Arcteryx Satoro AR base layers review

I have had a set of Satoro AR base layers (zip neck shirt and bottoms) by Arc’teryx since October 2016 and have been testing them out this winter season on the ski hill and in the backcountry.

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The Satoro flaunts the use of Arc’teryx’s advanced fabric technology – Nucliex™ which wraps Merino wool around a nylon core.

 

 

For anyone who’s been living in the dark ages as far as outdoor apparel and technology is concerned, here is a quick lowdown on Merino wool; it comes from a really tough breed of sheep that live in extreme alpine conditions so not only does it have the insulative properties of normal wool but it is much more bad-ass at dealing with extreme conditions-meaning it’s breathable in summer too. Not only that but it is soft and lightweight AND very good at absorbing odours, which has been a real beat down on its synthetic competitors. Wool in general has seen a real revival in the outdoor industry especially for base layers and light weight pieces. People swear by their wool garments over synthetic for many outdoor pursuits these days. However its generally agreed that the one big flaw of wool is its durability. When Arc’teryx developed their Nucliex fabric it was with this flaw in mind. Utilizing Nylon gives the fabric a durable core which Arc’teryx say makes it  20% stronger in burst strength test and 50% more abrasion resistant.

Now before we go much further with this review I have to confess that I am not much of a strong advocate either way on the whole wool vs synthetic divide – I know its supposed to be a Marmite type of argument (you either love it or you hate it) but its just not like that for me. I have owned garments from both categories that I have really liked and disliked for their respective pro’s and cons. Synthetics were always a durable and economic choice but they would almost always start to smell bad after a while, merino wool pieces I’ve owned were always a nice feel, breathed well and were warm, they didn’t have the same smell problem as synthetics but were typically more expensive and way less durable.

If Arc’teryx really have solved the durability  issues with wool though the Satoro could be the first apparel line to give me reason to have a stronger bias towards it.

FIT:

In more recent years I think Arc’teryx have changed their women’s fit a little and I have to say that 90% of products seem to fit me really well. I’m typically a medium in Arcteryx stuff – top and bottom, the Satoro base layers do not stray from my typical. The top feels really great, it cuts down low enough at the bum to not feel like it would ride up with an overhead reach, yet it is slim fitting and figure hugging enough to feel like a true snug fit base layer. The sleeves also feel the right length for me and the arm seams are cut into the armpits at just the right place. I used to find – with Arcteryx shells at least – that the jackets would come up too high on my waist and back and this short fit was exaggerated with the arm-pits and sleeves being ill-fitting so that when I would reach over head it would ride up further. Thankfully, they seem to now base their clothing patterns on a person just my size – lucky for me!

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The bottoms seem to fit great when I first put them on, they are long enough (I am 5’7″ and my inseam is 31″) and they don’t sit too low at the back or front either – in fact they come high enough that you feel you can comfortably tuck the top into them which I personally really enjoy on a blustery winter day – no gaps of exposed skin please! The same as the top the bottoms have just the right amount of a ‘hugging’ fit so that you feel they are a true base layer and sit right next to the skin but are not too tight. For my body shape I find this is not always as easy as it sounds. Having an athletic start by playing soccer for 15 years I have pretty meaty quads – disproportionate to my waist, so I often find pants to be either too tight in the legs or too baggy in the waist. Perhaps this good fit can be attributed to the Elastane Arcteryx use in this fabric.

pants

One thing I found when I actually started moving in the bottoms though, mostly within the first 1km of the skin track is that somehow the waistband of the bottoms rides down in the back and does end up leaving me with that unwanted cold gap of skin – which is disappointing and also surprising given how well they seem to fit when I put them on at home in the morning. This is particularly annoying skiing as I wear the Arcteryx Theta SV bib shell pants and digging out my long-johns to pull them up is not a task that you can do subtly or even very effectively on the hill!

FEEL:

Apart from the pants riding down which is pretty annoying the overall good fit means the base layers feel really comfortable to wear. I took them both on a 4 day back-country ski trip and I felt just as happy sitting around the lodge in the evening drinking a beer in the nice merino top as I did wearing them both as technical pieces out on the mountain. The merino wool feels really nice and soft and the Elastane helps to move with your body.

DETAILS:

Neck zipper:_I don’t own many base layers with a zip neck collar, typically I prefer the simpler the better, but in this case I like the half zip and collar on the Satoro. Its not noticeable at all when its up (i.e. the zipper doesn’t catch my skin or anything) and the extra material on the neck makes it a little warmer for playing out in winter but allows effective cooling when you get too hot.

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Neck zipper on Satoro base layer top.

 

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Zipper pulled open for more ventilation

Arm pocket:_Again usually I wouldn’t be sold on something like this and I haven’t yet had much reason to use it, I guess I haven’t worn it as the outermost layer yet so it doesn’t make it so handy to get to. Perhaps when it comes around to climbing season and I can wear it in the mountains or on a multi-pitch it would be handy for keeping my car key or a chap-stick in, but the main thing is that the pocket isn’t annoying and doesn’t add any bulk. On a totally aesthetic level I really like the excuse it gives to highlight the accent color!

 

Arm pocket

 

Seams:_Arc’teryx uses what they call a ‘Merrow’ stitch which keeps the seams smaller and narrower. This is something I wouldn’t have noticed until it was pointed out to me, but the fact that I don’t notice these things means they are not catching my attention in a bad way, they are not scratchy or annoying which is a real testament to Arc’teryx’s time honored attention to detail. Even just looking at the stitching it looks like a quality product.

seams

 

Logos:_I really appreciate when a product has the company logo placed in a position where it has been well thought out. For some reason I really like the use of the subtle logo on the back of the pants on the waistband, its considerate and although a small, purely aesthetic detail, it exudes quality to me.

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SMELL:

I have only worn a few wool items before and one was a sleeveless ice breaker vest which I wore all the time in hot conditions climbing and approaching long alpine climbs in the height of summer. I was really impressed by the lack of smell even when I wore it multiple days in a row on trips. The same can be said with a wool t-shirt I bought a few years ago. I always thought the whole odorless wool thing was a bit of a myth or an exaggeration, but I was pleased to find otherwise. However, unfortunately I can’t quite say the same for the Satoro shirt. Even after a day of sweating it out on the skin track on a ski trip I could detect a subtle odor and I wouldn’t say I consider myself a heavy sweater or anything typically. Don’t get me wrong it didn’t reek or anything and it was probably only a smell I could personally detect but I was surprised after my previous experiences with Merino wool garments that there was anything at all. After four days in the backcountry there was definitely a detectable smell but admittedly not nearly as bad as I would have expected from a synthetic piece.

COLOUR:

Arc’teryx have done well here and there is actually quite a good choice for  what I would expect from base layers. I wouldn’t have been at all surprised or particularly upset if it was just black and black. I mean, usually I’m the one advocating for women’s colors to be bright and bold not wishy-washy pastels and baby pink, but these are base layers. The fact that there is any choice at all is good and although the colors for women are black, blues and pinks, the hues are not those that say ‘I’m just here to look cute’ they say ‘I mean business’. I like the dusky maroon for the top that I have especially with the accented brighter zip and laminated pocket and the blue hues (navy and turquoise) are nice if you prefer a more subtle color. I would always vote brighter though and would be thrilled to start seeing more oranges, yellows and greens in Arcteryx’s women’s lines.

Ripping skins at the summit of Mt Mulligan after hours of skinning in the sun.

Ripping skins at the summit of Mt Mulligan after hours of skinning in the sun.

CONS:

There really isn’t too many. I already mentioned that it is annoying that the bottoms seem to ride down but another small thing that irks me is that although the bottoms are described as ‘midweight’ base layers, they seem to be much more thin and more see-through that the upper body counter part, this is not a huge deal, but it would be nice to be lounging around the lodge or throwing on a big sweater and stripping off your shell layer on the way to the pub for apres and not feel like you are baring more than you should to the world – small thing I know!

SUMMARY:

In summary I am really happy with the Satoro base layers and there is definitely some considered details gone into the design and the manufacture of the products but I can’t say that I have discovered anything about them yet that decidedly sets them apart from any other base layers that I have owned.

I own a very similar pair of wool bottoms by Patagonia that I really like and the only difference so far is that the Patagonia bottoms fit me a touch better (they don’t ride down) and after three years of owning them they are beginning to fall apart with lots of holes and many areas looking very threadbare and thin. I also own an MEC synthetic long sleeved shirt, it fits well and it very comfortable, it does smell pretty bad after a couple of days on the go though and doesn’t have any of the nice features the Satoro has like the zipper and pocket.

I think it is a little too early to tell if the Satoro has something special because for me the selling point would be if the top and bottom are holding up in 2 years time after a bunch of abuse from a few climbing seasons being abraded against rock and pushed and pulled around as well as serving as temperature control through more ski seasons. I would like to find out how the odor control changes over the years and months, if it gets significantly worse then that won’t be great. But they don’t start falling apart in a few years time like the Patagonia bottoms (which to be honest lasted longer than I thought being wool) then I think the Satoro will go up hugely in my estimation.

