| Tomyhoi Peak scramble, North Cascades
Since moving to Washington from Colorado three years ago, I have noticed many similarities and differences between climbing in the two states. One of the most frustrating differences is the lack of good route beta in Washington. Guidebooks, web forums, website route descriptions and trip reports are all over the place, making them hard to rely on. Descriptions are vague, inaccuracies are rampant, opinions are wide ranging, and there’s little consensus between many Class 3 and 4 route designations. All of this was evidenced on our recent climb of Tomyhoi Peak (pronounced “Tommy-hoy”).
While researching this climb, I compared more than a half dozen of the most credible sources I could find: a few guidebooks, a few websites, and a few trip reports. Round-trip distances ranged from 12 to 14 miles; Class ratings ranged from 3 to 4; and total elevation gain ranged from 3,800’ to 4,500’.
In my opinion, this climb was probably a bit over 12 miles round trip, it was Class 4, and its total elevation gain was at least 5,000 feet, as the trailhead-to-summit difference is more than 3,800 feet, plus there are two 200-foot drops, one 100-foot drop, a couple 50-foot drops, and many more smaller dips and rises along the way (all of which you lose and regain, both out and back).
Aside from those annoyances, this was an interesting climb that really tested me on many levels, both mentally and physically. Maybe it seemed harder than it truly was because it’s been a while since I've done an exposed scramble. Or maybe it’s because most of my exposed scrambling experience has been on better rock. Or maybe it’s because I’m only 5’6” and this route was meant for taller climbers. Regardless, it ended up being a great experience for the soul, plus it afforded some incredible views.
After driving about an hour and 15 minutes east of Bellingham, Jen, our friend Pavel and I started up the trail. Most people hike up to Yellow Aster Butte from this trailhead, which is a relatively easy hike with fantastic views, but only a few continue on to Tomyhoi. Beyond where the trails split, we only saw about 6 other climbers all day long.
Wildflowers were still ragin’.
Mount Baker in the morning sun.
From the tarns on the west side of Yellow Aster Butte, our route went NNW up the broad slope.
The trail along the ridge became more and more interesting the farther we went, and the views continued to expand into a serrated horizon.
Canadian Border Peak and American Border Peak.
Jen on one section of the ridge. Photo by our friend, Pavel (macromundo.org).
To my surprise, many sections of trail skirted just above steep scree slopes and sheer cliffs ...
... and many sections required careful stepping.
This section of trail was less than a foot wide, and it traversed along the top of a 100'+ cliff.
Jen on the trail in these three images (left 2 were taken on the return).
After meandering and undulating along the ridge for hours, we came to an imposing gendarme. This was when we hopped onto the top of the glacier on the east/right side. (Adding to my earlier points of frustration, one guidebook writer even argues that this may not even be a true glacier, although we could clearly see crevasses.)
Traversing the top of the glacier was short and relatively easy, though care had to be taken, as there was a deep moat on the left and a quickly steepening slope of ice on the right, which eventually rolled over an edge and into deep crevasses. We used ice axes for added safety, but did not rope up.
Once on dry rock, the scrambling began in earnest.
Soon thereafter we got our first look at the summit block. It was intimidating and it looked impossible to climb.
Tomyhoi Peak’s summit block, with Chilliwack, British Columbia in the valley in the distance.
Pavel and Jen contemplating route options.
Climbers working their way up the summit block (photo by Pavel, taken later, on our way back down).
After descending about 100 feet or so to a col, Pavel started up first, and he made the crux section look easy.
This is roughly the route we took. Some sections are out of view. Pavel is circled in the crux section.
Jen and I started up after Pavel. The scrambling was easy at first, and while it wasn't quite as bad as it looked from the ridge, once we passed the small pinnacle, it became much more difficult and much more exposed.
Somewhere in the crux section, I ran into a rock problem that I couldn't seem to solve. “I’m stuck,” I yelled up to Jen. “I can’t figure this f#%king thing out.”
