Category Archives: Type II fun

Valois, Florida, Bullion, Kennedy

Valois from Trimble Pass


Several of my remaining Weminuche 13ers are unfortunately “orphans” I skipped on various long dayhikes, meaning they are both deep in the wilderness and cannot be easily combined with other peaks. Of these, Peaks Eleven and Twelve are probably the most interesting, and could be combined on a loop of Chicago and Ruby Basins out of Purgatory, but the short days and recent snow put that long grind out of reach for this season. Two others, Valois and Peak Twenty-Two, are only a couple miles apart in the less-visited southern Weminuche, so I thought I might be able to combine them. I have previously reached the area from the Endlich Mesa trailhead, but I do not have the vehicle to drive that road, or the energy to hike it again.

Sunrise on La Platas

I decided instead to come in from the Lime Mesa trailhead to their southwest. This is a ridiculously long drive on dirt roads, and not worth repeating, but it is easy driving for any car up to Henderson Lake. I started the drive in the evening, finished it in the morning, then hung out until around 8:00, when it was finally warm enough to ride with mitts and a down coat. It is peak redneck season in Colorado, the time to harvest meat and wood between when the hikers leave and real winter sets in, so there were several large, aggressively-styled trucks with horse- or ATV-trailers parked at various pullouts.

Maybe they won’t chew your face off

The road remains decent for a few miles beyond the lake, then deteriorates into a mix of slabs, jumbled rocks, and ruts. I had to push my bike in a few sections. I was impressed to see a bad-ass old Mitsubishi van parked at the top of the final climb, which looked like Jeep terrain. I sort of wanted to meet its owner, but he seemed to be just waking up, and you don’t disturb someone in their home like that. The road remained terrible as it rolled across the mesa to the trailhead, and I debated stashing my bike, but pushed and carefully rode all the way to the trailhead, where I found two stock-looking Tacomas. Clearly my judgment of what a vehicle can handle has become poor.

Chilly junction

I stashed my bike in the trees, then started out north along the Lime Mesa trail. There were a couple sets of footprints in the fresh snow, but they seemed to be going out and back, so I did not expect to meet anyone. I soon turned east on the City Reservoir trail, which joined the Burnt Timber trail to meander east toward said reservoir through gentle ridges and valleys. I saw a large tepee-shaped tent in the woods off the trail, and was surprised not to see a horse to carry it nearby. Soon after, I spotted a hunter couple talking to each other on the trail ahead. I half-waved as I approached, but they did not notice until the woman turned around and startled. I found it funny that they hoped to track and surprise an elk, but had not noticed a middle-aged guy traipsing along the trail listening to a podcast.

Slabs up Valois

The human tracks soon gave out, and soon after I saw fresh tracks of elk using the trail, though I neither saw nor heard the animals themselves, despite passing through several meadows that seemed like ideal places for bull elk to scream their aggression and lust. I eventually reached the reservoir, noting that the hike from Lime Mesa was only about a mile longer than from Endlich Mesa. I continued up the trail toward Lake Marie, then left it near Logtown (a very Mad Max-sounding name) to make my way up Valois’ south ridge. I found an old trail at the start, then followed a mix of game trails and common sense through the grass and granite outcrops to the upper talus. I felt pathetically slow on the climb, weakening my will to add Twenty-Two to the day.

Valois catwalk

Valois’ summit plateau is connected to a false summit by a narrow catwalk, which I enjoyed despite the lingering snow. Once past this bit of fun, it was an easy plod to the summit cairn. The peak is utterly unimpressive from this side, but its steep north face is more dramatic, and it has an excellent view of Johnson Creek to its north, bounded by the Grizzly-McCauley-Echo ridge, descending to the deep Vallecito. I looked across Castilleja Lake toward Peak Twenty-Two, but it was hard to even pick it out among the Emerson Peaks and other unnamed bumps. I lacked the will to put in the work to tag it, especially since my late start would put me at risk of a headlamp bike descent.

This sucked

I decided instead to make a loop, traversing over Florida and Bullion to Mount Kennedy before returning to the trail via what looked like easy terrain on West Silver Mesa. The ridge to Florida started out miserable, with slick talus lubricated by fresh and softening snow. In my worn shoes, it made for tedious and cautious climbing, moving crab-style along the ridge. At the saddle, the ridge turned so that the snow melted, and the minor climb to Florida was much easier. From its summit I could clearly see the Trimble Pass trail, covered in snow, traversing toward Columbine Pass. I also saw a well-trodden elk- or sheep-path near Lillie Lake to the south.

Valois from Trimble Pass

I followed what might have been a faint trail to the pass, then climbed more easy talus along the ridge to Bullion, another unranked 13er. I had already somehow done Aztec on a previous outing up Johnson Creek, so I skipped the tricky ridge, dropping to the grassy plain to its south. The descent off Bullion was the day’s misery crux, a steep slope of large, shifting talus covered in slick snow. Too many things moved that should not have, and even crab-walking, one boulder bit me on the back of the calf. It shredded my pant leg, but fortunately I was wearing tall socks, so I got off with no more than a small bruise on my Achilles.

Big NM skies and storms

Relieved to finally be on low-angle grass, I was heard rushing water, and was surprised to find an old pipe sticking out of the ground, with water still burbling out. I saw a tailings pile below the Bullion-Aztec ridge, but no ruins of a building or other detritus nearby to justify the effort of improving this spring. I stopped to fill my water, then hurried on with an eye on the increasingly serious-looking clouds to the south and east. The forecast had called for a slight chance of showers, and it seemed increasingly likely I was going to feel some precipitation.

Pigeon through Eolus

Kennedy has an exceptional view of the central Needles, from Pigeon to Windom, and I took some time to admire and photograph them in the dramatic partly-cloudy light. It also has cell service, from which I learned that a couple of prolific Colorado peak-baggers had been just behind me on my White Dome excursion a couple days earlier. The weather was deteriorating as I descended West Silver Mesa, but fortunately the travel was as easy as I had hoped, with mostly open country and very few willows. I was surprised to find quite a few more boot-prints on the trail, but met no one on my return to the trailhead.

Needle Creek to Animas

It started graupel-ing a couple of miles out, and gradually grew more intense. I was not looking forward to the ride back to Henderson Lake, especially since the clay-rich soil had turned to slick mud. The two trucks were still at the trailhead, and the Mitsubishi van’s resident waved as I passed, riding cautiously over the mix of mud and limestone. I was impressed at how well my bike’s tires handled the surface, despite their lack of aggressive tread. I initially tried to avoid the puddles and the worst of the mud, but gradually gave in to the fact that both me and the bike would be filthy no matter what. My hands ached with the cold, and I needed to get back to the car before dark.

Aftermath of bike descent

I managed to ride most of the upper rocky section, picking my way cautiously and riding the brakes. I put on a bit more speed on the lower, smoother part, as the graupel turned to rain and my brake pads wore down from the grit. Finally reaching the car, I leaned my bike against the side to deal with later, and was happy to find I had just enough manual dexterity to unclip my keys from my pack and unlock the doors. I crawled inside, frantically stripped off my wet clothes, put on a dry t-shirt and sweatshirt, started water for cocoa, and curled up in my sleeping bag. I had a painful ten minutes as my hands came back to life, but suffered no permanent harm. I made dinner, read a bit about Harvey Butchart, then went to bed early, leaving the problem of dealing with my wet, muddy bike and clothes to the next day.

Hunchback through Peak Two

West Trinity, Vestal, Arrow


[This writeup skips several quality outings over the past two weeks, which I hope to return to, but the blog is getting badly behind. — ed.]

Cunningham Gulch

Climbing all the Weminuche 13ers has been a late-season, low-urgency project of mine for some years. Most of them are fairly remote, which makes them appealing but also hard to day-hike, especially late in the season when I normally visit. One of my last mother-lodes of peaks was the group north of Vestal Basin and south of Elk Creek, from Hunchback to Peak Three. I had expected this to be a truly grim outing from Molas Pass but, while doing some last-minute research, I realized that it would be significantly easier to reach the peaks from Cunningham Gulch. I had somehow never visited this trailhead, which is a viable 2WD alternative to the slow and punishing drive to Beartown for accessing the northwest Weminuche.

Dawn on Guardian, Silex, and Storm King

I was not sure how long the outing would take, but I had to be back by dinner, so I set my alarm for a painful hour and started by headlamp around 4:30, planning to do the trail approach by headlamp. It is no longer summer, so I began hiking in mitts and a down jacket. While I eventually stowed the jacket, I remained borderline cold on the long, rolling commute south along the Continental Divide above 12,000 feet, and had to put it back on above Kite Lake when my hands got too cold. I finally turned off my headlamp near the top of Elk Creek, continuing south on an old but clear trail to the saddle between Hunchback and White Dome.

White Dome

Hunchback Peak is made of some kind of crumbly shale, so it is not particularly steep, and its west ridge is mostly easy. The snow on the north side was sometimes supportive, but more often the expected breakable crust over ankle-deep sugar. I dodged a couple of small pinnacles near the top, and reached the summit in time for sunrise. I watched the light hit familiar peaks to the south and west in the Needles and Grenadiers, then retraced my steps as Hunchback’s shadow descended the east face of White Dome, my next goal.

Vestal Basin peaks from White Dome

Near the saddle between the two peaks, I transitioned from dark choss to the Grenadiers’ lighter quartzite, which is particularly light-colored in this part, giving White Dome its name. This rock can be solid and pleasant to climb, but because it is hard and breaks along smooth planes, it forms terribly unstable talus. I therefore stayed along the right-hand ridge where possible, opting for solid rock with a few class 3-4 steps instead of shifting boulders. By the time I reached the summit, it was warm enough to ditch the mitts and jacket for the rest of the day, though I would keep my hoodie and thin work gloves for several hours. The Vestal Basin peaks began to come into view here, with their strikingly bent uplift layers.

