Mission Improbable: Guye Peak’s West Face

Hollywood gets it right again.

The tape starts…

“Your mission, should you decide to accept it, is to climb the Improbable Traverse route on the west face of Guye Peak. This tape will self-destruct in five seconds…”

But that’s messed up, it’s the middle of winter. Why would anyone want to try and sketch their way up all that loose rock and then across a slab when it might be covered in snow?

“Well, it’s mission improbable, Dr. Miller – not mission difficult.”

Fast forward…

Which is why Chris and I found ourselves gearing up at a turnout below Guye Peak at 7am on Sunday morning.

Chris breaking trail on the approach. We had a cunning plan. So cunning you could stick a tail on it and call it a weasel. Neither the weather nor avalanche forecast looked exactly great so we’d take advantage of Guye Peak’s proximity to the road and an approach which followed the tree line to get something done. The Improbable Traverse route is steep enough that it holds minimal snow so provided we could get to the base of the route we’d be in good shape.

We leave the car and take turns in breaking trail up the edge of the talus field below the west face. From the road the entire route looked almost devoid of snow but as we get closer we can see ice  on the first pitch and more snow on the pitches above. Snow conditions are pretty good and we’re at the base of the route and geared up within an hour.

Chris leads the first pitch. He makes short work of a nice 3+ flow followed by a snow ramp that puts us at the start of the real business. Time to call a halt to this insanity and retreat. The ice on the first pitch actually took good screws. Good ice in Snoqualmie Pass? Something is desperately wrong for sure. We should bail now before things get really weird.

The next pitch leads up broken mixed ground below Lunch Ledge. Lots of balance moves on snow covered ledges with ice and frozen turf. In places the turf is too dry to be really usable but the gear is reasonable and the typically thin cracks make pretty good hooking. The pitch ends at a good block belay (as described in Nelson) with a nice stance sheltered below a short wall.

Like the rest of Snoqualmie pass the rock on Guye Peak leaves something to be desired. The solid parts tend to be super compact and hard to protect. The loose parts are, well loose and – you guessed it – hard to protect. Knife blades and bugaboos are pretty much mandatory if you want to keep runouts sensible. They should really tear the whole thing down and replace it with some nice granite.

Second mixed pitch below Lunch Ledge.Chris soon arrives and sets off up the next pitch which was more of the same except for the last few moves follow a steep layback corner/crack and then traverse left to Lunch Ledge. Chris can clearly levitate as this short section left me floundering for footholds on the smooth sides of the corner. From here we have a good view of the traverse which seems somewhat… improbable.

The traverse pitch takes ages to lead. The ledges which make up the traverse are snow covered, many of the slope downwards and are too slick to be usable in boots. In winter the pin that protects the crux seems less inspiring and flexes alarmingly when loaded. After a couple of attempts I tension off the first pin to traverse slightly lower and make the step across. In winter this is a whole different game. The second pin turns out to be worse but there’s better gear beyond and the climbing eases a bit.

Finishing the Improbable Traverse. Finally I make it to the ramp after a strenuous move off the final section of the traverse. It’s covered in snow so I have to climb higher up before I can move across to a belay in the corner. The rack is mostly used up so I have to get creative with the shattered rock that makes up the right side of the ramp. A lot of hammering and muttering later and I have a belay*. I dig a bucket belay seat and tug on the ropes to get Chris moving. He must be frozen after nearly two hours of belaying. Even seconding the traverse takes a while and requires care but Chris makes it to the belay and we’re good to go.

Chris takes the rack and does a great job of avoiding kicking rocks on the belay and more importantly the belayer as he makes his way up the loose rock on the ramp. This gives way to snow which means rapid progress to the nose at the top of the ramp and a solid tree belay. In theory this is the end of the real technical difficulties so we shorten the ropes and start to simul-climb the right trending ledge system.

Chris at the top of the ramp. Of course all that would be too simple. A mixed rock step and another left trending slope brings us to a short rock wall just below the summit. Chris opts to struggle up the off width corner as it is protectable rather than the wall itself. The corner is narrow and his pack gets caught. Above the corner he’s able to quickly finish the last of the climbing in the last of the remaining daylight.

We just have enough time to traverse the summit and find the boot track leading to the Guye-Snoqualmie saddle before it finally gets dark. The leeward side of Guye has lots of unconsolidated snow but thankfully we’re not on it for long and conditions descending from the saddle are much better. By 7pm we’re back at the car.

A few more pictures can be found in the picture gallery.


Guye Peak (5168’) Improbable Traverse (III, 1000’, 5.8) in winter. FWA Kit Lewis 1975.

For more details see: Selected Climbs in the Cascades Volume One, 2nd Edition (p62). There’s a summer topo here although our finish was more direct trending back right and finishing at the right end of the summit ridge.

* For anyone climbing it this summer. Yeah that’s my Spectre.