Category Archives: Activities

Outings by activity type

McCauley, Grizzly, Hope, Aztec (12h45)

McCauley, Hazel Lake, Hope


While nowhere near as serious as the Sunwapta ford for Kitchener, which comes directly off a glacier and contains chunks of floating slush, the Vallecito ford is still seriously unpleasant. While it is only 10-15 seconds long and no more than knee-deep this time of year, it must be done early in the morning on a dayhike, when temperatures are still below freezing and the sun has not reached the bottom of the deep valley. Unfortunately, the Vallecito trail is the best access to many deep Weminuche peaks, via Johnson or Sunlight Creek, so I force myself to do it once a year. This year I tried to make it as comfortable as possible, starting late at 6:15 and carrying some old running shoes for the crossing.

Lake 13,100 and Windom

I had planned an elegant lollipop route, heading up Johnson Creek, over McCauley and Grizzly, then across the head of Grizzly Creek to Greylock and 13,121′, exiting via Sunlight Creek. This would also give me a chance to take a side-trip to the highest lake I know of in North America, nestled at 13,100′ below Windom. Unfortunately, the north-facing descent into Grizzly Creek was covered in sugary snow, making it somewhere between unpleasant and treacherous, so I had to improvise.

Hunter camp

With my late start, I had less than an hour of morning headlamp, though the day had not started to warm up when I reached the crossing about 1h45 in. There was a thin hand line this time, and plenty of sticks for balance. I put on all my layers, took off my shoes, socks, and pants, put on my wading shoes, grabbed a stick, and walked across as quickly as I could. My cold hands functioned just long enough to get dressed again on the other side, where I left my wading shoes and jogged up the trail trying to warm up again. I met a couple hunters looking for elk, then passed their luxurious camp, with several mules, a large canvas tent, and what looked like a heated tepee.

Sunset on Organ and Amherst

I finally met the sun around 9:00, shortly after crossing the Johnson Creek bridge, and was soon comfortable in a t-shirt on the long, switchbacked climb toward Columbine Pass. I expected to find some backpackers, but I had the place to myself other than a bit of trash left by some previous slob. I remembered the trail’s impressive scenery, with the rugged north side of Organ and Amherst across the valley, but I had forgotten the maddening, pointless switchbacks in the middle part of the valley.

Jupiter, Windom, Grizzly from McCauley

I left the trail in open woods around 11,200′, climbing a mix of grass and talus on the east side of the Hazel Lake drainage, following my descent route from last year. I left the valley before the lake, following a mix of steep turf and class 2-3 rock that deposited me almost directly below McCauley’s summit knobs. The highest, southern one was decorated with a large iron spike.

3rd class traverse

After descending the summit knob, I stayed on or just left of the ridge crest on easy class 2 ground to the saddle with Grizzly. From the saddle, I wove left and right around a few steep bumps, then found an exposed class 3 traverse on the left leading past the final bump, joining Grizzly’s standard route southwest of the summit. From there, I climbed to the ridge connecting Grizzly and Jupiter, then boulder-hopped up its north side to the summit. I examined the snow-covered 1500-foot descent to Grizzly Creek as I ate a Clif bar, and decided I did not want to subject myself to that misery. However, returning directly felt like a waste, so I looked around for other things to climb.

East from Aztec

Hope Mountain is only a minor bump on the other side of Hazel Lake, but as an “amphitheater peak,” it has good views of the surrounding higher mountains. I dropped to the lake, got some water, then made my way up the talus to its summit, where I found a wet “geocache” in a PVC tube. With plenty of time to spare, I decided to tag a peak or two south of Columbine Pass. I took the high trail traversing to the pass, looked for tents in Chicago Basin, then easily side-hilled south before climbing the ridge to point 13,190′, which is not a real peak. I still had some time, so I continued talus-hopping over to Aztec Mountain. This was the last unclimbed peak I cared about in the Chicago Basin area, so climbing it eliminated a future trip across the Animas from Purgatory. Yay!

