I wanted to climb Mount Cruiser ever since seeing the old cover of the Mountaineers Guide to the Olympic Mountains. Here’s a similar picture on the web that I found. Robert and I only had one day to do Cruiser so we decided to approach from Mildred Lakes instead of the much longer Flapjacks Lakes approach. According to the map, the Mildred Lakes looked much more reasonable – 4 to 5 miles one way. Why would people prefer the Flapjacks Lakes approach? We didn’t pay enough attention to that internal question and found out the hard way. Well, in retrospect, it was a fun trip, though I recall not being to happy with it upon arriving back at the car late at night.
We took the Kingston Ferry at 7am and then drove southward down the eastern slopes of the trailhead and up the Hamma Hamma River road until the very end – the Mildred Lakes trailhead. For the most part, the trail was easy to follow. However, we did note that parts of the trail became semi-obscured in the forest and that it would be hard to follow in the darkness. So we set a turnaround time so we’d be back at Mildred Lakes around 6:30, which should give us enough daylight to hike out with relative ease.
We caught our first glimpse of Sawtooth Ridge and Mount Cruiser before having to descend down to the lakes. It sure did look like a long way to go for such a small point. The mystique of Cruiser prodded us forward down to the lakes where we began searching for the non-existent climber’s path. We headed across the lakes at a log jam, where Robert completely dunked his foot into the lake, completely soaking one boot. We went up through timber that gradually steepened with flies and mosquitos perpetually buzzing around us.
The bushwhack up to alpine didn’t seem too unreasonable. It was certainly preferred to the awful descent that we made. Soon enough, we were at snowfields where we had some water and food and continued up along the ridge. We were on the other side of Alpha from Cruiser. We had the option of doing a new route on the north side of Alpha, but it honestly looked like junk. So, we bypassed Alpha on the left, downclimbing loose chossy gullies.
We ascended back up towards Cruiser over talus and snow. At this point, the hike was qualifying for a pain-in-the-axe slog. We down-climbed to the base of Cruiser into a thin seam where we had the option to climb the 5.4 route which followed a dead vertical crack/chimney system. Much of it looked mossy so we climbed down a chockstone and traversed over the lower part of the face. Soon, the climbing became more serious and exposed and we were unroped. Robert tenuously climbed up to a belay point and threw a rope down to me which I tied around my waist. I headed straight up which became dead vertical and downsloping – definitely not good climbing. A large chunk of rock pulled out (I wasn’t testing each hold well at this point) and the rope caught me – it reminded me of the seriousness of climbing, to say the least). From here, Robert led up to the belay point beneath the final classic pitch.
We decided to at least climb the 5.7 route on the right side. Robert led off again. I didn’t feel too much like leading after the shock of pulling that loose hold out. He headed out and later called back down telling me how good the pitch was. Indeed it was – near vertical but full of good holds. Protection was a little sparse. At one point, I found a natural connecting pocket in the rock where a sling could have been girth-hitched. Robert used a thin bolt cleverly by looping the end of the wire on a nut around it and cinching the loop with the nut itself. The pitch is a full 60 meters and after maybe 45 meters of face climbing, the pitch finishes on the narrow ridge to the top. The summit itself is tiny, one of the smallest summits I’ve been on.
We realized we didn’t have time to hang out on the summit so we rappelled down and began the exasperating descent. Instead of going back the way we did, which would have involved climbing back up loose gullies, but at least descending reasonable terrain, we headed straight down the talus. Eventually, the bugs returned and tormented us all the way out. I got some of the most irritating mosquito bites that I’d ever had in the Cascades or Olympics. For a few days after, I’d wake up in the early morning scratching my legs. No, we didn’t bring bug juice. What a mistake. In addition to the bugs, we eventually ran into the cliffs. We navigated slowly down these using a combination of cedar branches and tarzaning on the rope. Once we finally got down to near lake level, we were able to make reasonable time down talus and snow. At the base of the lake though, the bushwhacking started again and didn’t let up for most of our circumnavigating of the lake…and it’s a big lake! Crawling over logs became frustrating and I was getting irritated at having to go down to the base of the lake only to ascend up a hundred feet or so, crawling over logs, pulling up roots and branches, descending back down to the lake. We were very late, way beyond our 6:30 arrival time at the lake. I think it was around 9pm. We realized we had no time to stop and eat. If we didn’t want to risk getting lost, we had to cover as much ground as we could now.
I was near exhaustion at this point and couldn’t keep up with Robert. I did catch up to him in the forest where he was dealing with blisters from his wet boot. I took the opportunity to eat a Goo packet and a Snickers. About 10 minutes after that, I came to life. It’s amazing what a little energy food can do for you. From then on, I could easily keep up with Robert. We both put on our mp3s for the march out, but, of course, my batteries gave out not long after I started listening. I pounded out the silent dark miles behind Robert. We lost the trail a couple of times in the darkness, but fortunately were able to follow the trail without too much trouble. We got back to the car around 11, I think. We decided not to risk missing the 12:15 Monday morning ferry and went all the way around the Sound to the south through Olympia. It was a long night.
Don’t climb Cruiser from Mildred Lakes! The memory of the sight of the nice trail from Flapjack Lakes continues to haunt me.
Rating – three pipes!