Adams: Salt Creek to Avalanche Glacier

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

Adams: Salt Creek to Avalanche Glacier

Post by Chip Down » October 23rd, 2020, 9:36 pm

First, I had to get to Salt Creek at RTM trail. I decided to try something new: The Shorthorn trail from Morrison camp. It joins RTM trail very close to Salt Creek. Yes, it's a little lower than the south climb TH, but the trail distance is less, and there's no undulating (no elevation loss along the way, just relentlessly up). I was a little nervous about this: a trail I've never seen, in the dark, with snow, and lots of blowdown expected. It went well. I lost the trail several times, but always picked it up again without much trouble. I arrived at the RTM junction around sunrise, and walked a few minutes to reach Salt Creek, and then Salt Creek, and then Salt Creek. This stretch of RTM has the greatest density of creek crossings, except the famously creeky Bird Creek Meadows on the Yakama reservation.

I followed one of the forks of Salt Creek up, with no particular plan, just guessing what would be most rewarding. I ended up at the high point overlooking the breach that forms the head of Salt Creek Canyon. I decided my goal would be the dramatic lower end of the ridge the divides Avalanche Glacier from the SW Chutes.

The only sensible way to reach my goal was to gain the ridge at a saddle between my goal and the lowest gendarme on the ridge, and then follow ridgecrest "down" (away from mountain, but actually sloping up). But getting to that saddle would be tough. There were cliffbands, old snow, new snow, rubble. Nothing looked easy or obvious. Worse, clouds were gathering, and by the time I needed to pick a route, I couldn't see diddly. Getting up would be hard enough, but how could I get down if I wasn't able to see my ascent line? Well, there was only one thing to do: commit to a snow line, so I could follow my footprints down. That turned out to be easier than I thought, as up close I could see there was a lot of dirty grey snow that would show footprints just fine if I kicked my way up, which I needed to do anyway.

I was prepared to wait a while at the saddle and turn back if it didn't clear up, but it wasn't that bad. There was some clearing on the glacier side, and in just a few minutes I was getting some breaks, even blue sky. There was never a moment where everything was clear, but all the parts of the mountain took turns revealing themselves.

I continued past my high-point goal and dropped a bit down the ridge to an abrupt end, at a feature that reminded me of The Castle: Flat topped, a bit sandy on top, with a rocky fringe, and accessible via a frenulum. Getting to the flat top didn't look particularly difficult, but the exposure was tremendous. A slip would be fatal. And the rock was frosty/snowy. I hated to turn back, but trusted the butterflies (you know, the ones in my stomach).

After 40 minutes of fun, the clouds abruptly returned. I had been very lucky, and knew it was time to retreat.

Next up: The moraines of the glacier that used to occupy the bowl below the SW Chutes. I topped the lateral moraines, then the terminals, visited a tarn at the foot of the withered glacial remnants, and then took a snow chute down the moraine, into the jumbled mess of the 1997 Avalanche Glacier collapse (beyond the scope of this TR; Google is your friend).

Crossing the debris zone wasn't that bad. I was here in 1997, 1998, maybe 1999. For a long time, it was a muddy unstable leg trap. It's still rugged, but consolidated. Felt safe. And much easier to cross than, say, a lava flow or some talus fields.

I aimed for the obvious unmistakable Salt Creek breach, and followed the east edge of the canyon back to the RTM trail. Along the way, I saw a rotund goat climb out of the canyon. He got his front legs over the edge, and scrapped his belly as he struggled with his back legs to push himself over. I've never seen such an unfit clumsy ungraceful goat.

I hustled to see as much of the Shorthorn trail as possible before dark. It's a charming trail. Very rough, needs some work, but lots of potential. I was surprised that it had views (partly obscured) with great frequency along the route. Of course, I couldn't see more than the lower slopes/moraines, because of clouds. Until I reached the trailhead a little after sunset, and saw the mountain through the trees. Yep, that's right, the clouds were all gone.

At 6:30pm, it was 24F at Morrison camp. Everything that had gotten wet in the warmest hours of the afternoon were now frozen. My boot laces were stiff, my treking poles couldn't be collapsed, etc. I cooked dinner and sorted gear as quickly as I could, ran the car a while to heat it up, and then tried to get some sleep so I could get up at 4am to drive to my next trailhead.

Other parties: Yeah, right. Not even a footprint.
Looking at the sky, you'd think this was a file photo, but no, it really was briefly that clear around mid-morning.
Getting closer. That slope between "goal" and "first gendarme" was the hardest part of the day. Not terrible, but absolutely no fun to be had.
From goal, looking up the mountain (so down to saddle, then up to gendarme).
Upper Avalanche Glacier.
Tarn at terminal moraine below SW Chutes.
Looking through the Salt Creek breach. Notice the beautiful verdant ridge below, illuminated by a break in the clouds.
Trail, almost sunset.
Not GPS, just hand-drawn from memory, probably slightly off in spots.

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