Category Archives: Type II fun

Mont Blanc loop (Grand Mulets to Aiguille du Midi)

Mont Blanc and Maudit from Tacul


The standard route up Mont Blanc, the Gouter Ridge, starts somewhere west of Chamonix, reached by some combination of trams and cog-rails. That did not appeal to me for a couple of reasons (logistics and being out-and-back), so I looked instead for a direct route from Chamonix that would enable a possible loop. I remembered that Killian Jornet had done Mont Blanc in a ridiculous time starting at the town church, and it seems like the route he used was the Grands Mulets, which climbs to the tram station at the Plan de l’Aiguille, then up the Bossons Glacier to join the standard route at the Col du Gouter. Not being Killian Jornet, I started from the dirtbag lot, went much more slowly, and tacked on some extra minor summits.

Sunrise and Aiguille du Midi

I left the car around 3:30, and wasted only a little time finding the trail to the Plan de l’Aiguille, which starts just behind the dump station in the RV lot near the base of the tram. The trail starts out steep, then flattens out a bit as it switchbacks up past the refuge to the midway tram station and restaurant. Above, there is a marked trail continuing toward the Pèlerins Glacier. However, the glacier has retreated a lot since the trail was installed, and it now deposits one at the edge of a super-sketchy lateral moraine. I wasted some time trying to downclimb it near where the yellow dots end, then found a more stable section a couple hundred yards uphill. In retrospect, I think there is a social trail, possibly leaving below the tram station, that traverses below the glacier’s toe to rejoin the old Grands Mulets route.

Instead, I sketched up some snow and talus on the other side of the glacier, then side-hilled a bit before descending to the old trail, now much fainter. Along the way, I found numerous old pieces of skis, and a nice left and right glove that unfortunately did not match, all collected by avalanches past. I followed the trail to a large, abandoned tram station, then continued on a fainter path, intermittently marked in blue. I passed two holes blasted in the rock, with signs indicating that they were shelter zones from rockfall off the Aiguille du Midi. It seemed unlikely that, after seeing approaching rocks, one would have time to jump into one.

The trail ends at the Bossons Glacier, whose tongue used to extend almost to Chamonix, and is still impressive from town, descending to around 1600 meters. The glacier is large and heavily-crevassed, and I was apprehensive about taking it on solo with lightweight gear. I put on my spikes, took out my axe, and started up the left side. At the Plan du Glacier, I traversed southwest, aiming for the Grands Mulets. The terrain got more complicated, but as it was mostly bare ice, there was little chance of falling in a hole.

Tricky glacier below Montets

Below the Montets, where the glacier is split by a rock ridge at la Jonction, things got interesting. There is a gash in the glacier, partly filled with debris and large ice cubes. I found a bamboo ski gate on one side, and bits of boot-pack headed toward the gap. There turned out to be a circuitous path down and around some ice cubes, then up the other side to more continuous glacier, where there remained enough surface snow to both hide crevasses and preserve a boot-pack.

Questionable crevasse bridge

The pack stayed well away from the Montets hut, which supposedly has a guardian, but does not seem to see much use. The boot-pack was useful in threading through the maze of large crevasses. However, it seemed to do a few sketchy things, and someone following it had put a leg through, so I had to pay attention as I made the 1200-meter climb to join the standard route at the Col du Gouter. There are some large seracs on this side of the Dome du Gouter, and plenty of evidence of large chunks of ice falling off, but I did not see any activity, despite spending a good chunk of the morning there on a sunny day.

Crowds coming from Dome du Gouter

Though I had seen what might have been crampon marks from earlier that day, I saw no other people on the route until joining with the standard Gouter Ridge. There I passed the probable creators of those marks, and joined the hordes headed to and from the summit. It was noticeably colder on the ridge: while I had been sweating in an overshirt and thin gloves before, I soon put on my windbreaker and mitts. My shoes iced up, and my feet were a bit cold, but not cold enough to worry or stop to put on my plastic bags.

Final summit trail

The last 600 vertical meters were a well-churned trail, or well-established steps on the steeper parts. I passed a small crowd at the Refuge Vallot, now an astronomical observatory and emergency refuge, then continued following the boot-pack to the summit. Most of the crowd was what I expected: people with big boots and lots of gear, moving slowly and roped together in groups of 2 to 4-5. However, I saw a lone man 100 yards ahead of me, moving quickly with trekking poles. I tried to catch him, but I was not at my fastest after 3600 meters of climbing, so he stayed out of reach until the summit. He turned out to be one of a pair of Germans (I think), climbing the standard route in proper minimalist gear, light hikers and micro-spikes in his case. Spread the Truth and the Light(weight), brothers!

Climbers and Chamonix

It was sunny and only slightly breezy on the summit, so I took the time to eat half a sandwich, check out the views of lesser peaks and the Courmayeur valley, and watch parties arrive, take selfies, and depart. Having been told that I could buy a downward ticket at the top of the tram, I decided to continue on my loop, continuing over Mont Maudit and Mont Blanc du Tacul, ending up at the touristy Aiguille du Midi. One thing I enjoy about Richard Goedke’s guidebook is his personal asides, and he feels a particular disgust toward the Aiguille infrastructure. He notes that fighter planes have twice clipped the gondola cables (yikes!), and states strongly that all the buildings desecrating the peak should be removed. There does not seem to have been any progress toward this goal in the quarter-century since his first edition.

Col de la Brenva

The traverse looked simple from Mont Blanc, but there were several complications on the downclimbs, hidden from above. After following more easy steps down to the Petits Mulets, I found a steep, somewhat icy descent to the Col de la Brenva, where I was forced to downclimb facing in, semi-front-pointing with my running shoe crampons. This was one place where having Real Boots would have made my life easier, but my lightweight setup was sufficient. After a traverse, I easily French-stepped directly up the snow face to Mont Maudit’s small rock summit, admiring the massive serac at the col behind me.

I at the last of my food while admiring the view, then tried to figure out how I should get back to the boot-pack. It would have been easiest to return the way I had come, but Goedke describes following the ridge to the Col du Mont Maudit. This proved annoying and sketchy, a mixture of rock and steep, hard snow. This was the other section where I would have been better off with boots and real crampons, but I made it work by staying next to the rock, where the snow was a bit softer, and I could grasp various handholds with my non-axe hand.

Col du Mont Maudit

Reaching the Col, I was surprised to find a steep and icy descent. I watched a couple of French climbers start down, for some reason roped together with lots of rope out and no intermediate pro in the classic European suicide pact. I gave them some space, then carefully made my way down the variable-quality steps, pretending to find a use for a hand-line with widely-spaced overhand bights. I caught up to them fiddling with gear on the lower edge of a crevasse, and complimented them on their lightweight choice of footwear (Salomon X-Alps, a bit pricey for me at $250/pair). One replied that I seemed to be traveling a bit lighter…

Mont Blanc du Tacul summit

Below the initial headwall, it was mostly easy stairs through the crevasses to the Col Maudit, where I passed a few people lounging in the sun. I continued on the trail to a point due west of Mont Blanc du Tacul, then followed the less-traveled boot-pack a short distance to its summit. There was an impressive piece of ice hanging off the north side, and a bit of third class scrambling on the west leading to the summit, where I passed a roped group of three on their way down. I had a good clear view of Mont Blanc and Mont Maudit from the summit, the latter looking much more serious than it did from above.

Ladder above Col du Midi

Back on the trail, I found the descent to the Col du Midi both longer and trickier than I had expected. Rather than simply plunge-stepping down a snow slope, I followed a meandering path around some crevasses, and finally descended a ladder bridging one that seemed to cross the whole slope, completely blocking access from the Aiguille. There was a steady stream of climbers on the final path, mostly returning to the Aiguille after their ascents. I was hungry and wrecked, pathetically slow on the final 300-meter climb to the tram station. Fortunately everyone else was tired, too, so I still got to pass some people. I finally reached the ice-tunnel into the station, climbed over an apparently locked gate with an “alpinists only” sign (what, me?!), and sat down among milling tourists to wring out my socks.

It turns out that they do not sell tickets at the upper station, but they will give you a number to board, and apparently sell them at Plan de l’Aiguille. I grabbed a bit of overpriced refreshment in the cafeteria, then made my way through the milling crowd toward the line for the tram. I got into conversation with a friendly family from Belgium, who spoke excellent English, and seemed interested in what I was doing. Being from a country that is mostly at sea level, they were not mountaineers, though the son seemed like he might be interested. The descent from 3800 to 2300 meters was easy and scenic. At the midway station, everyone queued up to switch from the upper to the lower tram. However, to the side I noticed some completely unguarded steps leading outside. I suppose I could have asked whether I would have to pay at the bottom if I rode the tram, but I seized the opportunity, leaving the station and jogging the last 1200 meters down to town. I doubt they have many customers willing to both “hike” up to the Aiguille, and jog the last leg.

