Clark Mountain Extravaganza

A 4 day traverse through the Clark range and the Napequa river
July 4th weekend, 2000

Photos by Tom Unger, Michael Scott, and Sean Sirutis.

In 2000 Marie and I lead a Mountaineers Basis Climbing Course Mentor Group. One of our group activities was a basic climb. Of course, we didn't want to take them on just any basic climb, we wanted to do something special. We decided to climb Clark Mountain, but then descend into the beautiful and seldom visited Napequa valley and come out over Little Giant Pass. I imagined a beautiful climb of Clark, followed by a chance to camp on Butterfly Butte and spend a free day exploring the headwaters of the Napequa. I had been to or near most of these places and was excited about linking them all together in one trip. I started calling the trip the Clark Mountain Extravaganza.

Leaders: Tom Unger, Marie Mills, Andrew Boudreaux.
Students: John Augenstein, Elizabeth Barnett, Andreas Enderlein, Thomas Hodges, Michael Scott, Sean Sirutis.

Day 1

Set up car shuttle. Hike White River to Bolder Basin.

We spend the morning planting cars at our exit location at the Little Giant Pass trail head, then drive over to the White River trail head. As we load our packs a solo hiker comes out. He tells us that the bugs were unbearable. He was going to be spend the weekend in the valley but now he's going to go get some beer and camp by a like. Andrew and I had the same experience last year on our Glacier Pk traverse.

Ready at the White River trail head.


Group bug swat.

The bugs are incredibly bad, but only down in the White river. They thin out as we climb up toward Bolder basin. Our next challenge is crossing Boulder Creek. It's only a small creek.but flowing exceptionally fast. We boulder hop across the creek, then discover that sectoin was only half the creek. The other is too wide and we have to wade. The water is only up to my shins, but so intensly cold that my feet are in pain by the time I get out the other side.

John crossing.


Then Andreas.

We camped on a small ridge in the middle of Bolder Basin. There was a small sheltered area where we could all kitchen together. The weather was not looking good so we discussed several options, including climbing Clark from here as a day trip.

Bolder basin, where we camped
the first nigh.

Cooking together.

Andrew is undaunted.

Day 2

Traverse Clark Mtn.

The weather has not improved. During breakfast we talk more about our options. We decide to pack camp, move up to the pass, and hold another council. From there we could proceed with the traverse, or do a day climb then drop down the trail into the Napequa.

On the trail up to Bolder Pass.

John and Elizabeth nearing the pass.

Mick and his pack.

At the pass we again hold a conference and discuss the prospects of committing to a traverse of the mountain. I'm using a two phase voting system to facilitate group decisions. Voting is done by holding up fingers representing our vote. Here zero fingers means veto carry over. One person can veto the whole carryover if they are that uncomfortable with it. One means a vote against the carry over. Two means a vote for the carry over. All people decide then expose their vote simultaneously. The first phase is a non-binding vote held before any discussion so we can see which way people are leaning. Next we have a round of discussion. People can argue for their preference, and listen to other's. Andrew says some good words about the positive aspects of committing to a challenging route. Then there is a binding vote.

We decide to carry the packs up to the ridge, then discussion the carry over again. All this discussion has eaten up a lot of time and I'm beginning to worry about our pace.

Steep snow traverse from the pass.

Marie toping out.

Rest break on the shoulder.

View of the Walrus glacier. Our route went up the center.

In the middle of the glacier.

Looking back down at the shoulder where we took our rest break.

Directly up from the pass we traverse a steep snow slope directly above cliffs. It is perhaps the most dangerous part of the whole route.

When we get up to the ridge my sense of alpine urgency is strong and I forget about discussing our decision again. We take a short rest, then move on to the base of the glacier and rope up. I put myself in the middle of the rope so that John and Sean will get a chance to experience leading a rope team on a glacier. Sean leads out, diagonaling up the middle of the glacier. The snow is soft and breaking trail is difficult. When I judge that we are half way up we reverse our rope so that John leads. He breaks another several hundred feet of trail then we come to a several crevasses and the route is not clear. John hesitates and I realize that here experience counts and he doesn't have any. So we switch positions, putting me at the front. I lead through the upper crevasses, then continue across a flat bowl, and up it's far side.

John leading.

The other rope teams.

Nearing the top of the bowl we
begging to see the summit.

This brings us to the east ridge notch. There is a protected depression just below the notch. We unrope, rest, and allow the other rope teams to catch. up. When we are again assembled we cross through the notch onto the south side of the mountain. We traverse a ways, then head up a snow slope to the ridge crest. The clouds swirl around us. Occasionally they open up, allowing views down the steep north face to the glacier below. I climb from the snow onto the rock. The first couple moves are a little tricky, then the rest easy scrambling.

We cross one more snow band, the top of another gully, then arrive at the summit. I look back and take a picture of the folks climbing through the mist.

