Rising before dark does have certain perks. This morning it was the magic of an indescribable sight.
We watched in awe until the enchantment dissolved in the sunlight, then climbed to the upper lake. I was saddened to find, since our last trip, others had built large, conspicuous windbreak walls and neglected to take them down. Not as awful as trash or graffiti, but still a jarring and unwelcome impact.
We faced the upper lake’s western shore, scene of last trip’s epic Class-not-2 work around. We scrambled along, and when it was time to sneak beneath the bluff, the line laid itself before us with ease. The Class 3 scramble was even simpler than Europe Peak’s, followed by a web of micro-route-finding choices; we still didn’t end up taking the absolute easiest route, suckered down by a deceptive and useless cairn on the lake shore, just to be forced to climb back up across a talus fan; even so it was still immeasurably easier and more secure than last time’s trajectory.
With so much snow missing, we boulder hopped a long, long time; straddling the terminal moraine, inching our way up the pass. High on the slope, we sat for a moment in the perfect stillness of the solar oven, the sky an aching blue, an unnamed glacier dripping, trickling, melting, gushing down the wall to our right. Not a sign of another human soul. When we topped the pass, again, the amount of snow that was gone was staggering. “Wait, where’s the Knifepoint Glacier?” asked Prana. “Has it disappeared that much this year?” I was fairly certain we weren’t far enough around to see it, but not certain enough to prevent a pit from forming in my stomach. “I hope not.” Several hundred feet further revealed it was only the surrounding snow that was gone, the glacier tucked deeper into the basin than remembered. Perhaps— or rather, undoubtedly— it had shrunk this summer; but the most striking visual was how much more of the hard ice was now exposed. Frail is not a word I’d have thought to attribute to the Glacier, when we’d seen it enrobed in its remnants of winter regalia; but how thin, how frail, the naked ice looked now.
This time as we descended, the Knifepoint receded behind us as we bore right, through an icy tunnel of shadows and into a friendly and warm valley, grassed, flowered, and beribboned with a milky turquoise river: the lesser branch of North Fork of Bull Lake Creek, the liquid body of Knifepoint feeding the land.
Cliffs soared from the valley, as the North Fork plunged down cascade after cascade. We followed its lead until we found a spot to connect stepping stones across with miraculously dry feet, then kept watch for the little knoll which was our marker to diverge. Elk trails appeared as we climbed; seemingly impenetrable willows only offering passage once we stood directly in front of them. Working up level by level, we gained the high plataeau saddle of the ridge separating the prongs of the North Fork, and were met with a sweeping overlook of red, orange, brown and black swirled rock, the flavor of volcanic rendering for the first time. We picked along the talus around first one tarn, then another, until we stood on the rim of the valley. The stunningly opalescent major branch of the North Fork hurtled and roared below, spreading in wide, celestine blue pools in the flats. Ringing the head of the spectacular basin was a semicircle of dramatic ridges and tops, an encircling of the Divide, from which glaciers hung, mint green creeks tumbled, and peaks jutted from the ice and rubble, most striking the aptly name Turret Peak. Another dazzling, magnificent area I had never heard of before this trip.
We alternately picked and fought our way down through thickly willowed tundra to the edge of Bull Lake Creek, where we were faced with fording. How deep would it be? Was the bottom rocks? Mud? The opacity obscured any hint. We stepped in; not unbearably cold, not unbearably deep. The bottom was a fine, yielding sand, a granitic flour milled from the mountainsides by the glaciers. Blossoms lined the creek as we hiked its shore towards its source, waterfalls pouring from the hanging lakes enfolded in the precipices on the opposite side. Gaining the highest shelf, an expanse of tundra formed a plateau, marked on our maps as “the Sound of Music;” perhaps it was when it was choked wall to wall with a ranging palette of flowers, but in it’s autumnal dormancy I found it quite lackluster, preferring the chaotic inspiration of the river and its erosions below.
The tundra, at its upper end, was inundated by a pearly, aquamarine flood plain, reflecting the the spires and spines that crowned the Helen glacier, cradled in the embrace of the Divide. Blaurock Pass loomed above us, and I regarded it over lunch. Oof, did it look like a lot of work. We outlined our plan; more-or-less follow the tundra as long as we could; access the upper shelf at the left low-point; then figure out how to get onto the talus bench that ran most of the way to the summit. We started up.
Mushy, spongy, soggy, rocky. Every step required attention, and before long we abandoned the circuitous plan and headed straight up the talus debris, as this also allowed us to access a clear creek, trickling from the lip of the shelf. All the glacial outwash we’d been traveling along, lovely as it was to behold, would clog our filter instantly.
The upper shelf was an oven, solar radiation colliding and compounding as it bounced between all the reflective boulders. From the new vantage, we chose a trajectory that would hopefully be the shortest distance onto the easiest access of the bench.
Boy, did we choose poorly.
It was like Blaurock kept expanding around us. We worked our way into a vast sweep of gigantic boulders, and spent over an hour at maximum effort getting…nowhere. Access to the bench remained elusive, every footfall demanded its own precision, and for each length forward we progressed, 5 times that length of the pass stood newly revealed. “Argh! How much farther do you think this is going to go on?!” Prana called from ahead. I stopped and assessed, surrounded by garage-sized talus, with car sized gaps between. “I mean, we’ve got to be getting closer,” I called back half-certainly. Somehow we’d zigzagged in the jumbled maze, constantly deceived by the possibility of an easier path.
Eventually we topped onto the bench, which proved just as tedious to travel along as the endeavor to reach it. One tiny flat patch of grass appeared in the unkempt sprawl, where we forced ourselves to stop, snack, hydrate, and pep talk. “Well. At least it looks like we’re out of the monster boulders,” said Prana. “From here on up will be easier.” I glanced up, one eyebrow raised, at the steepening slope above. “Maybe easier.”
The long, long grind was punctuated by breaks between every switchback, but finally I reached the top, where Prana waited. The continental crux stretched before us, glaciers piled on spires, piled on ridges— a primordial, elemental topography, a manifestation of the essence of adventure. A spread of promise.
We formally met Gannett and took a guess at Downs Mountain– the first perhaps-glimpse of the end of the crest– acknowledged the Sentinels and realized the afternoon had grown accidentally late. “Ready to head down?” asked Prana.
Down the loose scree, down the steep slope. While concentrating on the map’s offered choice of canyon or ridgeline far below, I was surprised to be confronted by a very steep and very icy snow field….icy enough even donning the magic spikes (quite a feat in itself considering the unstable steepness we were careening down) was not quite enough to guarantee traction. We kicked-stepped, balanced and cosmically bargained our way down to an overlook, where we determined the canyon was not, in fact, the way we wanted to go. Traverse of an ice tongue put us on the ridge top instead, which we talus hopped to its end, and then meandered back and forth down the ledges—smooth shields of rock like gigantic dragon scales— to finally land on flat, grassy tundra. Hallelujah!
Assuming that the popular Glacier Trail, only a half mile farther, would feature a massive increase in hiker density, we chose to camp where we were. The formations around us rose in staggering relief, as if we had shrunken to the size of ants among a gathering of ancient Greek temples. The eye of the Heap Steep Glacier stared at us, unblinking, from a wall so vertical I struggled to comprehend how a mass of ice even clung to it. Tent pitched, dinner cooked, we crawled into bed to watch the twilight color show.