Sitting on the south side of Zeballos Lake rises a seldom-summited peak of the same name. It suffers from the ignominious problem of being a neighbour to the far more glamorous peaks of the Haihte Range; with an elevation of only 1540 metres, it’s a problem that won’t be outgrown by this report.
On March 17, 2019, I joined Phil and Ramsay on a summit attempt of Zeballos Peak. We were in high spirits as we started our hike. The south-facing slopes of the mountain were clear of snow to the end of the road, allowing us the luxury of heading straight into the slash without the additional work of grunting up a steep logging road (450 m).
Total Distance: 6.8 km
Starting Elevation: 450 m
Maximum Elevation: 1380 m
Total Elevation Gain: 941 m
Total Time: 7 Hours
We lacked significant beta on the peak, and prior to the trip had numerous conversations about route options. Even at the vehicles, before we started our hike, we picked a different route only moments before heading into the thicket of slash.
Whether it be favourable or foul, we had fantastic weather. We were catching the first days of an early spring heatwave that pulled the island out of a series of polar vortexes throughout the late winter. At first, in the shade of the old-growth, we were delighted by the warm sun. But as we crawled beyond 900 metres, we entered onto a snow slope that brought the full heat of the sun.
We moved quickly up the barren slope while the light reflecting off the snow baked into us and forced sweat on our brows as we ascended. The heat also brought other problems: avalanches and cornice drops.
It was obvious that the center of our slope was a slide path; even if our line was sheltered from the cliff in front of us. If our instincts and experience didn’t reveal this fact, the frequent river of snow slowly flowing down the center of the slope was clue enough. We ascended on the left , well clear of the river and always keeping our eyes up. As we ascended, the right side of the slope rose high into a wall, and it became clear that the slope narrowed into a gully — a gully with high walls and several largish cornices overhanging an obvious terrain trap we would have to travel through should we continue on our course. We didn’t.
At 1250 metres, some 150 metres shy of the crest, we cut across the still wide slope, seeking a different route to the summit. We could see a short section that required a brief ascent up some steep snow and some scrambling up the rough rock to…who knew what. Only a moment after we decided going further up the snow would be foolish, we heard a very loud crunch as a cornice crashed into the ground and raced down the mountain — not all that close to where we were previously standing, but the incident validated our choice to change direction.
Of course, things seldom go as planned. Continuing our route took some awkward moves over ice-covered rock to get up to a ledge to another ice-covered slope. This was my least favourite part of the day, because there were so few options for footing. I couldn’t kick through the thin layer of ice because of the rock below, and I was in no position to put crampons on (we hadn’t needed them 2 metres below as we were up to our knees in snow). I jammed the pick of my axe into the snow and held my breath as I used the edge of my boot to creep to safer ground.
At this point Phil took the lead up the next obstacle, a debris-filled rocky scramble up. It looked easy enough, but proved to have a variety of challenges including falling debris, spontaneously falling rocks let loose by melting snow, and a side of the rock face that left Phil scrambling for footing like some sort of cartoon character. Let’s just say, it’s a good thing we had donned our helmets back at the car.
I had only a little more luck than Phil. As I was at the top of the rise, I reached my hand forward to test the stability of a large boulder (probably close to my own weight). I hardly tugged on it when the whole fucking thing tumbled out on me. I did a short hop and kicked my legs out of the fall path, while yelling, “ROOOOOCK, DUCK!”. Looking between my legs, I watched the boulder tumble a few metres and crash off the rock where Phil was waiting, sheltered behind; take a second bounce off the rock Ramsay was sheltered behind; and then drop out of sight… only to explode, a short moment later, into a shower of small rocks. The thunderous crack we heard told us the boulder must have landed on rock and snow below, throwing dozens of small stones and snow up into our field of vision.
We got out of there as quickly as we could and counted ourselves lucky that we didn’t have any serious injuries. Things could have been dramatically worse if we hadn’t taken as much care as we did, and if luck wasn’t on our side.
That short slope crested at 1280 metres, and from there we found much more forgiving terrain that we scooted easily along until we finally caught a glimpse of our goal. Its south face looked starkly orange-red against the contrast of the blue sky and white snow cutting across the face. We were so close, but our time fiddle-farting around on the cruddy section had cost us significant time. Examining the route, we all agreed that we had no intention of returning the way we ascended, and that extra time would be needed to find an alternate way back to the vehicles. We knew we could make the summit, but the prospect of bushwhacking down unknown slopes by headlamp was stupidity. I think we also felt that our good luck was running out. We headed for home.
Our route back meandered down snow-covered slopes, through trees, and worst of all down into thigh- and sometimes hip-deep wet snow. All through the afternoon, we could hear avalanches roaring in the Haihte Range across Zeballos Lake. We made excellent time, even with the difficult route-finding.
Around 540 metres we crossed paths with what was likely the remnants of the cornice drop from early in the day –-dang, that went a looooong way down!
At the vehicles, we licked our wounds, revelled in our successes, and enjoyed the exhilaration brought by a fabulous day in the sun. We’ll be back, Zeballos Peak, but not soon.