Turret to Sylvan traverse

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Turret to Sylvan traverse

Postby TomTuriano » Tue Jul 26, 2005 10:11 pm

During July 22-26, 2005, Joe Hartney, Jeff Burke, and I had a marvelous trip to the southeast corner of Yellowstone National Park. Our primary goal was to climb Watchtower, a lower sister spire of Turret Mountain, located on the southwest side of Table Mountain. We also wanted to climb Turret Mountain, which I had climbed in pea soup fog and drizzle a few years ago with Forrest and Matt. I wanted to get the view from the top that I didn't get the first time as well as re-experience the fabulous climb. Joe and Jeff were both very excited to make the ascent as well.

The other major item I wanted to achieve was a traverse from Eagle Peak to Sylvan Pass ascending all of the peaks along that 20-mile range crest. I had read in the Eagle Peak summit register that several parties had done this and people have been asking me about it, so I really wanted to check it out for myself...and rack up a handful more glorious summits.

In addition to all the peak climbing, I have always wanted to visit this northern spine of the Southwest Absaroka (southeast boundary line of the Park) to experience its wildlife, vibrant plant communities, large watercourses, as well as inspect the area for evidence of prehistoric use.

After striking out with our attempts to find a friend to shuttle us across Yellowstone Lake in their boat, we dropped Jeff off at Bridge Bay with only a prayer that he could hitch us a ride across the lake with a stranger. Meanwhile, Joe and I ran a car shuttle up to Sylvan Pass.

When we returned 1.5 hours later, Jeff had still not found a ride. Suddenly, a nice couple from Durango named Laurie and Doug pulled up with their motor boat and with only brief deliberation invited us to join them on a trip across the lake.

They dropped us off at the very southeast end of the motorized zone in the Southeast Arm and we were on our way up the Yellowstone River valley in short order. Intense willow-whacking near the crossing of Beaverdam Creek delayed us for a while, but by early afternoon we had hiked about 6 miles up the Yellowstone valley.

Our goal for the first night was to reach a camp in upper Trappers Creek, a very remote spot with no trail access. To avoid monotonous valley walking and bushwhacking in the valleys of the Yellowstone River and Trappers Creek, we planned to ascend Cabin Creek and climb over Colter Peak to reach the camp in upper Trappers Creek, rather than following the Yellowstone River up to the mouth of Trappers Creek and then bushwhacking five miles up Trappers Creek. Cabin Creek afforded difficult bushwhacking with intense heat and bugs for two hours. After a couple miles in the creek bottom, we ascended the right canyon flank and gained the west ridge of Colter Peak at the base of the final thousand feet of steep terrain.

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Northeast side of Colter Peak from Mount Humphreys. Tetons in the distance.

After a bit of struggle up scree and small talus, the west ridge narrows to a fabulous Class 3 section below the summit. We spent an hour visiting the top in the late afternoon sun and then dropped off the east side of the peak initially along the north ridge, then in the east bowl, and finally down a long spur ridge that led directly to our camp at a non-designated site in Trappers Creek.

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Joe and Jeff scramble up the Class 3 west ridge of Colter Peak.

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Joe and Jeff walk the final few hundred feet to the top of Colter Peak. The Yellowstone River flows into the Southeast Arm of Yellowstone Lake far below.

Camping at a non-designated site in Yellowstone Park requires special permission, discussions with rangers, and a special permit. Although this process has received a bad reputation for being an over-burden and over-restrictive, I was pleasantly surprised that if one is forthright with the rangers and if one can demonstrate responsible backcountry ethics, the permitting process is quite painless. The untouched feel of the remote upper basin meadows must be the direct result of this strict regulation. I now feel that if you put in a little effort to establish a working relationship with the rangers, it pays off in more ways than one.

Our Trappers Creek camp was located at 12T 0573236 4905599 in a spectacular meadow at the foot of Colter Peak (elevation: 8,476 ft). We managed to set up the tent and cook dinner just in time before an intense thunderstorm passed overhead. It rained most of the night.

We unfortunately slept a little late on day two, a mistake that would cost us the summit of Turret. At 9:30am, we left camp and ascended a burned ridge southwest of camp to gain the saddle between Watchtower and Table Mountain...shoes instantly soaked by the rain water coating the grass.

