Last week's trip on the Bolam glacier got me up to around 12,000, but it had been 5 years since I was at 13k or better. A good time to go back to the main route where only the weather can keep us from success. I had talked to Andrew about doing the earlier trip, but my mother didn't want anyone without prior ice experience, so we planned this trip instead. Like me, he had lots of free time, and Kenn and Derek could also manage a nice 3 day trip in the middle of the week. With the poor snowfall this year, early July was already considered late season and I didn't want to deal with the crowds (and potential rockfall) on the weekend.
For once I prepared my pack of ahead of time, but ended up taking it apart again. My subaru needed some car work, so I didn't want to drive it on this trip. So instead we went with Andrew's civic - fine for 4 people, but a bit trickier for 4 guys with full sized packs, ice axes, ski poles, and helmets. Nevertheless, we make it work, and I think we're on the trail by 12:40.
Only 5 weeks before I left the Bunny Flats parking lot for my ice ax training and the snow started just near the road. But that snow is all gone and we don't see any on the stretch to Horse Camp. I'm still finding it hard to go with a big pack - I need to get the straps adjusted but there are SO many of them. At HC I had planned to fill up all my bottles from the spring but we found it had just been 'closed' for use to do water treatment. Many filled containers were left for use, so we filled off those. The outhouses there were open, but marked as being available only every other day.
The rock stretch was definitely rough - the soil gave with each step, so at first opportunity I headed for a snow gully at around 8600. I actually managed to sneak past the guys who were waiting at a plateau on the dirt trail. We had another 1000 ft to go to camp, all on snow. And did it ever take forever - by the end of the day the snow was very soft and I was beat. The last hill took an hour or better and I finally caught up to the others at around 7pm. There were probably 10 tents set up, mostly on the high ridge. We opted for the cairns below that for better wind protection, and space for both of our tents. Dinner was a bit entertaining - the guys have all 'evolved' to backpacking off freeze dried food packages. I just can't deal with those and had my fresh gnochi and spicy marinara sauce. After we start making a bit more water for the next day, but didn't complete it - I thought we should get some sleep. Some others were talking about leaving at 4am and it was already past 8. What I didn't consider was that the snow would be frozen in the morning and it took much longer to melt. We also were using the wrong method - we kept draining off the liquid to filter, so we lost its help in melting. For all these reasons, it wasn't until 7am that we got moving.
None of the guys had used crampons or an ax before, so we talked about it during the snow melting, and then finished off the basic tutorial on the first slope away from camp. Conditions were perfect at this time - we could see the sunshine below us, but we were still in the shade beneath the ridge. Nice visibility, nice temperature, and not a cloud in the sky, just like the day before. Even if we took a long time, I felt ok about pushing the time of day. Didn't prove to be needed - we got to the base of Red Banks in just over 2 hours, right as the sun finally showed. We were managing just under 1000ft/hr on a very steep face. The chute was a bit icy and very steep for 100ft of gain, and then it became more gradual again. But now we were in sun that had been getting a lot of snow - occasionally we sank to our knees. Still we maintained a decent clip in getting to the end of this section. The last rise I hoped was the end - if not I would have been very discouraged. But it was it and we had arrived at the base of Misery Hill. Snow gave way again to rock, and there was a nice resting spot with views in every direction.
I thought we could drop our ice gear here, but was glad to get confirmation from a guy coming down - wear tennis shoes, jeans, and a flannel shirt. He didn't have any ice gear at all, so we felt fine lighting our loads for the last 750ft(?). I was feeling very strong at this point - not feeling any of altitude sickness that was getting at the others - so I played cheerleader in telling them the peak was in the bag, just a bit more walking to do. The trail on the hill was definitely loose; everyone went up at their pace. It was great getting to the top and seeing the summit come into view. 4.5 hours in and just a little stroll left. The wind picked up here, but otherwise it was still clear, warm, and a bit sunny. Derek said he was feeling like a nap at this point, but I talked him into doing a short break and then coming to the base of the summit before doing a long rest. Either he'd be good to make it, or at least be in visual range if he did sleep. It worked - the former was true. We got to the top at about 12:20, a bit over 5 hours total. I was glad we chose to sleep in a bit - the full rest made it a lot easier to do. We came across another couple at the top - they had left a full 3 hours before us.
Aside from a bit of wind, the summit was pretty hospitable - I sat at the saddle just below the two high points and ate my lunch in the protected area. We could step to look out each edge and see the many glaciers below, some sporting impressive fields of crevasses. I think everyone was happy to soak in the warm sun, and three of us took a good number of pictures. And then, it was time to head on down. We had planned to head down the same Red Banks route we came up, though I wasn't sure how well the glissading would go, or what to do when we got to the steep chute section.
We started glissading going very slowly, never letting the speed build up. The soft snow would tend to ball up and so we slowly but easily made it to the chute. Still, I felt a bit aggravated that I didn't feel more at ease, having taken two classe on ice tool use. When we got to the Chute I decided to bail, not convinced I could slow down or stop if I needed to. I traversed over on the rock to the next chute in an adventure of loose rock that was probably more risky than shooting down the chute. The guys did go for it and did ok, though it got a bit exciting when Kenn nearly (or did) hit the woman we talked with earlier as she was climbing backwards onto the glissade run. We regrouped and started down the steepest section of the heart. Here the run got a bit deeper, but we could cheat and use our feet as brakes against the sidewalls. At this point I finally got it - I can let a lot more speed build up and it's no harder to slow down on this snow, but without nearly as much work. Finally comfortable, I'm flying through the curves and almost getting air on the bumps and it takes so much less energy than constantly dragging the spike. The only drag was towards the end when the slope got too flat to slide and we had to walk again. Still, it was less than 2.5 hours back and I proposed to pack on out. I think I wanted to keep glissading on the soft snow, and there was some attraction to a good meal in Dunsmuir. The others thought we'd be way too tired to drive after getting down. My body agreed - afterwards I went into my tent and slept for 4 hours.
Waking up the next morning was wild- there were two huge groups of 20+ hikers on the face heading up. Our day there were a total of 8 other hikres besides us. We definitely scored the right day - today it also looked like there would be clouds forming, rather than the perfect blue we enjoyed. We had hoped to zoom down the way we had on the Gulch, but surprisingly the slope seemed much less steep than it had coming up. We still tried to slide down that gully I came up, if for no other reason than it was still much easier on the feet. The group that came after us might have been able to use the trail, but probably not with much more speed. From here we jumped on the trail and finished the descent to Horse Camp where we enjoyed some cold spring water, talked with a few people, and then continued on to the end. It was a tad over 2 hours hiking on the day, and time to go for some food and drink. I took out a pitcher of Diet Coke on my own, though our appetites proved more illusionary as we barely finished the single pizza we ordered, after considering if 2 would be enough.
Pictures from this trip.
Avalanche Gulch : details on the main route.