Kyle and I climbed the Northwest Face of Forbidden Peak in 17 hours car to car on July 25th, 2020. It was an incredible day of distinctively Cascadian climbing in one of the most gorgeous zones in the range. The superlatives will be running wild in this trip report.
This route has a lot going for it. Fred Beckey and Ed Cooper first climbed the Northwest Face in 1959 – it’s hard to imagine a more legendary team in North America at the time. Beckey, famously understated in his route descriptions, made no qualms about the quality of the route in Cascade Alpine Guide, describing it as “an exceptional line of purity.” When you see the line, it makes sense: the route follows a ridge that erupts out of the Forbidden Glacier at 7100 feet, morphing into a brief knife-edge before fading into the imposing Northwest Face proper, taking a line almost directly to the summit.
The cost of admission is somewhat high for this route. There are several complicated approach options, all of which require fair amounts of hiking, glacier travel, rappelling, and objective hazard. Kyle and I opted to approach via Sharkfin Col, which seems to be the least hazardous and most scenic approach. After ascending the left side of the Quien Sabe glacier, Kyle and I reached a notch just above and East of Sharkfin Col proper. Here, we ran into two other climbers, Ven and Will. Amazingly, they were also on their way to climb the Northwest Face! They left the trailhead an hour before Kyle and I. It’s rare enough that this route gets climbed, so two teams climbing single push on the same day was a big surprise!
It turned out that Will and Ven are both highly competent and friendly guys, and we had a great time climbing alongside them and chatting intermittently when we crossed paths. Two single rope rappels out of the notch landed us on the Boston Glacier below the bergschrund. Ven and Will took a low route through the Boston Glacier while Kyle and I took a higher, more direct option. This glacier is heavily crevassed but we had no trouble finding a route, thanks to Kyle’s expert glacier navigation skills.
After traversing the Boston Glacier, Kyle and I stopped to fill water inside a moat between the glacier and the rock of the North Ridge. Ven and Will passed by and climbed a gnarly-looking vertical snow boulder problem toward the notch. Kyle located an improbable but totally secure low-fifth boulder problem to the right, which allowed us to skip the sketchiest snow. Another intensely chossy section with an exciting mantle sequence brought us directly onto the Forbidden Glacier, which reaches all the way up to the crest of the North Ridge at this spot. Surreal!
Once we gained the Forbidden Glacier, we made a traversing descent under the toe of the ridge. From here, we wove through crevasses to a point where we thought we could gain the ridge. The glacier steepens here and stays icy due to its Northern aspect. A tenuous downclimb through a mess of crevasses and glacial ice finally brought us to the rock. In my approach shoes and aluminum crampons, this was very exciting!
It had taken us 8 hours to reach the start of the route, so it was a perfect time to have some lunch as we watched Ven and Will do the same crazy ice bouldering that we’d just done to get on the ridge. Kyle took off on a simulclimbing block and charged all the way to the point where the ridge sharpens and steepens. The scenery was unreal, but we stayed focused and maintained our upward momentum. Kyle and I swapped leads on four 60m pitches ranging from mid-fifth to the 5.8 crux of the route, which Kyle led easily.
After the crux, Kyle asked “think we can make it to the top in one block?” I admitted that I wasn’t sure, but I was going to try. I lead upward on solid flakes of granite, reveling in the straight-up fun climbing and wild environs. This kind of juggy flake climbing is so enjoyable and secure! High above, we could see a handful of teams making their way up the classic West Ridge.
Eight hundred feet later, my frugal gear placement mentality paid off and I arrived at the junction with the West Ridge, never needing to stop for a changeover. We’d been on route for 3.5 hours, moving the majority of that time. Kyle and I scrambled to the true summit to celebrate with Ven and Will.
It was a busy day on the West Ridge with two teams still on their way up and four more on their way down. It would be easy to get impatient waiting for rappel stations amongst the crowd, but good vibes were abundant in the sunshine. Everyone was happy and thankful to be relishing in a gorgeous day in the mountains. Kyle and I made a few key rappels high on the route before unroping to downclimb the remainder of the ridge unhindered. Another 7 rappels brought us down the Cat Scratch gullies to snow, where we power hiked to the van, beer and burritos.
This route, this mountain, this range, this partner! I could not imagine of a better day of climbing. I will savor this experience in the heart of the North Cascades for some time.
The Sharkfin Col approach is straightforward this time of year and is incredibly scenic. The West Ridge Notch approach is tempting, but the rappels and downclimbing look very hazardous from below. If I were to repeat this route, I would use Sharkfin again.
We used a 60m rope, various offset nuts and a set of cams from .2-2 with doubles of .3-2. This huge rack was nice for the simulclimbing sections, but we could have easily gotten away with less cams. This route would go fine on a single rack. Crampons and an axe are necessary, aluminum works well early season. We did not bring pickets or screws. I used approach shoes, which worked perfectly, aside from some sketchiness on the glacier immediately before gaining the rock. If you are climbing later in the season (August), you’ll probably want to bring boots and a picket or two.