Cumulus Mountain (5,815 ft.)
Most Chugach mountains share a topographic trait: their northern aspects tend to be much steeper and more rugged than their southern ones. The root cause of this is sunlight: on shaded north slopes snow and ice has much more time to stick around and erode the rock, and vegetation has less opportunity to grow and stabilize the soil. This pattern can be seen in many well-known Chugach mountains (think Flattop or the Wedge), but few easily-accessed peaks exemplify this trait as dramatically or usefully as Cumulus. The north side of its summit ridge drops over 1,400 feet in a wall of crags and cliffs onto the rocky top of Ram Glacier. Meanwhile its southern slopes are relatively benign, arcing down smoothly into a bright green tundra cirque inhabited by bands of dall sheep.
Approaches and Routes
If you take advantage of its topography, Cumulus is a relatively easy summit considering its height. From the back of Ram Glacier up its southeast ridge the peak is a rocky Class 2+ walk-up. Its northwest ridge (called “Dragon Tail Ridge”) is only slightly more difficult, and leads to the western point of Cumulus’ lofty mile-long summit ridge.
Both standard routes up Cumulus approach via the Ram Valley trail, which enters the mouth of Ram Valley directly to the north of the peak. Public access to Ram Valley has been a longstanding source of frustration, but as of this writing in 2018 there seems to be a workable solution. Park somewhere off of the public streets near the end of Blythe Way, taking care not to impede the use of any driveways. Find the small steep trail up the powerline easement at the end of Blythe Way, turn right when it reaches the private road and follow the road several hundred feet to a faint trail that cuts up the mountainside. The trail is thin and can get overgrown, but it should be nearly impossible to lose. Follow the trail for 1.3 miles around the mountainsides to the mouth of Ram Valley. For more information on this approach, please see my writeup for Ram Valley [coming soon]. As soon as you crest the tundra ridges at the mouth of the valley, your route will depend on whether you choose to walk over Ram Glacier or climb the peak via Dragon Tail Ridge.
Ram Glacier Route
To take the Ram Glacier route, continue up the Ram Valley trail. The trail passes two shallow turquoise tarns and then traces the tops of several overgrown glacial moraines. Small spurs may branch off toward especially scenic campsites, but the main trail is generally easy to follow and if you get sidetracked simply continue over the tundra until you meet the trail again. In about a mile, the trail nears the face of Ram Glacier, also simply called “the rock glacier.”
Like all rock glaciers, Ram Glacier’s foundation is glacial ice (potentially hundreds of feet deep in places) but so much material has melted out of the glacier that the surface is almost completely covered in rock, dirt, and tundra. It is essentially a dying glacier in the process of burying itself. Traveling on rock glaciers isn’t considered especially dangerous and ice tools usually aren’t carried because there is almost no visible ice. Still, avoid steep walls of loose, unstable debris, and stay away from any low spots, steep-walled pools, moulins, or crevasses.
Crossing Ram Glacier can be frustrating because of the large amount of loose, shifting rubble on its surface. Luckily, there is a way to avoid the worst of it. As the Ram Valley Trail approaches the face of the rock glacier, it climbs a tundra slope to a moraine on the north side of the face, leading to an overlook with a good view of the glacier. This overlook is a great destination if you don’t intend to cross the glacier. But if you are crossing the glacier, cut away from the trail before the final climb and scramble up the southern side of the glacier face, staying relatively close to the northern face of Cumulus. Aside from simply cutting off some mileage on the rock glacier, this route follows gentle tundra and rock moraines that provide better footing than the scramble from the overlook.
Near the head of the Ram Glacier cirque, between the north faces of Korohusk Peak and Cumulus Mountain, there is a pass with a small waterfall tumbling down it. Pass the waterfall and scramble up the scree toward the pass, taking care not to get too close to the cliffs (and potential rockfall) of Korohusk. As you reach the pass, you may find yourself on faint hiker/sheep trails.
From the pass, Cumulus is a straightforward walk-up. Simply turn northwest and hike the final quarter-mile to the summit.
Dragon Tail Ridge Route
Dragon Tail Ridge may be one of the best-named features in Chugach State Park. The ridge sweeps down from the summit crest of Cumulus in a smooth arc punctuated evenly by rocky vertebra-like outcroppings. To follow this route to the summit, hop across the small creek as soon as the Ram Valley Trail reaches open tundra and ascend the steep tundra slopes onto the crest of the ridge.
Lower Dragon Tail Ridge starts out at a low angle, which steadily increases as it approaches the cliffy haunch of Cumulus Mountain. At this point, the rugged north face of Cumulus intersects with a band of cliffs on the west face of Cumulus, where that side of the mountain was sheared off by an immense, long-gone glacier in Eagle River Valley. It’s possible to stay right on the ridge, but a slightly more appealing route sidehills on steep tundra slopes on the western face of Cumulus before regaining the ridge. Be careful here–the tundra is very steep would be especially unnerving if wet.
Regain the ridge as soon as possible and continue on the crest of the ridge to the summit of Cumulus. If the route cliffs out, angle back onto Cumulus’ inviting southern face. Sheep/hiker trails on the summit crest tend to avoid steep sections and can make for excellent, speedy alpine walking.
More Information and Resources
- Cumulus Mountain post on Scree Shark, with many helpful clear-weather photos of the Dragon Tail Ridge route