The Pride of the Monte Cristos: Kyes Peak

Kyes Peak is a prominent and picturesque mountain set near the abandoned mining town of Monte Cristo in the North Cascades. In the late 1800s, the Rockafeller family helped to develop the area by funding the exploration and intended exploitation of the area’s mining deposits. Situated in the Mountain Loop Subrange Area of the North Cascades, the town of Monte Cristo was at the turn of the century the terminus for an Everett railroad built to ferry ores from the surrounding mountains to the then-bustling town. Perhaps glacial hazards, including seracs falls and avalanches, were a bit more than those mining had bargained for, as financial disasters near the inception of World War 1 precluded further development and mining of the area when prospectors’ expenses spilled beyond their budgetary constraints once again. Today, the majority of the very modest commerce in the area comes thanks to tourists exploring the beauty of the surrounding mountains and seeking a jaunt into recent history. Favorite nearby activities include visits to the now-abandoned mining sites in the area and hikes to the picturesque Blanca Lake, situated near the terminus of the Columbia Glacier. Along with Monte Cristo and Columbia Peaks, Kyes and its surrounding ridges contain the Columbia Glaicer’s basin. Kyes Peak is geologically significant in that it is the highest summit in the Monte Cristo group of peaks. Despite its relative prominence and proximity to popular summer hiking destinations, Kyes is far from a classic ski or snowboard tour. However, the peak can be considered noteworthy for the mountaineering community in that it is one of the few named for one of the first to ascend it—James Ellsworth Kyes who climbed it for the first recorded time in August of 1920. Kyes north Face The remote location, colorful proximate history, and aggressive terrain of this relatively unexplored objective left Scott and I giddy with a sense of adventure as we set off on our journey to summit and then snowboard down Kyes’s northeastern face. If we were successful, we’d be the first documented to do so. We approached by skinning up Quartz Creek, which was still buried under almost 10 feet of snow. Thin clouds veiling blue skies teased us with sporadic views of Kyes’ massive alpine bowls as we approached. kyes096 Once we gained our first ridge, we were forced to traverse under and around many a cliff band until we reached the Quartz Basin. We were surprised to find that the basin was composed mainly of cliffs, waterfalls, and generally unskiable lines, with only the occasional escape route situated between them. kyes098 From there, however, we were happy to see the terrain change dramatically from steep to mellow. We skinned up mellow, glacier-carved rollers until arriving at the Quartz col, its name reminiscent of the mine once nearby. The col was connected to Kyes via a long ridge and endless views of the Monte Cristos, still covered in clouds. We were eight hours deep into the tour and visibility was nil, so we pondered our next move. Either we’d turn back to the car or push forward for a potential summit attempt. Finally, we decided we’d wait to see if the weather changed. A few moments later, as if on command, the clouds began lifting and we got a view of the summit and our initially intended route. kyes106 We could see enough to tell that our intended approach ridge was impassible at spots. So, we opted to drop down onto the Pride Glacier and traverse under the cliffs and back onto the ridge. kyes102 From here on our tools for the approach would be crampons and ice axes. We kickstepped carefully and intentionally up the steep ridge. kyes017 kyes108 While climbing conditions were great, it was immediately obvious that the snowboard down would be less than epic. kyes031 As we ascended, the cloud layers burned off and to our east was Glacier Peak and its endless alpine bowls. Before long we gained the Pride Glacier Headwall and made our way to 300 feet from the summit, the remaining vert of which would be a climb on rock. With only a few hours of sunlight remaining, we chose to ride down the headwall for an uninterrupted 2000 vert. kyes043 Since there were only a few inches of snow on top of ice, we rode the line cautiously, careful not to lose our edges. Soon, things mellowed out, as we rode a few inches of powder on the lower apron, but we were still mindful of crevasses and a bergshrund before reaching the base of the Pride Glacier. kyes046 kyes126 It had been a long day and we were still only halfway done, since we still had to skin out. Retreating towards the Quartz col, we occasionally glanced back at Kyes and Monte Cristo now to our backs. kyes130 Being rushed for time, we opted to drop into the Quartz bowl and navigate through cliff bands until arriving at a 30 foot cliff. We had two choices, either to climb back up or to down climb, which we felt comfortable with because of the “veggie belay” opportunities surrounding us (trees and brush provided emergency purchase.) With the help of endemic plants, we climbed down the nearly vertical face until once again arriving onto the snowpack. Soon we were snowboarding down the final few hundred feet of steep terrain before putting on our headlamps for hours of skinning through low angled forests.

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