Descent from Peak One

From White Dome I followed an easy ridge to its junction with a minor spur, then turned south toward Peak One. This was the first north-facing terrain I had to deal with, and it was as unpleasant as I had feared, with unpredictable ankle- to calf-deep powder between protruding rocks. I tried to hop from rock to rock where I could, which was slow but far less aggravating than postholing. A combination of fatigue and altitude also had me plodding and gasping more than I should have been. Peak One was not particularly interesting in itself, but it offered a clearer view of the main Grenadiers. Notably, the east side of neighboring Peak Three shows the same layers as Arrow and Vestal, though the eroded valleys are in the wrong direction to make for good climbing. I also had an excellent view across Stormy Gulch to Trinity Lake, the long Trinity-Storm King ridge, Silex, and the Guardian. Looking north, I could see most of my descent route to Elk Creek and the Colorado Trail, which looked easy if a bit tedious from this angle.

The Trinities

I dropped down the ridge to the head of Stormy Gulch, then followed a rib on Peak Three’s east side to its summit. I had suspected for years that this peak would be an ideal spot to view the main Grenadiers, and it did not disappoint. I sat for awhile admiring Arrow and Vestal, whose Wham Ridge looked tricky with a dusting of snow on the steeper upper half. Through the gaps in the quartzite ridge I could see Jagged, Eolus, and Pigeon poking through. Peak Two looked like a slog, so it took me a minute to steel myself to get going. It was every bit as tedious as expected, unstable quartzite talus mixed with a bit of choss, with the usual sugary snow on north slopes. I slogged it out, admiring the high plateau to the left and my scree descent to the right. From its summit, I had a clear view up and down the deep trench of Elk Creek. I had only been as far up this drainage as the Vestal Basin cutoff, and was both looking forward to traveling its upper reaches, and dreading the long climb out.

OMG this sucked

After a couple minutes on the summit, I retraced my tedious steps a bit, then happily plunge-stepped east, crossing some sheep-trails in the pliant scree. The bottom of this drainage was blessedly willow-free, so I was expecting an easy hike down to the Colorado Trail. Unfortunately it also contains a couple of bands of slabby cliffs which are hidden from above. I did not have to do anything sketchy to get through them, but they did cause some frustration and delay. Below, I followed game trails to the right, aiming to hit the trail high. These eventually disappeared, and I found myself hopping and thrashing through a mess of deadfall above the creek junction. Looking back, I did not see a better path.

Bench lakes above Elk Creek

Once back on the trail, I was surprised and impressed by how steeply it climbed toward the Divide. I slowly ground out the 1800-foot climb, mostly appreciating the trail, but cutting straight up through some turf where it turned to maddeningly-flat switchbacks. I was ahead of schedule, but still tried to jog the flats and downhills on my way back north. Though it was late in the year, it was also a weekend, and I saw a group of three hunters who had probably driven to Beartown, a couple of day-hikers, and a pair making camp near one of the high lakes. Given the forecast for snow the next day, these last seemed either masochistic or oblivious, but they were too far from the trail for me to say anything. I jogged down to Cunningham Gulch, quickly rinsed off at the car, then drove into Silverton to grab water at the fire station and cook some real food.

Mount Taylor (Quad-style)

Mount Taylor is a prominent mound north of Grants, named for President Zachary Taylor, a president who is mostly skipped in High School history and, given his period, was probably warlike and otherwise mediocre. Amid the current trend of renaming peaks, I note that it has also been named Cebolleta (tender onion) by the Spaniards, continuing the food-themed naming scheme demonstrated by nearby Sandia (watermelon) and Manzano (apple tree). The Navajo named it Tsodzil (blue bead mountain), one of their boundary peaks along with Blanca, Hesperus, and the San Francisco Peaks. The other local tribes, the Acoma, Hopi, Zuni, and Laguna, predictably gave the large stratovolcano their own names as well. People like to refer to landmarks, and therefore give them names; take your pick.

As it is a big tree-covered mound with Forest roads all over it, one must get creative to make it a challenge, and the best way to do that is the Mount Taylor Quadrathlon, an event almost as old as I am. Starting from the town of Grants, participants (or teams) bike 13 miles to the end of the pavement, run five up graded forest roads, then ski and snowshoe about two apiece to the summit before reversing the process to finish back in town. I was in the area and had the fitness, and in addition to enjoying racing, I believe it is healthy for the mind and ego, so I signed up.

Though I did not take it seriously enough to, say, do intervals, I did want to actually be a contender, so I borrowed my friend Mike’s fast carbon bike, and gave some more thought to gear choices. With six transitions, I focused on minimizing the time they took, which meant using the same shoes and clothing for every activity. To do that, I put flat pedals on Mike’s bike, and borrowed a pair of Altai Hok skis from a friend in Albuquerque, which have both snowshoe-style strap bindings and built-in kicker skins for the steep ascent. I also wore plastic bags inside my running shoes to protect my feet from the starting cold and snow higher up.

In retrospect, I should have focused more on performance, particularly on the ski. I may have saved about a minute per transition, but those six minutes were easily lost on the downhill ski, which was much slower than it would have been on my AT skis. Also, a one-minute transition probably costs 30 seconds or less, since it doubles as a one-minute recovery. In the future, I would still use flats, because it is a mass start and therefore easy to hang with the lead pack on the bike up, but would use aero bars for the descent. I would also use AT skis, which would make the downhill ski both much faster and a semi-recovery period. I would need a spare pair of shoes for the snowshoe, since doing it in my AT boots would be painful and slow.

All those changes might have saved me about ten minutes, enough to place higher, but not to be a contender. I was about 15% off the winning pace, far too much to be made up by better tactics and nutrition, and probably more than I could make up through better training. As I have written before, it is important to know your place, and that is mine. Interestingly, I was not beaten by a bunch of younger guys, but by four men around my age (the winner was 50!) and one woman who I gather has been utterly dominating local races recently. There were plenty of younger participants, but all ended up farther down the leaderboard. While age and place are positively correlated as expected for the top 100 (corr=0.12), they are negatively correlated for the top 20 (-0.20) and 10 (-0.34). Whether this is due to experience, interest, or equipment (i.e. money), I cannot guess.

In any case, conditions were near-ideal for this race through a wide range of ecosystems. A recent storm had added a few inches to the meager La NiƱa snowpack, but the day was sunny and calm, and the roads had dried the day before. Grants being subject to the high desert’s huge daily temperature swings, it was still in the low 20s for the 8:00 AM start. I easily hung in the lead pack on the flat roll out of town and the gradual lower climb. I seemed to be working slightly less hard than most of the guys (and one woman) around me, so I liked my chances. Unfortunately I had tried to adjust my seat beforehand and, fearful of breaking Mike’s fragile bike, failed to sufficiently tighten the seat post bolt. Therefore by the time we neared the end of the bike, the seat was far too low, slowed in its descent by the tyvek number taped around the seatpost.

A couple of stronger cyclists turned up the pace where the climb steepened, and I made the mistake of trying to keep them in sight. This made no difference in placing, as I passed them in the transition, but did put some hurt in my legs. I lack experience pacing for multi-sport events, but immediately noticed my mistake as my legs were sluggish on the run. I had expected multiple runners from teams to pass me, but only one did on the gradual five mile climb to the ski transition. About half of the road was bare dirt, the other half packed snow.

I liked my chances at the ski transition, and was happy with the Altais, which had just enough grip for most of the steeper parts of the climb. I was passed like I was standing still by one skimo guy, and saw another person behind me going up Heartbreak Hill, but still made decent time. I started losing on the snowshoe, where I walked some gradual uphills that I should have been able to run. I laughed passing the Viking aid station, then started the hike up the summit meadow with the next person just behind, who turned out to be a ridiculously fast woman. We chatted a bit on the climb, then she took off jogging where it flattened out, while I continued walking.

After a brief side-trip to touch the summit sign (I am, first and foremost, a peak-bagger), I ran the down-trail as best I could, singing “We come from the land of ice and snow…” to encourage the Vikings as I passed. I caught the woman ahead of me in the transition, but she was gone by the time I was gone, and since she was on AT skis, I knew I would never see her again. I had expected to lose some time descending on the Altais, but it was far worse than I had hoped. Not only were they slow and hard to control, but I had to work kicking and poling where I would have coasted on real skis, obliterating both potential recovery and any time I gained in the transitions.

I found a decent rhythm on the downhill run, but my legs were toast on the short uphills before the transition. Partly they were just fried from too many similar activities back-to-back, but partly I was running out of energy. I had brought only solid food, and was too dehydrated and breathing too hard to chew and swallow much of it. Between the sinking seat and my fatigue, my bike performance was fairly pathetic, but I made decent time on the downhills and flats. The one climb reduced me to a pathetic grind. I was glad for the race to be nearly done, as my feet and calves had begun to cramp, but I was passed with authority by a guy on aero bars with a TT helmet only a couple miles from the finish. Like everyone else ahead of me, he was in my age group, but I did not have the energy to jump on his wheel.

I ended up sixth overall, fifth man, and fourth in my age group. (Results here.) I was happy with my overall place, surprised to be crushed by an amateur woman, and disappointed by my age group place. As noted above, there are some easy ways I could improve my place and time via only gear and nutrition, but I would be hard-pressed to train well enough to podium. Still, I would like to return to a wonderful race to see how I could do with more refinements, and am sad that other priorities will probably send me elsewhere next winter.

Wyoming 13er speed record (8d23h)

As some readers may already know, I have spent most of the past two weeks climbing all of Wyoming’s 13,000-foot peaks. These 13ers consist of five peaks in four isolated clusters (Francs in the Absarokas, Cloud and Black Tooth in the Bighorns, Wind River Peak in the southern Winds, and the Grand Teton), and the remaining thirty packed together in the northern Winds. The four clusters are all reasonable dayhikes on well-defined routes, although the Bighorn pair are a grind.

