Add Heading HereI never saw these two coming.
Last Saturday Mike and I cruised a mellow couloir(~40 degrees) on Missouri’s North Face. That adventure had me desiring something a little rougher and Snow’s West Face seemed to fit the bill. With no takers, a solo jaunt through the Gores was on the agenda….then Sarah called. The Elks, Two Pearls, an add-on 12er, and people(Dwight and Sarah) to climb with? Alright, you got me. When are we leaving?
I hadn’t been up the road towards Castle/Conundrum and Pearl Pass since July 2005, but I remembered the creek crossing. In my memory, it was pretty far up the road. Sarah assured me we could drive that far, and we did. Cool. ~10,100’-10,200’, we setup camp and called it good for the night. I took 15 minutes to wander up the road, tomorrow looks promising.
4:15am and we’re wandering down the road under the guidance of our headlamps. The growing snowbanks begin to dominant our path and before long our thin strip of dry ground is just a fond memory.
Sunrise finds us at the Taggert and Wilson Backcountry Huts. Footprints lead here and there but we believe the road dips down momentarily before climbing towards the western horizon. A bit of confusion and debate ensues before we decide to beeline it through towards the clearing, more or less. As we leave the trees we begin an ugly sidehill traverse. I head up the steep hill, drop my pack and apply some sunscreen before the area heats up too much. Upon finishing the task, Sarah and Dwight are still nowhere to be seen. What’s going on? Back at the crest, I notice they decided to take the longer, gentler way around. Alright, it’s time to catch up.
Once we regroup we settle in for the slog up to the West Pearl-Greg Mace saddle. The views are top-notch; Castle’s East Face draws our gaze. Wow, that is impressive! I’ll have to put that one on the mental to-do list.
Castle's East Face
West Pearl doesn’t look too shabby either in the early morning light. Wonder if that face will make a nice glissade?
West Pearl in Morning Light
Forget the glissade, for now, there’s Pearl, and the sun! Now warmer, we decide to take five for a snack before getting back at it.
After restarting, Dwight and Sarah get ahead as I spend quality time shooting photos. Everywhere I turn the snow-covered Elks provide a wonderful sensory overload, but I should catch up with the rest of the team.
Sarah and Dwight, the Pearl Hunters
The flats between us and Pearl fly by and soon the three of us are turning the corner into the Amphitheater. Pearl’s North Face is the dominant feature despite its less than overbearing appearance.
Pearl Mountain, The North Face Amphitheater
We stroll through the Amphitheater a ways before deciding it’s going to get steep enough to require crampons. Dwight gets his on quickly and starts up the incline while Sarah and I are still fumbling around putting ours on. Soon enough, we follow suit.
The lower section isn’t rough whatsoever, but it is steep enough to remind me(for the 1,000th time) that I need an longer ice axe. Dwight’s waiting at the crest of the lower hill. Here we decide on a line between the bare, scree patch and the cornice on Pearl’s North Ridge. Dwight and I take turns kicking steps up the mellow face. We gain vertical rapidly.
Just before what we expect to be the summit, we encounter a rock tower. I start to head towards the open snowfield on the tower’s left but the snow has softened much more than I expected close to the rocks. I back off that idea and head straight into the heart of the tower once a small chimney becomes apparent. A couple awkward moves later combined with lovely crampon screeching and I’m up that bugger, only steps from summit! Ah, a new Elk Thirteener; it’s been too long.
It’s 8:00am but the snow is softening faster than we’d prefer so we bypass a summit breather and begin the traverse towards West Pearl. With the lack of cornices present, we find the ridgecrest to be the optimal route the entire way sans a section here and there until we reach the two Pearls saddle.
Descending Pearl's Upper Slopes
I fall behind once again while taking in some views but discover this is advantageous on my behalf when I notice Sarah and Dwight postholing their way up West Pearl. It’s great to be the caboose! Their postholes are scattered leading to awkward, slow travel which doesn’t allow me to catch up until right before West Pearl’s summit.
West Pearl's West Face
The view from the snowy summit is glorious, but the dry patch of tundra five minutes back is the perfect break spot. We convene there and pick out a rough route towards Greg Mace.
Back at it again, the three of us wander down the ridge looking for an open section to glissade towards the West Pearl-Greg Mace saddle. I find an open snowfield headed in our intended direction. It’s not steep enough and I pull up 300-400' vertical later. Dwight doesn’t seem to have the same issues and goes flying by. From there we wander forward wondering if the snow is too soft for glissading today. The lower half of face is steeper and Dwight slides down to the saddle with Sarah and I in tow. Yes Dominic, we got her to glissade, I promise…..but I don’t have any photo evidence of it.
At the saddle we begin the long haul across the flats to Greg Mace. The snow is holding well enough for us to forgo snowshoes yet we’re not fortunate enough to avoid all the gotchas the mountain gods have hidden in our path. Greg Mace’s dry West Ridge teases us the entire way.
Boulders greet us at the Greg Mace’s base. It takes a moment of grunt work to get through this obstacle but its well worth it. From there we cruise to the false summit. Oh wow! The true summit farther away than expected and it’s quite gnarly looking! Things are about to get quite serious.
Greg Mace's Summit Block
From the West Ridge we scramble to the base of the summit block, traverse across the awkwardly uncomfortable, snow packed North Face and pull our way through the loose, third-class talus trash to the summit. This one felt the most rewarding of the three. Not wanting to repeat the disaster we just ascended, we start down the East Ridge until we spot a wide snowfield ~50’ below us to descend. Mere steps before reaching the snowfield my feet go flying out from under me and I tear my left leg up something fierce upon landing in the rocks. (Author’s note: Cleaning that orangish, "sugar like" scree out of numerous cuts in your leg sucks majorly! It looks like rust is draining out of your leg and it doesn’t feel any better.) Fortunately, I am now at the edge of the much welcomed snowfield. Three steps later, I am plunge stepping down the steep snowfield after Sarah and Dwight, swearing up a storm. ~300’ down we reach an icy choke which forces us back onto the scree momentarily. Once we're able to venture back onto the snowfield the angle has relented enough to allow five relatively smooth glissades which bring us to the road. What luck! A half-hour we have retraced our steps back to Sarah’s vehicle quite pleased with our Elk 3-pack.