Climbing Mount Mitchell, Washington via NW Couloirs

My climbing partner Matt and I set off to climb Mount Mitchell (about 11 miles South of Mount Saint Helens) early Saturday morning. The normal route is a 2.5 mile (one-way) walk-up hike around the back of the mountain (South side) on a marked trail. But Matt and I wanted to be more adventurous and climb the snowy couloirs on the Northwest side of Mount Mitchell. We came prepared with full mountaineering gear (ice axes, helmets, crampons, rope, snow pickets, etc.) as we didn't know what we might encounter. After a two hour drive, we arrived at the trailhead from a gravel road South of highway 503 between Yale Lake and Swift Reservoir. The trailhead is at just under 1,900 feet elevation with the Mount Mitchell summit just shy of 4,000 feet. The weather was cloudy with fog and low visibility and a temperature of about 40°F.

Mount Mitchell Couloirs Route Elevation Profile

The map above shows the standard trail in yellow, our route in red, and the overlap in orange. We started on the main trail at about 8:30 AM. There was no snow at the trailhead, which was not surprising at this low an elevation. We worked our way up switchbacks for about three quarters of a mile before heading off trail at about 2,400 feet elevation. At this point, we bushwhacked our way through dense fir and hemlock forest toward Rain Creek and the couloir leading to the summit. We tried to follow faint game trails and ended up seeing flagging on a few trees along our path. After about a third of a mile, we made it down to the snow-covered gully where Rain Creek was flowing beneath many feet of snow.

Looking Down After We First Entered the Main Couloir on NW Side of Mount Mitchell     Looking Up the Couloir (It's much steeper than the picture portrays)

The snow was firm, but not icy, so we decided against crampons. We took a short break to put on our gaiters and eat a quick snack before heading up the couloir. It was a moderate slope of about 30° much of the way. We came across several holes in the snow allowing a peak at the creek rushing below. Luckily the snow was fairly thick, but soon this whole area will be too unsafe to climb as the Spring melt continues.

Small Waterfall Underneath the Snow     Rain Creek Underneath the Snow

As we continued to climb, the fog would shoot up the couloir, retreat, and then repeat the pattern sometime later. It was kind of eerie, but fun to watch at the same time.

Slope of the Couloir     Looking Down and Northwest at the Fog

Soon we came to wide area where three tributaries joined Rain Creek from the left and right. They all had visible waterfalls before disappearing under the snow we were climbing up. We continued up the main (middle) couloir where the inclination of the slope progressively increased. We could see another waterfall in the distance that might pose a problem for us. Before we could reach it, the couloir narrowed and the rock on either side of us steepened. The snow was pulled away from the edges making for dangerous conditions. All of sudden we hit a break in the snow the entire width of the couloir. There was a large waterfall that I would guess was more than 50 feet tall. We were basically on a huge slab of snow that could give way at any time. A mistake here could have easily turned fatal. As we hadn't felt the need to put our harnesses on and rope up to this point, we quickly and carefully climbed off the snow and up the rocks along the left side (climbers left). We continued to climb moss covered class 4 rock, paralleling the snow above the large waterfall.

Couloir Splits in Three (The middle one is the main couloiur)     Matt Enjoying the Morning Climb up Mount Mitchell
Waterfall off Mount Mitchell     Two Waterfalls

After a short distance we decided to traverse left to try and gain the ridge that runs along the North side of Mount Mitchell. The rock along the couloir was becoming unsafe to climb since there weren't any particularly good spots to place protection had we decided to rope up. After we gained the closest ridge to us, we came to the base of a sheer cliff. As it was impassible, we continued traversing toward the North ridge of Mount Mitchell. After crossing another couloir (not safe to climb up, so we just traversed across it) we finally gained the ridge. From here, we had a nice view of a steep couloir that went up the right side of Mount Mitchell (first picture below). It would have been fun to climb had we been able to get to it. Earlier in the Spring or later in the Winter we might have been able to, but not this trip.