Bouldering in Leavenworth in late October

Bouldering in Leavenworth in late October

Perhaps the current unremarkable opinion I have of the Satoro peices currently actually points to the fact that they are utterly nailing their jobs as base layers; excellence through understated simplicity and comfort that doesn’t bring things to my attention because base layer don’t need to be all singing all dancing with gimmicky features? I could totally buy this theory I proposed to myself.

If the way I feel about the Satoro now was compounded with some serious durability that contended with that of a thin synthetic as well as the fact that they smell better, then I would say they had something that would make me spend $170 and $140 respectively on them. Otherwise it would be hard to justify. I will update this and let you know how that durability goes a little way down the line.

Cloudburst Mountain from Chance Creek FSR

Saturday January 28th Beth and I set off from Vancouver at 6.30am to go try get ourselves a summit and some nice views. The forecast was for warm and sunny without any new snow in the week preceding. Freezing level was at around 1650m, only 200m below our intended summit and Avalanche Canada was showing green with a yellow in the alpine.

Both of us had wanted to head up Cloudburst for a while and having considered the conditions in depth we decided this was a suitable objective given the day, it was likely to be a clear vis’ day and we weren’t going to have FOMO of powder laps elsewhere in the Sea-to Sky corridor.

We arrived at the trail head a little before 8.30am after coffee and gas pit-stops. Matey was out of commission (Beth’s 4WD Toyota Matrix) so we decided on approaching from the East and the Chance Creek FSR as it seemed the likely-hood of getting up the road from Squamish Valley would be very slim in my non-winterized van.

Overview of Route

The Chance Creek Forest Service Road is 32km North of Squamish on the Highway. The pullout isn’t well signed from the highway so watch your odometer. As you turn in you see a BC provincial sign labeling it as Chance Creek so you know you’re in the right place. The main parking lot is just 1.6km up this road at the cat-ski operation but I was still a little nervous how that would go in my van. Turns out it was totally fine and no one was getting in any further  on the steep logging road beyond anyway,  even in their trucks, so we parked up and prepared to put the skins on.

There were a lot of people in the parking lot – skiers and snowshoers but thankfully at the first junction, just more than a kilometer up the road they all turned off to head North toward Mt Brew. We skinned in along this road in blissful solitude until the road ended around 5.3km.

Skinning in on the initial road that continues 5km beyond the parking lot.

Skinning in on the initial road that continues 5km beyond the parking lot.

The terrain on Cloudburst is quite complex and there are many ways to approach and gain the summit, with cliff bands, exposed ridge lines and various steep bowls. This not only makes it navigationally complex but also the complicated micro-terrain makes managing avalanche hazards tricky. We had read a few trip reports and figured we would try to follow the route outlined in the trail peaks page, as it seemed to pick its way through the least hazardous terrain and although not the most direct route, it seemed to make sense for us given the high winds forecast for the day too.

As we left the main road we continued traversing to the West on a narrower road for a short while whilst gaining elevation gently (under 1km). After this there was a skin track put in and soon we noticed a large party of 5 or 6 just ahead of us. As we turned more due South-West and gained some more elevation we put in a few steep and annoying kick turns made worse by the sugary sloughing snow constantly sliding out from under us. The party ahead of us – seemingly a family – continued in this manner, gaining elevation rapidly with short kick turns through steep trees. Consulting the map Beth and I decided we could avoid that nastiness by staying on a South west bearing and gaining elevation more gently through less densely gladed slopes.

Beth enjoying the views as we skin up the smaller Cat roads

We headed back into the trees due south after this (at around 900m) to put in some more steep switchbacks as we got sick of contouring. We continued on a South-ward bearing as best we could, deviating to avoid the steepest terrain where necessary. A cliff band stopped us from progressing too directly at around 1200m and we skinned west again to avoid it, breaking trail all the while.

Facets forming? The surface snow was perplexing for the temperatures but the large structures were like ball bearings or the next layer.

Facets forming? The surface snow was perplexing for the temperatures but the large structures were like ball bearings for the next layer.

Eventually we popped out of the trees into the sub-alpine, the sun was out and the views were pretty stunning. We had somehow been skinning for almost 4 hours. It felt warm in the sun but the added wind worked to undo any of the temperature increase. Taking shelter in a huddle of trees we threw down some food before continuing, we were both eager to keep moving as we knew we were quickly running out of time but we really needed to take on board some fuel otherwise we were certain to crash.

Eventually some views again as we reach the Alpine

Eventually some views again as we reach the Alpine

We carried on up through an open gully where the snow was really wind effected and began to feel a little touchy and to start to slough. Something didn’t feel quite right. We pushed on beyond our lunch spot for another 20 mins or so and could now see the ridge we needed to gain with our summit in view – finally! We both knew that it was too close to our agreed turn around time to make the summit at this point though, reluctant to give up we pushed on a little further anyway.

Gaining the apex of a small rollover I saw a crack shoot out from under my ski and suddenly the whole thing propagated and slid. Thankfully I was only uphill of a huge flat bench by a couple of metres and the consequence was nothing more than an even more heightened awareness for the touchy snow conditions.

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Beth checking out the area I had triggered while skinning up the corner of the roll over

Given our time constraints, the high winds we could see happening on the ridge ahead of us and the touchy nature of the wind affected slopes not to mention the low potential for getting to any better skiing if we ventured higher, we decided to turn back.

Checking out the view of the summit we didn't have time to tag.

Checking out the view of the summit we didn’t have time to tag.

There had been some nice looking snow through the trees on the upper parts of our skin track that we had intentionally stayed off of on the way up in anticipation of our ski down. We ripped our skins at the edge of the bench and initially headed skiers right into a small bowl which had some nice turns if a little short and wind affected in places.

After this we headed back west to enjoy some nice mellow turns through the trees in some pockets of powder close to our skin track. Unfortunately this was a little too short lived and as we reached a cut block lower down the slope with some nice looking pillows the snow started to get crappier and heavier. We still had a fun time weaving in some turns though.

Headed into the trees for some mellow and fun slopes

Headed into the trees for some mellow and fun slopes

In almost no time at all we had hit the road again. We skinned on the cat track for a while before reaching the main road and ripping our skins once again. I snowplowed almost all of the 5km back to the car as thin and variable snow made it really dicey to make turns and the continued steepness also made it feel too sketch to really open up – especially with all the little bumps and dips.

Beth leading the way home along the cat track with views of the Black Tusk

Beth leading the way home along the cat track with views of the Black Tusk

The days skiing had disappointingly felt all too similar to my last weekends outing on Metal Dome where we’d come close to summit yet not close enough to pull it off and had some fun turns  whilst retreating. It was a satisfying and fun day out nonetheless and I can only hope that all this ground work will add up to successful summits sometime in the near future.

Thanks to Beth for a great adventure as always!

 

Metal Dome from the North

On Sunday 22nd January there had been a storm that passed through the few days leading up and the Avalanche Canada report was showing as Considerable for the Sea to Sky area. Kate and I were looking for some tree skiing or mellow slopes to hit up given the current snowpack. She’d recently been to Gin Peak and we weren’t keen on driving as far as the Duffey given the decent base further South, we’d both spent an early season day on Metal Dome back in late November but we’d approached from the South since the road was clearer and in high winds and heavy snow we’d fallen short of the summit but found some fun terrain to ski. We decided to explore Metal Dome but approaching from the North to see what we could find in the trees and perhaps some lower angled slopes in the alpine.

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Overview of our route approaching from Highway 99 (to the East) and skinning the North Slopes

 

Detail of the route map

Detail of the route map

Alex decided the conditions were passable to his tastes and we were fortunate to have him along for company too. We drove their Subaru to the trail head which is a turn left off Highway 99 approximately 44km beyond Squamish heading North toward Whistler. The Road is the Callaghan Valley Road and you will follow this another 6km until a turn on the left takes you up 100m or thereabouts to a parking place with an FSR road forking off to the right (this is where you skin from) If you round the corner and spot the dog facility you’ve gone too far.

We left the car around 8.30/8.45am and started skinning up the road which gains elevation gently for about 4km with great views out on a clear day to Blackcomb, Rainbow and Wedge.

Views out to Blackcomb from the Road we skinned in on.

Views out to Black-tusk from the Road we skinned in on.

Once we got to the end of the road we cut up into the trees but continued contouring a long and gradually gaining traverse. There was one party of two behind us who cut up much earlier than us on a steep skin track that gained elevation quickly. From the maps we had we were confident in our way finding and carried on breaking trail on our  traverse North West. We crossed the creek around 960m and continued on in the same direction until 1100m approx. Here we cut back and tried to gain more elevation quickly.

