Any time you see the key words "ski" and "bushwhack" in the same trip report you should never ever try to repeat it yourself. You've been warned! :) As part of his Opal 35 Project, Kev Barton had his eyes fixed on a winter ascent of either the main peak of "Opoca" or it's eastern outlier, known locally as "East Opoca" or "Elpoca Creek Hill" by Bob Spirko.
Since we were attempting an unknown peak in winter, via a tight approach valley I knew that our odds of summiting were very low, but I didn't really care. This is the sort of trip that's done for the adventure, not the summit. We got some adventure all right... On hindsight we made two blunders which cost us the peak.
Getting out of bed to attempt it in winter.
Doing the approach on skis via the slopes high about the creek on climber's left, rather than snowshoes right in the creek bed.
Oh well. Now we know. ;)
The day started out pretty funny already. Kev and I got to the trailhead about 10 minutes early. We sat there on Hwy 40 where the road closed and waited for about 25 minutes for Steven and Eric to show up. A couple of folks left up the road in pitch darkness, they were heading for the Whiteman Falls, WI6 ice climb in Elpoca Creek, slightly closer than our valley which was the next one south. When we drove past the King Creek parking lot I noticed a car parked there, but figured Eric and Steven would recognize my truck if they saw me drive by. Apparently not! It was Eric and Steven, so we each sat in our cars about 300m apart, waiting for the other team to show up. Dang it. We must be dumber than we look... ;)
Once we sorted out who was parking where (!) we finally began the trudge up hwy 40 to the Valley View Road (Elpoca picnic area) on our AT ski gear. We were packed to the hilt, having no idea what climbing conditions to expect higher up. The original plan was to summit East Opoca first, then traverse to the north summit which Kev thought may be up to 5.3 climbing. From the north summit we would traverse to the higher South summit. In true Kev Barton fashion we brought everything, adding up to the weight of a kitchen sink. Pitons. Two 60m ropes. Climbing shoes. Winter climbing boots (for when the skiing stopped). Avy gear. Biners, slings etc. Add the water, food and extra layers of clothing and we were in for a heckuva workout.
If you've ever driven hwy 40 down from the Highwood Pass, you probably think it's all downhill to the Fortress Gas station right? Well it's not. When you ski that dang road you realize quickly that there's more downhill on the way to the Valley View road turnoff than on the way back down! I knew our ski out was going to be long. The sun continued to rise as we ski'd the 5km approach to the Valley View turnoff on hardpack snow and tracks of all sorts from day trippers and ice climbers. We followed VV road past the approach to Whiteman Falls and even managed to lop off around 1km of the road via a short, steep "shortcut" through the bush between two sections of the winding road. I was delighted to find the outhouse in the Elpoca Picnic area still open, this gave me an excuse to use it while the other guys continued on unbroken snow up the road... ;)
[Hwy 40 approach in the early morning.]
[Great light on Little Lawson.]
When the VV road took a dip to our approach creek, we angled into the forest on steep slopes to climber's left instead of descending to the bridged creek bed. There is no trail here, and we instantly began joking around about the descent - it was going to be very interesting.
We continued on the left bank of the creek - high above it - on a faint animal track of some sort. The snow was mediocre at best, non existent or unconsolidated sugar at worst. For the next 2-3 hours we struggled up the drainage. Since Steven and Eric were tired from their outing the day before on Wiseman Peak, the two old guys broke trail most of the way. Breaking trail was a lot of work and we were nervous crossing several steep avalanche chutes along the way. Most of them had slid, but not all. Beacons were turned on and we crossed one at a time. Once we committed to the left hand bench, high above the creek, we were pretty much stuck there - we couldn't find a good or safe spot to get back to the creek bed easily.
[Starting the bushwhack. On skis... The road is off to the right here and takes a dip down to the creek.]
[Did I mention "bushwhack"?!]
[At least the views started to open up behind us as we got higher.]
