The signs did not bode well. First of all the forecast was for clearing skies by mid morning – however the entire drive up into the South Fork of Eagle River was in a thick fog bank where we could see 200′ at the most. And then 45 minutes into the hike we were faced with a creek crossing. The creek was 6′ wide and about thigh deep. I decided I could jump 6′ with a running start if I wasn’t wearing a pack; so I took my pack off and gently lobbed it across the creek. It gently soared across the creek… landing in a patch of alder that bent slowly giving it a soft landing. But the alders stiffened against the strain and began to return to their natural shape – and my pack lifted with them. The pack bounced back towards me. In slow motion it lifted and sprang into the air and landed on another patch of alder. It then catapulted again, hanging ever so briefly above the waters… then it rolled into the creek.
I had always been told that a full pack floats. “If you ever get swept off your feet during a river crossing… clutch your pack. It will float,” a climbing partner (who had been swept off his feet) once told me. I had never tested the theory but now in front of me my pack was floating down the creek bobbing along gently like a misshapen raft. I stood dumbfounded for an instant then sprang into action. I ran downstream for about 25′ – then I dove into the water – the water coming up to mid thigh. My pack floated into me, I grabbed it, and then clambered out of the creek. I was soaked to the bone and my pack was drenched. There was no sun. It was 9am. The signs did not bode well.
Our plan was to climb Flute Peak. Flute Peak sits 10 miles from the South Fork trailhead at the very head of the Flute Glacier. The route consists of a glacier crossing, steep snow and a final rock pitch. There were 3 of us – Eric, Yvonne and I. All of us had tried it once before. Eric had actually made it to the rock pitch last spring before backing off unwilling to solo the final step. Yvonne and I had “tried” it last year; but our efforts had ended early when we ascended the wrong approach gully. We instead hiked up Ewe Peak, not willing to put the effort into additional route finding. Ideally one would climb Flute Peak as an overnight trip – taking time to leisurely hike up to the glacier on day 1 and then climb and hike out on day 2. However – we opted to try it in a day. So in we tromped… me soaking wet and the clouds thick and soupy.
We reached the headwall leading up to the hanging valley below the Flute Glacier at 11:30 where we cached our tennis shoes and dug out our hiking boots. Then up we trudged into an even thicker fog bank. The going was slow; we could see nothing in the fog and at one point we actually made a complete U-Turn without realizing it. We returned to our tracks bewildered. Finally we started booting up the final headwall that leads to the Flute Glacier. Moral was very low… our pace was beyond slow and the clouds showed no signs of lifting. But then we crested the headwall to see clouds burning off the Flute Glacier. The glacier, streaked with patches of ash, glistened in the sun – and above us, towering at the head of the valley, loomed the rock pinnacle of Flute. We could see… the signs were getting better!
After a brief lunch we began hiking up the glacier only to have more clouds roll in. We continued on in the thick fog bank all the while watching the rock walls to our left waiting for the gap where we could traverse over to the Organ Glacier. The fog stayed thick… but right at the exact moment we needed visibility, the fog lifted and we climbed up the short gully to reach the pass.
By the time we reached the pass the day had turned beautiful, but the clouds were still thick in the valleys below. Climbing above the clouds is a rare treat that you occasionally are treated to; above you the sky is a deep blue and around you the top portions of the peaks float above the clouds like islands. The clouds billow and drift about turbulently while everything above is serene. We dropped our packs and sat down to admire the view looking across at familiar peaks.
The route then pushed us down to the Organ Glacier where we tromped up a ridgeline on the edge leading towards the North Couloir of Flute. At the base we put on our glacier gear, fearing an open bergschrund above us – and then Eric set off at his usual pace blasting up the ankle to knee deep snow above us. The couloir itself was less steep than it looked. The bottom portion was about 40 degrees and the final top part maybe 60 degrees – but the soft snow made for a very secure stance and we were soon at the top on the rock ridge leading up to the final rock pitch.
Once above the snow we traversed 200′ to the West where we scrambled up a short gully to reach the steep rock. Here we dug out the rope, racked the gear and then Eric set off and lead a 50′ pitch of easy rock up to a belay station. Yvonne and I followed and just before 5pm we were all standing on the summit looking all around us at the floating peaks and sea of clouds.
We soaked up the summit views for a while. It was warm, no wind, no sign of storm. A rare day in the Chugach and we sat down tracing our fingers up imagined routes on the surrounding peaks. It never fails… I desire to climb a route for years; I try it multiple times and if I succeed I reach the top only to look over at the next peak and spy a couloir or a ramp, ridge or shoulder. My mind logs the route and then I pretty much start planning the next trip before I even reach home.
It was finally time to go home. We reversed the route; rapping the rock pitch and downclimbing the snow couloir. Then we went up and over the pass and dropped down to the Flute Glacier. By now the fog was burning off fast – and by the time we reached the base of the glacier the fog bank was gone and we enjoyed a sunny hike down the valley.
The rest of the story we’ve all heard before. The hike out from the Flute Glacier is a slog. It takes 4 hours and you’re always dead tired and thrashed. On the hike in you’re glad to have a light pack and no overnight gear, but on the way out you’re wishing for a tent, sleeping bag and warm meal. We put our heads down, sucked down some energy gels and kept tromping. The car was reached at 11:15 – making for a 22 miles / 6,500′ / 15 hour day.
I didn’t fall in the creek on the way back… and the sun was burning brightly on my face until it disappeared behind a ridge at 11pm. The signs were good.