Kate testing the snow coverage of the creek before crossing

Kate testing the snow coverage of the creek before crossing

We had been breaking trail for a long time when we eventually popped out into the Alpine around 1.30pm – slightly frustrated at how long it seemed to take us and how far away the summit of metal dome still looked to be.

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The route I assume we would take to gain the summit. traversing into a bowl beyond the shoulder in the horizonline and into the gulley to go around the back of the peak

We had given ourselves a turn-around time of 3pm so still had some time to continue on but knowing we wouldn’t make it to the summit  in the time left and not seeing any desirable or indeed safe terrain worth pushing on for, we traversed over to a small shoulder above some trees to transition.

As we contoured over to our ripping spot we saw what we thought were other skin tracks over to our East which was surprising as we hadn’t seen anybody all day since the two guys who left us for a steep skin track not long into the trees.

As we mosied on over Alex shouted ‘Wolverine!’ and we all stopped dead in our tracks. I was disappointed not to spot the magical beast but Alex was adamant it had popped behind some trees less that a 100ft in front of us. We paused for a few seconds trying to spot it again until we realised that wasn’t the greatest idea and we carried on our way with a bit more haste in our steps.

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Wolverine track!

It wasn’t until we got closer to what we thought were the skin tracks right in front of us that we realised they were actually one singular track about the width of a snowboarders down-track – similar to the width of a Wolverine dragging its hind legs and bushy tail through deep powdery snow!!

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Alex enjoying a powdery run through nicely spaced trees

Alex enjoying a powdery run through nicely spaced trees

We ripped our skins and headed for the trees. The reward for all our patience was some really awesome light and deep snow in amongst some nicely spaced trees. It was a good long run through the trees that planted us right at the start of the road but we all agreed that it would have been nice to get a couple of laps in like that.

I kept my skins on for the road back out as there was mixed ascents and descents and I couldn’t be bothered with all the extra energy that shuffling and skating would cost me. Kate and Alex went in ski mode and whilst they were a little slower than me on the ups they beat me to the car by a few minutes. Kate said it was kinda sketchy and I was happy with my method.

We avoided the Whistler traffic by stopping off in Squamish for a beer and a burger at the Copper Coil which is becoming a bit of a regular hit for post ski adventures.

With hindsight we realised we probably contoured for much longer than we needed to and could have taken a much more direct route to at least the point where we transitioned so that tree laps would have been possible. It was a fun adventure non the less and nice to know there is the option of some great tree skiing here for another day when Avalanche chances are higher than would allow for other alpine objectives.

I’d also like to come back for the summit at some point, perhaps with a quicker/more direct up-track and longer daylight hours though!

Thanks Kate and Alex for a great day! can’t wait for the next.

(To see a fancy 3-D video that my watch produced from our GPS track click here)

 

Cirque of the unclimbables

Lotus Flower Tower and the Cirque of the Unclimbables TR

Sometimes climbing is like Art. And before you groan and stop reading I bet my comparison is not what you think, so bear with me for a paragraph or two. There are some routes that are like  photo-realistic paintings, that require high levels of skill to accomplish and this is instantly obvious to the creator and the voyeur and this is the appeal of them. On the other hand there are others that, by modern day standards at least, are not so impressive in their grade and don’t instantly project the high level of skill required to create them – maybe like some examples of modern abstract Art (depending on your thoughts and depth of understanding of Art of course). We used to visit galleries as kids a lot as my Dad was an artist but it took me a long time to appreciate the subtleties of some forms of Art that I now really enjoy – my eight year old self often lamenting at the likes of a Rothko or Jackson Pollock painting ‘I don’t get it, anyone can paint a square, this is not Art’ and my Dad’s reply would always be ‘..but you didn’t though did you, that’s the whole point’. I never really understood what he meant and to be honest I’m not totally sure I do now but if I go back to my comparison of Art to climbing I think I can apply this to the types of climbing I’m sometimes drawn to.

Abstract art by Jackson Pollock - Art?

Abstract art by Jackson Pollock – Art?

For me the Lotus Tower had always looked to be an exceptionally cool challenge. A big tower of rock in a remote part of Northern Canada that was only accessible either by boat or float plane. The grade of the climb is rather modest and the length of the route not too ridiculous either, making it theoretically accessible to most ‘average’ climbers. The logistics of the Lotus flower tower are however not so easy. With a 3 hour drive from the largest town in the Yukon to arrive at a flight post where you either helicopter right into base camp or float plane into the nearest accessible body of water before embarking on a 4 hour hike with all your kit, even getting into the cirque of mountains where the Lotus Flower Tower sits is complicated, before you even begin delving into the issues with the weather, the camping logistics and the strategy for the climb itself. For me, the shear beauty of the route itself combined with the sense of adventure that all these logistics add up to is what is so alluring about an undertaking such as the Lotus flower tower. The seemingly pedestrian grade of the crux pitch of nineteen goes at anywhere between 10c and 11a depending on who you ask, so it does not require the upmost in skill like some routes, or indeed paintings, but is alluring in its bold aesthetic – a steep and clean tapering tower with endless crack systems that is also dotted with chicken head features unusual to granite. Much like the Rothko paintings of this comparison and how my Dad understands them to be art, to be stood on top of the Lotus Flower Tower would not take unpresidented climbing ability – ‘anybody could do it’, but it did require the effort to go and do it, to figure all the logistics, wait out the bad weather and go get that magical beast.

Paul knew I had an interest in the Lotus Flower Tower and when he mentioned about us going to do it in the summer of 2016 I nearly bit his hand off, he was definitely the ideal partner to pull this kind of mission off and I knew this was an offer I couldn’t afford to decline.

We spent the winter and spring formulating a plan and when we realised how expensive the float plane alone would be (sure a helicopter ride right to base camp would be nice but even as working professionals the cost was out of our ballpark) we were on the look out for another unsuspecting pair of enthusiastic climbers to join us on the trip and split the fare. Luckily it didn’t take much to convince our Squamish climbing friends Ross and Travis to get on board with our plans.

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Logistics of getting to the Cirque

Saturday

After much long term preparation that, as is now all too familiar, only seemed to come together in a frantic last few days before the trip, we piled all our kit into Paul’s van and hit the road at 5am on a mid July Saturday morning. Our strategy was, as there were 4 of us on rotation, to drive non-stop to Finlayson lake, the out-post where Kluane airways would pick us up in the Beaver float plane. Finlayson Lake is 3 hours of driving on an exciting dirt road highway North of Watson Lake (2340km from Vancouver). Having never been further North in BC than Lillooet I was excited even by the drive which in itself would be an epic undertaking with our schedule of rotation and lack of any real sleep.

Sunday

Twenty six hours later, two live Wolverine, one dead Wolverine and hundreds of Bison, we arrived in the bizarre town of Watson Lake at 7am on Sunday morning. I say bizarre because although I’m no stranger to the quirkiness of small remote towns in the UK, small remote towns in North America are a totally different kettle of fish however. Watson like was essentially a highway with a gas station, a grocery store, a few pubs, motels, a half decent breakfast joint and the sign post forest. The sign post forest is something my friend had mentioned before and it literally exists of thousands of retired registration plates, road signs off all types of nature and basically anything that people can think of pinning to the wood posts to leave their mark on the town. Since we were in plenty of time to make an evening flight out of Finlayson Lake we grabbed a hearty breakfast at Wendy’s and checked out the forest.

Bison hanging about in the middle of the road as seemed typical in parts of the Yukon

Bison hanging about in the middle of the road as seemed pretty typical in these parts.

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The sign post forest in Watson Lake

We called Warren, the man behind Kluane, to arrange our flight time before we hit the road again and lost contact with the real world due to lack of cell reception.

Robert Campbell 'highway' - 3 hours of dirt road driving North of Watson lake

Robert Campbell ‘highway’ – 3 hours of dirt road driving North of Watson lake to get to Finlayson Lake at the float plane pick up point.

Our flight was scheduled for 4pm and upon arriving in the parking lot at Finlayson we saw a few others cars parked from parties who were probably already in the Cirque. We had a couple of hours to spare and the sun was shining so we embarked on some last minute re-packing, final panicking about how much over or under we were with our estimations on food rations and then finally ventured inside the hut that was there to catch some much needed zz’s after our taxing journey. No one seemed to care much about the damp mustly smell of  the bed linen, we were all just so happy to be in a prone position after hours of trying steal some shut eye flopping around in car seats.

The out-post at Finlayson Lake where we did a last minute pack up of our stuff and left the van

The out-post at Finlayson Lake where we did a last minute pack up of our stuff and left the van

Veging out in the cabin at the lake - it has a stove and a sink and other facilities as well as some smally old beds - but we weren't complaining!

Veging out in the cabin at the lake – it has a stove and a sink and other facilities as well as some smelly old beds – but we weren’t complaining!

