Travels in the Enigma Range
by Kathy Phibbs

Enigma: Anything inexplicable... hiding its meaning under obscure or ambiguous allusions.

"Despite long, semi-technical bushwhacks, less-than-glorious weather, and a regional anathema to corresponding basecamps, some outstanding routes have been reported in the Enigma Range."
--Climbing Magazine

Unwittingly, through considerable perseverance and bad luck, I have discovered a hidden group of peaks in the Cascades. Numerous partners have been involved in the discovery and reconnaisance of this range, but it was only recently that Wendy Roberts and I came to the startling conclusion that we were onto something really... well, small, and yet difficult for its size. We had discovered the Enigma Range.

Fred Beckey, Guidebook Master, gave us the first clue. "Garfield is a hazardous enigma," he states inscrutably. Indeed, Garfield is quite likely the crowning summit of the Enigma Range. I have not yet attempted Garfield, but both Wendy and Donna McBain have been tantalized by the granite slabs. This despite the guidebook description that goes downhill from the introduction. "New routes," we mutter. "Granite," drools Donna. This is quite characteristic of Enigma Range peaks. They sucker you.

Routes into the peaks of the Enigma Range have long, desperate dirt roads. Ever driven a talus slope? Now that I am becoming an Enigma Range expert, I know to prepare good excuses for not driving "on this particular trip." But if you value your climbing partnerships, do not let a car that is the apple of you partner's eye be driven.

The next challenge is the approach. If there is a trail going into the Enigma Range, it is either obscure or of no consequence (brutal) or both. In any case, all manner of Northwest vegetation lurks, barely contained, an inch from the center of the trail (let your feet do the seeing). Moss, roots, makeshift ladders, ratty ropes, and muddy rocks are par for the course. Even if there is a trail, an Enigma Range approach requires two further elements: 1) a river crossing; and 2) a bushwhack, most likely of several thousand vertical feet.

Naturally, the weather in the Enigma Range is the most typical of typical Cascade weather--that is, it's often wet even when it hasn't rained and overcast while the rest of the state is sunny. If somehow you do reach the base of the actual climb, three whole pitches of lovely granite await you. The ensuing two hours of fun may obscure the previous grueling ten. In some ways, this is unfortunate.

Early on, I accidentally summited on an Enigma Range peak. On the first try, Maureen O'Neill and I reached the top of the North Peak of Index. This climb features dirt and trees in places that are quite startling. It is a recommended Enigma Range classic, rated Class 4 because you can't get any protection in anyway. On the descent, which is the crux, 11 double-rope rappels went smoothly until I cracked and Maureen found me calmly setting up an anchor on a small, tentative shrub. A firm dressing-down and several pieces of protection in the rock saved our lives.

Maureen was also with me on my first foray into the heart of the Enigma Range, the Middle Fork of the Snoqualmie River. The road is a legend in itself. Our goal was Chimney Rock; our approach from the west.

It was pouring. Being May, the trail was as yet uncleared. We crawled over and under old growth windfall for three miles to where you do the river crossing and then begin the "direct" approach. Across the river, the bush was discouraging; the talus slope covered with inches of snow was discouraging; and the total lack of visibility was downright defeating. We retreated and camped. I amused myself with building a fire. This kept me out of Maureen's hair for about five hours, but she finally became concerned that I was dangerously depleting the white gas supply. The next day, out of frustration and excess energy, we engaged in a typical Enigma Range activity: climbing trip as reconnaisance, which is to say, you hike until you reach the edge of your topo.

Two years later, I convinced Donna that the Middle Fork was the key to approaching Chimney Rock. The trail was cleared, the swimming holes were fabulous. We crossed the river, only a minor root-and-dirt wrestle, and started up the talus. Several hours into devil's club, we were a thousand feet higher and cliffed out. Donna was unwilling to belay the approach. We did a direttissima down through a thousand feet of brambles, which I chose to do in shorts. The river crossing was useful for reducing the swelling.

