Category Archives: Canada

MacDonald (N face sketch-fest)

MacDonald from Hermit Meadows

Mount MacDonald’s north face rises sheer and intimidating for nearly 5000 feet from the road just north of Rogers Pass. Looking at it and reading about it, I hoped it would be something like Johannesburg Mountain: essentially no approach, and a big, relentless, varied face, climbed via its 5.4 central rib. Unfortunately this is not what I found. I know I was off-route at the top, but deliberately so, since by then I was just trying to end the misery. Lower down, I think I was on the correct rib (there are several), but instead of the promised “solid, blocky quartzite with incut holds,” I found fifth class moss. I made it up and down, but it was a tough 6 miles.

Looking up approach

After taking advantage of Rogers Pass’s excellent trails for a couple of days, it was time to experience something more like the primeval Selkirks. I parked near the second avalanche shed, bashed down to the creek, and found a couple bits of flagging on a jumbled mess of fresher and older logs, the “official” crossing of Connaught Creek. From there, a closely-spaced line of flags marked a basically nonexistent trail through open forest, headed up and left to a slide path that was a mixture of grass and alders. The flags seemed to give out a short distance from the central stream and dirt-chute leading from the north face.

Looking down approach

There was still a fair amount of old slide snow in the chute, covered with enough debris that I could climb it with no crampons and my axe for security. However, I was somewhat wary of the snow, as there was running water below, and I saw a 50-foot section spontaneously collapse with a loud “whump.” Near the split, where I was supposed to follow the left branch, the terrain was a mixture of questionable snow, stream, polished rock, krummholtz, and steep dirt. Rather than fight snow and water in the gully, I climbed along its right-hand side, which started out reasonable and gradually turned less pleasant as it merged with the face.

Sucky dirt

Traversing under the toe of the central rib, I found myself farther above the gully than I probably should have been. There is a strange patch of rotten, light-colored rock here, which decomposes to deposit evil, outward-sloping dirt on the ledges below. I climbed left and up, trying to escape the choss either into the gully or above, but found myself doing a lot of unpleasant, slow, defensive climbing. It was probably no worse than fourth or low fifth class, but it was mentally exhausting.

Steep moss

I finally passed the choss, and angled back up and right to the buttress, finding the fourth class moss mentioned by the guidebook. Unfortunately things did not seem to improve much on the buttress, where I found wide cracks, awkwardly-angled ledges, and more moss. I tried climbing right on the crest, and just to either side, but did not find an enjoyable line. Maybe I was just mentally worn down from the choss below, or maybe I was off-route, but at this point I just wanted it to end.

Route from above

Improvising, I traversed left at a ledge, climbing a broad bowl scoured mostly free of moss, which was mostly fourth class with a bit of fifth here and there for spice. Near the top of the face, a broad, rubbly ledge crosses below a final headwall. The route description says to head slightly right from the rib to surmount the headwall on blocky 5.4 ground, but I thought I saw a break to the left, so I just used that. I stemmed into a moat, made a couple steep moves, then followed easier ground to finally emerge on the east ridge. Sunlight, easy ground, and impressive views of the Avalanche Glacier and Sir Donald to the south.

Sir Donald and friends

The summit register was in a PVC tube, so it was a wet mess, but it was still legible enough to make out a few names, including Colin Haley back in 2014. I knew the descent would be non-trivial, so I did not hang out for long before making my way down the southwest ridge looking for the Herdman Couloir. The ridge required a fair amount of route-finding to get around ribs and steps, with a final, extended bit of 4th class to reach a talus saddle where it flattens. I found a few slings where others had apparently given up and rapped.

Wrong (l) and right (r) couloirs

As I later realized, I should have continued past a small bump to reach a broad couloir before the larger, unnamed peak where the ridge turns northwest, but there were a bunch of slings at the top of a narrow, steep dirt-chute. This ended up requiring more sketchy, careful climbing, sometimes kicking steps in snow, sometimes stemming in the moat with a hand and foot on the rock, and an axe and foot on the snow. I passed another rap station made of two fix and equalized nuts, then finally emerged in a broad, steep heather bowl with a clear view down to the highway. Looking back, it seemed like even rapping the chute I had descended was a mistake, as pulling the rope would unleash a rain of debris.

