North Star Mountain – 13,614
RT Length- 9 miles
Elevation Gain – 2400’
First hike of 2019! I’d spent the past week at sea level and once again my time was constrained (I needed to be back by 2pm because my daughter had her final driving lesson) so I chose something I knew I’d be able to complete before noon: minimal elevation gain with moderate mileage at an open trailhead seemed a good choice, just to get me back out above treeline. I was debating doing Quandary to get in my first winter 14er of the year, but the wind looked more favorable just a little to the south on North Star Mountain, so I decided to save Quandary for later.
Monitoring the temperature while driving I was a bit put off when it reached -2* around Hartsel but felt better when it rose to 27* in Alma (it was 20* when I arrived at the Hoosier Pass trailhead).
I arrived at 4:45am to an empty parking lot full of ice and decided to just put on my snowshoes while sitting in my truck (with spikes underneath so if I needed them I wouldn’t need to take off my gloves to put them on). For Christmas I bought myself a new pair of snowshoes (EVO ASCENT MSRs) and was anxious to try them out.
I started on the trail just after 5am. The 4WD road was blocked off by plowed snow, but easy to follow and packed down by previous hikers/skiers/snowboarders/etc. The road starts just beyond this sign.
This part of the trail was great, as it followed a well packed and wide 4WD road. I followed it as it curved to the left. It was sill dark out, but I could faintly make out the sledding/skiing hill ahead of me.
I stopped briefly to fix my snowshoes (the band had come loose on one of them). It was cold but clear and every time I looked up I saw meteors from the Quadrantid Meteor Shower. I kept stopping to watch and just absorb the night and finally had to kick myself in gear and tell myself to get going: I was on a time schedule.
As many of you know, route finding is different when it’s dark: there aren’t many visible landmarks, and even the easiest route can cause you trouble when you can’t see what’s ahead of you. Following the road around 12,000’ I suddenly found myself on the side of a mountain, road gone. I looked at my map and compass, knew I was heading the right way, and continued on. It seems the road was covered in snow, making it indistinguishable from the hillside. This made me a bit uneasy as it was exactly where the avalanche danger was forecasted for today, and I couldn’t quite make out the angle of the slope or consistency of the snow. I got out my caltopo map, noticed it was less than a 20* angle, and just decided to be careful and stay as close to the road as possible. Bonus points if I could actually find it (which I could once in a while). Once again I looked down, and the band had come undone on my left snowshoe, so I put it back into place.
As I rounded the corner the road became visible again and I breathed a sigh of relief, until the wind picked up. It started out strong and didn’t let up until I made it back to that spot on my way back down. Here’s where the route finding truly got fun. I still had over an hour of darkness, and with the wind I could no longer see clearly what was ahead of me as the wind was ferociously blowing up the snow and made everything appear… grey. When I turned around and looked back at Mt Buckskin I could see much better. The sun was rising and there wasn’t much wind behind me to obscure my view, so I kept looking back to give me a visual reference for later. I took out my camera and kept trying to get a picture of the moonrise as well (just to the right of Buckskin), but the camera had a hard time focusing with all the wind.
OK, back to route finding. I was now at the 4WD parking area, although I didn’t know it. In the dark and with the wind I couldn’t’ see much, so I just kept heading west. Good news: I came to a road! Bad news: it was the wrong road. So was the next one, and the next. Apparently there are tons of mining roads in this immediate area, all parallel with each other, and none of them were the correct “road”. However, heading up and west seemed to keep me on the right track, so I did so, even though I couldn’t see much.
I lightened this video on my computer to give it more visibility, but here’s an idea of the terrain and mild wind in the dark (well, I guess not “dark” because I lightened it, but this shows where I was at)
At about this point my phone shut off. I’d been trying to take videos/pictures, and it decided it was too cold to continue. Hmph. I stuck it in my backpack to let it ‘warm up’ and hoped it’d turn on again later, looked down, and once again fixed the band my snowshoe (both sides this time).
Up and west ended up being the correct navigation, and soon I was at the top of North Star Mountain’s shoulder. The snow was about a foot thick in most places and consolidated. It was perfect for a winter hike: Not tiring or difficult at all. I never did see the gate that was mentioned, or the ‘parking area’ but it was getting lighter out and I could now see the rest of the route before me
I had several options, but decided to head towards the old mine
When I got there the mine was mostly covered in snow. I traversed above it to the ridge.
