Smuts, the Fist

The Fist


[Some photos, including those containing the author, by Bob. — ed.]

Mount Smuts is the hardest climb in Alan Kane’s popular Rockies guidebook, a sometimes-exposed scramble with a few low-5th-class crux sections near the south end of the Spray Lakes valley. The Fist is another somewhat-popular scramble to its east. Having become accustomed to climbing choss, I was reminded how pleasant it can be to climb solid, super-sticky rock on Smuts. The nearby Fist turned out to be a choss-pile, but still better than many of my recent peaks.

Commonwealth Creek

I had met Bob on my first trip to the Canadian Rockies, and he got back in touch when he saw that I would be in the area. Since he is based in Calgary and has a Real Life, he is not up for long suffer-fests in the far north, but gets out a lot in the Canmore region. After meeting up in town, we rattled down the miserable washboard of the Spray Lakes Road, inexplicably both unpaved and open year-round, then slept at the Smuts Lake trailhead (“day use only!”), where Bob learned that his manly new truck was too short in any direction to comfortably lie down.

Birdwood and avalanche debris

We got an early start by Canadian standards, along with two fishermen and a fast-looking runner guy, all of whom had bikes and soon left us behind on the initial rideable 3k. Beyond there, the trail becomes rooty as it turns to climb along Commonwealth Creek. Emerging in meadows below the north face of Mount Birdwood, it has been obliterated by two large avalanches over the past winter, buried under a layer of compacted snow and downed trees pointing in the same direction. I found the trail again after the first, then lost it at the second, cutting through woods toward the Birdwood-Smuts col hoping to find it. The thrashing became steadily steeper and denser, until I gave up and made a straight line to the edge of the woods, where I stumbled onto the trail, right where it would make sense for it to have been. Duh.

Start of Smuts route

The trail climbs steeply along the woods’ margin, emerging in alpine meadows below the pass. The route up Smuts’ south ridge starts in a gully to the north, above a large but fairly stable talus fan. Heading straight for the gully, we found bits of use trail, then transitioned onto solid slabs on its right-hand side. The rock bedding is more or less vertical on this part of Smuts, oriented to the north-northwest just across the ridge, so when it is clear of debris, it forms easy ramps with handrails. This allowed us to gain several hundred meters quickly, reaching a shoulder where the west side becomes sheer and we were forced onto the crest.

Chimney on Smuts

Where the crest steepens, we made an exposed step right into a sloping chimney. The rock is incredibly sticky, so I easily stemmed my way up, dislodging a rock in a failed attempt to kill my partner, who defended himself adeptly with his helmet. Above the chimney, the climbing continued in similar fashion over a couple more steps: move right to a chimney formed by an eroded layer, stem up back toward the ridge. With a final, exposed walk along the crest, we reached the summit in around 3.5 hours. The runner had signed the register earlier, speculating that sub-2-hours should be possible for someone going hard who knew the route (I agree).

Summit walk on Smuts

We had expansive views in all directions, cut off by a cloud deck a bit above 10,000′, so Sir Douglas and King George to the southwest, and conical Assiniboine to the north, were all truncated. Nearby Birdwood’s north ridge (5.5) looked long and enticing, but we still had to get off this thing. The standard descent head down the northwest ridge for a bit, then turns down a horrible garbage-chute of a gully to reach ledges and scree on the west face. We took turns down this gully, moving from one sheltered ledge to the next one at a time unleashing showers of debris. If I were to climb the peak again, I would downclimb the south ridge, and maybe try going up the northeast ridge, which looks like it should go.

Scree descent to Smuts Lakes

With plenty of daylight left, we decided to climb the nearby Fist as well. The direct route across Smuts’ north face is blocked by cliffs, so we had to go the long way around. We picked up a faint return trail descending across talus to the Smuts-Birdwood col, passing above the two fishermen we had met earlier, then descended the east side of the pass a bit to pick up a use trail around a buttress on Smuts’ east side.

Stone-tooling toward the Fist

Once past the toe of the buttress, we began a long, ascending, unpleasant sidehill toward the Fist. The face is a mixture of woods, turf, and scree, cut by several gullies. The gullies are worst when dry, when their sides are slippery hard-packed dirt. We crossed one in this condition, then a couple more still filled with snow, carefully stone-tooling our way across. Finally reaching the crest, it took my ankles a few steps to adjust to being on level ground.

Fist route on right

The route up the Fist is not elegant, but at least it is obvious: climb a chute right of the summit, then turn right up another chute with a short vertical step at its base. We went one at a time both up and down, as it is impossible not to unleash death on those below. On the summit, we watched the crowds hiking the popular Tent Ridge trail, waiting for a couple of climbers we had seen behind us to top out. It would go ill for them if we descended while they were climbing.

When they failed to appear, we downclimbed one at a time, to find them sheltering in place at the base of the chute. It would have been quickest to drop down scree to Commonwealth Creek, but I had noticed a faint trail toward Tent Ridge on the way up, so we followed that north instead, seeing some new terrain and meeting a few hikers on the way around and down the ridge. There are a few confusing trail junctions in the woods below, and many blowdowns, but fortunately Bob had a map on his phone, so we made the correct turns and emerged on the Shark road just above our trailhead.

Willingdon (W ridge, ~10.5 hours)

Willingdon from Clearwater Pass


Mount Willingdon is one of the lesser Rockies 11ers, barely over 11,000′ and lying on the dry side of the range, east of the Icefields Parkway just north of Lake Louise. It is also somewhat remote, lying on the far side of a broad alpine valley at the head of the Siffleur, Clearwater, and Pipestone Rivers, separated by a high ridge from the Bow River valley and the road. There are long horse trails up each river, but a more direct route that ascends Mosquito Creek, then crosses rugged Quartzite Col, makes Willingdon a reasonable dayhike.

