Jones, “American”

Niagara, Jones, and 13,744' from American

Niagara, Jones, and 13,744′ from American


Because some friends were visiting Ouray, and thanks in part to Scott’s generous boot sponsorship, I recently took a quick trip to southwestern Colorado for some winter mountaineering-related program activities between storms. Since I have limited patience for roped climbing of any sort, and am mostly an aerobic athlete, I decided to add a bit of peak-bagging to the ice-cragging. After considering various things on my to-do list, I decided to tag Jones and “American,” two nondescript high 13ers near Silverton, the former one of Colorado’s highest 100.

Slog along Animas

Slog along Animas

Leaving home at the ungodly hour of 3:30, I sped the boring hours to Durango, then tested out my car’s anti-lock brakes on the snow-packed turns between Purgatory and Silverton. After passing through the scenic and mostly useless town, I continued up the Alpine Loop along the Animas River to where plowing ends at Eureka. I stuck my head outside the car, quickly retreated to put on more warm clothing and cram down another egg sandwich, then started snowshoeing up the road toward Cinnamon Pass around 9:30. I might have been traveling the Alpine Loop, but I was not crazy enough for an alpine start.

Burns Gulch bridge

Burns Gulch bridge

After much slogging, I passed a bridge leading to the possibly-still-active mine at the head of Burns Gulch, then cluelessly continued on for a quarter mile before crossing the Animas on a snow bridge and climbing a slide path to reach the jeep road. Beyond the end of the road, the valley splits around Jones Peak, the south fork leading to the saddle between Jones and Niagara, the north to the southwest corner of American Basin via a long, rolling talus field. The talus was all well-covered in snow, but the rolling terrain still made for an exhausting slog through the heavy powder.

Distant Needles and Grenadiers

Distant Needles and Grenadiers

Nearing Point 13,744′, I took off my snowshoes where the wind had scoured the talus nearly clean, then stashed them in a sheltered spot before taking the detour west to tag American. There appeared to be a trail marked by wooden stakes under the snow, but the best path was dictated by the haphazard drifts. Though I sometimes sunk hip-deep, I was better off neither wearing nor carrying my snowshoes, since they would have been awkward worn on the talus, and would have acted as a sail on my back in the freezing crosswind. Realizing I had left my goggles in the car, I “enjoyed” the views for all of about 10 seconds before retracing my steps.

Summiting Jones

Summiting Jones

After a brief panic searching for my snowshoes by the wrong rock, I found them and continued south to Jones. The ridge was probably class 2 in dry conditions, but with cliffs and wind keeping me off the west side, and deep snow making the east unappealing, I ended up on a mixture of class 2-3 rock and unpredictably deep snow near the crest. Too much cursing and muttering later, I reached Jones’s summit just after 4:00 PM. The wind, which had been whipping spindrift off the surrounding peaks all day, seemed to be intensifying toward evening, though I was still reasonably comfortable in the sun.

Private, schmivate...

Private, schmivate…

I had enough daylight to continue to Niagara, and moonlight to see me home, but I decided I had had enough. I dropped down Jones’s southwest face to the southern branch of Burns Gulch, eventually rejoining my old snowshoe tracks, then taking a shortcut down the main gulch toward the mine at its mouth. This route proved uneventful other than a slide down a short snow-step, and I soon crossed the bridge and rejoined my tracks on the Alpine Loop. I had hoped that the waxing moon would allow me to reach the car without headlamp, but it rose late in the canyon, and I gave in to common sense about 30 minutes from the car. Sufficiently tired, I changed out of my snow-caked boots, then drove around to Ouray for a cold night in the car.

La Malinche

View down route

View down route


La Malinche (or Malintzin) is a 14,600′ volcano between Orizaba and Iztaccíhuatl, named for Hernán Cortés’s Nahua mistress and translator. With a “low” trailhead around 10,000′, it is a considerably harder hike than Nevado de Toluca, despite being 700′ lower. However, because it lacks distracting lakes and sub-peaks, most people who visit aim for the summit via a relentlessly-steep 4-mile trail.

After two days doing essentially nothing on the beach in Veracruz, we were anxious to get back to the mountains, and Malinche was right on the way to the airport. Sensing an opportunity to fulfill my driving obligation in the least onerous way, I volunteered to drive the first stretch. After some boring driving through the coastal lowlands, we followed another amazing (and expensive) toll road that climbed another lush, steep valley via many bridges. Emerging north of Orizaba, the road crossed a dry, rolling plain on its way to Huamantla. Evidence of volcanic activity was all around us: to the south, Orizaba presented its northern, glaciated face; ahead loomed Malinche; and at several points the road crossed lava flows that were home to enormous Joshua trees. For some reason the trees only grew on the lava, yielding strangely abrupt transitions to grassland with sparse pines.

Upon reaching the plain, the road turned from a divided highway to a strange two-lane road with wide shoulders delimited by dashed white lines. Proper driving etiquette was terrifying at first, though I got used to it. When someone wanted to pass, they would simply pull out and do so. It was the responsibility of both the person they were passing and any oncoming cars to pull partly onto the shoulder and cede the center of the road. The system actually works quite well, and the constant attention it demands from all drivers probably keeps them focused on the road rather than their cell phones.

"Parking lot"

“Parking lot”

After some circling back and forth and a little wrong-way driving, we found the nicely-paved road to La Malinche National Park, which is gated just above a restaurant and haphazard parking among tall pine trees. Nearby, a family was enjoying a campfire, and several heavily-armed park rangers lounged next to their ATV. Cameron got a few minutes’ head start, expecting Mike and I to catch up, but he was evidently feeling fast at lower elevations, and beat us to the summit. The road continues well above the gate, and we followed it for a couple of switchbacks before turning onto the direct hikers’ trail. Mike for some reason decided to make a bit of an effort, so I got to suffer.

Steep climb above subpeak

Steep climb above subpeak

We met all sorts of people on the trail, from runners in Lycra to children to overweight middle-aged women. We even passed one of the park rangers, who had left his body armor behind but was still moving slowly in uniform and combat boots. After cutting switchbacks to the top of the road, the trail parallels a badly-eroded former trail, then heads straight up a steep slope of sand and grass to the ridge between the summit and a bump to its north. After passing a rock window on the ridge, it climbs haphazardly up large talus, ending in a short third-class scramble to a decent-sized summit area.

Malinche's east side

Malinche’s east side

We all ended up summiting in around 1h45, far slower than the 1h10 ascent record, but still a respectable 2600 ft/hr, joining a half-dozen people and an exhausted dog lounging among the rocks.
Summit dog

Summit dog

Mike and Cameron soon headed down, while I hung out for awhile to take in Malinche’s steep eastern side and Orizaba farther away, and to try to talk to the locals. Two of them were guides, an older man smoking a cigarette and a 17-year-old boy with slightly better English. Impressively, the boy had been guiding since he was 14, and had climbed all the local volcanoes multiple times.