Route map

I traversed back south of 13,190′, then dropped down the center of the Johnson Creek drainage, eventually rejoining the trail near where I had left it in the morning. The switchbacks sorely tested my patience on the jog down to the Vallecito, where I met the hunters, still looking elk that I believe are still up in the high country. The return ford was much less miserable, as the air temperature was well above freezing. Hike-jogging the long Vallecito trail, I passed one backpacker on his way out, and reached the trailhead a few minutes before headlamp time. Though I did not tag the summits I had planned, I should be able to clean out the remaining peaks around Sunlight Creek in a single trip next year.

Maidenform (and the Eclipse)

The total eclipse of August 21 was notable not just for crossing the whole contiguous United States, but also for the crossing several popular mountains, including Mount Jefferson, Mount Borah, and the Grand Teton. Jefferson was in the middle of a fire, and I suspected that any popular peak would be a zoo, as would the entire Wyoming side of the Tetons. Fortunately I have some obscure peaks on my to-do list, including Maidenform, reachable from a couple relatively obscure trailheads on the Idaho side of the range. This turned out to be a good choice — there were 40-50 cars at the North Leigh Creek trailhead, but I had my peak to myself for a once- or twice-in-a-lifetime event.

Dawn comes late on this side of the range, and I was coming from a timezone to the west, so I got an almost fatally late start a bit before 7:00 AM. There are two similar approaches to Maidenform, so for variety I took the Tin Cup trail to Granite Basin on the way out. I passed some cows and a group of dayhikers just above the trailhead, then a party camped on the trail at the pass over toward Granite Basin, hiking at a steady pace and feeling the altitude a bit after so long near sea level.

Granite Basin and the plateau north to Green Lakes remind me of the nicer parts of the Sierra, with granite slabs and boulders among grass and open woods, and plenty of lakes and tarns. I saw a few more campers in Granite Basin, then left humanity to head cross-country west to the ridge at the head of Leigh Canyon. When I finally got a look at the climb up Maidenform, it looked chossy and slow, and I was a bit worried about making it to the summit on time. I picked up the pace a bit, suffering up some fairly unpleasant class 2-3 choss, and made it to the summit a bit after 10:30, when the sun looked less than 25% occluded.

I had most of an hour to kill before the totality, so I alternately looked at the sun through my eclipse glasses, and experimented with trying to photograph it. I got some mediocre shots through the glasses using manual settings, though nothing spectacular with my wide-angle pancake lens. I tried taking some photos without the glasses, but even at over 90% occlusion, my lowest-light settings of f/22 and 1/4000 exposure were not good enough. I guess that demonstrates how it is a bad idea to watch a partial eclipse without proper glasses…

Maybe 5-10 minutes before totality, the light was noticeably dimmer than mid-day. Even before that, I could tell the eclipse was approaching by my camera’s settings on full auto: f/4 and 1/160 near mid-day, instead of a more normal f/4 and 1/2500 or so. I emerged from my sheltered spot just east of the summit, and prepared to try to capture the thing on video. Maidenform has a clear view of both the Idaho plains to the west, and the main Teton peaks to the south. I hoped to see a dark line approaching along the plains at over 1000 MPH, but the lingering forest fire smoke made that impossible, and it might not be visible even with clear air.

I got a couple of interesting videos, of the eclipse onset:

and of the eclipse end:


I tried to catch a still photo of the corona in between, as well as simply enjoying the brief period where I could stare at the sun without glasses. Those photos sucked, unfortunately. I notice that someone, in a particularly well-timed and baller move, had flown a jet around the Tetons right at totality:

Baller…


One thing I had not planned for is how much it would cool down during the eclipse. I had climbed in a t-shirt, and been fairly comfortable in an overshirt and windbreaker until totality, but my hands were aching by the time the sun returned, and it took awhile for the mostly-occluded sun to warm me back up afterward. It looks like temperatures dropped at least 5 degrees in Jackson, and may have cooled as much as 15 degrees on the peak. (Update: More on eclipse-related cooling.)

