Cat's Ears Peak

by Sandy Briggs

April 9-11, 2004

The party: Sandy Briggs, Julie Deslippe, Paul Rydeen, Hinrich Schaefer, Darren Wilman.

After our return from Cat’s Ears I commented to Hinrich that, were it not for the seven-hour bushwhacking approach, the complete (integrÀle) west ridge would be an Island classic. He replied that perhaps it is an Island classic because of the seven-hour bushwhack.

I had wanted to try this route ever since I first looked along it in April 1997. But that trip was turned back by deep snow and a shortage of time, so we gave ourselves to watching such things as comet Hale-Bopp and the peculiar New Zealand sport of cornice jumping.

It took me a few years to get another attempt together, but when it happened it was with a perfect crew (well, except for one or two notable absences), and we had perfect weather again.

A short way up the Cat’s Ears creek road we plunged into the second growth, such as it is. I chose a devious line through the worst of the alder, nettles, devil’s club and cross-piled logs – a route notable for the long intervals during which my feet were quite invisible. Paul and Darren, canny lads that they are, rejected this route immediately and fared rather better only 50 m to the right, amongst actual trees. By the time Hinrich and Julie and I had caught up to them I had sufficiently regained my presence of mind to claim that by my having selected a particularly engaging bit of greenery at the outset, any bushwhacking likely to arise later would appear mellow by comparison and would therefore not generate any negative commentary, which is, naturally, much harder to bear when one is tired.

Once the ridge proper was gained, and with it the old-growth forest, the course was southwest and upward, by-passing various bluffs on the left, until we reached the open bump at 3801ft (1155m), where we camped. While Cat’s Ears itself is deceptively unprepossessing from this angle it cannot be said that one’s eye is starved for stimulation, with the jagged Mackenzie Range jutting skyward to the south, while the Maitland Range teams up with it to frame Kennedy Lake, Long Beach, and the great Pacific Ocean.

The following morning was fine and warm – actually a bit too warm for an Easter weekend. (No wonder the glaciers are all disappearing so quickly.) We romped along the initial broad and undulating parts of the ridge, eventually caching our snowshoes at the base of the first real steepness, where we also donned crampons. For much of the remainder of the route we moved in roped teams, or at least had the rope at the ready, belaying the occasional exposed parts here or there and paying attention to the possibility of an avalanche. The snow was in great condition, firm enough for us to profit from the crampons yet soft enough for secure ice-axe belays. This year, all the major cornices had already dropped off by Easter.

From the first high summit we did a short rappel over a rock step. After that a narrow arÊte led to a short bushy gully that led down easily and dropped one near a left-sloping triangular face. After that the route was a wonderful snowy catwalk in the sky, characterized by impressive exposure and little difficulty.What a delight! Just before the final summit we had to avoid a rock step by descending to the right and traversing on steep terrain to a broad gully that led almost to the base of the summit pitch. This final rock climb was low fifth-class and posed no problems, so that we soon found ourselves on the top, where we lingered for the usual rituals.

I feel I need to emphasize that the twists and turns, the ups and downs of this very indirect route are outrageously fun – so much so that I will venture to comment that he (or she) who has climbed Cat’s Ears from the north, gaining the ridge only near the summit, has cheated himself (or herself) of significant pleasure. I think I can also reasonably assert that the scenery to which your aesthetic sensibilities are subjected at every moment for hour upon hour is to be matched in only a few other Island locales, among which must be counted Rugged Mountain, Limestone Cap, and the peaks along the east side of the Elk River valley.

We rappelled the rock pitch and enjoyed the luxury of romping back along the route in the opposite direction. The rock step to the west summit was easily climbed, and there we took a long rest in the late afternoon sun, lest the day’s magic come to an end too soon.

Sandy Briggs