Saturday, July 16, 2011

Huron Peak (almost)

Given how bad the "trail" was descending Missouri Mountain yesterday -- basically nonexistent -- we were concerned about ascending Huron today. Our backup plan, if we couldn't find (or hike) the trail, was to exit via the 4wd road and hopefully be able to cross the creek at some point.

Fortunately we found the "trail". On the Trails Illustrated map, this trail was drawn with the same thickness and line style as all the others, so we had assumed it would actually be like the others -- well defined. Nope.

First problem was finding the trailhead. It was supposed to be at the end of the 4wd road but somehow we missed it. No problem, we navigated through the woods to the north end of the lake where the trail crosses the "intermittent stream" (as described on the map).

Just before reaching the stream we saw a small aspen grove that had been broken in half like a bunch of toothpicks. The upper parts of the trees were scattered 100 feet away. Our first thought was that a tornado touched down. Rare at that elevation, but there was a funnel cloud near Mt. Massive last June.

Later we realized that an avalanche had slid down a slope on the other side of the creek, crossed the creek, and slammed into the aspens. It must have been this winter because the aspens looked freshly broken. And it must have been a HUGE avalanche. There were even snow deposits remaining that probably otherwise would not have been where they were. You can see the avalanche path in a picture from yesterday and a close up from today:

Further up on the mountain we saw more evidence of the avalanche; the stump this tree was plucked from was nowhere in sight:

Back to the "intermittent creek". Once we saw it, we figured that "intermittent" referred to the wintertime when the stream is covered in snow. It was not an easy crossing! The current was strong, the creek was wide, the algae-covered rocks were slippery, and we were boot-deep or more in places. I had better luck than Laurel with my gaiters -- she had to wring out her socks and boots on the other side. My socks were pretty wet too.

Once across the stream we headed south for a short while on what looked like a trail (it even had horseshoe tracks) before realizing the map showed the trail heading north. Indeed it did, and then switchbacked up and around the avalanche slope. Avalanches are most common on slopes with angles between 30 and 45 degrees, and I would guess this hill was on the higher end of that range. Fortunately it was vegetated, so the footing was more secure than yesterday's similarly-steep slope. On the other hand, it was quite vegetated, so it was difficult to hike in some places and in other places we lost the trail entirely.

Aspen thrive in the wake of an avalanche; the density and maturity of unbroken aspen further up on the slope hinted that the most recent avalanche may have only taken out the lower half of the slope, or else the bed of the avalanche was 15' off the ground.

Past the avy slope we navigated around a horn of rock cliffs, through a bog (I took one step in boot-deep mud!), and up a meadow. Since crossing the stream, the trail was so faint that we were only sure we were on it half the time.

The next challenge: a scree/boulder field. Fortunately not as steep as yesterday's. At this point we were starting to see some weather come in. Today was supposed to be better than yesterday, but our forecast was necessarily over a day old at that point and it didn't look like that was the case.

The rock slope flattened out for a while and then we had a decision to make. The map showed the "trail" ascending a steep scree field to the south, up to a saddle. But once on that saddle, it appeared it would be impossible to follow the ridge west to the main ridge of the mountain without some technical climbing. It seemed like the better way up was to continue west up the north end of a steep grassy hill to a secondary plateau, then somewhat southwest up to a different saddle. We did exactly that without any trouble at all.

With all the difficulties of the day, it was after 11am by the time we reached that saddle. The clouds had formed quite well by that point, so even though the summit of Huron was "only" 0.6 miles and 600 vertical feet away, we decided to bail. We headed directly towards a switchback on the main hiking trail, hiking across a slope of moderately sized rocks and a small snow slope. About halfway across it started raining lightly which made the rocks nice and slick.

Lots of challenges today, but we had a good time working them out. The remainder of the day was relatively uneventful -- we hiked down the trail for a few miles and then a few more miles along the road to get back to where we had parked.

As for the map -- it has quite a few strikes against it now: two trails drawn in the wrong locations, a raging "intermittent stream", and minor trails drawn with no distinction from major trails. Still, they are fairly good maps, but I think we've learned not to trust them exclusively and to check other sources next time.

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