I had originally intended to tag Cleaver Peak as well, but by the time I had warmed back up, I lacked the energy to do the mile-plus brushy traverse. I returned to the plain above Granite Lakes instead, then took the Green Mountain trail back to the trailhead, meeting various eclipse-viewing parties instead. Since I had plenty of time, I enjoyed talking to a solo backpacker with his dog on the way down. The “crowd” was beginning to disperse as we reached the trailhead, but I decided to give things a bit more time to clear out. I washed up a bit in the creek, then found a quiet spot to camp for another night before heading back to civilization.

Glacier (North Sauk, 8h38)

Ptarmigans and Glacier


Glacier Peak is the most remote of Washington’s Pacific Rim volcanoes. I first climbed it in 2014, taking about 12 hours on a semi-casual outing, and found it to be one of the most scenic hikes in the Cascades. After about 5.5 miles passing through old-growth forest by the North Sauk River, the trail climbs to meet the PCT in alpine meadows near White Pass. From there, the route follows the Foam Creek trail (not on any maps) below White Peak, then leaves it to cross the ridge north before Point 7520’+. There are bits of climbers’ trail beyond the col, but since the talus plain is covered in snow for most of the summer, most of the long talus traverse is pathless. The summit, rising 1000′ or more above its neighbors in the center of the range, would have a great view on a clear day.

Moss everywhere

The FKT on Glacier, 7h58, was set by Doug McKeever back in 1998, using the now-abandoned White Chuck River trail to the Sitkum Glacier. The new standard route, via the North Sauk, is significantly longer, but I thought I had a chance to beat the venerable record. After a couple of easier days along the Mountain Loop, I settled in to sleep at the North Sauk trailhead. Sometime around 2:00 AM, I woke to the sound of a mouse in my car. Since I had not kept the mouse traps from the last time I had this problem (two years ago, also in the western Cascades), I lay awake until the mouse went to sleep around 5:00 AM, then got a couple more hours’ sleep before downing my beet-enhanced breakfast and hitting the trail at the ludicrous hour of 8:00 AM.

Approaching White Pass

The mornings are surprisingly cool in the wet west-side valleys, so I was comfortable jogging the 5.5 miles to the cabin at the base of the climb, then hike-jogging the switchbacks to the PCT, reaching the junction in almost exactly two hours. I put on sunscreen, moved food to the front of my pack, then continued past a couple scruffy PCTers and a large cluster of mountaineers returning from Glacier with all sorts of heavy gear. The last of these, an attractive young woman putting on sunscreen at the pass, seemed concerned about my safety tagging Glacier with so little gear. She was not entirely convinced by my protests that I knew what I was doing, and skeptical of my fast-and-light evangelism.

First view of Glacier

I continued mostly jogging along the Foam Creek trail, then left at a cairned junction to cross the ridge north, finally getting my first view of the peak. I was nonplussed to see the summit covered in a lenticular cloud, promising cold, wind, and no views. I had done the peak a month earlier in 2014, so the long snow traverse I remembered was mostly obnoxious moraine, barely runnable with extreme concentration.

Broken ice at Gerdine-Cool saddle

After some ups and downs around 6600′ below the much-diminished White Chuck Glacier, the route climbs to a popular camping site around 7200′, then over a minor ridge to finally reach the edge of the Gerdine Glacier. A well-worn track follows the lateral moraine to where it becomes nasty, then drops to the edge of the glacier. I followed the boot-pack left by the several recent parties, putting on crampons near the headwall where the snow is slightly steeper. I remembered the glacier climb as being mostly snow, with one easy crevasse to avoid, but found quite a bit of bare, broken ice on the saddle with the Cool Glacier, making me glad to have brought crampons.

Crossing Gerdine Glacier

Continuing up the Cool, I jumped warily across one widening crevasse on the bootpack, then left my crampons near the summit ridge. It was slow going on the volcanic sand and loose boulders above, but I had no trouble avoiding snow on my way to the summit. I reached the top in almost exactly 5 hours, and spent about 30 seconds in the clouds before hurrying down to get out of the cold. I had both my overshirt and jacket on over shorts and a t-shirt, and was barely warm enough while moving. Also, while there was no way I could do the round trip in under 8 hours, I still wanted to put in a decent effort.

