Ascent to Baranof Island High Point-Col Camp on 2014-05-18

Climber: Greg Slayden

Others in Party:James Barlow -- Trip Report or GPS Track
Edward Earl
Date:Sunday, May 18, 2014
Ascent Type:Unsuccessful - Turned Back
    Motorized Transport to Trailhead:Taxicab
Point Reached:Baranof Island High Point - Col Camp
    Elevation:3600 ft / 1097 m
    Remaining Elevation:1790 ft / 545 m (29% left to go)

Ascent Trip Report

NOTE: This trip report is NOT the way to climb this peak. DO NOT follow our GPS track unless you have severe masochistic tendencies.

Saturday, May 17th:

We arrived in Sitka at about 2 PM after a direct charter flight from Haines piloted by our glacier pilot Drake. We had been forced to turn back on Mount Fairweather the day before due to bad route conditions, and our secondary objective was to climb the Baranof Island High Point, also the Sitka Borough high point, an "ultra"-prominence peak that is the highest non-volcanic island peak in the USA.

The weather forecast was for the good conditions we had been having to continue into Sunday, but after that it looked rainy. We therefore were scrambling to get ourselves on to the trail as soon as possible.

I had done some research on this summit a couple of months prior, but never got a very good route description. Wikipedia seemed to suggest a route via Medvejie Lake, Indigo Lake, and high ridges from there; a blog post mentioned a three-day backpack trip by a guy and his 14-year old son from Green Lake via floatplane, and the lat-long "confluence project" page for the nearby graticule junction also mentioned access from Green Lake after kayaking down its length.

So once we got a hotel room in Sitka we hit the town--I needed to buy hiking boots and bear spray, and we asked at outdoor stores about getting a boat to Green Lake. We got our stuff and a lead on a water taxi company, but found out we could just hike a dirt road 6 miles to Green Lake so a $225 boat trip was not really needed. We were so focused on a boat option we did not have time to consider that maybe a floatplane might have been a better idea.

After a nice meal at the Bayview Pub we got our backpacks ready, arranged for a taxi in the morning, and got some sleep.

Sunday, May 18th:

At 6 AM we got a taxi from our hotel in downtown Sitka to the end of the road on the SE side of town, where a gate blocked Sawmill Creek Road. We hiked the good gravel road for a bit over 6 miles to Green Lake at a good clip--a mile or so in we saw our only grizzly bear of the trip (he scampered into the woods after seeing us). We passed the fish hatchery and then had a 500-foot climb up to the Green Lake Dam. The lake is now at about 490 feet above sea level and is much longer than shown on the old USGS maps.

We were hoping for a trail along the north side of the lake but there was none, since it was all a steep slope of impassible tangled driftwood. There were small boats around and a metal shelter, but overall pretty deserted on this overcast morning. We eventually decided to just "go for it" and started bushwhacking uphill.

Our plan was to climb up out of the brush and trees to what we thought would be nice, gentle, open ridges of tundra, which we could then follow to the island high point. But there were some snags in our plan. The bushwhacking was standard maritime old growth, not exactly terrible, but the 100 foot contours of our map hid many little peaklets and terrain features that were often bothersome. Also, we hit a cliff band at about 1500-1700 feet and had to traverse left (out of our way) to surmount it, which we did in very steep and jungly forest. And the trees were present as high as 2500 feet or more, higher than we thought.

We pressed on and once into the high tundra the terrain was still difficult as we skirted below Cupola Peak, once having to do some very steep scrambling to get where we wanted. We cut across the grain of the country all the way to tiny Lake 2950, disappointed in our progress. We were in thick fog most of the time, too, making it hard to navigate.

At Lake 2950 we filled up on water and happily found the going much easier for the next mile or two--the gentle tundra we imagined finally appeared, and we made good time across open tableland as the sun tried to burn through the fog. Twice we saw grizzly tracks in the snow, a reminder that we had to be bear-aware even up high.

We got on a ridge and were doing fine until a steep climb to Peak 3750, a somewhat rugged horn. While on the summit we climbed above the fog and finally saw our objective a long way ahead--tough, but doable, we thought, with more ups and downs. Edward was a bit concerned about crevasses in the snow apron below the peak, but they might not have been super-serious. We could see because were in a clear layer between the fog below and a high overcast above.

The downclimb of Peak 3750 was a tricky scramble and I then led us on a long traverse to bypass Peak 3950. At the 3950-4024 col we decided to camp--it had been a long day, the weather was threatening a bit, and this would likely be the last good camp spot we would see for some time.

We cooked while excavating a tent platform, and soon after eating, putting up the tent, and crawling in for the night, the long-awaited front crashed through, with lashing rain and strong wind that battered our tent all night long.

Monday, May 19th:

We spent all day in our tent at the 3650-foot col between Peak 3950 and Peak 4024 on the west approach to the Baranof Island High Point. It rained all day, often pelting us with sheets of water, and the winds seemed like hurricane strength as the tent sometimes shook like a washing machine. I went out once to re-stake the tent, but otherwise we just hunkered down. We cooked in the vestibule with the butane stove.

Tuesday, May 20th:

When we became conscious this morning we realized that it had now snowed a bit on our tent, instead of rain, and the wind was still very strong. It was time to bail--our objective was almost 2000 vertical feet above us and our route was on a long, exposed ridge the whole way. We had prepared for a generic backpacking trip and did not have much food or gear, and we had to get back to Sitka the best way we could.

