Midsummer Mosquitos

Midsummer Mosquitoes

(a half-month at Outpost Lake)

Reinhard von Berg, July/August 2016

Michael Wheatley

Michael Wheatley

The night prior to my hike in was spent at Edith Cavell parking lot.  Hardly had I shut off my motor when the first foreboding threatened through my windshield – thousands of small insects, which were however red and not black, and so I braved exiting my van and taking the short scenic hike.  Returning an hour later, it became evident that some of the insects in the mix were larger and black.

Next morning I was still contemplating splitting the load and making two carries in, but after hefting it, I decided that (60 lb.?) didn’t feel that bad, so kept it on my back and set off.  Having decided to jettison rock shoes and rope no doubt helped.  Had I noticed that my reepschnur was still at the bottom, it would have helped even more.  Having spent the better part of two days carefully packing my food definitely did no harm.

Unlike my first trip in, in 1975, I had no trouble finding the cutoff towards the hut.  The pack did however get progressively less comfortable.  So did my goretex boots, so about half way there, I exchanged these for my other footwear, rubber sandals.  These almost immediately proved a wise choice, as the hut portion of the trail quicly becomes an almost unmitigated swamp.  In fact, later observing how many people sloshed their way up in sneakers (and there being no snow whatever on the hut approach), it escapes me why anyone would want to wear anything other than sandals.

About 1/3 up towards Chrome Lake the trail crosses a particularly swampy stretch – there I encountered a large party returning from the hut.  I had just begun striking up a conversation when a burning pain in my foot interrupted us: there were wasp nests on the ground in the water.  End of conversation, everybody got the hell out of there as fast as they could.

On the last ascent to the hut I was passed by a young man and his two lady friends.  They were so impressed by the septuagenarian with two weeks of food on his back that all three came back to carry my pack up for the last ten minutes.  I let one of the friends take it: she conceded that it was “not all that bad”.

In the following, I will describe the few outings I did.  As far as life in the hut goes, I remember leaving my boots on the picnic table to dry in the sun, and looking out the window five minutes later to see the house marmot chewing away on them.  Using up most of the duck tape in the hut in not completely futile efforts to make the windows more bug-proof.  People putting on head nets to go to the outhouse.  People carrying up a dozen eggs, a whole package of bacon, fresh tomatoes, a full bottle of ketchup (and not carrying everything out; one group even left a package of for me unpalatable trail mix with a kind note).  The party on the long weekend making a roaring fire in the common room, putting wet wood (they could have gotten dry wood from deeper inside the woodshed) on top of the stove to dry, putting boots on top of the drying wood to also dry, and then getting utterly engrossed in a card game, the whoops of delight generated by this being audible right across the lake.  And then: “why is there so much smoke?”  We all looked towards the stove at the same time – the flames were already licking half-way up to the ceiling.

My first objective was to reconnoiter Para Pass, as this would afford access to the easy routes on Oubliette et al.  My guidebook said, “follow Penstock Creek up to its source”.  So, began by descending straight down the hill to the valley of Penstock Creek, which here is a 2 km. wide swamp with willows, standing water, and streams.  After an unsuccessful attempt to jump the first stream my boots were full to the brim, so after that I ignored the terrain and just sloshed through everything.  After an hour of this I had wallowed to where the trail up the moraine to Fraser Pass becomes visible; about that time it also started to rain hard.  So I headed up beside the waterfalls, at the top of the hill headed left towards the hut, towards which I bushwhacked through the rain, suspecting but not finding the Fraser Pass trail a short distance to my right.  Did however find the faint trail that cuts off sharply left when descending from the hut, about 1/5 of the way down.  This takes you down to a point at the margin of the Penstock swamp where there is actually a small sign in a tree pointing uphill and saying “hut”.

Next available day (many were too wet to justify getting out of bed) I decided to practise my preaching and  left the hut in sandals.  After sloshing diagonally across the swamp I arrived at the major stream descending from Para Pass, and followed this up past some waterfalls to a lake, at the inlet (I think) to which there were stepping stones.

