Weather in the High Peaks

It’s well-known that even in the middle of summer, the weather can be pretty fickle up in the hills. Last Sunday, the day after I did the Great Range Traverse in the Adirondacks, I went for a little stroll up Pitchoff Mountain to stretch the legs a bit before the long drive home.  Just as I got to the last, steepest section of the ascent I got caught in a wicked rain shower which seemingly appeared from nowhere.

When I got to the top (very wet and bedraggled) I took these two photos, just a few seconds apart but looking in opposite directions.

Despite the soaking, Pitchoff Mountain has got to be one of the best value hikes I’ve ever done. It’s a good, fun trail to the top with a little bit of very light scrambling near the top, capped with awesome 360 degree views from the rocky summit. The best bit is that access is right off the highway, and you can be up and down in a couple of hours.

Adirondack Great Range Traverse report

So, as planned, I attempted to climb the entire Adirondack Great Range in a day last weekend. I’ve wanted to have a go at this for some time so I was stoked to finally get down there and have at it.

Short Version: It was rough but I got it done.

Long Version:

I drove down Friday afternoon, bought food, scouted out the trailhead parking situation and then went to bed earlyish in anticipation of an early start.

Saturday morning I got up at 5am and was on the trail by 5:45am. I set off at a silly-quick pace, thinking I’d get round in something ridiculous like 10 or 11 hours (bearing in mind the fastest known time is just under 6 hours, by a super-talented trailrunner, this was somewhat optimistic). The trails in the Adirondacks are generally narrow, steep, and either muddy, hideously rocky or both. Until you’ve hiked on them it’s hard to appreciate just how slow-going it can be. On a good hiking trail I’d expect to cover 5km in an hour. On this route I could only manage about 2.5km per hour.

The first third of the route is almost all in the forest, with lots of ups and downs (mostly ups) as you pass Rooster Comb, Lower Wolfjaw, Upper Wolfjaw and Armstrong. It’s fairly unrewarding, gaining 3400′ of elevation without getting to enjoy any really epic summit vistas. Getting from the trailhead to the top of Armstrong took me 4 hours 15.

The middle third is the most enjoyable. Over the next 4 or 5 hours I summited Gothics (probably the most enjoyable ascent/descent in the Adirondacks), Saddleback, Basin and both Little Haystack and Haystack. All of them have exposed, rocky summits and require at least a bit of rock-hopping or scrambling to get up or down them. Being above treeline is always a good thing, as you can generally see for miles and you get to feel the wind in your hair. However, as is common in the High Peaks, there was a LOT of wind in my hair on this occasion. So much that I almost lost my hat, and the filling literally blew out of my turkey sandwich. Consequently the strategy was generally “get up on top, get a quick photo, then scamper down off the summit for a snack”.

The final peak on the traverse is Mt Marcy. It’s also the highest peak in New York state, and consequently one of the busiest. I don’t like Marcy much. It feels too much like a tourist attraction. Hence I got up it as fast as I could (which wasn’t very fast seeing as I’d been hiking for 9 hours by this point), shot a quick video message to send to a friend who was running an Ultra marathon on Jersey the same day, then got down.

The final, and hardest, challenge of the day was getting from the summit of Mt Marcy back to The Garden trailhead. It’s all downhill, but on trails as rugged as these there’s no way to make use of that downhilliness. In some respects the loss of elevation just means you pound your knees harder and stepping down from one rock to another gives even more opportunities to fall on your face. From the top of Marcy to the trailhead took me 3 1/2 boring, painful hours for a total trip time of 13 hours 22 minutes.

Overall, it was a super tough day out. Over 30km, and somewhere approaching 10,000′ of elevation gained and lost. Long, arduous, sometimes tedious – exactly what I expected, and wanted. I was interested to see what it would be like to keep moving quickly for such a long time, and the answer was that I can handle it but the knees and feet started to get cranky after 8 or 9 hours. I was slower than I hoped but in retrospect I don’t see how a hiker can cover that route in less than 12 hours. To go faster than that you’d need to be a very lightly laden, and a very skilled trail runner.

I’m not in a hurry to do that entire route again, especially not in a day, but I’d love to go back in the fall and do Gothics with Krista, maybe incorporating an overnight camp in the valley.

