Field Notes: Winter in the Monashee Mountains

Photos and text by David Moskowitz. Expedition partners: Steph Williams and Forest McBrian.

A Fruitless Search For Caribou

We go to the mountains searching for answers. We go to the forests looking for clues. We watch the clouds roll across the peaks, keen to see what the universe will deliver on the wind. We scan the snow for the tracks of elusive creatures of the wild wonder about their lives when we find them and their absence when we don’t.

Back home, developing images of stark landscapes Carved by forces beyond our comprehension Turned to black and white and every shade of grey in between. Their is a haunting beauty in precarious landscapes Unsettled times What’s missing from our maps? What’s hidden in the clouds? When will these mountains come tumbling down?

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Back to where it all began...Alpine climbing in the Alps

I have been lucky enough to spend the end of August climbing in the French Alps out of the town of Chamonix with my friends Erin Smart and Forest McBrian, owners and guides for Borealis Mountain Guides. Erin, who has been skiing and climbing in the French Alps since she was a teenager provided me with a brilliant introduction to the climbing culture of the area. Having known Forest for many years and his love of all things related to the art of Alpinism and most things French, it was a pleasure to finally experience the mountains which I had heard about from his stories--mountains which have inspired generations of world class alpinists including Forest (whose exploits include first ascent mountaineering routes and first descent ski mountaineering routes, as well as a burgeoning writing career including a recent article in Alpinist on the famed Pickets Range in the North Cascades).

Mountaineering, European Style

Having come of age in the mountains of western North America, reading about the exploits of John Muir and Fred Becky, I always assumed that suffering through long approaches, doing battle with dense brush, brutal mosquitoes, crossing raging snowmelt filled creeks was part of the entrance fees for access to the splendor of the high mountains. Here in Europe, there is a bit of different sensibility. Approaches are manicured, ladders and footholds are added to the landscape to expedite travel, cable cars provide access from the valley bottom to the heart of the glacier in minutes, beautiful helicopter serviced mountain huts await with wine or tea to be had on the deck at the end of a day of climbing followed by 3 course dinners and a cozy place to spend the night. And just beyond the hut, or the exit from the lift, lays some of the most stunning mountain scenery and stellar alpine climbing routes of anywhere in the world.

 Erin Smart heads out on the snow arete leading away from the Aguille du Midi. Amazingly enough this photo was taken just a few meters from where the lift drops tourists, climbers and skiers off, leaving right from the town of Chamonix. One minute I was on the street eating a fresh pastry from a local bakery and 15 minutes later I found myself in some of the most stunning alpine terrain I have traversed in my life.

Erin Smart heads out on the snow arete leading away from the Aguille du Midi. Amazingly enough this photo was taken just a few meters from where the lift drops tourists, climbers and skiers off, leaving right from the town of Chamonix. One minute I was on the street eating a fresh pastry from a local bakery and 15 minutes later I found myself in some of the most stunning alpine terrain I have traversed in my life.

 Erin navigating fresh snow on the Cosmiques arete, a classic climbing route on the west side of the Aguille du Midi.

Erin navigating fresh snow on the Cosmiques arete, a classic climbing route on the west side of the Aguille du Midi.

 Erin smart leading out on mixed terrain.

Erin smart leading out on mixed terrain.

 At 4810 meters (15,781 feet), Mount Blanc is the highest peak in the Alps. Clouds stream off of the lee side of the heavily glaciered peak.

At 4810 meters (15,781 feet), Mount Blanc is the highest peak in the Alps. Clouds stream off of the lee side of the heavily glaciered peak.

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 The Mere de Glace glacier flows down off of Mount Blanc and the surrounding peaks. While still miles long, the thickness of the glacier has shrunk dramatically over recent decades…an example of the shifting climate in the region.

The Mere de Glace glacier flows down off of Mount Blanc and the surrounding peaks. While still miles long, the thickness of the glacier has shrunk dramatically over recent decades…an example of the shifting climate in the region.

 Erin Smart on the trail into the Envers Hut, situated above the Mere du Glace.

Erin Smart on the trail into the Envers Hut, situated above the Mere du Glace.

 Situated in an almost fairy tale like setting, the Envers des Aguilles Hut, managed by the French Alpine club provides lodging and food for climbers.

Situated in an almost fairy tale like setting, the Envers des Aguilles Hut, managed by the French Alpine club provides lodging and food for climbers.

 Mountain guide   Miles Smart  at a belay on a route above the Envers hut.