Above this was a series of steep terminal moraines that would have given good travel had they not been at right angles to my intended direction.  The first I followed to its (climbers) left end, which proved a mistake, but put me dramatically right below the steep face of Para Peak.

The top of the third (I think) moraine brought me to a large boulder-covered plateau which I could see led directly to the couloir leading up to Para Pass.  As this was strictly a reconnaisance, I had left the boots in the hut, and figured that was enough for now.  Returning over the moraines I sat out an afternoon shower in my Silponcho and thence back to the hut.

Third reconnaisance, with boots in the pack, plus crampons and ice ax.  Left the sandals at the stream crossing, and continued in boots.  Soon after reaching the couloir was able to start kicking steps up the snow.  Came to an area of crevasses and bare ice, but was able navigate through these, without donning crampons.  Continued up a large, gradually steepening snowslope, in broiling hot sun, finally reached the moat at the top, well to the left of the fall line of the couloir, followed the moat to the right, and up against a blank 4 m. hight quartzite wall just to the left of the couloir proper.  In the couloir proper a snow bridge had half collapsed; the half remaining might have afforded passage to the upper section, but probably would not have supported my weight.  Another route alternative would have involved stepkicking my way up 3 m. of slightly overhanging snow.  After some careful sober thought, I concluded (1) that my 1990 Rockies North guidebook was correct in its statement that “glacial recession has made the Para Pass more difficult in recent years”.  And (2) proving this point wrong was not worth dying for.

Having concluded that the west side of the Ramparts would have to remain off-limits for me, I turned my attention to Outpost Peak, which towers right above its namesake lake.  The plan: traverse Outpost Peak, ascending the SE arête to the NE peak, traversing to the higher SW peak, and descending the NW slopes, all of this described in Rockies North.  A quick recce-hike up Eremite Valley in doubtful weather convinced me that the “green triangle” mentioned in the guidebook would indeed get me up to the plateau of the Eremite Glacier, without having to take the trail past Arrowhead Lake and up the lateral moraine.  The plan was to follow the trail till directly below the green triangle, ford the creed, and then head straight up.

Monday, August 1, as everyone else was packing up to leave the hut after their long weekend there, I hiked the dreary mudslopes down to the junction, up the slightly better Eremite trail to the bridge – and then my Eureka moment: if I didn’t cross on the bridge, I wouldn’t have to ford the creek later on!

So I headed up its left bank, at first on moose trails through swamps, till I got to a big slope of talus coming down from Outpost – there I exchanged rubber sandals and bare feet for boots and socks, and headed up and across to the left.

After much boulder stumbling, and only a little bushwhacking, I arrived at the nose of a buttress, circled that after recklessly trying to climb it directly, and then could plainly see the mossy ramp leading to the plateau.  One burly move up mossy ledges; just before the end of the gully you escape from it via a small ramp on climbers left, then up more talus and heather past a small elongated snofield/gully, and then, finally, the plateau, with Eremite, Erebus and Outpost arrayed in front of me.  The Eremite-Erebus col looked more than trivial to get to, and would have involved ascending a km. of crevassed glacier, so I unprotestingly struck that from my future plans.  Had brunch at the base of the SE ridge, noticing that it really only consists of a few rock buttresses emerging from a huge talus slope that descends southward from the main mass of the mountain.  But, being here for the sport, decided to tackle it anyhow.

This proved a good decision: the view down to the right (the left skyline seen from the hut) spectacular, the rock decent.  One spot of perhaps 5.3 that could have been circumvented, but gave a bit of interest.

A couple of hundred feet below the summit the ridge finally gets completely buried in talus; this bit was tedious.  Then, the summit, an empty tin can in the cairn, a nice-looking ridge extending downward in front of me – on I barged, stopping to admire the view of Geikie  and Barbican as seen (from this point only) directly through Para Pass.

