Big Den Mountain – The Great Escape

Big Den Mountain is an often overlooked peak bounding the north side of the Elk River valley. It stands just across Highway 28 from its more popular neighbour King’s Peak and guards the entrance to the Tlools Creek valley. But this flat topped peak deserves more attention particularly as a winter destination. The steep buttresses and gullies visible from the highway below secret a number of high quality ice routes of varying difficulty. The flat summit plateau while perhaps detracting from the mountain’s aesthetic to a degree, makes a winter descent a reasonably casual affair.

So enticed and hungry for some early season ice Chris Lawrence and I headed up the forested slope above the Elk River Timber Co. Rd. in early December 1990 to explore Big Den’s winter scene. We avoided the nasty burn debris on the lower slope by heading into Tlools just a short distance and then striking uphill. Before too long we had donned our snowshoes and spent the rest of the few remaining daylight hours ascending to the crest of a narrow alpine ridge that butts against Big Den’s east flank. The weather was benign, neither sunny nor overcast. 

Despite being only mid December there was already a respectable snowpack and we could see Big Den’s North East face was rimed up nicely. We pitched camp and settled in for the night anticipating our climb the next day.

Morning broke and we prepared breakfast. Our MSR was misbehaving and delayed our departure from camp as it sputtered through melting water and cooking oatmeal.

Again on snowshoes we headed along the narrow ridge to a point overlooking Mia Lake and the awesome North East Cirque of Big Den. Our objective was the obvious main gully splitting the face and access to its base looked very straightforward. Traversing into the cirque there was some wild exposure above Mia Lake and we hurried across through the deep fresh snow as fast as possible.

At the base of the gully

Once at the base of the gully we finally got a view into what lay ahead. A series of short steep steps and then the gully twisted slightly into a chimney and disappeared above. Chris led up the first bulge making quick work of it on the plastic nevé. I followed eagerly and swung into the lead passing Chris’s belay.

Above the short steep step of pitch 2

Two similar pitches put us at the base of the chimney as a light wet snow began to fall. The chimney looked too narrow to tackle with a pack so I clipped my pack onto a runner and continued up. This was what we had to find, a long pitch of excellent deep blue ice that swallowed the picks with every swing. It was just enough to give the route a grade 3.

After Chris released my pack I hauled it up with the second rope. Chris quickly reached my belay with a wide if soggy looking grin. By now it was dumping hard and we were both getting soaked as we wallowed around in the deep, damp island snow. Two more pitches of very steep snow and we arrived underneath a huge cornice capping the gully.

The two options out on either wall of the gully looked fearsome. Verglass covered rock at an impossible angle. As we debated how to tackle the finish darkness approached. There seemed little point attempting anything now. We had the shelter of a very deep alcove beneath the cornice away from the weather with room enough to move around sans belay. So despite not being prepared for a bivvy we decided to stay put and await the morning.

Morning comes to our bivvy under the massive cornice

What a night. 15 hours of darkness soaked to the skin with little food and an MSR that simply refused to light. We cleaned it and rebuilt it repeatedly but all to no avail. At times we huddled together and others we stood dancing for literally hours at a time biding the murky night away.

Eventually dawn broke and we began tunnelling away at the huge cornice. Luckily the snow was fairly soft and we quickly hollowed out a good 30ft tube through which we wriggled onto the summit plateau finally making good our escape. 

Phil Stone exiting the cornice tunnel making the Great Escape on to the top of Big Den Mountain

A full whiteout greeted us on top but this is where the plateau thing kicks in. Following a compass bearing through the fog we easily located the South West ridge and descended it a short distance before traversing across the south cirque and onto the crest of the east Ridge overlooking our camp. A long 55m+ rappel off the ridge put us on easier ground and in no time we were back at camp. As winter descents go (our forced bivvy notwithstanding) it was pretty cushy.

A fresh fuel bottle solved our problems with the MSR as a quick glance into the one we had carried on the route showed a puddle of water swishing around in the bottom. We cooked a huge lunch, slept the rest of the day and through that night. A beautiful clear day greeted us for our descent to the road and we marvelled at views of Elkhorn through the trees before breaking camp and heading down.

The Great Escape AD AI3 (lll) 300m
FA: Chris Lawrence, Philip Stone 11-12 December, 1990