From the summit of Syncline Mountain, we could clearly see the bumps in the traverse to the center peak and the center peak. We could also see St. Eloi, and it looked like a disturbingly long walk from where we were. The traverse over to the second summit looked straight forward enough though, so we skipped down the ridge towards the first bump. (Actually, only Kevin skipped, I simply walked. Kev is a real 'skipper' if you know what I mean...) We got pelted by ice pellets and rain on our way to the first bump on the ridge. What a pleasant day we were having... ;-) We got to the first bump and must have misread the guidebook because we went around it on the left, the guidebook says to go right, but either way works well. Then we could not see an easy way down to the col from the next bump.
[Looking back at the summit of Syncline as we work our way to St. Eloi.]
[Kev on part of the traverse around the pinnacle - he's really hard to see here!]
We followed a very promising track around the skier's right of the bump but it ended in a short section of low fifth class, exposed climbing. Since we didn't have a rope, neither of us felt comfortable doing it and it certainly wasn't moderate scrambling so back up to the col between the bumps we went. Even the left side of the second bump was not an obvious route at all. We had to drop down at least 100 vertical meters to get around steep cliffs and slabby terrain with pebbles on it (the worst kind of accident terrain) which didn't feel like "staying high" to us. We side-slopped all the way around this terrain and ended up below the center summit and nowhere near the grassy slopes that we had seen earlier! At this point we decided that if we were going to bag St. Eloi we would have to forgo the center peak of Syncline and continue our traverse up to the ridge between Syncline and St. Eloi and summit that mountain instead. Since I didn't consider Syncline's second summit as an official summit, I had no problem with this but Kevin (who considers every summit of Syncline as distinct) was a bit disappointed. The second summit did look like fun to ascend from the ridge going to St. Eloi. If the weather was nicer I think we would have quickly bagged it from our position and then traversed over to St. Eloi.
[On climber's left of the pinnacles, St. Eloi in the distance just left of center.]
[Great views into the Syncline Brook headwaters with Gravenstafel and Haig on the left and Tombstone in the bg.]
[Getting cliffed out.]
[Losing and gaining extra height as we try to find an efficient way around the pinnacles.]
[Finally we see our traverse across to the south ridge of Syncline (skyline) with the south summit at upper right.]
[Looking back at our slightly problematic traverse from the south ridge, the east summit of Syncline at upper left with Table Mountain just to the right in the bg.]
The traverse over to St. Eloi was extremely windy but posed no major issues for us. It was actually very enjoyable as far as traverses to. We weren't side-hilling anymore so we covered ground pretty quickly. The clouds were thickening up too, which helped keep our motivation to keep going a bit higher. Right below the final summit slope we took a quick break and then left the packs and tackled the final 250-300 vertical meters. Twenty three minutes later we were on the summit (climbing without a pack is amazingly easy ;-)) with thick clouds all around us. There was a new register which we signed before snapping a few photos and heading back down to our packs.
[Kev traverses to the St. Eloi col with the south and west summits of Syncline in the bg.]
[At the St. Eloi col looking towards Gravenstafel and Haig.]
[Hiking towards St. Eloi from the col. Still a ways to go!]
[Lovely scenery, looking back at the south ridge of Syncline with the west summit at left and the south summit left of center. The east summit just visible at right.]
[Gravenstafel and Haig.]
[Looking down the Gardiner Creek Valley towards threatening skies and Mount McCarty. The west summit of Syncline at right.]
[A lovely tarn at the headwaters of Gardiner Creek.]
[Significant height loss / gain as we look back from the traverse.]
[Kev pushes himself up the ridge towards St. Eloi.]
[Looking back at the three summits of Syncline and our weary traverse from the right hand side. The weather is obviously moving in now too.]
[Phew! After many hundreds of Kilometers of driving and much last minute finagling, we actually pulled off our two summit day. Kev is relieved to be on the apex of St. Eloi Mountain.]
[Summit views south towards Castle Peak and Windsor Mountain over top of Southfork and Barnaby Ridge.]
[A great, moody shot of Syncline Mountain.]
[Very respectable views of Gravenstafel Ridge (L), Mount Haig (C) and Tombstone (R) over the Syncline Brook headwaters valley.]
[Kev starts the descent to the St. Eloi col. Note the small tarn at left. We will exit into the Syncline Brook valley at right.]
Here the day got weird again. If only we had planned this trip ahead of time, instead of on our way to Mount Niles, I would have read Bob Spirko's St. Eloi trip report and therefore we would not have gotten ourselves all tangled up again. The gully right under the ascent slope to the summit of St. Eloi looks very innocent from above - and it is. We descended it very quickly on loose scree / grass and before we knew it we were going down a very pleasant little drainage. We knew that the guidebook ascent route for St. Eloi doesn't go up this drainage, but rather up two drainages to our (skier's) left but the going was easy and I knew there was (supposed to be) an obvious trail snaking up the valley below that we would run into (like on Mount Gladstone) so we didn't bother side-hill bashing to our left because quite frankly we were sick and tired of side-hilling at this point! We should have side-hilled skier's left.