Cliffs above Mosquito Creek

Despite a questionable forecast, I got my usual non-alpine start, hopping the guard rail to follow the Mosquito Creek trail. Thanks to a helpful trip report, I knew where to look for the climbers’ trail to Quartzite Col, and had no trouble finding and following a sometimes faint but well-flagged path up the west side of the north branch of Mosquito Creek. I eventually rock-hopped across some braided side-streams, then crossed at a convenient log, where the trail continued on the other side.

Quartzite Col

The trail and flagging disappear near a side-stream, and I continued cross-country up its north side on open ground, soon emerging in the alpine below Quartzite Col. Taking a direct line to what looked like the low point, I climbed turf and dirt, then crossed a field of large quartzite (?) boulders infested with talus-spiders. While I did not find a supposed plaque, I did find a cairn at the crest, as well as an old boot-pack on the other side’s snowfield. The snow looked unpleasantly steep to handle in running-shoe crampons, so I instead carefully descended some dirty ledges to the south, disturbing a mountain goat, before gaining the snowfield lower down.

Quartzite Col

Coming around a corner, I saw two men putting on crampons to climb to the col. I had to self-arrest once as I sketched down the snow in running shoes, but I don’t think they saw that bit of foolishness. They were returning from a 5-day backpack to tag Willingdon and nearby Recondite, and one seemed slightly disapproving of my solo-dayhike tactics. With a bit more talus-hopping, I finally reached the high grassy plain, with Willingdon still discouragingly far away to the east.

West ridge

The plain is probably boggy early in the season, but it was mostly dry, springy ground as I made my way over some ups and downs to eventually reach the Clearwater Pass trail, a well-beaten-in pack trench. I followed it to the first Devon Lake, then took off across grass and flowers toward Willingdon’s west ridge. The ridge is mostly well-behaved talus, with a faint boot-track most of the way. There is one short, tricky downclimb on some white rock where the ridge turns, then a final 6-foot step on outward-sloping and gravel-covered rock below the summit plateau. The step had a decent hand-line, making things much simpler.

Clearwater and glacier

I had been uneasily eyeing clouds and showers to the south and west for awhile, and I felt a few snowflakes on the summit, but it remained sunny, and looked like it was clearing. Still, I didn’t want to take the extra time to traverse Willingdon’s southern sub-summits. I flipped through the register, took in views of the steep east face and the impressively flat glacier sheltered by the Willingdon-Clearwater cirque, then retraced my route.

Headed back toward Quartzite Col

I was enjoying myself on the trip back across Clearwater Pass, in no particular hurry, when the weather abruptly turned. I tried to beat the showers to Quartzite Col, but the rain caught me near its base, punishing my late start. Fortunately, after a bit of thunder, things settled into a cold, steady drizzle. I cramponed up the snow this time, then tried to minimize boulder-hopping on the other side, since the wet lichen-encrusted quartzite was quite slick.

The cold rain continued across the alpine and down to near the log crossing, and the brush-soaking continued until I reached the official trail, leaving me about as wet as I could be. I stripped off my “rain jacket,” which apparently needs a fresh DWR treatment, then clumsily put on my sort-of-dry hoodie with stiff hands before squelching down to the trailhead. After a slow, fumbling change into dry clothes, I blasted the heater on my drive back to town, and was mostly back to normal by the time I reached Lake Louise.

Kitchener (E ridge)

Kitchener from parking lot


While it looks big from the highway, Mount Kitchener is really just a high point on the undulating edge of the Columbia Icefield. With only one small glacier to cross, its east ridge is the only way to reach the ice with essentially no crevasse hazard. It is also fairly unpleasant, with thousands of feet of unstable talus punctuated by pucker-inducing climbing on short steps of crumbling Rockies choss, including a spiteful notch just below the icefield. With a close, high “trailhead” along the highway around 6300 feet, I thought this would be a relatively short outing — the guidebook even calls it a dayhike. While it ended up taking around 9 hours, I found it mentally taxing, made more so by the thick smoke blowing in from British Columbia.

Athabasca, Andromeda

I got a late-ish start, heading out in old running shoes with my boots and socks around my neck, as the first obstacle is crossing the Sunwapta river. The guidebook suggests doing this right across from the toe of the ridge, but I thought the crossing looked friendlier near the Athabasca Glacier parking lot, where the braided input streams to Sunwapta Lake were no more than calf-deep. They were still bitterly cold, though, with bits of slush floating downstream in the morning, and my feet ached after each significant crossing. With that out of the way, I set my poles and running shoes on a rock, laced up my boots, and headed for the ridge.

The downside of my crossing strategy is that I also had to cross the outflow from the Dome Glacier. I had hoped to find a dry crossing in the terminal boulder-field, but eventually gave up, taking off my boots to cross barefoot near the outflow of its terminal lake, again calf-deep and cold.

Lots of this

Boots on again, it was time to begin the talus-slog. I ascended the moraine to the north, bashed through a bit of krummholtz, then turned west on the broad, rubbly ridge toward “K2,” an intermediate summit. Most of the climb to this point was on various talus, ranging from dinner-plates to unstable rubble. The smoke was already thick, and I was slow and unmotivated as I climbed toward the cliff-bands on the sub-summit. These were not as difficult as they looked, but were highly unpleasant, outward-sloping, brittle, and littered with rubble.

K2 and Kitchener

Though there was more rubble to cross, the prospect of getting on the small glacier on Kitchener’s east ridge cheered me as I started down to the saddle. After a bit of nastiness getting across a southward fin — climbing down one crumbly chimney and up another — I found patches of decent scree-skiing to speed the descent. After regaining most of the lost elevation, I finally put on crampons for the glacier. There are two obvious cracks across the ridge, with a clear path around the left-hand side. Though it was late morning, the snow was still firm, perfect for kicking steps.

