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Trip Report    

Alpine Scramble - Spark Plug Mountain

Fourth try is a charm. After three failed attempts this spring, I had given up on scaling Spark Plug this year. But then a narrow weather window of reduced avalanche risk opened and a team of highly experienced scramblers assembled.

  • Road suitable for all vehicles

Anyone who knows me well knows that my white whale, my obsession, my fascination, my challenge is Spark Plug Peak. Ever since my friend John Gilbert climbed it in the spring of 2013, I have tried repeatedly to climb it. This mountain is at the edge of my abilities. It taxes my endurance and my climbing skills. Finding a safe route through the innumerable cliffs and dead-end gullies is challenging. On top of that, the window for climbing it is narrow – you have find that sweet spot in the spring when the avalanche risk has subsided but while there is still enough snow to cover the Devils Club.  While I love a good challenge, the central joy of climbing this peak is its sheer beauty. It has it all: cliffs, forests, lakes, waterfalls, and snow.

It took me six tries in 2013 and 2014 before my friend Walter Von der Linden led a successful trip to the summit on his 75th birthday. Since then, I have made multiple attempts each year, without success. This year, I posted the trip 3 times but had to abandon each attempt due to extreme avalanche risks. I had given up for the year. But then a one-day weather window of reduced avalanche risk opened up and my friends Sue Shih and Christine Kuebler (who had both been on a trip with me last year that was defeated by an unexpected gendarme just a few hundred feet from the summit) suggested we give it one more try. We quickly assembled a crack team of highly experienced scramblers (including my college friend Cliff Cantor and Sue’s husband Mark Eiselt) and set off.

Travelling this late in the spring had its advantages and disadvantages. The absence of lowland snow meant that we could drive past the winter parking area and park at the summer trail head, saving a quarter mile of walking. It also meant that we were blanketed with blooming trilliums, coltsfoot, and skunk cabbage for the first 15 minutes, until we reached snow. But beyond that, it meant that the snow was undercut by drainage and we were in constant threat of stepping onto a void.

The hike up to Surprise Lake went quickly, as the snow was consolidated and the log bridge across the creek was clear. Beyond Surprise Lake, there was enough new snow that we needed to don our snowshoes, except for when we needed to ascend or descend steep gullies and preferred the traction we could get by kicking steps. The snow was heavy and wet, making progress exhausting. Little Spark Plug Lake and Spark Plug Lake were just starting to melt out around the edges. This forced us to go around the lakes instead of across them, further slowing us down.  

We were in thick clouds from Surprise Lake on.  The visibility was only about one to two hundred yards. There were both advantages and disadvantages to the thick fog. On the one hand it made navigation even more challenging than usual and it deprived us of the gorgeous views that the area is famous for.  But on the plus side, it prevented us from seeing the avalanche threats from above.

Without being able to see where we were going, by sheer dumb luck we happened to hit the ridge just a few feet beyond the gendarme that stopped us last year. After seven and a half hours, we reached the summit, exactly four years to the day after my earlier summit success.  Once again we celebrated with cake and candles, as Mark too was born on May 11th.

 

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