Aiguille Verte (Moine Ridge, AD, 13h35)

Talèfre Glacier and Aiguille Verte


The Aiguille Verte is a misnomer: it is neither particularly needle-like nor green. Rather, it is a prominent golden wedge at the intersection of three needled ridges, which descend to the west, south, and east to the Drus, the Moine, and the Droites. The peak was first climbed by Whymper and his Swiss guides in 1865, via a couloir leading just east of the summit. The Moine Ridge was climbed shortly thereafter, by local French guides. Global warming makes couloir routes increasingly questionable in summer, most are funnels for rockfall later in the day, and they often require front-pointing, hence boots. For all these reasons, I chose to tackle the Verte via the Moine ridge, rated AD with rock to III (5.4). I brought my light-and-fast setup of one alpine tool, trail runners, and crampons. I did not end up using the crampons, though I could have in several places where I had to engage in gymnastics and step-cutting to deal with hard snow and ice. The ridge felt close to the limit of what I would want to attempt with this setup. It also took longer than I expected, thanks in part to slow travel up the Mer de Glace, the lower part of which is more of a “Mer des Pierres” these days.

Montenvers ladders

I actually got something like a real Alpine start this time, heading out from the dirtbag parking in Chamonix at 3:30, following the signs up the trail paralleling the cog-rail to Montenvers. I was startled just above the parking lot by a young malamute-ish dog joining me. It was wearing a collar, so it seemed to belong to someone, but it did not seem particularly loyal, staying with me and keeping a lookout in the dark all the way to Montenvers, 1h30 or so into the day. It was still dark as I wandered past the rail station, hotel, and bar, nearly stumbling over a climber bivying on the patio.

Yeah

Just beyond the last of the tourist outpost, I passed a sign showing the level of the Mer de Glace glacier in 1820. Since then, its level has dropped something like a couple hundred yards, exposing steep, polished slabs on either side. In a very European response to this problem, someone (guides?) has installed wild, Doctor Seuss-worthy series of bolted ladders, platforms, steps, and hand-rails to descend to the glacier. The ones at Montenvers are fairly tame, with two parallel lines to accommodate up- and down-traffic. The ones up to the Couvercle are a bit wilder, with some sections completely vertical, and the rungs sometimes close enough to the rock to make them tricky to stand on.

Glacier du Tacul at dawn

It was just growing light when I reached the moraine, and I saw a few headlamps on the Aiguilles, including two half-way up the Drus. The glacier moves enough to prevent a path forming, but I followed intermittent cairns southward, sticking to the moraines to avoid the slick, bare glacial ice, which was too slick this early in the morning. It had been t-shirt weather up to Montenvers, but it was cold enough down on the ice cube to need an overshirt and gloves. I lost the trail somewhere below the Leschaux Glacier, and made my slow way up the loose moraine to the left. I saw two climbers making their way down the long ladders from the Charpoua hut, base camp for the Drus.

Ladder sketch-fest

I eventually picked up the trail again, and followed the red-painted cairns until I could see the big white square painted on the cliffs above the ladders and what-not leading to the Couvercle. Though it is all bolted into the rock, this random collection of hardware felt as sketchy as anything I encountered on the ridge. Maybe I will get used to this sort of Euro-hardware. Above, a good trail leads to two huts, a big new one, and a smaller old one sheltering under a giant boulder. Below the huts, a trail marked with yellow wands descends to the Talèfre Glacier. While there turns out to be a better path above the hut, I did not know it at the time, so I followed the wands down onto the flat lower glacier.

New and old huts

My guidebook mentioned crevasse problems on the glacier, but it was mostly straightforward. I bypassed the icefall on slabs and moraine to the left, then stayed left on softening snow until I joined the boot-pack from the hut, which climbs along the base of the Moine ridge to the Whymper Couloir, on the other side of the Verte. The entire ridge from the Moine to the Verte looks long and complicated. The so-called Moine Ridge route actually skips most of it, gaining the ridge on slabs and broken ground just past its last major gendarme, the Cardinal.

Moat and lower face

There was a bit of sketchiness crossing from the glacier to the face, but I fortunately had a boot-pack to guide me around a crevasse, along a snow ridge next to the moat, then across a big step to a steep snow-chute from which one could final step onto the rock. Not wanting to deal with crampons, I cut a step to help myself get into the chute, then carefully followed the hard boot-holes.

Pinnacles on lower Moine Ridge

After so much ascent to reach the base, it seems like the ridge should be short, but the numbers don’t lie: it’s 800 meters from the moat crossing to the summit, slightly longer than the northwest ridge of Mount Sir Donald, and much more complicated. The first part is a wandering climb back toward the ridge, which can probably be kept to class 4, but ended up being class 5 in a few places. Above, the route stays below the ridge on some chossier rock, paralleling a couloir separating the main ridge from a subsidiary one, finally reaching the main ridge near where the two join.

Ridge to summit

The route had been mostly snow-free to this point, but beyond, some snow became unavoidable. The boot-pack split, with one group taking a lower and snowier line, and another staying closer to the crest. Both seemed to be keeping their crampons on for both snow and rock. I do not like doing rock in crampons when it can be avoided, or wasting time taking them on and off. I am more comfortable working around or sketching through snow, an approach that worked in this case.

Mont Blanc from summit

The route-finding becomes somewhat simpler higher up, but is still not straightforward. The ridge is fairly narrow, but jagged enough that one cannot follow the crest, but must detour left or right to find the easiest path. This route-finding, and a mixture of fifth-class rock, slush, and hard snow, demanded constant attention, and was mentally taxing. I was disappointed by my slow progress, gauged off the neighboring Grande Rocheuse. There were some memorable passages, including a foot-traverse with no hands and an à cheval and/or hand traverse. The established boot-pack was often helpful on the snowy sections, but I had to improvise in places where its creators had used their crampons to climb rock-hard névé or ice.

Grandes Jorasses and Dent du Géant from summit

I finally emerged on the summit around 11:30, greeted by a moderate breeze and clear views in all directions. All morning, I had been admiring the north face of the Grandes Jorasses, probably the most impressive face the region. That and the neighboring Dent du Géant still drew most of my attention, but there were sharp spires and serrated ridges in most directions, plus the white dome of Mont Blanc to the southwest. There had been a helicopter making a wandering patrol all morning, seemingly checking in on my progress a couple of times. As I sat on the summit, I saw it nearly touch down on the Aiguille Sans Nom (toward the Drus), though I couldn’t tell if it plucked someone off.

Heading down

Mindful that the descent might be slower than the climb, I ate my sandwich quickly, then put on my gloves and began retracing my steps. I was tempted to go with crampons on the way down, but decided against them, since the snow had softened enough to make them not particularly useful most of the time. The descent was intense, but went mostly better and faster than expected. I did get off-route once, wasting some time looking for a downclimb on what may have been a rappel route, but was rewarded by finding someone’s Petzl Sum’Tec, a nice alpine tool and the successor to my own well-used Aztarex. Score!

Once past the subsidiary ridge, things went more quickly on the ledges and slabs leading down to the moat. I even bashed my knee on a cairn, reminding me that I was on-route. The vicious thing might have been helpful, but I refused to repair it, lest it claim another victim. On my way up, I had seen a group of three making their way to the base of a nasty-looking garbage-chute leading to the Evéque, a pillar on the Moine Ridge. Now I saw them in the same place on their way down, and thought I might catch them on the glacier. Safely getting back off the rock took a bit of time, though, so they were out of sight by the time I was back on easy snow.

WTF steps

The surface slush was about ankle-deep, but I could still move quickly in the boot pack, and found excellent boot-skiing where it was shallower. I followed the hut boot-pack this time, catching the trio as they de-geared at a flat spot just before the hut. It seems they had gotten a late start, and turned around at the base of their route. They knew the area, and were a bit surprised that I had done the Moine Ridge solo in trail runners, but were neither incredulous or disapproving. I appreciate the general attitude here of “do as thou wilt in the hills.”

Mer de Glace and Montenvers

I normally would have jogged the trail down, but my knee was still stiff from that nasty cairn, so I settled for hiking quickly. I stopped to switch into shorts and refill my water at a stream — we’ll know how clean it was in 4-5 days — then continued to the ladders. They should have been harder going down, but they felt about the same, so perhaps I am getting used to them. I saw several other parties on the Mer de Glace, from groups going to and from the hard routes on the Jorasses, to a guide or parent leading a kid across the moraine roped like a dog, to some hikers out for the day with trekking poles. I still couldn’t quite run on the trail down from Montenvers, but I at least managed a shuffling jog, passing plenty of day-hikers on my return to the car. At 13h35 and only 3h or so of mindless trail, it was a tough but not over-long day.

Cleveland (35mi, 14h)

Cleveland at last


Early in my project to dayhike the lower 48’s most remote peaks, I dismissed the northern Rockies in favor of the northern Cascades. While I still believe that the Cascades contain the hardest dayhikes, the Rockies can certainly bring the pain, as I found on this harder-than-expected trip. Mount Cleveland is the highpoint of Glacier National Park, and the last ultra-prominence I will climb in the conceivable future (Ibapah is a desert garbage-mound, and Mitchell and Washington are back east). While it is normally approached via Waterton Lake and Stoney Indian Pass, that route involves Canadian border guards and a ferry. I have endured my Canadian border crossing for the year, and the ferry would mean camping, so I chose the alternate approach from the Chief Mountain trailhead near the port of entry.

