St Helens: Rim via Coldspring Gully

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Chip Down
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Joined: November 8th, 2014, 8:41 pm

St Helens: Rim via Coldspring Gully

Post by Chip Down » August 13th, 2018, 7:29 pm

Between Sheep Canyon and Butte Camp, Coldspring Gully is a treacherous unstable canyon that forces Loowit hikers on a long detour down to where it can be safely crossed, but even then it requires a rope. The trail used to cross much higher, but it washed out. It's a tough place to build a trail, and I doubt it will ever be reconstructed up high. It doesn't extend all the way up to the rim, leaving a notch like Shoestring Glacier. Instead, it fades into the upper slopes, so any climber who can ascend the gully will have no trouble exiting it at the top end. It would be crazy to go up the gully when it's snow free, but I wanted to follow the south rim (Butte Camp side, climber's right). Plan was to descend a new route, just poking around and exploring towards Butte Camp.

I arrived at the Butte Camp/Loowit junction surprisingly early. I wasn't making an effort to go fast, but I guess I was. The Red Rock Pass TH was surprisingly warm/calm, but up here it was cool and breezy, so I donned hat/gloves/jacket as I waited for light. Saw headlamps up at the summit, heard celebratory whooping. That surprised me. In my experience, MSH isn't a common night climb, and I also didn't think voices would carry that far. I wonder if they were up there for Perseid. If so, they were likely disapointed. There was a thin high cloud layer, and I could see only the brightest stars.

At dawn, I followed Loowit clockwise towards Sheep Canyon. I've only been on this segment once, on a cloudy day going the opposite direction, so this was somewhat new to me. I went slow, enjoying the scenery, knowing I wouldn't be coming back this way.

In an hour, when I dropped into forest, I knew I was approaching the deadend stub where the old Loowit trail plunges into Coldwater Gully. From trailend, I followed the rim up, through slight brush, weaving around to find the best clearings. It was dewy, maybe even some leftover rain, so I got soppy. Six hundred feet higher, I abruptly popped out of the trees on a crisp bare ridgecrest, Coldwater to my left, open grassy slopes right. The contrast was jaring, in a good way. Glad to be out of the trees, I followed the easy ridge up until it steepened, became less distinct, faded into a steep rocky slope. I could have stayed right for moderate green slopes, but I stayed left for better views, and for route purity.

Above the unpleasant crumbly section, I found myself in a pleasant zone of easier slopes, low ridges and gullies, a bit of green and sand, quite nice, more of an alpine feeling. From here, I could see the MSH paradox that I've encountered so many times this year: it's amazing how much snow lingers in bowls and gullies that aren't discernable from the trail. I decided on the biggest snowfield. This wasn't the plan; this was about the elevation where I had planned to explore and wander down CCW toward Butte Camp. But I couldn't pass up a long narrow continuous august snowgully.

This is where I really started to worry about weather. At dawn, I could see Portland lights. A little later, when I was slightly above the trail, I could see a cloud layer developing, but low. Now it was lapping its way higher. The race was on; I had to beat it to the rim. It wasn't easy though; I picked a bad access point to get on snow, and had to deal with horrible crumbly slopes before I set a grateful boot on the white stuff. With better footing, I picked up the pace. When the snow split into lobes, I went left, just because. When it ended, I was going to cross over an intermediate ridge to get back to the main lobe. But damn, that rocky zone on my itinerary was mantled ice! And not just a bit, it was everywhere, I was surrounded! I cautiously picked my way over to the main lobe, once again gratefull to be on "solid ground". Towards the top, things got a bit icy, and I hadn't brought crampons, so I got my axe out and carefully picked my way across the dirtiest suncups, never feeling terribly anxious, nor terribly comfortable.

When I ran out of snow, I was just a couple hundred feet below the rim, so I had to. What a miserable sandy 200 feet. From the rim, I sat and pondered the weather and route options. I couldn't bear to go back the way I came, and with no visibility I wasn't willing to descend into unknown terrain. Briefly considered dropping to nearby Crescent Ridge, only a thousand feet below and a little clockwise, but all that mantled ice spooked me. I wasn't sure there was a safe route. The best option was a high traverse towards monitor ridge, passing just below the summit, to descend a major snowfield that I was confident was still intact (probably survives summer?) and then down to Loowit Trail, hopefully through grassy sandy slopes, avoiding lava flows and steep gullies.

I traversed too high. A better route would be lower, or perhaps up to the summit and down to the saddle between the summit and the top of the monitor route. But it was new to me and held the potential to be fun, so I don't regret it too much.

I found my snowfield and started down, but the clouds came ever higher. I was at a point where I felt I could get down safely based on memory and luck, but it was warm and windless, and the immediate scenery was nice, so I got out my wine bottle and settled in for a long break. The clouds came and went, allowing frequent peeks at the summit and climbers on Monitor, but beneath me was just constant grey, horrible visibility. I finally got restless and had to move on, starting with a steepish glisade, fun, only fell once, landed on a lone rock, a bit buttbruised today.

Abruptly, I dropped below the cloud layer. It was like dropping down a firepole and looking back up at the ceiling. The terrain between me and Loowit trail was as I remembered, and I was right where I needed to be.

Since I was up here, I went to check out The Heart, as described in a TR a couple-three weeks ago. As expected, it was almost completely melted out. I followed the rim up to a viewpoint, where I laughed at how strange everything looked without snow, and watched mountain goats watching me as they grazed on sparce grasses barely clinging to life up here. Stupid goats, the grass is abundant 300 feet lower.

The hike down was fast and effortless, which was good, because I was running on 1 hr sleep, so had to be home by dark, else I might nap at the wheel.

Echoing previous TRs, I didn't see another soul all day, except Monitor climbers, until I returned to the Loowit/Butte junction. The TH parking was bare when I started out Sunday, and no tents at Butte Camp. Probably owing to rain Saturday.

Bug report: Haven't seen a skeeter in so long, I thought I'd seen the end of the season, but they surprised me at the TH. I had to toss my pack in back and get into my car quickly, then swat at them for a couple minutes until I could turn my attention to driving. But that was all the exposure it took: they got me.

Lots of air traffic on the mountain, presumably looking for a hiker missing since Thursday. Road to Blue Lake TH was closed for SAR activities.

This was a long difficult frustrating day, but still mostly fun and rewarding. I'll have to come back to finish my original plan. Maybe this year, but I won't do the Butte Camp trail on a hot day, so it might be a while.
Looking down into Coldspring Gully.
Uh oh, my planned descent route is getting swallowed up by clouds.
Crescent Ridge at right, wrapping around its snowfield.
There are good descent routes down there, but bare now, maybe not safe.
Summit as seen from the anti-monitor side.
Looking down my planned descent route, the obvious snowline that plunges left.
Here I am coming down the planned route (but looking back up, of course), near the mound in the middle of the previous pic, when the clouds abruptly swept in.
Looking over at upper Monitor Ridge.
Can't see what I'm doing, might as well relax for a while, wait it out.
No improvement, down we go. I've ascended the lower left lobe, but this higher variant was new to me. But having seen it from below maybe a couple weeks ago, I was confident it was continuous. If not, I had experience on other nearby routes, both left and right.

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