Rogers Pass may be the best scrambling area I have found in North America. I drove over from the Rockies with grand plans, but discovered when I got there that conditions were completely wrong, and that my plan was better suited to mid-summer. Wanting to get something out of the time spent driving, I looked around and selected Mount Tupper’s west ridge, a classic 5.3 scramble accessible in early season via one of the many avalanche chutes menacing the Pass. With a late start, conditions were near-perfect: just soft enough to kick steps in trail runners on the way up, and soft enough to plunge-step and boot-ski on the way down. The 6-hour outing was far less ambitious than what I had planned, but it was a fun route, and a step toward cleaning up the peaks near the pass.
Thinking (incorrectly) that the lower slide path might be a mess of downed timber and alder, I parked at the Hermit Meadows trailhead, then hiked up a road labeled “KEEP OUT” and into the adjacent, fairly open woods. I eventually realized my error, and bashed through a hundred yards of alder to reach the snow-tongue a few hundred feet above the road. Unlike the normal snow lying around, which was isothermal and wretched after days of above-freezing temperatures, the slide snow was nicely compacted, easily climbable with nothing more than trail runners and an ice axe. I alternated between the main runnel and the snow to either side, then moved to the third class rock and mud higher up, when it seemed easier to do so. I was in no hurry, and the chute climbs over 4000 of the 5000 feet between the road and Tupper’s summit, so it took me awhile to reach the ridge, where I topped out to find a bit of trail and some recent boot-prints in the intermittent snow.
Being south- and west-facing, the route was mostly dry, and I crossed only two short patches of snow on my way to the summit. The ridge started out as an easy boulder-hop, then turned to a few fourth class steps as it neared the obvious headwall. The guidebook mentioned several ways to get up the 40-foot headwall, all low fifth class. At random, I chose to climb straight up the corner/chimney, finding secure climbing after a bit of a tricky start. I had expected things to be easy above that, but there remained some very exposed class 3-4 climbing on the crest. The rock on the final part was blocky quartzite, much like that on Sir Donald, so the climbing was always secure, even when steep.
Perched directly above the road and Connaught Creek, the summit had a commanding view of the peaks surrounding Rogers Pass, as well as some unfamiliar ones to the north, possibly including Mount Sir Sandford, the Selkirks’ highest mountain. I sat around a bit, entered my name as the first of the year in the register (maybe the earlier party had turned back?), then retraced my steps. I took a different line down the headwall, following some ledges climbers’ right of the corner, which seemed similarly difficult though less sustained. Below, I tried to cut the corner into my slide chute, but mostly lost on nasty mud and choss.
After a bit of knee-deep postholing up high, I found perfect plunge-steeping in the couloir, followed by excellent boot-skiing in and out of the runnel where the slope eased. I managed to stitch together snow patches to within 100 yards of the road, then clambered awkwardly through brush and deadfall to reach the road. Back at the car by early afternoon, I drove up to the visitor center to see if they could recommend any other similar climbs. I spent some time talking to a friendly and knowledgeable ranger, but as expected, he could think of no suitable peaks that I had not already climbed. Oh, well — so much for Canada this year. Hopefully I’ll be back next summer, when I will need about a week to clean out the rest of the Rogers Pass area.
I thought it would probably be good to give my seldom-used ski muscles a rest after Columbia, so I drove south to Lake Louise to play tourist for a day. I even treated myself to some Montreal Smoked Meat, which is a bit like pastrami without the pepper coating, and only seems to be sold in Canada. Since I prefer “fitness tourism,” I looked around for an easy peak, and settled on Mount Fairview, a 1000-meter trail climb from Lake Louise. The lake was still slightly frozen, and the trail was snow-covered from the beginning, but Canadian tourists are a hardy lot, so there was a good boot-pack most of the way to the saddle between Fairview and Saddleback.
Near the end of the bootpack, I met a half-dozen college kids, including a couple girls in short-shorts, debating whether to continue. I made some encouraging noises, but I don’t think they went much farther, which was probably for the best. The last half-mile or so to the saddle was fairly wretched, with stretches of crotch-deep postholing through slush. I tried a direct line toward the peak, failed, then continued up the bottom of the depression farther toward the saddle, where the snow was slightly more consolidated. Fortunately, there was a bare rib leading from the saddle nearly to the summit — I would not have had the energy or patience for another 1500 vertical feet of wallowing.