I had one good hand hold and one good foot hold, but it wasn't enough to make the next move. Without exposure, I probably could have popped up without a problem. But there was a lot of air directly behind me, so there was no room for error.
Jen scrambled back down to try and help me out. She made some suggestions but none of them worked. After spending at least 5 minutes trying to figure out how to make my next move, which was longer than I have ever spent on any single move on any mountain (including all the 14ers in Colorado), I began to feel like giving up.
Jen continued to encourage me with suggestions, and she even down climbed to that spot (after I down climbed out of her way), to see how she made the move. I watched, but she was somehow able to get her right foot onto a lip of rock that was chest height. My legs don’t stretch that high, and this was clearly not made for shorter or less-flexible climbers.
With some persistence and determination, I finally found a way to get my foot up, which involved stemming with my left arm, mantling with my right arm, and hoping to hell at least one of my foot holds held.
Just above that section of rock, we ascended onto a steep ridge with even more exposure. I could feel lots of air on both sides but I kept my attention on the rock. Keeping my nerves in check, however, was like wrangling cats.
Meanwhile, Pavel knew Jen was helping me, and he didn't think it would help my cause to have two people yelling suggestions, so he went ahead and tagged the summit and then came back down to where we were.
With every move I made up, I took a look back down, just to make sure I could get back down. It was so steep that I couldn't see the rock just a few feet below me.
Pavel took these two photos of us on the ridge.
“’Eff’ this, screw you guys, I’m going home,” my brain screamed. But I knew it was mostly fear talking, and I was in a mental battle to keep it in check so that it wouldn't escalate into panic. I was confident that I could handle the physical challenge before me, but it took a great deal of concentration to keep fear and dread from entering my mind. I focused on the rock, not on the air, and I took my time with each move, so as not to make a rash decision.
“Pavel, how is the rock beyond this?” I asked, hoping for good news.
“It’s pretty much the same from here to the top.”
That wasn't what I wanted to hear. I briefly considered turning back once again. But after looking at the “knife edge” / gabled section directly ahead, it didn't look so bad, so I decided to push on.
I think that was the first time I have ever been on a mountain and thought, Boy, am I glad to be on this easier, knife-edge section!
We then came upon another awkward move, which was right above the only flat ground on the summit block. “If I fall,” I told Jen, “just push me into the wall so I don’t go over the edge.”
Fortunately, I didn't fall. And while getting up that slightly overhanging ledge was a bit awkward (especially for height-challenged folk), once I found a good hand hold, it was very doable.
After walking across an exposed scree slope and scrambling up a rocky ridge, we made it to the summit! Well, Jen made it first, and then I made it. The summit was so small and exposed, there was really only room for one person up there at a time.
Even though I spent less than a minute on top, the 360-degree view seemed to offer more eye candy than legally allowed.
We spent 5 hours getting to this point, and we knew we had a long way back down, so we immediately began our descent.
Down climbing was challenging, but I took it slow and made careful and deliberate moves, which made it manageable.
Me down climbing. (Photos by Pavel.)
Pavel on the gabled, knife-edge section.
Me down climbing the crux section. (Photos by Jen.)
I love how you often see new views on your descent.
Mount Rexford in Canada, I believe.
Canadian Border Peak, American Border Peak, and Mt. Larrabee.
We knew they existed, but we finally came across some mountain goats in Washington for the first time. This mamma blocked our path, though, so we spent a couple moments in a stand-off until she finally ran down the slope with her kid.
Mount Shuksan in the distance to our south.
Yellow Aster Butte. The true summit is on the left, but most hikers stop at the rounded point on the right (climbers on top in this photo).
Mount Shuksan and the tarns adjacent to Yellow Aster Butte.
Canadian Border Peak and American Border Peak.
Four hours after leaving the summit, we made it back to the trailhead. This long, 9-hour climb drained me physically and mentally. But I think I am better because of it. And once again I realized how fortunate I am to have such an awesome climbing partner and wife.
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):