Dawn on Belly River

I did not know what to expect of a trailhead next to a border crossing, and did not wanted to mess with la migra in an area where their Whim is Law, so I camped on a side-road outside the park, then drove up early. The trailhead is apparently the northern terminus of the Continental Divide Trail, however, so I found an ample parking lot with a half-dozen cars. I finished “breakfast,” then started up the trail around 5:45. I expected a day of about 30 miles and 12-13 hours, longer than Jackson without being ridiculous. Little did I know…

Mokowanis valley

The first 10-ish miles are a routine trail commute past the Belly River ranger cabin, then up the Mokowanis to Glenns Lake. The standard route starts from Stoney Indian Lake, well southwest of the peak, then crosses some narrow, east-facing ledges. Since I was coming from the east, and the ledges would definitely hold snow this early in the season, I had to do something else. Digging around online, I found a trip report of a failed attempt from Whitecrow Lake, and a vague account of a route up Whitecrow Ridge, then across the Whitecrow Glacier and up some steep snow. The latter makes little sense on the map, and even less when looking at the terrain, and the former was less than definitive, but I assumed that I could make something work. The plan was to ascend Whitecrow Ridge, then traverse to Cleveland and find a path up its south side.

Thrash up Whitecrow

Nearing Glenns Lake, I checked out my options for getting onto Whitecrow Ridge, with its mixture of steep forest and small cliff bands. Rather than starting at the toe, I decided to head up somewhere just below Point 7047′, where the trail was relatively close to the slope. This proved only mildly unpleasant, with a bit of woods-thrashing, then a bash through some fresh waist-high plants along the edge of a slide path. I occasionally had to tangle directly with the slide alder or forest, but the Cascades have hardened me to such things. Above, I had little trouble threading through the cliff bands with only a bit of class 3-4.

Tricky knob

Emerging just east of 7047′, I was confronted with a real possibility of defeat, as the small knob was steep and sketchy-looking on both sides. The south side was less steep overall, but it turns out that the ledges are more usable to the north. While there is no obvious goat-path, I found droppings here and there, and a series of ledges that got me around the knob with only one truly narrow spot. Above, I stayed on or left of the ridge, following goat trails and the path of least resistance, to eventually reach Whitecrow, a minor bump on the ridge.

Cleveland’s south face

From this vantage, it became clear that a headwall blocked the direct path up Cleveland’s southeast ridge, so it would be necessary to traverse its south face to meet the Stoney Indian route. There are a couple of cliff bands on this face, but it looked like I could find connecting ledges while avoiding most of the lingering snow. There are a number of towers and gaps between Whitecrow and the face, which consumed time backtracking and downclimbing to the south, but there was no truly difficult terrain, and I soon found myself on a dirt-ledge headed across the face.

Whitecrow ridge and Stoney Indian Peaks

While the underlying rock is solid, the ledges are all covered in scree and dirt, some of which had turned to slick mud from the melting snow above. I made my way across and up the face, crossing through a steep grey band partway across, aiming for the saddle with the Stoney Indian Peaks. This made for a lot of annoying side-hilling, and a few minor stream crossings, but nothing super-exposed or sketchy.

Goat escaping

As I got closer to the saddle, I thought I would be smart and angle upward to meet the ridge on its Cleveland side. Bad move: the black rock band above my traverse ledge proved both steeper and wetter than I had expected, requiring some sketchy wet fourth class and backtracking. I eventually made it work, though, and found a faint trail and a couple cairns on Cleveland’s much easier west side. I traversed around a step in the ridge, then started climbing back toward the crest. Along the way, I spotted a shy mountain goat — the only one I saw on this trip — who kicked a few rocks in my direction as he escaped. I followed the goat for a bit, then wound my own way up to the ridge.

Looking down summit plateau

The lower end of the summit knob is a jumble of horrible basalt talus with a short third class step. Above, the broad summit plan stretches for over half a mile, gradually rising another 400 feet to the summit on its far northern end. Cleveland is notorious for grizzly bears feeding on its summit later in the season, but I was there before the bears, and saw only a couple piles of old manure. From the highpoint, the peak drops steeply 4000 feet northwest to Cleveland Creek, then another 2000 feet to Waterton Lake. To the south, Mount Merritt rises 5000 feet on the other side of the Mokowanis.

Chief Mountain

After 15 minutes, I reluctantly set out on the long slog home. I wanted to avoid the long traverse around Whitecrow Ridge, and contemplated some version of descending via Whitecrow Lake. The bushwhack below the lake was supposedly bad, but there seemed to be consistent snow in the woods above 6000 feet, and the plain above the lake was covered in nice, solid avalanche debris. I returned to the saddle, hoping to see an obvious path down to the southeast. Failing to see an obvious line, and worried about cliffing out, I decided to retrace my traverse partway to Whitecrow, where there was obviously navigable terrain down toward the lake.

Random cool Canadian peaks

As it turns out, it looks like a diagonal line from the saddle toward the ridge southwest of the lake would have worked. Unfortunately, I managed to punch myself in the face with some epicly stupid route-finding. First, I thought I would try to traverse the south side of Whitecrow above the forest to reach a slide path. The side-hilling proved awful, so I eventually gave up and scree-skied into the woods. The snow was helpful in places, but not as continuous or consolidated as I had hoped, so then began the bushwhack. I ended up bashing my way down a steep, wooded hillside left of creek, tripping on hidden branches, stabbing my hand on broken twigs, climbing over rotting logs, and generally hating life. I was having flashbacks to my descent fro the Pickets via Eiley-Wiley Ridge, though at least this time was not by headlamp. As a final insult, I reached the valley bottom only to find that the trail was closer to the lake than the map suggested, across a nightmare tangle of deadfall. I think retracing my steps would have been slightly faster, but all roads to Whitecrow involve suffering.

Chief and ranger cabin

I transitioned to shorts, then started the trudge home. I expected to have the place to myself, but soon met an experienced Glacier backpacker out for the day from his camp at Cosley Lake. We talked for awhile, and he reported seeing a grizzly swimming past the camp area that morning. Joy. Fortunately I met no bears, just a couple of kids out on a camping trip. I would have told them about the swimming grizzly, but they didn’t seem talkative. My wet feet were sore, so I actually enjoyed taking my shoes off to wade through the 50-yard stretch below Cosley where the trail had become a stream.

Almost Nat Geo

Nearing the ranger cabin, I looked up to see a fox staring intensely at something in a meadow 100 yards away. I zoomed all the way in and focused on it, but I remain a bad photographer: right as I released the shutter, the fox pounced on its prey, and I got the back half of a Nat Geo action shot. I took a couple more photos as the creature sized me up, then took off again jogging for home. A couple miles past the ranger cabin, I met a girl out for a solo backpack who had just startled a mountain lion on the trail. I though that perhaps I should walk for awhile to avoid setting off the cat’s prey drive, but that resolve lasted for all of 100 yards: I wanted this to end. I was even impatient enough to jog parts of the 700-foot climb up from the Belly River to the trailhead. I reached the car just over 14 hours out, and rinsed off and ate as CBP made a pass through the lot, keeping the Homeland safe from… something. I have many peaks still to bag in Glacier, and a new respect for its savagery, but that’s enough for this trip.

Columbia (10h52)

Columbia summit pyramid


Mount Columbia is the second-highest peak in the Canadian Rockies, and the highest of 11 11,000-foot peaks that ring the Columbia Icefield. Unlike Mount Robson, whose 10,000-foot south face is visible from the highway, Columbia is a shy mountain, seen only from parts of the Icefield and its surrounding peaks. Therefore most people never see it. The standard route climbs the Athabasca Glacier to the southeast side of the Icefield, then makes a mostly-flat traverse to Columbia at its far west side. Depending upon the exact route chosen, it is about 25-26 miles round-trip.

Snow Dome

I had been hanging around the Glacier Discovery Center enough that people were starting to recognize me — never a good thing — but the weather and my cough finally both cooperated, so I could finally tag my peak and leave. The result was painful, as I am not used to long ski tours, but ranks among my favorite days in the mountains. In addition to some incredible and unique scenery, this outing and my other two trips up to the Icefield helped dispel my irrational fear of the Athabasca Glacier approach and the Icefield itself. It’s serious terrain, but as is often the case, it can be managed with caution and mountain sense instead of gear and partners.

First view of Columbia

I had a quiet night in the Sunwapta Lake parking area until a few minutes before my 4:15 alarm, when two trucks pulled in to either side of me. They proved to contain two parties headed across the Icefield, a pair headed for the Twins, and a group of four headed for I-don’t-know-where. I consumed my cup of sadness and started just after the first group, shortly before 5:00, catching them as they put on their skis at the toe of the glacier. Figuring that I wouldn’t be carrying my skis much, I took my new daypack, which has enough room for gear plus stash pockets for food.

Castleguard and points south

I slightly gapped the pair headed for the Twins on the way up the familiar Athabasca Glacier, topping out in around two hours. They had been making good time, but disappeared somewhere in the middle, perhaps taking the long detour left instead of going under Snow Dome’s seracs. I, of course, took my chances on the direct route, and saw no ice fall in the hour or so that I could see the seracs. Judging by the debris, I might get hit if something big came loose, but it would bounce and roll first, cutting its momentum and giving me a chance to dodge. Plus, the detour looks way sketchier, as it parallels a number of crevasse fields.

Bryce from the Trench

The light clouds were breaking up, and I finally got direct sun a bit after 8:00, stopping to put on my hat and sunscreen. With no fog obscuring my view, navigation was simple: head more or less straight on from the top of the glacier, then turn slightly right as you see Castleguard. When Columbia starts emerging, aim at or a bit left of its summit to hit the highpoint of the trench. This part can be a grind, skinning across slightly-undulating, nearly-flat terrain with only distant landmarks. Getting around Snow Dome takes forever. However, the views of Bryce, Castleguard, and the Icefield lit by the sun breaking through patchy clouds kept my mind occupied, and the snow was in near-perfect condition.