Mountain guide  Miles Smart at a belay on a route above the Envers hut.

 Forest McBrian examines the Eperon des Cosmiques route before our ascent.

Forest McBrian examines the Eperon des Cosmiques route before our ascent.

 Forest McBrian leading out on a traversing pitch lower on the route.

Forest McBrian leading out on a traversing pitch lower on the route.

 Erin getting into the crux moves of the route, a series of cracks leading through a large roof.

Erin getting into the crux moves of the route, a series of cracks leading through a large roof.

 Erin pulling over another thoughtful move on the same crux pitch of the route.

Erin pulling over another thoughtful move on the same crux pitch of the route.

 Forest wandering up through a series of cracks in beautiful granite towards the top of the route.

Forest wandering up through a series of cracks in beautiful granite towards the top of the route.

 The view from a belay stance on the route. Mount Blanc in the background.

The view from a belay stance on the route. Mount Blanc in the background.

Pulling Down At Frenchman Coulee

 Mountain guide and photographer Erin Smart clips them on “Clip Em or Skip Em”, 5.8 on Sunshine Wall.

Mountain guide and photographer Erin Smart clips them on “Clip Em or Skip Em”, 5.8 on Sunshine Wall.

Thanks to Erin Smart and Forest McBrian for putting up with a lens in their direction during a beautiful couple of days  of climbing in Frenchman Coulee in Eastern Washington.

 Soaring with the cliff swallows.   

Soaring with the cliff swallows.

 

 IFMGA certified Mountain guide Forest McBrian racks up for his next climb

IFMGA certified Mountain guide Forest McBrian racks up for his next climb

 Forest Mcbrian getting started on the Vantage classic “Air Guitar”, 5.10a, on Sunshine Wall.   

Forest Mcbrian getting started on the Vantage classic “Air Guitar”, 5.10a, on Sunshine Wall.

 

Pickets Traverse

 Forest McBrian climbing into a col on the south side of Mount Fury.

Forest McBrian climbing into a col on the south side of Mount Fury.

 Whatcom Peak, the northern start of the Pickets range

Whatcom Peak, the northern start of the Pickets range

 Challanger Glacier, the largest glacier in this part of the North Cascades

Challanger Glacier, the largest glacier in this part of the North Cascades

 Forest McBrian hiking out of Luna Cirque with the massive north face of Mount Fury rising on the left and Luna lake below.

Forest McBrian hiking out of Luna Cirque with the massive north face of Mount Fury rising on the left and Luna lake below.

 Southern Pickets from the north. Left to right: East McMillian Spire, West McMillian Spire, Inspiration Peak, Mount Dagenhart, Mount Terror

Southern Pickets from the north. Left to right: East McMillian Spire, West McMillian Spire, Inspiration Peak, Mount Dagenhart, Mount Terror

 Forest McBrian traversing south along the ridge leading to Picket Pass, what Fred Beckey might refer to as “pleasant hiking”.

Forest McBrian traversing south along the ridge leading to Picket Pass, what Fred Beckey might refer to as “pleasant hiking”.

 Forest on the Mustard glacier, part of our travel route over the southern Pickets.

Forest on the Mustard glacier, part of our travel route over the southern Pickets.

 Forest making the transition from the icy glacier to the steep wet rock which lead to the col between the Ottohorn and Himelhorn peaks and our route out of the Pickets. This section of the route was the most technically challenging piece of the entire traverse in the conditions we encountered it.

Forest making the transition from the icy glacier to the steep wet rock which lead to the col between the Ottohorn and Himelhorn peaks and our route out of the Pickets. This section of the route was the most technically challenging piece of the entire traverse in the conditions we encountered it.

 Last views to the north before we dropped down and south out of probably the most wild and remote section of the North Cascades. Mount Fury and Luna Peak in the distance.

Last views to the north before we dropped down and south out of probably the most wild and remote section of the North Cascades. Mount Fury and Luna Peak in the distance.

 One last major obstacle descending south off of our last col, a steep gully (an eroded volcanic dike of which there were a number in the range which presented difficulties along the traverse) filled with large quantities of loose rocks. The light at the end of the chasm couldn’t come soon enough.

One last major obstacle descending south off of our last col, a steep gully (an eroded volcanic dike of which there were a number in the range which presented difficulties along the traverse) filled with large quantities of loose rocks. The light at the end of the chasm couldn’t come soon enough.

 Luna Peak at sunrise from the south

Luna Peak at sunrise from the south