As I’m not working at the moment I’m on a bit of a budget, but fortunately it was a pretty affordable trip too. I spent $150 on gas (I covered about 1200km in the car), $50 on food for the weekend, another $50 on two night’s accommodation in the bunkroom at Tmax-n-Tops Hostel (definitely a recommended place to stay if you’re a lone hiker or on a budget) and that’s about it.

Mount Whitney Mountaineer’s Route

I just got back from a last-minute trip to California to climb the Mountaineer’s Route on Mount Whitney with International Mountain Guides. Good times, good weather, a solid team, all topped off with a summit. More pics to come later, but for here now’s the certificate to show we made it to the top.

An awesome day out on Mount Temple

Mount Temple

Summit elevation: 11,624 feet
Distance:, 5,500 feet of climbing over 16 km.
Duration: 4 hrs 30 up, 1 hr 50 down.

I’ve wanted to climb Mount Temple for a year or more, and I spent quite a few hours staring up at it while we were in Lake Louise. The most easily visible sides of the mountain are seriously imposing, but the popular scramble route up the South East ridge isn’t actually that hard, with only a couple of mellow rock steps and some minor routefinding to deflect the hordes of would-be summiteers. Well, that and 5,500′ of elevation gain. In fact, the biggest challenge for me was finding a day when it wasn’t raining that coincided with us being in Lake Louise. When I checked the forecast on Friday afternoon, it said that Saturday was likely the best day for the next week. I packed up Friday evening and we were at the Moraine Lake parking lot by 7am on Saturday morning. I buddied-up with a couple of Italian guys who also wanted to do Temple, as well as two climbers from South Africa and Ecuador heading up the same trail to climb the Grand Sentinel, hereby getting us around the “minimum group size of 4” rule that Parks Canada have in place in many areas in Banff (to reduce the likelihood of hikers getting eaten by bears).

The first part of the ascent is an easy hike up switchbacks above Moraine Lake. As you get higher the views improve until you get to treeline and are faced with the perfect panoramic view of all ten peaks of the aptly named Valley of the Ten Peaks. It’s picture postcard stuff, and you can’t kelp but stand around snapping photos for a while. As Krista’s compact camera is bust, I decided to take my SLR with me and the views from here, coupled with the clear weather, made me glad I’d bothered to lug the extra 4 pounds.

On my last two solo scrambles, I’ve been used to going flat-out, fast as I can, up-up-and-away. Having to stay with a group who were slower than me was a bit of a change, so when we got to Sentinel Pass and parted company with the rock climbers, I was happy to step the pace up a bit and started catching up with the groups ahead of us going up Temple. Despite having a route topo, I managed to get off-route a couple of times and had to do some dodgy downclimbing over blocky rock covered with loose marbles. Not fun, but it did kinda add to the excitement. Today’s lesson: “Just cos there’s a trail, doesn’t mean it’s the right way”. Anyway, cut a long story short, I finally got on top after four and a half hours, ahead of all the other groups and hence had the summit to myself for ten minutes or so before the best of the rest caught me up. I don’t usually spend very long on top of mountains, but today the weather was so nice, the views so clear, and the other climbers so sociable I ended up sitting around shooting the shit for over 90 minutes. After sitting around for so long, I was a bit behind schedule so I hammered down the mountain as fast as I dared, getting from summit to parking lot in 1 hour 52. No wonder my knees and feet were sore when I got back to the RV.

Squaw’s Tit Scramble

Squaw’s Tit

Summit elevation: 8175 feet
Distance: 3800 feet of climbing over 10km
Duration: 2 hrs 40 up, 1 hr 40 down.

I’d planned to have a go at Big Sister on the way through Canmore but it turns out the trailhead is 15km down a grotty dirt road, which doesn’t work so well in a 3 ton RV. It would have been nice if that was mentioned in the guide book. So instead I switched objective to a sub-peak of Mount Lady MacDonald known locally as Squaw’s Tit. It doesn’t have an official name, but it’s unofficial name describes it pretty well. The rocky “nipple” caught my eye from Canmore and a bit of research made it sound pretty do-able in a morning. I was up about 6:15am, on my bike 10mins later, and at the trailhead by 7. The guide book warned that a bit of bushwhacking was necessary but I managed to string together a pretty good route by linking up a marked hiking trail, a dry river bed and an unmarked trail. Once I got above tree line there was the usual scree slog to negotiate, but then the terrain improved massively. You basically get to follow a ridgeline right the way to the summit. There’s enough spice to the scrambling to make it fun, but the exposed bits are easily bypassed if gets too much (which it didn’t). The ascent up the final summit nipple is awesome fun, just about sketchy enough that you’d want a rope if it was wet but in good conditions it’s just plain fun. Because I climbed on a weekday I didn’t see anyone else on the whole route and had the summit to myself. For a bit of fun while I ate breakfast on the summit, I got out a mirror and managed to signal to Krista who was eating breakfast at Tim Horton’s, down in the valley. I often wondered if a signal mirror would actually get you noticed if you were in trouble, and now I know it would.

