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Mount Despair (7292')

May 27, 2007

by Mike Collins last modified Sep 10, 2008 02:43 PM
Type of Outing
Day hike

Mount Despair was Fred Beckey's First first ascent. He was 16 and just out of Boy Scouts when he accompanied Lloyd Anderson and Clint Kelley to the summit on July 2, 1939. Their entry into the register also carries the notation, ""Extreme avalanche risk"". The second ascent entry for the peak is from 1962. This millenium has seen one party per year with 2005 showing no visitors. Alan Kearney has written a book entitled, Classic Climbs of the Northwest. In describing Mount Despair he writes, ""Any approach to the peak is primarily an off-trail adventure of no small distance."" He's got that right.

We drove on the North Cascades Highway until shortly after Damnation Creek. There we turned left onto the road to Thornton Lake. We drove until stopped by a washout at Sky Creek about 0.8 miles before the trailhead. Our approach route was to be the the ridge dividing the waters of Damnation Creek from Thornton Creek so stopping at elevation 2450' was a perfect jumpoff point for our upclimb . The ridge is a pleasant hike with several rock shoulders that one has to thread a way through. The croaking of frogs and whooping of spruce grouse were pleasant springtime sounds that added backgroung music to the beauty of the area. We went over Pts. 5161 and 5946 staying right on the ridge until just west of Upper Thornton Lake at elevation 6060' where we made a descending traverse toward Triumph Pass. Kearney's book mentions traversing over to Triumph at elevation 5,000 ft. Either his altimeter was off or he never actually made that traverse. At 5000 ft one goes through the steep forest of a rock buttress for Mount Triumph. It is much safer/easier to just lose the several hundred feet of elevation to Triumph Creek and then begin the upclimb toward Triumph Pass. Several hundred feet beneath Triumph Pass is an island of trees out of harms way from avalanches. We shovelled a nice platform out of the snowbank and smoothed the snow for our accomodations for two nights. It took 8 hrs to reach this point from the car.

We left camp at 0700 in fair skies. When reaching Triumph Pass we got our first unobstructed view of Mount Despair. It is a beautiful peak standing like a lone sentinel over the Goodell Creek drainage. We descended the glacier until 5000 ft where we started our traverse in snowshoes over toward a small lake at the southern anchor of a cirque below Despair. Pausing to rest allowed us to plan our route. We could see a connecting snow ramp that allowed access to the snowslope on the SE face of Despair. Beckey was right about avalanche risk. This is another peak where a cloudy day is your friend. The 45 degree slope is just waiting to slide down with the warmth of the sun. Kicking innumerable steps brought us steadily to the summit 4 1/4 hrs after leaving camp. We quickly layered up. The cloud ceiling was lowering and hid the tops of Triumph and the Picket Range. Looking out toward Marblemount we could see some precipitation happening which was an overture for the morrow.

The clouds lowered during the night enveloping us in fog. Light rain started when breaking camp and it with us until becoming snow at 6000 ft. We altered our route back to the ridge to avoid the difficulties encountered with the buttress on the approach. The walls of the Triumph Creek drainage are steep cliff but we found a passage with trees that connected with the upper slopes. When at the ridge we made a decision we came to regret. Wanting to avoid the rocky shoulders we encountered on the approach we decided to just lose elevation down to Thornton Lake and then take the trail from there. Well we couldn't find the trail beneath four feet of snow. We then rolled the dice with the decision to just lose elevation in the Thornton Creek drainage and reconnect with the trail some 1500 ft below. Bad choice. The Thornton Creek drainage is an amalgam of gorge and valley. We would descend in steep forest only to find it ending at a cliff of several hundred feet. This pattern of yo-yo downclimbing and upclimbing was quite fatiguing with full packs. Eventually we located one conduit of steep forest that connected us with the land adjacent to Thornton Creek. We continued on staying in forest to avoid the slide alder next to the creek. Eventually we reached the trail (actually an abandoned logging road) over Thornton Creek. That meant we were only three miles from our car. If I ever do this peak again I will stick to the N-S ridge separating Damnation Creek from Thornton Creek and avoid the trail to the lakes entirely.

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