Tyndall Gorge and Chaos Canyon

(Part IV)

You can easily go back to Part III, if need be.

I admit, I have this thing for "reverse pictures". Across the valley, on the Flattop Mountain Trail, is an nice rest spot called the Emerald Lake Overlook. Zillions of people stop there and take photos of Emerald Lake. Now, I know as well as anyone that photos of lakes from above really don't look that striking. However, from atop pt 11,120+ I decided to take a photo of Emerald Lake anyways, because it is a "reverse picture" -- ie, a 'cliche' picture, but taken from the opposite side of the valley, giving a different perspective. I also took a picture of Flattop towards where the overlook is, knowing full well that zillions of hikers had pictures of the ridge I was standing on taken from that overlook...

I also got a great shot of the gully I climbed to gain the ridge. The fork in the center of the photo is the route I took.

It was time to get to the serious business of descending. No problem... I would just glissade the gully I climbed! I made my way back to the col, readied my ice axe and equipment, looked down...

... and panicked. The top 50 feet of the gully were around 60 - 70 degree in angle, and there was no safe runout below (just big jagged bone-crunching rocks). I must have contemplated my future for an hour on the col, exploring around, looking for a safe way down. I even started to downclimb a bit, but after slipping some 3-4 feet from the top (and fortunately not losing my footing in the process), I chickened out and made my way back up to the col. The gully would not be my descent route this day, instead I would drop into Chaos Canyon.

I have only been in Chaos Canyon once. All the guidebooks go into great detail about how nasty this canyon is, thanks to a plethora of boulders that make my meager home look tiny. Hence, lots of traversing, route finding, and backtracking. From the col, I could sort of make out a path of snow slopes through the boulders that seemed to lead to Lake Haiyaha below. I downclimbed through trees and boulders to reach the top of the first snowslope, offering me a chance to glissade (since it was a much gentler angle!). I looked up and grabbed another shot of Hallett's south face and a view up towards Chaotic Glacier:

And then I glissaded. A lot of the time, when I glissade (esp. early in the season) I like to self arrest every now and again, mostly for practice. So I did it here. And I didn't stop.

The snow was warm and soft. I rolled onto my ice axe, trying with all of my might to dig the head in praying it would catch. But the snow was too soft, it wouldn't hold. I slid in a self-arrest position for 40-50 feet down this slope before stopping. Even then, it wasn't my axe that saved me -- rather, the mass of wet snow that my falling body displaced finally bunched up into a heavy mound that slowed me down.

I was lucky. If I had attempted the gully on the Tyndall Gorge side, and slipped, I would not have been able to self arrest. My mangled body would be lying against the bone-cracking rocks below. I'd be a footnote in the local papers. People would decry my idiotic philosophy that hiking alone is actually a pretty good thing to do on occasion, saying that that was what killed me, not the fact that making the decision to downclimb a nasty soft-snow gully was what would've killed me. So let that be a lesson to the budding mountaineer -- know your limits and always be willing to turn back or take a different (safer) route in the name of safety.

But, I digress. I made it to the world of the famous house-sized boulders, and surprisingly, didn't have too much of a problem navigating through them, thanks to some handy snow slopes intermingled among the chaos. I only had to scramble a few times over boulders.

I did look back towards the ridge. In the middle of the photo is the slope I glissaded.

And finally, I made it to the lake.

The moral of the story. Climbing alone is always dangerous. I know that. I'm not crazy. Everything I did on this trip was easily within my abilities. To climb alone with safety means making good decisions. And that's what I did; I turned back when conditions looked even remotely beyond my abilities. In fact, it was probably overkill. I probably didn't even need crampons in the gully, but I used them anyways. I still think that driving down the canyon on my way home was a hell of a lot more dangerous than the climb I was on.

Three people had been in Chaos Canyon this day. I saw them descending down while I was on the ridge. At the lake I found their footprints. They had no clue where the trail back to Dream Lake was, and I had little more clue (having only taken that trail once years before). I did see Nymph Lake (and those three apparently did too) and bee-lined for it. Eventually, much to the gawking amazement stares of the tourists at the lake, I triumphantly emerged from the forest, my pack jangling with all sorts of gear (crampon, ice axe, etc and onward). After stripping off my parka and misc. gear, strapping it all to my pack, I headed down the asphalt trail to home.

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