Snow-fin in gap

Above the glacier, I soon confronted the day’s crux, a narrow and crumbly gap with a small snow-fin at the bottom. The near side was slightly outward-sloping but more solid, while the far side was incut but horribly rotten. I carefully downclimbed, cut a step to cross the snow, then sketched my way up the other side, trusting a faded hand-line clipped to a rusty piton about as much as I trusted the rubble. The book calls this “5.2,” but that is like grading a gym wall: the holds are constantly changing. From the gap, there are still a few hundred feet to gain in a gradual climb along the edge of the icefield, easily crossed in boots once past the icy edge.

Columbia and the Twins

Even on a sunny, hazy day, the endless white feels a bit disorienting; it would be seriously unsettling in a whiteout. The smoke was bad: while the frequently-calving edge of Snow Dome was fairly clear, the Twins were indistinct, and Mount Columbia was a ghost. I should have stuck around to enjoy what will probably be my only time standing on the Columbia Icefield, but the sketchy notch and the long descent weighed on me. I soon headed back across the ice, with one comical slow-motion self-arrest when I slipped near the edge.

Dome Glacier icefalls

The climb down into the notch was as sketchy as expected, but the climb up the other side was much easier, and I was soon booting down the glacier. The descent route drops from the saddle with K2 to the rubble-covered Dome Glacier. This would have been wretched talus later in the season, but fortunately there were several snowfields with a perfect surface and angle for boot-skiing. I wish the light had been better, because the Dome Glacier is magnificent, with two large branches falling from the icefield above to feed a long tongue in the valley.

Lower Dome Glacier

I hiked endless, unstable rubble on its surface, then crossed its toe to reach the north side of the terminal lake. The outflow stream was noticeably larger than when I had crossed it in the morning, boding ill for my return ford. I could have avoided that by going up to the toe of the Athabasca Glacier, but I had the shoes and poles in place, and walking outside the rope line would probably anger a ranger. Gritting my teeth, I made my way back across the channels — knee-deep this time — then put my boots on to warm my feet on the short walk back to the car. Along with the usual assortment of tourists in rented RVs, I was surprised to see a car with the New Mexico vanity plate “PKFREAK.” I should know this person.

Wilcox

Upper Wilcox ridge


After a maintenance and recovery day, conditions deteriorated dramatically in the Jasper area. The smoke was back with a vengeance, and it turned cold by mid-morning, with rain in the valley and a dusting of snow on the peaks. It was more of the same on the drive down to the Athabasca Glacier, so I checked out the museum (cool historic photos), walked the tourist trail to the base of the glacier, then scouted out the Sunwapta River crossing for Kitchener before turning in.

Athabasca and trail

It was mostly clear in the morning, but unpleasantly cold in the lot at the toe of the glacier, so I chickened out on the early morning ford, taking my time over coffee before checking out the scenery from lowly Mount Wilcox across the way. There is supposed to be a trail leading toward the peak from the visitor center, but I did not find it, and drove up to the popular Wilcox Pass trailhead instead. The trail leaves the road to follow the original pack trail route from Lake Louise to Jasper, which crossed a broad alpine pass east of the Sunwapta River to avoid a section of narrow canyon, rejoining the current route near Tangle Creek.

Red chairs and Athabasca Glacier

Despite my lazy start, I had the trail to myself as I climbed out of the woods, passing a couple of the “Canada 150” red chairs. The trail gradually gains elevation through a wide alpine valley, with spectacular views of the Columbia Icefield peaks from Athabasca to Kitchener. The previous day’s showers had left an odd dusting of snow on the peaks, with none visible on the high Icefield peaks or Wilcox, but a fairly heavy dusting on neighboring Nigel.

View east

I left the main trail sooner than I should have on what seemed like a direct use trail; the best route follows the official trail to “Wilcox Ridge.” I could see the trail up the peak ascending its east face, and as I climbed, various faint paths converged in a single, well-cairned route. The first part of the climb is a pleasant walk on dirt, heather, and well-behaved scree, as the trail climbs to the peak’s south ridge, from which one can see the highway a couple thousand feet below.

Scrambling up east face

The trail is more intermittent along the ridge, with the occasional bit of easy scrambling. I had seen someone ahead of me from lower down, and met my fellow climber as he was stymied by a rock fin. He turned out to be a young German man named Christian, carrying an insane quantity of camera gear and in a bit over his head on the climb. He asked if he could join me, and we continued together through some scrambling, which eased again toward the summit.

Kitchener, etc. from Wilcox

At less than 10 miles round-trip and 3000 feet of elevation gain, Wilcox is a high value-for-effort peak. To its west, one can see peaks from Athabasca north to Woolley, and the summit is just high enough to see onto the surface of the Icefield. To the east are meadows and lower peaks made of undulating layered rock. While Christian made use of his impressive camera gear (I was especially jealous of the 15-70mm telephoto lens), I took a few photos, then sat around getting chilled.

We descended together through the scrambling section, passing a lone Canadian on his way up, then I took off, occasionally jogging but not in any hurry. I passed a hundred or more hikers on the way down, more the crowd I expected, then returned to the visitor center to hang out and watch the smoke blow in.

Robson (Kain Face to SW ridge, 14h50)

Robson from visitor center


Mount Robson is the highest peak in the Canadian Rockies, towering over its neighbors in the northwest part of the range. A bit under 2000 extra feet make it a completely different beast than its neighbor to the northwest: while Whitehorn succumbed to a fast-and-light assault in about 12 hours, Robson is Serious Business, requiring ice tools, real crampons, and mountain boots. I think it should be doable in 12 hours by the easiest and most direct route (southwest ridge), but I can’t imagine that route being in condition for fast-and-light gear.

Part of what I try to do when exploring new ranges is to dispel their mystery and the accompanying irrational fear. My previous Robson encounter, while successful, had something of the opposite effect. This time, better weather and information resulted in a much better experience, though the mountain still tested my ability and nerve.

