All-access Tickets to the Suffer Festival – Climbing in Washington’s Gunsight Range

Post by blogger | July 12, 2016      
The Gunsight Range and the Blue Glacier.

Gunsight Range and Blue Glacier.

Washington’s Cascades have some of the best alpine rock climbing in the country, one of the reasons I love living here. The Cascades are also one of the most rugged and inaccessible ranges in the lower 48. Consequently most climbing happens at a few areas that have easy access; mainly Washington Pass and Cascade Pass. I’ve been guilty of only picking the low-hanging fruit of alpine rock, shying away from anything with more than a few hours approach.

The plums of the Gunsight peaks aren’t low-hanging. The granite spires are protected by a 2-day approach that involves miles of hiking and several thousand feet of Cascade bush-wacking. This gives the towers an element of mysterious attractiveness.

Additionally, claims of “the best rock in the Cascades”, and “Patagonia quality” piqued my interest. My good friend and fellow suffering aficionado, Cooper, wanted to make a trip to explore the range. The week before the 4th of July the weather looked good, I was down.

After a 4am wakeup in Seattle, and a few wrong turns, I pulled into the Fields Point Ferry terminal just before the daily departure. I quickly threw the remaining pieces of gear into my pack, and we walked onto the Lady of The Lake.. Although I’ve lived in Washington for years, I’ve never ventured up Lake Chelan, the 3rd deepest lake in the U.S. The 3 hour ride was beautiful; the steep shoreline gradually transitioned from desert scrubland to dense, evergreen forests. In Stehekin, after a quick stop for delicious treats at the Stehekin Pastry Company, we boarded a Park Service bus that would take us to the trailhead.

That evening, after a long trip via car, boat, bus, and foot, we rolled into our campsite about six miles up the Pacific Crest Trail. The next morning we hiked a few more miles up the trail, then ventured off into the underbrush. The bushwhack took most of the rest of the day.

After hours of struggling through the heat, we broke through the trees, and found easier travel in the alpine. A few hours of snow hiking followed. I decided to bring approach shoes on this trip, and after slipping around on the snow under the weight of my heavy pack, I was regretting my decision. We made camp on a beautiful exposed rock ridge, above Blue Glacier.

After a devils-club jungle adventure, we found this huge log to cross Agnes Creek.

After a devil’s club jungle adventure, we found this huge log to cross Agnes Creek.

Above the bushwack

Above the bushwack, with the breathtakingly rugged Cascades behind.

On the snow-covered ridge close to our campsite.

On the snow-covered ridge close to our campsite.

The next morning found both of us tired, and since we hadn’t done much climbing this spring, we decided to try two of the easier routes. We hiked around to the west side of the towers, and started up the classic SW ridge of the highest peak in the range, the Middle Gunsight. The route started off with loose blocky climbing, but the last two pitches held wonderful easy climbing up cracks and knobs on an exposed ridge. The routes in the Gunsight range are all quite short, this one being about 5 short pitches. We reached the top quickly, and rappelled down the other side. After a bit of lounging on warm rocks, we headed toward the “Cannon Hole route”.

The Cannon Hole is a natural arch between two of the smaller towers in the southern end of the range. It’s a striking feature, especially since it was formed in a rockfall event only 30 years ago, and the rest looks like it will collapse any day. The climb was only 3 pitches, with marginal rock quality. However, walking over the Cannon Hole was unique (if a bit nerve-racking).

The climbs of the day felt good, and we decided to go for our ultimate goal on the next day: the stellar east face of the Middle Peak. This is what we came for. The “Patagonia-like” granite purportedly makes this climb one of the best in the Cascades. I was a bit nervous beforehand, owing to our remoteness and the difficulty of the route. I also had a few bad dreams of falling and other climbing accidents. Not good for personal moral. When we got on the rock, however, it proved to be an awesome climb.

We made our way up the rock, and enjoyed incredible pitches of clean granite climbing. The route was one of the remotest, seldom traveled routes I had ever been on. It felt like we were the first people there, and the only people as far as we could see.

Coop on the south ridge of the south peak. The "cannonhole" is between us.

Coop on the south ridge of the south peak. The Cannon Hole is between us.

Excelent rock on the cruiser  SW ridge of the Middle Gunsight.

Excellent rock on the cruiser SW ridge of Middle Gunsight.

Lovely granite on the first pitch of the East face of Middle Gunsight

Lovely granite on the first pitch of the east face of Middle Gunsight

Up higher on the East Face of Middle

Up higher on the east face of Middle

Panorama from the top of the middle peak.

