Baranof Island Solo Expedition, 2010

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August 1

Sometime in the early hours--still dark--I awake with a rainshower in my face.  The wind suddenly changed direction, blowing from due North now, and my three-sided tarp is no longer keeping me dry.  D'oh... bad planning on my part.  Not relishing the thought of collapsing the tarp and re-setting it on a dark windy night, I reach into my pack for a plastic bag-liner, tying its corners tight across the guyline cord in front of the tarp, blocking much of the doorway.  That suffices tolerably, and I sleep fitfully the rest of the night.

I wake before dawn to cook breakfast, uncomfortably pack my damp gear and don layers... the wet wind bites deep up here.  The weather has not cleared; if anything it's worse than yesterday.  Damn.  I'm prepared, but it's gonna be a cold day, I can tell.  I could sit tight and wait for clear skies, but that could take days and I'd like to get moving... if nothing else to get around Mt. Bassie, maybe make camp at a pass on the other side.  By 5:30 in the AM, I'm ready to go.

Day 9 Map - A big day on the ice

Glaciered up.  Behind me there's a mountain I hope to traverse around in pea-soup fog, but I can't see it (the rock immediately behind me is not the mountain I speak of).  This pretty much summarizes navigation for the whole damned day.

The lack of visibility makes me nervous, but I take a deep breath and step out onto a sloped snowfield, beginning the first of three long sidehills around the NW faces of Mt. Bassie.  I need to stay at about 3800', keeping on moderate slopes and passing safely over several outcrop shelves from the mountainside.  I'm flying "blind" here--the horizon quickly disappears behind me and I can't see anything discernible ahead.  I trust myself to walk "level" across the snowfield from one shelf to the next.  Go too high, I'll eventually hit steep ice and crevassed icefalls.  Too low, I'll get cliffed out impassably.  The first traverse proves tolerable, save for a few exposed crevasses along the way that require nervous reroutes.

A crevassed icefall on the northern slopes of Mt. Bassie, during a rare break in the clouds.  Such cloudbreaks give me the only land reference available to navigate around the mountain safely.  When clouds break, I immediately pull the waterproof map from my pocket to verify my position, and sometimes climb or descend to correct it.

Within a few hours I'm tolerably around the mountain, and a moderate ridgeline takes me a thousand feet down to a pass, my lowest point of the day at 2900'.  From there it's back up again, toward an unnamed 4120' summit.  I reach the base of peak 4120 by early afternoon (making good time, actually!), which the map indicates will require a little side-hill over snowy slopes below the summit to continue.  According to the map the slope looks passable, but many permanent snowfields are now broken completely away, forming a snow cliff of unknown depth into the fog-filled valley below.  Yikes.  I scramble higher up peak 4120 to make my way down the north edge, where another narrow ridge should take me further West.  My map and compass tell me approximately which direction to go down (due Northwest!), but looking at the scrambled mess of rocky outcrops beneath me, I'm nervous to commit.  The wrong direction either way will send me plummeting where I don't wanna go.  There in the cold rain at the edge of a rockfield, I sit down, hoping for the clouds to break and give me the momentary view I need.

10 minutes pass.  It's chilly up here in the rain.  15 minutes.  Not getting any clearer, nor warmer.  After 20 minutes I realize I can safely take the "handrail" strategy to find my ridge.  Head down West (trust the compass!) and begin sidehilling toward the north until summiting out on the ridgeline (easy to tell locally, even in fog).  Follow it from there.  I head down, then North, and within 10 minutes I'm confidently atop the ridge again, angling NW another mile toward another pair of shallow summits.  The wind pelts my face with rain, but my fleece layers and constant movement keep me tolerably warm.  Occasionally I see a spot of deer poop and bear scat in the snow along the ridgeline.  I realize they do it in the woods, but up here?  Who knew?  At least knowing I'm on game trails reassures me this route is recently passable... most animals don't take dead-ends when they can help it.

I reach another pair of summits--still blind as a bat in the fog--and debate my next move.  The choice:  either make an uncomfortable (wet as hell!) bivouac here, or continue 800 feet down onto a large three-mile ice field, where I won't see passable land again until the far edge of the snow.  My front brain tells me to stay put; I even pick a tolerable spot to make camp.  But eventually my other brain wins out (there's still plenty of daylight!) and I begin the northward scramble down this ridge to look for the immense snowfield presumably far below.  I can't help but laugh while scrambling around rocks down the slope... out of the freezer and into the icebox, here we go!

I quickly reach snowy slopes descending toward the half-mile-wide icefield (a massive patch of compressed snow accumulation in a large alpine basin).  From the topography, the north side of the field is the main accumulation zone, and will presumably have fewer crevasses than the main outlet extending from the central Southern edge.  I should head North to get across thing thing.

Even with a compass, it's an eerie feeling to cross a half-mile of white snow in zero visibility.  All horizons disappear... I'm in a white-on-white bubble.  Melt-lines and wind-contours on the flat snow change directions frequently, and without blind adherence to the compass (continue North! That north!) I would quickly walk in circles.  My brain tells me "straight ahead" is this way, the compass says otherwise, often a difference of 90 or more.  For the first time all trip, intuition is worthless.  I take deep breaths and blindly trust the compass in my hand.  North.

I Photoshopped this a bit to bring out details in the snow that weren't previously visible in the photo.  It looks the same in every direction.  I hope I'm heading North... West will take me down a dangerous icefall.  Good luck!

