What do you do when it’s the height of winter but there’s no snow? You climb mountains the old-fashioned way: on foot.
Scott and I got an unintentionally pre-dawn start and hiked the easy, mostly snow-free two miles to Loch Lomond. The most exciting thing in this area is the great East Ridge route on Mt. Bancroft, but that’s better in spring snow conditions. Instead, we passed the end of the ridge on the right and climbed into the stair-step valley between Bancroft and James Peak.
First came the paired Reynolds Lake and Steuart Lake, frozen solid and quite slippery. A short scramble through bushes and rocks brought us to Ohman Lake, the main characteristic of which was a nice little ice fall on the upstream end.
After some obligatory horsing around on the ice, we tackled the more serious climb up 600′ to Ice Lake, the highest in the valley. Here, finally, was some snow! A nice snow slope segued into a steep couloir far above, but we weren’t really prepared for anything too sporting. Instead, we made our way up the side of the slope, around a rock outcropping and onto a beautiful lower-angle snowfield to the larger-than-expected Ice Lake.
From here, I’d hoped to scramble up the far side of the lake to the Divide and ascend the steep slopes south to Bancroft. However, the far side of the basin was completely ringed by steep, smooth snowfields rising up to the jagged ridgeline. The only viable alternative was a broad scree gully on the left rising steeply to intersect the East Ridge. It wasn’t the most aesthetic of lines. Frozen scree is imensely preferable to non-frozen scree, and it wasn’t as bad as I’d feared. Still, with sufficient snow cover, it would be a nice 500 feet of easy snow climb in a rather dramatic setting. As I suspected, we ended up in the “red dirt saddle” on the East Ridge one easy-4th-class move away from the easy scrambling and tundra hiking to the summit. Here the lack of snow actually became a blessing and we were soon on the northern sub-summit of Mt. Bancroft.
Up here, the full force of the wind became apparent. The weather was still spectacular but the wind was a steady 30-40 mph from the west. Sitting in the lee of the summit shelter wasn’t too bad and the day was beautiful anyway. My earlier fatigue had been replaced with a cheery optimism, so we hiked down the ridge (listing ten degrees to starboard to counter the wind) to a saddle at 13,000′ and then up another few hundred to the summit of Parry Peak.
Exploration mode was still in full effect, so we hiked to the south end of Parry’s summit ridge to spy out a descent route into the Fall River basin between Parry and Mt. Eva. No such luck! The basin was capped with an impressive snow slope that neither of us was eager to try just now. Instead, we retreated to the eastern flanks of Bancroft and trudged wearily down the long, long southeast ridge hopping talus and postholing the occasional snowfield.
After 8 miles and 3400′ of gain, the final two miles of easy road walking in heavy mountain boots was definitely no fun, but we were still in high spirits from the two summits and gorgeous set of lakes we’d seen on the way up. It’s not the way we would have choosen to spend the first outing of 2012, but it was still a beautiful, moderately-brutal day in the high mountains.
Now if only we’d get some snow…