When the float plane came we piled our luggage (which mostly consisted of a pack each to carry into the cirque and an extra pack/duffel each that we would leave at the tan shed at Glacier lake with extra food supplies, dry clean clothes as emergency back ups or for luxury when returning to Inconnu Lodge on the way out and beer) into the back of the plane. We had all weighed our packs with Paulie’s luggage hanger right before the plane landed and each pack weighed  between 60 and 70 pounds and our spare duffels were each around the same so we were under the allowable weight restrictions of the plane.

The Beaver coming into land at Finlayson lake for our pick up.

The Beaver coming in to land at Finlayson Lake for our pick up.

beaver plane cirque

Getting ready to load the plane at Finlayson Lake

Travis took the front seat and Paul, Ross and I piled into the back. Even though float plane rides are fairly common around Vancouver and neighboring islands, I had never been in anything smaller than a boeing 747 before let alone a float plane into the mountains so I was pretty damn excited. We wore ear defenders as the plane was pretty loud and mostly sat silently for the hour duration on the flight enjoying the magnificent views and occasionally pointing and nudging each other when something particularly cool came into view, like when Warren circled around the cirque before dropping to Glacier lake.

Views from the float plane

Views from the float plane

It was hot and sunny when we arrived at Glacier lake and we were greeted by half a dozen Kayakers sat out enjoying the sun and a beer at the shore side. After some last minute bag faffing we left our extra supplies in the tan shed and prepped for our long hike in.

The hike heads North West adjacent to the water on a brutally flat trail for about an hour before gaining any kind of elevation. Without a pack on you could romp this section but with a heavy load the time passing without any elevation gain seemed like a soul destroying robbery. After a few swampy trudges, a log crossing, a near miss with a porcupine and many ungainly hops over fallen trees across the sometimes worn out trail we made it to the start of the steep terrain. And by steep I mean – holeeey! The switch backs were on good solid ground but the elevation quickly made up for all that flat and with our big bags it made for a real test of quad strength.

A quick snack break at the turning point where the flat trail hit the steep steep switch backs

A quick snack break at the turning point where the flat trail hit the steep steep switch backs

My shoulders felt weak and the only thing that kept me going was that it was just as painful and tiring to stop with the big load on as it was to keep burning the legs and keep plodding on.
After about another hour passed we made it to the section of the trail that pops out of the forest into the open boulder field.  Looking back down at the scree-fall I was super grateful that the new, switch-backy forest trail had been put in so we didn’t have to do as those before us did and slog up the loose scree which looked like it would be a real ass kicker not to mention dangerous with all the rock fall coming off Mt Harrison Smith.

Hike in map from Glacier lake to fairy meadows base camp in the Cirque

Hike in map from Glacier lake to fairy meadows base camp in the Cirque

The rest of the trail continued to be a slog and on slightly less solid terrain as we picked our way through the boulder field but the path was still pretty great and easy to follow. As snippets of rock towers and bigger boulders came into view I knew we were getting close and finally I spotted the infamous ‘Penguin’ feature and was relieved to be in the base camp. I dropped my pack off under a boulder as it had started to rain and took shelter as I waited for the boys. My pack was the lightest so I was a little faster but they were only 10 mins or so behind.
We then set about finding camp quickly as rain seemed imminent. With all the primo boulders taken by parties already in the Cirque ahead of us, this was easier said than done. It was getting late and we were all pretty wiped from our travelling and hiking so we resolved to pitch the tents in an open flat spot for the time being and figure something better out for the long term in the morning.

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First night location of pitched tents in the Fairy meadows camp

There had been vague talk of going to do a siege on the LFT the very next day as the weather looked like it might be OK but I was dreading this as I felt way too tired and under prepared for the required early start so was glad to hear that everybody was on the same page later that it wasn’t a good idea.

Monday

Thankfully the next day’s shitty weather ratified our decision not to climb. We slept in until around 10am when we’re woken by the sounds of Ross chasing after a marmot that was taking off with his trekking pole!! It was pretty funny!

These beefy little guys were a real nusance and would eat anything!

These beefy little guys were a real nuisance and would eat anything!

We spent the day searching for a good camp spot, the extent of the base camp is actually quite big with a few varied options for setting up a temporary home. Nevertheless it was still quite hard to find a boulder left over that was big and flat enough for us to fit two 2-person tents under and still have enough room to cook under. In the end we settled on a variation where Paul and I had our tent under half of our chosen boulder with enough room to hang out and cook for all four of us under shelter of the rock. Travis and Ross put their tent up a few meters from our boulder, taking exposure to the elements as the cost of finding a flat spot. We even found a good place to rig a washing line and spent the afternoon nesting and setting up.

Our new little home - mine and Paul's tent was sheltered and we had enough room to cook and even hang some clothes to dry!

Our new little home – mine and Paul’s tent was sheltered and we had enough room to cook and even hang some clothes to dry!

Tuesday

The next day Paul and I decided we were going to dive right in and go and attempt the Lotus Flower Tower. Travis and Paul were skeptical about the conditions but couldn’t not meet our psyche levels and decided they were game too. We decide they would be the faster party on the rock so we figured we’d stay in bed for an extra 30mins upon hearing their planned departure time – to give them chance to get ahead.

When we woke up there were no signs that the guys had already been awake but Paul and I hiked in in a soggy mist anyway, assuming they must have just been up and at ’em quickly and efficiently. The LFT was socked in for the duration of the approach and started raining a little as we hit the base of the route. Reluctantly we decided to pull the plug before we racked up as we’d experienced how cold and miserable and ultimately ineffective trying to quickly climb big routes in those conditions could be.

Paul and I eating dehydrated meals and wasting time in camp

Paul and I eating dehydrated meals and wasting time in camp

We retreated and got back in our tent once we hit base camp. Awaking again around 8.30am and chatting to the guys to find out they didn’t even bother to get out of the tent when they peeked out and saw the weather. In hindsight they were smarter but Paul and I decided our aborted mission still had some benefits as we now knew where to go on the approach. Paul and I spent the rest of the day dicking about in camp, drinking beer and chatting. The boys went for a hike to the Mount Proboscis side of the valley. The sun came out for a little while in the late morning/early afternoon but the heavens opened later that afternoon.

Wednesday

Things were pretty wet when we awoke the next day although it wasn’t actually raining. We decided we’d all go and do a scramble on Mount Sir James McBain for something to do – thinking of it as a cruisy few hours out to play in the mountains. Seven and a half hours after setting out we returned to camp wet to the bones after an arduous summit, encountering route fining difficulties, dangerously loose rock at times, abseils, sketchy exposed traverses and even some gnarly hailstorms. We were all stoked to have had an adventure despite the lack of climbing and went to bed satiated and happy.

4x6-cirque-scramble-blizzard Mt sir James McBain

Descending in a hail storm after sumitting Mt SJMcB

Mt Sir James McBain

A more sketchy section of the scramble ascent on Mt Sir James McBain

Thursday

Although we had enough supplies to see us through until the end of Friday, it looked like their might be a break in the weather coming so we opted to head down and hit the tan shed at Glacier lake to resupply our stocks. We had a leisurely breakfast and after attempting to dry our kit from the day before when the sun came out (around 10am) we started hiking out with virtually empty packs. The weather was hot and sunny for a few hours from late morning into the mid afternoon and with some coffee in my system and music for the hiking I was feeling stoked and psyched that Friday could be the day we would send the LFT.

East Huey cirque of the unclimbables

A rare moment of sunshine where we try to dry stuff out in camp – East Huey Spire in the background.

When we were returning from our resupply we ran into the group from Alberta (who were previously inhabiting one of the two big boulders) hiking out to leave – unfortunately they hadn’t got to send the LFT during their trip despite a few washed out attempts. I pondered how bad that would suck but they were keeping up a good rouse of positivity. When we got back to camp after hiking back up with our packs filled again we were greeted with rain, shock horror! We prepped for an alpine start regardless.

Friday

Jaded by our previous experiences, this time when we awoke at 3.30am and peeked out of the tent to see grey and moody skies and wet drizzle we zipped up the tent and went back to sleep.

We decided to use the rest of the day to move our camp, now that a more luxurious abode was vacant and since it didn’t look like we could spend the day doing much else. The move killed a few hours and whilst we were stoked to have more spacious quarters to hang out in, it was a small consolation to going climbing. In the afternoon the boredom had returned and morale seemed generally a bit low . We found a short window of passable weather and I belayed Paul on the penguin for a bit before it chucked it down again.

Our camp under the bigger boulder

Camp number II under the big boulder

Belaying Paul on the Penguin in camp.

Belaying Paul on the Penguin in camp.

A guy from the other party occupying the other big camp came over to chat to us – they had an In-Reach device which they were able to get weather updates on and he told us that the weather was looking pretty shitty through til Sunday – but that there might be a chance to go for the LFT after that on the Monday. Feeling bummed out and a bit stir crazy we opted for a game of scrabble before turning in around 9pm.

