Canadian Purcell Expedition July 2006

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Mountaineering in the Canadian Purcell Range: July 2006

Basecamp below the Commander Glacier
On the Summit of Mt. Karnak, 11,156

Catlin Gabel Canadian Expedition

July 17-24, 2006

By Greg Junior

Pre-trip excitement began during a parents meeting a few days before the trip, where the students and their protective mothers were told of the risks of the trip, including driving, bears, river crossings, lightning, and death falls off of high objects, all dangers inherent to city life as well as mountaineering. The drive began on Monday morning at 6 oclock in the theater parking lot, where we loaded the Catlin van with gear and the rented suburban with children, and then headed north (not before a lengthy vehicle check, most necessary). We took a short stop in north Portland to pick up Olivia. As we were leaving, Olivia’s mother was seen to be yelling at us from her car, but we couldn’t make out what she was saying with the windows closed.

“What did she say?” Peter asked.

“I don’t know, but I think she said ‘Do you want some fox meat?’ Ian replied, with a furrowed forehead.

Peter rolled down the window to get confirmation, and she yelled more clearly this time: “Do you want to follow me?”

We did and then struck north toward the wilds of eastern Washington. Nothing especially exciting happened on this bit of the trip, except everyone got maybe thirty or forty pages farther into their books. We stopped again in Spokane at Mikes house to pick up some chicken wire to wrap around the car at the trailhead (Porcupines seem to be fond of chewing on the tasty yet lethal antifreeze and brake tubes underneath your car). We made it across the border with surprisingly little cheek from a restrained Peter while he talked to the surly middle-aged Canadian border guard-ess. Again we headed north, now through the lands of Beautiful British Columbia (it says so on their license plates). Instead of making it all the way to the trailhead that night we stopped early due to driver fatigue in the wonderland of Dutch Creek Campground eh. Some members of the team pitched tents while the other prepared dinner, which we then consumed and went to bed.

The next day we made it to the trailhead deep in the Purcell Mountains by way of a brand new logging road, passing periodic clear cuts on the way in, and being treated to spectacular mountainous Canadian views and then of the Commander glacier, a crevasse-ridden monstrosity topped by Mt. Commander. We arrived at a wide spot in the road full of loggers pickups, where we parked our own equally large vehicles and packed our large backpacks. For the record, Dannys backpack weighed the most. The chicken wire we laboriously obtained in Spokane did not make it out of the back of the van for unexplained reasons. Then we headed down an old cart track filled with tree trunks thrown down the hill by the loggers, and into the wild. After passing an old collapsed log hut with cots still intact and a nice picnic table outside, we came to a roaring river that needed to be crossed. After hiking a hundred yards up it we came to the place where the river was formed by two streams, and only one of these smaller rivers needed to be crossed. We found a spot where two logs maybe five feet apart already spanned the river, and Matt scampered over and found another suitably sized log that was placed beneath the other two and created a seemingly sturdy bridge. Everyone made the crossing without incident, and then we began the bushwhack through the lowlands to get to the base of the moraine we planned to hike up to our camping spot. We reached the moraine with only one notable incident, a discovery of bear mace and the resulting test of its powers that concluded in gagging and running eyes. The moraine, instead of being a scary hike up a wide trail with a death fall onto the glacier to the right it turned out to be much less scary and fun. The glacier had receded so that there was no longer a glacier to fall two hundred feet onto, just rocks. And the trail had eroded away so that it became necessary to walk through the underbrush twenty feet down from the top on the safe side of the moraine, which suffice it to say, was not a good time. Eventually we reached the end of the moraine and cut across a fourth class rock shelf to emerge on a paradise of rock and water. Directly below the glacier a large rock shelf had formed, maybe a half-mile square that sloped slightly into the valley below and that housed thousands of waterfalls and streams coming off of the Commander glacier and another next to it. We built some rock structures for various purposes around our camp, then had dinner and went to bed.

The next day we woke up at three am to scale the glacier and then attempt Karnak and Jumbo peaks. To get to the glacier we needed to first hike about 2000 vertical feet up scree to get to the base of the ice and the glacier. This was a painful experience but not too scary or exciting. When we got to the base of the glacier, everyone put on their crampons while ducking occasional rocks and we roped up and began to walk up the glacier, passing through an area of gigantic crevasses, creaking noises and icefall, though not as bad in the morning as in the evening. We passed over the "Hickey Step" where we placed our only ice screw of the trip, and then continued upward, weaving through crevasses. The ice eventually turned to firm snow, and we hiked another two thousand vertical feet up with minimal rests or stops along the way. This first forced march brought us only to the base of Mt. Commander, and we still needed to hike another two kilometers across the glacier to get to the base of Karnak (11,000+ ft.). Everyone was burnt out from the altitude (about 10,000 feet at the Commander pass) and the long climb. With very little break we headed across the gigantic gently sloping perfectly smooth glacier and across a kind of scary traverse to get to the base of Karnak. After a painless steep snow slope we reached the rock ridge that would lead us to the top. Matt fixed a rope, and we all scrambled to the top (11,156’) to enjoy the wonderful Canadian view on a near-cloudless day. We rapped off the top back down to the snow, and then walked to flat place to have lunch. Then we walked back toward Commander, dropped out packs and took a little jaunt up to the top of snow-covered Jumbo peak (11,276 ft.), once thought of as the highest mountain in the Purcells but recently surpassed by nearby Mt. Farnham. After coming down we attempted Commander but it was getting late and we turned around early. It started to rain when we neared camp, but we made it back tired and happy, and quickly went to bed.