Robson from near col

The classic route on Robson is the Kain Face, traditionally reached by a long hike around to Berg Lake, then a hazardous ascent of the Mousetrap Icefall. Both of these factors led me to choose the southwest ridge back in 2014. Since then I have learned of the Patterson Spur approach, which avoids both distance and hazard, and turns out to be shockingly well-flagged. This allowed me to climb the classic, aesthetic route in 14h50 car-to-car. Doing so required balancing contradictory time constraints: on the one hand, I did not believe I could do the approach at night; on the other, the Kain Face and Robson Glacier receive morning sun, so they are best climbed early. I split the difference, starting at 3:22 to hike the Berg Lake trail at night, and climbing the face mid-morning in sloppy but not hazardous conditions.

Patterson Spur near center in sun

The Patterson Spur trail is well-disguised from the hoi polloi, but if you know where to look, you can find a faint boot-path, which soon turns into a reasonably-maintained and extravagantly-flagged climbers’ trail ascending through the woods around the toe of Robson’s south-southeast ridge. The trail peters out in a large slide path, where the route crosses the outflows of some hanging glaciers, then follows the streams toward the Robson-Resplendent col. Occasional flagging and maintenance lead up the slope, with some vegetable combat, to a broad cirque of talus and ledges.

Resplendent

I found an occasional cairn here or there, but there are many possible paths up the slope. The eventual goal is to cross left across the small glaciers’ terminal moraines, then ascend an indistinct ridge (the Patterson Spur) to the R-R col. Getting onto the ridge via rock looked tricky, so I booted up the side of the glacier to its right, then continued the long, meandering climb, finally meeting the sun a few hundred feet below the ridge. From a starting elevation of 2780′ at the parking lot, this approach climbs to around 9,000′ at the col, covering a bit less than two thirds of the total elevation gain.

Robson from R-R col

R-R col is distressingly far from the Kain Face, and this part of the Robson Glacier looked uninvitingly crevassed, so I was happy to follow a recent boot-pack along the ridge, scrambling a mixture of rock and softening snow. I was hoping that the people I was following knew what they were doing, but discovered at the top of a snow-slope that I was wrong. The ridge is separated from the glacier by a bergschrund for its entire length, and becomes more difficult near a large notch at Robson’s SSE ridge. The party ahead had dithered for awhile, then retreated, briefly checking out a likely ‘schrund crossing before… admitting ignominious defeat? Being made of sterner/stupider stuff, I carefully crossed the ‘schrund where they had chickened out, briefly wallowing thigh-deep before reaching ankle- to calf-deep snow on the glacier.

Down face to Robson Glacier

The Robson Glacier looked like serious business, with gaping crevasses on the direct line to the Kain Face, so I took a cautious, roundabout line near the ‘schrund. I tried to minimize the wretched postholing by crossing old slide debris, but it was still slow going, and I was concerned about the state of the face above me. I sweated my way around to the base of the route, and finally put on crampons.

Kain Face ‘schrund

There is another ‘schrund near the base of the Kain Face, and it proved more difficult than I had anticipated. Even where the gaping pit was filled with slide debris, it presented an overhanging slush-cliff that I could not climb. Finally, traversing nearly all the way to the right-hand side, I found a place where it was just filled in enough to carefully cross. I don’t entirely understand how the snowpack changes on Robson, but it seems like the face may be completely inaccessible later this summer.

Across Kain Face toward Resplendent

Above the ‘schrund, I climbed a few hundred feet of steep, calf-deep slush plunging both tools for security. The slush eventually thinned, and I climbed a good bit of honest-to-God ice with a thin covering, allowing me to engage my front-points and tools for real. I hadn’t climbed any ice in awhile, so I over-gripped my tools and stuck them too deep for awhile. As the angle began to ease, the face grew an unpleasant layer of aerated junk over the ice. My feet still fell solid, but I was less confident about my tool placements.

Summit climb

Finally reaching the SSE ridge, I was confronted by another 1000 feet of easy ridge-walking and nontrivial climbing. The ridge starts out broad, and the snow was perfect for cramponing on the left side, well off the cornice. I was no longer sheltered from the wind, which kicked bits of rime past me toward the Robson Glacier, but it remained perfectly clear, and I was warm enough while moving. I stopped from time to time to turn away from the wind, warm my face, and admire the view of Resplendent and the large, complex glacier.

Rimed-up crevasse below summit

The climb steepens toward the top, passing around or over rime formations on the edge of the summit glacier. The snow remained pleasantly firm, and I could French-step much of the slope, front-pointing up occasional steeper bits. Just below the summit, I found a rime-encrusted crevasse right across the ridge. It looked like it might be possible to go around it on the right, but that would be awfully close to the cornices, so I traversed left, crossed a well-bridged part, then climbed a pitch of weird snice covered in inch-long rime feathers, finally reaching the broad summit plateau.

Rime sculpture

In addition to the 2-3 equally high humps I remembered from last time, I found a number of huge, trippy rime towers, fed by the clouds that often blanket the peak. The sky remained clear for me, though, and I looked down in all directions on a sea of lesser peaks. I was partly sheltered from the wind in the lee of a rime-blob, but didn’t linger long, as I had a lot of descending to do. With a clear view of nearly my entire descent route, it was easy to follow the edge of the summit glacier down to the top of the Schwartz Ledges, climbing between two rime towers.

Looking up from Little Robson

After much inward-facing downclimbing, I reached the normal rock transition and removed my crampons. As I was here a bit earlier in the season than last time, the ledges still held patches of evil slush protecting ice. After a slip, I tried to continue along the edge of the glacier, only to find knee-deep slush-wallowing. I glissaded one small, tame section, then made the annoying transition back across the ice to the rock, then avoided snow as much as possible on my way toward the icefall hazard.

