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The KMC 2004 Climbing Camp

by Doug Brown

"Expected camp location is only 3 or 4 km from where the horses drop us off" I can still hear myself telling applicants for the 2004 KMC Climbing Camp, “and judging by the aerial photo and first-hand reports, the travel looks pretty good" I continued, "but you just never know.

This year's climbing camp was a bit of a pilgrimage for me. In 1994, Sandra, Mark Young from Calgary, and I attempted to ski from St Mary's Alpine Park to Panorama - the Southern Purcells Traverse. A collection of meteorological (snow, snow, rain, rain) and nutritional (food cache sunk into lake) catastrophes came together at Lone Cairn Lake below Mt. Findlay. Our forced retreat was 3 hard days through difficult terrain with abysmal weather and no food. A spanking like that can not go unanswered, so I vowed to return one day.

Mount Findlay from the headwaters of Granite Creek
Mount Findlay from the headwaters of Granite Creek

Ten years had passed, but return I did in late July 2004 with 9 other climbers for the 2004 KMC Climbing Camp. As Mt Findlay lies at the head of Granite Creek in the heart of the Purcell Wilderness Conservancy, air support was not permitted; a walk of close to 40 km was required to reach our intended base camp location. Walking that far, with only horse trails to follow (if we're lucky), and with 9 days of food and a full mountaineering pack is not something my old body would enjoy. During the planning of camp, I figured tha if I wanted anyone other than Sandra and Kumo to join me this year, I needed to find a way to reduce the suffering required to get in and out. The only answer was an expedition in the old style: a multi-day approach using packhorses to carry our great piles of gear.

The plan was simple: while we walked with only day packs, Mike Christensen of Findlay Creek Outfitters would supply five packhorses and two handlers to carry our stuff as far up Granite Creek as the horses could travel; from there, we would carry all our gear the final 3-4 km distance and 500 vertical feet to camp. Two days travel was planned in each direction, with an overnight spent at Mike's cabin at the confluence of Granite and Findlay Creeks. This meant we would walk about 25 km on the good Findlay Creek horse trail the first day, with the second day expected to be about 10 km on the not-so-good Granite Creek trail, followed by 3-4 km through the bush, boulders, and swamp of the upper Granite Creek valley.

The first day went mostly according to plan with a good trail to follow, although it was a very hot day and our crew was feeling a bit whipped by the time we stumbled into camp after 9 hours on the trail. Unfortunately, we were faster than the horses and waited 3 long hours for our dinners to arrive. Packing up that night it became apparent that everything had arrived OK - except for Will's mountaineering boots. Oh good.

Clutterbuck and Lees stand guard over the head of Granite Creek
Clutterbuck and Lees stand guard over the head of Granite Creek.

The next day things were a bit more interesting. The horse trail up Granite Creek is much less used than the Findlay Creek "mainline" - it was rougher, tough to follow at times, and involved maybe a dozen creek crossings, a couple of which fell into the "dodgy" category. But with a minimum of fuss, 12:00 saw us arriving at the end of the horse trail - just in time to be checked out by an inquisitive grizzly across the creek. Despite valiant efforts to extend lunch, it came time to shoulder our massive packs, many of which were in the 60-70 pound range. Some in the group found their packs were simply unmanageably heavy and concluded that shuttling gear in two trips was the only feasible option.

Sandra attends to Maurice's head wounds.

While the travel beyond the end of the horse trail wasn't too bad, "not too bad" becomes a bit of an ordeal when one is staggering like a drunk under a huge load. After traveling around a km in an hour, Maurice lost his balance in a boulder field and fell over soundly smacking his head on some rocks. Luckily he is a thick-headed Brit, and after Sandra expertly bandaged Maurice's head, we continued on, although a bit more carefully. Unfortunately, very soon after starting off again, Eva badly twisted an ankle. Continuing on was out of the question for Eva, so the group decided to make camp even though we were far short of our planned destination for the day. The good news was that we heard by satellite phone that Will's boots had been found and would be delivered to the end of the horse trail the next morning.

The following day Eva and Will decided to stay put to give Eva's ankle a chance to mend while the rest of us headed off (we had FSR radios, so we could all keep in contact). We found reasonable travel on the thin strip where the bush met the swamp, but after an hour or so we reached a clearing beyond which the bush apparently got much worse. Sandra, Hamish, John, and I wanted to continue on to our intended camping spot; the others were quite keen to camp at the current spot at around 6,000'. As we had 3 radios in the group, we decided to split up: Will and Eva at Camp 2, Maurice, Ken, Jane, and Peter at Camp 3, and Doug, Hamish, John, and Sandra at High Camp. As it turned out, the bush above Camp 3 on the north side of Granite Creek was indeed hideous, but eventually elk trails on the south side of the creek were discovered that greatly eased travel to High Camp.

On Tuesday those of us at high camp went on a magical mystery tour care of Mr. Hamish, My-Name-Is-Mud, Mutch. You see, it seems the East Ridge of Clutterbuck is unclimbed, and nothing excites an old Scotsman like an unclimbed route. Hamie assured us, that despite the terrifying appearance of the ridge from camp, we would find that once we gained the ridge it would be wheelchair accessible. And who were we to doubt the redoubtable Hamish Mutch? Well, after we had ascended boulders and moderate snow, and had groveled up another 300 feet of steep slag and dirt to gain the East Ridge proper, it was obvious that we would need the aforementioned wheelchairs if we persevered with our plans. The ridge to summit was very long, with much fourth class terrain up and over various turrets, gendarmes, and other obstacles.