Scrambling on Rundle Mountain

While we were in the Banff area I got the chance to scramble up three mountains, all of them different.

First up, a definition. Scrambling means different things to different people. To some it’s the English version of Moto-X. To others it’s a way to make eggs. To mountain folk, it’s hiking on rugged but non-technical terrain. In the Rockies that usually means a few miles of getting lost on intermittent trails, followed by a couple of thousand vertical feet of “alpine grovelling” on loose rock, culminating in 4 or 5 moves of fun but slightly sketchy rock climbing. Hopefully at the top there’ll be somewhere nice to sit, enjoy the views and munch on a sandwich.

The appeal of scrambling, to me at least, is the opportunity to cover lots of ground in a fairly short period of time, get away from the crowds, in the mountains, all with the minimum of equipment.

The first of my alpine triplet was Rundle Mountain (or Mount Rundle, depending on who you talk to).

Rundle Mountain

Summit elevation: 9672 feet
Distance: 5150 feet of climbing over 11 km.
Duration: 3 hrs 30 up, 2 hrs 30 down.

Rundle towers over the town of Banff like the worlds biggest, dustiest wedge of cheese, and the trailhead is easily accessible from our campground at Tunnel Mountain campground, so trotting up it seemed like a good way to spend a spare day. In hindsight, just cos it’s convenient and popular doesn’t mean it’s actually fun. Several miles of switchbacks, 45 mins of grovelling through a forest, then skating on loose rock for a couple of thousand feet to share the summit with 20+ people may be excellent training for Spartan Races, but scores low on the “epic alpine wilderness” scale. I may have felt more positive about the experience if I hadn’t taken a mouldy Camelbak with me, and subsequently barfed up most of my lunch on the way down.

Note: Parks Canada publish a useful Scramblers Guide to Mount Rundle.

Icefields Parkway from Banff to Jasper

We’ve just got back from a trip along the Icefields Parkway from Banff to Jasper and back. It’s a popular drive, and for good reasons. Dozens of massive glaciated mountains line the route, and it’s common to see caribou, moose, deer and bears along the way.

First stop was a call-in at Bow Lake to see off three of our friends who were heading up onto the Wapta icefield for 6 days of mountaineering training. Our very first mountaineering adventure started here three years ago, so it was cool to be back again. Hopefully Neel, Kitty and Amy will get the mountaineering bug too, so we’ll have more people to go on trips with in the future.

Nostalgia trip completed, onwards… The Columbia Icefield is a popular halfway stopping point on the parkway and was our first overnight stop. There’s a “sno-coach” tour that actually drives up onto the Athabasca Glacier for a couple of kilometres to give people a view of the icefall where the glacier runs away from the Columbia Icefield. Instead of taking the bus ride, Krista and I joined a walking tour instead. We’ve both hiked on glaciers before, but usually as a means to get to a mountain, rather than for the sheer pleasure of enjoying the icy landscape. Our guide, a French climber/guide called Bernard, kept us safe whilst letting us get as close as possible to some pretty enormous millholes in the glacier.

We also got some awesome views of the north side of Mount Athabasca from the glacier. Athabasca is a popular mountaineering peak and has a bunch of good routes ranging from “first timer” to “moderately scary”. Having had a good look at it from a number of angles, I quite fancy having a go at the North Face route in the future.

At Jasper we did our usual tourist stuff; bum around the stores in town, sample the local brews, try to avoid buying any new climbing gear. I also got in a trail run along the river from our campground to the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge. I love trail running in bear country. Every once in a while you come up behind a hiker from behind and they freak out, thinking you’re a bear about to molest them. I wonder if I should start wearing goggles when I run, as protection from the face-full of bear spray I’m inevitably going to get one day.

On the way back to Lake Louise we came across no less than three bears along the roadside. The bears are a on a mission to get as fat as possible at this time of year, before the snow comes and they go into hibernation. Hence they’re cruising the edges of the forests where the best berries and shrubs are, which often coincides with where the roads are.