The view is actually better than “fair,” with Lake Louise below, and greater peaks to the south, west, and north: Temple, some of the Ten Peaks including Deltaform, Sheol, Lefroy, and Victoria. Having nothing better to do, I sat in a sheltered spot on the summit for awhile, then returned the way I had come. The snow was even worse than on the way up, sometimes even too soft for a sitting glissade, but at least it was downhill. I passed another group of kids, these at least all wearing long pants, and encouraged them to try for the summit before skating down the icy trail through the woods to the teeming hordes of tourists by the chateau.
What a difference a week makes. When I first tried Hector seven days ago, there was (awful) snow almost right from the road, and I was almost completely dysfunctional with the flu. Today, I was able to hike the first 600 meters or so (to above the waterfall) in trail runners, and finished a bit after noon. The previous night looked like the last cold night for awhile, and I was just about done with the area, so I figured I might as well stick around an extra day to finish Hector. It is one of the Canadian Rockies’ 11,000-foot peaks, an ultra-prominence peak, and best done as a ski, so it would have been lame of me to leave it un-bagged while I was in the area.
I got a semi-alpine start around 6:20, finding two other cars parked in the small pullout across from Hector Creek. It took me a few minutes to adjust to my new dimensions with both skis and boots on my back, but I was soon making steady progress up the good use trail toward the waterfall without getting stuck on trees. Below the waterfall, I climbed a cone of avalanche snow, then a little third class cliff. After a few more minutes of trail, I reached nearly-continuous snow in the hanging valley around 2200 meters. I skinned up the lousy snow, then stumbled across 50 yards of rocks to reach the continuous snow to the summit.
The snow below the Hector Glacier was steep enough to require some boot-packing, but fortunately it was early enough for it not to have turned awful. Above, it was low-angle enough for efficient skinning. Rounding the corner, I finally got a glimpse of the well-hidden summit, and spotted a team of four on the upper glacier. They had taken a line well to the left, but it looked like most skiers followed a lower-angle line to the right. At the base of the glacier, I passed their four pairs of snowshoes, their tails stuck in the snow next to a red-flagged wand.
There were scattered clouds wandering slowly eastward, and as I reached the upper glacier, one of them parked on Hector. I wasn’t about to get lost — I had a map and GPS, and there were old tracks — but it was a bit annoying to climb with no visibility, and would be downright unpleasant to ski down in those conditions. I plodded on, eventually finding the party of four’s boot-pack, though I neither heard nor saw them descending.
I stashed my skis and poles below the summit knob, then took on the final 100 feet of rock, ice, and snow with my axe and no crampons. I had them in my pack, but it would have taken time to adjust them to my ski boots, and this made the climb a bit more of a fair fight. I finally spotted the group of four descending the snow above the lower rock step. They turned out to be three novices and (probably) a guide, roped together and moving slowly. It seems like they had been going at a leisurely pace all day, since they had started around 3:30. I booted past them, then climbed a final 6-foot rock step to the summit, becoming slightly more comfortable climbing in plastic boots.
The summit was better than I expected: a narrow ridge above the clouds, with a register and some dry sitting rocks. I spent some time looking down to Hector Lake and willing the clouds to depart the Hector Glacier, then carefully downclimbed to my skis. The group ahead of me had maybe a 10-minute lead, and I had to ski carefully up high while in the clouds, but most of the glacier was clear, and I soon flew by them, briefly hitting 50 MPH on a steep section with a good runout. I briefly screwed up below the glacier, heading too far right and having to hike some rocks to correct my error, and the snow was absolute garbage below 2400 meters. Still, Hector is an awesome ski, and would have been even better a month ago, when I could have skied all the way to the car, a vertical mile below. Canadians are so spoiled…
Mount Columbia is the second-highest peak in the Canadian Rockies, and the highest of 11 11,000-foot peaks that ring the Columbia Icefield. Unlike Mount Robson, whose 10,000-foot south face is visible from the highway, Columbia is a shy mountain, seen only from parts of the Icefield and its surrounding peaks. Therefore most people never see it. The standard route climbs the Athabasca Glacier to the southeast side of the Icefield, then makes a mostly-flat traverse to Columbia at its far west side. Depending upon the exact route chosen, it is about 25-26 miles round-trip.
I had been hanging around the Glacier Discovery Center enough that people were starting to recognize me — never a good thing — but the weather and my cough finally both cooperated, so I could finally tag my peak and leave. The result was painful, as I am not used to long ski tours, but ranks among my favorite days in the mountains. In addition to some incredible and unique scenery, this outing and my other two trips up to the Icefield helped dispel my irrational fear of the Athabasca Glacier approach and the Icefield itself. It’s serious terrain, but as is often the case, it can be managed with caution and mountain sense instead of gear and partners.