Schwartz Ledges

With some obnoxious downclimbing and a brief shower crossing under some ice, I found a ledge leading across the famous icefall gully on which I could step across the lingering snow in the couloir. After crossing the col to Little Robson, difficulties from the snow decreased, though it still interfered with the easiest path in a couple places. Perhaps because of this, I found this section more difficult than I remembered, including a low 5th class dihedral. Nearing the final ice-dodging section just above the hut, I heard the occasional rock pinging down the side of the glacier. Pausing before crossing the gully, I heard and then saw a dozen or so rocks large enough to brain me whiz by, encouraging some haste.

Welcome home!

I took a break at the Forster hut, eating my last sandwich and wringing out my soaked socks. The hut looked abandoned, with the door ajar and a dead rat on the doorstep. Fortunately I had passed this way before, because the trail down to Kinney Lake is similarly neglected, and rapidly returning to nature. It is particularly easy to lose at either end, overgrown on top and blocked by deadfall on bottom. Also of note, the handlines on the 4th class step partway down are nothing but untrustworthy tat now. Fortunately I knew where to look up high, and only lost the route for a bit. My feet, wet for hours, ached in my boots, and my hands, covered in small cuts from the sharp rock, suffered as well grappling with roots and branches.

Finally emerging on the wide tourist trail, I limped the remaining 5k to the trailhead, barely passing the occasional tourist. At the car, I gratefully stripped out of my wet boots and filthy clothes, then drove up to the visitor center for some slow wifi before returning to the trailhead to pass out in the car. I had emerged victorious, but with a healthy respect for the Great White Fright.

Whitehorn (S ridge, 11h55)

Upper Whitehorn Glacier


Whitehorn is, by a hair, the northernmost 11er in the Canadian Rockies. However, Mount Robson towers 1500 feet higher across the valley, so Whitehorn sees relatively little attention. The classic route follows the west ridge, with a long approach circling all the way around the mountain counter-clockwise from the Berg Lake trailhead. I chose the similarly-difficult south ridge because it has shorter approaches, following the trail for 6-7 miles before ascending either to the Whitehorn Glacier, or to a valley to its south. I went up the latter and down the former, and found both to be rugged and little-used.

SW approach goes up that

Since I was doing a ridge route, I got a lazy start a bit before 6:00 (PDT) with my usual lightweight mountaineering gear, making the miles of well-graded trail past Kinney Lake much more pleasant than in boots. The day was looking predictably and depressingly smoky, and Robson’s ice-capped summit was hidden in a small cloud, but the weather looked reasonable for what I was attempting. The guidebook made the glacier approach sound less reliable, so I opted for the glacier-free southwest ridge approach, leaving the trail at a talus slope a bit more than 9 km in.

Sketchy dirt-ledge

The route immediately started to suck in numerous ways. First, I climbed up almost 1000 feet of loose scree and hard-packed dirt. I was aiming for the mouth of a hanging valley south of some cliffs, so at some point I dove into the woods, trying to follow faint game trails and open areas up and left. I believe I was “on route,” as I eventually found a scary, exposed dirt ledge that led, after a bit more bush-whacking, to the desired valley, where I found a lone, useless cairn.

Looking down SW ridge approach

I stayed mostly on the north side of the valley as I climbed west, side-hilling on a mix of turf and talus. I passed a large piece of old avalanche snow, then continued along a stream toward the alpine. The mosquitoes and black flies were out in force, often making it possible to kill more than one with a single swat, but as long as I kept moving, they were bearable.

Looking up SW ridge to S ridge

I eventually turned north, crossing some rolling terrain to a milky lake in a large talus-bowl, where the bugs at last relented. The route gains the southwest ridge north of a sharp fin, via a mixture of choss, rotten steps, and a couple of snow patches soft enough not to need crampons. The climb to the junction with the southeast ridge is similar, mixing talus-walking with route-finding through crumbly cliff bands.

Nice sidewalk

At the ridge junction I finally got a reprieve, as narrow but nearly-flat ridge is topped by long sections of exposed sidewalk. The final climb, however, is the choss of nightmares, blobs of outward-sloping garbage flaking off in dinner-plates. At one point I gently bumped my head on an overhang, and a chunk fell off and hit me back. The guide calls it 5.3, but YDS ratings make no sense to me on such terrain; it’s all sketchy.

Longstaff and Swiftcurrent Glacier

The smoke seemed to be thinning, and I had reasonably clear views of Mount Longstaff and the large Swiftcurrent Glacier to the west, and almost all of Robson to the east. There was no sign of any recent visitors. I hung out on the slightly chilly summit for awhile, then sketched my way back down to the ridge junction. The glacier looked pretty tame, so I decided to try that route on the way out. The southeast ridge was steeper and more rotten than the southwest, so I got on some snow to the right as soon as I could, plunge-stepping down to a saddle at the top of the glacier.

Lower Whitehorn Glacier

While there are some large crevasse-fields, there was a pretty clear route down to the low-angle part, where I made my way to the northeast edge. There turned out to be a long tongue extending from the south side down to about 6500 feet, not visible from above, and I spent some time descending on more- and less-pleasant rock to get around it. Below, I found the route much as described, with some difficulty and an old piton in a black cliff-band. Below, I crossed the glacier’s outflow streams on generally pleasant scree and gravel, aiming for the south side of a gash they had carved in the lower cliffs.

Almost 10k feet from summit to lake

Here I finally found more consistent cairns, though no discernible use trail or even game trail. I would have been reluctant to descend this way if I did not know that there was a path, as it looks from above as if it will cliff out in several places. But there are just enough breaks in the cliff bands, and I soon found myself on a small trail near the Whitehorn ranger cabin, which joins the main trail next to a fun-looking suspension bridge. I jogged the downhills and flats on the way back, picking up my pace a bit when I realized I could make it back in under 12 hours. I had optimistically planned to do Robson the next day, but I felt sufficiently beaten-up to deserve an easy day.