My first murmur of misgiving was when I notice how dangerously loose the upper part of this ridge was.  Columns of quartzite: if you knocked out a lower piect, the whole column would come crashing down.  A ridge so reputedly popular as this one, you would expect others to already have done the knocking.  Lower down the rock improved markedly, better than the the SE ridge, the slabby stretches reminiscent of Pigeon Spire.

At the low point (from the hut you see a snow couloir leading up to it) a cairn, where I had some lunch (almost 4 PM by now) – then on upwards (ultior altiorque) towards the far point, when finally my brain started working again and the bombshell hit me: if I was indeed on the ridge connecting the two summits of Outpost, I shouldn’t be constantly seeing the WG hut directly below me, and the glacier, not far below me, should be to my right, not to my left!  I had barked/barged down the wrong ridge!

Now the pressure was on.  Back up to the NE summit, the last bit of which I circumvented.  Down a seemingly endless talus slope, with only occasional scree (good thing I didn’t try ascending that!), a few welcome snowfields, light fading, already thinking about good spots for a bivy, continuing to look over my left shoulder for the elongated snowfield, almost ready to give up the search – and then, over one more hump, and there was the snowfield.  Still enough light (barely), so down I went, everything as I remembered from the morning, out onto the lower talus – at this point I decided to head straight down this, ford the creek, intersect the trail, and follow this “home” by headlamp.

Talus again interminable, very slow in my by now exhausted state, still no headlamp though.  At first I had the idea of heading up right till below the glacier, hoping that the ford would be easier there.  But I was too tired for more uphill.  So up onto a low wooded moraine ridge, where I finally did have to get out the headlamp.  The forest soon headed down steeply, and I came to a narrow stream, which I decided I could hop across in boots.  First though some water and electrolyte and Swiss sausage, then across, patting myself on the back for it having gone so straightforwardly.

Up a low ridge, and a renewed twinge of misgiving.  Sure enough, soon I could hear the roar of the main creek ahead and below.  Verly steep bushwhacking, then the flats of the creek.  Considered following it down to the moose meadows, but then decided to bite the bullet.  Off came the boots and socks, off came the pants, off came the underwear, on came the rubber sandals.  Still ready to give up the project, I shone my headlamp into the water, and when I could see the rocks at the bottom of the water, decided to give it a try.

Barely made it across, sure could have used a second hiking pole, feet screaming with pain for 20 minute afterwards – but I had made it.   20 feet brought me to the trail, where heavy dew on the willows made me wetter than a rainstorm would have.  Finally back at the hut just as dawn was breaking.  My epic for this year, I hope.

After two really needed rest days, got aroung to completing the traverse.  In reverse this time, as I now knew the Eremite approach/descent.

Up the Fraser Pass trail (which I had reconnoitered earlier, looking for an approach to Bennington East Ridge, spraining my index finger attempting to cross the creek above the hut at a point where someone stupidly had put a marker rock).  The start of the north ridge of Outpost SW peak is perfectly obvious from Fraser Pass; the “slabby NW slopes” looked like a poor choice by comparison.

That the climb is popular was abundantly evident.  Cairns, occasional  rappel slings, excellent rock except at the beginning, never harder than 5.2 or so.

The ridge connecting the two summits is also excellent rock, many sections up slab which geology has tilted at precisely the angle at which vibram soles will not slip, but only if you keep moving, and quickly at that: if you stop to think, you start to slide.  So I effectively “ran” sections of the ridge.  Mostly down, not up: the SW peak is considerably higher than the NE.  