With a minimum of name-calling and rock-throwing, we changed our objective to the (also unclimbed) South Ridge of Clutterbuck. Thus, we rappelled down fourth class dirt and slabs to the Duchess Glacier on the south side of Clutterbuck (can you say "feeling committed"?). The glacier was gentle with minimal crevasses, so we quickly made our way to the base of the South Ridge, which looked easy except for possibly the very last bit.

After ascending said easy ridge, we bumped up against some very difficult climbing about 100 m below the summit of Clutterbuck. Oops. You see, our plan was to climb Clutterbuck and then descend the normal route on the West Ridge, and thus save ourselves the trouble of levitating back up the slag we rappelled down on the East Ridge - not to mention avoiding descending the nastiness on the other side of the ridge. We could have possibly descended the South Ridge and made our way around to the Clutterbuck/Lees col, from where a descent down the Clutterbuck Glacier to camp would be easy. But from what we could see, the col appeared to be guarded by steep and featureless slabs, and as it was already 2:00, there was little enthusiasm for risking finding ourselves even further from home with no way back. Hamish began preparing us for the shame of an unplanned bivi without tagging the summit ...

The Leaning Towers from Clutterbuck
The Leaning Towers from Clutterbuck

All's well that ends well though, and we managed to find another way up to the East Ridge (which we made Hamish lead, of course), and an excellent descent down the other side, so we were back at camp by 7:10 (2 hours before dark) making for a 12:45 hour day. The route on the East Ridge was dubbed the "My Name is Mud Ridg".

That same day, Ken and Jane climbed Clutterbuck by the West Ridge; here is Jane's story:

We are smack in the middle of summer. The sun is commanding a small fleet of cumulous clouds. At 10,000 plus feet, Mt Clutterbuck grazes the skyline like the hunch in an old crone's back - high and rounded and wind wrinkled. Ken disappears around the corner of a low 5th class off width. My lead will be next. There's still an element of doubt that our route will "go". What a shame if it doesn't, as we're so close to the top. Besides, a perfect day was taking shape.

Several hours ago we had been crashing excitedly through prickly spruce and walls of rhododendron, lurching over deadwood, emerging gleefully from watery bogs. Above the forest we found fluffy larches beside a wrinkled tarn. A lovely sight. Then from here we'd followed up just below the prominent south west ridge and cramponed up the snow to the col between Mt. Clutterbuck and Mt. Lees.

My lead now. The steely blue sun gazes. I shudder, and then move gingerly in the coolness. The rock is like cottage cheese clawed with a fork. It is solid granite, requiring several low 5th class moves in mountain boots. Delightful. Ken and I un-rope and scamper up the final boulder slope to the summit. My senses try to adjust. I've never lost that excitement of getting to the top of a mountain; it's always a euphoric bright blow to the brain. It's great to sometimes leave our super-charged world of accelerated travel, helicopter access and quick assaults on mountains. Here all mechanized travel is prohibited. Here is a quieter, stiller, slower world.

There's no hint at all that anyone has been on the summit and ours is probably the third ascent of this route. I scan the horizon. Ridge after ridge, spire after spire - Herik Ibsen's "... deep, unending, inexhaustible kingdom."

Wednesday saw most of the group hiking into the beautiful meadows at the head of Granite Creek, with Sandra, Hamish, and I enjoying a very pleasant ridge walk to a 9'300 foot peak east of camp that provided fine views of our main camp objectives.

On Thursday Sandra, John, and I joined up with Peter, Jane, and Ken on the South Ridge of Mt Findlay. Once Sandra, John and I reached Lone Cairn Lake, we could see the other three, who had come from Camp 3 contouring around the basin above the west side of the lake. We happily followed their tracks in the apidly softening snow (here John decided to hang out in the sun and soak up the view). From the basin, easy to moderate snow led to the rock of the South Ridge.

Once on the ridge (where Sandy and I caught the other three), we were treated to wonderful scrambling on broken, but very sound granite. With rock shoes on but the rope in the pack, Sandra and I found a meandering route that we rated at low fifth class; the others elected to don the rope and took a more direct line they rated at 5.6. A very enjoyable ascent in a grand place.

There was a mysterious "Peter and Peter" entry in the summit register, that we suspect may have been park employees (no mention of route or base camp location), so we're not sure, but suspect we were the first party to summit (and the second ever on the South Ridge) since our friends Paul Allen and Hamish Mutch did the first ascent of the South Ridge in 1991 - 13 years prior!

The following day Sandra, Hamish, and I met up with Will and Eva (Eva was still hobbling, but was determined to get at least one summit) and climbed Clutterbuck by the West Ridge, as Ken and Jane had three days earlier.

Our walk out was accomplished in two days (again with the help of the horses) without any dramas - except for a nasty creek crossing and a severed black bear paw on the trail from a fresh grizzly kill.

This trip was a grand adventure into a remarkable, very seldom visited, wilderness area - easily the largest area in BC I have seen without a clearcut. The climbing was generally excellent on wonderful granite, our weather was spectacular with 9 consecutive sunny days, and new friends made the experience complete.