Gunn Peak (6245 ft)
Barclay Creek Route
June 9, 2002
Michael's report and some great photos are here.
Michael and I had gazed up at the lofty summit of Gunn Peak from the town of Index numerous times, but today the view was reversed. We got a late start and arrived at the Barclay Lake TH a little after 9am, armed with compass, map, guide book (couldn't find a copier in Sultan or Startup), and beta from Michael's earlier reconnaissance trips. Although this climb can be done as a scramble, we brought a small alpine rack, a 8.5mm rope, aluminum crampons, and ice axes.
We struck off back down the road from which came, full of energy and appreciation for our current state of well being because we knew that in a very few short minutes we would be in bushwhacking hell. We quickly came to a narrow service road and headed north towards the creek. We crashed through the brush eastward and found a nice set of logs spanning the creek. I was hoping that this would be the crux of the climb as the logs were quite slippery with the morning dew. Once across we half-expected to find a trail of some sort, but we had no such luck. So we pulled out the compass and bushwhacked northward. Slide alder, devils clubs, rotten logs, thorny salmon berry bushes, as well as a host of other flora did their best to impede us but we were mentally prepared for just such perils and slowly but surely whacked our way through the bush!
It was less than an hour when we stumbled out upon the "overgrown road" described in the routebook,
Eventually the heavy brush turned into a mature evergreen forest. This was a welcome change since we could now travel relatively unheeded (I'll take climbing around an occaisional fallen log over perpetual brush!) We continued up through the forest with our eyes peeled for any sign of a trail. We referred to our map and did our best to keep to a bearing that would lead us to the large rock buttress at 4000ft in the event we didn't find the trail. But in our slow upward progress, I spotted an openning of young alder trees to the left and lo and behold: It was the trail!!! With this tremendous boost to our morale we hurried up the trail making great progress. Another goal attained! The trail was steep but in fair condition. At times we had to stop and look around because the trail was overgrown or covered in branches, but we were always able to find it again. Many of the trees had old blazes cut into them, and occaisionally we would find a ribbon.
The climbers trail allowed us to gain ground quickly and we soon found ourselves at the foot of rock slabs near the foot of the large rock buttress. Another goal! We consulted the guidebook again, and decided to pass on the standard gully approach since we couldn't see the gully very well from our position. We opted to traverse to the right underneath the steep rock walls. The book mentioned that this way involved a tricky gully crossing, but was straightforward afterward. We stayed high as we made the traverse we soon came upon the gully with a nice stream running down through it. We scrambled down the steep sides using "veggie belays" occaisionally. Near the bottom we had to downclimb a 3rd class rock step. There was a 15 foot waterfall just upstream and the water spashed on us as we crossed. Refreshing! We agreed that this would be a good spot to refill with water on the way back down. Once across we scrambled up the other side and made an ascending through steep forest until we emerged onto the large snow covered basin! Now that we were out of the trees and on the open snow, the bright sunshine turned the area into a sauna. Even though we were sweating like farm animals, we were glad that it was clear because we could easily see the snow ramp near the top of the basin that we needed to take to gain the saddle. There were a few steep slopes on the other side of the basin that had wet slides come down them, but the rest of the basin looked free from serious avalanche terrain.
Looking back across the valley that we had climbed up was the looming north wall of Mt Baring. It towered above the road and the parking lot where our car was waiting patiently for us. It is always satisfying to be able to see the place where you came from grow smaller and smaller as you climb higher! Michael's regular mountaineering boots were in the shop getting repaired so he was making due with an older pair with worn tread which provided poor purchase in the snow. Since we would be in snow the rest of the way, Michael decided to fix his boot problem by putting on his crampons here. I did the same and soon we were off and running up the snowy basin with Michael leading the way. We were both elated that we had made it so far towards the summit of this wild peak.
We hadn't been moving more than 20 minutes when clouds rolled in over the saddle and floated down our basin and across the valley. It was uncanny because I had just been thinking that it sure would be nice to have some cloud cover to keep the sun's heat off of us. This worked well until more clouds rolled in and stayed. Suddenly we could no longer see the top of the basin and the ramp that we needed to take. Rats! I guess I should be careful what I wish for. We continued on and soon reached the base of the ramp that we spied from below. I spelled Michael from kicking steps and started up. I recently celebrated my 31st birthday and after all these years in the hills I'm finally starting to know my body and what it can and can't do. And a fast pace uphill is not one of the things it does well! So I settled into my nice steady pace and started singing a favorite song in my head. Autopilot!
Before too long we were making our way onto the ridge at 5200ft. I looked at my watch and saw that it had taken us just about 3.5 hours to get here. Not too bad considering the slow start we had with brush battling. We pulled out the guidebook and read about beautiful meadows and tarns that cover this small valley before us. Our imaginations worked hard to imagine this view through the clouds and snow. A few stands of large trees were poking up through the snow, but the rest of the basin was covered in a thick blanket of snow. The clouds were blocking our view of Gunn Peak but from the drawing in the guidebook we could figure out that we were missing a heck of a view. The ridge was heavily corniced in both directions so we looked for ways to descend safely. There were some trees on the right where the ridge climbed to Peak 5760' and I was about to suggest rappelling when Michael found a steep gap between cornices. While we were exploring the clouds had parted and we had a clear view of our objective. WOW! It's south side was a huge wall with a snowfield perched above it and above the snowfield was the impressive rock summit with it's towering west face. Oh, boy! Oh boy! Oh boy! With the clear weather we felt much better about route finding and therefore our chances of actually getting the summit.