All snow last time

I jogged the upper glacier in crampons, then sat on a rock lower down to take them off and empty the volcanic sand from my shoes. I stopped again below the bivy site to refill my water at a stream and take off my overshirt, but otherwise maintained a steady effort on the return. It would have been hot if it had remained clear, but broken cloud-cover and a breeze kept temperatures comfortable as I descended back to the forest. I was slower than I probably should have been on the rolling downhill jog through the woods, but managed to reach the trailhead in a respectable 8h38. This is a runner’s course, so a better trail runner could probably do Glacier in under 8 hours.

Gear notes

I used the same setup for Glacier that I used for Olympus: running-shoe crampons and no ice axe. This is perfect for moderate-angle terrain that might include bare ice, as my crampons are light (600g) and compact enough to strap on my running pack. I thought about leaving the crampons at home, but am glad I did not, as it would have been difficult to work my way around the ice at the Gerdine-Cool glacier saddle, and incredibly sketchy to cross it in trail runners. Going crampon-free on Adams last year worked only because it is popular enough that other people put in stairs.

Northern Pickets traverse (East Fury to Challenger, VI 5.7, 28h32)

Northern Pickets pano


The central northern Pickets are arguably the most remote peaks in the lower 48, so it was only a matter of time before I had to try them. I had visited both ends of the northern Pickets: Challenger in 2014, Luna in 2015, and East Fury in 2016. On this last effort I had been planning to go for more, but I was stopped after a single pea by route-finding errors, a lack of drive, and the realization that I had underestimated my objective.

And so it begins…

While it is possible to pick off the peaks one-by-one, for the sake of efficiency and style I wanted to nab them all and claim the coveted Northern Pickets Traverse. I had estimated that it would take me 24-30 hours with a shuttle from Hannegan Pass trailhead back to my car at Ross Dam. Unfortunately I was unable to set up a shuttle on short notice, forcing me to either hitch, or use a different route. Not liking my chances of finding a ride first thing in the morning after rolling in late to Hannegan and taking a dirt nap, I used a significantly longer and harder route, descending the cross-country Eiley-Wiley ridge to Beaver Pass, then “running” 20 miles of trail back to my car. This put me at the upper end of my estimated time range.

Smoky dawn on Luna

I got a few hours’ sleep at the Ross Dam trailhead, but it is noisy right by the highway, and I was too wired to sleep, so I turned off my midnight alarm, drank my Cup of Sadness fortified with beet nitrates (found at a Walmart full of obese tweakers in Bellingham), and started down the trail around 12:15. The toads seemed more numerous than last year, and I even met a few on the trail down to the dam. It is around 17 miles to where you leave the trail for Access Creek, so this would normally be far too early to start, but I had a good GPX track of the cross-country route from last summer, so I could do it at night without losing too much time. This was key to giving myself as much daylight as possible to deal with the ridge and unknown de-approach.

Upper East Fury

The approach worked about as well as it ever does. I bashed down to the river, where I almost immediately found the remnants of the log bridges I had used in 2014. I wasted only a bit of time dithering (I still hate getting wet), then forded barefoot to try to keep my feet dry and minimize the damage they would suffer in the evening. I found a bit of a boot-pack along the subtle ridge right of the creek that is least brushy. My worst mistake was crossing south one slide path too early, but that did not cost much time. As a result, I reached East Fury’s summit in only 10h15, vs. the 11h30 I took last year.

Luna, East Fury from West Fury

Now it was time to launch into the unknown. The final scramble up East Fury consists of shockingly mobile large talus, and the same continues on the way to West Fury. Beckey’s guide suggests that this traverse takes multiple hours, but I found most of it to be standard chossy 4th class, and reached West Fury in under an hour. The first ascent register was still in good shape, and I was surprised to supposedly be the 19th “party” to visit.

West Fury descent

Up to this point, the best exit would be to retrace my steps. Once I headed down the west ridge, things would become more complicated, possibly involving a long and unfamiliar cross-country route around the north end of the range. I steeled myself, then followed the first ascent route down the west ridge. Starting slightly east of the summit, I descended a chute, then made a descending choss-traverse back west to the ridge. I followed that a bit, then made my way down dirty, ledge-y terrain on the other side to gain the small glacier northwest of the peak. From there, I easily kicked my way back across to the saddle with Swiss.

