Graybeard North Face Attempt and Cousley Houston on Colfax

Me on the final ridge. Washington’s most intimidating summit behind. Photo: Matteo Agnoloni

The weather this fall was quite amenable for climbing. I took advantage of a few different opportunities to explore the North Cascades and see how things were shaping up.

The Cascades have a long history of winter ascents, highlighted in this cool chronology. The North Face of Graybeard is one of the classics, but is usually reserved for spring, when highway 20 re-opens and there is enough snow/ice to form good conditions. I found one account of climbing the face during fall, written by Steve House in the 2004 AAJ. He soloed the face twice in a week in November 2002, finding exciting mixed conditions. I wondered whether the conditions this season would be similar, and got my buddy Jeff on board to take a look the weekend of November 18.

North Face of Graybeard

A long story short, we bailed half way up the face due to super thin conditions and lack of time. I led a few serious pitches with limited protection, sugary snow on slabs, and rotten ice. The snow didn’t seem to be consolidated as Steve had written about, and given our slow pace there was no way we were going to make it. That being said, given the time of year, we were stoked to have climbed 4-5 pitches of fun, exciting alpine climbing! The temperatures were cold enough, but the face just seemed too dry. I hope to go back in the spring to see how different it looks.

The first waterfall pitch, which very much resembled a waterfall. Photo: Jeff Tarshis
Jeff heading up the second pitch, which was in good shape!
Jeff coming up the third pitch, before the climbing got a bit desperate.
Me leading up the fourth pitch, which ended up only being protected by a single angle piton. Photo: Jeff Tarshis
Jeff following the 4th pitch. I led one more difficult pitch before we bailed.

A couple weeks later, gifted with a week of high pressure, Matteo and I headed up to Colfax to climb the Cousley Houston. We were aware of new snow on the route, but upon approach it was clear there wasn’t too much accumulation and slabs hadn’t formed. We decided to boot the whole way, as carrying skis from the car would have been a pain, but this meant trudging up through ankle to knee deep snow for hours. I love it.

The route itself was super high quality. Squeaky snow, alpine ice, a brittle pillar, and exposed climbing at the top. It was a spectacular day out, and we were psyched to have climbed this classic! I echo the sentiments of others when I say colfax and the black buttes may boast some of the best alpine climbing conditions in the PNW, made even cooler by the fact that they are scary piles of choss in any other season.

Matteo approaching the route.
Matteo leading the stellar first pitch.
Me starting up the pillar, which was rough. I’ll leave it at that. Photo: Matteo Agnoloni
Matteo following ice above the pillar.
Me climbing with Lincoln Peak in the background. I’ll be back for that one… Photo: Matteo Agnoloni
Matteo leading toward the summit. We simuled the upper pitches in one block.
Me on the final ridge. Washington’s most intimidating summit behind. Photo: Matteo Agnoloni
Nice day, eh?