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Denny Peak Traverse (5420')

On an attempt of the Tooth - Sept 25 '99

summit image
Denny Peak (not yet)

Party: Mountaineers - Basic Rock. Leader Jake Larson, Rope Leaders: Mary O'Cleary and I.  Basic Students: Phillipa, Scott and Jon..

Weather: Threatening. My impeccable record of no mountaineer's climbing trip failures was on the line with the weather... It was cloudy, short rain showers, occasional foggy periods, patches of blue sky, bursts of warming sun and otherwise pretty darn windy and cool.

I originally didn't expect to have to write a trip report for this attempt of the Tooth since I have done so before. If anything, I planned to elaborate on gear requirements. That is, until our leader Jake decided to get creative on the approach to the Tooth: we were going to traverse the ridge from Denny peak to the Tooth. Just look at the Becky guide.... the nice hand-drawn picture of the ridge looks straight forward. You'd almost expect a trail along the top of the ridge! No?

The Approach

We set out from the Alpental parking lot, and up the lift lines at a blistering pace. Let me tell you, ski lift areas are a lot nicer covered in snow. We were soon entertaining short sections of bush-wacking wet vegetation, followed by loose talus fields.

Truly, the ascent turned into a scavenger hunt, well, in between walking over broken bottles and beer cans and ski patrol wands, ribbon, and brocken signs, its amazing the stuff you can find. The very definition of climbing booty was changing before our eyes: coins, hats, gloves, goggles, car keys, goggle "windshield wipers, a bent bike wheel, broken ski poles and the best of all treasure.... a nice Ericsson cell-phone! Assuming the cell phone would not actually be functioning, I was hoping for a more useable treasure... a stack of cash would have been nice. I'm sure there is a stack of cash out there somewhere.... anyone wanting to thrash through vegetation and talus will have hours of scavenging fun and great exercise as to boot.

Anyway, back to the ascent... I think most of the party was pleased with the rapidity of our ascent to the base of Denny peak. Given Jake's indications that the trail dropped around the east side of the peak, we were not expecting to tag Denny peak on the way, so I headed off with Jon to attept to tag the peak while the others took a short break. We backed off at a short class 4 chimney, thinking it would be difficult to down climb, an unnecessary risk, and returned to the group. Little did we know, that after wasting some time attempting to find the path around the East side of Denny, that we in fact needed to summit Denny to connect to the north ridge. Back we went, as a group, through the chimney, across a slabby hand traverse and on to the top of Denny peak. Excellent! A consolation prize should we fail on the Tooth. Prophetic?

From denny peak, the access to the North ridge was no easy matter. We dropped off the west side of Denny onto steep treed slopes and traversed north on exposed heather to access the north ridge from its west side. There was some tenuous climbing/traversing involved here! One slip on the heather would have you long gone. It was too steep to stop and get my ice axe out... I questioned whether an ice axe would help in this situation anyway.... on we went.
The rest of the ridge was quite complex. It involved a good degree of exposed rock scrambling mixed with yet more, though less exposed, heather traverses on either side of the ridge. We were taking a looong time to cover the 1/4 mile between Denny peak and the north peak 5419'. Around 2 o'clock we reached the notch below peak 5419. At this point Mary and I discussed the fact that it was unlikely that when we made it to the tooth, we would not have time to climb it safely and return before deep dark. We discussed our position with Jake, who was also accepting the same demise. Our choices were two: 1) to rap down a gulley to the west and continue to Pinapple pass, descending to the parking lot along the STANDARD tooth approach via the source/snow lake trail. The advantage being that we would not have any trouble negotiating the trail in the dark. The disadvantage being the time and difficulty remaining in getting to Pinapple pass. 2) to rap down to the east toward the parking lot and travel cross country back to the parking lot, clearly visible from our notch. The advantage being the most direct route, the disadvantage being uncertainty in our ability to rap down all the way and then the subsequent unknown cross country difficulties we might encounter.

We went with option 2. But I guess were talking descent now...