Good rock on Swiss

I made my way more or less up and over several small pinnacles of mediocre rock on the way to Swiss, a broad NW-SE summit with a permanent snowfield on its southwest side. I found the rock pleasantly solid, climbing a line on its southwest face and descending near the northwest ridge. I stuffed some snow in my Camelbak, then tossed that out when I found running water below the snowfield. This was a valuable find, as running water is scarce on the rest of the ridge, and it was hot enough to be sweating in shorts and a t-shirt on the crest.

Spectre (l), Phantom (r)

Given the time and my longer-than-desired descent route, I skipped “Spectre Peak” without a second thought, then spent some time considering my route to the saddle with Phantom. The ridge itself looked unusably steep, the gully to its west at least somewhat navigable. Looking back, I think a line just right (east) of the ridge would have been better, blocky low 5th on decent rock. My chute was a garbage-fest with a tricky chockstone, and the traverse back to the ridge was outward-sloping dirt and death-choss.

Challenger and Crooked Thumb

The rock was somewhat less chossy on the way up Phantom, but still not great. I mistakenly climbed a lower summit to the northeast, earning zero bonus points, then found the original register on the true summit. It was in bad shape, and probably not long for this world, being protected by only a bashed-up tin canister and a plastic bag. There appeared to be even fewer entries than on West Fury, but I was concerned enough about my position that I did not pay much attention. Phantom is about one third of the way from West Fury to Challenger, and if things continued apace, I would be lucky to make it off by dark.

The misery continued descending off Phantom, with tricky route-finding on rotten rock on its left to bypass steps in the ridge. Considering the prospect of a bivy or a very long night made me think of efficiency: I turned off my GPS to save batteries for night-time navigation, and skipped the ridge crest whenever I thought it would save me time. As I made my slow way north, I was examining my escape route down the west side and up between two of Challenger’s lower summits.

Challenger from Crooked Thumb

Fortunately things improve considerably at “Ghost,” a subpeak of Crooked Thumb. I could have gone up some line along the south ridge, but Beckey mentions that Roper had climbed an “exposed class 4” route on the west face. Good choice! The rock reminded me a bit of the Tetons’ golden granite, and I had my first fun in awhile romping up steep, solid rock with incut holds.

The ridge from this point looks long, but the climbing remains mostly fun, with the best route generally on or near the ridge, and the descents to the north usually easier than the climbs from the south. Reaching Crooked Thumb, I found quite a bit more traffic in the register than on previous peaks, though still only a party or two per year.

Final ridge to Challenger

Since I was not rappeling, I had to make a substantial deviation west to reach the first saddle on the way to Challenger. From there, I stayed near the ridge to enjoy the fine, exposed climbing, deliberately not thinking of the grim headlamp time that awaited. Challenger’s summit ridge is a wonderful finale, a series of narrow fins with the holds angled so that the easiest route climbs right along the spine. I let out a whoop of joy, looked around for a summit register, then made the short downclimb to the Challenger Glacier.

Eiley Ridge

I had three options at this point: exit to Hannegan and hitch (16 trail miles), traverse to Whatcom Pass and take the trail back over Beaver Pass (25-30 trail miles?), or descend Eiley Ridge directly to the pass (20 trail miles). Given the time, I should have sucked it up and chosen the second, but I optimistically and foolishly took the new-to-me Eiley Ridge descent. Things started out great, with a nice hogsback of snow providing a clear path around the yawning summit crevasses, and easy jogging on the lower glacier to Challenger Arm.

I climbed Point 7374′, then was forced to sketch my way down a dirt-chute to the snowfield on its northeast side. I got more water at a tarn near frozen Wiley Lake, then continued making good time on snowfields south of the ridge to Eiley Lake. So far, so good — I thought I would be near the final bushwhack down to Beaver Pass by headlamp time.

Challenger

Unfortunately I made a mistake here, straying too far southeast of the ridge. There are several places where it is temptingly easy to descend directly east here, but they lead to Luna Creek, which is supposedly one of the worst places in the world. When I realized what had happened, I tried to fight though some scrub pines back toward the ridge, then tried side-hilling across steep grass and flowers to rejoin the ridge. Unfortunately the ridge rises again; maybe the correct route goes over Point 4984′, but I have no idea, and that was not an option for me now.