The northern Winds, however, require multiple days and, unlike the California 14ers, there is no established, clearly optimal route. In addition to topo maps, I went in with photos of Joe Kelsey’s guidebook, and Eric Gilbertson’s well-written and thorough trip report from his climbs last summer. Both were helpful, but neither was sufficient to plan a complete route ahead of time. Route conditions in the northern Winds depend upon the time of year, the previous winter’s snowpack, and global warming’s inexorable march. An easy couloir in June can be be blocked by a gaping bergschrund in September; north-facing class 4 slabs can be covered in treacherous ice and snow from a late summer storm; and certain routes in Kelsey’s guidebook, last updated in 2013, have changed beyond recognition.

The previous record for doing this, set by Gilbertson in 2020, was 16 days, 18 hours. Beforehand, I expected to complete the peaks in 11-12 days, and was pleasantly surprised to do so in just 8 days, 23 hours, about 4 days and 13 hours of which were spent on foot. My route involved approximately 220 miles and 82,000 feet of climbing. The time I saved all came in the northern Wind River Range, where I was able to link more peaks together than I had expected, and to hike out the same day that I completed the northern ones. With support (e.g. car shuttles and horse packers), it should be straightforward to cut a day off my time. With less sleep and better link-ups, it may be possible to cut off another either with or without support. However, since relatively few mountaineers have the skills, free time, and desire to attempt this record, I suspect my effort will remain the fastest for some time.

What follows is a brief description of each day; I will write my usual detailed/verbose trip reports as I am able.

  1. Summit of Francs

    Francs: This was a dull hike to a dismal peak. Smoke from burning California marred the views, which were mostly barren choss reminiscent of the dry Andes. The road to the trailhead is Element-able, but has a few stream crossings that may short-circuit your Prius.
  2. Black Tooth from near Cloud

    Cloud, Black Tooth: Cloud by itself is a long, rocky pack trail followed by a long, easy boulder-hop. Adding Black Tooth spices it up with some class 3 and adds some distance. The hike back down the valley to Cloud’s northwest is interminable, passing endless lakes while losing little elevation.
  3. Wind River Peak from Tayo Lake

    Wind River Peak: Like Eric, I came in from Block-and-Tackle Hill, using a bike beyond the Forest boundary. ATVers have cleared the road of deadfall to the Wilderness boundary, but a microburst over Labor Day weekend 2020 has covered portions of the trail all the way to Little Sandy Lake with downed trees. The standard route from Worthen Meadows Reservoir may be faster in the future, as this trail seems unlikely to be cleared.
  4. Ugh

    Bow: Backpacking sucks, but is sometimes necessary. I lugged 16 pounds of food, both cold and wet weather gear, and crampons and an ice axe from Green River Lakes along the Highline Trail and over to Shannon Pass, at which I dropped my pack to tag nearby Bow Mountain via easy slabs and talus.
  5. American Legion from Henderson

    Henderson to Whitecap (6 peaks): There were two question marks on this leg: the ridge from American Legion to Knapsack Pass, and the one from Split to Whitecap. Kelsey speculates that the first is class 5, and says nothing about the second. Both were indeed low fifth class, though the descent from American Legion was fairly spicy with fresh snow on its north-facing aspects.
  6. Harrower/Ellingwood

    Ellingwood (Harrower) to Jackson (4 peaks): These make a natural loop from the Indian Pass trail junction. Ellingwood’s standard route is only class 4, but the 5.6 north ridge is amazing and probably no slower if you feel comfortable at that grade. The route from Ellingwood to Knife Point is somewhat convoluted, crossing broken, deglaciated slabs and gullies.
  7. Fremont, Sacagawea, Helen

    Fremont to Febbas (8 peaks): This was pretty wild, and saved me a day. Kelsey’s couloir from Fremont down to the Upper Fremont Glacier was too hard and steep for my gear, and also ended in a massive bergschrund. Fremont’s east-northeast ridge is not mentioned in Kelsey’s guide, but goes at class 4-5 on and south of the crest, and leads to the glacier. The normal route on Helen looked too steep and icy, but the east ridge is straightforward and not much longer. Spearhead Pinnacle has a short class 5 crux on the east side of its north ridge, but is mostly easier scrambling. Warren is a mix of scrambling and choss. Turret is a bit tricky, especially with snow descending the north slopes to Backpackers Pass. I started up the “west ridge” route (not really a ridge), then made a tricky downclimb into the “west gully” used on the first ascent. Sunbeam and Febbas are not hard. The long return down Blaurock Pass and over Bonney Pass was depressing, crossing endless moraines while staring at the much-diminished Dinwoody Glacier.
  8. Woodrow Wilson from Pinnacle Ridge

    Woodrow Wilson to Desolation (5 peaks): This was a last-minute plan that worked fairly well. From camp at the Indian Pass junction, I hiked up to the Sphinx Glacier, thus making my time climbing the Sphinx two days prior mostly a waste. I then traversed around to Wilson’s (dry) west chute, ascending that and descending the north chute to reach the upper Dinwoody Glacier. The upper glacier was crevassed but, as I had hoped, not too steep and retaining some new and old snow. I stayed high on the way to Glacier Pass (a horrible scree field on both sides), with a detour to Pinnacle Ridge. From the pass, I reached Gannett via class 4-5 climbing east of the ridge leading to the standard Gooseneck route. I then descended and crossed a col to the Minor Glacier, which was flat and easy, and the slabs below it, which were not. Koven is, as Eric indicated, low fifth class by its south ridge, which can be reached from the lake below the Minor Glacier. Beyond, I found a good camp at the Desolation-Rampart col, then made a quick evening side-trip to Desolation, setting up a potential exit the next day.
  9. Winds from Downs

    Bastion to Downs (6 peaks): Starting at first light, I climbed to the plateau, walked around Rampart, and tagged Bastion. From there I headed north, roughly following Eric’s route all the way to Downs over a mixture of talus and tundra. The stream south of Downs leads to a high plateau with many lakes and gentle undulations, though this valley may be impassable earlier in the season. I then followed a pleasant path I had plotted on the topo, passing high above Bear Lake before dropping to Faler Lake, which lies at treeline. The steep descent to Clear Lake was slightly ugly, and things only got worse going around Clear Lake, then down Clear Creek to the maintained trail at the Natural Bridge. From there it was a simple slog to the car.
  10. Dawn on the Grand

    The Grand: I was hoping to finish on the Upper Exum, but needed to be down by 10:00 to finish under nine days. I therefore went up and down the Owen-Spalding, which is easier to do in the dark.

Statistics

Since I recorded everything on Strava, I have the moving time, miles and elevation gained, and even a dubious count of calories burned for each day:

Day mi ft time cal
Francs 15.67 5338 5:32:08 2839
Cloud 29.01 7799 11:14:23 4919
Wind R 22.34 4963 8:38:41 3609
Bow 23.46 5564 9:29:14 3765
Henderson 15.74 11332 11:54:21 3810
Ellingwood 24.62 9040 12:50:15 4486
Fremont 23.14 13774 15:25:56 5023
Wilson 20.29 9010 13:04:33 4355
Bastion 27.46 7472 14:11:57 5021
Grand 15.05 7584 6:03:33 3078
TOTAL 216.78 81,876 4d12h25m01s 40,905

A few things seem worth noting: First, the mileage is close to Eric Gilbertson’s estimated mileage for his previous record. Second, I spent just over 4.5 days moving out of just under 9 days total. Given that some of the remaining time was spent driving, this is a sustained effort, but nothing extreme. Other than the last night, before the Grand, I did not seriously short myself on sleep. Finally, if the whole thing required about 41,000 calories (plus base metabolic rate), the $100+ I spent on food seems about right, since I ate cost-inefficient things like pepperoni and Clif bars. I probably spent slightly less than that on gas to drive 600 miles during the record, so the driving cost less than the hiking, as it should.

Thanks and reflections

Thanks of course to Eric G., who planted the idea of doing this in my mind, and whose detailed trip report simplified my planning. I would especially like to thank Renee for her infectious drive and positivity, which were crucial in overcoming my doubts and lack of motivation before trying this. She and my friend Dan were both a source of motivation during the effort as well, thanks to a surprising amount of cell coverage. I spent some time with friends both before and after this attempt, some of whom I probably could have prevailed upon to provide support, but that is not the kind of effort I wanted. This needed to be all me.

As mentioned above, I think this could go much faster with a full “Cave Dog”-style (or “Hamiltonian”…) effort, involving extensive scouting and route optimization, and a full support crew. That is not something I want to do, and I do not have many ideas for major time-saving route improvements, but I hope someone makes it happen. This could also probably go faster for an unsupported individual, but I don’t know anyone right now with the skill, time, and interest. I would also like to see a women’s record, solo and preferably unsupported, but the necessary skill and especially interest seem even rarer.

Wind River Peak (S-E loop)

First view of the peak


Wind River Peak is the Winds’ southernmost 13er, standing alone some 35 miles south of the rest, with only a handful of significant peaks between it and the high plain south of the range. I needed to retrieve my car near Lander, and Renee wanted to do something semi-big with her last day in Wyoming, so we settled on running Wind River. By historical accident, the traditional fastest known time (FKT) for the peak follows a counterclockwise loop from the high Worthen Reservoir, as the peak is a similar long trail and class 2 boulder-hop from both the south and east. The men’s record is far beyond my reach, but the women’s record (as usual) looked soft, so Renee went for that while I ran the loop clockwise. I wanted to see a lot of new territory, to hedge my bets lest another early storm ruin my future plans, and to see if I still had some speed in me despite advancing age and a lack of focused running this season.