Slog, slog, slog

I actually overshot the highpoint of the Trench a bit, and had to backtrack slightly before switching to ski mode to dive in. I tried to gather some momentum, but ground to a stop before making any progress up the other side. From there, it was an interminable skin up the nearly-flat ice peninsula leading to Columbia’s base. The scale of the place makes itself felt on this stretch: the summit pyramid looks small, but is actually almost 2000 feet high, while the almost-flat approach above the Trench is nearly three miles long.

Columbia Glacier

Columbia’s east face had been baking all morning, so despite the cooler night, it was starting to become posthole country. Fortunately, it looked like a couple groups had summited in the last few days, and their boot-packs were still relatively firm. Unfortunately, they seem to have been very tall, because the steps were placed awkwardly far apart. Based on a trip report I had read, I had anticipated stashing my skis and booting both up and down. However, I saw ski tracks on the face, and it is both broad and not too steep (about 45 degrees), so I decided that it should be skied. To my delight, I found that my new daypack can carry skis cross-wise using some external straps, though I doubt that is their intended purpose. Lacking a serious waist-belt, the pack is not super-comfortable while carrying heavy skis, but… good enough.

The Twins

Unfortunately, I basically imploded on the 1500-foot boot-pack to the top. This being May, I had packed fewer calories than the math suggested, so perhaps rationing contributed. More likely, I was just worn out after doing more skiing than I have done in years, perhaps decades. I made my pathetic way up the face, cheered by the view of the Twins to my right, and the prospect of skiing down this thing.

Summit cornice

Following the herd’s tracks left of a 30-foot summit cornice, I sketched across a bit of shallow snow over ice, then popped through the short part of the cornice to emerge on the summit plateau. I could not have asked for better conditions: it was calm, clear in all directions, and probably right around freezing. I spread my windbreaker on the snow, rooted around my unused crampons to dig out my down parka, and sat down to admire the views. Far to the east, I could make out the head of the Athabasca Glacier in the distance, between Andromeda and Snow Dome. Next door to the north rose the South Twin, presenting its fearsome 6000-foot south face. Directly to the east, the Columbia Glacier falls in double ice-falls from the Trench to the headwaters of the Athabasca River. Unknown mountains stretched to the horizon in all directions: the Rockies to the north, south, and east, and the Selkirks barely poking above the cloud deck to the west.

About to dive in

After a sandwich and a brief summit nap, I switched to ski mode, then pitched over the edge onto the east face. My quads were tired from the climb, and the snow was heavy, so I had to stop every dozen turns to recover. Still, going down made up for the horrid slog on the way up. The snow was starting to soften, and the flatness of the plateau back to the Trench made itself felt. Though it was not worth switching to skins, I was forced to do some exhausting skating to get through one stretch. Things improved once the plateau started dropping to the Trench, and after a screw-up where I drifted too far left and ended up on the edge of a huge crevasse, I righted myself, and managed to hit 43 MPH in a tuck down the final slope.

Parting view

Now it was time for the slog. I ate my last granola bar, then began skinning up the other side. I followed an old track for awhile, then switched to navigating by landmark, aiming for the left-hand skyline of an unnamed peak southwest of the Athabasca Glacier. This long traverse is a trade-off between elevation gain on the direct line nearer Snow Dome, and distance on a slightly longer and lower route farther south. The snow was starting to soften, and I was out of water; the day was becoming distinctly less fun.

At last, I reached a point where I could switch to ski mode for the rest of the way home. After a fast, easy descent to the head of the glacier, I took the current line skier’s left of its head, which is now a crevassed disaster, then linked turns down the headwall. The snow was getting sticky, so I couldn’t match the previous outing’s speed, but I still made good time all the way to the lower, flat part of the glacier. Unfortunately it was mid-afternoon, and the snow had been baked to a wretched, sticky state; even following the morning’s skin track, I had to constantly double-pole to keep moving. The final stretch was even slower, as I stumbled across the moraine with my skis over my shoulder, crossed the rope barrier right next to the “you will fall in a crevasse and die” sign, then clomped through the tourist hordes to reach my car.

Despite the slow finish, I was surprised to make it to the car faster than I had expected — just under 11 hours. As I have established before, I am usually 10-20% off what an elite athlete can do, even at things I should be good at like uphill running. I was therefore very satisfied to be less than 20% off the 9h18 FKT for Columbia, set by members of the Canadian national ski mountaineering team. Ill-timed illness has kept me from doing as much skiing as I had hoped while in the Great White North, but what I have done has been high quality. Hopefully we’ll have a decent winter wherever I end up in the States next winter.

McCauley, Grizzly, Hope, Aztec (12h45)

McCauley, Hazel Lake, Hope


While nowhere near as serious as the Sunwapta ford for Kitchener, which comes directly off a glacier and contains chunks of floating slush, the Vallecito ford is still seriously unpleasant. While it is only 10-15 seconds long and no more than knee-deep this time of year, it must be done early in the morning on a dayhike, when temperatures are still below freezing and the sun has not reached the bottom of the deep valley. Unfortunately, the Vallecito trail is the best access to many deep Weminuche peaks, via Johnson or Sunlight Creek, so I force myself to do it once a year. This year I tried to make it as comfortable as possible, starting late at 6:15 and carrying some old running shoes for the crossing.

Lake 13,100 and Windom

I had planned an elegant lollipop route, heading up Johnson Creek, over McCauley and Grizzly, then across the head of Grizzly Creek to Greylock and 13,121′, exiting via Sunlight Creek. This would also give me a chance to take a side-trip to the highest lake I know of in North America, nestled at 13,100′ below Windom. Unfortunately, the north-facing descent into Grizzly Creek was covered in sugary snow, making it somewhere between unpleasant and treacherous, so I had to improvise.

Hunter camp

With my late start, I had less than an hour of morning headlamp, though the day had not started to warm up when I reached the crossing about 1h45 in. There was a thin hand line this time, and plenty of sticks for balance. I put on all my layers, took off my shoes, socks, and pants, put on my wading shoes, grabbed a stick, and walked across as quickly as I could. My cold hands functioned just long enough to get dressed again on the other side, where I left my wading shoes and jogged up the trail trying to warm up again. I met a couple hunters looking for elk, then passed their luxurious camp, with several mules, a large canvas tent, and what looked like a heated tepee.

Sunset on Organ and Amherst

I finally met the sun around 9:00, shortly after crossing the Johnson Creek bridge, and was soon comfortable in a t-shirt on the long, switchbacked climb toward Columbine Pass. I expected to find some backpackers, but I had the place to myself other than a bit of trash left by some previous slob. I remembered the trail’s impressive scenery, with the rugged north side of Organ and Amherst across the valley, but I had forgotten the maddening, pointless switchbacks in the middle part of the valley.

Jupiter, Windom, Grizzly from McCauley

I left the trail in open woods around 11,200′, climbing a mix of grass and talus on the east side of the Hazel Lake drainage, following my descent route from last year. I left the valley before the lake, following a mix of steep turf and class 2-3 rock that deposited me almost directly below McCauley’s summit knobs. The highest, southern one was decorated with a large iron spike.

3rd class traverse

After descending the summit knob, I stayed on or just left of the ridge crest on easy class 2 ground to the saddle with Grizzly. From the saddle, I wove left and right around a few steep bumps, then found an exposed class 3 traverse on the left leading past the final bump, joining Grizzly’s standard route southwest of the summit. From there, I climbed to the ridge connecting Grizzly and Jupiter, then boulder-hopped up its north side to the summit. I examined the snow-covered 1500-foot descent to Grizzly Creek as I ate a Clif bar, and decided I did not want to subject myself to that misery. However, returning directly felt like a waste, so I looked around for other things to climb.

East from Aztec

Hope Mountain is only a minor bump on the other side of Hazel Lake, but as an “amphitheater peak,” it has good views of the surrounding higher mountains. I dropped to the lake, got some water, then made my way up the talus to its summit, where I found a wet “geocache” in a PVC tube. With plenty of time to spare, I decided to tag a peak or two south of Columbine Pass. I took the high trail traversing to the pass, looked for tents in Chicago Basin, then easily side-hilled south before climbing the ridge to point 13,190′, which is not a real peak. I still had some time, so I continued talus-hopping over to Aztec Mountain. This was the last unclimbed peak I cared about in the Chicago Basin area, so climbing it eliminated a future trip across the Animas from Purgatory. Yay!

Route map

I traversed back south of 13,190′, then dropped down the center of the Johnson Creek drainage, eventually rejoining the trail near where I had left it in the morning. The switchbacks sorely tested my patience on the jog down to the Vallecito, where I met the hunters, still looking elk that I believe are still up in the high country. The return ford was much less miserable, as the air temperature was well above freezing. Hike-jogging the long Vallecito trail, I passed one backpacker on his way out, and reached the trailhead a few minutes before headlamp time. Though I did not tag the summits I had planned, I should be able to clean out the remaining peaks around Sunlight Creek in a single trip next year.

Northern Pickets traverse (East Fury to Challenger, VI 5.7, 28h32)

Northern Pickets pano


The central northern Pickets are arguably the most remote peaks in the lower 48, so it was only a matter of time before I had to try them. I had visited both ends of the northern Pickets: Challenger in 2014, Luna in 2015, and East Fury in 2016. On this last effort I had been planning to go for more, but I was stopped after a single peak by route-finding errors, a lack of drive, and the realization that I had underestimated my objective.

