| Crystal SW Ridge: Winter
-Start at Mayflower Gulch TH
-Over Mayflower Hill
-Crystal Southwest Ridge
Blue: Ascent Route Red: Descent Route
-Elevation Climbed: 3,200'
-Mileage RT: 8.0 miles
The Conditions and Route Choice:
Very high winds and moderate snowfall the previous 3 days to this climb called for a ridge run mountaineering route. No skis, boo hoo. Since Crystal was still on the 'to do' list and had reasonable access, it was a good option. I knew the avalanche danger would be high. The forecast for the day was for 4-8 inches of snow and moderate winds, but reasonable temps. With tender slabs already formed, additional loading of new snow through the day would mean certain avalanche activity. This made it an easy decision to go over Mayflower Hill instead of ascending the Pacific Creek drainage to avoid the danger. I was concerned about being prone to the avalanche slopes during the traverse under Pacific North Face, so an aborted mission was probable.
Going over Mayflower Hill was a nice addition to this normally simple route, especially in winter. To reach tree line, we used an old mining road which ran North from the trailhead. After reaching a switchback with a less used road, we turned back south were serious trail breaking began. Without the additional 20lbs of ski gear, I felt a light as a feather and ready to break, but the snow was very deep and painstakingly difficult.
Breaking trail up to treeline on Mayflower Hill East slopes
After reaching treeline, the going go much easier on tundra and talus.
On our way to Mayflower Summit
Before long we were on the 12,420' summit admiring the heavily corniced exposure to the North.
Prakash near the summit of Mayflower Hill
Climbing along the narrow ridgeline on the east ridge of Mayflower was a true winter climbing delight. The snow was clearly unstable, as small slabs built on either side of the snow spine ridge were easily sent down the mountain. Walking on a spine of snow like this is one of my favorite climbing experiences. This route was short, sweet and very effective in getting us to the base of Pacifics West Ridge without having to cross under any avalanche chutes.
Prakash making his way down Mayflower Hill toward Pacific's West Ridge
Looking toward Pacific's West Ridge from near Mayflower Hill summit
The visibility was very poor due to heavy wind loading off the ridge to the north. This made surveying the exit area from the ridgeline to begin the traverse toward Crystal a guessing game. To avoid potential avy terrain, we climbed 100' up the Pacific's West ridge to completely avoid this slide zone. Here are some pics of this area…
Prakash climbing above slide terrain at the base of Pacific's West Ridge
Descending around the avalanche slope, slabs disturbed by our trail can clearly be seen in the foreground
Once off the ridge and on the rolling low angled talus, we surveyed the danger of crossing below Pacific's NW slide paths. Here is the route toward crystal and the two largest paths from below…
The safe path
Largest slide paths on Pacifics NW face
Luckly, there is a natural barrier you can walk on and be safe from these dangers above. It's a mini 30 foot tall ridge of talus running straight toward Crystal, with a significant cornice on its east side. Anything sliding off the face above would run south from the aprons of the couloirs. We had to ascend above several more smaller areas of avalanche terrain closer to the Pacific-Crystal saddle. Each one of these diversions added miles and vert to the climb. The weather was an enjoyable mix of ground blizzard and sunshine. Once we reached the saddle, it felt like all the hard work was over. Just getting to Crystal in these kinds of conditions is the challenge.
Saddle of Pacific and Crystal
At the saddle, we stashed our snowshoes under a pile of rocks. Climbing toward the false summit of Crystal was quick and easy. The views of Pacific from here are outstanding.
Prakash ascends toward Crystals SW ridge false summit with Pacific behind
Looking toward the summit of Crystal from the false summit
With time running a little long on the day, I ran ahead and got the summit while Prakash waited in a windbreak on the false summit.
Looking back at the false summit with Prakash and Pacific visible
The snow conditions on the southwest ridge were quite different than elsewhere on the route. Several sections of ice and impenetrable snow fields make this very tame looking terrain somewhat interesting. Surface hoar frost grew heavy on the west face near the summit, a neat sight common to winter storms in the Rockies.
The final stretch to the summit on the SW ridge of Crystal
I summited, took some pics and headed back toward Prakash. From false summit to summit and back took me 23 minutes. I was happy to have an axe to glissade the ice/snow slopes. The way back to treeline went smoothly and we got a nice clear view of Mayflower. I also noted several natural slides on North aspects off the ridgeline. You can see our tracks on the ridge fin if you look closely…
Mayflower Hill in Febuary
Having witnessed the loading zones throughout the day, we knew we could take the Pacific Creek drainage as our descent route without being prone to a natural avalanche cycle. This saved some time in getting to treeline by not having to ascend Mayflower again, but once in the woods we realized our folly. The heavy snows of the past week or so had layed down a deep unconsolidated blanket of snow on top of the usual depth hoar cavity. 1+1 equal neck deep snow, no joke. At one point, I watch Prakash sink straight to his shoulders like a pencil into the snow. We tried rolling at one point it was so tough. The last half mile of trailbreaking through this area was possibly the most demanding hiking I have ever experienced, and it was DOWNHILL!!! The total trip took us 9 hours.
This route can be completed in high danger, but you must ascend above several avy slopes on the traverse below Pacific NW face. Know how to evaluate and avoid danger zones!