Fryatt (W ridge)

Fryatt, with west ridge at right


Lake Louise may have spectacular peaks and easy camping, but it is not a suitable base. Its one grocery store is a tiny, cramped thing with absurd prices: $4-5 for a loaf of sandwich bread, $3 for a can of tuna or a Clif Bar. I had other peaks to climb in the area, but I was running low on supplies, so I decided to head up the Icefields Parkway to Jasper, with a stop along the way. Just like in 2014, I found the Edith Cavell road closed, this time due to parking lot construction instead of a washout. The closest thing I could do on short notice was Mount Fryatt, reached via the familiar Geraldine Lakes trail. The standard southwest face route sounded unremarkable and unpleasant, but the west ridge looked like it might be more interesting, and the 5.6 crux was conveniently at its base.

First view of Fryatt

It had been partly cloudy on my drive past the Columbia Icefield, so I waited until around 7:30 to start, when I could be certain that the sky was gray from forest fire smoke instead of clouds. The Geraldine Lakes trail starts out smooth, but soon turns rooty and boggy, and only gets worse as it climbs past three lakes to its official end at a campsite. Canada takes a strange approach to maintaining its park facilities. In the US, backcountry sites will almost never have infrastructure unless they can be reached by pack animals. Canada happily helicopters all sorts of things into the backcountry, from huts in the middle of nowhere, to a couple of picnic tables and an outhouse at the end of this obscure, barely-maintained trail to nowhere. Perhaps related to this difference, while backcountry camping is generally free in US National Parks, Canada charges a ridiculous $10 per person per night, even in undeveloped areas.

North down Geraldine Lakes drainage

Anyways… where a bridge crosses to the campground, a cairned trail continues up the Geraldine Lakes drainage past two more large lakes. The trail to the first lake is fairly wretched, passing through a brushy swamp. After fording the first lake’s outlet (calf-deep), the trail improves in the more open terrain, before fading and disappearing above the second lake, where Fryatt’s sheer north face and glacier come into view. From there, it is only a short distance to the alpine. Near a small waterfall, I mistakenly followed what turned out to be a very well-maintained trail crossing the drainage, eventually ending up north of Fryatt’s west ridge near the glacier’s outlet stream.

Near start of west ridge

Once back on route, I followed a much fainter goat path mostly along the ridge crest to the first steep step. The guidebook describes a crux 5.6 pitch to get around the headwall on the north side. I found a short dihedral with a cairn and rap station above, which felt easier than 5.6 (easier than Deltaform’s crux in the same trail runners). Given the apparently small number of people who climb this route, and the fact that one normally descends the southwest face, I was surprised by the amount of tat I found.

Sketchy choss-step

After a bit more 4th class choss, I emerged above the step to find acres of talus leading to some bulbous, crappy-looking black cliffs. After hiking the talus, I peeked around the left side of the cliffs to find a couple of steep cracks not to my liking. Traversing right, I found a convoluted route next to a semi-detached pillar leading to lower-angle ground. The rock generally slopes down to the northwest, so the holds are best on the southwest side. The pattern continued for awhile, with low-angle choss alternating with steps attacked directly or to the right.

This is fun

The guidebook had mentioned good climbing on solid yellow rock, and I was becoming disappointed with the ridge’s continued chossiness as I gained elevation. The ridge eventually delivered, and I enjoyed several sharp, sticky, well-featured pitches on or just right of the crest, none of which felt harder than the 5.6 crux down low. Just below the rap stations where the west ridge joins the southwest face route, I even gratuitously climbed a steep dihedral just because I could. The guide described a 5.8 pitch on the ridge higher up, but I apparently bypassed it without even noticing.

A bit of history

Following the ridge to the black summit blob, I traversed around to the south side rather than assaulting the choss directly. I had hoped to have views of the Columbia Icefield to the south, but the smoke made everything farther away than Edith Cavell hazy and indistinct. I took the time to dig out the lighting-melted copper register canister, and was greeted by a piece of history. The amazingly-surviving register had been placed in 1960 by Hans Gmoser, one of the second-generation pioneers of Canadian mountaineering.

SW face

I sat and breathed the smoke for awhile, then started trying to find my way down the unappealing southwest face. I retraced my steps to the rap station, then made my way down some confusing chossy ledges and low 5th class steps, losing the intermittent line of cairns. There was more snow on the face than I had expected, and I was pleased to find that it was possible to safely plunge-step down the larger patches. After making my way down one large snowfield, I downclimbed some black choss until my choss-sense told me I was likely to cliff out below. I traversed down and left, eventually reaching another snowfield leading to the lake below. This compacted, lower-angle avalanche debris even made for decent boot-skiing.

I probably should have dropped down-valley from the lake and traversed around the west ridge on heather, but I started my traverse at the level of the lake. After some miserable side-hilling, I rejoined the ridge right at the base of the crux. Had the snow been better consolidated, I could have saved time by sliding north, but I stayed on the ridge instead, startling a mountain goat as I came around one corner. I eventually dropped to the center of the valley, descending easy heather slopes and following a stream to rejoin my outbound path at the waterfall. It was a weekend, so I was not surprised to meet a few groups of hikers and campers, including a couple with a giant inflatable pool toy at the middle lake. If I were less tired and more social, I would have stayed to chat longer, but the mosquitoes were coming out and I wanted to be done. I returned to the car after just under 11 hours, a tough but not unreasonable day. I should probably have done something the next day to take advantage of the weather, but it was late and I was out of trail food, so I decided to make the next day a maintenance day, and camp where I was.

Neptuak, Deltaform

Deltaform and Neptuak


Deltaform is the highest of the chossy line of peaks on the south side of the Valley of the Ten Peaks near Lake Louise; Neptuak, to its west, is in the way. It is one of the more technical Canadian Rockies 11ers, requiring a few 5.5 moves crossing a gap between the false and true summits, and a fair bit of 4th and low 5th class scrambling to get there. I had originally planned to do this with an early start and big boots, but wisely switched to a lazy start and trail runners. I still foolishly took my crampons and axe for a walk, though.