And so it begins…

While it is possible to pick off the peaks one-by-one, for the sake of efficiency and style I wanted to nab them all and claim the coveted Northern Pickets Traverse. I had estimated that it would take me 24-30 hours with a shuttle from Hannegan Pass trailhead back to my car at Ross Dam. Unfortunately I was unable to set up a shuttle on short notice, forcing me to either hitch, or use a different route. Not liking my chances of finding a ride first thing in the morning after rolling in late to Hannegan and taking a dirt nap, I used a significantly longer and harder route, descending the cross-country Eiley-Wiley ridge to Beaver Pass, then “running” 20 miles of trail back to my car. This put me at the upper end of my estimated time range.

Smoky dawn on Luna

I got a few hours’ sleep at the Ross Dam trailhead, but it is noisy right by the highway, and I was too wired to sleep, so I turned off my midnight alarm, drank my Cup of Sadness fortified with beet nitrates (found at a Walmart full of obese tweakers in Bellingham), and started down the trail around 12:15. The toads seemed more numerous than last year, and I even met a few on the trail down to the dam. It is around 17 miles to where you leave the trail for Access Creek, so this would normally be far too early to start, but I had a good GPX track of the cross-country route from last summer, so I could do it at night without losing too much time. This was key to giving myself as much daylight as possible to deal with the ridge and unknown de-approach.

Upper East Fury

The approach worked about as well as it ever does. I bashed down to the river, where I almost immediately found the remnants of the log bridges I had used in 2014. I wasted only a bit of time dithering (I still hate getting wet), then forded barefoot to try to keep my feet dry and minimize the damage they would suffer in the evening. I found a bit of a boot-pack along the subtle ridge right of the creek that is least brushy. My worst mistake was crossing south one slide path too early, but that did not cost much time. As a result, I reached East Fury’s summit in only 10h15, vs. the 11h30 I took last year.

Luna, East Fury from West Fury

Now it was time to launch into the unknown. The final scramble up East Fury consists of shockingly mobile large talus, and the same continues on the way to West Fury. Beckey’s guide suggests that this traverse takes multiple hours, but I found most of it to be standard chossy 4th class, and reached West Fury in under an hour. The first ascent register was still in good shape, and I was surprised to supposedly be the 19th “party” to visit.

West Fury descent

Up to this point, the best exit would be to retrace my steps. Once I headed down the west ridge, things would become more complicated, possibly involving a long and unfamiliar cross-country route around the north end of the range. I steeled myself, then followed the first ascent route down the west ridge. Starting slightly east of the summit, I descended a chute, then made a descending choss-traverse back west to the ridge. I followed that a bit, then made my way down dirty, ledge-y terrain on the other side to gain the small glacier northwest of the peak. From there, I easily kicked my way back across to the saddle with Swiss.

Good rock on Swiss

I made my way more or less up and over several small pinnacles of mediocre rock on the way to Swiss, a broad NW-SE summit with a permanent snowfield on its southwest side. I found the rock pleasantly solid, climbing a line on its southwest face and descending near the northwest ridge. I stuffed some snow in my Camelbak, then tossed that out when I found running water below the snowfield. This was a valuable find, as running water is scarce on the rest of the ridge, and it was hot enough to be sweating in shorts and a t-shirt on the crest.

Spectre (l), Phantom (r)

Given the time and my longer-than-desired descent route, I skipped “Spectre Peak” without a second thought, then spent some time considering my route to the saddle with Phantom. The ridge itself looked unusably steep, the gully to its west at least somewhat navigable. Looking back, I think a line just right (east) of the ridge would have been better, blocky low 5th on decent rock. My chute was a garbage-fest with a tricky chockstone, and the traverse back to the ridge was outward-sloping dirt and death-choss.

Challenger and Crooked Thumb

The rock was somewhat less chossy on the way up Phantom, but still not great. I mistakenly climbed a lower summit to the northeast, earning zero bonus points, then found the original register on the true summit. It was in bad shape, and probably not long for this world, being protected by only a bashed-up tin canister and a plastic bag. There appeared to be even fewer entries than on West Fury, but I was concerned enough about my position that I did not pay much attention. Phantom is about one third of the way from West Fury to Challenger, and if things continued apace, I would be lucky to make it off by dark.

The misery continued descending off Phantom, with tricky route-finding on rotten rock on its left to bypass steps in the ridge. Considering the prospect of a bivy or a very long night made me think of efficiency: I turned off my GPS to save batteries for night-time navigation, and skipped the ridge crest whenever I thought it would save me time. As I made my slow way north, I was examining my escape route down the west side and up between two of Challenger’s lower summits.

Challenger from Crooked Thumb

Fortunately things improve considerably at “Ghost,” a subpeak of Crooked Thumb. I could have gone up some line along the south ridge, but Beckey mentions that Roper had climbed an “exposed class 4” route on the west face. Good choice! The rock reminded me a bit of the Tetons’ golden granite, and I had my first fun in awhile romping up steep, solid rock with incut holds.

The ridge from this point looks long, but the climbing remains mostly fun, with the best route generally on or near the ridge, and the descents to the north usually easier than the climbs from the south. Reaching Crooked Thumb, I found quite a bit more traffic in the register than on previous peaks, though still only a party or two per year.

Final ridge to Challenger

Since I was not rappeling, I had to make a substantial deviation west to reach the first saddle on the way to Challenger. From there, I stayed near the ridge to enjoy the fine, exposed climbing, deliberately not thinking of the grim headlamp time that awaited. Challenger’s summit ridge is a wonderful finale, a series of narrow fins with the holds angled so that the easiest route climbs right along the spine. I let out a whoop of joy, looked around for a summit register, then made the short downclimb to the Challenger Glacier.

Eiley Ridge

I had three options at this point: exit to Hannegan and hitch (16 trail miles), traverse to Whatcom Pass and take the trail back over Beaver Pass (25-30 trail miles?), or descend Eiley Ridge directly to the pass (20 trail miles). Given the time, I should have sucked it up and chosen the second, but I optimistically and foolishly took the new-to-me Eiley Ridge descent. Things started out great, with a nice hogsback of snow providing a clear path around the yawning summit crevasses, and easy jogging on the lower glacier to Challenger Arm.

I climbed Point 7374′, then was forced to sketch my way down a dirt-chute to the snowfield on its northeast side. I got more water at a tarn near frozen Wiley Lake, then continued making good time on snowfields south of the ridge to Eiley Lake. So far, so good — I thought I would be near the final bushwhack down to Beaver Pass by headlamp time.

Challenger

Unfortunately I made a mistake here, straying too far southeast of the ridge. There are several places where it is temptingly easy to descend directly east here, but they lead to Luna Creek, which is supposedly one of the worst places in the world. When I realized what had happened, I tried to fight though some scrub pines back toward the ridge, then tried side-hilling across steep grass and flowers to rejoin the ridge. Unfortunately the ridge rises again; maybe the correct route goes over Point 4984′, but I have no idea, and that was not an option for me now.

Before it got dark, I had programmed my GPS with a point a bit south of the pass, so I turned it on, turned on my headlamp, and continued via IFR. My strategy was to traverse until the point was directly down-slope, then bash my way toward it. I found plenty of wretched scrub, blueberries, and alder, but also some surprisingly open groves of big trees. Unfortunately all of it was steep and slick, but I suppose sliding on your butt is an efficient way to lose elevation.

I’m a size 10

There was much less devil’s club than I expected when I finally reached the valley bottom, but I reached my random point without hitting the trail. I did my best to bash due east, and almost fell as I stumbled out onto the trail. At the first stream that seemed safe-ish to drink, I got some water, downed a couple ibuprofen, rinsed my feet, and switched to my dry socks. My calluses were all white, soft, and wrinkled, so I knew my feet were in for a beating, but I hoped that the clean (and thinner) socks would reduce the suffering.

Moonset from Ross Dam

On a normal outing, this return would take about 4.5 hours, 3 to Ross Lake and 1.5 back to the dam. I started off at a reasonable jog, but realized shortly after Luna Camp that it would not last. I could motivate myself to jog with a mixture of Rammstein and reminders that the more I jogged the sooner it would be over, but it was a pathetic shuffle. As I neared the lake, I tripped more often, and was worried I might face-plant into one of the toads, which are even more disturbing after 3 hours’ sleep and 27 hours on the move. I could probably have gone to sleep curled up on the trail, but I wanted to do this in a single push, and did not want to be woken by a ranger’s boot or the splat of a toad to the face. I took in the moonset while crossing Ross Dam, and for once was grateful to be finishing in evening headlamp time — at least it wasn’t quite dawn.

Robson (Kain Face to SW ridge, 14h50)

Robson from visitor center


Mount Robson is the highest peak in the Canadian Rockies, towering over its neighbors in the northwest part of the range. A bit under 2000 extra feet make it a completely different beast than its neighbor to the northwest: while Whitehorn succumbed to a fast-and-light assault in about 12 hours, Robson is Serious Business, requiring ice tools, real crampons, and mountain boots. I think it should be doable in 12 hours by the easiest and most direct route (southwest ridge), but I can’t imagine that route being in condition for fast-and-light gear.

