Thursday, July 4, 2013

Haddo Peak - A Long Day

I just posted an old photo of Moraine Lake on my blog (51elliot.blogspot.com) and it reminded me of a trip some friends and I made to Lake Louise a few years ago. Five of us rented a van and spent a week trundling up and down the icefields parkway, climbing various peaks and frequently turning around before reaching the top. Back in Lake Louise we were sitting around Bill Peyto's Cafe and thinking what we might get up to, and one of us suggested Haddo Peak. It was supposed to be really easy, and we were looking for something fun and relaxing to do, a nice day out in the mountains. The guidebook called it an ideal route for beginners, straightforward, etc. etc. The descent over the far side into Paradise Valley was supposed to be a breeze, and a nice pleasant hike out. Sounded perfect. We started out at dawn from the Lake Louise parking lot and hiked up towards Saddleback pass. Early in the morning we angled up to Fairview Mountain and ended up on the summit just by following the trail. We hadn't really meant to go all the way to the top, so we had to drop down the ridge and cut over into surprise valley. It put us a little behind schedule, but the views were nice. It took a while to pick our way up Surprise Valley to the glacier. From the foot of the glacier it was supposed to be a straight easy climb up. It wasn't, really. The glacier has receded a lot over the years, and sections of it are now very steep. It was bare ice when we climbed it. We only had about four ice screws between four of us, so we picked our way up pretty slowly, my friend Dwight on lead. We anchored off our ice axes and a screw, sending the rest of the gear up on the next lead. We had to pitch it out; under the conditions the route was a bit technical. On the second last pitch we found ourselves on a thin slab of ice with lots of water running underneath. We anchored at the top of the ice sheet by shoving a picket between the rock and the ice. The rock was totally rotten, crumbling to the touch. It would have been nice to leave the ice and get on solid rock, but that broken limestone would have been suicidal. The last pitch was basically vertical ice, and we climbed with classic alpine axes. Fortunately Dwight led it solidly and the rest of us made it with a bit of encouragement. The time had just flown and after ticking off the summit of Haddo Peak we decided against bagging Aberdeen as well, even though it was just over the col a couple hundred meters. We still had to get down! There was a really steep scree slope that dropped off into nothingness below us. Supposedly you can "drop down from almost anywhere along the ridge" but I've since learned that there've been a number of fatal accidents involving people who took that advice. The proper descent is over the back of Aberdeen, further up Paradise Valley. We picked our way down anyhow. It was very slow, meticulous downclimbing. Some of us were more comfortable than others with it. As long as I could see where I was going, I felt okay. Sliding down a scree slope towards a drop off, hoping you can stop if you have to, is a little unnerving though. Fortunately the scree runout funnelled us into a chimney that we could downclimb, and a traverse ended up at some slings... an obvious rappel station. We took the rappell, but our rope didn't reach the bottom. Markus had a short 15 meter piece of rope in his pack, so with that, he extended the rap and we all made it down after passing the knot laboriously. It was well into evening by the time we got past all the downclimbing. Once we got to non technical terrain we still had a lot of descending to do. It just seemed to go on forever, steeply descending the alpine slopes above Paradise Valley. Night fell around us as we plodded down and down with knee-jarring steps. Out in front, I stumbled onto the trail, a line of brownish sand faintly visible against the scrub brush and grass. Now we only had to hike out on the trail, or so we thought. We needed to get back to our van at Lake Louise, and I knew we needed to cut over Saddleback pass to get there. The fork in the trail was a long time coming. After many kilometers of walking in the dark, we found it and cut off towards Lake Louise. The trail climbed up steeply for a long way through densely wooded ravines. We kept going up and up in the dark, getting very thirsty. Our headlamps were dim circles of light that picked up the occasional fallen tree across the trail. I was confident in our position but at some point, everyone else mutinied. We had a group huddle and the consensus was to turn around and go back. The others felt we were just climbing back up into the mountains where we didn't want to go. We'd already climbed up from Paradise Valley for almost two hours, and I was sure we were approaching Saddleback, which would then be a quick hike down to the parking lot at the Lake. But I was voted down, so we all turned around. At that point it all turned into a death march. We were truly shagged, dehydrated, wobbling around on sore legs and feeling miserable. All of us went into survival mode and stumbled on in silence. We stuck together though... there were warning signs for grizzly bears all over the place. Hours later we found ourselves at the Paradise Valley trailhead along the Moraine Lake road, where we laid down for a while. Then we took to the road and walked four abreast straight down the middle of it, into the night. I thought I recalled this road being 13km long. Getting to Lake Louise along this road would take forever. There was nothing to do but keep walking. Behind us the lights of a vehicle approached. It was almost 3AM, and the sound startled us. We turned around and waved like crazy people. A pickup truck pulled up, some dude on his way back from closing time at the bar. He quickly offered us a lift back to the Lake. We piled in the back and all I remember is the drone of the tires and the gentle sway of the truck, looking up at the night sky as we slipped down the smooth pavement of that winding road under a blanket of stars.

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