I had a quiet night in the Sunwapta Lake parking area until a few minutes before my 4:15 alarm, when two trucks pulled in to either side of me. They proved to contain two parties headed across the Icefield, a pair headed for the Twins, and a group of four headed for I-don’t-know-where. I consumed my cup of sadness and started just after the first group, shortly before 5:00, catching them as they put on their skis at the toe of the glacier. Figuring that I wouldn’t be carrying my skis much, I took my new daypack, which has enough room for gear plus stash pockets for food.
I slightly gapped the pair headed for the Twins on the way up the familiar Athabasca Glacier, topping out in around two hours. They had been making good time, but disappeared somewhere in the middle, perhaps taking the long detour left instead of going under Snow Dome’s seracs. I, of course, took my chances on the direct route, and saw no ice fall in the hour or so that I could see the seracs. Judging by the debris, I might get hit if something big came loose, but it would bounce and roll first, cutting its momentum and giving me a chance to dodge. Plus, the detour looks way sketchier, as it parallels a number of crevasse fields.
The light clouds were breaking up, and I finally got direct sun a bit after 8:00, stopping to put on my hat and sunscreen. With no fog obscuring my view, navigation was simple: head more or less straight on from the top of the glacier, then turn slightly right as you see Castleguard. When Columbia starts emerging, aim at or a bit left of its summit to hit the highpoint of the trench. This part can be a grind, skinning across slightly-undulating, nearly-flat terrain with only distant landmarks. Getting around Snow Dome takes forever. However, the views of Bryce, Castleguard, and the Icefield lit by the sun breaking through patchy clouds kept my mind occupied, and the snow was in near-perfect condition.
I actually overshot the highpoint of the Trench a bit, and had to backtrack slightly before switching to ski mode to dive in. I tried to gather some momentum, but ground to a stop before making any progress up the other side. From there, it was an interminable skin up the nearly-flat ice peninsula leading to Columbia’s base. The scale of the place makes itself felt on this stretch: the summit pyramid looks small, but is actually almost 2000 feet high, while the almost-flat approach above the Trench is nearly three miles long.
Columbia’s east face had been baking all morning, so despite the cooler night, it was starting to become posthole country. Fortunately, it looked like a couple groups had summited in the last few days, and their boot-packs were still relatively firm. Unfortunately, they seem to have been very tall, because the steps were placed awkwardly far apart. Based on a trip report I had read, I had anticipated stashing my skis and booting both up and down. However, I saw ski tracks on the face, and it is both broad and not too steep (about 45 degrees), so I decided that it should be skied. To my delight, I found that my new daypack can carry skis cross-wise using some external straps, though I doubt that is their intended purpose. Lacking a serious waist-belt, the pack is not super-comfortable while carrying heavy skis, but… good enough.
Unfortunately, I basically imploded on the 1500-foot boot-pack to the top. This being May, I had packed fewer calories than the math suggested, so perhaps rationing contributed. More likely, I was just worn out after doing more skiing than I have done in years, perhaps decades. I made my pathetic way up the face, cheered by the view of the Twins to my right, and the prospect of skiing down this thing.
Following the herd’s tracks left of a 30-foot summit cornice, I sketched across a bit of shallow snow over ice, then popped through the short part of the cornice to emerge on the summit plateau. I could not have asked for better conditions: it was calm, clear in all directions, and probably right around freezing. I spread my windbreaker on the snow, rooted around my unused crampons to dig out my down parka, and sat down to admire the views. Far to the east, I could make out the head of the Athabasca Glacier in the distance, between Andromeda and Snow Dome. Next door to the north rose the South Twin, presenting its fearsome 6000-foot south face. Directly to the east, the Columbia Glacier falls in double ice-falls from the Trench to the headwaters of the Athabasca River. Unknown mountains stretched to the horizon in all directions: the Rockies to the north, south, and east, and the Selkirks barely poking above the cloud deck to the west.
After a sandwich and a brief summit nap, I switched to ski mode, then pitched over the edge onto the east face. My quads were tired from the climb, and the snow was heavy, so I had to stop every dozen turns to recover. Still, going down made up for the horrid slog on the way up. The snow was starting to soften, and the flatness of the plateau back to the Trench made itself felt. Though it was not worth switching to skins, I was forced to do some exhausting skating to get through one stretch. Things improved once the plateau started dropping to the Trench, and after a screw-up where I drifted too far left and ended up on the edge of a huge crevasse, I righted myself, and managed to hit 43 MPH in a tuck down the final slope.