I like summiting in the clouds. It feels like a place remote and of a very different world than the one in which I live every day.

Just past the last snow band.

A bit of trail just before the summit.

Group on summit.

Thomas and group.


Instead of climbing back down the ridge we descend the rock slope directly south from the summit, then step onto snow and traverse directly back to the east ridge notch.

It is now about 3 pm, and feels late. Andrew latter tells me that at this point he was thinking: "get us the hell out of here." The good thing about a carry over is that we can make camp when ever we need to. We could make camp right here at the notch. It's flat and fairly well protected. But I still hope to complete the Clark range traverse and make it to Butterfly Butte. We rope up again and start out to circle around the north side of the summit. At first we are on flat ground and Andrew and I walk in parallel. Soon the slope stepens and Andrew takes the lead. Then it becomes very steep, running off to cliffs below. We drop down a ways, then turn and traverse to the west. It is an intimidating piece of snow, and some of the students are moving slowly and carefully.

Down climb after crossing to south side
of ridge.

Tom starting down the steep snow.

Loose gully.

Steep snow.

Andrew leads on ahead. When we catch up to them they are crossing to the south side of the ridge. We follow. There is a short rock scramble then a snow slope leading to another notch in the ridge. We have the choice on of continuing on the south side or crossing through the notch back onto the Robert's glacier. We expected to cross easily here, ascend further, then drop onto the Piltz glacier. But the decent does not look easy and the climb back up to were we gain the Piltz further than expected. Staying on the south side avoids the drop, but looks like difficult going. Finally, it is later than expected and we are more tired than expected.

We find that the north side of the notch is a standard Cascade Mountain Loose Gully with Hard Snow. Andrew and some students start down. While waiting for them to clear out Sean and I investigate other options . Further along there is a steep snow slope. On inspection I find that the very beginning is only 60 deg and that the snow provides very secure steps and ax placements. Half the group ends up taking the loose gully and the other half the steep snow.

Ramps off Robert's Glacier.

Cooking dinner in camp.

This brings us to the top of the Robert's glacier. Our plan was to cross to the Piltz and descend to Butterfly Butte. This route is a sure thing, but it is a long way to go yet. Alternately, we could descend the Robert's glacier to Butterfly Butte. It would all be down hill, but it is possible the route will not connect. There may be steep rock slabs which are impassable. Since we are tired now we decide to chance the Robert's. If it does not go we can use tomorrow, which would have been a rest day, climbing back up and over to the Piltz.

I start off and my rope team is quickly ahead of the other two. Soon I see that in the worst case we can descend from the glacier on the right. I then go to investigate to the left, which will take us directly to Butterfly butte. We are in luck: there is still enough snow to provide a route most of the way. However, the snow is inconsistent and presents the most difficult going of the day. The final 20 ft are on steep, hard pack dirt, requiring use of ice ax.

Finally we are all in the basin south of Butterfly Butte. Andrew goes ahead and chooses a campsite near a cluster of trees. We set up tents, then cook much needed dinners. Though it has been a hard day, everyone is in good spirits. The rain does not start till most meals are eaten...

Day 3

Crossing the Napequa

Andrew working on the tent.

Clouds clearing off Clark.

Overnight the rain became snow. In the morning there's two inches of fresh slush on the ground and more falling. Andrew, Marie and I confer. Since we don't have to go far today we will stay put in hopes that the afternoon will bring clearing. I check with the troupes and moral is high. While we three cower in the tent (eating breakfast of freshly baked scones) the students are out and about in the weather.

By afternoon there is clearing. We pack up and begin to move. Marie leads us up and over butterfly butte then down the north side toward the Napequa valley. Soon we are out of the snow and making good progress through easy (but wet) brush.

Crossing the Napequa is one of the obstacles that has been weighing on our minds. We reach the river down stream from Lewis Creek and find it to be a torrent. Here it is flowing fast between steep banks. We decide to look further up river and pick our way through the forest. Just below Lewis Creek we find a crossing that would be manageable. Before committing I want to look further. We continue up river. Above Lewis Creek the river is smaller and flows through some reasonable shallows. I think: "This is good, cross somewhere along here, definitely below that snow bridge. ... Snow bridge!"

It didn't register when I first saw it, but there is a huge snow bridge spanning the river just upstream. We bushwhack our way onto it and cross. The far side is an avalanche path which leads directly to the Napequa trail. This crossing could not have gone easier. Lewis creek is also easily crossed on a snow bridge.

We take a break on the far side of Lewis creek. It cold, we are damp, and it's raining again.

Sean and Elizabeth on Butterfly Butte.

Descending into the Napequa.

Crossing the snow bridge.

Feeling wet in the Napequa

We hike for at least another hour, then look for camping. We settle on a spot where we can put all the tents in a circle, under some trees. Well, almost all the tents. Our tent ends up on an uncomfortable hump so we have to move back and are away from the group.

