July 31-August 1, 2004
This was a rarely done west side climb of the Milk Creek West Ridge route. Approach was via USFS Road 750. This unimproved gravel road allowed us to drive 2.5 miles up the Red Creek drainage, directly to the boundary of the Jefferson Wilderness. From here, an easy ¾ mile cross-country hike, with but a single 600' elevation gain got us to the PCT in 45 minutes. This x-c route was under a full forest canopy, through almost no brush. Another 9 minutes on the PCT and we were at the start of the Milk Creek climber’s trail. This cut 2½ miles and an additional 600' climb off the usual USFS trail approaches to the climber’s trail.
This climber’s “trail”, in the bottom of the Milk Creek canyon, was the most hazardous portion of this climb! There was no trail for the most part. We just followed the edges of the stream bank. Unfortunately, increasing glacial melt water flows late in the day submerge much of these banks! The creek has cut a near vertical-walled notch into the rotten volcanic bedrock, and punctuated this with three major waterfall obstacles. Above this canyon cut are steep side slopes of entirely loose ash, sand, rubble, and boulders. Based on the piles of fresh mud, boulders and large shattered logs, rainfall events cause lethal debris avalanches into this canyon. We soon determined that rock helmets were necessary, as even under our dry weather conditions, the walls were spitting rocks at us. The area is actively eroding, as was evidenced by one of the rubble ledges we had to traverse to surmount a 30' waterfall. By the following evening it had partially collapsed into the plunge pool below, making for a very scary descent.
About a ½ mile up this route we encountered snow and ice bridging across the canyon from wall to wall. As we continued on, the ice layer got progressively thicker. The stream-carved ice cave under this ice sheet also got progressively bigger and became more of a hazard. Judging from the collapsed ceiling holes, we were well advised to stick to the sides of the canyon!
Surmounting the waterfalls was particularly time consuming and hazardous. There were no good belay anchors to be found at any of these waterfall sites. Getting around them required climbing up out of the canyon cut, sometimes on a thin layer of rubble overlying the ice bridge we’d been walking on top of. We then faced a traverse on steep unconsolidated rubble slopes above the waterfall plunge pool.
Including rest breaks and route finding problems, it took us nearly 4½ hours to advance less than two miles up this canyon to our base camp! For the last half of this distance we were walking on the lower lobe of the Milk Creek Glacier with it’s attendant hazards, added to the rockfall risk from the canyon walls towering above us. A repeat of this climber’s trail route is NOT RECOMMENDED! I suggest a subsequent climbing party attempt a ridge crest route along the north rim of this canyon. It will entail more elevation gain and loss to base camp, but this alternative is possibly faster and definitely safer.
Although the Milk Creek climbing routes are described as having “serious rockfall and avalanche hazard”, the ridge route we chose could not be notably hazardous in either respect. Having been explicitly forewarned of the grave hazards of this venture, we chose this route by consensus, only after viewing the alternatives from base camp! Both of the adjacent glacial ravine routes (North and South Milk Creek Glacier lobes) were melted out for the season. They were obviously very hazardous due to steep ice and exposed rock, waterfall cliffs, and frequent rockfall. Keeping on the crest of our chosen ridge route avoided these hazards all the way up to where all these routes converge on that steep, exposed snowfield below the summit block.
Our 6,200' base camp was at the bottom of this ridge, adjacent to the north fork of Milk Creek just above the waterfall where it enters the south fork. We began our summit assault from here at 12:15 a.m. Commencing our climb up the ridge under a full moon, with excellent conditions: clear, dry, 68°, and east wind at 5 mph.
The crux of this ridge route was encountered at ~ 8,000' elevation, in the form of a ~15' high, undercut, rock buttress. To stay on the ridge crest you must surmount this wall with a couple of class 5.0 moves. On our nighttime ascent, I chose to not climb this, as I didn’t know if we would just be “;treeing” ourselves on a gendarme. However, abandoning our ridge crest for its south (right hand) slope led us onto a nightmarish traverse of ever more narrow and outward sloping ledges overhanging the south lobe of the Milk Creek Glacier. The last ledge was much like the Crawl on Three Fingered Jack! Only after negotiating this were we able to find a route back up onto the ridge crest. DO NOT repeat this mistake! Surmount the buttress head-on and stay on the ridge crest!
We continued up this ridge to ~ 9,100', just below a set of large gendarmes. From this point, we ventured out onto the 45°–50° snow slopes below the summit. Due to the steepness, exposure without a safe run-out, and soft snow, this was a stressful ¼ to ½ mile climb up to the base of the NW face of the summit block. Some class 4 rock climbing, with a couple of class 5.0 moves got us on the summit, without necessity of a rope, at 7:50 a.m., 7:35 hours above base camp.
We started down climbing the summit rock at 9:00 a.m. By this time, the sun and warm weather had further softened the snowfield below. We had to down climb this snowfield stepping backward into the foot holes we’d kicked on the way up. This took about 1½ hours and was much worse than the ascent! We got back onto the rock ridge at 11:45 a.m. (hail Mary!!) and had an uneventful hike and class 3 climb back down this ridge to the aforementioned buttress. Descending this 15' drop would have been easier using our rope, but a few words of encouragement, and pointers as to footholds, sufficed. We arrived back in base camp at 3:45 p.m., pretty much wasted from this 6:45 hour descent!
Consensus was to get home that evening. So, at 6:00 p.m., with a rainstorm threatening, we resumed our hike down from base camp, back through that horrible canyon, cross-country through the woods, and on out to the truck. The water in the canyon was now wall to wall in certain places, with no dry “beach” to walk on. Coming upon these waterfalls from the upstream side gave us a truly appalling view of just how large those hollows in the ice really were. In one spot it appeared that it was more of an ice bridge spanning the canyon, than a glacier with a stream carved tunnel in it! This is perhaps a semantic distinction, unless you’re compelled to walk on it as your only way out! We cleared the last waterfall as we were enveloped in complete darkness, and by 9:30 p.m. we staggered out onto the PCT (and a few more “hail Mary’s”).
It took us two hours to retrace that 45-minute cross-country forest stretch back to the truck, finally arriving there at Midnight. The moon wasn’t yet up, and terrain features weren’t nearly as obvious in total darkness. GPS was only sporadically useful due to the canopy overhead, but it did provide an occasional confirmation of our progress. Mostly, we relied on map and compass. We would send one of our party ahead, and then, observing his headlamp beam, shout “left” or “right” to direct him back onto our desired traverse line.
We drove back down Red Creek and cut back to the Pamelia Lake trailhead where the other vehicles were parked. After transferring gear we set out for our homes at 1:00 a.m. on Monday morning. At this point we had been climbing and hiking with full packs for 25 hours. The other party members drove the ~2 hours back to Eugene. But as I had a 4½-hour drive to get home, I opted to pull off for a nap at Nimrod. All things considered, this was a rather challenging climb, and an adventure in which we were blessed with safe passage.
— Christopher S. Miller, climb leader
[Climbers were Brian Hamilton, Chris Miller, Greg Milliman, and Greg Zupansic.]
—photos by Chris Miller