Panorama from the top of the middle peak.

We made our way back to camp around mid-afternoon. Lounging in the afternoon sunshine, the conversation turned toward the way out. Our schedule was dictated by the Stehekin ferry and bus schedule. In short, we had to be at the trailhead by 9am in order to catch the “fast” ferry back to our cars. We had two options: rally that evening, and try to get to the trailhead by 9 am the next morning, or get there a bit later, and have a relaxed day of hanging out on the lake in Stehekin. However, we were excited to get back to a hot shower, and enjoy the rest of the 4th of July holiday.

We decided to go for it; the conversation went something like this:

“You know this is going to really suck, right?”
“Yep, it’s gonna be heinous.”
“Okay, let’s do it.”

After packing up, we started the journey about 6pm. We knew it would get dark a bit after 9, and we wanted to get thru the bushwacking before night fell. We got past the snow and the alpine rock scrambling fairly quickly, and were hopeful that we’d reach our goal. As we ventured below treeline, however, we found ourselves in the midst of a 5-star PNW bushwack. For the next several hours we slipped, stumbled, and cursed our way down steep hillsides. To make matters worse, the bugs were horrible and we were already beat from the long day of climbing.

Darkness fell as we were still several thousand feet above the valley floor. Eventually we made it back to the trail. We hiked a few miles further, then set up camp and slept for a few hours. We woke at 4, determined to hike the last six miles and catch the 9am bus to Stehekin. I tried to hike fast, but my knees, feet and legs were worked. I hobbled into the trailhead a few minutes before the bus pulled away.

Here’s a little taste of the bushwack descent:

Rappelling from middle peak

Rappelling from Middle Peak.

Above the schwack

Heading back into the dense brush of the low country.

Note: Apologies for the low picture quality. I brought my “big camera” on the trip, but my charging setup didn’t work, so after it quickly drained the one battery I brought, I had to resort to iPhone photography.


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10 Responses to “All-access Tickets to the Suffer Festival – Climbing in Washington’s Gunsight Range”

  1. MikeB July 12th, 2016 10:19 am

    That’s a full on PNW bush-thrash-to-awesome-climbing experience. The essence of climbing around here. Nice.

    The UBC Varsity Outdoors Club long ago put out a Bush Classification System (BCS) that scores the density and type of vegetation, terrain and direction of travel to produce ratings from B1 (USFS trail) to B6 (defoliants and flamethrowers permitted). You look to be in solid B4-B5 terrain. For reference, nothing in California or Colorado exceeds B3. Sorry, CA and CO hardmen and -women….you need to head to WA, BC, YT or AK for the full experience.

  2. MikeB July 12th, 2016 10:22 am

    Oh, and for interest sake, the author of the BCS in 1970, Roland Burton, is still thrashing around out there in the Coast Mtns, on skis, boots or climbing shoes teaching the young ‘uns how to suffer and then write hilariously about it later.

  3. Louie III July 12th, 2016 11:24 am

    Haha, I’ve heard about the BCS before. Funny stuff.

  4. Charlie Hagedorn July 12th, 2016 11:45 am

    Excellent choice to head home when you did. We were nearby hiking that full section of the PCT. The subsequent days were rather wet!

  5. Scott Allen July 12th, 2016 11:48 am

    What an excellent perspective on the “approach” of rock climbs in PNW.
    Indeed, in CO we are lucky/lazy.
    Thanks for keeping it real!

  6. Lou Dawson 2 July 12th, 2016 11:53 am

    Wonderful, thanks for sharing Louie!

  7. Joe John July 13th, 2016 11:35 am

    Sounds like an awesome couple of days. Thank you for sharing Louie. On the “up high east face of the Middle” pic there is a skull in the clouds looking down on you. Maybe that had something to do with your dream? ha ha

  8. Mark Worley July 13th, 2016 9:15 pm

    I’ve done some bushwhacks in Glacier Park that were humbling, but the Cascades likely win that battle handily. Nice report.

  9. Coop July 14th, 2016 12:54 pm

    Haha! “You know this is going can I suck, right?” Indeed it sucked more than I thought it would. The Devils club grew 2 feet while we were in the alpine. Thanks buddy! Good adventure!

  10. Emily Mannisto January 5th, 2018 3:01 pm

    Hey! My friend and I are looking to climb in the Gunsights this spring/summer and were wondering what resources you used to gather beta. She has a book for doing some research but we’d love to arm ourselves with as much info as we can!

    Thanks 🙂

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