Watchtower is labeled "10,208T" on the most recent Eagle Peak quadrangle. I learned the name from reading Captain Barlow's report of his 1871 expedition. He had explored the Turret/Table massive and applied the name "Watchtower" to this volcanic tower.

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Watchtower from the southwest slopes of Table Mountain.

Watchtower is a beautiful finger of breccia and we were very excited to get up on top. A short bit of scrambling up the north ridge led to a steep wall, which we ascended using ropes and gear for safety. It was perhaps 5.5 in difficulty and 80 feet long. From the top of that roped pitch, a short scramble brought us to the summit, which appeared pristine. Our imaginations turned every pile of rocks into some man-made assemblage, but there were no other relics and no sign of sheep traffic. It was likely a first ascent. We spent a good hour on top and made one 70-foot rappel off a good horn to return to easier terrain.

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Joe belays Jeff up the one pitch of technical climbing on Watchtower.

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Jeff begins rappel off Watchtower with mounts Schurz and Humphreys behind.

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Joe carefully downclimbs loose Two Ocean Formation breccia on Watchtower.

Still game for more, we ran quickly to the spectacular plateau summit of Table Mountain, which along with Pollux Peak, is the highest mountain completely inside Yellowstone Park. The mile hike from Watchtower to Table's summit was over beautiful wildflower tundra. The highest point is a narrow perch between two monstrous precipices on either side of the peak.

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Joe perches on the edge of Table Mountain's 1,200-foot northeast face.

As we sat on top and dried our damp socks, a cold wind blew thick clouds from the west and we debated whether or not we should return to camp or give Turret or Eagle a try that afternoon. It was already nearing 2:00pm. When planning this trip, I knew that both Turret and Eagle were topographically and logistically "against the grain" of our route and that we would be extremely lucky to be able to climb these peaks without devoting a full day to Turret, and at least a half-day to Eagle.

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Joe cruises down Table's wildflower tundra with Watchtower and the Yellowstone River below.

Nevertheless, we opted to give Turret a try. Quickly descending off Table, we followed the drainage near Watchtower down to the 9,200-foot level, and then climbed through steep burned terrain to gain the main western ridge of Turret Mountain. After a dicey traverse under the cliffs to the main gully below Clyde's Chimney, it was 4:30pm and we opted to save the ascent for another day. We retraced our steps into the drainage south of Watchtower, and then contoured around the southwest ridge of Watchtower to its burned western slopes. A long difficult traverse through a maze of downed timber brought us exhausted back to camp in Trappers Creek.

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Disappointed in having to give up on the summit of Turret, Joe studies the bottom pitches of the route...hoping to return in the future for another attempt.

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Joe looks back at Watchtower on our way back to camp after retreating off of Turret.

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Yellow line shows our route over to Turret. Purple line shows how we returned to our camp in Trappers Creek.

Determined to keep to our schedule and arrive back in Jackson on Monday, we opted not to devote the next day to climbing Turret and we even decided not to backtrack from the head of Trappers Creek to climb Eagle. So, on the morning of day three, we headed straight up Trappers Creek toward Mount Humphreys. At the forks of Trappers Creek, we climbed the pleasant intervening ridge past Point 9,847T (and a transient herd of elk) to the rugged summit of Mount Humphreys. The long summit ridge of Humphreys was a spectacular scramble and the views breathtaking. A steep descent in a couloir on the west side of the peak brought us to scree ledges that led north to the saddle with Mount Schurz.

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Mount Humphreys from Mount Schurz.

At 11,139 feet, Mount Schurz was the high point of our trip. The south side of the peak is an unpleasant climb up steep scree and ledges. At the summit, we were daunted to see what lay ahead for our traverse. The north ridge of Schurz is a frightening series of towers astride a narrow spine of crumbling breccia and ash. We discussed several options for proceeding and after much deliberation, decided to attempt the pinnacled ridge.

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Joe and Jeff negotiate the steep and exposed first section below the summit of Mount Schurz.

