Avalanche, Eagle, Uto, Sir Donald (NW Ridge, III 5.4)

Sir Donald from Uto

Sir Donald from Uto


Sir Donald grabs the eye as one drives east over Rogers Pass through the Selkirks. Thanks to the Pass providing non-helicopter (or, in the early days, non-build-your-own-trail) access to the surrounding peaks, the area has long been a center of Canadian mountaineering. It has also been a perfect place from which to observe the still-impressive Illecillewaet glacier’s retreat.

West of Rogers Pass from Avalanche

West of Rogers Pass from Avalanche

The road lies mostly in a forested U-shaped valley, hiding the peaks and glaciers, but, coming around a turn, one is struck suddenly by Sir Donald’s huge, leaning wedge, next to its smaller mirror-image, Uto. The crescent formed by Uto’s southwest and Sir Donald’s northwest ridges is a long line of wonderful low-5th-class climbing. Sir Donald is normally done either by itself or with Uto as a 1-2 day outing. With no easy way down, parties normally rappel the route. Entirely by accident, I tacked on a couple more peaks to make it a full day.

Rolling in late, I saw the signs saying I needed a pass to park in the National Park, but couldn’t figure out a way to get one after hours. After sleeping next to the picnic area, I got a non-alpine start around 5:20 AM, walking past the campground and the parking area I should have used to reach the trailhead around 5:30. At a fork in the trail, the sign clearly indicated that Sir Donald was along the lower, right-hand branch. This felt wrong to me, though, so I took the left branch, climbing a series of switchbacks straight up from the campground toward “Avalanche Crest.”

Rogers Pass from Avalanche

Rogers Pass from Avalanche

As the well-maintained trail emerged from the trees, I saw a bit more of my surroundings, including Sir Donald far to the south, and realized that I had created work for myself. Where the trail ended at a sign saying “End of Trail,” I continued along a faint use trail to the grassy ridge overlooking Rogers Pass, menaced from both sides by huge slide paths.

Not having anything better to do, I headed up the ridge toward the peak to the east, which I thought might be Eagle. The ridge is mostly boulder-hopping and easy scrambling, with a few harder sections requiring some route-finding around a steeper step, then flattens into a short choss-fest near the summit. I found a single rappel sling along the way. Arriving on top, I found a nice register telling me this was Avalanche Mountain, a fitting name given the view down to Rogers Pass.

Traverse from Avalanche

Traverse from Avalanche

Looking south, I could see Eagle, Uto and, distressingly large and far away, Sir Donald. To the southeast lay the huge, flat Avalanche Glacier. Used to the smaller glaciers that cling to faces in the steep Cascades, I was struck by the huge glaciers sprawling on high plains in the broader Selkirks. The Illecillewaet is the most famous, but its smaller neighbors north along the Avalanche-Sir Donald crest are similar.

Uto and Sir Donald from Eagle

Uto and Sir Donald from Eagle

The ridge down to the Avalanche-Eagle col was mostly boulders, with some trickiness near the col itself. Some fun class 3-4 scrambling on decent rock near the ridge crest got me to Eagle’s summit about an hour later, where the register contained the names of a few people traversing from Avalanche to Uto or vice versa.

Avalanche Glacier from Uto

Avalanche Glacier from Uto

Looking over from Avalanche, I had been worried about a band of rotten-looking red rock between Eagle and Uto, but was relieved to see that it corresponded to a broad, flat section of the ridge. The trickiest part of the traverse to Uto was getting over an intermediate, flat-topped subpeak. After following bits of trail down Eagle’s broad south face/ridge, I climbed ramps and steps up the right-hand side of the subpeak, until I was forced directly over the top by spur ridges.

The final ridge to Uto starts as class 2-3, then turns 4th class as it steepens near the summit. I followed bits of trail and the obvious line, staying on or just right of the ridge. Expecting company on Sir Donald’s mini-me, I was surprised to have the summit to myself. After taking some time to admire sharp Sir Donald to one side and the flat Avalanche Glacier to the other, I started toward Uto’s low-5th-class southwest ridge.

Climber just below Uto's summit

Climber just below Uto’s summit

Here I met two parties: two guys soloing in approach shoes, and an older couple pitching it out in rock shoes. The couple were old-timers, the man having worked for the park in the past, out enjoying themselves with no reason to go farther, harder, and faster on a warm, calm day. I found a couple of steep sections descending steps on the ridge, but nothing too serious. The angle of the rock pushes you toward the chossy ledges on the left-hand side, but the best line stays near the sometimes ill-defined ridge, usually descending steps by short, steep climbs on the right.

Loo with a view

Loo with a view

At the Sir Donald-Uto col, I passed the bright green outhouse (which I had mistaken for a climber waiting in his parka), then finally got to what I had come for: the northwest ridge. The rock, which had been pretty decent all day, improved, and I romped up the steep, clean rock with sharp, positive edges.
Sir Donald's NW ridge from col

Sir Donald’s NW ridge from col

There are usually multiple possible lines, with the best staying close to the ridge crest to keep one’s options open. The climb is not unrelenting 5.4, but more like sustained 3-5.0, with an occasional harder move near a steep step. I passed one pair slowly pitching things out, and another group of three climbing roped without placing gear, before reaching the summit about 1h10 from the col.

Upper NW ridge

Upper NW ridge

Doing more outings for speed, I had grown to neglect the summit fish, but had decided that today was a good day to revive that tradition. Finding a spot sheltered from the cool breeze, I enjoyed sardines in lemon sauce on saltines while examining the glaciers below. Somewhat chilled, I eventually started back down the ridge, and almost wished I had a rope. While not particularly dangerous, the downclimb was slow, tiring, and time-consuming. To my surprise, the ridge actually took me longer going down than up.

Sir Donald above Vaux Glacier stream

Sir Donald above Vaux Glacier stream

Reaching the base, I gratefully followed the climbers’ trail through disgusting talus to the camping area, then across the Vaux Glacier’s melt-stream and into the valley, where I jogged past tourists to the trailhead, then down the road to my car. As I approached, I saw some paper flapping under my wiper, and expected some punitive fine. However, in a nicely Canadian touch, it was just a polite, official reminder that I needed a parks pass to park there. I drove on to the Rogers Pass visitor center and bought one, then, not having any information about other climbing in the area, continued over the pass and south to the trailhead for Assiniboine.

Leave a Reply