Hikers' trail through trees

Hikers’ trail through trees

After exhausting their and my limited foreign language skills, I took off back down the mountain, moving as quickly as I could down the talus to reach the skiable sand. Unlike Orizaba, this sand descent was reasonably technical, with intermittent hard patches and rocks to avoid, so I passed Mike and Cameron before the trail entered the woods. The lower trail was steep enough to be an unpleasant run, but walking would have been slow and dull, so I pounded on down to the trailhead, reaching it in 44 minutes from the summit, once again far slower than the record.

A VW bus made its way slowly through the parking lot as I waited for the others, blasting ice cream truck music to announce its purpose. Having hours to kill before returning our rental car, and no desire to spend more time than necessary in Mexico City, we headed over to the restaurant for something like lunch. Without asking about prices, we ordered beers and chicken quesadillas, then realized that with our limited remaining cash, we might have to spend awhile washing dishes. Our worries were misplaced: the bill came out to all of $8, temping us to stick around and order more food.

Having cleverly done my driving in the morning, I let Cameron do the final stretch into Mexico City. It was mostly non-awful until the last five miles, where a teeming mass of cars and buses fought over lanes, swerving in and out of the frontage road between dividers while vendors walked boldly among the trapped cars. After some contortions to reach a gas station and refill the rental car, we dragged our bags over to the airport and settled in to kill time until our 5:30 AM flight. Unfortunately, even with a camping pad sleep is hard to find in a busy airport.

Pico de Orizaba (Citlatépetl, ~3h40 up)

Starting toward Orizaba

Starting toward Orizaba


At 18,490′, Pico de Orizaba (or Citlatépetl, “Star Mountain”) is North America’s third highest peak, behind Denali and Logan. Its north side is home to Mexico’s largest glacier, extending from near the summit to around 16,000′, though most of its aspects are entirely unglaciated. Because it is a volcano, i.e. a giant pile of loose sand and terrible rock, the standard route takes advantage of the glacier, approaching from the north via a purportedly rough road to a hut above 14,000′. However, the peak can also be approached from the south, where a radio telescope on neighboring Sierra Negra ensures that a road to the 13,100′ saddle between the two peaks is reasonably maintained (and hosts a webcam). Since our rental car would take us higher on the south side, and hiring a 4WD is expensive, we opted for the Ruta Sur. Though it is the expected loose slog on the way up, I highly recommend this route for the nice camping near the trailhead and epic scree-ing on the descent.

Nearing the end of the road

Nearing the end of the road

After the last night’s adventures, we got a lazy start from Ciudad Serdán, despite having a potentially long morning drive to the south side of Orizaba. This being our biggest day in terms of gain (5,300′) and peak elevation (18,490′), I was antsy to start early; in retrospect, there was no reason to do so, and we probably should have slept in. In any case, after retracing our route a short ways, we turned off on a side road through Atzitzintla and Texmalaquilla, which ultimately leads to the radio telescope. Our outdated guidebook said the road was steep dirt, but it is now semi-paved to the saddle, and passable for any passenger car with enough power or a low enough gear. Beyond the saddle, the road remains passable for another half-mile or so to a well-used trailhead and camping area. It quickly goes to hell after that, though a high-clearance 4WD with a granny gear can reach just over 15,000′, making this perhaps the highest road in North America.

Fausto Gonzales hut

Fausto Gonzales hut

After picking out a random selection of gear, we started hiking around 9:30. I brought crampons (useless), a down jacket and mitts (nice, but not necessary), and about two liters of water, but left my ice axe behind. In retrospect, the peak could be done for speed with a single bottle, a handful of gels, hat and gloves, and a windbreaker. Starting at such a “low” elevation, we climbed about 1,000′ before reaching tree line, and grass and flowers extended to nearly 15,000′. The 4WD road switchbacks steeply to just below the orange-painted Fausto Gonzales hut near 15,500′, while a steeper climbers’ trail cuts directly across most of the bends. We met a fair number of people on this stretch headed in both directions, and two SUVs more competent than ours.

Ascent (red) and descent (green) routes

Ascent (red) and descent (green) routes

Unlike the Los Cien hut on Iztaccíhuatl, the Fausto Gonzales is sort of a dump, with a bare, dirty concrete floor and two utterly repulsive outhouses in back. After dithering around for a few minutes, we started up the long gully leading to the summit. There are three possible routes: a ridge of rocky outcroppings to the left, loose sand on either side of the gully, or talus in its center. The best upward route would probably be the ridge, but the talus was stable lower down and closer to the climbers’ trail, so I chose that, and the others followed.

Talus-slog lower down

Talus-slog lower down

I felt slightly faster than the day before at the same elevation, feeling the noticeable slowdown closer to 16,000′, but this part was a pure cardiovascular test, so I was in complete coma drive keeping up with Mike. The talus became less stable as the gully steepened higher up, and eventually I decided to cut over to the ridge. After a short but extremely unpleasant crossing of the sandy slope — thrashing at a 45 degree angle to move straight across — I reached the ridge and found much easier going that allowed me to gap Mike, who stayed on the talus for awhile. I also found plenty of bootprints and, as is depressingly common in Mexico, bits of trash.

Climbing on the upper ridge

Climbing on the upper ridge

Unlike the past two days, there was a strong west wind, which encouraged me to stay on the protected right-hand side of the ridge. Passing through 17,000′, I felt no effects of altitude other than the expected slowness. However Mike was apparently feeling light-headed when he stopped, and Cameron appeared to be suffering a bit. I found a sheltered nook and put on my shell and mitts to wait for them, then continued climbing.

Dangerous loose section

Dangerous loose section

The convenient ridge disappears below a white rock outcrop known as “the pulpit,” and the steep, loose slope above is both frustrating and dangerous. Moving from rock to rock up the sand-slope, I broke off a decent-sized outcropping, which broke into several pieces and sped down toward the others below. I yelled “rock!” (less colorful than the Mexican equivalent, “aguas!”, a warning from former times of incoming night-soil), though I am not sure they could hear me over the wind. Fortunately no one was hurt, and I continued somewhat more cautiously and less selfishly.