As we worked out way up around the south end of Opoca we started to get some great views of the Kananaskis Lakes and Elk Pass areas to the west - clouds were pouring in from BC and drying up the instant they contacted the drier AB air. Our views south, to the north ridge of Gap Peak were pretty impressive too. Eventually we worked our way high enough to see east to Elpoca Mountain. We were hoping that eventually our traverse would take us into the valley leading up to East Opoca but alas, the higher and further we went along the south side of Opoca the steeper the terrain under us. Eventually we were at an impasse with time running out on our day. We had to decide between three options;
Continue up the south ridge, hoping for a break to the summit. We had no beta on this route.
Traverse above some cliff bands on dicey terrain. The snow was starting to settle and whump under us at this point.
Try to hit the creekbed by backtracking and looking for a route down. Then bag East Opoca and go home.
We decided that given the time, we were best off with option 1. It was also the safest option, given the snow conditions and route options. We also felt that we'd done a lot of work to get to this spot, just under the south summit, and it would be pretty cool if we nailed it from a new direction. It looked close too.
[So close! East Opoca (R) with some serious avy terrain in between us and it... The creekbed is further down than it appears in this photo.]
[A better idea of the terrain. We're still hoping for a traverse route to East Opoca here - grunting our way up the south ridge of Opoca.]
[There were unskiable sections on the south ridge. Gap Peak rising behind Kev.]
[This is where we made our decision. Traversing out to the right looks fine in this photo, but the snow was settling on an unsafe crust layer here and there are cliff bands under the slopes making travel dangerous and very slow. At this point we though the peak on the left was the south summit (or close to it) and the one on the right was the north... Actually the one on the right is the south summit.]
We were feeling good as we ditched the skis and switched to mountaineering boots. My boots are huge and heavy, but they felt like slippers compared to the skis! We scrambled up the south ridge, eventually coming to a short, difficult section. The rock was dry and we went straight up - except for Kev who took a hard line to climber's right and had to scramble up some snow and ice to the ridge crest.
As we crested the south ridge we fell silent, knowing that our quest for the summit of Opoca was over for this attempt. The peak we originally had assumed was the north summit was obviously the south one, and was blocked by a vertical wall of rock with snow higher up. Even if we could (and that's not something I could) climb the 5.7ish terrain in rock shoes, the snow and ice higher up would turn us around anyway. Feeling a bit dejected we walked to the high point of the south ridge anyway, to get a closer look at the wall and take in the awesome views to the east, south and west.
[Looking over Kananaskis Lakes towards Warrior Mountain and Waka Nambe.]
[The dry south ridge of Opoca.]
[Here, the scrambling got a bit harder for about 50m or so. The rock was dry if you went straight up - but steep. Kev went to climber's right and ended up having to ascend steep and loose terrain anyway.]
[Eric follows me up the rib.]
[Steven assists Kev as he regains the ridge.]
[Kev gets some practice on steep, loose rock...]
[We know we're not going to make the summit from this side. But the day is gorgeous and we have views forever so it's not that bad.]
[Pano looking back at Eric cresting the ridge, the north ridge of Gap and the clouds coming over Elk Pass and drying up when they hit AB. ++]
[I guess we should have gone for East Opoca after all... ;)]
[Lovely landscape east of Opoca includes East Opoca. Elpoca and Gap (l to r). ++]
[Little Lawson and Kent Ridge, Lawson and James Walker (l to r).]
[Sir Douglas 'peaks' over the battleship group.]
After taking in the views it was time to make new decisions. We came up with a desperate plan to try to make the summit of East Opoca by dark and then 'ski' out the creek in the darkness but as we made our way back along our tracks we realized there was no easy way down to the creek and we were seriously running out of time and energy at this point.
The slog back to the cars was long. There was no skiing in the trees and the road actually went more uphill on the way back than on the way in - that was super annoying with no skins on! The sunset was gorgeous. Our round trip time of over 10 hours should indicate how much work the south ridge of Opoca was.
Don't bother repeating it. :)
[Steven down climbing a short, difficult section along the ridge.]
[Thick bush again.]
[I thought I heard something crashing in the trees beside the road on the way out. I was right!]
[A beautiful sunset over the closed hwy 40.]