Thursday, August 29, 2013

Bitterroot - High Five traverse

5 am and excited for the high five.
I was able squeeze in a fabulous pre-wedding scramble on August 17, and made a beeline for my second favorite traverse in the Bitterroot - the high five.  This highly recommended adventure links El Capitan, the Lonesome Bachelor, and all three Como peaks.  With some routefinding wizzardry, the total elevation gain checks in around 8,000 vertical feet, the difficulty never exceeds stout 4th class, and once above treeline, it's pretty much all boulder hopping interspersed with easy rock scrambling.  This was my third time on the traverse, and I had one overriding goal:  SHOW UP TO THE WEDDING ON TIME.  A secondary goal was to beat Ben Vandenbos' fast time of 10 hours (probably the FKT).  This would require shaving over an hour off my previous time, but with a much deeper running skill set, it seemed possible.  In any case, I started running from the trailhead in the dark, excited for a challenging day in the mountains.

Sunrise above Little Rock Creek Lake.
The trail up to Little Rock Creek lake was full of downfall and encroaching brush, but it still went quickly, and I was soon following the intermittent climber's trail to the upper lakes.  There are several routes with cairns, but I generally stayed low, and was able to bypass all the lakes on the south side, which I think is the best way.  After a quick water stop, I finally stepped onto scree at the base of El Capitan and quickly scrambled up to the ridge crest, using ledges just right of the twin gullies.  From the crest, a little boulder hopping had me on the summit, well ahead of schedule.  The morning had been smoky, but a west wind gradually cleared things out as I traversed to the Lonesome Bachelor and worked up the Southwest ridge (stout class 4).  From the Lonesome Bachelor summit, a bit of boulder hopping down, then a long climb put me on West Como.  T'he traverse to East Como was continuously challenging and engaging, but even with some sub-par routefinding, I made it to East Como well ahead of schedule and in good spirits. 
At the base of El Capitan, transitioning from bushwacking to talus hopping.
A High five on the High five.
Looking west to the Lonesome Bachelor and El Capitan from West Como.
Looking East from West Como to Middle and East Como.
Miles of boulder hopping.
Normally, the upper north face of East Como can be glissaded, but it was snow free this time, so I endured an oversized helping of loose scree down to the basin and the first water in several hours.  The only major glitch of the day came when I missed the crucial gully which allows easy access through the final cliff band at the bottom of the basin.  Nevertheless, I found it after 30 minutes of unpleasant bushwacking, and I was soon on my way down to the trail.  The run out was pure joy - 2 miles of technical but eminantly runnable trail, with a short uphill stinger back to the car. 
On East Como, ready to head home.
Thoughts
This is a good traverse, but treat it with caution since descending from East Como peak is tricky.  I think it could go much faster, certainly under 9 hours, especially with a little more snow for glissading.  Here are a few routefinding tidbits:

Lonesome Bachelor:  From the base of the southwest ridge, ascend the ridge crest, climbing several short class 4 steps, until a 20-foot tall vertical step is encountered about 200 vertical feet before this summit.  This step can be climbed directly (5.6), but it is easier to walk 100 feet to the right on a broad ledge until a chimney/left facing dihedral is encountered.  Climb up a short chimney (10 feet) until you can walk back left on ledges with no handholds.  From here, a vertical but easy chimney leads to easier terrain.  A second step will be encountered, but it can be surmounted with 4th climbing up and right of the crest.
This is the first step than can be passed on the right.
The crux of the Lonesome Bachelor.  Climb the right dihedral
for 10 feet and traverse left to the chimney on a narrow ledge. 
Descent from East Como:  Descend the east ridge, then loose scree on the eastern edge of the north face (several options here).  From the base of the north face, descend boulders, rock slabs, and open timber on the western edge of the drainage.  As you get nearer to the bottom of the drainage, stay skier's left on scree, and follow the main gully/swale down to a broad, mossy cliff band.  Pass this cliff band just skier's left of the gully.  From here, traverse skier's left to the final cliff band.  You will be about 100 feet above a large boulder field.  Traverse skier's left, climbing slightly above the edge of the cliff band until the valley slope turns from east facing to north facing, and find a small gully between the cliffs, more or less on the eastern edge of the north facing portion of the cliff band.  This gully is not obvious.  Scramble down this gully (dirty class 3) and emerge on the lower boulder field.  Descend straight north aross the boulder field, and follow your nose through mossy cliffs, boulders, and brush to the trail.

Splits
Lake: 1.15. base of peak; 2ish; El Capitan summit: 3.40.  lonesome bachelor: 4.50.  west como: 6.15ish. east como: 7.30. trail: 8:40ish car: 9.28.

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