Part of what I try to do when exploring new ranges is to dispel their mystery and the accompanying irrational fear. My previous Robson encounter, while successful, had something of the opposite effect. This time, better weather and information resulted in a much better experience, though the mountain still tested my ability and nerve.

Robson from near col

The classic route on Robson is the Kain Face, traditionally reached by a long hike around to Berg Lake, then a hazardous ascent of the Mousetrap Icefall. Both of these factors led me to choose the southwest ridge back in 2014. Since then I have learned of the Patterson Spur approach, which avoids both distance and hazard, and turns out to be shockingly well-flagged. This allowed me to climb the classic, aesthetic route in 14h50 car-to-car. Doing so required balancing contradictory time constraints: on the one hand, I did not believe I could do the approach at night; on the other, the Kain Face and Robson Glacier receive morning sun, so they are best climbed early. I split the difference, starting at 3:22 to hike the Berg Lake trail at night, and climbing the face mid-morning in sloppy but not hazardous conditions.

Patterson Spur near center in sun

The Patterson Spur trail is well-disguised from the hoi polloi, but if you know where to look, you can find a faint boot-path, which soon turns into a reasonably-maintained and extravagantly-flagged climbers’ trail ascending through the woods around the toe of Robson’s south-southeast ridge. The trail peters out in a large slide path, where the route crosses the outflows of some hanging glaciers, then follows the streams toward the Robson-Resplendent col. Occasional flagging and maintenance lead up the slope, with some vegetable combat, to a broad cirque of talus and ledges.

Resplendent

I found an occasional cairn here or there, but there are many possible paths up the slope. The eventual goal is to cross left across the small glaciers’ terminal moraines, then ascend an indistinct ridge (the Patterson Spur) to the R-R col. Getting onto the ridge via rock looked tricky, so I booted up the side of the glacier to its right, then continued the long, meandering climb, finally meeting the sun a few hundred feet below the ridge. From a starting elevation of 2780′ at the parking lot, this approach climbs to around 9,000′ at the col, covering a bit less than two thirds of the total elevation gain.

Robson from R-R col

R-R col is distressingly far from the Kain Face, and this part of the Robson Glacier looked uninvitingly crevassed, so I was happy to follow a recent boot-pack along the ridge, scrambling a mixture of rock and softening snow. I was hoping that the people I was following knew what they were doing, but discovered at the top of a snow-slope that I was wrong. The ridge is separated from the glacier by a bergschrund for its entire length, and becomes more difficult near a large notch at Robson’s SSE ridge. The party ahead had dithered for awhile, then retreated, briefly checking out a likely ‘schrund crossing before… admitting ignominious defeat? Being made of sterner/stupider stuff, I carefully crossed the ‘schrund where they had chickened out, briefly wallowing thigh-deep before reaching ankle- to calf-deep snow on the glacier.

Down face to Robson Glacier

The Robson Glacier looked like serious business, with gaping crevasses on the direct line to the Kain Face, so I took a cautious, roundabout line near the ‘schrund. I tried to minimize the wretched postholing by crossing old slide debris, but it was still slow going, and I was concerned about the state of the face above me. I sweated my way around to the base of the route, and finally put on crampons.

Kain Face ‘schrund

There is another ‘schrund near the base of the Kain Face, and it proved more difficult than I had anticipated. Even where the gaping pit was filled with slide debris, it presented an overhanging slush-cliff that I could not climb. Finally, traversing nearly all the way to the right-hand side, I found a place where it was just filled in enough to carefully cross. I don’t entirely understand how the snowpack changes on Robson, but it seems like the face may be completely inaccessible later this summer.

Across Kain Face toward Resplendent

Above the ‘schrund, I climbed a few hundred feet of steep, calf-deep slush plunging both tools for security. The slush eventually thinned, and I climbed a good bit of honest-to-God ice with a thin covering, allowing me to engage my front-points and tools for real. I hadn’t climbed any ice in awhile, so I over-gripped my tools and stuck them too deep for awhile. As the angle began to ease, the face grew an unpleasant layer of aerated junk over the ice. My feet still fell solid, but I was less confident about my tool placements.

Summit climb

Finally reaching the SSE ridge, I was confronted by another 1000 feet of easy ridge-walking and nontrivial climbing. The ridge starts out broad, and the snow was perfect for cramponing on the left side, well off the cornice. I was no longer sheltered from the wind, which kicked bits of rime past me toward the Robson Glacier, but it remained perfectly clear, and I was warm enough while moving. I stopped from time to time to turn away from the wind, warm my face, and admire the view of Resplendent and the large, complex glacier.

Rimed-up crevasse below summit

The climb steepens toward the top, passing around or over rime formations on the edge of the summit glacier. The snow remained pleasantly firm, and I could French-step much of the slope, front-pointing up occasional steeper bits. Just below the summit, I found a rime-encrusted crevasse right across the ridge. It looked like it might be possible to go around it on the right, but that would be awfully close to the cornices, so I traversed left, crossed a well-bridged part, then climbed a pitch of weird snice covered in inch-long rime feathers, finally reaching the broad summit plateau.

Rime sculpture

In addition to the 2-3 equally high humps I remembered from last time, I found a number of huge, trippy rime towers, fed by the clouds that often blanket the peak. The sky remained clear for me, though, and I looked down in all directions on a sea of lesser peaks. I was partly sheltered from the wind in the lee of a rime-blob, but didn’t linger long, as I had a lot of descending to do. With a clear view of nearly my entire descent route, it was easy to follow the edge of the summit glacier down to the top of the Schwartz Ledges, climbing between two rime towers.

Looking up from Little Robson

After much inward-facing downclimbing, I reached the normal rock transition and removed my crampons. As I was here a bit earlier in the season than last time, the ledges still held patches of evil slush protecting ice. After a slip, I tried to continue along the edge of the glacier, only to find knee-deep slush-wallowing. I glissaded one small, tame section, then made the annoying transition back across the ice to the rock, then avoided snow as much as possible on my way toward the icefall hazard.

Schwartz Ledges

With some obnoxious downclimbing and a brief shower crossing under some ice, I found a ledge leading across the famous icefall gully on which I could step across the lingering snow in the couloir. After crossing the col to Little Robson, difficulties from the snow decreased, though it still interfered with the easiest path in a couple places. Perhaps because of this, I found this section more difficult than I remembered, including a low 5th class dihedral. Nearing the final ice-dodging section just above the hut, I heard the occasional rock pinging down the side of the glacier. Pausing before crossing the gully, I heard and then saw a dozen or so rocks large enough to brain me whiz by, encouraging some haste.

Welcome home!

I took a break at the Forster hut, eating my last sandwich and wringing out my soaked socks. The hut looked abandoned, with the door ajar and a dead rat on the doorstep. Fortunately I had passed this way before, because the trail down to Kinney Lake is similarly neglected, and rapidly returning to nature. It is particularly easy to lose at either end, overgrown on top and blocked by deadfall on bottom. Also of note, the handlines on the 4th class step partway down are nothing but untrustworthy tat now. Fortunately I knew where to look up high, and only lost the route for a bit. My feet, wet for hours, ached in my boots, and my hands, covered in small cuts from the sharp rock, suffered as well grappling with roots and branches.

Finally emerging on the wide tourist trail, I limped the remaining 5k to the trailhead, barely passing the occasional tourist. At the car, I gratefully stripped out of my wet boots and filthy clothes, then drove up to the visitor center for some slow wifi before returning to the trailhead to pass out in the car. I had emerged victorious, but with a healthy respect for the Great White Fright.

Whitehorn (S ridge, 11h55)

Upper Whitehorn Glacier


Whitehorn is, by a hair, the northernmost 11er in the Canadian Rockies. However, Mount Robson towers 1500 feet higher across the valley, so Whitehorn sees relatively little attention. The classic route follows the west ridge, with a long approach circling all the way around the mountain counter-clockwise from the Berg Lake trailhead. I chose the similarly-difficult south ridge because it has shorter approaches, following the trail for 6-7 miles before ascending either to the Whitehorn Glacier, or to a valley to its south. I went up the latter and down the former, and found both to be rugged and little-used.

SW approach goes up that

Since I was doing a ridge route, I got a lazy start a bit before 6:00 (PDT) with my usual lightweight mountaineering gear, making the miles of well-graded trail past Kinney Lake much more pleasant than in boots. The day was looking predictably and depressingly smoky, and Robson’s ice-capped summit was hidden in a small cloud, but the weather looked reasonable for what I was attempting. The guidebook made the glacier approach sound less reliable, so I opted for the glacier-free southwest ridge approach, leaving the trail at a talus slope a bit more than 9 km in.

Sketchy dirt-ledge

The route immediately started to suck in numerous ways. First, I climbed up almost 1000 feet of loose scree and hard-packed dirt. I was aiming for the mouth of a hanging valley south of some cliffs, so at some point I dove into the woods, trying to follow faint game trails and open areas up and left. I believe I was “on route,” as I eventually found a scary, exposed dirt ledge that led, after a bit more bush-whacking, to the desired valley, where I found a lone, useless cairn.

Looking down SW ridge approach

I stayed mostly on the north side of the valley as I climbed west, side-hilling on a mix of turf and talus. I passed a large piece of old avalanche snow, then continued along a stream toward the alpine. The mosquitoes and black flies were out in force, often making it possible to kill more than one with a single swat, but as long as I kept moving, they were bearable.

