Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Mountain Cantata: Hiking Edition

Alaska's streak of glorious weather ended a few weeks back. Now we're back into clouds with a near constant threat of rain. After a complete washout of a weekend, I decided to take a rare vacation day at the next chance of sun. The forecast was looking good so the plan would be an overnight attempt on Cantata.

After work I drove to the South Fork Trail and began the 5-mile walk to Eagle Lake. For some reason, Chugach State Park decided to "improve" the trail a few summers back. What once was a meandering trail that blended well into the surroundings is now a boulevard wide and smooth enough for a motorized shopping cart. Stumps, gravel, and boulders now line the widened route where trees, top soil, and healthy vegetation once was.  Oh, well...

Looking Up the Valley
Cantata - The Rocky One in the Middle

South Fork Eagle River - Chock Full of Glacier Silt
The boulevard becomes a path again after the first bridge. At the second bridge the beaten path yields to a half mile boulder hopping event. The boulder field has dozens of cairns marking at least 4 different options. Each cairn tempts me to leave my chosen route in search of "greener grass" but I just hop along aiming for the divide between Eagle and Symphony Lakes. The path reappears on the divide and leads past the lakes and up a steep slope towards Point 3600.  The trail fades but the route is obvious - keep Point 3600 on your left and hike on. 

The climb rolls over and I gain the long flat ridge that leads to Point 3600 and drop off the back about 100' into a valley that leads up to a pass between two 4,700 points. There is intermittent water up here and I find an acceptable spot for camp around 4,000'.

Symphony and Eagle Lakes from Camp

The 3 Summits of Hurdy Gurdy - Highest on the Right

The fog rolled arrived soon after sunset and it was still socked in come morning. I started hiking around 7AM and quickly found about a dozen better camping spots within 100 yards of my camp. I gained the pass quickly and turned right maintaining elevation (4,500') and passed east of Point 4755 and another high point before regaining the ridge at the base of Mountain Cantata proper.  It was time to climb.

From the col at 4,500' you're supposed to suss out the West Ridge of Cantata, but the fog obscured the route. There are a few cruxes on the West Ridge Route, but these can be avoided by getting off the ridge and scrambling across and up gullies on the South side.

The route is listed as Class 3 and I promise myself not to get on anything tougher than that. Often I would come to a Class 4 or 5 section and be forced to retreat.  The fog was thick and I struggled to interpret the hints of trails, tumbled cairns, and the occasional flagging which marked the passage of climbers more comfortable with exposure than I. But through patience and persistence I worked higher and higher sticking to my Class 3 limit. There was plenty of back-tracking, up, downs, backs, and forths, but I was making progress. Higher into the fog, but the thick fog was getting noticeably thinner.

A Random Dirt Glacier - Mirror Lake
Around 6,000', the fog relented to reveal a perfectly clear day. The glaciers below were mostly obscured but Park's big peaks pierced the clouds forcing their way into the crystal blue sky - peaks for later this summer or next summer or maybe never at all. Eagle, Calliope, Organ stood front and center and other giants poked into the ether further beyond, but there was no time to linger with the Cantata within reach. The cruxes were all below me and the angled had eased leaving a short 500' plod to the summit.

Eagle Peak Rising Up 

Ancient Ice Plastered to the Face of Mountain Calliope
The ascent took longer than anticipated making for a brief summit visit. Obligations were calling from far below. It was tough to give up that sun, but I knew it was time to descend back into the soup. While on the gentle upper section, I kept peaking over the steep north face to check on the ever growing Brocken Spectre.  Bigger and bigger he got until the fog enveloped us both .

Brocken Spectre from the Summit
The route down went much easier than the climb up. I hit most of my landmarks and wasted no time route finding. The descent flowed easily and detours from the ridge were more obvious. I somehow navigated around the scarier parts of my ascent. And before too long I was back on the gentle ridge hustling for camp.

Fatigue was setting in, I made some cocoa and got into some sugary treats while breaking down camp. Feeling rejuvenated, I hustled down towards the lakes. I finally got under the fog to reveal a grey day that gave no hint of the glory above. The walk out went quickly: route to path to boulder field to trail to boulevard. I was about 2 hours late getting back to town and ready to accept the consequences. But my mind kept returning to the sunny peak and plans for the next adventure.

 - U.K.