Some of the ten peaks

The bear-related party size was merely recommended instead of required, so I didn’t need to keep an eye out for rangers as I made my way up the well-used Sentinel Pass (Mount Temple) trail, passing groups of various sizes. The traffic decreased after I turned off toward Eiffel Lake, though I passed a woman returning from an early-morning run. There was still snow on the trail where it crosses a few avalanche paths, but it was mostly snow-free past the lake. Above that, it was half covered in slushy snow, so I followed the path of least resistance to the pass.

Neptuak from bivy plain

From the pass, Neptuak’s west ridge starts out as undulating rubble before the north side steepens near a step in the spine. A bit of low 5th class climbing on the south side leads back to the ridge above, and a couple of rap stations. Not having done any real scrambling in awhile, I was rusty and awkward making my meandering way up the blocky terrain. After a long talus slope, the remainder of the ridge consists of several steps mixed with easy walking. Sometimes it is necessary to go south around the steps, but it is generally best to stay on the crest to minimize awful side-hilling.

Deltaform from Neptuak

Reaching Neptuak’s rubbly knob of a summit, I found a register showing a few parties per year climbing this peak, mostly on the way to Deltaform, which looks scary up close. The last person to summit had stuck an advertisement for his business to the register; I peeled it off and signed my name in its place.

Getting off Neptuak was probably the worst part of the day. After downclimbing disintegrating black rubble covered in marbles, you sidehill wretchedly around the south side on more rubble and dinner-plate shale to reach a surprisingly broad and flat saddle with a substantial windbreak. Though the rock on Deltaform’s west ridge is not great, it is much better than Neptuak’s. The best line stays on or just right of the crest most of the way, sometimes with wild exposure on the vertical north face to the left. The climbing is mostly class 2-3, mixed with steps of class 4-5 on enjoyably sharp-edged rock.

The gap

I found the summit gap just as maddeningly spiteful as previous summiters. On the west side, I made a couple face-y moves to a ledge, from which I could step across to a large boulder, then down a chimney to the south (removing my pack), and across to the other side. The climb back the summit consists of a rightward-trending series of ledges, with tricky balance and small handholds in a couple of places. It felt legitimately 5.5, and I was not super-happy about having to downclimb it.

Deltaform’s west ridge

I admired the views for a few minutes, and tried to pick out people on the clearly visible trail up Temple’s southwest ridge. I had plenty of time to hang out, but headed down after only a few minutes, feeling something like the first ascent party: “Although we had been successful in conquering what is doubtless one of the most difficult mountains on the American continent, no word of mutual congratulation was spoken. Our position was far too serious to permit any feeling of exultation.”

Find the two ptarmigans

Fortunately the gap felt easier to cross in the return direction. The climb down the ridge was not too hard, though it involved some backtracking when I forgot how I had climbed or bypassed some of the steps. I passed a few other groups jogging down past Eiffel Lake, and more once back on the main trail, including a Slavic woman running down the switchbacks in jean shorts. She was making good time, so I congratulated her when I ran into her in the parking lot crowd. She clearly did not appreciate the attention from the unwashed American, so I quickly abandoned any attempted conversation.

Lefroy, Victoria

Lefroy and Victoria from Lake Louise


Victoria is the long, glacier-clad peak visible from Lake Louise, with Lefroy mirroring it across Abbot Pass. Since the standard routes both start from the pass, it makes sense to do these peaks together. I had planned a more ambitious and elegant route, traversing across North Victoria, but the ridge between South (main) and North Victoria looked horrible, and the descent off the latter looked like a mixture of sketchy (downclimbing choss under a big cornice) and misery (postholing across a glacier).

Sunrise from death trap

I had hoped to do something in the Lake Louise area the day after Joffre, but it was 10:00 PM by the time I got settled in, too late for the early start needed for a legitimate climb in the area. Instead, I slept in and ran up past the tea house to look at the “Death Trap” and Fuhrer Ledges routes to Abbot Pass. The latter looked like a heaping helping of suck, so Death Trap it would be… which meant a stupid-early start to scamper under the hanging Victoria Glacier. I dodged tourists on the way back to the trailhead, set my alarm for 3:00, and read for awhile before trying to get a reasonable amount of sleep.

Above the trap

I drove up to Lake Louise and was on the trail by 3:30, clomping toward the tea house in mountain boots. I left the trail before the switchbacks, following an old trail and one of the area’s many social trails for awhile before choosing a plausible line down the lateral moraine. There doesn’t seem to be a use trail down to the glacier — apparently not many people approach Abbot Pass from this side.

Abbot Pass hut

First light was hitting the icefall as I entered the Death Trap, booting easily up the crunchy snow. In addition to many smaller slides, there was evidence of a huge avalanche awhile ago that ran nearly the whole length of the snowfield. For most of the climb, I could stay near the center of the canyon, safely out of the likely path of any rocks or ice. Near the top, I went right to cross a large crevasse where it was bridged by slides from Victoria, then angled back left to join the boot-pack from the hut to Lefroy.

Starting up Lefroy

The standard Lefroy route follows the right-most of three gullies on its west face. Untrodden snow was obnoxious, with a breakable crust over sugar, but fortunately previous parties had installed a nice staircase, and the stairs were pleasantly firm. As I started up, I saw a party already descending, which turned out to be a friendly guide with two utterly novice clients on a leash as they tripped and stumbled down the boot-pack (walking downhill in crampons can be tricky).

Deltaform, Hungabee, and Goodsirs (distant) from Lefroy

I thought I had the mountain to myself, but I soon heard a call of “rock”, and looked up in time to dodge two small rocks as they whizzed down the slope. While the rock on the summit ridge is good, there is a lot of loose debris at the top of the couloir, and it is almost impossible not to knock some off, especially wearing crampons. I soon met the rock-chucker, a friendly guy from Canmore who seemed impressed by my time from Lake Louise. He asked my name, expecting that I would be someone of note.

