Wednesday, August 20, 2008

A high place to be in a storm (Mt. Henkel and Mt. Apiknuni, GNP/Montana) July 5th, 2009

With 40% chance of thundershowers, my friend James and I decided to bail on our original goal - Mt. Dungarvan in Waterton. Dungarvan has a long approach and with the weather forecast we wanted to avoid getting caught high up in a storm. As an alternative, we decided to venture south of the 49th for a shorter scramble up Mt. Henkel. If the weather allowed, the plan was to follow the ridge over to Apikuni for an alternative descent. Apikuni was bad decision, as it turned out...

Leaving Lethbridge at 7 AM, it was still quite cloudy from the night's thundershowers and getting up a peak in the Rockies looked doubtful. However, by the time we got to Cardston it cleared up and as we drove down the valley in Many Glacier, it was blue skies all around. Starting at 9 AM from the Iceberg lake trailhead, we scrambled up a fun route (climbing up 3,500 ft) of mostly class II/III ledges (with a bit of class 4 every now and then) and were at Henkel's summit by 12:30. From the summit, we could see some ugly clouds far off to the west, but they were so far away it did not seem to be a concern. Or so we thought.

We rested at Henkel's summit for about 20 minutes, taking pictures and eating lunch. The clouds were visibly closer by the time we got moving again... but they were still so far away we figured we could pop over to Apikuni and down to the valley before the rains arrived.

Descending from Henkel, there was a bit of dicy downclimbing, as per the Edward's guidebook - one class IV ledge that had to be downclimbed that we could not avoid. We took our time climbing down to the saddle. We then proceeded to hoof it as fast as we could up the adjoining ridge to Apikuni's summit. As we progressed, we noticed the weather was getting worse and started to notice some rumbles of distant thunder. When we finally summitted Apikuni it was 2:45 and looking back towards Henkel's summit, it looked like the Armageddon had arrived! The clouds were dark gray and we could spot lightening and the distant thunder was clearly not-so-distant any more! We stayed at the summit for less than 5 minutes and hurriedly started our way down.

The ridge turns south and drops towards the highway and as we followed we knew we were in trouble. The lightening was more noticeable and I was counting the seconds between the lightening strikes and the the thunder to judge the distance of the storm. Even though the storm was fast approaching, we were losing elevation and moving quite fast so I still wasn't overly worried as I figured we still had an hour before the storm hit us.

After only 25 minutes from the summit, the storm caught us. The winds picked up and suddenly the skies opened up and it started to hail and the lightening and thunder were happening virtually simultaneously. James was ahead of me at this point by 50 metres or so and I hurried to catch up and descend as fast as possible. We had lost maybe 1,500 feet from Apikuni's summit by the time the worst of the storm hit. Although we were not on top of the ridge we were still quite exposed and we were truly still in the belly of the beast.

As we ran down in the hail, the ground started to turn white with the pea sized ice. The thunder would at times crackle and pop and positively boom and echo in the mountain valley. I put my poles into my pack for fear of them attracting the lightening, reasoning that they were more insulated in my pack.

We dropped and dropped and still the storm raged. After what seemed like hours, the hail eased up and the thunder became less frequent. The hail turned to a hard rain. The hard rain turned to a drizzle and after (only!) an hour we were out of the storm. Reaching the bottom of the valley, it stopped raining. As we hiked out towards the highway we were again under the sun.

Final stats: 9 hours, 15 km, 1494 m total ascent (4,903 ft)