Convenient plane bits

Convenient plane bits

The rock becomes somewhat more solid at the pulpit, and a bizarre plane wreck also provides good holds. Topping out on this section, I got my first views of both the crater and the summit cross. I slogged up the much easier final slope, then did the traditional jog up the last 10 yards to tag the cross, reaching it just as oxygen debt caught up with me. I had expected to find crowds of Americans on the summit, arriving via the standard northern route, but found only a single woman from Guatemala. Using the cross as a windbreak, we shared Coke and Mexican Cheetos, and I learned that she was quite the mountaineer. In addition to four times up Orizaba, she had made three attempts at Everest, reaching 25,000′ once and witnessing this year’s devastating avalanche on the latest.

Crater

Crater

While there are good views from the summit west to Popo, Izta, and La Malinche, the eye is drawn east to the abyss of Orizaba’s crater. 1,500′ wide, it plunges vertically on all sides in rotten and rime-covered cliffs to an invisible floor 1,000′ below. I am sure someone has been inside, but it would take a long rope to get down, ascenders to get back out, and some creativity to make an anchor on the sandy rim. I stepped as far as I dared down the loose slope on its edge to take some photos, then retreated a bit to sit out of the wind and wait for the others. It was chilly even out of the wind, and I would have been uncomfortable sitting still without my puffy. As the others had not brought down jackets, we did not stay long after they arrived.

Scree-ing with Popo, Itza, and Malinche behind

Scree-ing with Popo, Itza, and Malinche behind

Retracing our steps would have been slow, and would have subjected other climbers to a hail of rockfall. Instead, we headed into the next gully west of the ridge, where we enjoyed epic scree-ing in the sandy equivalent of untracked powder down to about 17,000′. Here we crossed back over to the ascent gully, where further sand took us within a short hike of the hut. Including stops, I averaged about 100 vertical feet per minute descending from the summit to 16,000′. This is why the south route beats the north, despite the slog on the way up.
Epic scree-ing

Epic scree-ing

I chatted with a guide and his client as I emptied my shoes and waited for the others, then we all continued to the car at a comfortable walk, jogging a few sections of the road for variety. We passed a variety of people on the way down, from mountaineers with camping gear to locals out for a hike, but no fellow gringos.

It was only early afternoon, but we were all feeling worked after three busy days, so after hanging out for awhile at the trailhead, we drove only as far as the town of Orizaba before finding a hotel and some terrible (but cheap!) pizza. The road from the Mexican Altiplano down to the town at 4,000′ was spectacular, passing through several tunnels as it wound its way down the side of a lush, steep-sided valley from which Orizaba would occasionally show itself far above. Having avoided injury so far, I let my guard down in the hotel and cut my big toe exiting the bathroom, leaving blood all over the floor. As John Muir said, “few places in this world are more dangerous than home. Fear not, therefore, to try the mountain-passes.”

Iztaccíhuatl (~4h up)

Izta from visitor center

Izta from visitor center


We woke up at a reasonable hour in Amecameca, added ice axes and crampons to our packs, and drove up to Paso de Cortés, the 11,100′ saddle between Iztaccíhuatl and Popocatépetl. Once dirt, this road is now nicely paved on the west side, and I cleverly chose to do some of my share of the driving on this uncrowded and scenic stretch. We stopped at the shiny visitor center, picked up a day pass ($5 for the three of us), then drove a decent dirt road to the southern La Joya trailhead at 13,100′.

View back to Popo

View back to Popo

Rather than being a symmetric cone like neighboring Popo and most volcanoes, Izta is a long, undulating ridge with numerous false summits. From the east or west, it looks like a woman lying on her back, with the pechas being the high point. Therefore it would be several hours before we could see the summit. There were already a decent number of cars at the trailhead when we started at 8:40, unsurprising for a weekend during prime climbing season. The route starts on the shady western side of the mountain, but soon crosses over to east- and southeast-facing slopes, where it was already hot enough to be sweating in a t-shirt. Having expected it to be cold at such high elevations, I had neglected to bring my sun hat on the trip, an omission I regretted as I alternately suffered in my warm hat and roasted my scalp.

"Ankle" camp

“Ankle” camp

After a brief period of shade, we crossed a saddle at the “ankles,” where we met several people breaking camp or just enjoying the clear, windless day at 14,800′. Below to the east, a herd of cows or horses grazed in a spring-fed meadow. A variety of use trails lead from the ankles to the Los Cien hut at 15,500′, most involving unpleasant travel through loose sand or (worse) ball bearings over hard-pack. The hut was reasonably clean, and even had a decent supply of ramen and tuna, but we kept going after only the briefest look around.

Hut and miserable climb to "knees"

Hut and miserable climb to “knees”

From the hut to the “knees,” the route climbs a steep slope of miserably loose sand and rocks. The rocks to the right provide some relief, but the climb still involves a fair amount of back-sliding. I also began to notice the altitude above 15,500′: while the climbing so far had felt more or less the same as climbing a fourteener, my “cardiovascular ceiling” was noticeably lower above Los Cien. This was most noticeable when taking large steps up rock or powering through back-sliding sand. Other than becoming winded more easily, the altitude seemed to have no effect for the remainder of the day.

Comfy at 16,500'

Comfy at 16,500′

After passing through a short third class rock band that gave Cameron a bit of trouble, we reached our first false summit at the “knees,” featuring the mangled remains of some sort of tower. Amazingly, it was windless and probably in the mid-40s — t-shirt weather while moving uphill at 16,500′. The summit is still hidden, but the rolling, gradually ascending route to the glacier is clearly visible. After dropping off the knees, we scrabbled our way east of the next subpeak on wretchedly-angled ball bearings and hard-pack, then followed the ridge to the edge of the glacier, where we could at last see the summit. Though it is in rapid retreat, the wind gathers enough snow here to have created an ice-saddle that will last for some decades yet.
Glacier and summit

Glacier and summit

While Cameron put on his crampons, Mike and I carefully made our way down the glacier’s crunchy surface to the flat saddle, where it was an easy walk in running shoes to the other side.

Exposed dirt-traverse

Exposed dirt-traverse

From there to the summit, the route stays mostly on the ridge, except for one somewhat exposed dirt-traverse to the east. Feeling the same inexplicable urge, both Mike and I jogged the last 20 yards to the summit, reaching it about 4 hours from the trailhead, including several stops. Even at 17,100′, it was barely cold enough for me to add my shell to my long-sleeved shirt. Secor’s 15-year-old book describes the summit as a snow dome, but we found three similarly-high points of dirt ringing a lower ice-field on the south, west, and north.
Ravens and summit icefield

Ravens and summit icefield

We talked with two fit-looking Mexican triathletes for a few minutes, then hung out watching a herd of ravens play near the next summit before retracing our steps.