Choo-choo!

Temperatures felt ideal as the near-full moon set and the sun rose around 6:30 over the reservoir. I felt energized starting off in shorts and an overshirt, carrying my little running pack with about 3000 calories and a liter of water. As the trail gradually climbed through the woods, I stashed my overshirt on my pack, where it would remain for most of the rest of the day. What a contrast with conditions only two days earlier! There were two significant water crossings along the way, of Roaring Fork and Stough Creeks. Most locals seem to bring horses or wading shoes for such things, but I found acceptable dry crossings downstream of both, as it was too early in the day to splash through and soak my shoes.

Wind River and maybe Lizard Head

I got my first glorious view of Wind River Peak at the unnamed col around 10,600′, where the trail descends to Stough Creek and the Middle Popo Agie River. After an hour or so spent in the woods, the sudden sight of acres of bare granite was inspiring, though Wind River Peak looked distressingly far away. Feeling a strong runner’s high — those are some good drugs, self! — I took off at a respectable run down the other side of the pass, maintaining a decent jog through the flats past Stough Creek and down to the Popo Agie. This section of trail was moderately annoying, consisting of gradually-climbing rollers. The trail crosses the river in a meadow/swamp before Tayo Park, and here I did not find a dry crossing, though it looked like someone had tried to build one using some stepping-stones and a too-thin log. I made it to the log, then took off my shoes to cross the last bit, losing a sandwich from my pack as I bent over to put my shoes back on.

Peak from Tayo Lake

From here, I continued on a clear trail past mysteriously-named Poison Lake, then took the faint but signed fork up toward Tayo Lake. Here the climbing began in earnest, and while the trail was never hard to follow, it became little more than a use trail, with a faint tread in the woods and cairns leading through open meadows. I stopped for water at Tayo Lake, taking an extra couple of minutes to plot my route up Wind River’s south side and admire the sheer face and unnamed pinnacle to the west. From the lake, I found no more than an occasional and faint boot-pack weaving through the krummholtz and up the tundra, and a couple of cairns, which I destroyed.

Temple from summit

I made good time up the flatter lower slope to the peak’s eastern snowfield, then began to struggle as the steeper slope, bigger talus, and elevation took their toll. As I neared the summit, my eyes were drawn to Temple Peak, a more impressive-looking summit that falls just 28 feet short of being another 13er. Crossing the summit plateau, I was a bit surprised to see two guys sitting by the high point with overnight packs. They turned out to be hiking the Wind River High Route from south to north, just about to get into the Serious Business descending the peak’s steeper northwest side. I noted that I had made the summit in just under four hours, but felt sociable despite my steady effort to that point. We talked for “approximately” 18 minutes, and I learned that one of the guys had done the Great Divide Trail, a rugged route from the Glacier/Waterton border in the Rockies to Mount Robson Provincial Park. I was duly impressed, more so after learning that he had suffered near-daily rain. I must be lucky to have had so many clear days on my summer trips to the Canadian Rockies.

Descent to Deep Creek Lakes

I thought I might see Renee after spending so long on the summit, but she had not appeared by the time I got antsy and started down the peak’s east side. The route circles around Chimney Rock, then follows a broad plateau down to the trail network at Deep Creek Lakes. The upper section is large talus that is slow on the descent, while the lower section is runnable tundra. Unfortunately this is a Wind Rivers plateau, so glaciers have taken a couple of deep bites out of its east side. Not looking at the route on my phone often enough, I strayed too far left and had to regain some elevation to get back on the correct path. In addition to losing some time, I must have missed Renee on this part, as she is generally better at paying attention to maps.

Looking back from Deep Creek Lake

I refilled on water at the highest Deep Creek Lake, then spent another 5-10 minutes talking to a guy from Missouri out on a backpacking trip. He was trying to puzzle out his position using a printed map and compass, which was understandably difficult given that the lakes all look the same, and some of the trails on the USGS map have ceased to exist. Less-used trails in the Winds seem to be in constant flux, with new ones being created by fishermen and climbers while old ones quickly fade. Thus I found it helpful to load my phone with both USGS maps for older trails, and OpenStreetMap-based maps for newer ones. Of course, I also found trails both old and new that appeared on neither map, such as the one leading down from Middle Mountain.

The trail down Deep Creek and the Popo Agie to Sheep Bridge was largely pleasant running, with occasional climbs long enough to walk, cram down food, and look at the map. I was starting to feel my lack of running this summer, but kept a respectable pace. The 500′ climb from Sheep Bridge back toward Worthen Reservoir was a slog, but less than half the climb out of the Popo Agie going the other direction. It passed quickly at a determined walk, though I had to wait for a couple of minutes while trail workers from the Montana Conservation Corps blasted rocks to re-route the trail. This part is outside the wilderness boundary, and is therefore being made more comfortable for mountain bikers. I passed more hikers in the final mile, including a group of four women with identically-huge packs, a sure sign that they were with NOLS.

Reaching the parking lot, I was pleased to see Renee’s van was still there, and that she had not been forced to abandon the effort and drive for home. The whole thing was a bit over 32 miles the way I went — about a mile longer than the most efficient route — and took 7h43m. Subtracting my ~30 minutes of socializing, that is on the order of Gabe Joyes’ original FKTs in 2014 and 2015, though nowhere near his 6h19m 2016 effort, or the newer, faster times going up and down via Deep Creek. I was encouraged to see that while I am likely a bit slower than I was in my thirties, I am also uncompetitive on these kinds of courses because standards have risen. Running the route in the opposite direction would probably be faster because the east slope route is easier to follow on the way up, and because one can just splash through streams toward the end. However I prefer my way, for the sudden first view of the peak, and the more pleasant running down Deep Creek. In any case, the loop was worth doing, even if I did not stand a chance at a record.

Buck Loop (NE face to Buck Pass)

Buck and Cleator from jog home


Summitpost describes Buck as “one of the man-mountains of the Washington Cascades.” Though only three miles from the Trinity trailhead to its southeast, and only class 2-3 from the southwest side, a high and rugged ridge extends north and south from Buck, and there is no road or even trail up the lower Napeequa River to the west. The “normal route” is therefore shockingly roundabout, approaching the peak’s west side either over Little Giant Pass to the south, or on a high route from Buck Pass to the north. There is also a direct class 3 route from the east near Alpine Creek, involving a river ford and a savage bushwhack through steep and brushy forest, that is recommended for descent but can of course be done both ways. The Summitpost page also mentions that the northeast ridge is “class 4 or 5,” which sounds like my kind of route.

Easy bushwhack

With these options in mind, I made the long drive up the Chiwawa River Road to Trinity, and started off around dawn planning to do at least one of these routes. Passing the place for the Alpine Creek route, I decided that I did not want to do that to myself. I continued after the split toward Buck Pass, finding that the bridge was not “out” as advertised, but was probably no longer suitable for my horse. Nearing the turnoff for King Lake and the northeast face, I entered the burn area for the 2016 Buck Creek fire. The forest was in a near-perfect state for cross-country travel, with the trees and underbrush incinerate, but the nasty things that follow a fire not yet established. The main type of plant was fireweed, a bush that is easy to whack. I contemplated the route while I ate a sandwich, then took off across the wasteland.

Near the cleft

The first obstacle was crossing Buck Creek, but I found a perfect log bridge almost exactly where I needed it. There was even a sort of tunnel through the otherwise-impenetrable alders. Beyond, I followed various deer tracks up the burn, staying on the left side of the drainage and well away from the unburnt alders to the right. I eventually entered steep woods above the burn, and the deer trail faded. Not sure what to aim for, I decided to traverse right to reach open terrain I had seen from below. This turned out to be a savage hell-schwack, variously fighting my way through alders, steep scrub pines, and cliff bands littered with fallen burned trees. After avoiding some of these cliffs, I realized that the rock was fairly solid with a grain that worked well for climbing this way, and simply headed up some class 3 crags, grateful to finally be making upward progress again.

Miraculous open gully

Reentering the woods higher up, I found myself on the left side of a deep cleft with a healthy cascade running through it. This was rocky enough to discourage the plants somewhat, so I stayed near the edge as I made my way upward, hoping I could cross the cascade easily higher up. I saw what I thought was a cairn in an open, slabby section, then a few cut branches and a bit of boot-pack higher up. Success! I lost and re-found the ancient fisherman’s trail a couple of times, taking my time and eventually ending up in an open, grassy ravine leading easily almost to the east side of King Lake. I have no idea what this “trail” did lower down, and that part has been obliterated by the fire, but I was grateful for what I found.

King Lake and upper mountain

King Lake proved as spectacular as I imagined it would. Buck’s small northeast glacier sits perched in a bowl above the lake, sending cascades of milky melt-water down the cliffs that ring the lake to its southwest. I found a couple of fire rings with fresher-than-expected ashes in them, but I can’t imagine this cirque sees much traffic. Making my way around the lake’s north side, I climbed rubble and easy slabs to the toe of the glacier, putting on crampons to cross one hard snowfield. I avoided the snout and broken-up lower glacier to the right on decent rock that became grittier as I progressed, then returned to the glacier where it was a bit more continuous. The travel was mostly easy, but it was surprisingly possible to fall in a crevasse if one were oblivious, as opposed to having to find one and jump in it.

Enter the choss

The top of the glacier is separated from the mountain’s east ridge and south face by another wall of cliffs, the only potential exit being at the upper right side. I made my way for the highest tongue of snow, passing someone’s father’s ice axe on the way. This tongue probably used to extend into the gully above, but it was now separated by an expanse of steep dirt and scree. I sketched my way up this, aiming for the obvious gully to the left. The gully was made a bit more obvious by an ancient piece of tat, originally yellow and now bleached completely white. I was once again annoyed at Cascades mountaineers for leaving garbage on routes (who would rap this?!), and at myself for not bringing a knife to remove it.