After an unknown period of time--seems like way too long--the snow finally starts sloping upward, and before long I see the cliffs and mountains on the North shore of the icefield.  Now I have a visible hand-rail to follow, and from the map I've devised a plan.   Move East and trace along the ice's edge for several miles, until the snow curves sharply downhill to the Northeast.  That'll be a small glacier outlet at the icefield's terminal NE corner.  Stay high and cross that, head South another quarter-mile along the edge, and summit a shallow pass between two small peaks at the ice's Eastern edge.  I'll be off the ice, and (according to the map) I'll enter a forested area by a small lake off the icefield's far edge, an idyllic place to camp.  Sounds good to me!

Northern Edge of the Icefield, seen here in a fog break.

After an hour (wow, that was fast!) the ice slopes steeply down to the Northeast, and I'm feeling great--smiling broadly in the cold rain--about both my pace and navigation skills.  I "let go" of my northern handrail of mountains, letting them disappear behind me as I contour across the icy slope.  I keep going, and going.  "Huh, this seems wider than expected."  I pull out the map & compass to verify... cross this, and I should reach the Eastern edge very soon.  Mebbe it's just wider now than when the map was made, no biggie.

I keep going, and eventually see mountains on the other side, but they look... odd.  My compass tells me the ridge orients more SW than SE, and the peaks sure do seem bigger than what I'd expect.  An occasional cloudbreak shows me brief segments of the terrain below.  WTF... there's a massive lake down there, the map doesn't show anything like that.  Huh.  I stand confused for a moment, and double back awhile.  Guess I overshot it.  Nope, it still doesn't make much sense.  I double back again, heading toward the front ridgeline.  Another cloudbreak shows a massive ridgeline across the basin below the downward ice-slope.  Huh, map doesn't say anything about that either.  WTF am I looking at?  My mind--in desperate attempts to make sense of my surroundings--tells me to look at the pass between two peaks up ahead... mebbe that's my pass, just taller than expected.

I chisel several hundred feet up a steep snow couloir, reach the saddle summit, and peer over the edge.  F***.  There's no plateau up here, just a steep gorge with small lakes far down below.  Damn.  Back down again, backtrack.  Another cloud break reveals more confusing terrain below the massive snow slope.  I've wandered the open ice for well over an hour now, circling my tracks.  Afternoon is quickly fading to evening, and I'm worried.  Why the hell can't I make sense of this terrain??  I am genuinely lost, which doesn't happen often.  I'm not yet panicked, but it worries me.  I'm dumbfounded for awhile, standing on an icy slope in the cold rain, not sure which direction to go.

And then I hear laughing.  Not audible, but inside my head, a familiar voice is laughing.  I dunno how many of y'all knew Jeremy (OlyHiker), but I've thought of him often this trip, and right now I can hear him laughing at my predicament, a full on belly roll.  "Hey Mike, you're fine man, keep going."  My nerves are calmed.  Hell, worst-case scenario is I spend a cold uncomfortable night on the ice, eat my fill and pack back up when the weather clears, tomorrow or in a week.  Not pleasant, perhaps, but I ain't gonna die here.  I smile and laugh at myself too.  (Thanks, Jer.)

Another cloud break shows me two shallow peaks far below down the slope, in the basin.  Hmm, maybe that's it.  Down I go, scrambling over some exposed ice, then up 60-80 feet to a small saddle.  Over the pass far below is another rocky gorge, another unidentifiable lake.  I've nearly surrendered myself to spending the night on this confusing moonscape at the bottom of a mysterious glacial bowl.

...glacial bowl...

A lightbulb bursts with an incandescent flash inside my head, an idea almost too bright to have seriously considered before.  Holy crap.  I stand agape for a moment.  The small peaks I'm standing on did not exist when this map was made.  Neither did the large lake over the pass below me.  In 1996 (when the USGS published this map quad), this location was still covered in 300 feet of solid ice.  I'm standing on the haggled remnants of a recently-collapsed glacier outlet... I'm still in the middle if the icefield, nowhere near the Eastern edge yet.  These peaks aren't even on my map... they were buried for millennia, only in the last decade have they seen the light of day.  I look back up the basin and it makes sense now.  Holy s***, dude.

I quickly descend my pass, circle wide around large open crevasses at the bottom of the icy cirque.  A brief scramble several hundred feet up a loose rocky ridge summits me on an entirely separate icefield... the Eastern half of the icefield.

A look back at the glacial bowl.  This was all filled in to eye-level only 14 years ago, and today the single icefield is actually two separate fields.  The tiny tarn below feeds into a much larger lake further down, neither of which existed when the maps were published.

The terrain matches the map again, and within the hour I'm at the Eastern ice edge, seeing two easily identifiable peaks with a friendly couloir leading to a pass between them.  In a comical bit of timing, the clouds quickly break apart and reveal the entire ridge line ahead of me.  The irony makes me laugh aloud.

My route takes me over the shallow saddle in the direct top-center of the image, a half-mile distant.

Up the pass in waning light.

A wind-scoured ridge top.

Over the pass: my plateau, and the nearby tarn.  No forests like the map indicates, but who cares, I'm no longer lost.

Upon reaching the pass I laugh at the cartographers... there are no trees here, but I see my plateau, and the nearby tarn, still frozen over.  I collect some water in the basin, string my tarp over a flat spot of rock, cook dinner as dusk turns to night, and fall asleep with a wide grin on my face, passing out soundly to music in my head.  Should all go well, I'll reach the Eastern end of Baranof Island sometime tomorrow.  Whew, what a day.

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