The next day was a rest day, and everyone dried their clothing and gear in the beautiful hot sun. In the afternoon we had a poetry reading session, marked by Robert Frosts “Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening”. Because we had had very little food on our first day our, we gorged ourselves and planned to take more on out attempt of Commander and the Guardsmen, small, steep rocky peaks that sit below Commander in the middle of the glacier, the next day.

The next morning we woke up at 3am and again made the long slog up the glacier, where we split up the groups, one going to attempt the Guardsman, and the other to Commander (11,060 ft. also). The group attempting the Guardsmen was thwarted three times due to a lack of rock gear and rope, which had both been taken by the other team. The Guardsmen group took naps on the warm silver-black shale while Olivia explored the peaks, unsuccessfully both times. The group on Commander summited and put up three ropes as a fixed line from the bottom of the rock to the top. When the Guardsmen group arrived to climb Commander the ropes were already in place and they scampered quickly to the top while the other group baked in the sun at the base. Again the view from Commander was amazing, and you could see the Lake of the Hanging Glacier from the summit. When the groups reunited at the base of Commander we had lunch and decided to not re-attempt the Guardsmen, instead to head down so as to not get caught in the near-dark again. During the trip down the glacier there was some wand trouble and some frightening icefall, but we made it back to camp in one piece. We had a relaxing evening, and ate an excellent dinner. We also decided that we did not want to hike up the long glacier again to re-try the Guardsmen or the Cleaver (another nearby peak, though not THAT close), and instead to hike out to the cars and drive to the trailhead for the Lake of the Hanging Glacier to do the 14 mile round trip hike to see the lake.

We woke up at a reasonable hour on the hike-out day, packed our packs, and headed back down the moraine and through the underbrush. Peter lost his trekking pole in one of the small streams we had to cross, and the bridge we had made broke under Jack (oops) and he pulled off some crazy-sweet acrobatics and made it across ok. Luckily he was the second-to-last person and Matt walked across the same we he had the first time. On the drive to the lake we passed the Womens national ski team going far too fast in their vans, and listened to loud music and were happy because there would be no more heavy packs. We also had to cross a river running through the road, which caused no small amount of scraping on the undersides of the cars. Despite this, we made it to the trailhead intact and began the hike with light packs around two oclock. The hike consisted of a beautiful trail through woods and meadows and by waterfalls, and ended much more quickly than we had expected. The lake had the glacial runoff striking green color, and had a couple of small icebergs floating in it, which some people waded out to. Some snacking happened whilst we admired the lake and the glaciers around it, and we could see Mt. Commander from this new vantage. The hike down took even less time, and we arrived at the trailhead and pitched our tents just as it was getting dark. Dinner was made in the dark, and then everyone went to bed.

The next morning we packed up camp and got into the vehicles and drove to the wonderful commercialized Radium hot springs with hot showers, a pool-sized hot tub, regular swimming pool and diving board. We stayed there for a couple of hours and had lunch at their sub place, where absolutely everything has to be in English and French, even if sometimes this means only mixing up the words and adding a few accents. We then headed south in the cars, witnessing the immediate aftermath of a four head-on collisions, and eventually ended up in Spokane at Mikes house. There we had a wonderful dinner of barbequed meat, salad, hot bread, berries, fruit, ice cream and soda and told Mike our story, the fee for the meal. We watched "Rushmore", and a few of us also indulged in "Conan the Barbarian", which actually has a wonderful storyline and some very meaningful messages to offer.

In the morning we ate a tasty breakfast and played a bit of basketball in the cul-de-sac outside the house. Then we headed back to Portland, our drive interrupted by some raucous college kids to whom we gave Olivia and a few pickets in order for them to let us pass. These friends of Peter were actually headed to where we came from, and we wished them luck. Then it was back to the expectant parents in Portland and horribly dreary summer vacation.

Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening

Robert Frost

Whose woods these are I think I know.

His house is in the village though;

He will not see me stopping here

To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer

To stop without a farmhouse near

Between the woods and frozen lake

The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake

To ask if there is some mistake.

The only other sounds the sweep

Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep.

But I have promises to keep,

And miles to go before I sleep,

And miles to go before I sleep.

Climbing the Commander Glacier. David was one of the four trip leaders.
Returning from the climb of Mt. Commander
No one says No to Spam

Setting up basecamp
On the approach to the Commander Glacier.

Mount Karnak, 11,156

Nearing the summit of Jumbo Peak, 11,242

And it rained on the descent back to basecamp...

Our Basecamp

The Lake of the Hanging Glacier from Mount Commander