Sep 24, 2011 Till the last moment I waited for the good weather forecast for the weekend to make sure it would worth to make this trip. And the weather didn't disappoint.
We left Vancouver at 5:40 am and started this epic hike at 8:20 am. It was a late start for such a long hike but we were optimistic. The weather in the morning was better than we expected: clear sky, light clouds and warm air. In a good pace but without a rush in 2 hours we reached Helm creek meadows.
I decided to go for the ridge walking instead of a classical (and easier) glacier traveling. Ridge walking provides some extra up and down elevation over 4 - 6 bumps, one of which is called Fuscian peak but you don't need to worry about ropes, possible crevasses and putting on crampons for a glacier (though we were carrying crampons anyway).
We ascended on the Gentian ridge via moraine near the Helm peak but made a mistake and started traversing a slope before reaching the very top. Initially it seemed easier but then the slope became too steep to traverse and we finally got to the top of the ridge going up a steeper slope than it was initially. Ridge walking option provided excellent 360 degrees views of the area. While it was quite sunny and warm the first thing we noticed on the ridge is a rather strong wind. We had to put our jackets on and hid behind rocks right past Fuscian peak for a lunch break at 1 pm. I checked my GPS stats and it already showed 1500 m of cumulative elevation gain and 12 km distance, while we didn't even past the half mark of the difficult part of our journey.
After a short break, we continued along the ridge and descended a grassy slope inhabited by marmots to the Gentian pass. At the very bottom it was very warm and calm. At this point, the clouds gathered above us and we felt few drops of water coming from the sky. We started to worry that it might get quite wet. But, as in the real epic story, we get out of it dry while seeing the rain is pouring the Helm meadows just 300 meters away from us.
Though such stories cannot be without a difficulties... As we started ascending the Polemonium ridge the wind start to get so strong that blustering blows pushed us off balance and made the ascent seriously harder at the open spaces. At least it wasn't very cold wind so we were very warm going up.
At 3:15 pm we reached the top of the Polemonium ridge and started to look for the way to cross a large notch between the ridge and a Castle Towers slope. We found a cairn that suggested to go down the steep gully filled with loose rocks. That was the most unpleasant part of the hike. Each step needs to be very careful to prevent sliding down or dropping a stone on your buddy's head. In the middle of the descent I tried to shortcut by traversing the convenient looking ledge to avoid going too much down while others were waiting but ended up cliffed out, so I returned back and we descended to the very bottom of the gully.
After a short traverse around the tooth, we went scrambled back to the ridge (there are also cairns to help) and proceeded over the neverending boulder field till the very top. Snow hasn't melted yet on the slope so we initially decided to go around it but then cut through to save time. The top layer was soft enough to kick-step so we didn't use crampons but shallow. The slope is rather steep there to make a potential mistake very unpleasant if you fall. On the way back we didn't go through the snow because we didn't want to unpack crampons. At certain point I was glad I had a helmet on: trying to clumsily get over one rock I accidentally hit my head at the huge boulder that was laying upfront. Thus, I got only a reminder why I wear that stuff and had no other consequences. From the slope we saw a Meetup group on the summit of the Corey peak behind us whom we met on the parking lot at the beginning of a day.
At 5:05 pm we finally reached the West summit spending 8 hours 45 minutes to do that. I was making my usual summitting video but as soon as I left the protection of the rocks a violent gust of wind pushed me so hard that I lost balance and almost fell. I had to grip the summit rock to keep myself on my feet. I looked down to check a descent route into the notch between the West and true summits. I think, trying to go for true summit over a class 4 scramble in these conditions would have been a suicide even for scramblers who don't mind difficult scrambling. For my summit picture, I was holding the rock very firmly to make sure I'm not blown off the cliff. Irina refused to do the summit picture in such wind. The views were gorgeous even with cloudy skies. The only problem was to make pictures under a strong wind. I also checked GPS again for stats. It showed me already 3200 m cumulative elevation gain and 18 km distance. I knew it is going to be epic but it was way more than I expected. Getting a summit registry was quite a trick because I needed both hands to get it from the crack and keeping balance there was very hard. Fortunately the wind direction allowed us to hide behind the mountain and have a food break. Even though I wanted to eat my second sandwich didn't want to get in, so I forced myself to consume two energy bars to make sure I will be able to walk back normally. Sitting and not moving started to get a bit cold and it urged us to go back without resting for too long. Sorry all the mountaineers who've been there before and signed the registry for future generations, we didn't have time to read it... We started descending at 5:25 pm as soon as we finished eating.
We passed the steep gully with loose rocks right before the dark. That was the worst part of the hike. Strong winds raised the dust there and it was getting into our eyes. Sun glasses would have helped but it was already too dark for them. We rested a bit on the top of the Polemonium ridge and started to descend. We haven't reached the Gentian pass when it become very dark to see anything and we turned our headlamps on.
In the Gentian pass we refilled our water reserves from the creek. It wasn't glacial water but melted snow and, therefore, didn't taste good but at least it was filtered and safe to drink. Now it was a complete darkness and here we've got an unpleasant surprise. My GPS decided not to show the early morning section of our track on the screen (it was still saving it) because, apparently, it had not enough memory for the full track. I don't know who invented this feature but that person was an idiot... there was no warning of such behaviour. At least the map was working and we knew that we descended along the stream coming from the small snow patch somewhere above and, if we went along this stream, it would be roughly our route on the way down. So, we ascended to the saddle with the Helm glacier top without any problems. Then we shortcut a bit at the Gentian ridge avoiding going over one of the bumps.
The night scramble along the ridge was epic by itself. The strong winds prevented us from going any faster. We even were crawling at certain mildly exposed parts to avoid being blown off the ridge by the wind, especially when we were bagging the Fuscian peak for the second time. At the same time, stars in the sky were so bright that when we stopped for a snack behind one of the bumps we turned off the head lamps to enjoy the perfect moonless night sky. You could see million times more stars than in the city.
Closer to Helm peak we started to look for a descent from the ridge. We didn't know exactly where to look but just an approximate place based on topographic features on the GPS map. We did it almost perfect though had to do a little bit of traversing. A little bit of boulder hopping down the moraine and we were back on the Helm meadows. By the midnight we stepped on the wide trail going to the Helm creek parking lot. Our legs were already quite beaten up, I wasn't very tired and surprisingly even for me had no blisters but just from the pure stepping process I stomped my feet to the painful feeling when trying to step on it. We also immediately noticed that there were serious showers during the day because the trail was all muddy and wet. In comparison to our 2 hours ascent the descent took us 3 hour 20 minutes. The whole hike took us epic 19 hours. I looked at cumulative elevation stat and it was showing jaw dropping 4650 m over 38 km. Track cleanup later at home reduced the distance by 2 km and while I don't think we had that much of elevation gain due to inevitable measurement errors, I would suggest that we did around 4 km of elevation that day.
Driving home in a car added another adventure. First of all, I started to fall asleep while driving but that didn't happen partly because at Squamish we drove into the storm. The wind was so strong that I felt it in car behaviour on the road, the pouring rain was so heavy that I didn't see the road past a 1-2 meters in front of me. It was like constantly driving through the car washing facility. Broken tree branches we scattered along the highway that I was afraid that I might get my tires blown by them. That kicked some adrenalin in my blood stream and kept me awake till the caffeine boost in Squamish. At 6 am though everybody were safe and sound at home.
The hike was organized via Wanderung mailing list. And I want to thank all participants who agreed to join me on this megahike.
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