Sunday, September 15, 2013

Into the heart of southern Stratcona: Part two

See here for part one. We awoke before dawn on day two, hitting the trail by a few minutes after 7 o'clock. We came across a water source fewer than five minutes farther along the ridge. Ten minutes later, the water looked even better. Within about 90 minutes, we were sipping fresh snow melt off the rocks.

Morning snow cups
The route climbs over point 1707M and down to a small col below the Red Pillar. We faced a few possible routes, eventually choosing to contour along a mix of snow and rock on the west side of the Red Pillar. We made good time until reaching a pinch point, directly west of the Pillar's official summit. Attaching our crampons, confronting our fears and constructing a minor marvel of snow engineering, we finally stepped onto the upper Cliffe Glacier.

Pinch point
Reaching the Cliffe Glacier offers a spectacular alpine experience, without much technical requirements. Though we spotted a few impressive crevasses near the top of the upper Cliffe, our route felt more like a sprawling snowfield. The heat of the day was upon us and we strove to make up some time now that we were out in the open. We tried to make up some more time by climbing over the rocky ridge that descends from Mt. Argus to reach the lower Cliffe Glacier. Though it seemed like a good idea at the time, the way back revealed that passing through an opening at the base of the rocky arm was the route of least resistance; it was also the only source of water past the pinch point.

Looking over the lower Cliffe Glacier
We reached the base of Harmston's South-East Ridge route by about 2 p.m. It was later than any of us had hoped and we'd long given up on our summit hat trick. An ascent of the Red Pillar would have to wait until the following morning, but it was clear we wouldn't get a shot at Argus until the next trip.

Looking towards Mt. Harmston (South-East Ridge route on right)

At this point our group elected to split up, as two members decided to begin the long slog back to camp while three chose to make a break along the chossy Sout-East Ridge for Harmston's summit. Within an hour we'd made it to the summit, where we kicked back for 20 minutes or so to take in the well-earned view. The South-East Ridge is a non-technical route over extremely loose rock. On more than one occasion, members of our group inadvertently set large rocks down the mountain side.

Along Harmston's South-East Ridge
After dinner the previous night, we'd made a pact to split one of three chocolate bars on each summit, mint-flavoured for Harmston, salt for Argus and orange for the Red Pillar. With the mint bar behind us we set out to catch up with the rest of our group, which could be seen as two specs walking along the glacier below.

We followed the glacier around the rocky ridge that leads down from Argus to gain access to the upper glacier. The opening to the upper Cliffe offered a change to reload our water supply for the trek up the glacier. We met the other members as they had just finished passing through the pinch point obstacle. With a few hours to go we wasted little time to make it home before sun set, a good 13 hours after setting off.

Another mountain curry and a few laughs under the stars before hitting the hay ahead of what promised to be another big day; there was, after all, orange-infused chocolate to be had atop the Red Pillar.

Part three is here.

Into the heart of southern Strathcona: Part one

Vancouver Island continues to amaze. Where else can one go three days on a long weekend in the summer without running into another party? We weren't even hiding out in the bush; Our five-member group sought to explore three historic island peaks folded into some classic Strathcona Park terrain.

Mt. Harmston (1,980M/6,500FT) is listed among the Alpine Club's Island Qualifiers, Red Pillar (2,031M/6,665FT) is known for its stark profile and Mt. Argus (1,980M/6,500FT) offers a challenging scramble up an imposing ridge. The mountains' proximity to one another offers the ideal stage for a long-weekend peak bagging hat trick.

Heading up from Oshinow Lake
The "end of the road" comes after a nearly one-hour drive along the Ash River Mainline, accessed off Highway 4 west of Port Alberni. Plenty of people camped along the dusty logging road, hanging out in lawn chairs and watching the traffic go by but not a canoe in sight by the time we loaded our two boats and hit the water to cross Oshinow Lake.

Aside from the novelty of a multisport weekend, the canoe approach adds a spectacular transition to the backcountry. It's a gentle warm up for body and mind after the big drive out of the ordinary. There's a sharp contrast between the calm waters and the anticipation of getting the climb underway, whereas the way out offers some sweet relief to both soul and soles.

The trailhead is beyond the end of the lake, off to the right a short way up the Ash River, just before the river becomes unnavigable . The hike starts in spectacular old growth forest along the north side of the river until the trail takes a sharp right and climbs steadily to the ridge.

Our group of five got into a good rhythm, chatting and grunting our way up to the ridge, taking short breathers every 100 metres of elevation gain or so to regroup. An abundance of blueberries and huckleberries made the well cut trail even more enjoyable.

Things became more complicated just before the ridge as we broke through the treeline. The open terrain made it easier to keep heading up to the ridge, though a damp fog had moved in to seriously limit visibility. We'd initially sought to camp near a highpoint along the ridgeline called 1707M but were getting pretty hungry, tired and thirsty. We sought to drop the packs, though the hot and dry summer had obviously taken its toll along the ridge given that it took us a while to find a water source. We found some tenting room beside a snowfield that was stubbornly holding out against the August heat. We set up camp, cooked and ate dinner as the fog only occasionally offered glimpses of the surrounding terrain. We chatted and laughed, content to be in the mountains again, until retreating to our tents to await sunrise and the big day ahead.

See here for part two.

Along the ridge, towards Red Pillar