Helen Buttes

July 20, 2022


Marblemount / North Cascades Highway, WA

Helen Buttes boasts over 600 m or 2000 feet of prominence but is relatively obscured and unheard probably because of the fact that it requires more elevation gain than the peak’s height. This is not an entirely heinous ascent as much of the elevation is dispatched by a well-maintained, albeit sea-level-up trail (Cow Heaven Trail), but from the end of the trail to the summit one does need to cover various degrees of unpleasant terrain. Some people chose to climb Helen Buttes in winter to avoid the associated unpleasantness but winter has winter’s issues as parts of this route are subjected to avalanche hazards. Matt had been looking at this peak for months. I wasn’t particularly keen but agreed nonetheless. It would be a good objective to test out my aerobic fitness immediately after coming back from high altitude.

I did do some last-minute homework as learnt that there’s a “high route” over the SW sub-peak and a “low route” traversing across some steep and slippery grass slopes and both routes involved over 150 m elevation loss and regain. We were hoping for the high route but would decide on-field. We were also not sure about the snow conditions so opted to bring ice axe, crampons and boots. I ended up using the boots but the other snow gears turned into training weight. Matt picked me up at 6 am from White Rock and in no time we were down in Washington. About 2 hours later we made to the trail-head directly behind Marblemount’s ranger station. As usual eating’s not allowed in Matt’s vehicles so I spent an additional 20 minutes having breakfast at the trail-head. The bugs were out, but not outrageous yet.

Helen Buttes via Cow Heaven Trail. GPX DL

This was shaping up to be a hot day and none of us ended up bringing enough water, but thankfully there were numerous streams to reload on various stages of the trip. About 300 vertical meters up the trail we encountered two stream crossings and took a couple breaks. We both went shirtless from that point onward as the day was also humid. I stayed shirtless until what seemed like an unofficial campground at 1300 m, about 2 hours into the trip. We took another long break donning sunscreen etc. The trail continued beyond this spot but became unofficially maintained. A few switchbacks later we arrived at the “lake” marked on the maps. The lake was still frozen and covered in snow and I took another break to swap footwear from trail runners to mountaineering boots. I decided to also ditch a few pieces of cold weather equipment as those seemed totally unnecessary in this toasty day.

Matt playing with Twig at the parking lot
Me crossing the first foot bridge.
The typical ascend through the forest. The trail’s actually excellent
Matt went to load up some water bottles
Twig’s always excited even in the forest…
Twig playing around that unofficial campground
Matt plodding beyond the campground. The trail’s becoming less maintained
This picture sums up much of the terrain in the subalpine zone
The typical terrain on this mountain. This reminded us a bit of the North Shore
Believe it or not I was still following a decently defined trail at this point

The general bearing was to follow the broad ridge due NW towards the south (false) butte. We were mostly able to cruise on snow but on the narrower parts of the ridge we encountered bands of dense bush. We also located an intermittent trail and some flags that seemed to lead us towards the wrong direction away from the ridge, but based on our experience “a trail with flagging” rarely would go wrong, so we followed. This trail led us down onto a broad bench but disappeared soon, so we ascended a zone of insanely steep and slippery grass to hop back onto the south ridge of the south butte. We then scrambled class 2-3 rock to top out on one of the high points on this butte, but not the highest point. My original plan was to traverse over the highest point of this false butte but without enough prominence we couldn’t claim this as a separate summit anyway, so Matt threw out the idea to traverse north to bypass the rugged parts. The variation led to more bushwhacking. But after wrapping around to the north side of the south butte we located a snow passage to descend easily to south/north col.

Plodding past the second frozen tarn
Matt plodding ahead with the true summit in the distance
Twig making the slippery grass like a walk in the park
Matt starting this steep and slippery zone to get back on track
Matt and I really had to vege-belay on grass…
Matt with Sauk Mountain behind.
At times we had to scrambling on rocks to avoid more grass..
Finally rejoined the south ridge of the south butte.
I ordered Twig to sit and he sat…
Matt leading up the class 3 slabs
Me scrambling good rocks on the south ridge
Our first view of Mt. Baker was from near the summit of the south butte
Bacon Peak is a remote objective in the close vicinity
Matt leading his experimental route to bypass the rugged towers on the south butte
We did bypass those towers but the bushwhacking was very dense for a while
The north (true) butte in sight again. Now looking much closer
Glissading off the north slopes of the south butte

The ascent of the north (true) butte from this col was very similar to what we had just done, more bushwhacking and scrambling. The bushwhacking was mostly tolerable with some patience to search for the route with the least resistance. We mostly just followed the ridge crest. The summit block appeared daunting but turned out mostly just class 2-3 with mild exposure. I chose to scramble next to the edge, more exposed but less thrashing. The true summit was actually a ways back so we had to scramble over quite a few false bumps to get to. The views were actually amazing so the 4+ hours of hard work paid off.

Re-starting the elevation gain. The summit ahead.
Cool tree stumps in the foreground with Mt. Baker behind
Me approaching the summit push on the north (True) butte
One of the few scrambling zones on the north butte
Nearing the summit. As you can see the terrain was very steep
Me picking my way on the edge of the cliffs
Matt scouting out the rest of the route.
Matt hauling himself up using the vegetation on that steep and exposed zone
Twig made the top first, as always
Twig playing around with Eldorado Peak etc. behind
Partial Summit Panorama from Helen Buttes. Click to view large size.
Partial Summit Panorama from Helen Buttes. Click to view large size.
A closer look towards Twin Sisters Range
The Picket Range with Mt. Triumph in front
Jack Mountain looms behind the deep gorge that Highway 20 travels through
A zoomed-in view of the west face of Eldorado Peak
Illabot Peaks in the foreground with Sloan Peak in the far distance
I asked Matt to go near the edge for some Instagram shots
Me on the summit of Helen Buttes
Matt and Twig on the summit of Helen Buttes

We followed the exact route we took to descend to the north/south col with fresh memories of those micro-terrain route-finding challenges. We then decided to take the “low route” to complete a loop. While descending snow and grass we made a spontaneous decision to challenge the existing GPS track by not descending that far down. We located a “notch” on the rocky rib ahead and sure enough a possible route laid ahead. The result was that we shaved off almost 100 m elevation loss/regain but the price we paid was some class 3+ scrambling with exposure in addition to some heinous side-hilling on slippery grass. I probably wouldn’t recommend our variation but on the GPS map the line looked nice. After that long and tedious side-hilling we only had less than 50 m regain to get back onto the south ridge of the south butte. From there we easily plunged and bushwhacked back to where I ditched the trail-runners and then took another long break. The heat had really taken a toll on us. The rest of the descent was exhausting but uneventful. We lost about 1300 m elevation in under 2 hours and our round trip time was 7 hours 50 minutes. Matt then drove us back to Bellingham to have a massive pizza dinner and I eventually got back home at a very reasonable hour.

Descending the south ridge of the north butte
Down from the col we went for the “low route”
Twig cooling his ass off while Matt and I reloaded our water bottles
Twig high above the Skagit Valley..
Matt down-scrambling our experimental route
This picture shows the typical terrain in the crux zone.
One last difficult move before the slippery side-hilling
Me leading across this extremely slippery zone of side-hilling
The side-hilling was definitely quite tricky. The ground’s compacted hard
Down to the low point of our traversing line which is about 100 m above the standard
Re-ascending steep snow to get back onto the south ridge of the south butte
Back onto the trail.
Taking one last break at around 650 m elevation…