Now it was time for the slog. I ate my last granola bar, then began skinning up the other side. I followed an old track for awhile, then switched to navigating by landmark, aiming for the left-hand skyline of an unnamed peak southwest of the Athabasca Glacier. This long traverse is a trade-off between elevation gain on the direct line nearer Snow Dome, and distance on a slightly longer and lower route farther south. The snow was starting to soften, and I was out of water; the day was becoming distinctly less fun.
At last, I reached a point where I could switch to ski mode for the rest of the way home. After a fast, easy descent to the head of the glacier, I took the current line skier’s left of its head, which is now a crevassed disaster, then linked turns down the headwall. The snow was getting sticky, so I couldn’t match the previous outing’s speed, but I still made good time all the way to the lower, flat part of the glacier. Unfortunately it was mid-afternoon, and the snow had been baked to a wretched, sticky state; even following the morning’s skin track, I had to constantly double-pole to keep moving. The final stretch was even slower, as I stumbled across the moraine with my skis over my shoulder, crossed the rope barrier right next to the “you will fall in a crevasse and die” sign, then clomped through the tourist hordes to reach my car.
Despite the slow finish, I was surprised to make it to the car faster than I had expected — just under 11 hours. As I have established before, I am usually 10-20% off what an elite athlete can do, even at things I should be good at like uphill running. I was therefore very satisfied to be less than 20% off the 9h18 FKT for Columbia, set by members of the Canadian national ski mountaineering team. Ill-timed illness has kept me from doing as much skiing as I had hoped while in the Great White North, but what I have done has been high quality. Hopefully we’ll have a decent winter wherever I end up in the States next winter.
Though I have not lacked motivation this May, I have been engaged in a frustrating battle with the flu. After the Snow Dome adventure, I was completely useless the next day, and decided to rest until at least the fever and headache were gone. By the time I finally recovered enough to ski up onto the Columbia Icefield again, the weather began to turn, so I only made it about halfway to my goal. Still, it was a fun ski, especially the part where I briefly hit 38 MPH descending the Athabasca Glacier headwall. That may be slow by inbounds standards, but it’s not bad for chunky backcountry snow.
While waiting for the clouds to pass, I decided to tag the very British Nigel Peak, Wilcox’s southern neighbor across the road from the Icefield. It had melted out dramatically in the days since skiing Snow Dome, allowing me to tackle its west face with lightweight gear. Where snow remained, though, it was almost always awful, isothermal slop in which one would posthole to the bottom, knee- or even crotch-deep.
It’s a short climb, so I took my time getting started. The trail to the red chairs was mostly snow-free, though still muddy, especially in the trees. I followed it until a couple hundred yards past the chairs, then took off cross-country toward Nigel’s base. Its southwest ridge (which turns northwest) has a number of chutes on its southwest side, one of which is apparently the standard route. I did my best to avoid the lingering snow among the meadows and brush on the way over, because it was all wretched and bottomless.
My efforts to minimize postholing left me near the base of the left of the two most likely chutes, which proved fortunate. The right-hand chute is all scree, perfect for descent but terrible for climbing. The left one, however, is about half exposed limestone, which is solid and sticky even when wet, making for much more efficient uphill progress. Once on the ridge, I traversed past the right-hand chute, then continued along the crest, where I only sunk in shoe-deep as long as I stayed away from exposed rocks. Transitioning between rock and snow usually involved one or two crotch-deep postholes.
Thanks to the snow, I stayed closer to the ridge than is probably normal, climbing a couple of fourth class steps along the way. A couple hundred feet below the summit, I contoured left into a gully, finding firm-ish snow near the cliffs, and bare talus elsewhere. After a final short, steep climb, I emerged on the summit ridge, and was soon at the cairn. There was of course nothing to see but the register, where I noticed both prolific Canadian guidebook author David P. Jones, and a hard-core seven-year-old kid with his dad.