Looking up SW ridge to S ridge

I eventually turned north, crossing some rolling terrain to a milky lake in a large talus-bowl, where the bugs at last relented. The route gains the southwest ridge north of a sharp fin, via a mixture of choss, rotten steps, and a couple of snow patches soft enough not to need crampons. The climb to the junction with the southeast ridge is similar, mixing talus-walking with route-finding through crumbly cliff bands.

Nice sidewalk

At the ridge junction I finally got a reprieve, as narrow but nearly-flat ridge is topped by long sections of exposed sidewalk. The final climb, however, is the choss of nightmares, blobs of outward-sloping garbage flaking off in dinner-plates. At one point I gently bumped my head on an overhang, and a chunk fell off and hit me back. The guide calls it 5.3, but YDS ratings make no sense to me on such terrain; it’s all sketchy.

Longstaff and Swiftcurrent Glacier

The smoke seemed to be thinning, and I had reasonably clear views of Mount Longstaff and the large Swiftcurrent Glacier to the west, and almost all of Robson to the east. There was no sign of any recent visitors. I hung out on the slightly chilly summit for awhile, then sketched my way back down to the ridge junction. The glacier looked pretty tame, so I decided to try that route on the way out. The southeast ridge was steeper and more rotten than the southwest, so I got on some snow to the right as soon as I could, plunge-stepping down to a saddle at the top of the glacier.

Lower Whitehorn Glacier

While there are some large crevasse-fields, there was a pretty clear route down to the low-angle part, where I made my way to the northeast edge. There turned out to be a long tongue extending from the south side down to about 6500 feet, not visible from above, and I spent some time descending on more- and less-pleasant rock to get around it. Below, I found the route much as described, with some difficulty and an old piton in a black cliff-band. Below, I crossed the glacier’s outflow streams on generally pleasant scree and gravel, aiming for the south side of a gash they had carved in the lower cliffs.

Almost 10k feet from summit to lake

Here I finally found more consistent cairns, though no discernible use trail or even game trail. I would have been reluctant to descend this way if I did not know that there was a path, as it looks from above as if it will cliff out in several places. But there are just enough breaks in the cliff bands, and I soon found myself on a small trail near the Whitehorn ranger cabin, which joins the main trail next to a fun-looking suspension bridge. I jogged the downhills and flats on the way back, picking up my pace a bit when I realized I could make it back in under 12 hours. I had optimistically planned to do Robson the next day, but I felt sufficiently beaten-up to deserve an easy day.

Oso

Oso above Moon Lake

Oso above Moon Lake


Mount Oso is the highest of a cluster of 13ers between Vallecito Creek and the Los Piños River in the eastern Weminuche wilderness. This remote area is most easily reached with a high-clearance 4WD from the Beartown trailhead. Without such a vehicle, I decided to approach Oso from the south near Vallecito Reservoir, using the new-to-me Los Piños River trail. I knew ahead of time that it would be a long outing, about 15.5 miles from the trailhead to the pass above Half Moon Lake. However, I underestimated both the difficulty of the cross-country portion in fresh snow, and the quality of the scenery along Lake Creek. This maintained but little-used trail climbs through aspens past craggy granite peaks and mile-long Emerald Lake, by far the largest natural lake in the range.

Granite Peaks Ranch

Granite Peaks Ranch

Knowing I had a long day, I got started by headlamp just after 5:30, hiking and jogging along the edge of the Granite Peaks Ranch. The pack trail continues up a narrowing valley north of the ranch, somewhat reminiscent the Vallecito Creek, though it seems less-traveled. With the previous day’s precipitation, the trail was somewhat boggy, and some normally-easy stream crossings were made more difficult by the ice that had accumulated overnight on the rocks.

North across Emerald Lake

North across Emerald Lake

The trail eventually crosses Lake Creek on a sturdy-looking bridge, then splits, with my branch climbing a narrow side-valley that broadens and flattens as it turns north. After a long, cold climb, I reached the east shore of Emerald Lake as the sun slowly made its way down the opposite slope. The lake sits in the flat bottom of an old glacial valley, dammed by either an old terminal moraine or a large rockslide. The previous day’s mixture of snow and rain had hardened overnight into a slick white crust, so it was slow going around the lake in my lousy flat-soled shoes (the better ones have all been destroyed).

Moon Lake

Moon Lake

Above the lake, the trail shows less use from fisher-folk, but is still maintained as it tunnels through the head-high willows. I found a ford where it crosses Lake Creek, and a log hidden in the brush 100 yards upstream, with a vicious willow-whack required to get back on-track. With the snow melting in the sun, the trail became a sort of “anti-trail,” a muddy, icy stream worse than its banks. I continued along this path as the broad valley narrowed, then climbed steeply to roughly crescent-shaped Moon Lake, where the trail remained completely covered in about an inch of snow.

Peters Peak

Peters Peak

From there, the trail became even fainter as it climbed up to the pass above Half Moon Lake, a dot bearing no particular resemblance to a half moon. Looking east and north, I got my first views of Rio Grande Pyramid and the flat highlands between Silverton and Rio Grande Reservoir. I finally left the trail, climbing slightly toward Oso and hoping that a route would appear up the steep-looking headwall on the ridge ahead.

Lake Mary Alice

Lake Mary Alice

Things turned ugly near the intervening bump on the ridge, with maddeningly-slow loose talus covered in fresh snow. From the notch at the base of Oso’s northeast ridge, I got a look at Lake Mary Alice, sitting like Lake Silex at the bottom of a hostile-looking talus-bowl. The third class climbing along the ridge featured a couple surprisingly steep gashes, and was made much trickier by the fresh snow. In particular, one sloping slab that I would have walked across without thinking became a thought-provoking hand traverse.

Oso from the east

Oso from the east

Just below where the ridge joins the broad south face, it becomes a near-vertical face split by two right-to-left ascending ramps. Partway up the first ramp I could have cut back right to the second. I chose instead to continue on the first, and was rewarded by finding a cairn where it turns the corner onto the southeast face. From there, a mixture of grassy ramps and class 2-3 scrambling led to the south face, where faint goat trails led toward the summit.

RGP from Oso

RGP from Oso

After a cold morning, I was pleased to find the summit sunny and calm enough not to need my windbreaker. To the west, the Needles and Grenadiers rise nearby across Vallecito Creek. Rio Grande Pyramid dominates the view to the east, while Vallecito Reservoir and the plains of northwest New Mexico are visible to the south.

Needles and Grenadiers from summit

Needles and Grenadiers from summit

Rather than retracing my route, I descended the ridge to a red gash, then dropped southeast directly to Moon Lake, avoiding both most trickiness on the ridge and the miserable talus. My shoes sucked as expected on the steep, snow-covered grass, but I reached the trail without any mishaps. Most of the crusty snow had softened or melted, replaced by more mud and water, so it was again slow going until below Emerald Lake.

Porcupine

Porcupine

Finally on reasonably-dry trail, I had some ibuprofen and started the jog home. My legs were somehow still a bit stiff from my race a few days before, so I was more inwardly-focused than usual as I turned toward the bridge at the trail junction. I was startled back into reality by some couple’s dog acting half-heartedly aggressive. Freshly attuned to my surroundings, I noticed a porcupine a short distance down the trail, and darkly hoped that the unleashed dog would find it as well.

American marten

American marten

Since this river trail sees much less horse traffic than the Vallecito, it is actually a pleasant, slightly-downhill run, and I was making decent time toward the trailhead as I passed a man and his dog decked out in hunter orange. A few minutes later, I saw something scamper squirrel-like up a tree near the trail. It turned out to be an American marten, a cute little creature I had only seen once before in the Tetons. I stopped for a few minutes to take pictures as the creature looked down from a branch just out of reach, and the man with the dog caught up again. I was feeling more tired than expected, and was in no particular hurry to reach my car, so we walked together and talked for the remaining miles to the trailhead. I had planned another long-ish day in the area, but was feeling less than enthusiastic, so I found a nearby place to camp; I would decide what to do in the morning.

Storm King, Peak Nine, Silex, the Guardian (15h)

Traverse from Nine to Guardian

Traverse from Nine to Guardian


These peaks on the eastern end of the Grenadiers are some of the hardest to reach in the Weminuche Wilderness of southwestern Colorado. With a high-clearance vehicle, the Beartown trailhead is the closest starting point; without one, Molas Pass is the least-bad option, despite the 1,600′ climb back out of the Animas on the return. Being both remote and overshadowed by their neighbors, they see relatively little traffic, and are wilder than most high Colorado peaks. I was pleased to dayhike them on what may, due to approaching winter, be my last San Juan outing this season. Here is a rough map.

Unsure how long my outing would take, I set off from the Molas Pass trailhead at 5:15, committing to a bit less than 1h30 of morning headlamp time. I had been using my tiny running pack for my longer recent outings, but I chose to bring my larger dayhiking pack to accommodate a more whimsical diet: a box of pop-tarts, a box of granola bars, and a bag of Chex mix (on sale for 960 cal/$!). While the route would involve some running, much of the time would be spent on slower cross-country travel, so the pack would not be too annoying.

Swamp donkey!

Swamp donkey!

