Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Reflections on the Gunsight Range

Climbing trips often take on new meaning a few days or weeks after the return to civilization.  Sometimes the most successful trips paradoxically elicit a bout of depression, a casting about in the drudgery of every day life.  On the other hand, the failures, and even the semi-successes, if coupled with the right amount of sheer suffering, can somehow seem in retrospect like a good time – maybe even a good idea!  A few days and a few hundred miles can change the perceptions of an intense experience. 

So it is with my recent trip into the Gunsight Range of the North Cascades, a remote ridge of granite in a wild and committing setting.  36 hours after getting back to Portland, I pulled off my socks in a hotel room in Detroit on the 45th floor of the Marriot Renaissance.  I looked down and saw swollen ankles bulging over the tops of my shoes.  As I peeled away my black dress socks, I revealed track marks in my skin, where my legs had swelled around the confining mesh of the material.

My feet didn’t hurt, but they looked like I might flip upside down and float away.  Nasty cankles.

At that moment, it was difficult to remember the auspicious start, the scenic boat ride down Lake Chelan.  The tasty stop in the Stehekin bakery on the way to the trail head.  The 9-mile hike on a clean trail through amazing old-growth forest.  The warm fire at a campsite nestled up against the banks of Agnes Creek, a pristine river. 

Nate and Jaime at a creek crossing
Good times during the walk in

A warm firm amongst the old-growth
Instead, all I could remember was the suffering on day 2 of the approach.  The endless bushwhacking through dense thickets of vine maple.  The thick clouds of hungry black flies.  The dehydration.

But eventually, the swelling in my cankles receded, and as my conference in Detroit progressed, my mind focused more on the adventure and the climbing and less on the suffering.  I started to think more about the beautiful landscape, the solitude, the clean granite (which we got to experience in short bursts), and good times with good friends.  A stark contrast with the urban decay of Detroit.  Yeah we suffered, but it was so fun!  I was lucky just for the chance to visit this place.

Post-schwack bliss
Yeah the views
Now, after a week, I think back and remember rainbows and ponies and how much fun I had freezing my ass off before rappelling in the rain down a lose, dirty gully into a ten foot moat.  My mind zooms in on the 20 feet of amazing climbing, ignoring the torrential rain storm and 3:30 am wake up call for the 3000 ft. death march to the valley floor.  I reflect fondly on the storm that caught us 50 ft from the summit, how much heavier my wet backpack was on the 10 hour hike out, and how much better it carried with a broken suspension system.  Now that I’m back, and warm, and dry, and a long way from those freaking mountains, the whole trip seems like a blast!

Despite the suffering and the shenanigans – the navigational challenges and bushwhacking – the insects, and rain and … well … Nate’s stench in the tent (sorry dude) – we did manage to get some climbing in. 

Climbing Day # 1 saw Nate and I on the South Ridge of South Gunsight – aka the Canon Hole Route.  The route was short (theme for the trip), but the climbing was fun and airy.  Once on top of the ridge, we negotiated two very delicate sections requiring us to step from one tower to the next across an exposed gap in the rock.  We summitted South Gunsight and met up with Doug and Jaime who had scratched out a route on the northeast-ish face of South Gunsight.

Looking back on the South Ridge of South Gunsight
On the Ridgeline
Nate at the one rappel on route
Nate enjoying the diving board summit of South Gunsight with Middle and North behind
Climbing Day #2 brought us to the East Face of Middle Gunsight, III, 5.10d.  We had read reports that this was the best quality rock in the entire North Cascades – this one route right here.  We were stoked to check it out.

Morning Approach
On the approach

The Moat
The day before, Doug and Jaime had scoped out the first pitch.  The descriptions we had read started at the base of the East Face of Middle Gunsight, which would require a carry over of our axes and crampons for the descent.  Instead, we started at the base of the notch between Middle and South.  This alternative start allowed us to leave the gear at the base and climb relatively unencumbered on the high quality rock.

Jaime Starting up the .10b Double Cracks of Pitch 2
Nate Low on the Route

From there we got into the business.  Nate did a great job on the .10b double cracks, working up the insecure crux right off the deck.  From there, I swung through into the .10c corner, up the flake and then through the exciting .10-ish mantle out right to a ledge.  Note – save something bigger than a tipped out red master cam for the mantle move.  Exciting!  Nate got the .10a hand crack and then I pulled through the strenuous but beautiful .10d finger crack into the tight hands splitter. 

From there the shenanigans started.  We had a bit of trouble figuring out the traversing pitch because of two big, scary looking flakes that threatened to take out the belay station.  It took us awhile to suss this out, and by the time we got across to the ridgeline, bad weather had moved in.  Doug led up the summit ridge moving through airy terrain in very suspect weather.  When he found a rappel station about 50ft short of the summit, it was raining steady, and we decided to rap off rather than play lightning rod to the gods.  One double rope rap brought us to the notch between Middle and South Gunsight.  One more nasty, loose, dirty, muddy and cold rap deposited us in the moat at the base of the notch.

Nate in a fog
Jaime rapping into the soup
Getting silly in the rain  Photo by Doug Hutchinson
Thankful to be off the mountain in one piece, we packed it up and hightailed it back to camp in the rain.  By the time we rolled in, it was late.  We had originally planned to knock out half the return trip that afternoon but decided instead to wait out the storm.

It rained hard all night but finally let up at 3 am, just 30 minutes before our wake-up call.  We loaded our soaking wet kits into drenched packs and started downhill.  After a hellish 6-7 hours on the descent, we finally made it back to the trail, but still had 9 miles to go to catch the last bus of the day at High Bridge.  A brutal speed hike ensued but we made the bus, caught a sweet flight back down Lake Chelan and rolled into Portland at around 1 am.  Whew!

Nate on the Flight Down Lake Chelan
Don't Tell
Less than 24 hours later I boarded a red eye bound for Detroit.  Instead of a vast wilderness and three good friends, I looked out on a sea of strange faces all destined for somewhere unknown.  As the plane took off, my mind drifted back to Gunsight, and the transformation had begun.


For more info on the Gunsight Range check out:

Mountain Project

and TRs

And here's a little more eye candy to tempt you into the suffer fest.


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