Wow. I mean, just. Wow. I needed to cross this ridge to make it to the summit, and I was excited! From a physical standpoint this had been an easy hike so far, and I wasn’t even close to being tired: I was ready for a challenge. Due to the wind, most of the snow had accumulated on the south side of this slope.
Check out my morning view of Quandary! I kept thinking to myself the wind on Quandary HAD to be better than the wind I was experiencing on North Star Mountain. It just had to be.
I turned around to look at the route I’d taken and was surprised to see a well established mining road. Hmph! I wondered if it led to the old mine I’d stopped at? In any event, I’d taken the higher trail to get to where I was now, and took it on my way back as well
Woohoo! The sun began to rise! Oh, and did I mention that wind?!?! It hadn’t let up yet… and each one of those ice crystals is deceptively a chard of glass, waiting to cut you down. Luckily I was wearing goggles and my balaclava.
OK, back to the ridge. This is what I got to follow
Traversing this ridge was tricky, as in many places the passable area was no more than a foot wide. I decided to keep on my snowshoes (after fixing them once again), even though they obviously weren’t needed or indeed helpful for the entire route. I started and looked down: ugh! They’d come undone AGAIN. I stopped and put them back into place.
I knew I was straddling the Park and Summit county lines, and when safe decided to hop back and forth as often as I could, just because it sounded fun. I kept encountering several different kinds of snow, from soft and sugary to tough and consolidated, and most of it was wind blown. At this point I started seeing goat tracks and could tell they weren’t very old (due to depth of prints, current wind conditions, etc). There must be a goat ahead of me! Awesome! I also encountered several medium sized cornices, and this one as well (picture taken on the way back down)
This cornice gave me pause, and I wasn’t entirely sure I wanted to continue. I stopped and traded my trekking pole for my ice axe. I could see the cornice from earlier on the ridge, and I’d been mentally planning out my route. I’d wanted to traverse under the cornice, as it didn’t look that steep, but when I actually got there and started my horizontal traverse I realized what a terrible idea this had been! The snow was soft, and I could tell if I made a trench I’d be undermining the stability of the cornice.
Immediately I turned back and thought about my options. This seemed to be the ‘crux’ of this route. I felt if I could cross this cornice the rest of the route would be wind blown in enough areas to make traversing it easy. But I wasn’t sure about the stability of the cornice. As with most of my hiking decisions, I didn’t actually make one until I was close to the issue. I ended up going over the top to the right where it was easy to climb up and delighted to find it eventually became consolidated and climbable with crampons and an ice axe. I’d been following a goat’s fresh tracks this morning and could tell the cornice was eventually consolidated because the goat hadn’t sunk in the snow: however he was more comfortable on the cornice and went even further right. I was up and over it in 20 seconds and mentally thanked myself for keeping those snowshoes on (with built in crampons).
I was super proud of myself for making it over that obstacle, hiked about 20 yards further to the next ledge, and looked at the rest of the route before me
This looked very doable, and like a lot of fun! The only downside? The wind!!! I’d known to expect wind, but this was insane, and much more than the anticipated 14-18mph
I stopped here because I was actually being blown a bit sideways. This was not good. I was close to the summit but worried about the wind. With a light pack (5-10lbs?), myself weighing 105lbs and winds stronger than forecasted I just didn’t weigh enough to keep from being blown sideways. I decided to pick up some rocks to add weight to my empty pack (I’m guessing about 30lbs worth). That seemed to stabilize me a bit.
My weight and confidence up again I kept traversing…. And came across the goat!
I stopped and enjoyed the experience. This is the first time I’ve seen a mountain goat while climbing in winter, and I intended to enjoy it. We looked at each other and sized each other up.
I didn’t want to disturb the goat, but also wanted to traverse the ridge, so I slowly kept inching forward, stopping every once in a while to fix my snowshoe (this was seriously getting annoying!). Eventually the goat looked back at me as if to say “are you joining me or not?” and continued across the ridge. I took my time (and the opportunity to take dozens of photos). The wind was intense and I was trying to get the goat/wind thing, but in still pictures you just can’t really tell how windy it is…
I followed quietly behind, and the goat didn’t seem to mind. I spent much more time than necessary slowly following in its tracks, careful not to disturb it but thankful for the photos. Just before the final summit push it seemed to have had enough and deviated off the ridge. I took advantage of the photo opp…
And finished the short distance to the summit on my own
I summited at 8am
I dropped my bag to get out my phone for a video and realized I’d lost my trekking pole at some point on the route. Drat. I’m assuming the wind had blown it out of my pack. Next time I need to be sure to clip it on with a carabineer. Luckily my phone wasn’t so cold anymore, and I was able to get a quick video of the summit before it died again, but on the downside my DSLR was showing low battery now as well. Drat! So I only took the time to take one summit photo and decided to start taking photos of the peaks around me to help out friends who wanted to hike in the area tomorrow. Here’s what I got…
The ridge to Wheeler
Drift, Fletcher, Atlantic, Pacific & Crystal Peaks
Democrat, Traver, McNamee, & Clinton
OK, time to head back. I took a look at the route back across the ridge. It looked so much easier from this angle!