Hiking the Napequa trail.

The leaders huddled in their tent.

Enjoying the evening.

Day 4

Crossing Little Giant Pass and back to the cars.

In the morning we continue our hike down the Napequa. When we come to the slopes below Little Giant Pass we regroup and scan the route. The trail, none too good to begin with, is covered by snow and will probably be difficult to follow. As an alternative, there is a diagonal gully filled with snow providing a direct ramp half way up the face. Above that it looks like we can climb snow slopes to the pass.

Looking up the Napequa

Elizabeth and Marie.

Marie and Tom (at base of snow ramp).

The snow ramp.

Looking back into the Napequa.

The last snow slopes before
Little Giant Pass

The snow ramp goes well. Above, we manage to get on to the snow with out too much crashing through the bush. The snow is tricky: there is fresh snow over old or over vegetation. As I kick steps my feet get colder and colder until I have to let someone else lead for a while. Andrew takes over and picks a route through the one weakness in a cliff band. My feet warm up and I tell Andrew that I could lead again. We were near the top and I figured that he would just lead to the pass. Instead, he says "OK" and lets me pass! Fortunately, in a couple minutes we are at Little Giant Pass.

The first thing I notice is the large cornice on the other side of the pass. I hike the ridge to get a view of the cornice, hoping to find a weakness that we can descend. It is steep, but not overhanging. However, the snow is hard so we decide to rappel. The other problem is that the whole basin is filled with snow down to below the tree line. This will make picking up the trail difficult. Fortunately, there is a fresh up track which we may be able to follow back down to the trail. Only one thing does not make sense: the up track comes from the far left of the basin and the trail is supposed to be in the center.

We send each of the students over the cornice, then I follow and pull the rope. I traverse over to where everyone has clustered around the up track. I ask Andrew what made the up track. He looks at it for a while and calls back that he doesn't think it was human. It's a fresh bear track. Exciting to think of a bear crossing here just before we arrived. Except that now we have to find the trail ourselves.

Looking for the trail.

It's been a while since I've hiked the trail and I'm very fuzzy on where it is. We descend the snow, traversing right so that we are sure the trail will be to our left or below us. It is not too long before the snow runs thin and we enter the brush. We work left a bit, but no trail. Now we are in the middle of dense brush on a very steep hill side. Progress is difficult and slow. If we continue straight down we should eventually come to the trail, but that could take even hours. In a last effort to find the trail I drop my pack and traverse quickly across the slope. In 200 ft I find the trail. I return, fetch my pack and the rest of the party. (The trail was exactly where the Green Trails map showed it. If I read the map closer I might have been able to lead us more directly to the trail. But I didn't trust that the map was sufficiently accurate so I took a wider route which was more sure to find the trail.)

There is only one more obstacle left for us: the Chiwawa River. Before the trip we took a look at the river and decided that we could probably cross. But that has not prevented us from worrying about it the whole trip. Boulder was a cold, difficult crossing and that was only shin deep. The Chiwawa River is 80 ft wide and will be up to our hips. If it is anything as cold as Boulder Creek, and if the weather stays as bad, we are all going to come out of the river deeply chilled. I've been thinking about various ways to rig ropes to make the crossing safer. I'm even speculating about setting a high line that we can traverse on, avoiding the river completely. I realize that if I had really been thinking I would have cached an inflatable dinghy at the crossing. With two we could have even cached on on the far side without anyone ever having to get in the water. That's not an option now. Fortunately, the cars, their heaters, and dry clothing will be just on the other side.

But as we hike down the trail the air temperature gets warmer and and the clouds dissipate. By time time we are at the river we're hot. Our biggest concern is the bugs. We pick a shallow crossing that goes diagonally downstream. Andrew goes first and does fine. We begin to follow in groups of 2 or 3. Even though we picked a shallow line, the water is up to my crotch. But it warm. Well, not warm, but not bitter cold. In fact, once everyone is across I jump in the river to wash off the sweat and dirt from the last 4 days.

Andrew crossed first and waits.

Me, Elizabeth, and Marie.

Relieved of the heavy weight of
responsibility, we frolic...

And that is pretty much the end of the trip. We drive over to pick up our cars at the White River trail head, then have dinner at the 59er Diner.

Before the trip I billed as the "Clark Mountain Extravaganza." It pretty much lived up to that name. We encountered all the alpine difficulties except for technical rock: dense bugs, cold stream crossing, steep snow, glacier crevasses, rock scramble, fog, loose gully, steep dirt, snowfall, cold rain, cornice, dense brush, and a big river. It was a difficult trip by any standard. The student's all did phenomenally well. Not only did they all stand up to the physical challenge of the trip, the stayed in constantly good spirits through out.

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Page last modified:  Feb 01 00:47 2003  by  Tom Unger