After hours of mistakes and unpleasantness, things finally went my way for the rest of the descent. I guessed correctly that the route followed the left-hand side of the stream to avoid brush, finding a bit of a boot-pack in places where the stream-bed was too steep. I lost the route again near the valley bottom, but the bushwhack was tame by North Cascades standards, with only a bit of devil’s club. With a bit of fishing, I found another flagged mess of trees to cross Connaught Creek, then walked the highway back to my car. There are plenty of fun things to climb in the Rogers Pass area, so I see no reason to subject yourself to this.

Asulkan Ridge

Asulkan Ridge panorama

Asulkan Ridge is a line of lesser peaks between the Bonney and Sir Donald groups. Though it is long with a 5.4 crux, much of it is easy class 2 “exposed sidewalk.” Combined with easy access via the Abbott and Asulkan Hut Trails, this makes it a popular route, and an enjoyable moderate day. Though it is rated the same as Sir Donald’s northwest ridge, it is a good, easier alternative in the Rogers Pass area.

Abbott Ridge and tarn

The sun rises late in the deep, narrow valley of Rogers Pass, so I got a bit of a late start up the trail to Abbott Ridge. The trail passes underwhelming Marion Lake, then continues past the Abbott Hut before officially ending just short of Mount Abbott. There are two trail above the lake, amusingly labeled the “shorter way” and “longer way,” as if any sane person would choose the latter. Beyond the end, a clear use trail leads along the sometimes-exposed ridge to Abbott’s summit, reached by a bit of scrambling. On the climb, I had seen two people summiting Afton, and from the summit, I saw them making their way along the long, gentle ridge to the Rampart.

Afton’s east ridge

Afton’s east ridge looks steep, but the rock is solid with lots of positive holds. I mostly stayed on the ridge, occasionally straying left, and with a few low 5th class moves in a chimney, I emerged on the summit. Establishing a pattern that would mostly hold for the rest of the ridge, the descent was much easier than the climb, a boulder-hop down to a snowfield. It was warm, and I had a lot of ridge to go, so I preemptively supplemented my water with some slush.

Ridge-walking to Rampart

The ridge was mostly “exposed sidewalk” or easy walking on the west side, mixed with bits of scrambling to regain the crest or surmount steps. Just before the summit, I passed a young Asian couple with lots of gear — including mountain boots! — moving slowly and roped up. They caught back up as I had a sandwich on the summit, and we talked for a few minutes. They seemed impressed that I was soloing the ridge, and I encouraged them to lighten their loads on future outings.

Crux climb up Dome

I passed a couple of taciturn Canadians on the boulder-hop toward the Dome, which contains the ridge’s crux. There are a couple large steps before the Dome, bypassed to the right, and I found the ridge’s only rotten rock on one of them. The guidebook mentions climbing a 5.4 crack left of the ridge. I climbed a chimney that looked about right, only to find a tat-nest above another chimney 10 feet farther left. Whatever — either way looks pretty tame. With a bit more scrambling and easy ridge-walking, I was on the summit.

Crux move on knife-edge

The Dome has a bit more fun in store on its south ridge, a long knife-edge that can be done as a hand traverse or a cheval. It can also be bypassed on easier ground to the right, but where is the fun in that? I met two guys contemplating the bypass, and encouraged them to take the sporting way. Beyond, the ridge becomes a boulder-hop down to the small Sapphire Col hut, where I topped up my water at a small ice lake on the edge of the Asulkan Glacier.

Sapphire Col

From the col, Mount Jupiter’s three summits, the high point of the traverse, are all easy boulder-hopping. Beyond, I scrambled down some talus, crossed a snowfield, then fought a bit of unpleasant morainal garbage, looking for a low-angle and low-crevasse way down the Asulkan Glacier to the hut and trail. I crossed a bit of glacier then, instead of going over an unnamed bump along the ridge to Asulkan Pass, descended a chossy ridge splitting two lobes of the upper glacier. The final transition to the flat lower glacier proved to be the day’s crux, with a bit of desperate, careful scrabbling down a steep dirt-slope. There is probably a better way to do this.