Scrabble in camp - one of the many games we had to pass the time.

Scrabble in camp – one of the many games we had to pass the time.

Saturday

I woke up around 8am. My mood and the colour of the skies were on par. Pretty damn grey. It was raining lightly and everything looked soggy and damp out. I stayed in bed and read some more to kill the time. I managed to pass the rest of the hours in the day by taking a leisurely breakfast, washing in the river, doing a short workout under the boulder with therabands and a yoga mat, reading some more and going to bed around 8pm. My diary entry for that day reads ‘today sucked balls!’.

A typical grey day in the Cirque

A typical grey day in the Cirque

Sunday

The shite weather prevails and its getting pretty frustrating. Ross has found himself a smooth rock under the boulder that we deemed ‘the throne’. He sets himself up for a day of reading on the throne with his sleeping bag. I’m pretty jealous as with no sign of the sun for a few days I feel pretty cold in camp. I contemplate bringing my sleeping bag out of the tent but decide against risking it getting dirty and wet. I have all my layers on and the jet boil is on constant cycles – for something to do as much as for keeping warm! We play more games and read a shit tonne. We go to bed as early as we can justify appropriate – around 7pm.

Ross hanging out on his 'throne' whilst the bad weather prevails

Ross hanging out on his ‘throne’ whilst the bad weather prevails.

Whittling away the days in camp under the shelter of the boulder.

Whittling away the days in camp under the shelter of the boulder.

Monday

The weather is looking slightly better and we even catch a glimpse of the sun at some points. We continue to fester in camp though as nothing is really dry enough to climb and the psyche to go for a damp hike is low.  The other group report that the weather looks like it will be steadily improving over the next couple of days and although know the weather doesn’t look like it will be good enough to allow for a send, we prep for an alpine start for the LFT anyway, too scared to give up any glimpse of an opportunity at this point.

Tuesday

We woke up at around 5.30am and left camp within 30mins. We had gotten pretty good at the approach at this point and were at the base after just over an hour. We figured it was so cold the last time we got to the base at alpine start o’clock that there wasn’t much point leaving that early again. The first few pitches looked pretty wet and miserable when we reached the LFT, but it wasn’t actually raining and we were a little warmer than the previous time we’d reached the same point so we decided to have a go at the first pitch. More to familiarize ourselves with the terrain than a belief that we would send the thing in these conditions and honestly because we were really desperate to do some climbing at this point!

Paul took the lead and found the going hard for a pitch graded 5.8. It was pretty blocky climbing but all the foot holds were pointing the wrong way and relying on smears and stems on the wet rock was not an option. It was also painfully cold and all this added up to some really slow climbing on what should have been easy terrain for us. I was just as wet and miserable when I reached the belay as Paul had seemed and we decided it wasn’t worth continuing up the rest of the route. The 5.9 corner pitch above was sopping wet, and whilst I resolved that it would be possible to get up it, by hook or by crook, was it really worth it just to get another pitch in?  We deliberated this for a while which shows just how desperate we were to climb, before eventually throwing the ropes and abseiling off. Second mission aborted.

By the time we had reached camp the boys were up and about to leave to go climb a route on Terrace Tower – they’d opted not to commit to the LFT with us as the weather looked too rubbish. We re-packed our bags and decided to go try get some climbing in on Terrace also.

It took us about an hour to get to the base of the route on Terrace with some sketchy dirty slope scrambling to get to a flat platform where we could flake the ropes. The route was 6 pitches long with 4 pitches of 5.10 followed by 2 pitches of 5.11+. At the top of the 3rd pitch was a rap station but beyond that it was hard to bail according to the topo.

Paul set off first and led a fairly broken chossy crack pitch. At this point we were pleased to just be climbing anything so we weren’t complaining. I took over and got a solid 40m of similar climbing in with some run-out sections – finally a bit of excitement. Just before the belay station I encountered the ‘exciting mantle’ the topo was talking about and after spending a few minutes clearing mud out from the only feasible crimps I was almost ready to commit to the move – I was about 3m above and left of my last piece, a rusty looking peg tied off to a stuck nut – here I go. Just as I was mid mantle and feeling a little sketchy Ross had appeared from above and let me know that he had a loop of rope I could grab if I wanted. It was hard to make the decision not to – I pulled up on the safety of the loop – thanks Ross – perfect timing!

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Digging in to hold is the grass preparing for a mantle.

Paul got good and pumped on the next 10+ pitch and despite being a little annoyed at going the wrong way at one point we both seemed pretty happy to be climbing. It was getting late in the day and committing to the next pitch would mean committing to thhe next 3 pitches, 2 of which were graded 11+. The weather had been dry all day except for a few small showers and so we made the decision to go down, based on the fact that we wanted to get back to camp early enough to prep the gear for another go at the Lotus flower tower the next day.

Descending from the route on Terrace

Descending from the route on Terrace

 Wednesday

We set off on the all too familiar hike in at around 5.30am and were at the base to see Ross and Travis at the first belay station a pitch up. We started the climbing at around 7am and although the first pitch went quicker than the day before, it was still wet and cold and we were still slower than we liked. I lead the next 5.9 pitch which felt burly, thuggy, wide in places and still running with water. My small fists struggled to stay in the wet crack despite my best efforts and I resorted to pulling through on peices at the top to try and make the pitch go a little quicker. My arms and legs were dripping with water everytime they came out of the crack. It was a soggy mess and the climbing was far from delicate. I lost us a lot of time on this pitch and was annoyed that what I hoped would be much more cruisy climbing turned out to be such an epic pitch.

Arriving at the base of the route to find it still seeping with rain.

Arriving at the base of the route to find it still seeping with rain.

Paul had an exciting time leading out around the roof of the next pitch but thankfully it was short and didn’t take too long. By this point Ross and Travis were way ahead on the easier terrain of the chimneys and moving much faster than us.

The climbing eased back for a bunch of pitches now and we were hoping to make up for some lost time but the terrain was still pretty rugged and wet and I didn’t feel secure enough to run it out as much as I would have liked to in order to simul-climb. The chimney was very featured and the climbing certainly easy enough, but I was cautious of loose rock, the uncertainty of gear placements coming above and the insecurity of standing on slick mossy ledges.

Climbing in the chimneys

Climbing in the chimneys

We continued in this slow and slightly frustrating manner under moody skies until a pitch before the bivi ledge where the rock deteriorated further into grassy slopes and we ended up going the wrong way, getting sketched out and losing even more time. We hit the ledge after about 8 hours since we left the ground and instead of the relief we were hoping to feel at being able to stand up, walk around and even take our harnesses off to pee, we just felt pretty deflated and down beat about how slow we were going and how tired we already were. We still had about 8 or 9 pitches left to go and it was already around 3.30pm – how was it that we were going so slow?? On the up side we still had plently of daylight left however and after wolfing down some quick snacks we both resolved that despite our frustration there was no real reason to give up just yet, if we could keep just trucking away at the pitches, no matter how long it took, we would make it to the top eventually and whilst we were both feeling more tired than we’d like, there was still reserves in the tank.

The awesome corner pitch off the belay ledge - pretty pumpy for a 10a!

The awesome corner pitch off the bivi ledge – pretty pumpy for a 10a!

Just being on the head wall pitches lifted our spirits a little, partly with the feeling that we were on the home straight but mostly because it is just such a fucking cool feature! The climbing was pretty incredible, less straight forward and more technical than the lower pitches but it also held a higher reward. We still encountered some annoyingly sticky situations by perhaps not picking the easiest line of chicken heads and crack systems to follow, or not quite stopping at the right places to belay, which accumulated time that we did not have, but when Travis and Ross passed us on their way down with words of encouragement to just keep going, I started to believe for the first time since we’d been climbing that day that we might actually have a glimmer of hope to get to the top.

Travis and Ross on their way back down after summiting as we truck on on the head-wall pitches

Travis and Ross on their way back down after summiting as we truck on on the head-wall pitches

‘Just keep going up’ I kept telling myself and around the 14th pitch I realised that I had, for the first time that day, climbed a whole 60m pitch with a huge smile on my face. The climbing was flowy and mega fun, I was loving hauling on juggy chicken heads and trusting my feet on those greasy knobs which made it much easier to put together metres of climbing without stopping to wiggle in an awkward nut or small cam into the often shallow and nonparallel cracks.  I was only concerned with execution of every fun move at that point and had somehow separated that from any angst about the time we were taking, if we’d make it to the top or not if we would encounter a storm and run into an epic – I was just enjoying climbing.

Enjoying the spectacular climbing on chicken heads on the steep head-wall

Enjoying the spectacular climbing on chicken heads on the steep head-wall

No sooner had I set the belay and shouted down to Paul to start climbing than did the weather gods move in to crush my spirit. Just great!!! I had just begun staring up at the crux roof a few metres above me thinking it didn’t look too bad and then we’d only have 2 more proper pitches  after that to hit the summit – then rain drops fell into my face.

