| Epic: Snow Couloir vs Class 3 Ridge Traverse
Three's Company: JB, bergsteigen, friend
Trailhead: Navajo Lake
Thinking there might be a possibility for the ridge traverse, we make a quality alpine start at 4:20am. With a large waning moon illuminating the valley, it made navigation easy. We didn't see a trail over to the couloir that we were to ascend, but with the moon, we knew where we were going.
The beginning ascent of the couloir was easy and fun.
With the sunrise, we were making decent time up the lower part of the couloir
About halfway up the couloir, things started to get more difficult. The terrain was steeper, and the snow was thin in places. Some rocks were encountered just below the surface that made firm foot, hand and axe holds tricky. To the left side, rocks were covered in a thick coating of ice, so we stayed mainly in the middle of the couloir. Looking down at this point, I knew it was up only, no descent on this route.
Near the top of the couloir we encountered the permanent snow field, which was more like an ice climb. We hacked steps into the ice and used our ice axes for all their worth. This would have been the only place crampons would have been worth it (Accio crampons!).
Once past this crux, we were so happy to be on sweet solid rock!
Looking over to El Diente from just above the couloir, on the north side.
The south side of the ridge as we approached El Diente was mainly free of snow.
Too bad the last part of the approach to the summit is on the north side...
Some fellow hikers followed us up the couloir in our nice tracks, and shared a summit with us for a short time. We were all glad to have company on this trek.
A short lived summit visit:
Why only a short time on the summit? A storm was approaching, at 10:30am.
We thought it might bring rain, and with the north side being all snow, we wanted to get off the north part of the ridge. When the storm hit, it turned out to be hail and snow. Not terrible, not great either.
A few minutes later, descending back to the saddle. All nice and sunny again:
So a decision point. What do we do with storms approaching in waves, and having gone through that nasty light snow ascent?
Option 1: Descend our couloir we went up ----> NO! One fall, and it would be a very long bumpy slide to the bottom. Not much chance of a self arrest.
Option 2: Descend into Killpacker basin (along an unknown trail), and have a very very long trek back to camp. ----> Not so desirable
Option 3: Traverse ridge to Mt Wilson, and hope a descent there is easier. ----> Why not? It's only snow and hail!
So we continue along the class 3 ridge, and soon enough, the next wave of snow and hail finds us.
After skirting around the gendarmes on the high route, the sun comes out again. We chose to strictly follow the well marked cairns along the route. They are very well placed and easy to follow in a snow storm.
Overall we had 4 waves of snow storms pass us before the weather let us go with sunny skies. It was warm enough that I chose to go without gloves, to feel the rock better. The rest of the group used gloves and had no problems either.
Some happy faces once we reached the ridge proper.
Viewing the crux of the ridge traverse, with Mt Wilson in the background:
Climbing up the crux:
Walking along the "Narrow Section" of the ridge, past the crux.
The entire ridge traverse, with El Diente in the background
We chose a slightly different variation to the Mt Wilson crux move. Since snow covered the easier route to the left (north), and we didn't want to go over the block like in the route description, we found another way. To the right of the reddish block, is a dark gray rock. There is a ledge for your feet and a nice ridge hold for your hands. Traverse around to the right (south), and there is a place to put your right foot halfway up. Then pull yourself up, and you are on the summit. One big downside to this variation: exposure! You have to trust your hands to hold you, since it was a +30ft drop till you bounce...
Hmmm, is this the "easiest" way down??? Another snow filled couloir, at the saddle between Mt Wilson and the ridge traverse.
We soon found that this way may be very slightly easier than the way up, but in no way a 'walk in the park'. We would kick steps into the loose powder snow to only find slick rock beneath. We spent a lot of time brushing away the snow to find rocks with good hand and foot holds. Also, a few good ice axe-rock placements also helped out a lot. Plunging the ice axe into the deep parts of the loose snow gave us some comfort, but we knew it wouldn't hold.
A very very very long time later, we were past the sketchy, scary, slippery section. Then it was deep powder to slide and play in, till we got down to the valley and the boulder-talus field.
We trudged back to our camp, in the dark, glad to have extra batteries for headlamps (as well as extra headlamps for mine that failed after adding in the new batteries). A very long, but successful day.
And as it turns out, the "Classic" class 3 ridge traverse from El Diente to Mt Wilson was EASIER than the ascent and descent from the ridge.
The Complete Photo Slide Show:
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):