Much excellent rock, much more actual climbing than is usually the case in these mountains.  Quite a few spots of 5.4.  Similar standard to Edith Cavell, but much more continuous (the 5.4 on Cavell is one small foothold on a buttress: Cavell is not so much a ridge as a series of small buttresses separated by ledges).  All in all a better climb than Cavell.  Some gemdarmes towards the end; I was able to downclimb all except the last one more or less directly.  On the longest steep downward section the snow looked tempting, but today for the first time I had chosen to leave my ice ax behind.  The rock I was forced to climb was however the best on the ridge.    Again I circumvented the NE summit, stopping for a late lunch at the top of a steep couloir.

Then the long talus slope leading southward towards the Eremite glacier.  This time I kept left at first, then moved slightly right into a long couloir (Monday I had gone way right).  Monday I had immediately found the approach/descent gully/ramp by looking back over my left shoulder – this time I walked past it, but fortunately decided to backtrack a bit to look for it.  Built a cairn.  Looked at continuing on the plateau beneath the glacier tongue till able to connect with its right lateral moraine, and thence to Arrowhead Lake and the trail, presumably with only minor stream crossings.  But couldn’t see the last part of this.

Through the descent gully a third time; this time stayed high on the talus slopes, hoping to reverse Monday’s approach.  Finally did permit myself to descend to near the creek on flatter ground (side-hilling on big talus is tiring!)  Stopped for some water, and to don the headlamp, which by now was necessary (would not have been had I started an hour earlier).

Having pretty well descended to the creek, I figured that if I stayed near it, I would eventually come to the bridge and thus the trail.  For what seemed like hours I traversed talus, forest (dense), and muskeg; ultimately decided that travel on the muskeg was easiest.  Eventually heard a roar ahead – that must be the the waterfall and hence the bridge.  The roar got louder; finally I came to a raging torrent I’d never be able to ford.  Looking at the water, I saw to my consternation that it was flowing from left to right.  Eremite Creek should have been flowing R –L when approached from the south.  Was it some unknown creek issuing from Outpost Peak, that had flowed underneath the talus slopes I crossed on Monday?

Again, as on Monday, my brain failed to grasp the obvious.  I had crossed, just before reaching this new creek, something I had taken to be a dried-up tributary.  Having decided to follow the mystery creek downstream to its confluence with the Eremite, I passesd over this feature again, and realized I was on a big obvious trail, heading upstream parallel to the creek.  Then my brain started functioning again – I was on the hut trail where it starts going up the hill!!  My route must have taken me so far from Eremite Creek that I missed the bridge and trail entirely, but in recompense had unwittingly bushwhacked a beeline to the hut trail!

There remained enough time for an attempt at Bennington East Ridge.  The approach I had already reconnoitered a week earlier.  A traverse rightward from the Fraser Pass trail leads up beside a small waterfall into a delightful narrow gorge that would make a perfect campsite.  Rather than following the gorge to its upper end I elected to try the intriguingly smooth black slate slabs coming down from the ridge.  These proved slippery and loose and sharp and rewarded me with a vigorously bleeding cut on my hand.  When this was still bleeding after a few minutes, I conceded defeat, waited a half hour in the hot sun with hand held elevated, then gingerly began a tedious descent to the gorge.

Back in the hut I met two Americans from Colorado and Washington, D.C, respectively, who had come to do some alpine scrambling.  The morning of my hike out, they followed my recommendation and headed up to Fraser Pass to attempt Outpost north ridge (not the traverse).  A bicycle tourist and mathematician from Russia joined them.  These were the only climbers I met in all 16 days at the hut.  On reading in the hut register of all the alpine ascents done in the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s, all in good style and time and on routes that were anything but trivial, I could only conclude that alpine climbing has become a thing of the past – almost entirely replaced by trail hiking, plus in places like Canmore by sport climbing.  Young outdoor sports enthusiasts of the 21st century may be very competitive and unbelievably fit – but they have grown up in a world where everything is regimented and controlled.  The “freedom of the hills” as I still experience it is something beyond the scope of their imagination.

P.S.  The return hike in early August was indeed a little less buggy than the approach in late July.  Getting above said bugs required ascending to at least 9000 feet.