The Descent

The rap down the ast gulley required two double rope rappels. The first gulley was very loose and required extra care in making sure no rock fall was induced. Getting 6 people down a double rope rappel is always increadibly time consuming, especially when you need to take careful precautions. In the mean time, it was getting cold. The wind was blowing through the notch and to my pleasure, it began SNOWING. Ok, it was a cross between hail and snow... little styrofoam-like crystals. I say pleasure because I actually prefer precipitation being snow over a rainny downpour.... It was coming down fast, leaving a thin layer of styrofoam beads over the rock  and heather surfaces. At the bottom of the first rappel, I had a short traverse over such snow coated exposed heather slopes. Being the last down the rappel, I had to contend with the most significant snow layer. I would say I wasn't too comfortable with this last traverse. The next rappel was down a long steep slab. Given that it was a slab, it was surprising how much loose rockfall was created... more so than the first loose gulley. We all got down more quickly and safely. When Mary got down, this time being the last person, she advised us of the good news bad news story.... Good news, she go down alive, bad news, one of our ropes had been seriously severed by rock fall. She only noticed the frayed sheath while coiling the rope. She must have passed the cut at some point in the rappel, and maybe others of us had the same condition. Fortunately, there was enough core-mantel remaining that the rope didn't break. I'd say that was a bad situation. The realization while coiling the rope shocked Mary to some degree. In a way she was glad she hadn't noticed it while on rappel.

On the way home we discussed what we would/should have done if you notice a cut rope while on rappel.... The first thought, aside from panic, would be to attempt to down climb with littl or no weight on the rope and hope you dont need the support. The slab we were on may have been possible to downclimb, it had a lot of ledges and cracks. Obviously this is a risky proposition that would strike further panic while descending. After considerable thought, in a non-stressful situation (driving home) I came to realise that tying a butterfly knot (or other kind) in the rope isolating the break would be a safer solution. The downside would be that you would not be able to retrieve the rope if the cut rope was to be pulled through the anchors. Additionally, if you were fortunate to discover the cut before it gets through your rappel device, you would have to "pass the knot" (after tying it) while on rappel. The fact that it took a special relaxed thinking moment to discover a safe method should be a concern.... would I be able to come up with the same solution while in a panic on rappel?

If anyone has a better, safer solution that allows you to retrieve your ropes, let me know.

With everyone safely finished our rappels, we continued directly down the talus slopes, passing over the terrain of the upper and lower international ski runs. With the technical difficulties of the descent complete, the precipitation ended and the body rewarmed from the higher intensity exercise, the descent reverted back to an enjoyable scavenger hunt. The rest of the trip was uneventful.... enough eventfullness was had in the "climb".


Ok, so we failed to climb the Tooth in an 11 hour event! In context, this was a late season climb with each of our three basic students requiring this one last rock climb to graduate. I know Jake was appologetic and regretful with respect to our failure on the grounds that our creative adventure was unneccesary. Yet another lesson learned... by me, and I'm sure by Jake, who may have lost a little sleep over this as well. In this context, let alone any mountaineer's basic climb, creativity and a desire for adventure should be left alone, to be done on a persons own time with friends, or at least with people that understand the implications of the quest. For basic students, a rock climb of the Tooth using the standard approach is often enough adventure.

Note, this criticism is not directed only at Jake. I, as a rope lead take some responsibility as well. When the decision was made in the morning, everyone agreed. I too was blinded by personal interest over the interest of achieving the goals of the basic curriculum. Having climbed the tooth previously, I was excited by a different approach and a little more adventure. The thought of tagging Denny peak and doing the traverse along the way had extra appeal.

A note to our potential followers.... the traverse is not appropriate for a basic climb approach, it is closer to an intermediate mountaineering (IM) experience. In this sense, the students on this climb deserve full credit for a basic climbing experience. They all performed well in serious, though non technical, climbing conditions. They all exhibited a good degree of confidence, certainly no less than my own, which at times was not outstanding.

If you read this and get the impression that this was a dark experience, bordering on epic, then I have been over zealous in describing the goriest details. For the most part everything went well. We were just slow and the terrain was exciting (but that doesn't make for good reading does it?). Everyone had fun and was light hearted about the whole trip. In fact, most of the students, having genuine interest and some past experience in outdoors events (hiking, backpacking, some climbing etc...), expressed appreciation for the adventure in itself. I'm sure they were grinding their teeth a little Saturday night.

Final note: On checking the Becky guide and topo in further detail at home, I believe we made the only proper choice in terms of our rappel direction. To complete the ridge traverse, in fact required us to scramble up to the top of peak 5419 and down the other side before dropping to the west side of the ridge toward Pineapple pass. A rappel from the notch we were in would have required a long descent along a west trending rib on peak 5419, before we could cross over and scurry back up the other side toward the pass. This descent, no doubt would have been the same horrendous, steep, heather ladden terrain of our earlier experiences. A good decision was made.

My impeccable Mountaineer's climbing record has been broken.... now at 12/13 attempts.
We did tag Denny though :) I tried to convince the students that this was a worth while achievement, since they will now not require, after climbing the many other worthwhile Cascade peaks, to do this darn Denny traverse. Its done, behind you, never to be revisited!

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Last updated: Sept 28, 1999

Copyright © 1999 Gordon Schryer.