Choss gully

There was a bit of easy fifth class to pass the webbing, but above it looked like the angle eased. If only… Earlier in the season this would probably be a steep snow climb to the summit ridge, but now it was wet gravel, choss, and gritty slabs that often angled in the wrong direction. I worked my way up the right side of the gully, using the wall for handholds or to stem against the dirt. After a failed attempt to exit early to the right, I exited out the top, making a few wide stems against some reddish rock. Above that, I finally managed to traverse right on improving rock, and soon popped out between the north and south (true) summits.

Buck’s summit from ridge

The south summit looks incredibly imposing from this saddle, showing only its narrow east-west profile. I scrambled up the layered slabs to the summit, where I quickly pulled the register out of a cairn guarded by flying ants, then sat a safe distance below to look around in the remarkably clear air. To the west were recently-climbed Clark and Luahna, along with the rest of the Dakobed Range, showing the glaciers that clearly make them a better ski than scramble. North was Berge, across a weirdly broad and flat saddle. I also had great views of the Entiat peaks, Bonanza, and even Baker and Rainier at the far ends of the range.

Berge with Glacier behind

Descending from the summit, I crossed the small, flat glacier nestled between Buck’s summits, then descended toward the saddle with Berge, entering a surreal landscape of pumice and larches. As this region demonstrates, the Cascades’ geology is incredibly complex. Between Buck’s ancient dark rock (schist?) and Berge’s Sierra-esque white granite lies a small region of pumice reminiscent of a recent volcano. This is presumably from the same event that created Glacier Peak, but does not seem to connect in an obvious way.

High Pass and Baker from Berge

Through this section I began picking up bits of use trail, leading more or less where I wanted, toward Berge’s northeast summit. Most maps incorrectly label Berge’s southwest (easier) summit as higher, but as seems clear to the naked eye, and as Eric Gilbertson demonstrated with a surveyor’s level, it is not the highpoint. I tagged both for good measure, finding the northeast no harder than class 3 and reminiscent of the Sierra except for the green things between the granite boulders and the deposits of black lichen on some aspects. Berge’s north and west sides are cliffy, so it is necessary to circle southwest to a saddle and descend west before circling back around north. Fortunately I had downloaded some other climbers’ tracks, as otherwise I would have dropped all the way to the valley bottom instead of making the improbable high traverse.

Dakobed panorama

I finally reached a trail in this Sierra-like basin, with its clear, shallow lake and white granite, and from there it was a short hike to High Pass. The trail from these lakes to Buck Pass is one of the most scenic and runnable I have found in my years in the Cascades, reminiscent of nearby White Pass but lacking the PCT hordes. I had miles to go before home, but they were all downhill and easy trail, with clear views of the glacier-y sides of the Dakobeds and Glacier Peak.

Easy running

With time and energy to spare, I decided to tag a couple of easy peaks along the way. The first was Mount Cleator, named for Trinity local Cletus McCoy’s tabletop D&D character. Cleator met his untimely end when Cletus’ cousin Brigitte “Berge” Hatfield made him promise to give up his boozy Friday gaming sessions as a condition of their engagement. Despite its unfortunate genetic consequences, the union was a key step in reconciling their feuding branches of the family. Mount Cleator has two summits, a grassy walk-up separated from a fierce crag by a steep notch. The grassy one looks a bit higher and has a register, and I did not have enough curiosity or energy to try to reach the other.

I returned to the trail after Cleator, then took a side-trip to Rally Cap on the way down to Buck Pass. I pulled out my map to find my way through the mess of trails here, but eventually got on the popular Buck Creek trail. I am not a trail runner, but I had been enjoying my jog from High Pass, and the Buck Creek trail was pleasant in its own way, smooth and gently-graded, with good shade and frequent water sources. I started to feel pretty run-down once the trail reached the valley bottom, but managed to mostly hold it together and maintain a jog back to the car. According to my phone, the whole excursion was about 26 miles with 10,000 feet of elevation gain, all in a bit under 12 hours. It was a satisfying use of what may be my last (smoke-free) day in the Cascades this year.

Inspiration Traverse

Hanging on Primus


[This is way out of order, but better late than never. — ed.]

The Inspiration Traverse is a route through the heart of the North Cascades, crossing the Inspiration, Klawatti, and Austera glaciers. While probably more popular as a spring ski, it can also be done as a summer mountaineering trip providing access to five of Washington’s highest hundred peaks: Eldorado, Dorado Needle, Klawatti, Austera, and Primus. It can be done either as a point-to-point route from Eldorado Creek to Thunder Creek, or as an out-and-back. I had previously done all of these peaks, collecting them piecemeal over three outings, but it is possible to do them all in a day with sufficient motivation. Jason’s crazy quest to summit all the Bulger peaks in around fifty days finally gave me the motivation required to bash through devil’s club by headlamp and spend hours slogging across glaciers.

We had agreed to meet at the newly-reopened Eldorado trailhead the night before, but I did not see Jason when I pulled in after dinner. He finally arrived just before dark, having been delayed by his film crew (?!?) on a less-than-exciting outing to Mount Formidable. Knowing we had a long day, we agreed on a slight headlamp start, then I quickly went to bed and tried to get some sleep. Headlamp starts are rarely necessary with the days still so long this far north, and can even be counterproductive when, as in this case, the first part of the route involves bushwhacking, but I saw the need. I was surprised and a bit concerned when Jason told me his friend Anders was coming along, since he is mostly a Colorado guy without much Cascades experience, but he ended up handling the distance, scrambling, and glacier crossings without trouble.

We started out by headlamp, heading back down the road past the new washout and the sadly destroyed old log, crossed the new logjam across the main channel, and plowed into the brush toward the remaining ones. The new way is much less pleasant than the old, but it is already becoming beaten in. There were two minor thickets of devil’s club to manage, but we found dry log crossings, and were soon on the other side and above the swamp. Heading back upstream, we found the “unmaintained climbers’ trailhead” sign and were back on the well-defined Eldorado trail.

Klawatti’s south ridge

The trail, then boulders, then more trail went as usual, though Jason was dragging a bit after going almost non-stop for a month and tagging 78 peaks. The snow on the upper section before the crossover had melted out quite a bit since my last visit, but it was also cloudy and much earlier in the morning, and I was unpleasantly cold wearing all my layers. The normally inspiring view of Johannesburg was missing, and I was worried my hands would be painful and useless once we crossed onto the glacier. The clouds would remain for most of the day, and I would actually appreciate them, as there were no easy water sources on the glaciers, and the day would have been hot and desperately thirsty in the sun.

Why here, deer?

The snowfields and glacier leading up to the ice cap were soft enough that we did not bother with crampons. Near the base, we saw two animals bounding up much higher. They looked like deer rather than the expected mountain goats, and when they returned from their lap to the glacier, they bounded close enough to make that clear. I have no idea what they were doing, as there was nothing for them to eat up there, and I am not used to seeing deer running around on snow in the summer. It was Eldorado, so there was the usual cluster of tents at the rock ridge, one containing another Jason known to Jason.

Eldorado snow arete

None of us had put on crampons yet, so we carefully sketched our way up the bootpack, then bypassed a steeper section on the bare rock to its left. We crossed the summit snow arete, then hung out for awhile on the rock beyond, where I found the bench I had built still intact after 5-6 years. Summit documentation complete, we put on our crampons for an easier descent, then cut across as soon as we were below the major crevasses, following an old bootpack that fortunately led to the Inspiration-McAllister glacier saddle.

Moat shenanigans on Dorado Needle

We were still in the clouds, and I remembered the McAllister Glacier having some sketchy crevasses, but fortunately the bootpack led us right to the base of Dorado Needle’s summit scramble, taking a long detour past it before returning near the ridge. This is not the route I took when I first climbed it, but the ubiquitous rappel garbage showed that many parties had been using it. The first trick was getting from the snow to the rock. After examining a big, gritty rock step at the base of the ridge, I looked along the snow until I found a short jump to a flat ledge, which was safe but felt dicey in crampons. We each jumped, then stashed our snow gear for the scramble.

Scrambling on Dorado Needle

Jason had heard that a block had broken off in the last few years, creating a short crux somewhere between 5.7 and 5.9, which concerned me. The first part, getting up the left side to the ridge, was no harder than scrappy low fifth. From there, a short steep climb led to a wonderful hand traverse, then one more steep step and a slightly convoluted a cheval or hand traverse to a flat spot. Here we found the apparent crux, an angled fist crack leading up a ten-foot vertical step. I tried it first, and after a bit of experiment, hugged the block right of the crack, jammed a foot, step up onto a feature on the right, grabbed the positive edge on top, and was done. It was definitely not 5.7, much less 5.9. Jason and Anders followed, with Jason having a brief moment of panic before he managed the sequence in his non-sticky steel-nubbed shoes. We took in the lack-of-view, then scrambled back down to our snow gear and returned to the glacier.

We retraced our route back to the Inspiration Glacier, then followed another bootpack on a high traverse toward the col between the Tepeh Pillars and Klawatti. I did not remember which was the easiest to its summit, but fortunately Jason had some tracks on his phone, from which we learned that we should climb the ridge from our col, starting to the right. After some initial sketchiness, it was class 2-3 boulders to the summit, from which we had the usual view: glaciers and a lake below, and nothing more than a few hundred yards away at our own level thanks to the persistent clouds.

I want your pee

From Klawatti, we went around to the north and down the familiar and spitefully tricky step on the east side of Klawatti Col, then continued on glacier to Austera’s rocks. There we were met by a mountain goat, calmly checking us out and waiting for someone to pee. He backed off when we headed for the summit, watching from the east slope as we scrambled around into the notch and made the couple of fifth class moves required to reach the summit. Returning to our snow gear, we left some pee for the goat, then returned to snow for the long detour around Austera’s east ridge.

