase Ranger Station parking lot at 10am Saturday morning, for a quick weekend trip. John led this official Mazama climb, with teammates Kim, Mike, Chad and Brad joining as well. We secured a permit for camping a the lake and we strapped on our packs for a few hours of walking. The approach to Flapjack Lakes was 8 miles and about 3000′ of elevation gain. The first 4 miles were essentially flat, with most of the elevation in the second half of the hike to the lakes. It was a warm, yet nice trip through the lush rainforest. 4 hours later we arrived at our destination and found a suitable campsite. I happily changed into crocs and cooled off in the lake. Huckleberry bushes filled the camp area; with camera in hand I circumnavigated the lakes, munching on berries the whole way around.
Even with a large Boy Scout group just a few hundred feet away, this place felt pleasantly still and serene. We enjoyed a relaxing evening, watching the sun’s fading light play with the colors on the rocky ridge and rippling lake. I set down my sleeping pad and bag on the bare ground for a night under the stars. Before long it was time to wake up, under bright moonlight, and get ready for a long climb day.
At 5:30 am we began hiking, aided by headlamps, towards Gladys Divide. In less than a mile and a half, we reached a large boulder field and took a 5 minute break. This is where we were to start rock-hopping over to a scree slope leading to a nasty gully. We tried not to kill each other as we hobbled up the scree and reached the bottom of the gully. Here, John went right and I went left while the others ducked for cover. The group decided that John had chosen the safer route so everyone else followed him and we met up at the top of Needle Pass. I would imagine in earlier season, when the gully is filled in with snow, this section might actually be enjoyable. Note for next time!
From here, Kim led us up some fun third class scrambling to the top of the ridge. From there, we wound our way through some minor ups and downs, turned a corner or two, then continued down a major gully to the base of the chimney leading to Mt. Cruiser’s summit pinnacle. John and I scouted around for the best route up. Everyone but me dropped packs here and put harnesses on. I shoved a couple jackets and miscellaneous items in my pack, including a rope, and headed up the bubbly, mossy chimney below the giant chockstone. The climbing was a little spicy with all that weight on my back but before long I reached a rap station with a small ledge that three of us hung out on. We checked out the route above, which narrowed quite a bit. Brad and Mike went first so I could hand my pack up through the hole that we all squeezed through. Just above the hole was a broad, ledgy area that provided a convenient home base to set up for the 5.0 pitch. Once John joined us he set up a fixed line for the last two party members to prussik up while Brad and I prepared to climb the top pitch. Brad took the lead, using up all of his sparse rack to protect the pitch, and fixed a line for the rest of us to follow. I climbed next, meeting up with him on the small summit ridge 5 hours after leaving in the morning.
The rock pitch itself was nothing spectacular. The features were sloping and covered with lichen. The line on the left, following the rope, seemed a bit sketchier (but maybe easier to protect?) than the line a little further right. This was not a climb where the approach was simply endured to experience a tremendously cool, technical ascent at the top; rather, the whole trip was to be savored from beginning to end. It happened to be a perfect, sunny afternoon for all of this relaxed rock climbing (read: big group, lots of down time). Once the other folks started heading up we made our way back down to the rap anchor 30 feet or so below the summit and rappelled down.
Back at home base, we chatted with another group who was next in line for the climb. They had left camp an hour after we did, and from the looks of it, were going to be out quite late (waiting for all of us). Much time passed as the rest of our team summitted, hung out, and rappelled down. As soon as we could, we rigged a fixed line for people to start downclimbing back through the hole and down the chimney to where our packs were stashed. About half the team used prussiks to descend, and half (myself included) decided to rappel instead. Rapping was twice as fast, and much easier :). Getting a group of six across technical terrain is very time consuming; we tried to get people moving as rapidly as we could. When we reached the third class section just prior to Needle Pass, we had to set two more fixed lines so that the more tentative climbers could have some peace of mind. John went first to rig the lines and I hung back to toss the ropes down and free solo to rejoin the team. After all the climbing I’ve done recently, I preferred descending without having to fumble with a rope. The terrain was not that challenging or exposed, so I felt totally safe scampering down unconstrained.
One more rappel took us down to the base of the steep, nasty gully below the pass. From there we carefully skipped across the scree and talus to regain the trail and begin the long deproach. I had a nice long chat with Kim as we took our time following the trail back to camp.
The men had just begun breaking camp when we arrived. I immediately changed into crocs and dipped my legs in the soothing water of the lake. We all packed our guts with calories and stuffed our packs with gear. It was 5 pm before we departed from Flapjack Lakes. Everyone was pretty beat, but with 8 miles to go, we all put the pedal to the metal and hauled it out of there as fast as we could. Two hours got us back to the junction and another hour took us the last 4 miles out. Just as it was getting too dark to see without a headlamp, we emerged at the parking lot, triumphant!
If I were to come up to this section of the Olympics again, I’d be interested in checking out some of the other numerous peaks along the Sawtooth Ridge, perhaps attempting the traverse described in the climbing guide. There appear to be several moderate climbing options, but I am not sure what the quality of the routes are. Cruiser itself would be much simplified and much faster with a smaller and more confident party; perhaps the time could be reduced by 4 hours or more if there were no need to protect the third and fourth class scrambling. Fewer people rappelling, fewer people kicking down rocks, etc. would reduce time standing around waiting. Also, more snow on the route might speed up both the ascent and descent (although it also might complicate things!).