I retraced my steps on the descent, then took the downward gully, which was 400 meters of almost pure scree-skiing. The rest of the descent was less excellent, with more postholing and brush-bashing across the flats, and a minor wipe-out on the slick mud when I tried to jog the trail. Still, I was back at the car by mid-afternoon, with plenty of time to eat, repack, and hang around the all-too-familiar Glacier Discovery Center. (If you visit, make sure to see the history exhibit downstairs.) Unfortunately the Asian tourist buses seem to have started up in the past week, so it’s just about time I get out of here. Only one more bit of business to take care of…
The Columbia Icefield, between Banff and Jasper, is the largest piece of ice south of Alaska, and one of the Canadian Rockies’ most impressive features. Snow Dome, as its name suggests, is one of the area’s least impressive peaks. Still, it is one of the hydrological apexes of North America, along with Triple Divide Peak in Montana, and offers impressive views of Mount Columbia, The Twins, Mount Bryce, and other high neighbors.
When I did Kitchener last summer, I thought that would be my only time on the Icefield, since the normal access is via the heavily-crevassed Athabasca Glacier. So when Bob suggested ski touring up to Snow Dome, I jumped at the chance. When I woke up feeling a bit off on my first morning in the Tetons, I thought I had a minor cold, and skied the Spoon Couloir the next day. When I felt worse the next morning, I suspected something more serious, and began conserving my energy, taking a couple days off on my way up to Canada. Though I was useless and NyQuil-dependent the next day, I managed to cough my way up Snow Dome on a day with near-perfect conditions.
Bob and Matt rolled into the Glacier Discovery Center from Calgary around 10:00, and we set our alarms for 4:00 AM and a short night’s sleep. We started walking up the snow coach road around 5:00, with no need for headlamps so far north. Though it loses some elevation dropping to the receding Athabasca Glacier, the road is still probably faster than skinning up from the toe of the glacier, especially when the road down to the glacier parking lot is closed.
From the graded tourist area, we skinned across to the north side of the glacier, then began making our way around the three bands of crevasses leading to the icefield. We easily passed the first, then continued past the second on a good skin track, choosing to scurry beneath the seracs instead of navigating the crevasse around the glacier’s south side. The serac was more active than any I have seen, letting loose twice while we climbed, but there is enough on the glacier’s north side to avoid a direct hit by falling ice and snow. The ramp up the third crevasse band was an easy climb up a good switchbacked skin track, with only a few crevasse issues near the top, where the current track will probably soon have to be re-routed.
With no features other than the occasional human, it is hard to judge distances on the Columbia Icefield. We climbed endlessly to a broad ridge northwest of the glacier’s head, with Mount Bryce’s intimidating north face finally coming into view to the southwest. The direct route to Snow Dome’s summit is a broken mess of crevasses, forcing skiers to circle around to its southwest side before climbing. As we circled and climbed, Mount Columbia, the Rockies’ second-highest peak, came into view on the far west edge of the icefield.
Once we finally had a straight shot at Snow Dome’s summit, it was just an endless slog to get there. The “peak” is not a perfect dome, but an endless series of false summits. Even when we finally reached the summit, we were not sure we were there until we passed it and saw neighboring Mount Kitchener’s south face. Despite magnificent views of Columbia and the Twins, we stayed only long enough to switch to downhill mode. The headwind that had started a few hundred feet below the summit had grown vicious, and none of us wanted to hang around.
After being helped off the summit by a tailwind, I enjoyed carving fast turns down the hard-packed slopes, roughly following our up-track back toward the head of the Athabasca Glacier to stop for lunch in a more sheltered spot. Other than a bit of cautious skiing at the head of the glacier, we had a wonderfully fast run down to its flat lower section, then an easy cruise to the toe. Taking off our skis, we clomped across the morainal debris, then stepped over the ropes back onto the tourist path, ending our day by climbing the road back to the parking area in the mid-day heat. The whole outing was about 6 hours up and 2 down, and far less intimidating than I had expected. Hopefully I can recover quickly enough to make another visit soon.
I have recently had the good fortune to be entrusted with some old climbing photos from Canada, specifically of the Bugaboos and Mount Robson. The Bugaboo photos were taken in July 1973 by Charles Calef. The Robson photos were taken in 1968 by either Dave Brown or George Bell. The modern photos are mine. The pairs aren’t perfectly matched, but they’re close enough for comparisons.
The modern photos are from early August, 2014.
The modern photos are from mid-July, 2017. There’s no way I could have day-hiked the Kain Face in 1968, even if the Thoni Trail had existed.
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 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.
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.