By the time Paul managed to make it to join me on the belay we were both pretty soaked and certain this meant we had to go down. Slowly picking away at wet cracks in the rain was one thing, but climbing on these slick face holds was just not an option, besides the storm looked like it would be pretty persistent. We utilized our tag line and got to work making rap after rap in the rain until we hit the ledge again. We hadn’t said much to each other at this point beyond the essential communication needed for a safe descent but it was clear just how gutted we both were. It was around 9pm when we started bailing from our high point at pitch 15. We’d been going for about 15 hours in total and had worked hard to keep going to where we were, even if our time wasn’t very commendable, we had put in a lot of effort, so to have to bail with three pitches left was pretty wounding.

Once we hit the Ledge again we got out our waterproof pants and searched for the head torches, This is when we realised mine was still in my pack on the ground. Shit!! We’d have to descend with just one.

We had read that the raps from the ledge could be real rope traps with big hungry cracks for them to get stuck in so we were aware we needed to be extra cautious executing the descent in the falling light, rain and with a good level of exhaustion. The first rap off the ledge went to climbers right up a steeper, unclimbed section of rock so as to avoid trying to rap the chimney sections we’d climbed previously where there was a high chance our rope would get stuck.

We had threaded the rope through the rap rings at the ledge and set off down to the next station, Paulie lead the rappels as he had our only light source. But the worst happened when we tried to pull our ropes, the end of the tag line had got stuck on something around the last station and no matter what we did we could not free it!! At this point we were beyond exhaustion and getting cold and really really frustrated. We weighed up our options;

1. Untying  the two ropes since we had been able to pull one and hoping we could get down by doing 30m raps.

2. Untying the ropes, rappelling back into the chimney system on one rope and climbing back to the ledge up the chimney pitches in order to free our rope,

3. Attempting to lead up the un-chartered terrain which we had just rapped or…

4. Potentially the simplest but most scary of all our options – prussiking back up the stuck line which we had just rapped.

After attempting to lead the first few meters in the dark and wet we decided it was faar to dangerous and possibly not even doable to free climb back up to the stuck rope. Untying the ropes and hoping for the best with only 30m rap potential was just too uncertain, leaving us with the only real solution to prusik the stuck rope. We both knew how potentially dangerous this was since we didn’t know what our rope was caught up on and if it were to come loose as we prusiked the results could very bad – besides our lead attempt proved how hard it was to find good gear up the pitch so it was a pretty frightening prospect. Thankfully Paulie proved to be an absolute hero and offered to give it a shot, I felt confident that if he hadn’t I would have stepped in and gone for it, but at the same time, holding his free rope whilst he ascended the stuck one wasn’t really an option that felt like I was ‘let off the hook’. It was now around midnight, still raining and dark out, I was exhausted and I had to find it in me to not get scared or panicked, to keep calm and pragmatic and support Paulie with every push of the knot up the stuck rope, hoping and praying that it would stay stuck and he wasn’t about to come crashing down and fall on the belay.

I could write another 3 paragraphs on our epic at that point on the descent because it felt like a life time passed before Paul was getting to the ledge again – hours of sitting in a cold hanging belay, shivering my ass off trying to stay awake and control my fear that my climbing partner was going to come crashing down past me in a factor 2 fall as our stuck rope dislodged and I would have to come up with a way to get us both of the wall before hypothermia set in. Thankfully I was able suppress my fears and exhaustion and continue  giving Paul encouragement as he got closer to the stuck end.  Oh shit he shouted as I could just pick out him pulling on the grass to reach the rap. I later learned that just as he was pulling up and over to safe terrain the rope magically just slipped through the rap rings and became unstuck – holy fuck!!!

Thank god Paul had made it to the ledge and was extending the anchor and re-threading the ropes. This time the ropes pulled just fine on the rap and to say we were relieved to be back on our way with relative ease was a total understatement.

We still had to perform about 10 more rappels however and we didn’t hit terra-firma until at least 2.30am. We pulled back on our boots, chugged some water and started back down the scree towards our camp. I can only recall a couple of times where I have even felt close to the all consuming fatigue that I was experiencing as I hobbled with excruciating pain back to camp. After almost 20hrs in climbing shoes my feet were mangled and my alpine boots were exacerbating that, my balance was abysmal because my leg muscles couldn’t function anymore, my brain had shut off once we reached the ground, not to mention my blurry vision from dried up contact lenses.

Once we reached the boulder I was in too much pain to just get in the tent and go to sleep, I sat for a while trying to nurse back the feeling in my feet and Paul joined me with a bottle of whiskey. As we sat and drank the booze the sun was rising again and there was no need to speak, you could tell we both shared the same feelings about what had gone down that day. Some things to be proud of for sure – our ability to keep pushing through against all odds, for putting up a big fight, thankful that we got off relatively unharmed in a situation that could have turned out much worse, but over-ridding that was an overwhelming sadness and incredible disappointment that all that effort and all that suffering had got us so close to success but ultimately it still hadn’t got us a summit!

Thursday

We rise in the late morning after crawling into bed around 4am, more than 22 hours since we’d awoken the day before. I was feeling incredibly beat up and perplexed at how sore my feet were. We tried to stay up beat to show our congratulations to Ross and Travis for sending but it was hard not to be really bummed out and I could tell Paul was feeling pretty negative about how slow we were. I know he was mostly hyper-critical of himself in these situations but it was hard not to take it personally when he beat ‘us’ up on our slowness, after all I was a 50% part of ‘us’, our team, and I wanted to feel good about all our hard work on some level despite the obvious downfalls. I tried to take it on the chin though as I could see how hard it was too be positive – I was struggling myself.

We hung out around camp and rested, ate a lot of our remaining food in an attempt to recover and talked about our game plan, if there was one – if we could even face trying again with just two more days left . I felt utterly broken and admitted that I honestly couldn’t imagine that I’d have the physical ability to give it a good honest go again on the Friday, but that if Saturday’s weather played ball the yes I was totally up for trying again.

Friday

We continue to fester around camp, everyone seems to be OK with hanging around and resting even though Paul and I are obviously less content with this than Travis and Ross, rest seemed pretty imperative to me. Irritatingly the weather is on and off which once again endorsed my decision to rest, but we were hyper aware that we were desperately running out of time and if we had any hopes of getting back on the route on Saturday, Friday has to stay reasonably dry.

Thankfully the sun came out in the afternoon and the forecast looked optimistic.  The boys played around on a roof crack they found in base camp that looked pretty cool while I tried to get some cool shots of them. I didn’t want to climb as I wanted to give myself the best chance of feeling good if we were able to get back on the route the next day.

Travis dispatching the roof crack easily.

Travis dispatching the roof crack easily.

With the sun warming our backs and some fun low commitment climbing happening as a group, our spirits were lifted slightly and we began to let in glimmers of optimism that we might be able to send on the next day – our very last full day. We joked around that if we were in a climbing movie right there then we would definitely still send the route.  All the parties staying in fairy meadows had all now finally summited except for us and I could feel the whole camp were routing for us, it was encouraging.

Saturday

We continued to ride the roller coaster of the Cirque as we woke at 3.00am to another grey mist, I had the alarm and I went outside for a look before waking Paul. I’d had a sleepless night, probably due to nerves and I when I saw the weather I went back to bed, resetting the alarm for 5.00am for a final look. This time the weather had improved a little but was still grey and dismal. I was feeling exhausted and disheartened and figured the route would be wet again, just like the handful of times before that we’d tried and failed in similar conditions. I concluded that it just wasn’t meant to be and went back to bed for the second time knowing we had no more chances.

Around 9am we arose and began moping around camp, the reality was now upon us that we weren’t going to send the Lotus flower tower on this trip. We were clearly really bummed and Ross and Travis started to nag at us, basically telling us that we shouldn’t be negative, that we had still got the full experience by getting to pitch 15 and trying really hard, they were just trying to make us feel better, it was a nice gesture, but Paul and I explained that it didn’t feel like much of a consolation , that nearly getting to the top wasn’t even close to the same as getting to the top and with all the effort required to get to the Cirque, the logistics and the time and expenses, we were feeling really shitty about going home without the LFT in the bag.

They didn’t let us off that easily however, “Well” they said, “the sun is out and the day looks good now, stop moping and go get ‘er”. We giggled at first thinking that it was a nice idea but too ridiculous to start in at such a late time. But then we gave each other a knowing sideways glance as we wrapped our heads around what that would actually mean. Counting backwards we justified that as long as we were off the route by say 5am the next day we could be back at camp by 7am at the very latest and start packing up in order to hike out and catch our float plane back out, which we had arranged for Midday on the Sunday.  “Fuck it! We don’t have anything to lose!” we agreed. We figured it didn’t get dark til around midnight we’d have more than 12 hours of daylight to climb in and as long as the weather held off long enough for s and we weren’t any slower than last time, we could have a real shot.

