The sad truth about a great deal of summer alpine climbing is that it consists mainly of hiking long distances to not very good rockclimbs. Why would anyone want to do that?
A commonly held, and perhaps not entirely misguided view is that it appeals only to people who are not actually very good at climbing but still want to feel (or appear) bad-ass. Since that could easily describe me (although believe it or not there have been plenty of famous alpinists who have actually been worse technical climbers than me), I thought I’d present a short defense of hiking long distances to climb mungy 5.9 in the form of a trip report from a recent excursion to the Chehalis.
Having never climbed in the Chehalis was a black spot on my career as climber in Southwestern BC. Motivated by renewed access to Statlu Lake (details here) and some wonderful tales on a supertopo thread, I convinced Rich So that we ought to make an exploratory trip.
It’s not uncommon to encounter challenging off-road driving while trying to access obscure corners of the Coast Mountains. Unfortunately, in this case, the challenge was entirely self-inflicted. An electrical problem has disabled the headlights on my car and for some time now I’ve been either too busy, too poor, or too lazy to fix them (this resulted in an ever-worsening white-knuckle commute for my passengers when it was my turn to drive in to BC Place at 5:10am). The light was gradually fading as Rich and I drove out the Harrison West FSR and every time I passed someone driving a large truck like an old lady, I’d be almost immediately obstructed by someone else. Eventually, we turned onto the Chehalis-Mystery FSR and I hunched over the wheel and squinted into the gloom in effort to beat the darkness to the trailhead. In retrospect, it’s not too surprising that I eventually slammed into a rock at high speed. Thankfully, the dragging sound that resulted was from a part of the wheel-well that I’m fairly sure is strictly cosmetic. After remedying the situation, we continued more cautiously to the trailhead by the flashing glow of my hazard lights.
I had originally proposed a couple of unrealistically ambitious itineraries that Rich quite sensibly vetoed in favour of an itinerary that proved to be only slightly too ambitious. At dawn we left our trailhead bivi for the Viennese to Clarke Traverse. Rich had been doing an admirable job of sandbagging; claiming that he was completely out of shape and that he hadn’t been doing any climbing (see his blog for the truth). In fact, I was the one who was completely out of shape and I actually began to get a bit concerned as Rich started hammering up the trail to Upper Statlu Lake. Thankfully, once we began hopping up a washed-out creek-bed and doing a little unnecessary bushwacking, I was back in my element and we arrived at the ridge below Peak 6500 four and a half hours after leaving the car.
The ridge was an enjoyable scramble that became increasingly exposed until just below the summit of Vienesse Peak where we roped up for a pitch to the summit. The clouds that had been hugging the summits had yet to dissipate and rappelling off the West Ridge felt a bit ominous. Thankfully, after retrieving a hung up rope and then traversing across a somewhat loose and exposed ledge system, we were soon back in the realm of pleasant scrambling. This continued up and over the summit of Recourse and down to the base of Mt. Clarke. The East Ridge actually looked quite unpleasant as we approached it, but once we began climbing, the rock turned out to be quite solid and well endowed with cracks. We belayed a couple of pitches before taking off the rope and climbing along the ridge, over the east and west summits, and down the Northwest Ridge.
We had originally planned on climbing the North Ridge of Mt. Clarke the next day, but the view from the base of the Northwest Ridge was discouraging. The pocket glacier below the route was rather jumbled and there appeared to be an immense moat between the snow and the rock. Rich was not especially excited about the prospect of jumping crevasses in his approach shoes and even I had to agree that getting onto the rock was not exactly going to be a sure thing.
Abandoning our original plan, we continued along the high ridge that connects Mt. Clarke to Mt. Ratney. This turned out to be a pleasant stroll with only one surprise cliff that we negotiated by staying high on the ridge. Eventually, we found a nice camp spot below Mt. Ratney, having completed a rather circuitous approach to the North Face of Mt. Bardean.
The next morning at dawn, we cramponed across to the base of the Tuning Fork. The route begins up a low-angled and somewhat vegetated buttress which I had imagined we would ramble up in no time. In fact, the climb began less auspiciously than I had hoped. The crack I was climbing was a bit wider than our largest cam and to make matters worse, I ended up with the rope running through a small shrub which gave me some of the worst rope-drag I’ve experienced in a long time. Next, Rich led a full pitch through some vertical shrubbery that finally got us to some terrain where we felt comfortable simul-climbing.
When the buttress steepened again, the terrain was indistinct. We followed thin cracks and shallow corners aiming for a large corner a few pitches above that provides the only real landmark on this section of the face. It may have been the cold, or perhaps my lack of rock climbing fitness, but it sure felt like I climbed some runout 5.10 in this section. The large corner and the leftward traverse below the “roof” (actually just a steeper section of white rock) turned out to quite moderate, but above, the buttress again became vague with numerous thin and discontinuous cracks. Rich cruised up some runout pitches. At one point I arrived at his belay and was horrified to see that it consisted of a single blue TCU. For my part, I managed to give myself horrible rope-drag on nearly every pitch as I wandered around looking for the easiest climbing. The worst was to occur on the final pitch below the ridge, where steep but appealing corners all turned out to be slammed shut. I tried various options, eventually making a traverse that lacked gear but somehow still resulted in me having to pull up slack and hold it in my teeth every few moves in order to continue forging ahead. It was with a feeling of relief that we popped out into the sunshine near the summit of Bardean after nearly eight hours of climbing.
The stroll over to the summit of Mt. Ratney was very pleasant and we were pleased to have tagged all of the major peaks ringing the valley. However, in keeping with what seemed to be the theme of the day, the remainder of the descent turned out to be more time-consuming and difficult than we’d expected.
We made one rappel down the ridge, but discovered that the thought of “slabby downclimbing” where the guidebook suggested it was genuinely terrifying. Instead, we made a number of rappels, always having to add our own cord to the mess of sun-whitened old webbing at each anchor. When the ridge leveled out, we rappelled down what seemed like a logical spur dropping down towards our tent. In retrospect, we probably should have continued to the next spur along the ridge, as the spur that we chose required three rappels and a short pitch of belayed downclimbing when we couldn’t find a suitable rappel anchor (for a belay, Rich braced himself amongst some shrubbery – a classic “coastal” situation). We arrived back at our camp with daylight to spare, but feeling as though the day had dragged out longer than we had expected. It didn’t take long for us to come up with some excuses not to climb a harder route the next day: we’d left too many of our slings on the descent and we didn’t have any pitons (which actually seem like they’d be a really good idea on harder Chehalis routes).
The next morning we dashed under the active part of the glacier and a down a couloir that led to the valley bottom. There we experienced a brief sampling of coastal backcountry travel: slide alder, boulder hopping, dense blueberry bushes, creek wading, and even a bear encounter thrown in for good measure. Thankfully, before we could get too frustrated, we reached Statlu Lake and the trail leading back to the car.
Looking over what I’ve just written, I realize that I haven’t done a very good job of defending the joys of alpine rock climbing. But perhaps that’s for the best. We were the only climbers in the Chehalis over the Labour Day long weekend, a situation that suited us perfectly. As long as people continue to think that alpine climbing is simply glorified hiking for people who lack the requisite talent for real climbing, middling alpinists like Rich and myself will be able to enjoy our remote and vegetated 5.9s in solitude.