Primus

This part of the day was new to me, and I dreaded it. Primus is only a straight mile north of Austera, but the Primus-facing sides of Austera’s northwest and east ridges are steep and mostly loose. The only reasonable way to get around to the North Klawatti Glacier and Primus is to lose about 1000 feet to get around the east ridge’s toe. This went quickly on soft snow, but all the while I was dreading the return. Turning the corner, we found the glacier to be straightforward and well-behaved. We crossed the flat part, then gained Primus’ south face where the glacier became steeper and broken. The face looks like a choss nightmare from across the way, but was actually not bad, with plenty of slab sections, and mostly stable talus. In far less time than I had feared, we were on the summit.

Goode looks nice

We could have dropped to Thunder Creek and exited to Ross Lake, but we couldn’t get in touch with Jason’s support vehicle, and it would be more scenic and only slightly slower to return across the glaciers. We stitched together snow-patches on the way down Primus, then trudged around the foot of the ridge, switchbacked up the other side, and made a long traverse to Klawatti Col, where we were back on our outbound route. The clouds thinned enough to offer some views, and fresh boot-packs made travel easy across the Inspiration Glacier. From there it was a slide down to the base of Eldorado’s glacier, then a downhill death march to the Cascade River. When it became apparent that we would return right on the edge of headlamp time, Jason found some energy somewhere and bushwhacked ahead like a mad man. We ended up following the route I had found returning from Austera, our feet staying mostly dry on the way to the new logjam, then trudging up the road to the parking lot. Anders had all sorts of delicious food in his van’s fridge, and generously shared chili, potatoes, and cheese with Jason and I before they drove off and I settled in to sleep another night at the trailhead.

Blum, Hagan, Bacon

Traverse from Blum


The peaks between Baker and the Pickets were an island of unexplored terrain to me. Bacon Peak in particular had drawn my interest, with its remarkable volume of glaciers for a peak barely over 7000 feet. Cut off from the rest of the range by the Baker River to the north and west, deep Goodell and Bacon Creeks to the east, and the Skagit River to the south, these peaks are difficult to reach, with one high trailhead at Watson Lakes, and other approaches generally being cross-country from below 1000 feet.

Blum Lakes trail

I had initially thought of doing just Bacon, but someone I met mentioned that there were longer options. Looking around the web, I found the Watson-Blum High Route, which runs between the Watson Lakes and Baker River trailheads, connecting four of the area’s high peaks. Most people go south to north to take advantage of the high start, but they also have two cars. With only one of me and one car, I decided to do it as a bike shuttle instead, in which case it made more sense to hike low to high. The whole process took about 17 hours: 15 for the hike and 2 for the bike. I was going fairly hard, made only one significant route-finding error, and skipped Watson Peak, so even going south to north, the traverse would be a significant day.

More trail

After an easy day out of the Watson Lakes trailhead, I locked my bike to itself, set it in some bushes, and drove around to the inlet of Baker Lake. I set my alarm for a punishing 3:15 AM, then tried to get some sleep. I knew I would have to start the off-trail approach by headlamp, but I can do such things at need, and sometimes the faint tread of a climbers’ trail is almost easier to pick out by headlamp. I started out around 4:00, hiking the broad Baker River trail, crossing the bridge, then backtracking south to just north of Blum Creek, where I plunged into the jungle on something path-like.

Baker and Shuksan

I found and lost this path for awhile, making my way around devil’s club, through lesser brush, and over and under deadfall as I approached the valley wall, keeping the creek within hearing. At one point I found a bit of flagging tied uselessly to a tree with no hint of a path nearby; at least it cheered me up by indicating that other humans had passed this way. Cutting back and forth, I eventually found a faint tread as the valley steeped. It rivalled the Crescent Creek approach in obscurity, despite having been in regular use for a long time: I saw both new flagging and old notches in logs. The trail skilfully weaves through cliff-bands lower down, then fades as the angle eases around 4000 feet. The days are getting noticeably shorter, so I made it to more open woods in time to see the morning light on Baker and Shuksan, dimmed by a dark stripe where smoke was drifting over from the rest of the West.

Blum, ledge leading right up high

I found bits of trail as I continued up the broad ridge, skirting the Blum Lakes, then crossing before Lake 5820′ to reach Blum’s northeast ridge. I grabbed some frigid water here, then hurried uphill in the shade, briefly cold between the sweaty low-elevation climb and the long, sunny traverse. I followed the ridge until it got narrow, serrated, and mossy, then dropped down to the east face to crampon up snowfields. There seem to be several routes to Blum’s summit, but an obvious grassy ledge leading right from the upper snowfield to the southwest ridge seemed the easiest. The snow became precarious as it steepened, being neither solid enough for crampon points to stick, nor soft enough to kick deep steps, so I was happy to finally reach rock. My ledge worked wonderfully, depositing me on a broad ridge a short boulder-hop and snow-walk from the summit.

Pickets from Blum

I found the an register can, battered into uselessness and perforated by multiple lightning holes. I suppose it protects the contents from marmots and mountain goats, and the triple-bagged register inside went all the way back to 2012. The summit sees a few parties per year, many doing the traverse. However, Blum is an obscure and hard-to-reach summit, so those who climb it are often doing something interesting. I noted a party continuing to Pioneer Ridge, perhaps via Berdeen Lake and Mystery, and an email correspondent climbing Blum’s north ridge, a 1500-foot buttress separating two lobes of a glacier. I also saw that someone else had signed in earlier in the day, hard to imagine since I had not heard anyone, and did not see fresh tracks in any snowfield.

Hagan spires and glaciers

Looking south, I saw the rest of the day’s objectives from their scenic, glaciated sides, with Watson looking distressingly distant. The views northeast to Baker and Shuksan continued to impress, but the view of the nearby Pickets was spoiled by smoke thick enough to smell. Being in the northwest corner of the country, I have largely been spared smoke so far this summer, but I have experienced brutal smoke in the Cascades from an easterly wind or fires in British Columbia, so my luck will eventually end.

Blum south side

I headed off down Blum’s southeast ridge, finding generally delightful travel on or near the broad ridge. Near a notch, I found and destroyed some cairns leading to the class 3-4 bypass. Popular high routes like the Ptarmigan Traverse are basically trails at this point, and this area felt like it should stay wild awhile longer. A big part of their appeal to me is the constant attention and thought necessary to choose a good path, and I want to preserve that for others. I stayed on the ridge for awhile, contoured right across snow above a large glacial lake, then continued on the ridge past where a spur heads east to Lonesome Peak.

Left bypass ledge

Peak 6800+, anchoring the north end of Hagan’s large glacier, is a more formidable obstacle. Based on others’ online trip reports, most people seem to drop around it to the west. However, I saw a potential ledge to the east and, putting my faith in Goat, followed the hoof-prints, turds, and tufts of hair across generally-safe outward-sloping dirt to a notch. This could easily have stranded me above the Hagan Glacier, but instead I found a series of steep, chossy ramps leading down and left to where I could easily cross the moat. The broad glacier was flat enough that I did not even need crampons to cross it, traversing under Hagan’s northern subpeaks to the col north of its twin summits. From this notch, I got my first view of huge and colorful Berdeen Lake, buried deep in this part of the range and unseen by all but a few adventurous souls.

Hagan true summit

According to both my map and Peakbagger, the true summit is the eastern one, reached via an easy class 2-3 scramble from the notch. However, standing on that point, the other looked to both be higher and have a cairn. It also looked much more challenging, which appealed to me at this point in the day. I sketched my way down the connecting ridge a bit, then dropped onto the right side to traverse into the notch, where I found rap garbage (and me with no knife…). From there some exposed class 3-4 climbing led up the ridge to the summit. Looking back, I can’t say for sure if this one is higher, but it is certainly more worthy.

Hagan glacier

Looking at my map, it seemed like the best route south would descend the snowy valley emanating from between the two summits, then make a descending traverse southwest to the saddle near Lake 4560′. To enter this valley, I returned to the other summit, descended its south ridge a short ways, then cut back northwest down a choss gully to the snow. Once the angle mellowed, I had a pleasant hike and boot-ski to some tarns around 5900′, where I began my descending traverse.

Bacon and Green Lake

This saddle at 4560′ is the lowpoint of the route, in both elevation and fun. As I descended, the brush got higher and thicker, and trees began to appear. The last part was a full-on forest bushwhack with cliffs, with me descending trees and blueberries hand-over hand while fighting for purchase with my worn-out trail runners. I found no sign of a trail, and few useful bits of game trails. Finally emerging at the saddle, I found a clear path leading to a well-used fire ring, which I badly wanted to destroy. Returning to the alpine on the other side was a similar battle, though less steep and vicious. There are two bumps in the ridge leading west of Green Lake to Bacon, each adding about 500 feet of elevation loss, and I resented them in my increasingly hot and tired state. The scenery was hard to beat, with beautiful Green Lake (blue, actually) below and Bacon’s retreating north glaciers ahead, but the heat was brutal, and this is the longest stretch between peaks.

Bacon summit glacier

I stayed mostly on rock climbing Bacon, then cut left on snow to pass between the northern two of its many false summits. Crossing the col, I was confronted by its startling summit glacier, a small, thick cap of ice nestled in a bowl to its northwest. I put on crampons again to make my way up the partly-bare left side, then followed the crest to the small, rocky summit. In addition to its large northeast and small northwest glaciers, Bacon holds a large southeast glacier falling to a lake above Diobsud Creek. Across that valley, another remote ridge leads from Electric Butte south.

