I didn’t anticipate anything out of the ordinary. I’d been up to Little Rock Creek Lake (and beyond)
several times before and knew the trail wasn’t one of the best around. Sure, this would be my first time going to the saddle between Middle and West Como Peaks, but I was prepared to take it slow and expected plenty of bushwhacking, boulder hopping, scrambling, and route finding.
The whole point of this trip was to reconnoiter for a future multi-summit attempt at all Como Peaks. I wanted to make sure that the route, based on my study of TOPO maps, would actually work out “on the ground.” My goal was the saddle, not a summit. Still, I figured that if everything went especially well, I could go for the summit of either Middle or West Como Peak.
North canyon wall
The trip began just fine. As planned, I left the trailhead at about 8:20 am. Even though the area had been especially dry lately, by the time the trail reached the bottom of the canyon along Little Rock Creek, the air felt a lot more humid than I expected.
When I reached Little Rock Creek Lake a couple of hours later, I was drenched with sweat. This in spite of the fact that I’d made a concerted effort not to hike too fast and had even stopped to take pictures a time or two(2). Trying to cool off a little, I sat in the shade near the dam for a while, ate a little trail food and drank plenty of Gatorade. After a few minutes, I figured I’d cooled off enough and began bushwhacking uphill to the south along my planned route.
Talus and boulders
In less than 20 minutes, the underbrush opened up and I reached the bottom of the expected talus/boulder field. I studied the surroundings and picked a route through the broken rock. Like many climbers, I have a tendency to keep going higher as I work my way through this type of terrain. This time was no exception. After a few minutes, I looked at my GPS and discovered I’d gotten off of my planned route and gone higher than intended. Oh well, big deal. I’d just adlib on the fly. I wasn’t lost or anything.
I tried to keep from getting higher, honest. It just didn’t work and before long I found myself much higher than I'd planned, in fact, right at the top of the talus and up against the side of the north buttress to West Como Peak. I studied my situation and decided to go for the ridgeline of the buttress. At least up there I’d have a better view of my surroundings. I might even discover that the way I’d come would turn out better than the route I had planned.
Ridgeline of buttress
An hour and 25 minutes after leaving Little Rock Creek Lake I reached a point along the buttress ridgeline. I had been right, I did have a better view of the area. Unfortunately, I still wasn’t high enough to determine whether or not my decision to follow the ridgeline would work out for the better. So…
I climbed upward to the south, staying as close to the ridge top as I could. More times than not, this entailed tricky Class 4 moves over and around some of the most interesting formations I’d seen in a while. Eventually I reached a point on the ridgeline which afforded me some great views of my surrounding. I stopped to take pictures of El Capitan and a few of the other peaks in the area. I also carefully studied my position and determined that I should begin a traverse down from the ridgeline along the east side of the buttress. I could see the upper portion of the cirque and realized the going would be much easier traveling over its snow patches and tundra.
I began traversing along the buttress, careful not to give up elevation. I headed directly for a patch of tundra. I was making really good time and felt that my error in gaining the ridgeline of the buttress would not turn out too badly after all. As I moved along, I looked up to gauge my progress and saw 4 mountain goats, 2 nannies and 2 kids.
I wasn’t expecting to see any wildlife besides marmots and picas so was happily surprised. I stopped to take a picture, but knew I wasn’t really close enough to do the scene justice. It was obvious the goats knew I was there, but they weren’t very concerned. They have 4-wheel drive, I only have 2! As I moved toward them, they just moved slowly away, until they’d disappeared. I shrugged, repacked my camera, and moved toward my goal. Then, just as I reached the patch of tundra and stepped around a huge house-sized boulder, another goat jumped up – this time a billy goat. He’d been keeping an eye on the nannies and hadn’t heard me approaching. Although he didn’t run, in just a matter of seconds, he was gone!
There are several cliff bands guarding the upper sections of the Como Cirque.
Down off of the talus, traveling over tundra and snow fields gave my legs a needed break. The incline of the upper cirque was less than that while working along the buttress ridgeline. I appreciated the respite. It was only a few minutes later when I reached the upper reaches of the cirque and the base of the last pitch toward my goal, the saddle between Middle and West Como Peaks. I sat down to eat a bite or two and studied what lay ahead, searching for the best route. I saw what I wanted and stood up to go for it.