Headed down

Headed down

Even in the mountains, Mexico seems to operate on a relaxed schedule, and we passed a steady stream of people on their way up in the early afternoon. The hard-packed sidehill section to the saddle above the knees was unpleasant, barely faster going down than up, as we had to carefully skitter across the dirt between the refuge of stable rock outcroppings. The descent from the “knees” to the hut was a challenging but fun scree-ski; as on Toluca the day before, my experience on such terrain gave me a good gap over Mike and Cameron, made larger when they went too far west and cliffed out above the third class step.
Looking down slog above hut

Looking down slog above hut

This gave me plenty of time to sit at the hut and watch the crowd. No one else seemed to have the English or inclination to talk, and I am not good enough at Spanish or humans to want to start a conversation myself. So I ate my Christmas candy and watched them enjoy their cheese and bottle of wine until the others arrived.

Finishing the hard-pack sidehill

Finishing the hard-pack sidehill

After more mixed slippery dirt and loose sand below the hut, we passed the only other white person on the mountain, a guy from Seattle on his way up to camp at the hut. Though still around 15,000′, I absurdly felt like I was “down low” on this section. There was a sizable crowd at the “ankles,” including a dozen or so members of some kind of scouting organization, one of them eating something that looked disturbingly like a full diaper. The people here were more outgoing, and a friendly young woman named Dora approached us and chatted for awhile, then offered Mike and I a taste of the “diaper,” which turned out to be a paper-wrapped pastry stuffed with some blackish plant whose name I did not recognize. It tasted… better than it looked.

The rest of the day was straightforward, if unpleasantly slippery. Mike had the worst of it in his worn road-running shoes, falling several times and getting a nice flapper on his palm, but after making it nearly to the car without a fall, I managed to sit down in some mysterious mud right in front of a ranger. Though the trail had been dry on the way up, and there had been no rain, the porous volcanic soil and rock apparently store up moisture and releases it in the heat of the day.

Parting view of Popo

Parting view of Popo

After returning to the now-full parking lot, we drove back to Paso de Cortés, where I eyed placid-looking Popo. Though it is apparently not safe enough for modern mountaineers, Diego de Ordaz likely reached the summit in 1519, and Francisco Montaño had himself repeatedly lowered into the crater of the lightly-erupting volcano in 1521 to retrieve 60 pounds of sulfur for gunpowder. But we live in a timid age, so after a longing glance, we headed down the dirt eastern side of the pass.

Malinche and Orizaba

Malinche and Orizaba

This was much slower than the way up, with many overloaded cars picking their way along the rough and winding road. The faster drivers passed aggressively close to blind corners, counting on oncoming cars to make room for them. One particularly aggressive driver in a lifted pickup blatantly forced us and an oncoming car to make room as he sped past us. When his running board broke and forced him to stop a few hundred yards later, we cackled with glee. The road became paved above the little town of Xalitzintla, and we could at last go faster, though we had to remain ever-vigilant for the evil Mexican speed bumps, which are large, sharp, unpredictable, and rarely painted or signed. (Sometimes there will even be a speed bump before the stop sign at an intersection, and another one on the other side.)

Cultural postlude

We made better time on the highway through Puebla, but foolishly failed to stop for food or rest until we were back out in the boondocks. We grabbed some mediocre gas station food, then looked for the nearest hotel in our GPS, finding one a couple of miles away in Palmar de Bravo. If the owners took the time to submit a listing, how bad could it be? Well…

The place looked closed as we pulled up, with just an old woman sitting in the dimmed front room. We were about to leave when a middle-aged woman, perhaps her daughter, came to the door and offered us a room for about $25, normally enough for two decent beds. It looked vaguely sketchy, so we asked to see the room first. The middle-aged woman and a younger one (her daughter?) led us up a flight of stairs, through a dimly-lit dining room full of empty tables, and down a short hall with three doors. The room looked old and smelled a bit funny, but it had beds, a toilet, and a sort-of shower (a shower head sticking out of the bathroom wall, and a shower curtain serving as the bathroom door), and we were tired. After pulling the car around to the side for parking, we dragged our suitcases up to the room and gave her sufficient money, expecting change. As we began to settle, she sprayed the hell out of the place with some sort of perfumed disinfectant.

A few minutes after the women left, Cameron discovered that the toilet did not flush. With no real bathroom door, this made the room unlivable. The woman seemingly claimed that she just needed to turn on the water to the toilet, but when that did not work, she offered us two of the other rooms for another 100 pesos. I was frustrated and wanted to take our money and leave, but the others seemed tired enough to be willing to put up with the place, so we reluctantly accepted her deal. I didn’t want to use the shower, and would probably sleep in my sleeping bag on top of the bed, but it had been a long day, so… whatever.

Then I went to my room, turned to close the door, and found a dead mouse behind it. The middle-aged woman was still hanging around in the hall, so I called her in and pointed this out. In a put-upon way, she explained that she had just fumigated the place — apparently I was supposed to be grateful that the mouse was dead — then picked it up in a paper towel and went downstairs.

I was thoroughly pissed at this point, and after a few minutes we agreed to leave, so I went downstairs to get our money back, perhaps letting her keep 100 pesos as a peace offering. Downstairs, I found that a car had pulled up in front, and the woman was talking to its driver at the door. I explained that the rooms would not work, and that we wanted to take our money and go. She said something I took to mean “I’ll be with you in a minute,” then went to the next room, money in hand, before I figured out her game. In an extended and heated conversation aided by the automatic translation app on Cameron’s phone, she claimed not to have the money, so our only choice was to take the rooms. She had probably passed it on to a co-conspirator outside, but even if not, I wasn’t about to frisk or fight her for it. At this point we decided to cut our losses, as the situation was getting sketchier by the minute; at least we still had the rest of our money, our stuff, and an undamaged car, and we had not been subjected to any felonies. Refusing the woman’s absurd offer to help us carry our bags to said car, we hurriedly packed up and drove away, noting that another car had joined the first out front.

Hotel in Ciudad Serdán

Hotel in Ciudad Serdán

Having learned our lesson, we looked up the next decent-sized city on the map, and drove a bleary-eyed 25 miles to Ciudad Serdán. The vibe was much better here, with cobbled streets, some old buildings and churches, and people out enjoying the Christmas fireworks. Less than $30 got us a clean room with a hot shower near downtown. I washed off the stink of the other place, then collapsed into bed.

Nevado de Toluca

Saddle with summit behind

Saddle with summit behind


Since climbing Mount Whitney, I have wondered how I would feel at higher elevations. For someone living in the lower 48, by far the cheapest and easiest way to find out is to visit the volcanoes around Mexico City. Other options within the hemisphere, such as the Andes and Alaska, require some costly combination of gear, permits, and transport. Like Starbucks drinks, Mexico’s volcanoes come in a variety of sizes, the most common being Toluca (15,350′), Iztaccíhuatl (17,154′), and Orizaba (18,491′). We chose to sample them in that order.