The slog home

I returned across the northwest glacier, then began heading out the standard Bacon approach, for which I had fortunately downloaded a track. The first part was logical if painful, losing a bunch of elevation into the head of Noisy Creek. From there it reclimbs the south side, passing under some pinnacles to regain the ridge around 5100′. I would have dismissed this route as a horrid bushwhack if I had not had a track to encourage me, but it is actually not bad, largely climbing open woods and boulder-fields. The trees in some of these woods are impressively goosenecked, testifying to the brutal snowpack they must survive on these steep north-facing slopes.

Gooseneck trees

I was tired and dreading the bike back to the car, but probably would have rallied to tag Watson if I had not screwed up the route here. Finding what I thought was a boot tread on the ridge, I stopped looking at my track for awhile, only to cliff out on a subpeak. Belatedly looking at the track, I saw that the route passed along the south side of the ridge here, side-hilling under the difficulties before returning to the north near Elementary Peak. Demoralized, I retraced my steps, then descended to get back on-route, sliding and cursing as my treadless shoes failed to find any grip on the compacted pine needles. Fortunately the steep, vegetated traverse was dry, and I made it back to the saddle without any mishaps.

Warranty time?

I thought I was nearly “home,” but I was also wearing down. My shoes were beyond done for after a month of hard use (we’ll see if Salomon honors their two year warranty), and my feet had been wet for hours. The final traverse to the trail at Watson Lake was a complicated post-glacial wilderness of valleys, snowfields, and slabs that was a grind in my depleted state. Even the trails were a nuisance, with enough branches leading to campsites that at one point I had to ask some campers how to get out of here. The mosquitoes were also hellish if I stopped for more than five seconds, making me wonder why anyone would camp out here.

I was elated to find my bike where I had left it. I quickly unlocked it, then immediately started riding before the mosquitoes and biting flies got too intense. I stopped several times on the first part of the road to complete my transition to bike mode, making an adjustment, then riding a short distance to escape the bug swarm. The 3000-foot descent to the Baker Dam was much more fun on a bike than in a car, as I could dodge and weave around the potholes and runnels. From there, the ride was just work, pushing half-heartedly to minimize headlamp time, then pedaling listlessly along the dirt road by headlamp. Finally reaching the car, I propped up my bike, threw my stinking shoes on the hood, and almost instantly fell asleep.

The Chopping Block

Chopping Block


It had been awhile since I had visited the Pickets, and I had only briefly visited the Crescent Creek basin briefly in 2014 to tag Terror via its standard route. That time, I had ascended and descended the relatively popular Terror Basin route, crossing back and forth across the Barrier after tagging several peaks in that basin. This time I decided to investigate the less-used Crescent Creek approach, which crosses the bottom of the Barrier near the Chopping Block. Crescent Creek is bordered by some of the harder, more obscure, and less-climbed Pickets summits such as the Rake, Ottohorn, and Twin Needles. All but East Twin Needle supposedly have class 3-5.easy routes on their south sides, though they seem to be done more often either via harder routes or as part of a traverse. However, I ended up shut down and demoralized after attempting West Twin Needle, and further beaten down by annoying travel over the Barrier and across the Terror Glacier to the standard route. Fortunately I had summited the Chopping Block and chance-met an online acquaintance along the way, so the day was not a total waste.

Giant tree fungus

I suppose I could and should have started by headlamp, but the days are still long, so I got a relatively leisurely start along the old Goodell Creek logging road. The parking lot was full, and the trail well-beaten-in, so I expected to find a small tent city at the usual camping spot for West MacMillan Spire. Where the Terror Basin approach turns sharply uphill, I continued straight onto unfamiliar ground, finding a decent climbers’ trail that soon left Goodell Creek and any former road behind to climb through the woods south of Terror Creek. The trail started out fairly easy to follow, but soon split and disintegrated. I lost it for awhile, weaving through small cliff-bands, balancing on logs, dodging devil’s club, and retracing my steps for awhile before finding some bits of flagging and trail near where it crosses the creek.

There were some logs as described online, and an obvious cairn on the other side, but none of the logs formed a bridge. I stupidly wasted some time trying to build a bridge over a constriction, only to have my inadequate logs washed away; then I walked fifty yards upstream to a flat, gentle part and waded across, finding it no more than calf-deep and smooth enough to be comfortable barefoot. Putting my shoes back on on the other side, I walked back downstream and picked up the “trail again.”

Goodell Creek and the Skagit

This part of the route is the most insanely-steep approach trail I have followed in the Cascades, climbing more or less straight up the side of the steep ridge between Terror and Crescent Creeks. Others have told nightmare stories of rappeling through woods to pass cliff bands while descending this route, but I found the trail relatively easy to follow in all but one or two places. It was certainly an efficient way to gain elevation, and almost pleasant with a daypack. Once on top of the ridge, the trail becomes fainter and more annoying. The crest is infested with blueberry bushes, and the trail fades in and out of existence. I was soon tired of thrashing through brush, bashing my shins and seeming to make little progress. I was also thirsty, as there was limited shade on the crest, and no water.

Triumph and Despair

After a marked increase in annoyance, I finally emerged on the slanted, triangular plateau forming the Barrier’s base. Travel was suddenly easier, and water plentiful. I sat on a slab to drink a liter, then filled up my bladder and continued toward the Chopping Block. My main goals were farther north, but I had a chance to return to them later this summer, and I did not want to repeat this approach. Nor did I want to return the way I had come, preferring instead to cross the Barrier and join the well-used MacMillan Spire approach.

West Peak through Terror from Chopping Block

I did not know anything about how to climb the Chopping Block, but it looked fairly easy on the south side, with access gullies on this side and a heather ledge leading back to the north and, presumably, the Barrier crossing. Approaching the base, I was surprised to hear shouts from above and see a climber rappeling the north ridge. I continued toward my chosen gully, which was loose but not particularly hard, and soon reached the near side of the sloping south face. Following the obvious line, I soon found some typical Cascades rap tat, reassuring me that I was on some version of a route. There were a couple of short, exposed sections that might have been low fifth class, but a line staying near the east side of the peak led to the summit plateau without too much difficulty.

The Barrier

I found a wet register in a cylinder on top, which the other party had not signed, carefully added my name, then set it out to dry a bit while having a snack. One reason to climb the Chopping Block is for the view, with a perfect panorama of the Southern Pickets from West Peak to Terror. They looked intimidating, and the bowl below them looked like a grim talus slog. I cleaned up the anchor garbage on top, then retraced my route to the heather traverse, which worked as well as I imagined.

While on top, I had seen a climber returning to a camp on the ridge. Unsure whether I wanted to subject myself to the talus-filled Crescent Creek cirque, I headed where the climber had gone, figuring that it would only be a minor detour if I decided to bail back to Terror Cirque, and that they might also have camped near the correct entry point to Crescent. I emerged on the ridge to find two climbers packing up camp, almost ready to hike down the way I had come. After speaking for a minute, one asked me my name, and when I told him, he revealed that he (Jon) had been emailing me recently about Picket beta. The world of people interested in rugged, remote Cascades peaks is small indeed. Talking to Jon and Alex for a half-hour restored my motivation, and I set off down the scree toward the Twin Needles with new determination.

The bowl was not as bad as it looked: the talus was fairly stable, and there were slabs and snowfields mixed in. Other than a couple of steep old moraines, I found no major obstacles in reaching the base of the ridge near the Needles. Beckey says that all of these peaks were first climbed long ago and, with the exception of East Twin Needle, are no harder than low fifth class from the cirque. He does not, however, describe any of the routes in any useful detail, and I quickly found that while there may be moderate routes — it certainly looks like there should be — most of the terrain is chossy, outward-sloping, or otherwise difficult or unpleasant.

Baker, Shuksan, and Southwest Pickets from Barrier

I tried several approaches to the West Twin Needle. First I tried a gully, which ended in a mess of chockstones and gained me nothing but some skin torn off my fingers by a slip getting into the moat. I got around the first chockstone to the right with some careful face climbing, but was confronted by more chockstones, and a not-quite-accessible ramp to the left. I tried another line left of the gully only to give up as the meandering ramps seemed to lead to steeper terrain. Slightly bloody and thoroughly unhappy, I tried going right around the corner, only to find steep turf and choss leading away from the Twin Needles and toward the Rake. Far from home and sick of this pointless activity, I retraced my route to the snow and climbed over to the upper Barrier crossing.

This crossing has a reputation for being tricky, but I do not remember it giving me much trouble back in 2014. However either it had gotten harder, or I was in a less buoyant mood from having been defeated at my main goals. I found sketchy downclimbing, packed dirt, and a slightly dubious moat crossing. My frustration continued on the glacier, where I found that my line staying close to the ridge toward West MacMillan Spire was probably too crevassed to safely cross. I instead made a long detour down and right to reach the glacier’s toe. The traverse toward camp and the trail home held its own irritations, with steep slabs left behind by the retreating glacier, often lubricated by melt streams from what remained.

Parting view of Pickets (2021)


Southern Pickets, July 2014

Finally reaching the normal camp, I was surprised not to find any tents. Even the boot-prints in the snow looked old, as if everyone had left that morning. This made no sense to me, it being a weekend. Fortunately the path, once I found it, was easy to follow, and after a long alpine traverse, I enjoyed bombing nearly straight down to the road. I even played the same album I had in 2014 by the Klezmatics — Jewish wedding dance music goes well with the quick reactions and careful footwork required on such a descent. Once back at the road, I jogged and quick-hiked to beat boredom and darkness, but stopped to harvest thimbleberries when they were close to the trail. Most of the cars were gone by the time I reached the lot, so I set my shoes out on the hood and settled in for another night.

