Friday, September 21, 2012

Swan Traverse in a day

After traversing both the northern and southern portions of the Swan range earlier this summer, I returned to link the two into a marathon of ridge scrambling interspersed with alpine basin hiking and elegant trail running.  The result was probably my favorite non-ski day this summer, an outing which should appeal to trail runners, climbers, and fit wilderness enthusiasts alike.

I spent the previous evening running the 30-mile bike shuttle at a casual pace, arriving at the Smith Creek pass trailhead just in time to get an early jump on sleeping.  I was up early, hiking and jogging out of the parking lot at 3:30 am at a sustainable pace.  I hit the pass well before first light, and scrambled the north ridge of Cooney peak with the light of the Cooney fire twinkling below.  The traverse to South Cooney went smoothly, aside from a couple of darkness-induced routefinding errors.  Sunrise bosted morale as it always does, and I was soon on the clean, slabby ridge walk to Holland peak.  A quick jog down the south face of Holland and class 4 scramble put me on the summit of Buck Mountain right at the 6 hour mark.  I descended the southeast face of the peak and traversed alpine basins to Rubble lake for water, then continued through more high alpine terrain to the Sapphire Lake Trail.  The trail took longer than expected, but the route is spectacular, winding around alpine lakes before switchbacking down to Upper Holland Lake.  I saw a black bear on the trail, which added some excitement to the day.  I also managed to loose my camera in this stretch, must have fallen out of a pocket..  I made it to the lake in 8.45, almost an hour behind schedule.

After a full water refill at Holland lake, I jogged up the heavily used trail to Gordon Pass.  The bushwack back up to treeline was reasonable, and I was grateful to be below treeline as a rogue thunderstorm blew through.  Soon enough I was back above treeline, this time scrapping up the clean slabs on the north ridge of Carmine peak.  The climb to Carmine went quickly, as did the traverse to Wolverine peak.  I had opted to traverse from north to south, which allowed for quick scrambling up the north ridges of Ptarmigan and Fisher peaks, and a surprising amount of runnable terrain on the south side descents.  A constant, brisk wind and haze from smoke kept temps down.  With adequate food and water, I was able to maintain a bright pace, and I was on top of Fisher peak at a little under 14 hours, ready to start heading down.  The bumps on the ridge south of Fisher were slower than I remembered, but it wasn't too long before I picked up the trail.  40 minutes later, I was back at the car, with tender feet, and tired legs, ready to eat cookies and drink beer.

While my time is brisk, I have no doubts that it would go in well under 10 hours in the hands of a strong trail runner, especially someone who can maintain a running gate over talus.

The route
From Smith Creek pass trailhead, up trail to the pass.  Traverse along the ridge crest, summiting Cooney, south Cooney, Holland, and Buck (peak south of Holland). Traverse alpine basins to Sapphire lake trail, and take the trial down to Holland lake, then up to Gordon pass.  Bushwack back up to the Swan crest at Carmine mountain, and continue to Sunday mountain, summiting Wolverine, Ptarmigan peak, Ptarmigan point, and Fisher peaks along the way.  Down trail to Rice ridge trailhead.

Cooney Pass: 1.45
South Cooney: 2.45
Holland: 5
Buck: 6
Trail: 7.40
Holland Lake: 8.45
Carmine: 10.10
Wolverine: 11
Ptarmigan point: 12.40
Fisher: 13.45
Trail: 14.50
Car: 15.32

Total elevation gain (based on topo map):  13,400 vertical feet
Total distance (approximate):  30 miles
Trip length: 15 hours, 32 minutes trailhead to trailhead
Accomplices: None
Put in:  Smith Creek pass trailhead
Take out: Rice Ridge trailhead
Equipment of note:  Hiking poles, running shoes.
Sustinance:  Big breakfast.  About 8L of water (carried 3 bottles with refills) with electrolyte tabs and about 3,500 calories of Hammer Gel, Heed, energy bars, and cookies
Bears?: Yes 
Lightening? Yes
Fatigue factor (1-10): 9
Stoke factor:  9 (Note:  virtually impossible to exceed 9 if skis aren't involved)
Memories to suppress:  Losing my camera, smoke

No camera = no pictures, which is too bad because it was a beautiful day.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Mount Slesse - Northeast Buttress

With smoke infesting most climbing areas near Missoula, Leah and I made a run for the border with plans to climb the Northeast Buttress of Mount Slesse.  The drive is long, and the entire first day was devoted to driving and approaching to the Memorial Plaque.  The hike in was about 5 km longer then normal due to severe waterbars on the Nesakwatch Creek road.  Our Subaru was not up to the task.
The great Northeast Buttress of Mount Slesse.
We got an alpine start, hiking from the Memorial plaque by 2:30 am.  The approach to the Pocket glacier went smoothly with the exception of a major, darkness-induced detour on the slabby cirque south of the glacier.  Arriving at sunrise, we were dismayed to find the Pocket glacier in poor condition.  We played it relatively safe, simul climbing steep slabs above the eastern edge of the glacier before committing to a sprint across the glacier at the safest point.  What would normally take less than an hour ate up almost half a day, but we were able to avoid the worst of the objective hazards. Still, the glacier was extremely active, especially saturday evening through sunday, and seracs were shedding impressive quantities of snow and ice several times an hour, day and night.
Tiptoeing around the Pocket glacier.
Coming up ramps to the buttress proper, showing the adverse state of the Pocket glacier.
We started up the route mid-day, hoping to make it to the giant bivy ledge before dark.  After an exposed ledge traverse to gain the buttress, the route opens with several hundred feet of dirt, tree, and rock climbing up to easy 5th class, which we simul climbed.  Once the "harder" climbing started, I was immediately struck by how severely overnight gear hampered my climbing.  So we stayed in slow and safe mode, pitching it out to the bivy ledge in six long pitches.  We stuck to the buttress crest, and the upper pitches were either splitter and fun or knobby and steep and fun.  We arrived at the bivy at 6 pm.  The evening was beautiful, and with warm sleeping bags and a shared bivy sack, we both slept fairly comfortably.
Clean cracks and heavy packs on the lower buttress.
Room with a view.  On the bivy ledge.
We awoke at sunrise, and prepared for a chilly morning of climbing on the upper buttress.  After about 600 feet of simul-climbing, five excellent pitches of steep knobby rock interspersed with clean cracks brought us to the summit.  We took a long break on top to enjoy the views and reflect on the climb.  The descent is quite long, with at least 5 rappels interspersed with downclimbing to get off the peak, followed by the involved Crossover descent which includes steep snow, tricky routefinding, and one rappel.  We were greatly aided by the newly improved Crossover descent trail.  Excellent directions can be found here.  We made it down to the climber's trail a little before dark, and easily followed this to our bivy site. After a break for a cold but deliciious dinner, we pounded out the last 5 miles of road and trail, returning to the car at midnight.  A surprise dead battery precluded any driving, so we pitched the tent and slept fitfully, having safely climbed one of the all time classic alpine routes in the Cascades.
Morning sunshine and a buttress to climb.
Not a bad way to start the day.
On the upper buttress.
Leah near the end of the ridge traverse of the Crossover descent.
 The rest of the trip was spent climbing warm granite at Index.