[Gorgeous views of Syncline as we near the col.]
[It looks so easy doesn't it?! Just descend to a good trail. How hard can it be at this point?]
[We didn't know it yet but we're heading into the suck at this point.]
We found the same goat track that Bob mentions in his report and followed it for a bit. Since we didn't have Bob's report though, when the trail split left and right, we followed the right hand trail back towards the drainage. This was a bad mistake (I'll openly admit it was my idea). We should have known that this was a bad idea immediately upon hitting the creek again. The rock was so slippery we could hardly make it across. When we did get across we were in thick underbrush that was the nastiest bushwhacking either of us have ever done! Devil's club and tentacles of brush conspired to choke the life out of us and the slope was so steep we were in danger of plunging over cliffs back into the drainage with one wrong move! We should have turned back at this point but stubbornly continued, hoping that the slopes would open up again - but they didn't. After a very long and intense battle with the bush (Kev actually glissaded down a section of undergrowth rather than walk through it!) we emerged on a trail running down the valley towards our car. I didn't like the feel of this track though - it wasn't prominent enough. Sure enough, it soon ran dry. We turned back to the drainage and after descending another 50 vertical meters we encountered a 3 foot wide track with a clear trail running down the middle it. HOME FREE!!! Or maybe not quite yet... :(
[Beautiful but deadly.]
[This is starting to feel a bit bushy Kev!]
[We thought we were home free in these lovely flowery meadows.]
Again, Bob's trip report would have saved us here. Andrew's book doesn't comment on this route out of St. Eloi so we can't blame the guide book. The 3 foot wide swath through the jungle slopes below Syncline and St. Eloi happens to have a very nasty habit of vanishing completely! This was one of the oddest trail experiences I've had in a long time. One minute we were strolling nonchalantly down a beautiful trail and the next minute we were standing at a creek desperately searching all over the place for the trail - any trail! Again, since Andrew's book doesn't describe this part of the route we only knew that he says follow it to the ascent drainage and go up. He has no reason to describe where the trail crosses the creek several times, because he doesn't follow it far enough to know that it does this. He also doesn't have to mention that there are areas where the trail has either really vanished or avalanched out or is very hard to find. Well it does and it is.
[A rainbow assures us that there's no more bushwhacking ahead.]
[The rainbow lied. :) Don't let the innocent, open ridges of the Castle Wilderness Area lull you into off-roading. It can get pretty nasty!!]
The trail crosses the creek several times, and it's never obvious exactly where this happens. One minute you're walking merrily down the trail and the next minute all you have is thick, nasty bush on every side and a slick stream in the middle. Very frustrating times my friend - very frustrating times! What saved us on one occasion was me noticing that there was a very unnatural looking straight line running down a hillside - that was the road running way off on the other side of the creek - somewhere we never would have looked otherwise. What made the whole experience more exciting (we'll use that word even though there are others I can think of) was the humongous bear scat we kept seeing on the trail. No black bear could do that. This was a daddy grizzly and he was getting his fill of fiber. This made subsequent bushwhacking through stands of berry bushes a bit tense. I'm sure they could here us yelling in Pincher Creek! At least it was fiber he was full of - obviously a vegetarian bear. Although I did point out more than once that he was probably craving meat at this point (doesn't every vegetarian crave meat? That's why they all think that eggs and fish aren't meat right?). Our strategy in case we ran into papa bear was that I would quickly stab Kev with my hiking pole. He would run off into the bush with a fresh trail of blood to distract the bear while I went for help. I'm not sure if Kev actually heard this suggestion but in my books, silence means affirmation so that was the approved plan as far as I was concerned.
[Almost at valley bottom now.]
[Don't go there.]
After what seemed like an eternity of bushwhacking and hiking on a great trail for short stretches in between, we encountered the first section of trail that is in Andrew's book. This section is very straight-forward and had us right back to our car in short order. When we got to the car we turned around and read the yellow sign stating that we should not enter the area because it was being "reclaimed". Our conspiracy theory is that 'the government' has destroyed all cairns and flagging on this route to discourage people from using it. Don't laugh too loud - we didn't see more than a couple of half-hearted cairns and not one tiny bit of flagging all day long.
[A trail never looked so inviting!]
[A flower to brighten the past 2 hours of bushwhacking hell.]
[A government sign telling us that we shouldn't have been there. Trust me - we know it! ;)]
Our round-trip time was just under 9 hours with essentially no breaks at all and walking fairly fast where we could.
Should you repeat this route? Have you read the report - are you crazy!? Seriously though, if you insist on trying these two peaks in one day, I would suggest doing St. Eloi first. Park at the yellow sign (23.5 or 24.5km from 507, depending what you drive) and follow Nugara's route description to the letter. When you're done St. Eloi, traverse to the second summit of Syncline and skirt around the two or three bumps on the right, back towards the main summit of Syncline. Then follow the northeast ridge down and bushwhack to the road before walking a kilometer back to your car on the road. This will save you a lot of anxiety. I guarantee it. Or just be sane and do the routes separately. That would work too.