After our land attack this spring went off course, Mike and I decided to try again by air. While significantly more costly, this approach would be less likely to end in a barrio garage. With Mike’s friend and fellow pro mountain biker Cameron along, it even became affordable to rent a car. Because of Mike’s full-time job and airline pricing policies, we landed in Mexico City at 11:00 PM on Christmas Eve. After retrieving our bags, we rousted the rental car lady, and were on the road out of Mexico City by around 1:00 AM. The City is famous for its lawless gridlock traffic, so despite our bleary eyes, we considered ourselves lucky to be driving to Toluca during what had to be some of the least-crowded hours of the year. We checked into what claimed to be a Best Western around 2:30, and immediately passed out.

Toluca hut

Toluca hut

A morning shower would have been nice, but the room had very little running water, none of it hot, so we took off grimy for Nevado de Toluca, visible above the smog to the west. After our GPS led us on a scenic tour through a slum and a dumping area on some dirt roads, we eventually reached the highway and the nicely-paved byway. Shortly after passing through a town around 11,500′, we turned onto the rough 2WD dirt road up the volcano. After paying the entry fee (40 pesos), we continued our slow progress up to the hut at 13,800′. We could probably have driven on to the crater itself, but we were bored with the slow drive, so we parked with the other 40 or so cars on the side of the road, and followed the line of Mexican tourists up the wide path to a saddle to the south.

Flowers above 14,000'

Flowers above 14,000′

From there, the sporting route follows the crater rim over a slightly lower northeast peak, but my partners are not fans of unnecessary work, so we followed the crowd down across the crater, passing between the rather unattractive Lago del Sol and Lago de Luna. For unknown reasons, most of the tourists had stopped at the saddle or climbed the lower Arista de Humboldt, and the remainder seemed content to play around near lakes, so we were alone as we climbed a sandy path to the south rim of the crater. After some boulder-hopping and even a bit of fun third class scrambling, we reached the summit in near t-shirt weather.

Popo in the distance

Popo in the distance

We checked out the view of Popocatépetl and Iztaccíhuatl rising across the smog-lake of Mexico City, then scree-d down a gully we had passed on the way up, quickly reaching the Lago del Sol. We passed hundreds of people of all levels of fitness on our way back over the saddle to the road, most out for a casual stroll and picnic with kids, dogs, food, and drink. The road had turned into classic Mexican road chaos: parking had extended perhaps a half-mile down from the hut, and the remaining 1.5 lanes of dirt had to support both two-way traffic and a steady stream of pedestrians meandering obliviously among the gridlocked cars. We had plenty of time to reach Amecameca, so I did not mind the delay, and enjoyed learning how many people can fit in various types of car we passed (over a dozen in a VW bus).

Crowds on the way back

Crowds on the way back

Back on normal roads, we were mostly lucky in our drive through the awfulness of Mexico City, spending only about 15 minutes weaving through what looked like a spontaneous street market. By day, the smog and sprawl were oppressive. Being an international metropolis, Mexico City has its share of corporate skyscrapers, warehouses, and stores, but its defining feature is the barrios that spread over the rolling terrain like a concrete fungus. One- and two-story buildings are stacked wall-to-wall, roof-to-floor, fed by narrow streets. Most have unfinished upper stories with rebar sticking up, apparently a tactic to avoid paying taxes by remaining perpetually “under construction.”

After stopping for dinner on the eastern edge of the city, we continued to Amecameca, at over 8,000′ near the base of Popocatépetl, where we randomly chose a surprisingly nice and affordable motel. It even had a zillion channels of cable, so we were able to learn a bit of Spanish from the subtitles of one of the most deliberately awful American movies ever made. Having survived 15,400′, it was time to see how it felt to go a bit higher.

Climbing and Climate

... while any is left.

Athabasca Glacier


As politicians get together to yet again talk about maybe agreeing to do something to start addressing global warming, it’s worth remembering that we’re in for a world of hurt no matter what we do now. It’s also worth reflecting on how we mountaineers and outdoor enthusiasts are already intimately familiar with its effects.

U-notch and Palisade Glacier

U-notch and Palisade Glacier

Spending more time around glaciers these past two summers has given me a front-row seat from which to observe climate change in the form of glacial retreat. Sometimes the effects are obvious, like in the picture above of the Athabasca Glacier in the Canadian Rockies. Sometimes historical photos allow dramatic comparisons. Even when there are no photos or signposts, bare slabs and stranded moraines show where ice used to be.

Wildfire smoke obscures retreating Palisade Glacier

Wildfire smoke obscures retreating Palisade Glacier

Freshly-exposed slabs in the Tantalus Range

Freshly-exposed slabs in the Tantalus Range

Routes described in 20- and 30-year-old guidebooks have changed dramatically, with many becoming more difficult or dangerous. For example, the U-notch in the Sierra Nevada, once a popular fall ice climb, now ends in bare, dangerous dirt where a tongue of ice once extended from the Palisade Glacier to the saddle east of North Palisade. Third-class routes on Ritter and Middle Palisade have become more difficult to start as the glaciers at their bases have retreated to expose bare, gritty rock. Many classic routes on the eastern side of Washington’s North Pickets are either dramatically changed or unclimbable due to the breakup of the cirque’s hanging glaciers. Routes in the Canadian Rockies, first climbed a century ago, are completely unrecognizable today.

Remnants of Middle Palisade Glacier

Remnants of Middle Palisade Glacier

These are “first-world problems,” I know: I don’t live on a low-lying island, in a coastal city, or in parts of the Persian Gulf that may soon be literally uninhabitable, and I am not a subsistence farmer in equatorial Africa. Anyways, I will be dead before things become truly grim. Good luck to your kids.

Sandia Shield-Thumb loop (5.4-ish)

Upper La Cueva Canyon from Thumb

Upper La Cueva Canyon from the Thumb


[This entry is more of interest to climbers and scramblers living near Albuquerque than to the general public. — ed.]

The Sandias are either a small mountain range or a large mountain rising 5,000 feet above Albuquerque in central New Mexico. The steep western side features many trails for hikers and runners, and a wide variety of scrambling and climbing routes on its many fins and towers. Sandia is thus an excellent “workout peak” in the spring and fall, when it is neither too hot nor covered in snow.

One of my favorite routes, which I have done several times, climbs the knife edge of the Shield (4th class), then descends the La Luz trail with a side-trip over the northwest ridge of the Thumb (5.4-ish). The route involves a bit under 4,500 feet of elevation gain, and can be comfortably completed in a short day (4h30 to 6 hours) when climbing unroped and jogging the descent. To skip the hardest climbing, or to shorten the outing, one can either climb up and down the Thumb’s southeast ridge, or skip it entirely.

