Part 2: Jeannette Peak - The First Attempt
First Attempt: March 12-14 2018
Within a week of deciding to attempt Jeannette Peak, after a thorough combing of topographic maps and Google Earth, we were in Valemount at the Robson Helimagic helipad with laminated printouts in hand. Ski-in and snowmobile options had to be abandoned due to inherent overhead hazards in getting to the base of the climb.
The 10,135 foot stand-alone mountain has remained unclimbed until now likely due to its narrow avalanche-prone valleys and a perimeter of knife-edge mountains at its base. Jeannette’s upper ridges are also in a horseshoe ring holding a significant plateau glacier. This cool geographical feature and its prominence sure make it stand out among neighboring peaks.
The research is one of the best parts of any exploratory project. Aside from two sentences on Bivouac.com, and with nothing in Alpine Journals or on Google searches, we had to explore - in the greatest sense of the word - our own potential routes for this peak…exciting!
However, with that unknown also comes a certain anxiety about the flash decisions that needed to be made during a brief 10 minute fly-over regarding which route to tackle based on options A through C scribbled on our printouts while also considering a safe place to land. None of our planned routes materialized. The projected west ridge was knife edge and loaded with challenging rock pillars and the northeast slope was a huge avalanche bowl. Google Earth had sand bagged us; things sure didn’t look the same in real life as they had on that computer screen.
Just when we were about to return home without even landing, we saw a potential approach and a safe landing zone at tree line. Overhead hazards were present, but snow pack conditions were relatively stable, so we went for it.
We tackled the mountain from the northwest glacier side and found some potential options that did not previously appear feasible on our Google Earth research… go figure ☺
First attempted routes. Pink = 1st try up north ridge; Green = 2nd attempts onto glacier; Orange = 3rd attempt via northwest shoulder from Wolverine camp to glacier
With the arrival of the first spring thaw, a recent avalanche cycle, and friends being caught in an avalanche the previous day… we had avalanche hazard at the forefront of our mind and were on edge the entire trip.
That moment when we were dropped off and the chopper flew away, was priceless! What a special feeling to know that we may be one of few, if any, to ever be in this high mountain valley. The stillness and the reality of the task at hand really hits you. The excitement of chasing a unique objective, that everything is unknown – how can one not be addicted to exploration.
Day one was fantastic. We worked our way east up the valley and camped at the col at 9060ft; our summit day would be an easy 1100ft push! With such great progress we went to sleep in high spirits – we had Jeannette in the bag! Of course, that was not to be.
Pascale at 9,500ft pushing through a morning blow on the north ridge during our first attempt.
In the morning, we progressed south up a narrowing snow slope onto the ridge, carefully navigating rotten snow wells around rock outcrops. Lonnie’s leg broke through a cornice – a sobering reminder of the inherent dangers of mountaineering. At 9700ft, a surprise crux came into view, an intimidating steep slope on questionable snow followed by a technical rock pitch. In the brisk wind, we assessed the crux and decided to bail. We were just 400 vertical feet from the summit. With the avalanche risk still high in our minds, we were worried that the slope would slide.
Lonnie on the first attempt. We stopped on the north ridge just before the rock crux, only 400 vertical feet from the summit.
During our climb up the valley, we had spotted a snow ramp onto the glacier, it re-energized us and we headed down to that. Armed with snow picket anchors, Lonnie headed out on belay – but ultimately we called it on this approach too – the avalanche risk was simply not worth the consequence… Heavy wind slab resting on polar facets with a cliff at the bottom.
Back down the valley we went towards our landing spot to set up camp. On the flight in, Lonnie remembered seeing a possible way up a snow slope that appeared to lead onto the glacier parallel to the West ridge, so that became the plan for the next morning. We were once again optimistic and driven by the excitement of exploration, of pioneering routes on an unclimbed peak but still very on edge about avalanches.
Surprise… Lonnie spotted some animal tracks down near our landing area – where we had stashed some extra food and fuel. I dismissed it as a snowball pin-wheeling down the slope making tracks, but he was insistent that it was an animal. As we got closer, we were amazed that it was indeed wolverine paw prints. We were even more surprised that the wolverine had not clawed into our duffle of food! Guess it wasn’t into black bean lentil curry. We re-named our basecamp to Wolverine Camp.
On day 3, we headed up the snow ramp, on heightened alert for snow pack condition. We chose to hug a rock band to stay clear of steeper, more avalanche prone slopes but that exposed us to some over-head cornices. Luckily we were on a cooler northern aspect and the cornices were not yet sunbaked.
Pascale making her way up the snow slope, seeking shelter along the rock band to avoid avalanche slopes.
Finally the moment came; we crested that last steep slope and were rewarded with a vast glacier field and Jeannette’s summit, far away on an involved ridge walk.
Though the terrain did not present any apparent show stopping difficulties, it was a long way away. It was noon and a forecasted storm was clearly rolling in. Lighting was flat – not great for navigating crevasses. We’d gone fast and light, hoping for good weather that was not to be. It was not the route that stopped us this time, but rather a culmination of circumstances = bummer. We did not have enough energy or food to weather the storm and try again after the storm – which might deposit enough snow to force further delay as we wait for the avalanche cycle to calm.
Once the decision was made, things moved fast. We hooffed it down to ensure we could get picked up that afternoon. Exhausted from our three valiant attempts, the roller coaster of highs and lows, days of decision making and terrain assessment, worrying about avalanches, soaking up sun and wind… we were ready to go home.
What an experience it was – it is rare to experience such exploration these days.
Now armed with exceptional route beta, we know we can get her… the only questions is how long until we turn around and go back for Take Two…