Del Campo Peak (6613 feet) was a major part of my quest to knock off as many summits as possible on the Mountain Loop Highway
. Not long after I discovered my passion for mountaineering, I discovered the Mountain Loop Highway and it's rugged, scenic qualities. Since that discovery I have preferred to make most of my wilderness trips there. I secretly think of it as my
playground. Although Del Campo can be done in a day, I started planning a two day trip with my climbing friend Josh
. The method I enjoy on smaller peaks involves doing the approach the night before using headlamps and then making a bivouac at the base. This makes the approach much more interesting if not difficult at times. The best part is that in the morning, the peak is right at your doorstep.
The North Face of Del Campo Peak
Josh ended up working late the night of and didn't finish packing until late. After navigating the Mountain Loop Highway, we made it to the gate at 10:30pm. The first part of the route follows the old Monte Cristo road. The mining town of Monte Cristo has been an abandoned ghost town for over a hundred years now. Some people come out this way just to poke around and see what they can find. We soon discovered that heavy rains had washed out large sections of the road. We had to navigate steep mud slides, soft clay, and fallen trees just above the bank of the South Fork Sauk River. This might have been nothing special during the day but at night it was downright eerie. Nature was reclaiming the land at this point and it felt like a silent battle between two forces had taken place here. Beyond the washouts, we had to navigate a few other spots where the river had moved over into a new path. It was difficult to find the beginning of the foot path.
Gothic Basin and Foggy Lake
The trail at the end of Monte Cristo Road leads up to Gothic Basin and Foggy Lake which is situated on the high plateau between Gothic Peak and Del Campo. On the initial phase of the trail we encountered moist, fluffy bushes that were eager to gift us with the water from their wet limbs. Thank goodness for synthetic clothes. Beyond the river basin we entered an old growth forest with impressive wide trunked trees. The path rose steeply at this point and we felt like we were making real progress. It was amazing how much drier the air was under the old trees. after an hour or so we came to the second stream crossing. The first had been a simple matter of carefully walking on the tops of rocks but this one looked more foreboding. Over the years the water had dug a sort of trench in the rock. On the far side of this trench was a mound of snow adding to the vertical aspect of the trench wall. I could tell that the rocks would be wet and slippery from the spray of a small waterfall. With cliffs above and cliffs below we could not look for a better place to cross. Josh and I discussed our options. When in doubt, two heads are better than one. I suggested that we might be able to use our axes in the snow to pull us up and over. But if it turned out to be soft, rotten snow, it could be treacherous and could lead to a fall back into the trench. After some discussion we decided to call it a night. There was no sense in pushing our luck on the first night. Besides, now we had most of the approach behind us. In the morning light, we should be able to see better and choose the best way. We found a wide spot in the trail and pitched Josh's 2 man tent. I call these kind of tents 1 & 1/2 man tents because if you're tall and broad like Josh and I, they sort of force you to get cozy. Ed Viesturs in his book No Shortcuts To The Top has a joke with his climbing buddy "Spooning is allowed but forking is not".
Approaching The Summit Block
In the morning we went back to the trench and were surprised to see that the snow had melted a bit during the night and there was an obvious, easier way that we were unable to see in the dark. Not far beyond the stream crossing the dwindling trail was completely covered with leftover snow from the previous winter. We stored our trekking poles and switch to ice-axes. On the snow we made very fast progress, no longer following a shallow incline, we climbed straight up to Gothic Basin. The only tricky spots were where the snow had melted so thin that we encountered the steep rock slabs below. At the basin we had our first views of Foggy Lake, still covered in ice, and the summit blocks of Gothic and Del Campo. The snow in July has melted and refrozen so many times that it is usually solid. Some of us call it Cascade Concrete. It covers the uneven features in the terrain and is very pleasant to maneuver around in. We climbed the steep snow slope just below the summit block until we reached the moat where the top of the snow slope had melted away from rock. Another pair of climbers appeared behind us and came up to meet us. Terri and Darryl were obviously just as pleased to be surround by such beauty as we were. Darryl and I were dumbfounded to find that we live only a block away from each other. We all scrambled up the short couloir to the saddle between the south buttress and the summit block. I found a lone crampon among the rocks and wondered about its owner. In the saddle we faced a vertical wall without much to hold onto. I studied my notes from Summit Post and Fred Beckey. This couldn't be right. The standard route follows a class 3 scramble. We must have missed it, it must be further down. We went back to the top of the snow slope. At this point Daryl and Terri informed us that they had gotten their fill of fun and would not be going any higher.
Josh and I started up the rock and it was easier than it looked although incredibly exposed in places. A little higher I started cursing Fred Becky and his "class 3" ratings. This wasn't the first time I had encountered class four moves on one of Beckey's "class 3" scrambles. For an experienced rock climber, this might be a walk in the park, but that's not my area of expertise. I slowed down and took some deep breaths trying to slow my heart rate down and relax a little. I started taking a lot of photos of Josh, anything to get my focus off the vividly open air all around us. I noticed that I was singing Bob Marley songs in my head. Reggae is not my favorite but the tranquil rhythm and lyrics seemed to be helping my mindset a lot. The face was more steep than anything I had yet experienced but I found that the rocks were all solid and there were plenty of niches for hands and feet. After a few hundred feet I was wondering how much further it could possibly be to the top. The adrenaline was burning hot in my system but I was starting to get exhausted and jittery from the sensory overload. I knew I was quickly approaching my personal limit. I can always feel when I've reached the limit of my knowledge and experience and it's time to turn around. I told Josh that if that next visible point above wasn't the summit I would have to turn around. He agreed with me and I was pleased to hear that he was feeling the same way. But it was the summit, and that electric feeling of too much adrenaline was washed away with pure joy. We shared in the glory of our success. It felt like the top of the world. And what a flawless day! The Cascades spread out around us and we spent some time soaking it up.
After resting and having a snack we prepared for the descent. There was a young couple coming up the scramble and we wanted to let them have it to themselves. I was a little worried about the scramble down which often proves to be more challenging, but it wasn't bad. Back on the snow we had an ideal glissade down the steep slope to Gothic Basin. Josh reached such speeds that snow was spraying high into the air on both sides of him. We met up with Darryl and Terri again and we all navigated down the softening snow back to the trail. It's truly amazing how far the snow recedes during one sunny day. Back on the trail we stopped to filter water once and then it was just a long walk out. It felt good to sit down in the car. It felt good to take the boots off. On the drive home my mind raced with the recollections and images. I thought of the Reggae music and I smiled.