Mount Bonney is a striking sight from Asulkan Ridge, its sheer north face rising above and between lobes of the heavily-crevassed Bonney Glacier. After the MacDonald experience, I was looking for something a bit more moderate, and Bonney is one of a few less-visited peaks that does not require crossing the Illecillewaet Névé. While it looks fairly flat and tame, and there are some very interesting looking routes on the other side (e.g. north and east ridges on Mount Fox), it looks like 4-5 miles each way across the Névé, with an uncertain dismount across the glacial tongues on its other side.
I got an early-ish start around 5:30, hiking the familiar Abbott Ridge trail and talking to myself occasionally to warn the bears. As the trees began to thin, I looked back and was startled to see someone slowly catching me. I wasn’t in full race mode, but I am not used to being caught on climbs. The person turned out to be a fast local, out with a friend for a quick morning run across Asulkan Ridge. He assumed that I was doing likewise, and was a bit surprised when I told him I was headed for Bonney. He had skied it in the winter, but never scrambled it in the summer. The three of us talked as we scrambled up a shortcut to Abbott Ridge, discussing local scrambles and speculating about a reasonable FKT for Sir Donald. We parted ways at the saddle before Abbott Peak, where I descended to fill up my water at the tarn before beginning the traverse around Asulkan Ridge.
There may be a good line around to the Lily Glacier, but I didn’t find it. After gaining Afton’s northwest ridge, I generally stayed between 7300′ and 7500′, I performed a long, laborious side-hill on a mixture of slick heather, hard-packed dirt, krummholtz, and a bit of lose talus. I more or less kept pace with my companions on the ridge, who appeared occasionally silhouetted against the eastern sky. I finally reached Lily Col around the same time they reached the nearby summit of Dome, making me wonder if it would have been faster to follow Asulkan Ridge over the Rampart.
From the col, I climbed a mixture of snow and talus until I could make my way left to Swanzy’s slabby upper east face. This was the best climbing of the day, a moderate slab with cracks and positive rails. Below the overhanging summit knob, I traversed left until I could ascend a chimney to the summit plateau. I tagged the cairn on the rock highpoint to the right, then, after failing to traverse around the edge of a weird little summit glacier, walked carefully along its crest, which is higher than the rock summit.
Next up was Clarke Peak, which is basically a false summit on the way to Bonney. I descended a mixture of snow and rock to the head of the Clarke Glacier. Near the head of the Tuzo Couloir, I found a uniquely sketchy anchor: accessory cord tied around a foot-long flake of rock, which had presumably been wedged between some other boulders, with the other end of the cord extending over the lip of the partly-melted ice gully. Christian Bohren had guided Heniretta Tuzo up this couloir in September 1904, probably cutting steps, back when the glaciers were larger and the snow deeper.
I climbed a mixture of snow and off-white quartzite along Clarke’s ridge, staying warily away from the corniced edge. Unfortunately the well-behaved rock ended at the summit, replaced by chossy, clinking dinner-plate shale. I also had to cross a small extension of the Clarke Glacier that reached the crest. I did not quite need my crampons, but it reminded me why I have been carrying them around — without them, it only takes a short stretch of low-angle ice to ruin your day.
Bonney has two equally-high summits, and I found a register canister on the second. Along with the lid of a mackerel can from 1974, I found a nice book left by a party in 1988, celebrating the centennial of the first climb. The first ascenscionists were two Anglican clergy, Reverends Green and Swanzy, and Reverend Northcott of Revelstoke had been inspired to repeat the climb. For extra style points, the centennial party had used the original route, a savage bushwhack up Loop Creek to Bonney-Green col. Somehow the register was dry and in excellent shape, despite being protected by only a non-waterproof metal canister and a produce bag. I guess not many people climb Bonney in the summer, because no one had signed it since the 1988 party. I added my name, then sat back and relaxed in the perfect weather.
I had contemplated continuing the traverse to Bonney-Green Col, where I could get around the bergschrund and crevassed glacier, but the rest of the ridge didn’t look interesting, and I would have to traverse a lot of moraine and polished slabs on the long return below the Bonney and Lily Glaciers. Instead, I retraced my path, mistakenly taking a slightly lower and worse line below Asulkan Ridge. I rinsed my face at the tarn, where I met a young New Zealander on a year abroad. I encouraged him to visit the Tetons when I heard he was headed down to the Yellowstone area, then left him to scramble down the shortcut and jog the trail. At a bit over 10.5 hours crossing some rough country, this outing wouldn’t appeal to everyone, but I enjoyed tagging a seldom-visited summit with a bit of interesting, moderate scrambling.