Right Couloir (climbers right)     Pinnacle on Right Side of Couloir (climbers right)

The temperature had dropped to about 35°F as we ascended, but was now warming up. The snow was becoming mushy, less than ideal for climbing, but we pressed on along the ridge toward the summit. We slogged up a couple steep slopes, maybe 45-50°, before the summit came into view. One final steep chute and we'd be there. Unfortunately, just as we were approximately ten vertical feet from the summit, we hit a massive, impassable bergschrund. You can see it in the picture below. It's located where the narrow strip of snow sits between the two rock faces. The picture is deceptive as the slope was around 45-50° and the rocks on either side of the bergshrund were shear cliffs at least 20 feet tall (I couldn't see how far down they went. It was a little disappointing being so close to the summit, but it was still a very fun climb.

Last Stretch to the Summit of Mount Mitchell

We headed back down, aiming to meet up with the trail at some point. It was easy going until we got out of the snow around 3,000 feet elevation, where we had to bushwhack the rest of the way to the main trail. Our round-trip distance was 3 to 3.5 miles. The first picture below shows our approximate route up to the summit of Mount Mitchell. Anyone who considering a similar climb should be well prepared and attempt earlier in the season. Climbing is inherently a dangerous sport, so proceed at your own risk.

Our Route up Mount Mitchell     Mount Mitchell as Seen From Highway 503


water, Tue, 05/24/2011 - 11:39

bow chickawow-wow, nice day out. be interested if we did this as a summer hike, in trying the off trail to get a gander at the waterfall(s).


jloomis, Tue, 05/24/2011 - 12:46

I too am curious what it would look like in the summer. I am not sure how much flow there would be and the brush would likely be thick.

water, Tue, 05/24/2011 - 14:08

i've never bush-wacked with a chainsaw.. but would consider it.

It wasn't that far, quarter to a third of a mile, which aint bad really.. not like doing a few miles off trail. One way to check flow could be to bring some decent binocs and do the drive an extra few minutes to the lookout by the canal and just scope it that way.

btw you did a great write-up--this is the type of adventure i really love, since few, if any, have spent much time up on the upper cliffy part. I'd be curious to follow that flagging as it was going West when we kept going up the slope, too. I think the red line on our path, we traversed more or less all the way to the left ridgeline and then went up.

Also thinking if we got cliffed out, we had a dang rope, even at 8mm being a bit slick in a munter hitch, we could have easily repelled down since most spots we were at didnt have that big of a drop.

keep the great reports coming! ill try to get some pics over

Doug, Tue, 06/07/2011 - 11:47

I've been going up Mitchell for about 20 years. A few years back my buddy and I went up what we called the NW Chute direct (not terribly meaningful since Mitchell has so many chutes, but we essentially when straight up the summit pinnacle from the North). We had horrid avi conditions the entire way--Mitchell has some notorious rippers (notice all the trees broken in half along the trail...). We sunk to our chest in snow near the top. It was not the smartest climb we ever did... We mostly followed the trail on descent so as to avoid the worst of the avi slopes and eventually got back to our cached gear on the trail. It was the shortest distance I had ever travelled in 13 hrs... but memorable. The winter conditions only get perfect up there very infrequently.

jloomis, Tue, 06/07/2011 - 12:10

Thanks for your insight Doug. I figured there had to be a few others crazy enough to climb the chutes. Our trip took a long time as well for such a short distance. We took more time than usual looking around and taking pictures.

TyC, Tue, 07/19/2011 - 01:27

End of June 2011 private land owners closed road 10 and now the only access is via the south trail head 13 miles one way to the peak. Will hopefully be trying this trail next week.

jloomis, Tue, 07/19/2011 - 05:28

Thanks for the information TyC. Where did you hear of this disappointing closure?

Let me know how your hike goes from the South trailhead.

David W. Hill, Wed, 10/11/2017 - 14:53

Wow! I had no idea.This looks like the slides in the Adirondacks. I'd like to try skiing it -- only after a careful avalanche assessment, of course.

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