I looked down at my snowshoe and thought fixing it again was more trouble than it was worth.
I appreciated the fact it was easy to ‘fix’ while wearing gloved but was disappointed I’d needed to do so so often. I left them undone for the rest of the hike down.
On the way back I took a picture of one of the fun cornices I saw on the way in
And another at the exposure… not too terrible, but those rocks wouldn’t be fun to land on if a gust of wind decided it was necessary (hence loading my pack with rocks)
On my way back I took some pictures of some of the more fun small ridges I gained
And once I was done with ridges a look back on the way I’d trekked…
Here I unexpectedly found my trekking pole lying on the ground trapped between some rocks. Woot! This was great! Not only had I found my trekking pole, but I didn’t need to pay penance for leaving something on the mountain. I clipped it to my backpack, took out the rocks, and headed down the slope. The sun was great on the way down, even if the wind decided to join her. I mostly just followed the tracks that were still there (surprisingly with the wind I could still follow most of them). Oh, and there were cairns! Imagine that! In the dark I hadn’t noticed any of them, but once I made it back to the shoulder in the daylight I could clearly see large ones placed about 200 feet apart.
Here’s looking back on the route I took to the summit
On my way back I kind of followed the cairns to the end of the shoulder, and looked over at the rest of the route before me. The gate and road were clearly visible in the light of day
And looked back at the way I’d come.
I found that gate I’d missed in the dark. It was actually two very large gates, and looking back, I seemed to pass them unseen by taking a path to the south of them and then just gaining the ridge.
Here’s my path up (solid) and down (dotted)
I found some pretty cool inverted tracks on the descent
Here’s looking at the route I took. Notice how traversing too far to the right (north) would have ended badly in the dark?
And here’s a view of the unstable area I was worried about at 12,000’: It didn’t look stable in the daylight either, but at least I could see a road.
Here’s a great view of most of the lower route (once I got back to the road the wind stopped)
I didn’t see anyone all day until I made it back down to about ½ a mile before the trailhead. There I saw several skiers, a few snowshoers, and about a dozen hikers enjoying the morning out.
I made it back to my truck at 10am, making this a 9 mile hike with 2400’ in elevation gain in 5 hours. I’d made it back 2 hours ahead of schedule. I was a bit bummed to find I’d forgotten to pack my beef jerky (I make a fabulous jerky for hiking and must have left it in the bread box) but overall pleased with today’s hike.
I took off my snowshoes and was a bit upset to notice they’d taken more wear than I’d anticipated from such a short hike and such expensive snowshoes! The plastic bottoms were ruffed up in a lot of places, but at least the metal pieces were completely intact. I’m still not completely sure they’re worth the money. I didn’t use the heel lifts (they weren’t necessary today), but overall they didn’t work any better than the $50 pair of trekkers I put 200 miles on and enjoyingly destroyed this year. I had to continually re attach the straps, and missed the ratcheted bindings of the cheaper model that didn’t need to be continually adjusted. I’m a bit worried I paid too much for a nice pair of snowshoes I’ll destroy in a year, when I could have paid just $50 and destroyed another pair of cheap snowshoes this year. This is something I’ll closely monitor: I’d rather destroy a $50 pair of snowshoes every year rather than “baby” a $200 pair of snowshoes that still end up needing to be replaced in a year.
But back to the peak: In the summertime this would be a great intro hike for someone looking to get into easy ridge climbing.
Also, my phone “died” several times due to the cold, but it wasn’t actually that cold, just windy (which made it cold). Do phones suffer from “wind chill factor” as well? It kept turning back on again after some time being in my backpack, but it was annoying when it kept dying during a video, etc. especially when it wasn’t that ‘cold’ out. Also, it lost track of my navigation when it turned off, so I don’t have a track for this hike.