The Zebra, Moran, East Horn (15h45)

Scrambly bits of Zebra


The Zebra has been somewhat of a white whale to me ever since Bill and Peggy brought it to my attention five or so years ago. It is a minor and obscure peak northwest of Mount Moran, first climbed by Leigh Ortenburger in 1970 and seldom climbed since, supposedly 5.4 by its only known route. I had twice tried to reach it from Leigh Canyon via the Thor-Moran ridge. Peggy and I turned back the first time after she dislocated her shoulder, and I gave up the second time after my will was drained by the arduous approach around Leigh Lake, along Leigh Canyon, and up to the ridge. This time I tried a different approach, around Moran and up the West Triple Glacier, and a different partner, my Sierra friend Robert. Though it was definitely better than the Leigh Canyon approach, it was still a brutal day, with a challenging return over Mount Moran and down the Skillet Glacier. Climbing the East Horn as a bonus peak added about an hour, making for an almost sixteen-hour day, the longest I have done in months.

Zebra from Moran’s NE shoulder

We left the Ranch a bit before 4:00 AM, and were on the String Lake trail by 4:15, putting in a few minutes of headlamp time before the near-solstice dawn. Both mosquitoes and campers were still asleep as we made our way along Leigh Lake and down the stream to Bearpaw Bay, though we woke the humans catching up on events since we had last hiked together. From the bay, we continued along the Skillet Glacier use trail for awhile, then took off north where it heads west along the glacier’s outflow. I had done the Triple Glacier route before, and remembered finding an excellent game trail that saved me much suffering, but I was not so lucky this time. The woods between Moran and Jackson Lake are choked with deadfall, brush, and bogs, making for savage bushwhacking by Teton standards, and Robert and I got a healthy dose. We found the game trail for awhile, then lost it again, finally ending up on the subtle ridge leading to the 10,000-foot shoulder on Mount Moran’s northeast ridge. After traveling much of our horizontal distance, we gained the majority of our elevation on the steep but more open ridge. Somewhere around 9000 feet the mosquitoes relented and the snow began. I had visited this area in 2015 to climb Moran via the Triple Glacier, which should have made the approach familiar and quick, but I am slower now, and did not remember it well enough to help us much.

West Triple Glacier and Zebra

Moran’s Triple Glacier route climbs the eastern glacier, then continues on snowfields above. As we were headed for the western one, we were soon on new ground. I initially hoped to traverse low on the eastern glacier, then continue across the other two to climb the western one, but after crossing the first glacier’s toe, we found ourselves cliffed out far above the second. We descended the ridge separating the eastern and central glaciers toward Moran Canyon, then dropped through steep woods and class 3-4 terrain to the latter’s terminal moraine. From there, we climbed the moraine’s crest to where it joins that of the western glacier, then made a sketchy third class dirt descent to the western Triple Glacier.

Lower glacier

I had been out of water for half an hour, so while Robert put on his crampons (a much more involved process than me putting on mine), I crossed to a cascade on the other side to grab a couple liters of the last water we would likely find for awhile. Once Robert joined me, we began a steady ascent up moderate snow toward the upper-right corner of the glacier, just below the saddle on the spur ridge between the Zebra and the main Thor-Moran ridge. The angle was moderate most of the way, and the snow was firm enough for our steps rarely to collapse.

Glacier headwall

The upper glacier is split by a rock band on the right, and an ice bulge on the left. I considered going to the far left of the bulge, but decided that a snow ramp through the rock would be more direct and not too steep. I had been able to French-step the rest of the route, but had to “front-point” on my front-point-less crampons through the gap, and on much of the snow above, which remained steep. It was too steep for self-arrest to be realistic, but not steep enough for climbing to feel insecure. Robert did well on this part, following my boot-pack without hesitation and even stopping to take some photos. Coming from the increasingly dry Sierra, he was unnerved by the Tetons’ steep snow two years ago, but has since become much more confident.

Start of the Zebra

Reaching the top of the snow, I climbed a short gully of mud and rotten rock to reach the saddle, where I hid away from the breeze to put away my crampons. Robert shortly joined me, and we decided to stash our axes and spikes at the notch before scrambling to the summit. We started left of the crest, climbing a class 2-3 talus chute with good holds on the left, then crossed to the right to continue on broad ledges. The Zebra’s rock slopes down to the east (right), and is mostly sheer on the west (left), so climbing right of the crest can be either fast or tenuous, while the route along the crest is slower but more secure.

I traversed low, bad idea

Traversing right, we soon regretted leaving our axes behind, as we were forced to cross a short slush-field with a bad runout. Grabbing a sharp rock, I kicked deep steps and hacked in a handhold, which I left behind for Robert’s use. Beyond, we climbed a moderate but wet and mossy corner to return to the ridge. I checked out the crest, which looked like a cheval country, then opted instead for an exposed and outward-sloping moss traverse below a snowfield. Robert, sensibly enough, did not like the look of this and, being a Real Climber, took the ridge, meeting up on the other side of my green folly.

Beyond, we traversed right again, then climbed easy ledge-y terrain to the crux, a right-facing dihedral leading to the final false summit. While vertical, this short pitch had enough positive holds to keep it low fifth class. From the top, a bit more scrambling and a final short face section led to the small two-humped summit. We found no register or cairn, only a weathered piece of purple cord where someone had needlessly rappeled on their return. I found a seat out of the wind amidst the loose jumbled rocks next to the summit, while Robert took out his fancy camera to capture some enviable shots and a panorama.

Rotten Thumb from Zebra

Having made the effort to reach this remote place, we had thought of climbing nearby Rotten Thumb, but the traverse looked impassable, with a vertical notch followed by a tower sheer on three sides and slightly overhanging to the east. The obvious route to Rotten Thumb leaves the west Triple Glacier below the rock band and climbs moderate snow to its northeast ridge. Since this would require 1000 vertical feet or so of backtracking, and the peak is aptly named (a rounded rotten blob), we decided to save it for sometime in the distant future. We reversed our route, finding the slush-traverse warmer and sketchier than before, then recovered our gear and headed toward the Thor-Moran ridge.

Moran from the Zebra

While the Zebra’s rock is generally decent, the rock between it and the main east-west ridge is often rotten, and this section involved some cautious and time-consuming climbing back and forth across the crest. This section had drained my last motivation on a previous Zebra attempt from Leigh Canyon, but I found it easier to bear when it was mandatory. Robert had not climbed Thor, and it was only a short distance away, but we figured it would take one or two more hours to make the side-trip, and we still had quite a bit of climbing between us and home.

The section between the Zebra saddle and the main Thor-Moran ridge is frequently loose and/or outward-sloping, making it unpleasant and slow. I remembered turning around on this section on my previous attempt to reach the Zebra via Leigh Canyon, too discouraged after bushwhacking around Leigh Lake and slogging up the south side of the ridge near Thor. We found some low fifth class terrain in this section, but it could probably be avoided with better route-finding.

Thor with Hidden Couloir

The main ridge is still loose in places, but much better climbing than the spur. I have traversed all or part of it several times, and am always impressed by the exposure and a bit surprised at the occasional difficulty. There are sections of very steep climbing on blocky, debris-strewn rock, and a traverse to the north after a chossy white gap with big air down to the East Triple Glacier. Robert was dragging a bit at this point, but had enough climbing skill and scrambling experience to overcome his fatigue. I have done various things to surmount Moran’s final granite cap, many of them unpleasant, but this time I had good luck heading directly up and right from the final notch. We stopped to refill water at one of several snowmelt rivulets, then continued to the summit plateau. Moran is a souped-up version of Longs Peak in Colorado, with no easy way to a large and nearly flat summit.

Robert spent some time taking photos from the top, then we proceeded down the Skillet. The top had gone into the shade, so we put on crampons and downclimbed the first few hundred feet facing in. Below that, we were able to take off our spikes and plunge-step or boot-ski. The snow was frustratingly sun-cupped, but lacked the deep center runnel I had found in previous years. I am normally intent to get to the bottom as quickly as possible (generally 30-35 minutes for a 5000-foot snow descent), but this time we pulled off to the right below Moran’s saddle with the East Horn.

Starting down Skilliet

There is supposedly a 5.1 Chouinard route up the Horn from this side, but what we found felt harder, perhaps because it was wet and we were tired. Robert had had enough, so I continued alone, wandering up outward-sloping ledges to reach the ridge slightly beyond the saddle. There are two headwalls between the saddle and summit, neither of which looks easy to take head-on. I went around the first to the left (north), then tried the same on the second, only to be turned back by ice and wet slabs. Instead, I made my way down and around to the right, climbing past some shrubs and up one side of a slight gully to return to the ridge perhaps a hundred yards from the summit. The route felt at least as hard as the Zebra’s supposed 5.4 — I’ll never be a good judge of climbing grades.

East Horn ridge

Mindful of the lengthening shadows and Robert’s increasing boredom, I semi-hurried back to where he was waiting, then we returned to the glacier for what I hoped would be a quick descent. Normally the lower Skillet is fun and fast, with decent boot-skiing to the “pan,” perhaps a bit of postholing, then excellent snow extending down the outlet stream to the gravel- and aspen-flats below. However this year is the driest I have ever seen the Tetons in June, and the stream was only intermittently bridged by snow. We carefully slid the solid-looking parts, picking our way down the loose garbage in between, taking far longer than I had hoped.

I have done the trail from the Skillet to Bearpaw Bay enough times that I should be able to get it right, but I usually manage to screw up at least a bit, as the use trail fades or gets lost in the area’s many game trails. Fortunately Robert had recorded a track and had a bit of battery left, so we were able to re-find the trail lower down and avoid some tedious bushwhacking. The mosquitoes around Bearpaw and Leigh Lakes were the worst I have ever experienced in the Tetons, and they were fast enough to keep up at a walk. Along with the tedium of Leigh Lake’s endless east shore, the bugs finally drove me to jog, and Robert perked up enough to join me, so we hobbled into the String Lake lot well before dark, taking a respectable but not mind-blowing 15h45 to slay my white whale of a striped horse of a mixed metaphor of the northern Tetons.