The only slight letdown was not being able to find a Jasper National Park sticker to go on the back of the RV. We’ve got one for every park we’ve visited in the US but for some reason nobody seems to sell them for the Canadian parks.

Three Days in Glacier National Park

After we finished up in Yellowstone, we decided to head North, back into Canada, towards the Banff/Lake Louise/Jasper area. To break up the journey I suggested we stop off at Glacier National Park on the way (the US one in Montana, not the Canadian one in British Columbia). I’ve never been and didn’t even know much about it but I’d seen a few photos and it seemed worth a stopover. Turns out I was right.

After settling in at the local KOA campground, we took our usual approach.

Day 1 – Reconnaissance
Day 2 – Do something classic but touristy
Day 3 – Get off the beaten track

Our reconnaissance day took the form of cycling the mile or so to the visitor centre, and figuring out how the awesome shuttle bus system works. More National Parks should do this, it cuts down on congestion and parking hassles, and is generally a better, safer, cleaner way for people to enjoy the park. We rode the bus to the end of the line, checked out the Logan Pass visitor centre, then took a stroll up a random trail towards Hidden Lake. I think every National Park has something called Hidden Lake, Hidden Falls or Hidden Canyon so the name doesn’t give much away. Turns out we got some stunning views, a nice little workout, and saw a bunch of mountain goats, bajillions of over-fed marmots and [shock] a wolverine. Having never seen a wolverine before I was too busy staring to point the camera at it so I’ve got nothing to show for it. We also got a *classic* example of tourists not knowing what’s good for them and ignoring a “do not go down this path cos there’s a fucking huge grisly bear” sign. See pic below.

Day 2 we took a guided tour in a renovated 1930s open-top bus. We were by far the youngest (and most mobile!) of the group, but it was nice to cruise around at a slower-than-usual pace. The benefit of taking a guided tour is that you get to learn from someone who spends their whole summer in the park, and our guide Ray was a wealth of knowledge about the geology, history and wildlife of the park. For example, I now know how to spot a mountain hemlock tree by its bent-over tip. Lunch at the McDonald Lake Lodge was a treat too.

Day 3, we got up early, biked to the visitor centre and got the first bus up to Logan Pass. We took the advice of our guide Ray, and did a one-way hike along the Highline Trail. The route goes for 20km along the side of an enormous glaciated valley. Hikes don’t really get any better than this. Wild flowers. Massive, MASSIVE panoramic views. Waterfalls. Sharing the trail with goats. Lunch at an alpine chalet built in 1915 (and still in use as a lodge today). And all of this with almost no uphill hiking, as you can get the shuttle bus back uphill to where you started.

So our little stopover turned into a delightful 3 days. Glacier is definitely more wild than other parks I’ve been to, and I really like that. No cafes. No shops. Few roads. Just lots of scenery, animals and plants, mostly untouched and as-they-should-be.

Grand Teton Post-Climb Review

After most of my summit climbs I do a quick review of any lessons learnt, and things to remember for next time. These are the things that immediately spring to mind for my Grand Teton climb.

Things I’d Do The Same Next Time

Exum Guides were awesome. They’re totally organised, and the five guides I spent time with were all first class both in terms of technical ability and teaching skills.

I took exactly the right clothing for the expected conditions. I had one spare layer for if it had got colder, but didn’t need it.

My new sun hoodie is awesome; this is the first trip I’ve done where I didn’t come back even slightly sunburnt.

Frozen burritos for dinner were a stroke of genius; tasty, no mess and easy to warm up. I’ll take them again on shorter overnight trips.

Things I’d Do Differently Next Time

I probably would have enjoyed the approach hike more if I’d taken a rest day between the training days and the main event.

I took a little too much food = excess weight.

My helmet is ugly and costs me a lot of style points.

I should have taken some moleskin. I got lucky and didn’t need it, but I should have had some just in case.

I forgot to get a summit photo with my mascot (Yes, it’s definitely a mascot, not a teddy bear).

Trip Highlights

The whole trip was pretty awesome, but the single biggest result was being able to climb and descend the whole route without any significant problem with the heights. It was “stimulating” for sure, but no more scary than driving in Paris. I’ve been on a mission to overcome my fear of heights for about 10 years and being able to climb the Grand Teton is a pretty significant step. If I can handle 5th class climbing with a couple of thousand feet of exposure, what else could I handle? [evil smiley]