The Branca trip on Buckner (by Mihai Iancu)
WARNING: There is nothing exceptional in this trip report. There were no major climbing or skiing achievements, no unnamed peaks and glaciers and no “machine” clients (on the contrary…).
A question for those of you still reading: Would you prefer to sleep at the Branca hut or bivy at the Sahale – Boston col? It was about 5 pm on Tuesday, June 26th. Martin and I ( actually Martin did almost all of the work) had just finished setting up our bivy site; the most interesting thing ( at least for me) was to see Martin probing with the poles one foot away from my pad, to make sure I won’t be sleeping on the cornice hanging above Davenport glacier… I then asked him the same question, which was a natural continuation of our previous discussions of the pros and cons ( none, if you ask me) of having a European type hut in Boston basin.
The trip started as usual. I convinced Martin to let me drive, figuring that my old Saturn would be less appealing to crackhead Davie should he drop by the trailhead that night. I also got to demonstrate my Formula 1 driving skills on the Cascade River road. An update on the prospects of the road past the Eldorado trailhead (really beaten up in a couple of spots): we’ve been told at the Marblemount ranger station that crews will be doing some intense studying over the next several weeks and hopefully will have a plan by the beginning of the heavy usage period in October. I also had to ask Martin another naïve question: how long do you think if would have taken in Switzerland to have that road fixed?
The approach up to Boston basin was “fun” as usual, at least it wasn’t pouring like the last time I had been there. The lower camp welcomed us with some spiffy wind and I am sure both of us were wondering (donning windbreakers, gloves and headbands) what the wind might look like overnight at 8600 feet. The ascent continued up the moraine and then onto the Quien Sabe. The glacier was pretty straightforward, although with soft conditions in the heat of that cloudless afternoon.
We made it to the col in about 6 hours from the car. Throughout the evening we kept watching some high clouds coming from the west but fortunately they didn’t aggregate and conditions during the night were pretty good, with minimal wind and alternating clear and cloudy skies (I can attest to that since, as usual, I got essentially no sleep). The next morning a nice sunrise over Mt. Logan greeted us as we were leaving the col behind and starting with some easy but very exposed climbing on the traverse over the shoulder of Boston and then onto the glacier.
Because of the partly cloudy night and also because of a lot of recent, unconsolidated snow, conditions were very soft on the glacier. The postholing quickly dissipated the fun and I didn’t object when Martin offered to get in front and break trail. The feeling of guilt was also a factor in the initiation of a short dialogue:
Client: With conditions so soft, there will be a lot of work traversing the Horseshoe basin on the descent…
Client: So I was thinking, maybe we should just go back, over Sahale and have a leisurely descent down the Sahale arm
Martin: There is really no good reason to blow the North Face off other than our laziness
Client: And this is not enough…?
So we kept on going, reaching the base of Buckner’s North Face in a little over 2 hours from the col. Conditions on the climb were pretty good, firmer snow, excellent for cramponing, no icy spots. We simulclimbed the whole thing, only using two axes in the final couloir, below the summit. We made it to the top in almost 1.5 hours from the base, absorbing the views and checking the summit register: no other entries for 2007, only 14 parties during all of 2006. Again, I couldn’t stop asking: how many entries for 2006 in the summit register of Grand Zebru ( if there is such a thing)?
It was all downhill from there. The long traverse of the Horseshoe basin in slushy snow, the climb back up to the Sahale arm in intense reflector oven heat and crossing a wet slide, falling chest deep in a snow crack… Upon reaching Sahale arm, I see Martin looking north and saying: We could be at the lower camp in Boston basin in 1 hour! Looking at the nice rolling slopes of the Sahale arm and thinking about more traversing through slush and at the “green death” on the Boston basin descent, I categorically refused and we began descending down the Sahale arm towards the Cascade Pass. Initially it was all fun but then I started getting what I had just signed up for: some sketchy traverses without crampons on firmer snow slopes lower on the Arm, endless hiking on the Cascade pass trail feeling the blisters mushroom on my feet…by the time I was sloooowly dragging my feet down the road I realized that Martin was right: the best way to deal with the pain is to get through it as quickly as possible, not to extend the agony!
So all in all it was almost 7000 feet elevation gain the first day, sleeping in the wildest place I ever slept in, 4 hours climbing to the summit and a 8 hour slog back to the car. I only have one more question for all of you: what is your acceptable ratio of climbing fun to approach and descent pain (just to see if an Aiguille du Midi cable car would be justified in the North Cascades…)
DISCLAIMER: The opinions expressed or implied by this trip report in no way reflect the official position of Pro Guiding, Pro Ski Shop or their employees!
(by Martin - Mihai is very strong. He grew up in cold-war Rumania and he secretly revels in this kind of deprivation of amenities ....)