Before it got dark, I had programmed my GPS with a point a bit south of the pass, so I turned it on, turned on my headlamp, and continued via IFR. My strategy was to traverse until the point was directly down-slope, then bash my way toward it. I found plenty of wretched scrub, blueberries, and alder, but also some surprisingly open groves of big trees. Unfortunately all of it was steep and slick, but I suppose sliding on your butt is an efficient way to lose elevation.

I’m a size 10

There was much less devil’s club than I expected when I finally reached the valley bottom, but I reached my random point without hitting the trail. I did my best to bash due east, and almost fell as I stumbled out onto the trail. At the first stream that seemed safe-ish to drink, I got some water, downed a couple ibuprofen, rinsed my feet, and switched to my dry socks. My calluses were all white, soft, and wrinkled, so I knew my feet were in for a beating, but I hoped that the clean (and thinner) socks would reduce the suffering.

Moonset from Ross Dam

On a normal outing, this return would take about 4.5 hours, 3 to Ross Lake and 1.5 back to the dam. I started off at a reasonable jog, but realized shortly after Luna Camp that it would not last. I could motivate myself to jog with a mixture of Rammstein and reminders that the more I jogged the sooner it would be over, but it was a pathetic shuffle. As I neared the lake, I tripped more often, and was worried I might face-plant into one of the toads, which are even more disturbing after 3 hours’ sleep and 27 hours on the move. I could probably have gone to sleep curled up on the trail, but I wanted to do this in a single push, and did not want to be woken by a ranger’s boot or the splat of a toad to the face. I took in the moonset while crossing Ross Dam, and for once was grateful to be finishing in evening headlamp time — at least it wasn’t quite dawn.

Canadian workout peaks

I usually go for a leg stretch on days off, and try to use these shorter outings to reach a summit of some kind. Sometimes I bring a camera, and sometimes I try to run them for time. In any case, some people might be interested in these shorter, easier outings, so here are some from this summer’s travels through Canada.

Whistlers Mountain (Jasper)

Just outside Jasper, Whistlers (i.e. marmots, though I heard none) Mountain has a tram most of the way to the summit, which costs an absurd $45 CAD. However, there is also a trail that costs only 3700 vertical feet and 4.6 miles. I did this Strava style, so there are no photos, but there are great views on a clear day, and the smoke was mild enough that I could just make out a ghostly Robson, impossibly tall and white 50 miles away. I was surprised to nab the fastest time on Strava while still somewhat fried from Fryatt the day before, since I know there are numerous Canadians who can crush me.

Utopia Mountain (Jasper)

Probably not recommended. Bridge construction made this mountain an even longer drive east of Jasper than distance suggests, and at least the way I did it, the climb is a hideous scree-slog. From Miette Hot Springs, follow the tourist trail just past the bridge over Sulfur Creek, then head right up its south fork on a mostly unmarked but well-trodden use trail in and left of the streambed. Eventually the trail fades at a slide path that looks like an old cut-block. Head up the left side here, either along the slide path or through the woods to its left, and you will soon find a clear path in the scree. I slogged up this, but it might be better to traverse to the ridge to its left on the way up. From the top of the scree-field, an indistinct trail leads to a survey marker on a false summit, then to the true summit beyond.

I had hoped that heading east would avoid the worst of the smoke and thunderstorms. While there was no sign of a thunderstorm, the smoke remained unhealthily thick.

Valemount area

Valemount is the closest town to Mount Robson Provincial Park and, being off the normal tourist route, is blessedly calm in the summer. It is also outdoorsy, with a network of downhill mountain bike trails east of town, as well as numerous trails up nearby peaks. The visitor center in town has an up-to-date map. Since this was supposed to be a rest day, I chose a peak with a high start, and hiked up either McKirdy Mountain or a false summit with a big cairn. I wish I had had an excuse to spend more time in the area, as there are many impressive peaks in the Cariboo Range to the west, and far fewer tourists than in the Jasper-Banff corridor.