Shield (l) and Needle (r) from near trailhead

Shield (l) and Needle (r) from near trailhead

From Tramway Boulevard, drive up Forest Road 333 toward the La Luz trailhead, but stay straight on the dirt continuation of 333 for perhaps 1/2 mile to a large parking lot near a gate. Unlike La Luz, this lot does not require a day use fee (yay!). From the lot, hike along the dirt road until the Piedra Lisa trail leaves to the right. Follow this trail as it meanders up and down through several ravines, then climbs to a 7,600-foot saddle at the base of the Shield.

Lower Shield and shadow of Needle

Lower Shield and shadow of Needle

Leave the Piedra Lisa trail and follow a well-defined climbers’ trail east along the ridge, climbing through piñon and oak brush to the base of the Shield’s scrambling. Staying near the crest, most of the climbing is class 2-3. The crux is at and above the “W”, a double notch visible from the approach. When it is dry, one can easily jump across the first notch and hand-traverse the second; snow can complicate things a bit. Above the “W”, more 4th class climbing leads to easier terrain, where another use trail follows the crest and north side of the ridge over the summit of North Sandia to the Crest trail.

From the intersection with the Crest trail, a pleasant, rolling run/hike leads to the parking lot and gift shop at the crest. While there is water available, it is all trucked in, so you have to ask nicely for it, and should probably only do so in an emergency.

Thumb, with NW ridge on right

Thumb, with NW ridge on right

The La Luz trail leaves the Crest trail at the south end of the gift shop, and descends past the Thumb along the south side of La Cueva Canyon in a series of maddeningly flat switchbacks. Once below the stairs, look for a use trail leading from the north end of a switchback to the old trail in the center of the canyon. This route saves quite a bit of distance and time, and avoids numerous annoying talus-field crossings.

To reach the Thumb’s northwest ridge, leave the (new) trail at the end of the last switchback before it crosses La Cueva Canyon. Alternatively, get back on the new trail from the old where the two nearly join, and leave it at the next switchback. If you are in the right place, you will pass some old fencing, then ascend a treed bench on a climbers’ trail to reach a ledge at the base of the route.

Start of Thumb's NW ridge

Start of Thumb’s NW ridge

The first two pitches are probably the hardest, so if you’re comfortable at first, you should be fine with the rest of the route. An optional crux higher up, marked by an old ring piton, can be bypassed by traversing left, then climbing up and back right to the ridge crest. Eventually the climbing eases off, with lots of class 2-3 scrambling leading to a final 4th class headwall just below the summit. To descend, follow the cairned route along the southwest side of the southeast ridge until it reaches a saddle. From here, follow bits of use trail straight down through the woods on the left side of a talus field, then cross it and descend the woods on the other side to pick up the trail.

Thumb with NW ridge on left

Thumb with NW ridge on left

Rather than following the meandering new trail, it is much more pleasant to continue along the old trail below where the new one crosses La Cueva Canyon, passing through a nice aspen grove before climbing slightly to rejoin the new trail near a minor saddle. From here, put on some music to pass the time on the maddeningly flat switchbacks back to the La Luz trailhead, then walk the road back to the Piedra Lisa trailhead.

2015 in review

Northern Pickets from Luna

Northern Pickets from Luna

This was half a good season and half a bad one, so I suppose that makes it mediocre overall. I managed to do most of the speed outings I wanted, but failed to do any “real mountaineering.” I also managed to sideline myself for over a month with an ankle injury, a frustrating experience I hope not to repeat. Anyways, here are the highlights.

Type II fun

  • Olympus: I had been meaning to do Olympus for awhile, as it is both an ultra-prominence peak and one of the longer day hikes in the lower 48. Things finally came together this year, and I managed what I think is a decent time. The Blue Glacier is spectacular, and not particularly difficult or dangerous in a low-snow year, but the long trail approach makes this a fairly brutal day.
  • Luna: Located in the central Pickets, Luna is one of the hardest-to-reach peaks in the lower 48. Central Picket approaches are far rougher than those to the northern and southern ends of the range. Unlike other Picket peaks, climbing Luna requires no glacier travel and only a bit of third class, so hopefully some runner will improve on my time next year.
  • Dome: The wash-out of the Suiattle River Road made Dome almost impossible as a dayhike. With its repair last fall, the peak once again became reasonably accessible, though the standard route is quite brushy. I was glad to tick it off, but there are better summits for the effort required.
  • Logan: Logan was my last Cascades 9000er, and one of the harder ones to dayhike. The standard route requires a truly grim amount of wooded trail time along Thunder Creek and a bit of easy glacier travel. I chose instead to use the Banded Glacier route, which involves more elevation gain and some bush-whacking, but is substantially shorter and more scenic. I recommend this route for dayhikers.
  • Mox Peaks: “Hard Mox” is one of the toughest of Washington’s highest 100 peaks. I had visited the scenic Chilliwack area last year, but had only tagged Mount Spickard, the easiest peak in the area. This year I returned for the remaining peaks, including both Moxes and Redoubt. While Hard Mox was tricky, the most treacherous part was getting down Easy Mox to the saddle between the two peaks. A traverse from Spickard to Redoubt via the Moxes would be a fun and challenging day.

Type I fun

I don’t normally include any of these in my annual review, but since the Cascades so often require suffering, I have included some genuinely fun outings for those new to the range.

  • Crater: Once home to a ridiculously high fire lookout, Crater is by far the highest trail-accessible peak in its area, with spectacular views of its more remote neighbors. It would make either a good dayhike or a worthy and accessible FKT.
  • Eldorado: Though I had already climbed it in 2013, I was reminded this year how climbing Eldorado is an amazingly painless way to get the full Cascades experience, from rain forest, to tundra, to snow and glaciers. The standard route does not involve significant crevasse hazard, and can be done as a long day or a leisurely overnight.

Northern Yosemite Backpacking

Northwest from Volunteer

Northwest from Volunteer


Since it has few high peaks, I have not paid northern Yosemite much attention in the past. However, I was passing by, it was smoke-free, and it contained several remote SPS peaks I had yet to climb, so I decided to go backpacking. After a couple of years away from the high Sierra, I was reminded of both the pleasure of cross-country backpacking, and the soul-crushing tedium of on-trail travel, which is often merely hours spent walking in a trench full of powdered manure. As most of the route was on-trail and therefore boring, I won’t split out the individual days as I have in the past.

