8.5 hours after leaving the car along highway 93, Phil and I were finally done with Quill Peak and turning our collective attention towards a distant Conical Peak, rising through the smoky skies to the SE of our little perch at the edge of Quill's access glacier. Conical Peak had been on my radar for many years already - mostly due to a rumored shortcut route over, or near its summit from hwy 93 to the Dolomite Creek valley and Isabella Lake. We were planning to use this shortcut for our Recondite trip in 2013 but decided a trail approach via Helen Creek the was better option - thank goodness for that decision.
Originally we were planning on bypassing the glacier towards yet another intervening summit by hiking on stepped rocky terrain on the east edge of the ice. After more careful consideration, we decided that the terrain was low enough angle that we could simply start hiking on the bare glacier with our runners - no crampons required! This worked far better than expected and we went just over 1km along the low angled eastern edge of the glacier before it got steep enough to make us reconsider.
[Sitting on the edge of the glacier, looking towards Conical Peak.]
[Walking in runners on the low-angled eastern edge of the glacier.]
[Looking back at Porcupine NE2.]
After delicately exiting the glacier ice, we found ourselves in a very interesting and unique world of stepped rock and pouring cascades of meltwater - plunging down hundreds of meters towards a distant Dolomite Creek and into Isabella Lake, eventually draining into the Siffleur River. The smoke was thinner than earlier in the day - it was now after 16:00 - and we started enjoying some real mountain views. An alpine lake between Quill and Conical was a nice surprise. A much less nice surprise was the realization that the two summits between us and Conical were both higher than the dang peak itself! WTF?! Sometimes you have to wonder about naming guidelines in the Rockies. Phil and I both joked later that we're really screwed if these intervening summits ever get named, because we bypassed both of them due to our dissolving energy reserves. We were only 6 feet under the summit of the second peak, but it felt worth it at the time!
[Off the eastern edge of the glacier and walking up stepped terrain which is gushing with melt water.]
[The stepped terrain was very interesting. And very wet!]
[Looking back at Porcupine NE2 Peak.]
[Nearing another short stretch of glacier.]
[Another bit of low-angle glacier to the ridge that leads towards Conical.]
Needless to say, the route from the intervening summits to Conical was very easy but fairly tiring after almost 9 hours on the go and hundreds of meters of height gains and losses already. We used as much snow slopes as we could and tried to enjoy the slightly-less smoky views than we'd had on Quill hours earlier. The descent from the second bump towards Conical was probably a highlight of the day as far as views were concerned. It was a bit of a buzz kill to realize that both intervening peaks were higher than Conical and we had to ascend both of them TWICE - once on approach and again on return! This is not a trip for the faint-of-energy.
[Note that we're already higher than Conical and still have to ascend higher (twice) before finally dropping down and climbing the actual peak.]
[Decent views from the glacier near the ridge, looking back towards Quill Peak left of center and down at Conical at right. ++]
[Quill Peak is pretty impressive with Porcupine NE2 acting all colorful in the foreground - trying to hide its true nature as a PITA!]
[The smoke clears out a bit and gives us some distant views - this is Mount Noyes at left and Quill Peak at right with Porcupine Peak in between. We approached from below Noyes and have already ascended and returned from Quill. As you can see - this is a long bloody day. ++]
[Saving Conical for last means the easiest terrain can be done in an exhausted state. But it's still elevation and distance, despite it's ease. Here Phil is ascending the first of two peaks on route to Conical - both of which are higher than Conical just to keep things silly.]
[Traversing more bumps towards Conical, which again, is lower than us at this point. Bobac and Watermelon at distant right. ++]
[Gorgeous, easy hiking - but note the undulating terrain. Lots of height losses and gains along the easy ridge. Silverhorn shows up at far right now.]
[Silverhorn Mountain lies to the south across some pretty sublime hiking terrain. It would be a pretty awesome waste of time to spend several days backpacking over this area and bagging nearby peaks as you went.]
[Mount Weed through the haze with Breaker at left and Howse at right.]
[Phil takes advantage of some snow to ease the descent towards Conical. Yes - we are once again descending before getting to our summit. ++]
[Slightly wider views include our approach / egress ridge at left, Quill Peak left of center and Conical at right. ++]
[One of the best views of the whole day - Quill Peak is a massive mountain. Note the unnamed but fairly large lake at lower right. ++]
[The impressive canyon at lower left gives access to the Dolomite Creek Valley. Bobac rises beyond. Silverhorn at right in the distance.]
[Bobac, Watermelon and OXO peaks rise to the south (L to R) across the Dolomite Creek Valley.]
[The impressive canyon leading down to the left to the Dolomite Creek Valley might work as a 'shortcut' from Hwy 93 to Isabella Lake but I'm not sure it would be any faster than the longer approach via Helen Creek.]