Paget (Lake Louise)

The south shoulder of this mountain near Lake Louise is home to an unused but still intact fire lookout. From the lookout, a well-defined but steep and loose use trail leads to the summit, with views of the Lake O’Hara peaks to the south, and the Waputik mountains to the north. I did it as a way to kill time on a smoky day, and was surprised to have my only on-trail bear encounter in the Rockies. Less than a mile from the trailhead, I came across an oblivious black bear cub standing on the trail. After a good 10-15 seconds of one-sided conversation, he made his way downhill off the trail to climb a tree. Continuing carefully, I saw at least one more cub up a different tree, with mom standing nearby watching me pass. Fortunately, unlike grouse, black bears are not mindless rage-monsters, so our encounter was calm and brief.

Lawrence Grassi (Canmore)

Located just above Canmore, this is a slightly more challenging and far less crowded alternative to Ha Ling Peak, with a bit under 4000 feet of elevation gain, mostly on a good use trail. Starting at the Goat Creek parking lot, cross the canal then, instead of climbing along the Ha Ling trail, head south down the east side of the canal until you find a well-used trail marked with a cairn and flagging. Follow the trail to Grassi’s southwest ridge, which is mostly easy slabs and scree with a final, slightly steeper and more exposed finish on pebble-covered slabs.

Little Beehive (Lake Louise)

This is the former site of a fire lookout above Lake Louise, reached via a spur trail off the Lake Agnes trail. The summit has a good view of the local peaks, and a sign naming the peaks on the skyline across the Bow Valley. I ran these popular trails because I was bored on a rest day. I noticed what was probably a use trail up Mount Saint Piran on the left on the way up, which would be another good, easy objective for someone with more time and/or energy.

Sir Donald (NW ridge, III 5.4, 2h24m45 up, 4h38 RT)

Sir Donald from near Abbott Hut


Mount Sir Donald is the jewel of Rogers Pass, a quartzite wedge whose northwest ridge rises 2300 feet from the saddle with Mount Uto. I had first climbed it in 2014, approaching via the long traverse from Avalanche Mountain, and it remains one of the best routes I have climbed anywhere. It would be a shame not to climb it while I was in the area, and I figured I might as well try for speed.

I drove up to the trailhead early, packed my pack — two packs of pop-tarts, 1 liter of water, windbreaker, bear spray — then waited for it to warm up a bit before starting around 7:45. The Sir Donald trail is not optimal for gaining elevation, starting out flat along the Illecillewaet River before climbing nearly straight up toward the Uto-Sir Donald saddle, and I was still feeling a bit sore, so I only managed about 3200 ft/hr on the climb to the saddle. A better runner could probably get closer to 4000 ft/hr.

I was slowed a bit by a tricky crossing of the Vaux Glacier’s outflow stream on slick rocks, then got a bit off-route between the camping area and the ridge. There are multiple, confusing use trails of various quality here; the fastest route probably starts heading up just before the green outhouse. I passed an off-route couple on their way to Uto, scrabbled up some moraine, and rejoined a clearer trail where it crosses a ledge below the saddle.

I reached the saddle in 1h22, where a short boulder-hop leads to the base of the day’s technical climbing. Though there were no tents at the campground, I passed three parties on the ridge, one simul-climbing lower down, and two just below the summit. The climbing was as I remembered, with positive holds and clean rock along the crest, and chossier ground to the left. The best route stays close to the ridge, deviating left or (surprisingly) right to get around a few vertical steps. I reached the summit in 2h24m45 from the trailhead, having taken about 1h02 for the ridge, a substantial improvement over the 1h20 or 1h30 it had taken me in 2014.

I had mixed feelings about the round-trip FKT, partly because the view from Sir Donald’s summit is worth savoring, and partly because speed-downclimbing the northwest ridge feels risky. I spent about 10 minutes on top, eating my last pop-tarts and flipping through the register, then started back down at a steady pace. There is some sort of bypass near the top, but I just reversed the ridge. I remembered losing time on the chossy ground to either side of the ridge last time, and deliberately stayed near the crest, resisting the temptation to take easier-looking ledges to either side.