Victoria from Lefroy

I topped out to views of big air down Lefroy’s east face, with Mount Temple rising proudly across the valley. There is a final, short scramble across a couple of false summits, made trickier by the snow and by wearing crampons. I found no summit register, and stayed for only a few minutes before heading back down. As I always do when I pass a hut, I peeked inside the Abbot Pass hut for a few minutes. It is surprisingly luxurious, with a wood stove in the sitting/dining area, propane burners in the kitchen, and a resident caretaker. I talked to the other climbers a bit, took some snowmelt water, then continued up Victoria’s long south ridge.

Huber and South Victoria from ridge

The climb started out utterly wretched, wandering up outward-sloping, debris-strewn ledges mixed with patches of melting, dripping slush. Fortunately, after the initial climb from the hut, the rock becomes almost well-behaved. Once it has completely melted off, the route has been described as “fancy walking.” It was a bit trickier for me, but there were still long stretches where the snow had melted back far enough on the west side to expose 1-2 feet of almost sidewalk. The snow on the east face was soft and sometimes knee-deep, but I could usually find a path on or west of the crest where it was easy to kick steps.

North Victoria from Victoria

While the ridge was not difficult, it is long, taking about two hours from hut to summit. This wore at my motivation, and looking north from the summit, I felt I had had enough. The ridge between the south and north summits turns suddenly nastier, a jagged mix of snow aretes and choss pinnacles. While the north peak’s north ridge looked straightforward, the descent from there looked like sketchiness followed by slogging.

Lake Louise from Victoria

Instead I returned to the hut, taking about 1h45, then chatted some more before dashing down the death trap. The snow was perfect for boot-skiing and plunge-stepping, and I was through the thing in less than 30 minutes without any debris encounters. I chose a different, equally miserable path up the moraine, reaching the tourist trail to find a group of Canadians smoking and watching my progress. From there, it was an hour and change of dodging tourists back to the car, for what was just under a 12-hour day. Driving back into town, I found that the power had been out since noon, and would remain so for the rest of the evening. Town was useless — back to camp.

Joffre

Headwall and boot-pack


Many Canadian Rockies peaks are named for British or French nobles and officers. Joffre(y) is unique, being named for a Westerosi leader, King Joffrey, whose sadistic rule came to a premature end when he was poisoned at his own wedding feast. It is bounded on the north and east by the large and rapidly-retreating Mangin and Pétain Glaciers, the former being the standard route. Looking south from peaks in the Kootenay or Canmore area, Joffre is a striking white wedge. I had seen it up close from King George, and it looked like it needed to be skied, even if doing so involved much walking. After being demotivated by the slush-slog approach to Sir Douglas, and some sketchy-looking cornices on its west ridge, it was time to do something absurd.

Scree trail on descent

I woke at 5:00, assembled my ungainly ski pack, and started hiking around Upper Kananaskis Lake just after 5:30. After what felt like about 5 km, I saw two bits of pink flagging, and a use trail leading into the woods. The trail quickly turned wretched with deadfall, but the flagging continued, so I thrashed on, eventually intersecting what turned out to be the correct, well-maintained Aster Lake trail near Hidden Lake. Had I continued along Kananaskis Lake for another few hundred yards, I would have found an obvious, though unsigned and unflagged, junction.

Lyautey and Fossil Falls

I made better progress on the correct trail, though I still occasionally caught a ski boot on a tree. The route rounds the lake, then climbs out of the trees onto an open scree slope, with views of Fossil Falls and Mount Lyautey to the west. After passing directly through a small lake, the trail crosses a stream and turns downhill. This seemed like a stupid direction to go, so I left the trail and went cross-country across a rounded ridge, only to find the trail heading back up the main branch of Foch Creek, near Aster Lake’s outlet.

Pimpin’ campsite

Given the primitive trail, I was surprised to find a well-maintained outhouse and bear box, and two couples camping. The more talkative two were just heading out to do Warrior and Cordonnier, two lesser peaks north of Joffre. After making its way around the lake, the trail fades out in some gravel flats with braided glacial melt-streams. I hopped across a dozen or so channels, then made my way up toward the Mangin Glacier, finding the occasional cairn or bit of use trail. I think the “correct” route is farther south, but this one worked.

Slope angle and King George

I transitioned to skis too early, and guessed wrong about where the glacier was longest, so I ended up taking my skis on and off a half-dozen times to walk across slabs and rubble before finally having a clear shot at the summit. Three or four people had put in a nice staircase over the Canada Day weekend, visible from far away, and I skinned up to intersect it near the headwall. I was able to skin surprisingly far before transitioning back to boots. The snow was soft enough that some of the steps collapsed, but they mostly held, and I felt no need to even take out my ice axe.

Petain Glacier

I began wallowing a bit more on the summit ridge, but it was fortunately broad enough that I could easily ski from the very summit. It had been t-shirt weather for most of the climb, but it was windy and cooler on the summit, so I only spent a few minutes taking in the views of the Pétain glacier to one side, and Mount King George across the Palliser River to the other. I finished switching my skis to “fun mode,” then skied experimentally back to the headwall.

Up- and down-tracks

I was worried that I might find sketchy, sticky, deep slush, but the face was still hard enough that I could link turns all the way down. Once on the flatter part of the glacier, I tried to plot a course north that would let me ski as far as possible. I eventually gave up at the terminal lake I had passed on the way up, switching back to running shoes, then ironically boot-skiing about half the way back to the gravel flat.

There were different people at Aster Lake, though I passed the couple I had spoken to shortly below. I am not normally a user of “cripple poles,” but I found they came in handy on the long, steep scree descent past Fossil Falls. Though my current ski gear is far lighter than the inbounds gear I grew up with, it is still ungainly when strapped to my mountaineering pack. Passing masses of tourists in the final mile, I reached the car a bit over 11 hours out (including 10-20 minutes skiing), and gratefully dropped my awkward pack.