After sleeping off highway 395, I rolled into Bridgeport early in the morning, checked my email outside the library, and continued to the permit office south of town. I was expecting to get a permit for the next day, but I was early enough to get a same-day entry permit, so I swung back into town to buy some dry carbohydrates, then drove up to Virginia Lake to assemble my pack. With such luxuries as a down jacket and four cans of Trader Joe’s sardines, four nights’ worth of stuff barely fit in my pack, but I got it all crammed in somehow, had a final meal, and was on the trail a bit after 10:00.

Virginia Lake to Matterhorn Canyon

Equestrians above Virginia Lake

Equestrians above Virginia Lake


Long talus-walk to Excelsior

Long talus-walk to Excelsior

I slogged up to the unnamed pass above Virginia Lake, passing some horse-tourists, then dropped my pack to tag Excelsior, the first peak on my list. One talus-slog later I was on the surprisingly popular summit, looking around at more impressive peaks like Conness and Shepherd Crest. I returned to my pack, then rejoined the trail down to Summit Lake and Pass, where it enters Yosemite and descends into Virginia Canyon.

Looking down Virginia Canyon

Looking down Virginia Canyon

The next two peaks on my list were Volunteer and Pettit, still a couple of canyons over. The obvious trail route descends Virginia Canyon to the PCT, passes over a divide by Miller Lake, then crosses deep and scenic Matterhorn Canyon to Smedberg Lake just north of Volunteer. I cruised down Virginia Canyon, passing a small tent city at the intersection with Spiller Creek, eventually meeting the PCT at one of the day’s low points.

Miller Lake

Miller Lake

The next section was notably unpleasant, a dusty slog through rolling forest across the divide with Matterhorn Canyon. The highlight is Miller Lake, with a pleasant beach and view to the south. Stopping on the beach for a snack, I got intermittent whiffs of stable smell, and figured there must be a horse camp nearby. I eventually realized that some equestrian jerk had let his horse pee on the beach right next to my obvious sitting-log. Thus encouraged to keep going, I dropped the 1,000 feet into Matterhorn Canyon, then continued a half-mile downstream to a nice camp spot.

Matterhorn Canyon to Seavey Pass

Volunteer and Benson Pass

Volunteer and Benson Pass


Smedberg Lake from Volunteer

Smedberg Lake from Volunteer

I spent the first part of the next morning grinding out the climb up the other side of the canyon to Benson Pass. After descending most of the way to Smedberg Lake, I left the trail to climb some grass and slabs to the saddle southeast of Volunteer. I dropped my pack for the short climb to the summit, from which I could see Pettit several bumps away along the ridge to the south. After reading in the register that the traverse was unpleasant, I decided not to attempt it with my overnight pack, but instead to drop down to Rodgers Lake and come at it from the west, picking up Regulation Peak along the way.

Volunteer from Pettit, with Tower behind

Volunteer from Pettit, with Tower behind

With scattered clouds blocking the sun as I rounded the lake, I felt cold and lethargic. I stopped to cook lunch and read for a while, and almost decided to stop and camp, but eventually roused myself to scramble up Regulation’s west side, a typical northern Yosemite pile of sand and scrub. After climbing a few of the highest-looking rock outcrops on top, and finding no marker or register, I continued across a saddle to Pettit. Descending from Pettit, I made my way along the south shore of Rodgers Lake to my pack, then picked up the trail back north past Volunteer to the PCT.

Benson Riviera

Benson Riviera

Back in the trench, I made a long descent along a dry streambed to the also-dry Piute Creek, where I met two men section-hiking the PCT between Carson Pass and Yosemite. They seemed to be enjoying themselves on this, one of their last two remaining sections of the trail, though I still can’t see the appeal. I was tempted to stop, but they informed me that there was running water along the trail and nice lakes up toward Seavey Pass. After a quick side-trip to check out the “Benson Riviera,” I continued up the trail, crashing at a flat spot just off the trail near the first lake. Somewhere in this section my stove must have fallen off my pack, so dinner was sardines mashed onto a few tortillas.

Seavey Pass to Spiller Creek

Lake near Seavey Pass

Lake near Seavey Pass


Piute (summit on right)

Piute (summit on right)

After spreading out my gear to air out on a rock, I took off with just my camera and an apple for nearby Piute Mountain, another SPS peak. I had no route information, but figured that I could deal with a northern Yosemite peak. After retreating a bit along the trail, I crossed below another lake, then climbed southwest up a broad, scrubby hillside to a saddle where I could finally see the cliffs of Piute’s east face. Deciding to use a steep chute south of what turned out to be the summit, I crossed a small trees-and-talus bowl to its base. This was taking longer than I had anticipated, and the day was warm, so I was grateful to find a small pool of clear water hidden in the boulders. The chute was a chossy class 3-4 affair, but it got me to the summit plateau, where I followed footprints north to the summit.

Benson Lake and Piute from Volunteer

Benson Lake and Piute from Volunteer

I admired the rolling granite landscape extending north to Tower Peak for a while. While northern Yosemite lacks the domes of Tuolomne, the huge faces of the Valley, and the great peaks of the high Sierra, the rolling, sparsely treed terrain is scenic in its own way. I chose to descend directly northeast from the summit, finding a reasonable third class route back to the saddle, from which I retraced my steps to camp.

Lower Rancheria Canyon

Lower Rancheria Canyon

I was done with my peak-bagging at this point, but was stranded distressingly far from my car. The obvious thing to do would be to retrace my route, but the though of over a full day of trail-slogging through familiar terrain, especially the unpleasant climb out of Matterhorn Canyon, held no appeal. My iPod battery would die partway through, and I would be left with nothing to distract me from the monotony. Instead, I decided to loop north up Rancheria Creek, over Mule and Burro Passes, then (hopefully) shortcut cross-country back to the head of Virginia Canyon.

Upper Rancheria Canyon

Upper Rancheria Canyon

I enjoyed the new territory for a while. Rancheria Creek is open and flat, with large granite outcrops on either side. I passed a few backpackers headed in from Twin Lakes for the weekend, and a group stopped for lunch at the junction with the Rock Island Pass trail. At this point the day had turned into a slog, so I put on some music for the wooded climb over to Snow Lake. The trail descends northeast to skirt Slide Peak, then turns back southeast to Mule Pass. I stopped at the pass to admire Sawtooth Ridge, and to inspect my hoped-for crossing into upper Spiller Creek south of Matterhorn, then dropped into Slide Canyon, joining the path we had used to reach Finger Peaks during the Sierra Challenge.

