North Star Mountain trip report


Not one of my better years. First, I suddenly lost my job in February (through no fault of my own). Actually, I got extremely lucky and things eventually worked out that I still have my job through August, so I don't have to live in my car all summer. But, I missed nearly all of the usual job cycle, because of the suddenness of the situation. As an astronomer, I'm mostly tied to the annual Fall/Winter job rush as people look for new employees for the following summer or fall. I certainly did better than I could have and managed to get a decent one-year faculty position at a very good small liberal arts Minnesota. About as far away from any decent mountains as one can get. At least next year I can go through the full job cycle and have a chance at a job back West and/or maybe something more permanent.

After all that became settled, I came down with an inguinal (groin) hernia. Great; possibly my last summer of climbing mountains, and I'm probably going to have surgery. Once it recovered from me poking at it for several days and the one-hour gang ultrasound needed to give a proper diagnosis, it hasn't been giving me too much trouble recently. But if I'm going to have surgery before I leave, I'm going to lose a lot of hiking time. And, of course, due to a lot of incompetence (appointment schedulers repeatedly not checking their voicemail after someone else has specifically transfered me there; not having the correct fax number for sending referrals for this type of surgery; etc.) I lost my chance at getting this taken care of as early as possible. As of the date of this hike, I still hadn't even met with a surgeon to discuss my options. [A few days later: Of course, after all of this whining, I was closer to surgery than I thought.]

In this context, I wasn't sure if I would be doing any peak bagging this summer (or ever). But, amazingly I've found that if I'm careful I can still maintain my exercise program, including about 10 miles a week of running and I've ran a couple 5K races. After a lot of storm systems in April the weather has been better in May, so I decided to see if my groin would hold up to a hike.

I didn't want to pick something too long and strenuous, not only in deference to my hernia, but it is still early May and there's quite a bit of snow left in the high country. I had been thinking about something else in the Tenmile Range, but then got the idea to do North Star. I had been saving it for a winter ascent, but that sort of micro-managing seems pointless now. Although I wasn't sure about the amount of snow, it isn't very steep on the topo map and has a pretty modest gain and distance.

The alarm went off at 4am on Saturday and I just didn't have it and slept-in until 6:30. But, at 4:30am on Sunday I was able to get up. I ended up at Hoosier Pass right at 7am; hardly an alpine start in May, but it was within my comfort zone, even with isolated afternoon t-storms in the forecast.

Nearly the entire hike was on snow, starting with a mostly snow-covered dirt road leading west from the pass. The route runs generally to the northwest until the summit ridge. One of North Star's claims to fame is that it lies on the Divide and its summit ridge runs almost perfectly east-west. One can keep the entire hike on the Continental Divide. However, it is easiest to follow the road, which takes a big bend to the south at the start, and then stays on the south side of the Divide before hitting a saddle at 12100ft.

I was expecting to continue on the road as it took another jog to the south, but it was signed and gated as private property. So, I continued on gentle snow slopes to the west and then northwest. The snow was still pretty solid at 8am and this was probably easier (and certainly more direct) than following the road. Although it sometimes looked steeper due to foreshortening, these slopes were never steep enough for ice axe use, and I gradually worked my way up using my trekking poles. There was a snowmobiler in the vicinity during this ascent.

You reach the first of many false summits at about 13500ft on the way to the "true" summit (there is actually a mild controversy about how much of this long ridge is actually North Star Mountain, but most people consider the significant 13614ft point as the true summit). The last part to this false summit is more of a face than a ridge, but the key is to keep left to avoid steeper snow in a pseudo-cornice on the north side of this "face". This part of the route was only about 2/3rds covered by snow.

This first false summit represents the east side of the 1.3-mile long summit ridge. Although the ups and downs are generally pretty small, there are an amazing 12 points with closed contours on the USGS map! Do not underestimate this ridge! It is all easy terrain, but it is a lot of work. This first false summit is a fantastic viewpoint for the south (Cristo) couloir on Quandary, which I climbed almost exactly 8 years ago. The lower snow didn't quite seem as continuous as it had been back then, but was otherwise similar.

The ridge crest was generally snow-covered, and especially in the early parts it was rather airy with the potential for very significant sliding falls down snow slopes to the south and other drop-offs to the north. The walking was never steep enough to really make use of an ice axe, but at one point it was exposed enough that I swapped out my poles for the axe just because of the consequences of a fall! Of course, on the way back I didn't bother for various reasons, but one still needs to watch one's step here. I still suspect that this route is easier with the snowcover, and I never really had to use the axe in anger.

Speaking of the long sliding falls, partway across the ridge I finally caught up with some skiers from Wyoming who had climbed up to specifically ski one of those long runs. It turns out that I knew one of them from email! They were on their way down, but I still had quite a bit of the traverse to go. The mostly sunny weather was giving way to a bank of clouds moving in from the west. I didn't think it looked frisky enough to produce lightning, but as it approached I could see streaks of precipitation in the distance.

By the time I reached the last significant saddle below the summit, I had already decided that I wouldn't take much of a summit break. Indeed, after summiting at 1008, I left at 1015 after having something quick to eat and taking a few pictures. The summit was unmarked, with a large cairn to provide a bookend to the similar cairn way back on the first false summit.

Did I mention how long the traverse is? It's even longer when you are trying to hurry. I hadn't even finished the descent to the westernmost saddle when the first snow squall hit. But, it only lasted about 5 minutes and only dropped visibility down to about 1 mile or so. It briefly snowed again a little later (maybe even mixed with rain), but the weather improved quite a bit after that. In fact, it was mostly sunny for most of the descent once I got off the long ridge.

I had to descend a ways to get to the continuous snow on the gentle approach to the ridge. Unfortunately, I found that the snow angle was mostly too shallow for glissading. This problem was magnified by the surface becoming slushy by that time. I managed a couple short paddling glissades before I did hit a nice 100-foot slope just above the road. Of course, I also had to do some postholing in that area, too. This all soaked my feet and I was able to wring water out of my socks when I took off my boots at the end.

Once on the road it didn't take too long to get back to the pass. I actually pulled out my cell phone about 15 minutes before the end of the hike to catch my Mom and Grandmother together in the same place to wish them happy Mother's Day. I thought that 5 hours would be a pretty good time for the hike and I came in just under that. Although there were a few flakes in the air again as I was leaving Hoosier Pass, I think the weather held pretty well in the early afternoon after I was done.

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File last modified: 02 January 2005

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