I really wanted to check out the off-trail conditions and had locked eyes on Avalanche Peak, which I did twice from the Kagel lean-to and Algonquin-Wright drainage during the summer of 2016. It had been a breeze and the round-trip from the drainage took me about 2 hours with no pack. Open woods the whole way and if you hit it right, very little steep terrain. It seemed to be a good choice of bushwhacks right after a long day doing the 4 Seward's with 6500 feet of elevation gain and loss.
Off we (Julie Chevalier and I) went after an easy 8 am start over a rock-solid trail to the Kagel LT where we stopped and got ready. I donned 30'' Tubbs of 15 year-old vintage and as soon as we crossed the brook and ascended the steep embankment I had doubts about them. However, the first half of the journey is along an old tote road and then through open woods that ascend gently. Bushwhacker's candy and the Tubbs were great as long as I didn't trip over them or catch a tip too often.
Julie and her husband Jean-Sebastien have done hundreds of bushwhacks including a lot more in winter than I and she was extremely helpful with both the macro and micro management of our route and she broke her share of trail. We conferred frequently on our exact whereabouts and watched our progress very closely (we used altimeter, gps, map and compass pretty much equally at first). Just before 1000 meters elevation we made a turn that showed us gaining the summit ridge through the fattest contour intervals. The gps indicated that we were 400 meters from the summit when we made the turn at roughly 975 meters. One hour and forty-five minutes had elapsed since we left the l-t. The next 400 meters took us 2 hours 30 minutes.
The snow was beyond what I had imagined being deep and structure-less on the ground and the open spaces between the trees were filled in with walls of snow. Sometimes we found a narrow passageway through it but often it was easier to bash the snow walls down. Over and over again lumpy showers of snow rained down from above banging upon our heads and shoulders. Our backs were soaked and lumps of ice formed on the inside of our pack belts and pack-backs. Progress was slow (duh!) and navigation was simplified to studying the gps screen for the fattest possible intervals, projecting a compass bearing and following that.
The higher we got the heavier the snow became. However from time to time we hit little stretches of open woods and were able to walk along in a normal fashion. It was in one such section that we exited the woods to a small clearing and looked way up at a broad 50-foot high white cliff. In retrospect, it was beautiful. Nothing to do but make a 90 degree turn and go around it. What amazed me was that I recalled having passed more or less through the same route up to the ridge effortlessly twice before only 18 months previously. The ridge itself had been a cinch but now, only 200 meters from the summit every meter gained came with huge efforts. We were now using our hands to sweep away the snow in front of us in order to be able to lift our snowshoes up onto the next placement. But, as rough as it sounds we were laughing and joking the whole way. At one point Julie looked at me and said, “I guess the other bushwhacks will have to wait”. Funniest line of the day but you had to be there.
And then we both saw the little summit clearing at the same time and it was all over. Peak number 21 would soon be over the shoulder of Project-100. Every step of the way up we knew that the return trip would be a piece of cake and indeed what had taken us 4h30 was easily covered in 1h30 back over our trail. It was cold and windy on top and we didn't hang around for long. Back at the lean-to we made clothing changes, ate and drank then tied our snowshoes onto our packs and sped-hiked out, racing to beat darkness, which we did by 5 minutes. We were out at 4:55PM for a 9-hour hike.