The Doodad

The Doodad

I was tired, but my mood was lifted by the prospect of finally leaving the trail, and by views of the Sawtooth just to the north, especially the huge, balanced summit block of the Doodad. From Burro Pass, the saddle south of Matterhorn looked very doable; hopefully the other side would cooperate. After side-hilling my way around the head of Matterhorn Canyon, I was encouraged and surprised to see a large group descending my intended pass. After mining them for beta about getting down the other side, I followed a faint use trail to the ridge, descended a ramp at the north side of the saddle, and started down Spiller Creek.

Looking down Spiller Canyon

Looking down Spiller Canyon

Wanting to make some more miles before dark, I bypassed the lake at the head of the canyon, figuring I would stop by the creek when I was tired. As I should have anticipated in this dry year, the upper creek was dry, but fortunately numerous springs on both sides of the valley were flowing. Around dusk, I found a nicely-made tent platform near the creek almost due east of Whorl Mountain. This is how the Sierra should be: scenic white granite, easy cross-country travel above treeline, and camping wherever you want. I miss the Cascades’ glaciers and greenery, but they can’t compare to the Sierra for backcountry rambling.

Spiller Creek out

Whorl and upper Spiller Canyon

Whorl and upper Spiller Canyon


Spiller Lake

Spiller Lake

The obvious way out from Spiller Creek is to hike down to its junction with Virginia Canyon and pick up the trail from there. However, that involves lots of extra miles and elevation loss. Looking at my topo map, I picked out a route to Spiller Lake, then over the plateau south of Stanton Peak and down to Return Lake. This might involve a similar amount of elevation gain/loss, but with fewer miles and less trail. Other than some ugly talus above Spiller Lake, the route worked well, with an easy side-hilling traverse out of Spiller Canyon to the lake, and easy cross-country travel down to Return Lake.

You know you're close to the car when...

You know you’re close to the car when…

Passing two campers at the lake and a larger group below, I followed the Virginia Pass trail a short distance downstream, then cut the corner between it and the Summit Pass trail, where I rejoined my outgoing route. It being Labor Day weekend, the trail was crowded with backpackers and dayhikers. I enjoyed the distraction, especially as I neared the lake and the dayhikers became increasingly ridiculous caricatures of SoCal culture. The winner had to be a woman walking her rat-dog, leash in one hand and Starbucks travel mug in the other, oversized phone poking out of her back pocket. Back at the trailhead, I threw my reeking sardine-trash in the dumpster, rinsed up a bit, and headed south into a pall of horrible smoke pooling in the Owens Valley.

Ossa

Tantalus and raven

Tantalus and raven


[This is old, but probably worth writing up. — ed.]

Subtle trailhead

Subtle trailhead

Ossa is the only “hiker’s peak” in the Tantalus Range north of Squamish. Though the range is less than ten miles from downtown Squamish, this is British Columbia, so it is still “remote” enough that most people get there by helicopter. For the po’ folk, there are two other options: crossing the Squamish River to the center of the range on a cable used by the water utility, and hiking in to the north end of the range from the logging road on Ashlu Creek, which bridges the Squamish. Starting at an inconspicuous sign on the Ashlu road about 200 feet above sea level, a relatively well-signed and -used trail leads to the base of a glacier at the head of Sigurd Creek around 4,000 feet. From here, the entire range can be reached with varying degrees of difficulty (and no helicopter).

Squamish River valley

Squamish River valley

From camp at the “trailhead,” I started up the trail with ice axe and running-shoe crampons. I wasn’t sure what I could do, but hoped to traverse Ossa and Pelion, the two northernmost peaks, and possibly scout out the approach to Tantalus, the highest peak in the range. Slogging up from near sea level, I admired the steep sides of the Squamish valley below. Ancient glaciers carved the valleys all the way down to the ocean here, creating either steep-sided fjord-like inlets, or flat-bottomed river valleys where broad, braided rivers meander to the sea.

First view of Pelion and Ossa

First view of Pelion and Ossa

After the initial climb along Sigurd Creek’s cascades, the valley flattens, and the trail crosses woods and slide paths, passing Sigurd Mountain and Lake to the north. This section is fortunately in good shape, with minimal bush-whacking required in the slide path. The local mountaineering club had even installed an improved log to cross Sigurd Creek, though in this dry year it could probably be forded or even jumped.

Pelion-Ossa saddle and low-lying glacier

Pelion-Ossa saddle and low-lying glacier

After more climbing, the trail emerges on the terminal moraine of a receding glacier below the Ossa-Pelion ridge. From this point, a faintly-flagged route continues to Ossa’s easy northwest ridge; climbers of Pelion and other Tantalus peaks should continue cross-country up the left-hand moraine and ridge. I had hoped to climb Pelion first, then loop over Ossa on the way back, but I didn’t know what I was doing, and the peaks are not obvious from below, so I followed the flagged route, eventually realizing that I was headed to Ossa.

Easy ridge-walk

Easy ridge-walk

I made my way south and southwest, following bits of trail through grass and krummholz, then taking the path of least resistance up talus and slabs, skirting below a glacier until I found myself on Ossa’s northwest ridge. Unlike seemingly every other ridge in the Tantalus Range, this one is broad and gentle, with easy walking mixed with class 2 steps. As I gained elevation, I began to see the rest of the range, including Pelion, and finally realized what I had done. While I had hoped to ascend Pelion first, I figured I could always do my loop in the opposite direction. Looking behind me, I was impressed by huge, high Sigurd Lake, and minor, unnamed icefields on peaks to the north and west.

Pelion from Ossa

Pelion from Ossa

Nearing the summit, I found the only difficulty on the route, a short 4th class notch with steep gullies dropping to glaciers far below on either side. Rather than taking the easy way around, I opted for the direct approach on the way up, doing a short pitch of 5.0 to reach the summit plateau. I found a register containing various scraps of paper, including a print-out of a route description, but unfortunately no information on whether the traverse from Pelion would go. With plenty of day left, I sat down in the sun to eat and think. A raven, possibly used to being fed by summiters, played in the updrafts around the peak. He obligingly kept it up for 5-10 minutes while I shot away with my camera, trying to capture both him and Tantalus to the south. To the east and west, the Squamish and Clowhom Rivers made their lazy way to the sea, just above its level. To the south loomed Tantalus and its various glaciers.

View of approach

View of approach

Examining the ridge toward Pelion, I decided that it looked unlikely to be doable, with an apparent sharp notch and spire between Ossa and the saddle. Pelion’s west ridge also looked unappealingly steep head-on, though seeing it in profile on the return, I realized that it probably would have been doable. Not wanting to mire myself in an epic, I retraced my steps. Lower down on the trail, I passed one backpacker who had tried to climb Ossa and run out of energy, and several day-hikers, possibly visiting Sigurd Peak or the falls. Tantalus itself should be day-hikeable by this approach, but not this season.