Down climbing steep slopes is much more difficult than climbing up but Michael took his time kicking good steps and keeping self-belayed with his ice axe and soon he was below the cornices. We picked a good line across the basin that was the perfect combination of direct yet not giving up too much of our hard fought altitude. We stopped at a knoll with a good view of our route to eat some food and to put on sunscreen. It was so cool to be in this amazing place and have it all to ourselves. Michael and I both had these huge grins on our faces. We took another look at the guidebook and tried to picture where the secret gully was that would lead us from the large scree field up through the buttress to the upper snowfield. It couldn't be seen from our position but we knew that we were on route and would find it as we climbed higher.
The snow slope looked stable but we spaced ourselves out just in case. We stayed to the right hand side of the slope and worked our way up. Sure enough, at the base of the main buttress I spotted the narrow 3rd class gully leading up. The snow was hollow next to the wall and I kept breaking through, so I climbed the rock on the right side. It was fun climbing this mixed terrain in our aluminum crampons. I was surprised how well they worked. The rock gave way to steep forested slopes so we A0'd our way up through them to the snowfield. We made an ascending traverse across the snowfield, making our way to the "narrowing gully" that we saw from the saddle. It was spooky to look down snowfield, knowing what was below. My shoulder strap of my pack creaked and I thought it was the snow, so I told Michael and quickly moved to the side. I chuckled later when I realized it was just my shoulder strap, but it was unnerving at the time. My concerns were magnified when we heard a large avalanche across the basin that lasted for a few minutes. It was the warmest part of the day, so if things were going to slide this would be when it would happen.
Instead of continuing across the snowfield to the narrowing gully, we spotted a 20ft rock corner that looked like it would provide us with a more direct route to the summit ridge (And it got us off the snowfield!). We were in a pretty comfortable spot so we decided to rope up here. Michael handed me the rack and belayed me up the corner. I was able to place one nut to protect the short mid fifth class pitch. We were happy to be able to actually use the rack that we had lugged in all this way! I brought Michael up from a tree and then I belayed him as he climbed up the steep corniced ridge to the summit. The pitch was longer than 50 meters, so we simul-climbed the last little bit. This last bit of climbing up the ridge to the summit was some of the funnest and most spectacular I've done. Behind you are rock towers extending from the upper snowfield and in front of you is a steep airy cornice with a whole lot of space between it and the valley far below. I climbed up the last slope and there was Michael and no more mountain. We were on top!
Together we walked over to the summit and took in the view. Every direction we saw spectacular mountains. We could even look down the valley westward and see the tiny town of Index. Even the granite walls above the town looked small! There was a cloud layer hovering near the tops of the higher peaks, but we were in the brilliant sunshine. We found the summit register and read through the entries. The first entry was from 1994 and the last entry was from September 2001. We found many entries by a local man, Heinz. We had heard about this man and saw his three entries on three successive days one summer. Whoa! This guy eats his Wheaties!
The descent off the peak involved 3 rappels. The first was down the chimney/corner. The second was just a short rap past an awkward moat, and the last rappel was a full 25 meters down the initial 3rd class gully that put us back down at top of the steep snow covered scree slope. Two fun glissades and we were quickly down. Then we made the ascending traverse back to the corniced ridge and the saddle. It was well past 6pm and we were quite tired. But we still had a lot of ground to cover so we quickly some food and drank some water so we'd have energy for the descent. We felt pretty good about it since we knew we had the climbers trail to take us down. We were able to reverse our route almost exactly without too much trouble. I had my Tikka headlamp with me but Michael was without his, so we were extra motivated to get down before it got dark. The bushwhacking was hard enough in the daylight!
So here's where the story gets interesting again. We followed the trail all the way down to the valley floor and we enter an open clearcut area with 30 ft alders all around. It looks like it could have been a road at one time. On the right were piles of stumps and roots. We continued hiking straight and gradually our nice "road" becomes a "trail" and then it becomes....bushwhacking. NO! It can't be! How can an established climbers trail not have a trail leading to it??? By this time I was pretty tired and frustrated and I was expecting a nice trail back to the road. We could tell by our altimeters that we weren't that far from the "over grown road" but I really didn't want to have to bushwhack back to it. So I convinced Michael that there HAD to be a trail leading from this area. So we backtracked to the climbers trail, Michael on the left and I on the right, searching for the faintest sign of a trail. Nothing. We were wasting precious daylight, so we decided to just bite the bullet and plunge back into the jungle. But while Michael was taking a bearing, I spotted a slight rise on the east side of the grove that looked like it might have been a trail years ago. It led into a more mature evergreen forest and it was in a southernly direction so we went with it. It was fairly easy traveling although after 15 feet we didn't see anything that looked like a trail. So we stuck to the bearing and made our way through the forest. Eventually the forest ended and we were back to bushwhacking. It was pretty funny because after awhile we became desensitized as to what a real "trail" was. Now if we could get through it, then it was a TRAIL! And what was really scary was that after bushwhacking through nasty stickers and brush I would come across a piece of pink ribbon tied to a limb! I am unconvinced that we were actually on a "trail". I think that earlier folks had just tied them to the trees on their approach with the hope that they would find them on the way back out. But would you know it? We eventually stumbled out of the bush onto the "over grown road" at EXACTLY the same place that we had entered it! There is no way that I would call what we just came through a trail, but I think that it was just the least-bad-choice.
Once back on the "over grown road", we took another bearing from the orange ribbon that we had seen that morning, and started bushwhacking again. We eventually reached the river and only had to walk upstream about 40 yards to where the log crossing was! What a welcome site! We crossed the river without incident and stumbled up the road and back to the trail head. 9:04pm. A half day in the mountains. Not too shabby.