We had three options for retreat. First was to retrace our upward path, but that was a long and convoluted route with lots of tricky scrambling and routefinding issues that we were not eager to retrace. Second was to try to go down to Indigo Lake and Medvejie Lake, the "Wikipedia Route", but the contours looked steep and we did not really know the exact way to go. The final choice was to head straight downhill from camp via Lake 3150, Lake 2699, and Lake 1831, to Green Lake, where we could call for a floatplane pickup. This seemed like the quickest and easiest option, so in a relative lull in the snow and wind we got packed up, took down our tent, and took off down the slope to the south.

Our route was far more rugged and tough that we could have guessed. Above each of the four lakes the slopes were very steep and we nearly got cliffed out four times. Directly below camp some easy scrambling on wet rock got us across the only non-snowy slope, but below Lake 3150 we had to do some very dicey Class 4 moves to get down to a snow finger over an undercut waterfall--very nasty. Below Lake 2699 there was no more snow, but we sill had to carefully downclimb a brushy gully and a big talus field.

At Lake 1831 I called the floatplane company to see if they could get us there but they said the lake was too small. So we hiked the west shore of the lake and saw that the outlet stream was a waterfall in a deep canyon--a total no-go. So we backtracked and were forced to climb 600 feet up to the ridge west of the lake. This was the worst bushwhacking of our lives--50 degree slopes of heather, mud, devil's club, and alder with marginal footing and usually requiring pull-ups using alder branches to make any progress. It was grim and desperate.

The ridgetop was pleasant and open, but we were now running late and had to get down to Green Lake while the floatplane would still get us. So we headed SW, soon hitting dense krummholz that thankfully did not last too long before standard Northwest old growth forest. We finally got a break and encountered no cliff bands, happy to be past the closest contours with nothing more that steep mossy dirt and logs. It was still a long, wet, slog as it continued to rain all the way to the lake and we were a waterlogged, muddy and ragged crew at this point. James led us down, picking a good route through the vegetation.

A bit after 4 PM we finally saw the nearby lakeshore, and the last obstacle was a tangled mass of slick driftwood logs to clamber over. We were fortunate to end our bushwhack at a small, open, rocky peninsula on the lake with a sandy cove nearby. I whipped out the sat-phone, called Harris Air, and a plane was soon on its way. We put out my orange tent fly to make ourselves visible.

The sight of the floatplane was most welcome, and the pilot saw us easily, checked out the area and conditions, and landed on the water. He taxied to the sandy cove and backed right up to it--we clambered aboard without getting our feet wet. After clearing his plane from some underwater snags, he was soon airborne. He gave us a quick tour of the far eastern end of Green Lake, where he said the usual route to the high peaks originated. We were landing at the Sitka Airport about 15 minutes after being picked up.


Again, please, do not follow our route. Even the Medvejie Lake route from the Cross-Baranof trail is probably not too much better, since it, too, involves a very long approach and a long up-and-down along ridges before you even get close to the peak.

The best option seems to be to 1) wait for a really good weather window and 2) hire a Harris Air floatplane to drop you near the eastern end of Green Lake (note the lakeshore is now at the 500' contour on the topo maps), then 3) hike easy terrain of heather benches that appears to lead pretty directly to the vicinity of the island high point from the south.
Summary Total Data
    Total Elevation Gain:5090 ft / 1550 m
    Total Elevation Loss:4610 ft / 1404 m
    Round-Trip Distance:20 mi / 32.2 km
    Grade/Class:Class 4 w/Snow
    Quality:7 (on a subjective 1-10 scale)
    Route Conditions:
Road Hike, Open Country, Bushwhack, Snow on Ground, Scramble, Exposed Scramble, Snow Climb
    Gear Used:
Ice Axe, Tent Camp
    Nights Spent:2 nights away from roads
    Weather:Raining, Cold, Extremely Windy, White-out
Ascent Statistics
    Gain on way in:4490 ft / 1368 m
        Gain Breakdown:Net: 3590 ft / 1094 m; Extra: 900 ft / 274m
    Loss on way in:900 ft / 274 m
    Distance:13.7 mi / 22 km
    Route:West Route
    Start Trailhead:Sawmill Creek Rd  10 ft / 3 m
    Time:12 Hours 
Descent Statistics
    Loss on way out:3710 ft / 1130 m
        Loss Breakdown:Net: 3110 ft / 948 m; Extra: 600 ft / 182m
    Gain on way out:600 ft / 182 m
    Distance:6.3 mi / 10.1 km
    Route:Lake 1831
    End Trailhead:Green Lake  490 ft / 149 m
    Time:8 Hours 
GPS Data for Ascent/Trip

 GPS Waypoints - Hover or click to see name and lat/long
Peaks:  climbed and  unclimbed by Greg Slayden
Click Here for a Full Screen Map
Note: GPS Tracks may not be accurate, and may not show the best route. Do not follow this route blindly. Conditions change frequently. Use of a GPS unit in the outdoors, even with a pre-loaded track, is no substitute for experience and good judgment. accepts NO responsibility or liability from use of this data.

Download this GPS track as a GPX file

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