Back at the saddle, I was surprised to see that I had taken only about 1h10 descending, and was inspired to put in some effort on the run down. The trail is also sub-optimal for descending, with quite a bit of tricky running over boulders and hard-packed dirt. I scared a ranger and a couple of backpackers, then motored through the flatter section in the woods, making some noise to give the bears a few seconds’ warning as I came around the blind turns. I had expected to take about 5 hours round-trip, so I was pleased to return to the Wheeler Hut in only 4h38. This time could definitely be improved with better fitness, less enjoying the summit, and slightly better route-finding. However, I don’t think carrying a light cord to rap the ridge would be faster overall.

Temple (E ridge, IV 5.7, 3h40 up, 4h55 RT)

Summit glacier


I had other plans, but Mount Temple’s east ridge demanded my attention as I drove west along the Trans-Canada Highway in an evening rainstorm. I had previously dismissed it as too difficult, but looking at it, I was compelled to at least go up and take a look. I had already climbed Temple via the southwest ridge trail, but I had no view on the summit, and that route is hardly “classic.” I’m glad I stopped: this is an amazing route on solid rock, and it turned out to be just within my comfortable climbing ability. I mostly enjoyed myself on the way up, taking 3h40 to summit, then ran down to reach the parking lot in just under 5 hours.

Slide path on approach

It was raining as I went to sleep, so I did not drive up toward Moraine Lake and start until a bit after 7:00. I easily found the correct slide path, and headed up in trail runners, carrying an ice axe and crampons. I found what I thought was a faint boot-pack on the steep slope, and a sling above a step where the route turns right confirmed that I was in the right place.

Mount Little and Fay

Though the route is on a ridge, that ridge is so broad and complicated that it mostly feels like a face, with the best path wandering between ramps and gullies. The rock is solid and blocky, with many positive holds, and I had a great time romping up the steep class 3-5 lower ridge, following the occasional cairn or piece of tat. This was some of the best climbing I had done in awhile, and I burst into spontaneous laughter occasionally as I gained elevation.

Big Step

Shortly after a vertical step with a bolt, the ridge levels off and narrows as it approaches the Big Step, the crux of the route. It is intimidatingly vertical, and I approached with some trepidation. However, the holds remained positive, and with some cautious climbing and a couple of minor backtracks, I found a route on and just left of the crest that felt like sustained 5.6, on which I was focused but not scared. Where the angle eased, I followed a chossy ledge around left to a steep gully with a couple of vertical steps. The first vertical step gave me some trouble. I tried the right side, backed off, contemplated the left, then returned to the right, using different feet to get around a bulge and onto the chossy ledge above.

Traverse below towers

Above the gully, the rock gradually degraded to more typical Rockies choss as I approached the base of the black towers. The route along and up the towers to the summit glacier is not obvious, but fortunately I could follow boot-packs from the weekend before across a few snowfields. Not only did they show the way, but the firm steps meant I didn’t need to waste time switching in and out of crampons. The final climb through a gap in the towers was chossy, but not difficult, and I soon found myself looking at Temple’s summit glacier to one side and the town of Lake Louise to the other.

Summit cornice

I started off up the bootpack to the summit without crampons, but soon thought better of that; the slope to the north was a bit steep, the snow was still very hard, and last night’s graupel partly filled the steps. With crampons, it was a straightforward snow-walk along the ridge, safely away from cornice territory, to the summit. The abrupt transition from “climber land” to “hiker land” on Temple is shocking: after climbing thousands of feet of steep rock and crossing a glacier, one step takes you to the end of a popular and snow-free hiking trail.

Emerging from the “wrong” side of the mountain, I startled two Canadians and two Europeans who had come up the trail. We talked for a bit as I put away my ice gear and ate a sandwich, then I left them to slide and run back to the trailhead. I started off going at a casual pace, passing a steady stream of hikers on their way up, and a crowd at Eiffel Pass. From there, the crowds became more dense, and I put in a bit more effort when I realized that I might reach the parking lot in under 5 hours total. I ran the switchbacks about as quickly as I could with an awkward pack, then walked back to the car in time for a late lunch.

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.

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.