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Mt Stearn, Grande Cache


Peter
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There are a lot of great trails up around Grande Cache, in Alberta. The area is outside the national parks, so the trails are un-maintained and unmarked, but that also means you're not overrun with tourists.

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[TD]The original plan was to do Mt. Stearn, which is a 2800 foot hike up from the river valley, then another 500 feet and stroll down a ridge line, then a quick little scramble to the summit. Lightning Ridge is an extra 1500 feet past that, and another few kilometers. From the topos, it looked like you could do both in a day. Somehow, that evolved into 'Why not do Stearn, then try for the Ridge, too?".

Of course, when in doubt, check with somebody who knows - I asked Irene Henley ("Queen of the Mountains", "The Original Death Racer"). She said that we'd have to be very, very fast to both, and we'd probably be descending in the dark. Her suggestion was to be safe, maybe run for the summit of Lightning Ridge, then bag Stearn on the way down if there was enough daylight left.

In practice, our little group of seven did a combination of both, with more or less luck (depending on your perspective). The initial ascent is 2800 feet, but that's mostly straight up with almost no level spots to rest. Just a 2.8 km grind. The group included two people from Grande Cache and five people from Edmonton, all with different levels of experience. We were at the TH at 8:00; because we were in a hurry, we took off fast, which had the unfortunate side-effect of burning off a lot of energy really early.

Once you break out of the treeline at the foot of the Stearn peaks, the trail meanders along the base of the ridge for a kilkometer or two, then branches SSW up towards the Stearn Summit or continues further for the Lightning Ridge ascent to the north. At that junction, we decided to split up into two groups.

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Me and another guy decided to stick with the original plan and just go after Stearn. My new hiking partner was a Chinese guy with no alpine experience. He'd hiked Grouse Mountain in Vancouver, but then again, who hasn't? This was a whole new experience for him, and he was already starting to fade. He would have been alright if we'd started slower, but by the end of that initial stair climb he wouldn't have survived another 1500 ft up, then the combined distance back down. We couldn't leave him alone, and besides, I'd rather enjoy the hike and scenery than run uphill looking at the back of somebody else's boots.

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I stayed back with him while everybody else kept going. Maybe I was just feeling a bit old that day, too.

The next section of our climb was just up a moderate hillside through the bush. Just for practice, and to introduce my new buddy to the fundamentals of safety on the mountains, we took a compass reading and matched it to the topo map, and plotted our 'ascent'. We followed a few flags up a narrow and rather damp trail, and soon popped out onto bare rock. Then we practiced building little cairns and memorizing landmarks as we climbed.

The weather was changeable - when isn't it in Alberta? Warm and wet on the lower slopes, near-frigid on the top. High winds and blowing drizzle, with the threat of snow. August in the Rockies...

Like most mountains, it seems, you reach the top of one bump thinking it must be the last, only to discover another one up ahead. After a few of those, we finally reached one that actually looked like there would be nothing higher, but of course when we got there, we came across this:

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From that angle, the true summit seem kind of high and pointy, but I knew we wouldn't really find out until we got there. The closer we got, the nastier it looked:

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And when we finally got within striking distance, it looked like we'd come all that way just to be stymied only metres from the top by the rockwall.

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As the ridge narrowed, though, the trail began to reappear, and when we got right up to the wall we found a short little scramble that would actually get us up. There were good foot/handholds, but a clumsy slip still could have meant a short fall then a nasty butt-slide for a few hundred feet.

The route was clear to me, but less clear to my partner. I did the scramble, and while he has a bit nervous, I think he felt that he didn't want to be stopped so near his goal (just like the rest of us!). He gritted his teeth and came on up. From there it was an easy walk the last few metres to the summit, and we took a few photos so he could send them to his parents in China.

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It was too cold to stay, though, and the weather was closing in. Getting down that same short section was another challenge. He got hung up halfway into it. Still time to go back and start again, but the loss of confidence could have made it really hard to try it again. To his credit, he stopped and thought it through - no panic, just some really good problem solving. And we were back down in the shelter of the summit.

Stopped for lunch, then noticed the clouds closing in around us and we figured we'd better get going. I didn't want to be trying to walk along a knife-edge ridge in a heavy fog, with a drop of a few hundred feet on either side. It turned out alright, though - the fog lifted as soon as we got going, and we had clear sailing back down to the meadow at the foot of the peaks. And all our practice paid off; the cairns were where they were supposed to be, and the landmarks we memorized turned up right on time. We didn't actually need them, but it was kind of fun, just the same.

Back down the trail; 3 km downhill, toes hammering into the toes of my boots all the way, and I could feel the blisters forming with every step. The brush was wet from the squalls that had been blowing through, and by the time we got to the bottom, I was soaked through from the thighs down.

All in all, a perfect day and a perfect hike.

The rest of our party wasn't so lucky. They took a wrong turn right off the bat, got lost, and had to backtrack for twenty minutes. They wandered down the valley looking for the proper trail (and watching us from a far distance, with envy, on top of our mountain), then they figured they could just do some bushwhacking instead of trying to find the actual trail. All that did was getting them soaking wet.

When they finally managed to find the right trail, they climbed up far enough for the clouds to start closing in on them. Reports I got the next morning say they got too far up on a moss-covered slate edge, surrounded by cloud and getting rained on, before they decided to give it up. Obviously, they would have been better to turn back earlier, but it's hard to turn back when you've psyched yourself up for a really big challenge.

They never did find the summit. They were pretty grumpy afterwards but at least they all made it back down safely. However, I have to think they made some foolish mistakes, too.

First, they overreached themselves - under perfect conditions, one or maybe two of the five could have done the distance and the elevation. The others weren't quite as good; they just thought they were. Second, they failed to find the proper route and kept going anyway, compounding the error. They had topos, route descriptions and at least one compass between them, and still managed to get lost. They went bushwhacking, but didn't stop and put on their rain gear when they started getting wet. They boasted about being prepared - when we asked them how long we should wait before sending SAR, they said 'Monday', two days away, and that they were ready for a night on the mountains if necessary. They didn't stop when the weather got nasty, and they got caught by their bravado and their own egos...

Not the kind of people I want to be out in the mountains with again. Lesson-learned - Take only people you know and trust, and be prepared mentally to back down if the going gets too rough. He who fights then runs away, lives to fight another day.

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Edited by Peter
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