The first drop off the summit was steep and exposed, but soon we found ourselves joyfully weaving back and forth and along the towers moving from notch to notch with relative ease. Sheep had carved excellent ledges and trenches in the breccia and we followed these with confidence across exposed walls. The route followed mostly along the east side of the ridge at first, and then crossed back and forth toward the north end of the ridge. Near the very end, it is necessary to walk directly along the knife-edge ridge crest for a short distance and then downclimb to the west on an exposed knobby slab for which we took out our rope and belayed each other. Sheep trails then led us down and across along the west side to easier terrain.

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Joe negotiates one of many very exposed ledge traverses along the north ridge of Mount Schurz.

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After over an hour of traversing the pinnacled north ridge of Mount Schurz (visible behind), Joe emerges along a mellow high ridge.

With all of the technical terrain behind us, we set our mode to "cruise" and zipped quickly over Peak 10,581 to the saddle immediately south of Atkins Peak. There, we rested for an hour in the shade of a white bark pine. Atkins was an easy climb up steep slopes and sharp ash talus near the summit. The view south into the heart of the Absaroka was tremendous.

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Joe and Jeff hike the final bit to the summit of Atkins Peak.

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The view south from Atkins Peak shows Eagle, Table, Humphreys, Turret, Watchtower, and Schurz.

An easy descent of the north ridge of Atkins brought us to the broad grassy slopes of Plentycoups Peak. About halfway up the south ridge of Plentycoups, Joe noticed a young male grizzly browsing along the west ridge of Plentycoups about 400 yards away. We were directly downwind of him with no chance to allow him to smell us. Joe and Jeff considered dropping off the craggy east side of Plentycoups and finding a way around him. I coerced them into continuing along our route to the summit.

When the bear saw us, he stood up quickly, and then sauntered curiously across the grassy southwest face to check us out. We stayed our general course, but moved slightly toward him with the thought that that might allow him to circle around us to catch our scent. The bear peeked up over a rise about 150 feet from us, clawed frustratingly at the earth, and then took off in a jog down the hill.

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The view south from Plentycoups Peak. From the left, Eagle Pass, Eagle Peak, Atkins Peak, and Mount Schurz are visible.

At the summit of Plentycoups, I looked north and saw a mother grizzly and two cubs browsing at the summit of Peak 10,565 about a mile north of our position and directly on our route. We hadn't moved 200 feet down the mountain toward them, when they took off in a full stride down into the head of Beaverdam Creek.

Exhausted, we trudged over Plentycoups' satellite summits and dropped down to the paradisiacal pass at the head of Beaverdam Creek. Low rims laced with white bark pine cordoned off colorful meadows and several tiny lakes. In one of those spectacular meadows, we dropped our packs for the night.

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One of several pot-hole lakes at the broad divide between Beaverdam Creek and Shoshone north fork.

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Mount Langford from a northern satellite ridge of Plentycoups Peak. We camped at the yellow dot and cooked at the purple dot.

The night appeared to be calming and clearing, so we decided to make an open bivy at the very head of Beaverdam Creek with a great view down into Shoshone north fork. Unfortunately, it was so warm that night that if we slept in our sleeping bags, we would be too hot. But, if we just laid on top of our bags, we'd be eaten alive by mosquitoes. We thus were forced to sweat the night away in our bags.

At about 12:30am, I woke from one of my short bursts of sleep and noticed that some dark clouds were coming over. I quickly jumped up and began setting up the tent. Jeff awoke and helped me. Joe can sleep through anything, so we just let him enjoy his slumber. I never rained very hard and stayed very warm. Mosquitoes and sweat kept Jeff and I awake most of the night.

In the morning, we made a quick ascent of Mount Langford and spent the next couple hours ambling along the undulating ridge down to the saddle at the foot of Top Notch Peak.

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Jeff descends Mount Langford toward mounts Stevenson and Doane.

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Mount Langford from the northwest.

The south ridge of Top Notch is a long climb. After a quick lunch on top, we poked around for an easy way to descend the north ridge, but loose rock and exposure guided us to descend the west ridge and then downclimb loose rock into the basin on the northwest side of the peak. An hour of bushwhacking through burned woods and thick greenery brought us to our car at Eleanor Lake.

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Joe and Jeff descend the long ridge from Langford to Top Notch.

Thomas Turiano

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