Sunday, September 2, 2012

Once More Into The Wild

2012 was the year of our endless summer, as, in late August, Doug and I prepared to move from the small mountain town of Nelson that had been our home for the last 10 years to Australia, where summer was soon to settle in.

Four days before we had to leave our house, we found we had time for one last mountain trip, and, after the usual studying of maps, we decided to hike into the Settlers Group on the east side of the Purcell Mountains. In March of the same year, we had skied up to Kootenay Joe Ridge from Johnsons Landing and looked over at the Settlers Group from the summit of Kootenay Joe Ridge. Draped in a blanket of snow, the mountains and extensive alplands were stunningly beautiful. That was part of the appeal of the Settlers Group, the other, equally important part was ease of access. A good trail leads from a landing in a cutblock at 5,500 feet to the tiny Heart Lake at 7,350 feet. Finally, Salisbury Creek FSR, where the trail starts, was reported to be in good shape, a rarity in 2012 when record monsoon rains washed out dozens of other roads in the Kootenay region.

Doug hiking up to the col

Hike In, Mount Willet Attempt

The trail, built by enthusiastic locals and not well (if at all) known outside the local area, starts at roads end and is relatively easy to find. Perhaps 20 metres before the absolute road end, look for an ATV track bashed into the cutblock. The trail starts at this ATV track, but heads north (climbers left) and is marked by a sketch of a hiker on a large tree at the edge of the cutblock. The trail climbs gently and contours north into the south fork of Bulmer Creek, travels due east, skirting the north end of a boulder field, and eventually climbs steeply to a narrow col northeast of Tooth Ridge.

After about two hours hiking we came out at Heart Lake, a pretty little tarn amidst alpine meadows marred only by a scattering of fire pits. We had a break by the lake, then wandered up alplands to an 8,000 foot ridgeline. Looking east, we could see Winter Peak and Mount Bulmer, while the bigger peaks of the Purcell Wilderness Conservancy stretched away beyond Fry Creek to the southeast.

We descended about 200 feet wandering through delightful alpine meadows to a small tarn overlooking Fry Creek Canyon. Campsites were plentiful, but, as you often do when faced with a plethora of choice, it took us a half hour to settle on a tent site. Tent up, afternoon munchies ingested, we headed off to see if Mount Willet could be easily ascended from this direction. We were able to contour across rubble slopes and neve at about 7,800 feet, just under the steep loose cliffs of Beguin W3 (Bivouac nomenclature). After about an hour, we'd got to a spot about 180 feet below a steep headwall on the east side of the standard ascent route (SE ridge). The late hour, combined with the nasty looking headwall, turned us back and we hiked back to camp arriving in time to witness a glorious sunset.

Another spectacular Purcell sunset

Mount Beguin, Bacchus Ridge, Winter Peak

Next morning we laid in until the sun hit the tent, and, after some breakfast set off to scramble up which ever peaks of the Settlers Group took our fancy. Truthfully, we found it strange that so many small and incredibly loose bumps along a ridge should earn such lofty titles. In 1969, Curt Wagner, from Minnesota, climbed all these peaks and named them after local settlers. Given current strictures on naming it's doubtful such things would not happen today.

In any case, a friend of ours, who had scrambled many of these peaks, had told us that the best access to all these peaks was from the south side. The glaciers shown on the map have long since disappeared from the south side, while only remnant steep pocket glaciers remain on the north side.

Pleasant alpine rambling led us around the south shoulder of Winter Peak at about 8,100 feet where a great quantity of rubbly rock greeted us. We decided to head for Mount Beguin, half because it was the highest of the group and half because we could just see an easy ramp through the rubble. Maintaining our elevation as much as we could, we contoured across meadow, rubble and occasional patches of snow until we encountered a solid white rib of rock running south from Mount Bulmer.

Mount Bulmer itself looked frightfully loose, but an easy ramp of talus and meadow led from the base of Bulmer all the way up to the west ridge of Mount Beguin. This ramp was low angle enough that the loose rock was no problem and, in a half an hour, we were hiking along the final loose and somewhat narrow west ridge to the top.

It was still early and Bacchus Ridge, while incredibly loose, also offered easy ridge walking, so we continued northeast, skirting around a rubble tower on the ridge on the south side to the top of Bacchus Ridge where we surprised a large flock of small birds feeding on who knows what hidden among the rubble.

I toyed with continuing on to Mount Clark, but the "peak" is 300 feet lower than Bacchus Ridge and singularly unimpressive. Instead, we hiked back over the top of Beguin and headed west towards Winter Peak and camp. On the way back to camp, I scrambled up Winter Peak via steep grassy slopes on the south side and had a good view of camp from the grey rocky summit. Doug wandered back to camp ahead of me.

A moderate south wind had been blowing smoke in all day and by evening views were quite obscured by forest fire smoke from the USA.

Evening light on Mount Bulmer and Winter Peak

Tooth Ridge Attempt, GR125530

All good things must end, even a last alpine trip, and the next day we packed up and walked back towards Heart Lake. I wanted to try Tooth Ridge on the way out, Doug, who thought it looked steep, loose, and well - nasty - decided to hike up GR125530 as we passed by instead. At ridge top at GR125535 we parted ways arranging to meet at the col northeast of Tooth Ridge where the trail first climbs out of South Bulmer Creek valley.

Doug had a good goat track along the ridge and a little class 3 quartzite scrambling soon put him on top of GR125530. I had considerably less luck on Tooth Ridge. Initially, a good trail led around the west side of the first crumbling tower. The trail then deteriorated markedly, and, at some point along the ridge disappeared altogether. I managed to claw my way along very steep loose terrain to the top of the final tower before the summit tower, but the increasingly steep, loose exposed terrain caused me to rethink the whole endeavour and I turned back before the final summit. Meeting my demise or breaking both legs on my final trip into the Canadian mountains was not high on my bucket list.

Back at the col, Doug soon appeared somewhat relieved that I had turned back, and we hiked easily down the trail, nibbling on huckleberries and ending our last foray into the Canadian mountains - at least for now.

Doug looking north from Mount Bulmer

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