Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Butterfly Lake (Uganik) to Hidden Basin 7/11-14/2011: The Narrative

I'd talked to Claire LeClair who did this this route in 2005 with Nora Tobin and decided I'd like to give it a go. After postponing a couple times, the weather looked good for last week, so I went for it. :) Turns out the good weather was in town, but not where I was, for the most part. :'( Here's a downloadable map you can use to follow along as I tell my story of joy and woe. Camps are UG1, UG2, UG3
Day 1: Glenn Eaton (Kingfisher Air) set me down on Butterfly Lake (SW of Mush Lake) at about 9 am. By 10, the clouds had come down and I was bushwacking uphill in steady rain and whiteout. It was one of those areas where small ridges run parallel to the main ridge, so a lot of up and down to get up.
I made the ridge, still in whiteout and totally saturated head to toe, and found it to be a knee-deep willow thicket. Wet willows are very slippery to walk on, BTW. With trusty GPS in hand, I headed for Claire's approximate first campsite, sidehilling the east side of 3133, often in those pesky wet willows. It was wet and slippery and I got to a point where I didn't feel safe sidehilling, so up or down? I couldn't see the top of the ridge above me and it was very steep, possible cliffs on the map, so I opted to bushwhack down, cross the creek, and follow a well-used deer trail up valley until I saw a clear path back up to the ridge (after recrossing the creek). This creek, although narrow, was deep and fast and more challenging than the later Uganik River crossing. I camped NE of 3659 the first night - it was blowing a stiff easterly breeze which required me to cook dinner in the Silshelter vestibule. An exposed, not really comfortable in the wind campsite.
Day 1 pics:
Day 2: Wind shifts overnight to westerly, still breezy, cook breakfast in tent again. Today I'm excited to hike the 10 mile ridge which is the main reason I wanted to do the trip and it's overcast as I start out at 0730, but not bad. Unfortunately, the clouds come down again pretty soon , it's zero-zero whiteout, and I hike the entire ridge staring at compass and GPS. The whiteout videos are here:
There were times hiking the snowfields when no landmark was discernible in any direction.
As I arrive at the area Claire said they'd been able to descend to the Uganik River, the clouds clear off and it turns into a nice day, so I decide to at least get down to the river to camp for the night. I tried to follow the stream down, but it turned into a gorge, so I backtracked a bit and hopped up on the sidehills heading down and around and ran into an impassable deep double ravine not really visible on the map that would have required climbing way back up above to get around. It was getting late, so I backtracked to the head of the valley and camped; a herd of about 20 goats was hanging around. It was a bit breezy from the west, but not as bad as Monday, so I was able to sit out and enjoy some hot chocolate and 151 rum with beautiful views of the surrounding mountains and valleys. Day 2 pics:
Day 3: The day dawns clear and stays sunny all day. After studying the map and GPS, I decided to try to descend the west side of the valley (or NE off the ridge); although it was steep in places (I was on my butt sliding down alder tunnels holding on for dear life at times) and thick bushwhacking, I was able to make it to the river. Crossing the river had appeared problematic from above (lots of whitewater and noise), but I found a wide, flat water crossing that never got more than crotch deep. After a sunny lunch/drying out on a gravel bar under the close scrutiny of an American dipper, I headed up the steep slope of bushwhacking doom. Although I'd negotiated alders, willows, salmonberries, etc., a new factor appeared: devil's club! Ack! Now I couldn't just grab indiscriminately to pull myself up. At one point, I was pulling myself up through thick salmonberries when I felt a sharp pain in my shoulder, then another in my arm: bees! I got the heck out of there and, luckily, years of being stung growing up in Ohio calmed any fears of anaphylactic shock. I finally made it up and above the brush to a spectacular plateau of snow fields and tundra and set up another scenic camp. It had been sunny and calm all day and it was great to sit out in the warmth and sip my evening toddy in comfort and relaxation. Day 3 pics:
Day 4: I knew from a satphone conversation the evening before that strong westerly winds up to 35 mph were expected. The day began calmly as I headed up into the snowfields that would lead to Hidden Basin, but soon enough the clouds came down and it was time for business as usual: zero-zero whiteout, now compounded with the rising west winds. Luckily the wind was at my back. It was an intense couple of hours navigating with GPS and trying to avoid open water in frozen lakes, bergschrunds, etc; fortunately the clouds dissipated as I was approaching lake 2750 and I was able to enjoy spectacular views and hiking on snowfields and a magnificent granite ridge. Soon I spied my goal, Hidden Basin. I hiked the ridge as long and far as possible, but eventually it was back down into the brush for one last lengthy bushwhack. It seemed to get worse as I neared HB and the last mile or so was sheer hell (perhaps it was just that I could see the beach and it seemed so close and I wanted so much to be on it). I hit the beach about 4:30 and called Kingfisher - due to the high winds, etc they were backed up and couldn't pick me up until Friday. I then called Andrew Air and, lo and behold, they had two planes on the way to Witteveens at that very moment. So, an hour or so later I got a bumpy seat fare ride back to town. Day 4 pics:
Originally, I had considered continuing to Saltery Cove, then up and over Center Mtn to Kasheverof to the road. The spirit was willing, but the flesh was weak....
The only bears I saw on this trek were a couple hanging around Butterfly Lake as we approached to land. I didn't see another bear although there was considerable sign, even high up in the "glaciers". I did see rough-legged hawks, fox, voles, deer, goats, various and sundry sparrows, dippers, magpies, ravens, eagles, etc.
If I were to repeat this trip (which is highly unlikely), I'd opt for May/early June right before or right at green up to avoid the thick, high brush. I didn't need snowshoes or crampons - my Merrill hiking boots were enough for kicking steps when needed.
Overall, it was a pretty good trip and I'm glad I did it - but it was the most intense, difficult bushwhacking I've ever done, especially for a prolonged period and distance.
My pack at the start was about 40 lbs and I had 5 days/nights of food. I didn't eat as much as I thought I would and I think I could have shed at least 5 lbs of food and other gear - I'd aim for a 30 lb pack in the future, which is easier if you have a partner to share tent/stove weight. With the amount and density of bushwhacking, you'd want a low profile pack - my REI Flash 65 was just a little too tall at times, but it is a very comfortable pack. I camped in a Silshelter which handled the wind quite well, slept in a North Face Cat's Meow (due to the rain and condensation issues, down would not have worked well on this trip), and cooked on a JetBoil stove. I broke one Kompedell carbon fiber trekking pole when I fell on it during the last bushwhack push to Hidden Basin.
If you'd like to know more about this trip, just give me a shout.

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