Andromeda (Skyladder), Athabasca

Cruising the shuttle road

Cruising the shuttle road


[Catching up out of order. — ed.]

The Icefield Parkway is like a tunnel from civilization to the far north. Starting from Lake Louise, it passes the standard terraced shale peaks of northern Montana and the Canmore-Banff area. Larger glaciers appear on the peaks to the west, then the edges of icefields on higher plains, with glacial tongues lolling down toward the highway. Then, crossing the divide past the rapidly-retreating Athabasca Glacier, it enters Alaska: broad valleys with flat, braided rivers between slabby uplift peaks, and “caribou crossing” signs.

Northern Icefield from ridge

Northern Icefield from ridge

The Columbia Icefield is the largest ice cube south of Alaska. While I had passed beneath it going up and down from Jasper, I had only seen its edge from the road. Feeling a need to see the icefield itself, I chose to climb Andromeda and Athabasca, two stereotypically Canadian, glacier-covered choss-piles overlooking the Icefield. Skyladder is one of Andromeda’s easier ice lines, and it looked reasonable to traverse the ridge to Athabasca, then descend the standard route down its north face glacier.

Road construction on Athabasca Glacier

Road construction on Athabasca Glacier

After a night at the glacier viewing area parking lot, I returned to the ice-coach road gate, hoping to find it open for climbers while the coaches were not running. Finding it still closed, I clomped up the road in my boots, passing the idle ice-coaches at their station, then continued up the road through the moraine (all covered by glaciers 60 years ago) to where it drops to the present glacier. Here I found a few cairns and bits of flagging indicating a faint climbers’ trail, which I followed through endless moraine toward the glacier below Andromeda’s north face.

Getting onto the glacier

Getting onto the glacier

I eventually lost the infrequently-used trail below the rocky fin extending northwest from Andromeda’s summit, and brute-forced a path toward the glacier’s near the left-hand cliff. Scrabbling up a treacherously-hard dirt slope, I finally reached the edge of the ice-fall. To my dismay, I found a broad, deep moat between rock and cliff, and a messy jumble of dirty ice cubes rising from the moraine to the glacier’s surface. After some dithering and more scouting out approaches, I donned spikes and tools and, with a few moves of steep, dirty ice, climbed the glacier’s messy, broken edge.

Crossing glacier with spindrift

Crossing glacier with spindrift

I first made my way along the left edge, weaving around and over the minor crevasses. The recent snow had partly obscured some, but it was easy to tell with a poke of a tool shaft whether the snow hid bare glacial ice or the tail end of a crevasse. Climbing above the central bulge and the main ice-fall, I traversed toward my intended route, through larger but more widely-spaced crevasses. The glacier once again becomes somewhat more broken between its center bulge and Skyladder’s base, but I found a non-threatening line with a single narrow isthmus leading to the base of the face.

View up Skyladder from base

View up Skyladder from base

While the face was fairly dry, I saw an ice gully leading through the worst of the rock, which seemed to connect to the broader snow- and ice-field above. I found a way across the bergschrund on its right-hand side, pulling over a couple of bulges of gritty, rotten ice. Climbing a bit more of the unpleasant stuff, I reached the gully and was pleased to find nicely-consolidated snow. Climbing the entire face by hacking through the sandy, rotten surface to solid ice below would have been slow and exhausting, not to mention grinding my picks to stubs.

View down to base

View down to base

My chosen gully actually turned into to a line of wonderful, wind- and slide-consolidated snow leading most of the way to the ridge. Along the way, I listened to the rumbling and beeping of the grader on the Athabasca Glacier below, smoothing the ice-road for the day’s tourists.
Ridge toward first false summit

Ridge toward first false summit

Eying the broad ice-dome to the left, I instead headed up and right to the ridge. Here I got my first clear view of the north part of the Columbia Icefield, extending northwest past Snow Dome to to Stutfield and the Twins. I continued on mostly hard snow up the ridge to the far western end of Andromeda’s long summit ridge, then on more variable snow to another, snowy sub-summit.

Andromeda (l) and Athabasca

Andromeda (l) and Athabasca

After jumping a small crevasse crossing surprisingly right over the ridge, I continued along a narrower snow ridge toward the true summit, wind blasting up the face to the northwest and into my left eye. I mostly wallowed along the right side of the ridge, trading more effort for less face-freezing. Reaching the true summit, I crossed old tracks from a party who had climbed an unknown route, then quickly retreated down the east ridge to escape the wind.

Final, ugly descent to A-A col

Final, ugly descent to A-A col

Once out of the wind, I removed my shell and crampons, plunge-stepping on down the broad ridge toward the Athabasca-Andromeda col. The easy going ended at a final step down to the col. After carefully climbing along a chossy, snowy knife-edge, I was faced with a steep mixture of choss and snow leading down to the col. I headed right toward a cairn, then left into the gully, kicking careful steps in the snow where it was thick enough, or delicately scrambling down outward-sloping rotten ledges where it was not. After an agonizingly slow and careful downclimb, I reached the col itself, where I hoped my difficulties would end.

Andromeda and difficulties

Andromeda and difficulties

Instead, I found two more bits of trickiness between the col and the clear trail of Andromeda’s standard route. First, the col itself was narrow and corniced; even staying well back from the edge, I managed to shear off two pieces of the cornice with my uphill axe while crossing. Then I had to negotiate several small towers on the narrow ridge, climbing either to the right or straight along the crest.

South from Athabasca

South from Athabasca

The trail came as a blessed relief. Even better, a recent party on the standard route had beaten in a boot-pack through the glacier, saving me some time-consuming downhill route-finding.
Elaborate summit cairn

Elaborate summit cairn

After a tired hike to the summit, I kicked up to the highest point on the snow crest, then retreated to the elaborate, sheltered summit cairn, where I relaxed and admired the long Saskatchewan Glacier below to the south. Also, since my eyes were feeling a bit sore, I put some tape around my stylish shades to make ghetto glacier goggles.

Circuitous glacier descent

Circuitous glacier descent

Returning along the standard boot-pack, I felt immensely grateful when I saw how it traversed all the way across the upper glacier to avoid crevasse trouble, a path that could have taken me some time to find. I was also amused to see an animal track winding through the glacier, at one point crossing an incredibly narrow snow-bridge.
Paved bivy spot

Paved bivy spot

After plunge-stepping down the long path, I reached the moraine shortly above an impressively-paved tent platform. From there, a decent and well-marked climbers’ trail led back to the bus station, where I hiked past the now-busy ice-coaches to my car.

3 responses to “Andromeda (Skyladder), Athabasca

  1. Hey…Sean! And I got to see you coming down toward the end. Little did I expect to meet that “small black spot” what was making its way down the glacier. To have met you later in the afternoon…both a treat and an honor. What a story! Keep it up. See you in Colorado. If there’s anything I can do for you, let me know. Indeed, glad we met!!!

  2. PS: Fun to know we met right after you took that 1908 picture. :-)

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