[Nice views from the col just before Conical's summit slopes - looking across to Quill Peak. ++]
I sucked some serious wind up the easy west face of Conical. As I stood over my poles, exhausted and spent, I watched Phil skip ahead of me like a youthful gazelle. I used my valuable rest periods to mutter light curses in his direction. Those would pay off later, as you'll read. Eventually I dragged my sorry, sick butt up the summit and to some seriously mediocre views. The views were certainly better than what we'd had on Quill 4 hours previous, but were still heavily damaged by the forest fires to the west. I had some unexpected emotions while standing on the summit of Conical, gazing down at Isabella Lake and Dolomite Creek far below to the east. The emotions and memories from my 2013 trip into Recondite Peak came flooding over me in a surprisingly overwhelming manner. That trip was an endurance test of truly epic proportions. We completed the almost 40km approach to the peak in a single day and climbed and exited in another exhausting day and a half! I have that trip listed at 80km and 52 hours which includes two nights. If you think that doesn't sound that hard, I challenge you to try it someday just for kicks.
[Phil got an energy burst and kicked my butt up Conical.]
[Phil tops out as I suck wind and use photography as an excuse to catch my breath.]
[The views aren't too bad in the early evening lighting. From L to R, Porcupine NE2, Quill Peak, Kentigern, Isabella Lake, Bobac and Watermelon. Normally peaks like Recondite and Augusta would be obvious beyond Kentigern. ++]
[Looking south up the Dolomite Creek Valley towards Bobac, Watermelon, OXO, Dolomite and Marmot.]
[Looking across the toe of Isabella Lake towards Clearwater Mountain in the far distance. The foreground valley is the Dolomite Creek Valley while the one beyond the foreground ridge is the Siffleur River Valley.]
[Gorgeous views of Quill Peak with Porcupine NE2 visible at left. Marmota just showing up between them in the far distance.]
[Looking over the NW ridge of Kentigern towards Recondite Peak.]
[A Rick Collier register.]
After rehydrating and eating something at the summit, we turned our attention back to the long return via an easy, undulating ridge towards the top of our escape bowl down to Silverhorn Creek. The two intervening - higher! - summits were as annoying as expected, but we got them done much quicker than expected. The sun was setting and shadows were getting long as we finally made our way down towards the access bowl leading to Silverhorn Creek far below.
[Great views through the smoky haze as we descend. Silverhorn at distant left.]
[Some work remains! We must reascend two intervening bumps before finally descending over the far side from the upper ridge at center right. We didn't realize it at the time, but we missed a very easy Porcupine Peak at far right by only a few vertical meters!]
[Ascending yet another scree bump along the ridge - Quill at right.]
[The shadows are growing longer as we finally start our descent to the access gully (oos at left). Quill looks far from here!]
[The smoke builds again as we start down the access gully to a distant Silverhorn Creek. Mount Weed at left here.]
Easy scree made short work of the upper bowl and interesting lighting from the setting sun and the smoke made the lower half go by fairly quickly as well. One curious thing started happening as we stumbled down the loose scree and bouldery terrain in the access bowl. Phil started tripping all over himself and falling down. A lot. None of the collapses were serious, but it did add some levity to the dreary descent! I guess it was karma for kicking my butt up Conical Peak and secretly laughing at my grumpiness after losing my hat on the bushy approach.
By around 20:00 - 13 hours into our day - we were finally back in Silverhorn Creek and making our way out. We decided to make life easier on ourselves and stayed right in the creek to the first headwall on exit. This worked fantastic and felt great on the tender tootsies. We also decided to plunge down to Silverhorn Creek rather than side-hill high above it after the first headwall, which also worked great. On approach up Silverhorn Creek you should only be on climber's left and above the creek where absolutely necessary (i.e. around the first set of waterfalls and canyons). Before the first headwall you can already descend into the creekbed and follow it up easily.
[The sun starts to set as we work our way down broken terrain in the access gully.]
[The access gully has some interesting terrain around the headwall.]
[Incredible sunset through the smoke with Mount Weed rising dramatically at center. ++]
[Our exit via Silverhorn Creek is visible along with Mounts Weed (L) and Noyes (R).]
[Walking out along (and in!) the creek.]
[It's much darker than the photo implies as we arrive back at the top of the first headwall and the friendly cairn.]
Our goal was to not use the headlamps and make it out to hwy 93 before dark. We almost made it but time seemed to slow down and the terrain conspired to slow us down as the blanket of night wrapped its inviting arms around our tired bodies. As we plunge-stepped soft forest mosses, I resisted the silly idea of simply laying down for a few minutes and succumbing to the headache which was back in full-force. The last kilometer or so took way too long, but eventually we could see the taillights of passing vehicles and knew we were close. As expected, the 300m walk up hwy 93 to the parked car felt a lot longer than it did 15 hours earlier.
Initially, after the trip, I had very mixed emotions about it. On the one hand it felt great to complete such a long day on two very remote peaks that have been on my radar for many years. On the other hand I felt let down by the lack of views that I knew were hidden behind the chocking smoky haze that plagued us most of the day. I have to admit that as I processed the trip and the photos in subsequent days afterwards, my emotions grew more positive about the experience. Sure! We didn't get top 10 views, but it was certainly an engaging and interesting experience nonetheless. Not all trips can be perfect, but they all are unique and memorable in their own ways. There's always trips like Festubert or Cockscomb to remind me what truly crappy days out are like and to highlight just how good this particular outing was!