I ran the rough trail down Molas Creek as best I could by headlamp, crossed the foot bridge, then followed the trail through the swamp along the railroad tracks. I saw some glowing eyes off in the bog, turned to get a better look, and was surprised to see not elk but… three swamp donkeys! While the Weminuche is home to some northern beasts like the over-friendly mountain goats of Chicago Basin, I had either forgotten or not known that there are also a few moose. I am used to seeing them in the Tetons and parts north, and knew there were some north of I-70, but this is the farthest south I have yet seen them.

Sunrise on Vestal and Arrow

Sunrise on Vestal and Arrow

After that bit of excitement, I put in a bit more headlamp up the Elk Creek trail, then finally got to stow it as I regained the morning’s elevation loss. Leaving the trail at the beaver ponds near 10,000′, I passed one party apparently camped on their way out of Vestal Basin, then crossed the creek on a handful of small logs and started up the steep but well-used climbers’ trail. Where the valley flattens and turns east, the trail obnoxiously dives into the bog. My shoes had almost dried after the previous day’s Vallecito soaking, so I picked my way along fainter trails on the north side of the valley.

Vestal, Arrow

Vestal, Arrow

Following a sort of game trail through the woods, I was embarrassed to stumble right through another party’s camp. I wasn’t quite sure how to behave, but the man outside his tent said “hi” and seemed friendly, so I stopped to talk for a minute. He and his partner had been in the valley for a few days, tagging the peaks at a leisurely pace, and were waiting for things to warm up a bit before heading for Arrow. I told him I was headed for the more obscure Storm King, and he offered some beta on the best route through the Vestal-Trinity pass. They had remarkably bad timing: Arrow’s standard route and Vestal’s excellent Wham Ridge are both more-or-less north-facing, and the previous week’s snow was hardly melting on high north faces. They also turned out to be in for a healthy dose of cold rain on their hike out the next day.

Vestal-Trinity pass at center

Vestal-Trinity pass at center

I found a dry stream crossing near the constriction between two boggy sections, then made my way around snow-patches as I headed up to the plain between Vestal and West Trinity. There are a number of possible crossings of this broad, flat saddle; I chose one near the middle that had some obvious boot- and hoof-prints in the snow, and which also happened to be out of Trinity’s shadow. The still-firm snow made what would have been a loose scree-slog significantly easier, and I soon found myself looking across Tenmile Creek at Peaks Four and Five and, farther away, Pigeon and the Needles 14ers.

West down Tenmile Creek

West down Tenmile Creek

My recent beta suggested staying high on the traverse from the col at 12,600′ toward the small lakes around 12,200′, avoiding the drop to Balsam Lake at 11,450′. At first I found easy travel on a series of descending grassy benches, with bits of use trail and the occasional cairn. As the grass dropped toward the valley bottom, I lost the cairns and found myself on ugly, loose talus. I went back high, finding bits of easier travel near the cliffs at the Trinities’ base, but it was not a route I would want to take with an overnight pack. Looking back from near Peak Nine, it seems that the best route continues on grass, descending to around 12,000′ west of the small lakes.

Storm King from col

Storm King from col

As I made my way up the gentle slope to the Storm King-Nine saddle, I eyed Storm King’s southwest face apprehensively. I didn’t know anything about the route other than that it was on the face, and that it was supposedly easy to lose on the way down. As I neared the saddle, the correct path along the south ridge became more obvious, even before I saw the faint use trail and cairns. This may be an obscure peak, but it is also Colorado.

Silex from saddle

Silex from saddle

Two things became clear from the saddle: First, Peak Nine would be either a quick jaunt or a scary climb on snow-covered rock. Second, there was no way I would be getting to Silex via Silex Lake. Even without the coating of fresh snow, Silex Lake is one of the least hospitable-looking places in the Weminuche, a cold pool in Silex’s shadow surrounded by loose, lifeless talus and scree. If I were going to do more than tag Storm King, I would have to find another way.

Lake Silex

Lake Silex

I made easy work of Storm King’s standard route, which is mostly pleasant class 2-3 with a bit of loose scree in the final chute leading to the summit ridge. I suppose some people may take the chute too far on the descent, but it is not hard to remember where to traverse out toward the south ridge. Along the ridge, I passed a chute that would provide a quick descent to Lake Silex, if I had any desire to go there.

Notch on Storm King and Peak Nine

Notch on Storm King and Peak Nine

It was time to decide what to do next. It had taken me around six hours to reach the summit, so returning the way I had come would make for a short day. The ridge from Peak Nine to Silex looked like it had a decent chance of going, and if not, I could always drop south to Leviathan Creek and make my way back between Peaks Seven and Eight. I decided to try Peak Nine and, if I reached its summit, use the ridge as the least-bad way to Silex and the Guardian. I would figure out how to get home from there if I made it that far.

Traverse from Nine to Guardian

Traverse from Nine to Guardian

Returning to the saddle, I made my way up talus and snow to the notch west of Nine’s summit, then descended a few yard down the south side before taking a class 4-5 chimney/corner out of the chute. Once on the south face, I made an ascending traverse east on solid class 3-4 rock covered in miscellaneous loose stuff. The easiest route apparently stays below the west ridge until east of the hard-to-see summit. I strayed onto the ridge too early, traversed back down, then found a reasonable climb up past some rap junk just west of the top. Luckily, the route never strayed onto the sketchy, snowy north face.

Nine and Storm King from ridge

Nine and Storm King from ridge

There was a bit more class 4 east of the summit, hinting at a grim, slow traverse to Silex, but fortunately the difficulty soon eased off to quick class 2-3. The traverse to Point 13,176′ was mostly fun, with the best route staying on or near the crest. I was feeling energetic, so I tagged the intermediate summit, had a bit of tricky route-finding down to the saddle with Silex, then headed straight up the spine of its southwest ridge rather than traversing the easier but looser south slope. Though it looked potentially loose the rock on the ridge was fairly solid, and offered some fun class 3-4 scrambling on incut holds, then easier class 2 to the summit.

Eyeing the Guardian from Silex, the route along the south face was clear, my route home less so. Like Storm King, both Silex and the Guardian have sheer north faces with no obvious path. The Guardian’s south face looked easy, but it would drop me to Leviathan Creek near Vallecito, way down near 10,000′ and a long ways from home. Hopefully a better way would present itself.

Silex and descent route from Guardian

Silex and descent route from Guardian

I started off on the ridge crest southeast, then dropped onto the south side to get around some sheer steps. From the first saddle, I saw what might be a route east into upper Vallecito near Stormy Gulch. I also saw a nice ledge to the south, where I soon picked up a line of cairns traversing around just below the second saddle, then up to the Guardian’s indistinct south ridge. While the ledges and ramps were easy, they did slope outward slightly, and were covered in debris eager to crash down to the valley below. I passed a couple of small high-altitude evergreens, then turned up some easy class 3 terrain to the summit.

Needles from Guardian

Needles from Guardian

I had just spent almost 9 hours heading away from home; now I had to figure out how to get back. Looking west, even Vestal looked far away, and Molas Pass was farther still. While it looked like I could descend to the south or east, the possible route from the saddle still looked promising, and might be a bit shorter than heading east to the Vallecito Trail and around. I retraced my steps, then headed northeast down talus and turf.

Descent to Stormy Gulch

Descent to Stormy Gulch

The route quickly became cliffy to the east, but I found a reasonable path by heading north to the head of the valley, then looping back southeast near the stream at its bottom. I had been out of water since before Silex, sucking on small mouthfuls of slush and reluctant to eat dry and salty food, so I took the first opportunity to drink and eat Chex mix. I scared off a few elk, then followed their trail downstream.

Looking down Stormy Gulch

Looking down Stormy Gulch

I knew that the Vallecito trail eventually connected to the Elk Creek trail, but suspected that I could save distance and time by going up Stormy Gulch, then either west into Vestal Basin or north to upper Elk Creek. I tried to stay high around Silex’s northeast ridge, finding either an uncairned use trail or a well-maintained game trail leading into the valley a bit downstream of Lake Silex’s outlet stream. I filled my water at Trinity Creek, debated crossing, then decided to continue along the apparent game trail on the south side.

Storm King to East Trinity

Storm King to East Trinity

I had a bit of luck here: though it does not appear on any map, and I did not find any blazes, there is a faint old trail south of the stream leading all the way to Trinity Lake. I even found a couple cairns and a fire ring. This discovery spared me what would have been quite a bit of obnoxious willow-bashing. The east side of the Vestal Basin col looked obnoxious, so I took a detour north to see if I could see my way to the Colorado Trail from the broad saddle. Seeing nothing but ugly talus in the valley to the north, I opted for the safe-but-obnoxious Vestal Basin return.

Looking down Vestal Basin

Looking down Vestal Basin

I took some sort of wrong line down Vestal Basin — it is best to stay high on the north side until past the first steep drop — but had no serious trouble returning to familiar ground. Passing the camp I had bumbled through in the morning, I saw no one at the tents, and decided to pass a polite distance below. However, I heard a shout, and saw the two I had met in the morning sitting on a nearby outcrop. I talked to them a bit, learning that they had successfully summited Arrow, and trying to provide some useful information from my unusual wanderings.

Then they settled in for a leisurely evening, and I took off for the evening slog. I made it about 10 minutes past the train tracks before turning my headlamp on, then jogged the flatter switchbacks out of boredom on the climb. I almost reached the car in under 15 hours, but lost a few minutes to a wrong turn in the maddening trail maze that is Molas Pass. I found my car, put my reeking, destroyed shoes on the hood, then promptly went to sleep.