Suddenly, I felt like I was going to black out. I got light headed and had tunnel vision. My breathing began to get shallow and labored. “What’s going on?” I wondered. I quickly sat down again and tried to figure out what was happening. It didn’t take me long to realize I was in trouble. Cyclists call it “bonking”, runners “hitting the wall”. It had happened to me before, but never while hiking or climbing, and never to this extreme.
As I sat there thinking, I realized what had happened. Sure, I’d hiked/climbed close to 20 miles at-a-time at altitudes over 12,000 feet, but never in heat like Montana had been experiencing for the last week or so. My core temperature was too high, I was overheated. But that alone shouldn’t have made me feel as bad as I did. Oh yeah, it must be that slight sinus infection I’d had for the past few days. The combination of the infection and the heat had done me in.
Well, I wasn’t going to let this happen to me. No way was I going to be this close to the goal and not reach it. So I got up – and climbed – to the saddle – my goal. I made it! Six(6) hours and 20 minutes after leaving my truck, I reached the ridgeline between the Middle and West Como Peaks. It took a pretty long time, but much of that time was spent route finding and taking pictures. I was happy.
Glacial pond near summit of West Como Peak
Then the realization set in, I had to get back down! I wasn’t exactly in the best of shape at the moment. What to do? Well, for one thing, I’d get off the saddle and back to the tundra then fill up my water bottles. I knew I was dehydrated to some extent and overheated. I had to do whatever I could to keep from progressing to a worse state. I tried to eat some more, but found that my food tasted awful. I forced myself to eat anyway.
I knew it would be dangerous for me to try and retrace my ascent route along the buttress. Periodically I was getting dizzy, something which would not do when attempting exposed Class 4 moves. So I stayed off the rocks as much as possible and traveled over tundra and snow fields over the upper levels of the cirque. But, eventually I reached fields of talus and boulders. I had no choice but to begin rock hopping, just at a slower and more controlled pace than before. Periodically, slab granite was exposed along the eastern edge and base of the talus fields. I moved down whenever I could to make my travel easier. Unfortunately, at least three(3) of these “slab” areas ended in cliff bands which forced me westward, back onto talus and boulders.
Class 4 climbing ahead
It took two and a half hours (from the saddle)
, but I eventually reached Little Rock Creek Lake. By now I was really hot. I took off my shoes plunged my feet into the creek. I washed every exposed body part in cool water. It helped.
I was still overheated, but knew it would take a long while to get back to my normal self. I couldn’t sit there forever with my feet in the water; I had to get moving. It had taken me two hours from the trailhead to reach this point, and that was going uphill most of the way. Given my current state, I hoped that going downhill wouldn’t take much longer.
Middle Como Peak
Well it didn’t. Take much longer that is, only 15 minutes. But I have to tell you that by the time I got back to the last section of trail which gains slightly over 600’ in elevation as it returns to the trailhead, I was in serious trouble. I was getting dizzy more and more frequently and having more bouts of tunnel vision. My breath was exceptionally shallow. My skin felt like it was burning. Those 600+ feet over the last mile cost me just about everything I had left. On that incline I had to sit down on the trail eight(8) times and rest for several minutes at-a-time, just to go a few more steps uphill.
But I did make it. I reached my truck, some cold water from the cooler, and a bit of food – finally, 11 hours after I began my trek. I was so dehydrated I could hardly speak, which made talking to my wife on my cell phone rather difficult.
West Como Peak
Upon reaching home, forty-five minutes later, it was all I could do to walk into the house. I don’t know how long I spent lying on the floor in an attempt to recover. Eventually I felt good enough to take a shower, then weighed myself to see just how dehydrated I had really become. Over five(5) percent of my body weight had disappeared – way past what the medical profession considers to be dehydrated.
Well, it’s been two(2) days since my “adventure” and I’m beginning to recover. I figure it will take me another day or two(2) to get back to a semblance of normal, but at least food is beginning to have taste again. For that I’m thankful!