We quickly re-packed the last of our stuff and started hiking just before 10am. We were off the ground and climbing by a comically late time of 11am and with a slightly different strategy than the last time we’d knocked off the first 3 pitches in almost half the time that we did previously. This time we stuffed the tag line into the pack for the second to carry instead of the leader tagging it and having to deal with stacking it each time they reached the belay. This seemed to work well and saved us a bit of time at each station. We also decided that we would lead the first half of the route in blocks. Paulie was much better at climbing stuff like the wider 2nd pitch than me and would be much faster, if he could get us out of the starting gate faster it would be a good morale booster and a good start.

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For the easier chimney pitches and the face climbing leading up to it I would take over the sharp end and we wold simul-climb as much as we could. Each time I set off from the previous belay I could get us through about 80m of climbing before running out of gear and needing to build a belay. It meant we did this section of the route in about 3 or 4 pitches instead of 7 or 8. The familiarity of the route really helped and gave us both the confidence to move much quicker, but what was also a major factor in our ability to climb quicker was the dryness of the rock. There was a significant difference in the saturation of the route compared to the first time we got this far. Most of the cracks were dry with only some limited damp spots that were easy to avoid – it was really satisfying realising how much this must have played a part in hindering us before.

We made it to the ledge in approximately 4 hours – less than half the time we had before and earlier in the day despite the difference in our start times! For the most part we had been climbing under blue skies and even felt some warmth from the sun too. We knew all too well how little this meant about the likelihood of the weather staying dry as we continued upward but we couldn’t help but feel positive about our situation even though we didn’t dare address it openly to each other.

Onwards we went with faster more confident climbing, smoother transitions and generally less faffage. It was great to really start to enjoy the climbing again as we hit the head wall proper and were once again positioned under the roof that formed the crux moves of the route. The skies had now changed and grown greyer as I continued to inwardly obsess over if it was because the sun had simply gone down behind the peaks and it was slowly getting darker or if it was because bad weather was rolling in. ‘Please just dont rain’ I muttered to myself over and over again as over head clouds would roll in and out.

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Getting back to our previous high point having climbed the first overlap before the roof

Seconding on the amazing head wall through the crux roof - spectacular!

Seconding on the amazing head wall through the crux roof – spectacular!

Paulie dispatched the crux moves like a boss and kept us moving in an upward motion. A couple of loose pitches later and unbelievably we found ourselves on the summit – was this even real!!??

An unreal feeling to be on the summit on the very last day with hours to spare!

An unreal feeling to be on the summit on the very last day with hours to spare!

It was around 9.30pm, we’d climbed the whole route in around 10hrs, it took us 8hrs just to do the ‘easier’ first half last time. We stuck around long enough on the summit to capture a couple of shots, take in the utterly spectacular views and exclaim how absurd the whole thing felt. With hours left of our trip – let alone days we had somehow managed to turn our epic story of failure into an epic story of success. It felt pretty fucking brilliant I must say!

Views from the summit as the sun starts to go down

Views from the summit as the sun starts to go down

However, given our previous experience getting off the route, we knew the hardest bit of the day was yet to come and we didn’t waste too much time reveling in the glory before we set to work  getting our assess back down to the ground.

Thankfully, much like the climbing, the descending also went much more smoothly this time around and feeling slightly less exhausted with more daylight and more awareness of the potential pitfalls, our ropes whipped down passed us with every pull. Every single time my heart would sink though praying I wouldn’t feel any resistance as I yanked down on the end of the rope.

If my memory serves me right we hit Terra-firma this time at about midnight or perhaps 12.30am, the rappels only took us a few hours when they went off without a hitch and what was even better was it was only just getting to be completely dark out and we were bone dry – what a wholly different experience this time around. We leisurely repacked our stuff at the base of the route, eating some snacks and taking on some water, still exhausted after a long day, but with a much, much more rewarding outcome for our efforts this time and feeling much more jovial.

Rolling into camp around 2am we couldn’t resist sitting up to finish off the rest of the whiskey – no point in carrying it out and at least this time we were celebrating and not commiserating.

In the morning we awoke around 7am feeling really tired but super happy and began taking down the camp and packing all our stuff up. It was fun regaling the stories to the boys and being able to share the success that all four of us felt.

Celebrating with our last beer in camp before packing up and heading out

Celebrating with our last beer in camp before packing up and heading out

The walk out felt gruesome in my body’s tired state and although my pack was lighter, it was still pretty heavy. My shoulders ached and it was tough to make it through the last hour, I guess it was much easier to swallow having climbed the LFT though.

Once we got back to the tan shed we had some time to kill before the float plane came in and we dropped our packs, bathed in the lake, drank the rest of the cheap lager that was left over and napped at the banks of Glacier Lake feeling very content and merrily reflective.

Nap time at the lake after beers.

Nap time at the lake after beers.

Enjoying some tranquil time after washing at the lake.

Enjoying some tranquil time after washing at the lake.

Unfortunately, as with every long and drawn out adventure story the antics did not end there, but you’ve done so well sticking with me as I blabber on this far, so i’ll save that part of the story for another rainy day. Lets just say the float plane arrival time allowed us to sit and reflect for a worrying amount of time at the lake until finally a different pilot showed up to pick us up and the first we knew of the fact that we were not going to get to stay in Innconu lodge for a night and enjoy a proper shower, a beer and the first proper cooked meal in two weeks, was when  we landed straight back at Finlayson Lake rather than Inconnu lake. I’m more thankful now than I was then that events unfolded as they did in order to keep the adventure factor high but any pain felt at the time was definitely sweetened by the fact that we had successfully dispatched the Lotus Flower Tower. Im so grateful to have been able to experience such an amazing place and such a spectacular adventure but that said, I’m very happy not be going back next year to go through it all again!

Loading up to leave the Cirque. The end of an amazing experience.

Loading up to leave the Cirque. The end of an amazing experience.

Acid baby – Enchantments, WA

It was a June weekend and the weather had been unreliable in Squamish for a while, mine and Paul’s trip to the Cirque of the Unclimbables was looming and we hadn’t been climbing nearly as much as we’d liked, especially not the big days on big long routes we were hoping for.

Paul had climbed in the Enchantments before when he had a permit to camp there and I had heard great things about it from him and others although I had never climbed there myself. The walk in to get to even the closest routes in the enchantments is 3+ hours and to get to Prussik Peak (which is roughly the furthest point from each trail head) is approximately 5+ hours. That is why it is usually a brilliant place to set up camp for a few days, having the luxury of much shorter walk-ins right from your tent. Unfortunately the stunning beauty of the area makes it a very popular place for climbers and more so avid hikers. The overwhelming popularity means that you must have a permit to camp in the enchantments. The permits are not easy to come by as even when you apply in advance you are put into a lottery, check out the government website for more details.

Peaks, permit zones and approach trails.

All of the area in the dotted lines requires a permit to stay overnight – even the relatively roadside snowcreek wall needs an overnight permit.

Unfortunately 2016 was another year we didn’t get lucky in the lottery and didn’t have permits. In favour of better weather and the opportunity to put in a big day we decided to leave Squamish for the weekend and try and do a car-to-car in the Enchantments.

We settled on going for Acid Baby, a 6-7pitch 10d route on the Asgard Sentinel close to Colchuck lake. It seemed a relatively short route but reportedly had some stellar crack pitches and a really cool fin traverse finish. We were psyched.

We left work on Friday a little early to allow us some cushioning for traffic across the border and to give us some time to settle in for the night – get dinner in Leavenworth etc. Our plan was to bivi at the Colchuck trail head parking spot – approx 4 miles from the turn off to Bridge creek campground on Icicle creek Road. Unfortunately the border crossing was slow and traffic through Gold bar and Startup was even slower. after fuelling up with a burger in the sports bar in Leavy we probably made it to the trail head no earlier than 10pm. Paulie settled into his bed in the back of Vinnie the van and I set up my air mat and sleeping bag in a concealed spot close to Vinnies bumper. It had been a busy summer filled with more domestic tasks than I’d usually aim for so I was feeling pretty content at the prospect of a night in the dirt again!

We awoke with the startling sound of our alarms at 4am and jumped to it. We downed – what has somehow become a tradition among our circle of adventure buddies – a highly calorific and sick inducing luxury donut breakfast. It was hard to get down but we pushed on, starting in on the trail with headlamps on and bellies full.

alpine breakfast

The traditional alpine breakfast donut chug.

Paulie pushed a hard pace as usual to get us to the Colchuck Lake shores in around 2.5 hours. The trail to this point is very well marked and easy to follow, but pretty steep and rooty in places. You will pass turn offs for Eightmile Lake and then Lake Stuart, make sure to stay left and follow the trail to Colchuck Lake. Before hitting the lake proper you will wind down on the West side of the lake between boulders and small campsites that will take you to the edges of the lake and a boulder-field on its North edge. As we passed by around sunrise lots of sleepy permit holders were just emerging from their tents.

