Monday, June 5, 2017

Shut Down On McGown

We took a shot at climbing the famous North Couloir on McGown Peak in the Sawtooth Range.

Date: June 3, 2017.

Partners: Josh and Mark.

Objective: McGown Peak 9,860ft.

Stats: 8.5 miles and 2,400ft gain in 8.5hrs round trip. Snow climb up to 50 degrees. Strava track.

Gear notes: Carried rope and pickets that we never used. Should have brought chest high waders and/or a raft.

Links: Idaho: A Climbing Guide.

McGown Peak in the morning.

Josh and I set out from Boise at 3am to rendezvous with Mark at the Stanley Lake trail head at 6. We had seen that another group had great conditions on Peak 9,115 a week before, but we knew that didn't mean jack to us. I wasn't sure if we could even reach the base of the peak and realized I didn't have a plan B if that was the case.

The adventure begins when you don't know what will happen next.

No matter; we were there and we were all in. We wore shoes for the approach hike since we planned on there being some standing water on the trail. Well, there was a lot of it. We waded calf deep in the frigid water, in the crisp morning air, headed for our peak.

Along the trail.

We found the creek crossing of Stanley Lake Creek with little trouble because it was wide and raging. As we poked around looking for a way over it that might keep us dry, we were burning up precious time. If we were going to cross the creek to the other side, we knew we'd have to do it again on the way back.

We're already all in, why not go balls deep.

It was a matter of desire at that point and we still wanted a crack at our peak. After stripping down to our skivvies, I went across the raging torrent first. Half way across and not too bad, then I found a deep channel on the far side that dropped me a bit more than waist deep and snagged my trekking pole. A bit startling, yes. Mission critical, no.

Then Mark and Josh made it across. We were soggy and cold but we quickly righted ourselves and continued walking, err... wading down the, 'eh-hem... trail.

Switching out soggy shoes for dry boots.

So there we were; at the base of the peak. At the point where our route left the trail we switched out our soggy shoes for dry socks and boots. What I hoped would take us a little more than an hour had taken almost three, but we weren't ready to throw in the towel yet. We still had about 3,000 feet to climb to reach the summit and I figured we'd make good time once we hit the snow. 1,500 feet per hour seemed tough, but certainly not out of the question.

Finally gaining some elevation.

We left the trail and headed up the gully to reach the snow field at the base of the couloir. This section was steep, but at least it was above water. It slowed us down a little, but we were still going to give it all we had. Once we hit continuous snow our pace picked up a bit. My toes had felt cold, but now they felt numb; not good. I did get the feeling back fairly quick. It must have been a bad combo of cold feet in cold boots laced too tight.

Approaching the snow field.

The hike to the upper snow field was a welcome change of terrain, pace and scenery.

Josh in front of McGown Peak.

We got to the base of the couloir at 11am. My best-case scenario had us high-fiving on the summit about now. The consensus was we would head up as far as we could. We were feeling good and hoped the snow would be firm up the couloir. Climbing up 45 degree mashed potatoes made our crampons useless and our legs tired.

Leading up to the Couloir, Photo: Josh S.

When we reached the shade of the couloir, the snow was still too soft and the day was only getting warmer. The sun would eventually be on the already sloppy snow.

Mark (left) and Josh (right) pause for a moment before turning back.

Booting up the soft snow was one thing, but cracks in the snow were another. They weren't shooting cracks under our weight; they were horizontal across the whole slope above us. There was no way I could justify climbing above them, only to descend the same slope later in the day.

Close up of the crack. Photo: Josh S.

Cracks and cornice's.

That was our high point of the day. Right at the base of the couloir with the best part of the climb still above us.

Stanley Lake.

Nothing left to do but survey the scene before heading down.

Mark taking pictures before heading down.

Josh heading down.

Plunge stepping and glissading back to the trees was a bit of a relief. At least we knew what lied ahead from that point on. We descended though old avalanche debris and mature trees that were snapped like toothpicks.


Back at the trail, we put on our walking/wading shoes and steamed full speed ahead for the car. The spot of the creek crossing on the way back was not near as bad, or as cold as the first. We kept our pants on and plowed right through in anticipation of cold beer and dry clothes at the car.

Mark crosses the creek.

Hiking out.

The trail was actually pretty easy to find; just look for the running water.

Mark post-holing into the creek.

Mark was wondering what post-holing in the water would be like and his suspicions were soon put to rest.

Log hopping.

Mark, Josh and I soldered through the long, wet, cold and sloppy slog back to the parking lot. Nothing else to do but grin, bear it and crack a joke or two.

Wild flowers along the trail.

You'd think it would be easy to complain at this point, with the tough conditions, no summit and all; but no one ever did. Back at the car, we enjoyed a couple of cold one's and changed wardrobe. No worse for wear and all smiles. And a few mosquito bites, too.

McGown close up. Our route was the obvious finger of snow up the middle of the peak.

This was Type II fun, no doubt. You could classify it as Type III, but we did enjoy it. The adventure means more than the summit. In the end, the mountains always win and that's the way it should be.

McGown from the road.
Someday I'll be back to finish it off. Timing was the piece of the puzzle that we were missing.

Happy trails!

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