It was now time for the "recon." We marched up the rest of the trail and discovered a viable direct route that would have been a logical choice had we not believed in my hero Fred Beckey, guidebook author.

The next day we climbed Hinman, the flattest mountain in the Cascades but with a great view. Careful study of the summit register proved that Hinman, too, was one of the Enigma Range. I wrote the following entry: "Here we are at the summit. We left Arnold below. We can hear him but cannot see him."

My next trip was to the far northern reaches of the Enigma Range, destination Vesper Peak. Two years before, I had tried to find Vesper by road with a friend and we had stalled his pickup in a river flowing across the road. We abandoned the truck as the water entered the cab and spent the rest of the day waiting for one of those really macho pickups to rescue us.

This time, I had the roads figured out, or thought I did. I left the highway in a quiet gloat about short road approaches until 1-1/2 hours of logging roads had slowly and brutally passed. Once we were on the trail, everything went well until we reached Copper Lake, a lovely lake. Across the lake was a glacier and some exciting granite. Of course it was drizzling.

Two of our party, Hope and Annette, developed Enigma Range lassitude and descended to a lower elevation. The rest of us plowed on. After the lake bushwack, during which Maureen kept saying there was a trail and we were right behind her but we never saw it, there was a mile of boulder hopping. Then we got to the glacier. It was starting to be worth it. Unfortunately, a famous mountain guide who was along had told everyone it probably wasn't a real glacier and we certainly did not need crampons. Too bad about the blue ice. Well, it was drizzling anyway and our sneakers were wet. On the way back, we reconned, of course, the other side of the lake.

I was getting tired of the Enigma Range. Over Labor Day weekend, I had a Feeling about the weather, so Wendy and I decided to skip our original plans and go out for only two days. Wendy got out the guidebook and discovered Burnt Boot Peak. Burnt Boot is without a doubt a classic of the Enigma Range. The guide describes three delightful pitches of granite and makes light of the approach. I should have known better.

Up the Middle Fork road. Up the Middle Fork trail. The bushes soaked us in the 30 feet from the trail to the river crossing. Wendy was a recovering river-crossing victim; 2000 feet of bush lay before us; the cloud layer was 500 feet above us. We retreated to the car. But here is the thing: When you bail out of the Enigma Range, you have just committed yourself to a bone-crushing, car-depreciating drive.

Time for the recon. Consulting the map, we discovered a backdoor trail to Snow Lake and Snoqualmie Pass with 2000 feet of elevation gain. We found the trailhead after the river crossing and passed an interesting bridge in the forest (no water anywhere to be seen). Snow Lake was in a surreal state; we almost fell into it.

Naturally we made climbing plans. We would attempt the Roosevelt-Kaleetan traverse, which I thought might provide exciting winter climbing. Roosevelt had a trail and flagging all the way up except the last 300 feet of talus. I chose to unflag the trail as it seemed rather redundant. We decided to recon the rest of the route from a sitting position. On the way down, we ran into a bevy of climbers. I became nervous that they might not approve of the trail being unflagged and hiked more quickly.

We returned to the car. We agreed that while it wasn't a wildly successful weekend, we did climb Roosevelt. I got out the guidebook to reread the Roosevelt description. It didn't sound anything like what we did. I looked at the picture. Well, there were these bumps between Roosevelt and Kaleetan. I guess one was higher than our summit, but how could we know that was Roosevelt? Our summit really looked like Roosevelt. Yes, Roosevelt was a Devious Enigma.

This was really embarrassing. Wendy begged me not to tell. Weathered Northwesterners like ourselves are not supposed to climb the wrong peak, especially not one of the tiny Snoqualmie peaklets.

Next year I'm going to find a three-wheeler to go up the Middle Fork road. There's some great skiing up there, I bet.

Reprinted from the Women Climbing 1992 engagement calendar with permission of the publisher, Women Climbers Northwest. For a remembrance of Kathy Phibbs, click here.

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