Summit Elevation (m): 2840
Trip Date: August 12 2017
Elevation Gain (m): 2700
Round Trip Time (hr): 15
Total Trip Distance (km): 31
Quick ‘n Dirty Rating: Class 2 – you fall, you sprain your wrist
Difficulty Notes: No more than moderate scrambling on the approach. The main challenges are the sheer distance and elevation gains involved.
Technical Rating: SC5; YDS (3rd)
Around 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.
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!
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 buzzkill 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.
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.
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. 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 creek bed and follow it up easily.
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!