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It was late June which I guess is till pretty early season for alpine climbing and the Enchantments. Despite the sun rising for a bluebird sky it was still pretty damn fresh for an early morning jaunt. This was pretty nice given the body temps produced on the slog in but as we’d later find out a little too cold for standing around in the shade.

Dragontail starts to peek through the trees as we make our way through the forest trail up to Colchuck lake

Dragontail starts to peek through the trees as we make our way through the forest trail up to Colchuck lake

There were a couple of nice look outs as we approached the lake but we didn’t stick around too long to admire the view for fear of getting too chilly. We did stop a little while at the lake though as it first light it was super beautiful and we wanted to re-stock our water.

Colchuck lake just after sunrise looking North

Colchuck lake just after sunrise looking North

After the lake you can follow well marked cairns to pick a good way through the boulders. There was a lot of snow around in Asgard Pass (also known as Colchuck Pass or more affectionately Ass-Kicker Pass) and some of the lower boulders were slippy with ice. Despite all the white stuff in the pass we could still pick our way up on scree and dirt, mostly on the main path, sometimes a little to the left of it. I was feeling woefully out of shape and the pass really lived up to its name, totally kicking my ass. Thankfully Asgard Sentinel and the start of the route are only about 3/4 of the way up the pass by a dense outcrop of trees

ASGARD PASS ACID BABY

We stopped and racked up leaving our packs at the bottom for retrieval on the way down. It was my lead off the ground and it was pretty easy to spot the distinct triangular over hang feature that formed the crux of the pitch and the cracks leading up to it. Thankfully the move – although burly was all there and mega fun. I stopped on a ledge to belay just after that before the open book corner. I think the open book corner is supposed to form part of the 1st pitch but its a real rope stretcher and with the big ledge after the 5.9 roof move it made more sense to stop.

Route as per our pitches

Route as per our pitches

The sun had still not made it over the peaks on the other side of the valley and we were climbing in the shade. It was pretty damn cold. Even though it was easy enough to keep my body warm the hardest thing about climbing in the cold is jamming your bare hands into skin eating cracks. Paulie was up next and he was loving it!

Paul at the top of the 1st pitch trying to warm his hands

Paul at the top of the 1st pitch trying to warm his hands

We both felt pretty out of shape for crack climbing given the slower Squamish season and Paul lamented this whilst cruising the burly splitter on the 2nd pitch .

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Paulie cruising the second pitch

After the second pitch it was time for me to take on the broken cracks which were challenging because I couldn’t use any of the rock that would have made the moves 5.9 as it was too friable and chossy. It was an intense lead as I was very nervous of pulling off any blocks that would likely of hit Paulie below on the belay. I was thankful to finally get to the slabby traverse and get out of the firing line where I could climb easily and safely to a belay ledge. This is thankfully the only pitch I recall with loose rock on it and the only pitch not up to the high standard and sustained nature of the rest of the route – 1 in 7 ain’t so bad.

Paulie warming his hands before finishing the easy traverse on pitch 3.

Paulie warming his hands before finishing the easy traverse on pitch 3.

Pitch 4 saw Paulie get another stellar burly splitter which started at hands and widened to fists. We had 1x #4 with us and 2 x #3’s – I think they came in pretty handy on this pitch.

Another nice belay ledge before I started the next pitch. Pitch 5 was a chance for me to do some fun jamming and stemming on solid rock before a cheeky little exit move with a hidden hold.

Pitch 5. Awesome corner with crack climbing in the back. A tricky exit move at the top.

Pitch 5. Awesome corner with crack climbing in the back. A tricky 5.10 exit move at the top.

Paul’s lead again and we could see the top in site. He had a nice 10- hand crack followed by some tricky and delicate face moves where his good footwork was an asset. I tried to go too high at one point which almost screwed me over until I realised with the help from Paul that the feet were much better if I stayed low.

Pitch 6. Pauls lead with some tricky and balancy face climbing between thin cracks. Choosing the right beta helps to make it feel more like the 10a grade it is given.

Pitch 6. Paul’s lead with some tricky and balancy face climbing between thin cracks. Choosing the right beta helps to make it feel more like the 10- grade it is given.

Pitch 7 could be considered the money Pitch. The climbing is comparably easy but the positioning on the big fin traverse is unreal. From the belay stance I lead up through cracks to reach the traverse proper and skirted right by the big blocky fin.

Thanks to Paul for this shot of me heading gunning for the summit prow.

Thanks to Paul for this shot of me gunning for the summit prow.

Looking a little less elegant in this one trying to gain the blocks to the left of the prow.

Looking a little less elegant in this one trying to gain the blocks to the left of the prow.

 

Paulie donning the classic 'Au Cheval' pose a top the summit prow

Paulie donning the classic ‘Au Cheval’ pose a top the summit prow

As can be seen from the above photo, I did not end my pitch at the top of the prow. I always like a multi-pitch climb that has an obvious and logical last belay end, otherwise its an anticlimax! I didn’t feel like stopping to belay on top the prow and then one of us having to lead the 5.6 down-climb  – so I continued on as far as I could to a point at which I felt there was no more climbing, the route just ended in an easy down climb to a plateau where scrambling terrain began. Unsurprisingly, this was actually quite anticlimactic too and in hindsight I probably would have belayed closer to the prow, for ease of communication if nothing else.

We flaked the ropes and transitioned into our approach shoes and began scrambling up some dusty and loose terrain out left of the end of the route. It was kind of a pain in the ass to summit a multi-pitch and then have to gain more elevation by hiking uphill to get off – so when we saw a glint of light through a little slot in the boulders that might have taken us out to a descent down a gully, we followed it. Unfortunately we got cliffed out pretty quickly and found ourselves on a sketchy loose slope that was getting steeper and steeper. We had to turn around and go back up to the boulder, sheepishly realising we couldn’t take any short cuts down and had to hike up to the Enchantment peak summit plateau and all the way around to the top of Asgard Pass before we could descend.

Acid baby descent route

The descent from the top of the route (green Triangle) requires hiking up and left to the summit of Enchantment peak and all the way round the basin. The first orange line shows the short cut we tried to take to get down. The next is another appealing looking shortcut, but neither of them seemed plausible as descent routes.

route descent

Scrambling up to Enchantment peak from the top of the Acid Baby Route.

Once we got around to the top of Enchantment Peak proper we could easily see where we needed to go to get around and down – which although fairly mellow downhill/flat terrain was definitely much further than anticipated and more time consuming. Once we were comfortably back on track we stopped to take a couple summit shots with a cool looking Dragontail Peak as the backdrop.

At the top of Enchantment Peak summit with Dragontail in the background

At the top of Enchantment Peak summit with Dragontail in the background

We were a little worried as we came around to the plateau at the top of Asgard Pass as there was a LOT of snow still around and we just had flimsy approach shoes – no axes or crampons – so we were hoping it wasn’t too solid to descend safely. Luckily as we came around and turned to head North-west back down Asgard Pass we could see a bunch of hikers not in much more technical gear than us and after speaking with a couple of them we were assured that there was a route down which we could almost entirely avoid the snow apart from one section that was easy enough to cross anyway.

Snowy plateau at the top of Asgard Pass

Snowy plateau at the top of Asgard Pass

 

Snowy section on the initial steep descent crossing Asgard Pass

Snowy section on the initial steep descent crossing Asgard Pass was easy enough to cross in approach shoes once the snow had softened in the afternoon sun.

At this point it was mid afternoon and the sun was high in the sky, I had left my sunglasses in the pack at the bottom of the route and the reflection off the snow was burning my eyeballs. We returned to our packs at around 3pm, this was a good time but not early enough for us to realistically do another route. We had hoped that if we’d been really quick on Acid baby we could have come back and done another lap on Asgard Sentinel by climbing Valkyrie – a 5.10 multipitch which started beside Acid Baby. Instead we took some time to chill in the sun, eat some snacks and pack up our stuff before heading down the rest of Asgard Pass.

It took us an annoyingly long time to navigate our way through the boulders back to the lake as we somehow lost the cairns and took an indirect route. Although it was all down hill by this point on a well eroded path we were definitely getting pretty tired of being on our feet. I remember the last couple of Km, where the trail flattened out somewhat, feeling like an absolute lifetime. My feet were throbbing, my back was hurting from carrying my pack all day and I was sweaty and dirty. What a relief it was to eventually turn into the parking lot at around 7pm. We got to Paul’s van, pulled up a seat on the bouldering pad and cracked open a warm beer to throw down with some salty chips. A very satisfying 14 hour mission and a route that was well worth the slog. We turned in pretty early for another parking lot bivi, looking forward to a ly-in and a pancake breakfast the next morning.