Long slide on Asulkan Glacier

I crossed the lower glacier, then hiked up polished slabs to the locked hut, which may only be open in the winter. I wrung out my socks in front of some tourists, then passed a bunch more on the steep descent along the crest of an old lateral moraine. I probably should have run the lower trail, but I was in no hurry, so I just fast-walked down the gentle trail, passing the ruins of Glacier House on my way to the car. I rinsed off, then settled in to peruse the guidebook for what to do next. I’m not sure what caught my attention, but I looked in the rear view mirror to see a juvenile grizzly wandering through the parking lot no more than 10-20 yards away. Not at all interested in the cars or the large campground nearby, he moseyed off into the woods on the other side. I think I’ll continue carrying my bear spray up here in the Great White North…

Hermit-Rogers traverse

Swiss Glacier and peaks

There were still a couple of peaks on my to-do list in the Rockies, but Vaux and the Goodsirs sounded like epic choss battles, so I decided instead to leave on a high note. I recently picked up David Jones’ Rogers Pass Alpine Guide, which details a number of low-5th-class routes in this most accessible part of the Selkirks. Other than the popular Uto and Sir Donald, there is not a lot of information online about the area. I chose this traverse somewhat at random, partly because it uses an approach with which I was not familiar. The rock was more broken than I expected, which was disappointing, but the boulders were mostly stable, and there were some sections of enjoyable climbing on the Swiss Peaks. The guide describes going Rogers to Hermit, but I thought it made more sense to go the other way, ending on the highest peak. Having now done it, I think my direction is best, at least psychologically.

Trailwork below campsites

The Trans-Canada Highway is being widened to four lanes, and this summer work is taking place on Rogers Pass, making it congested and noisy. Fortunately the Illecillewaet trailhead is far enough from the highway to be somewhat quiet, so I got a decent night’s sleep there before heading back across the pass to the Hermit Meadows trailhead. The well-maintained trail climbs steeply to the alpine, where it ends at some bear boxes and wooden tent platforms. There is also a sign saying “end of trail,” perhaps to help whiny kids convince their parents to turn around.

Tupper, Macdonald, Sir Donald

The trail, of course, continues past the sign, crossing a couple of braided streams before fading and disappearing in glacier-scoured slabs. I made my way up the slabs, then put on crampons to cross the low-angle ice plain of the Swiss and Tupper Glaciers to the base of Hermit’s southeast ridge. Unfortunately it is not a solid fin like Sir Donald’s northwest ridge, but more of a giant talus maze with occasional steps. Still, it was fun enough, and mostly straightforward until the summit towers, where there was some route-finding required to pass gaps in the ridge.

Truda from Hermit

The descent was mostly straightforward class 2-3 left of the ridge, with a final bit of 4th class getting to the saddle with Truda. Truda, Swiss, and Fleming look distinct from below, but along the ridge, they feel more like small false summits on a single, broad massif. The best path generally stays on the ridge crest, though, so they are hard to miss by accident. Starting up from the col, I went left, then up a chimney/dihedral to regain the crest. Along the crest, I found a mixture of face climbing with positive rails, and big talus. There were some 5th class moves here and there, but nothing sustained. There was also a snow crest, which I crossed kicking steps and plunging my axe.

Rogers from the east

As I neared Rogers, the glacier northeast of Rogers comes into view. Unlike the Swiss and Hermit, which are flat and tame, it is steep and viciously crevassed, falling into some pathless valley. I stayed mostly on rock, then finally booted up the low-angle part of Rogers’ snow crest. I found the only register of the day, with a couple of familiar names, but no pencil to add my own.

Swiss Glacier descent

I could have continued down Rogers’ west ridge, but that looked long and chossy, so I instead retraced my steps to descend the broad couloir from the Rogers-Grant col. This proved more annoying than it looked, but still probably better than the ridge. There had been fresh snow in the last week, adding a bit more depth to the layer of slush over the underlying ice. The slope was not especially steep, but the snow was awkward and it ended in a bergschrund, so I ended up descending in crampons facing inward. The otherwise-tame glacier even gave me a nip, as I sunk a foot into a small crevasse I would have seen if I hadn’t been facing in and staring at my feet.

Once past the ‘schrund, things got much easier, and I took off my crampons to walk and slide back to where I had stepped onto the glacier in the morning. From there, it was mostly easy travel down the slabs to the trail. There was no one camped on the platforms as I passed, but I met several dayhikers, and a few people headed up to camp. A guy by himself looked like he might be up to do some scrambling, so I stopped to share some beta. As we talked, a solo girl walked by barefoot in booty shorts; I wasn’t sure where to direct the male gaze. Excitement done for the day, I hike-jogged the rest of the switchbacks to the sound of road construction, reaching the car mid-afternoon. I threw away my collected tat, washed up a bit, and headed to the visitor center to sit and write.

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.

Smuts, the Fist

The Fist

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

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

Commonwealth Creek

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

Birdwood and avalanche debris

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

Start of Smuts route

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

Chimney on Smuts

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

Summit walk on Smuts

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

Scree descent to Smuts Lakes

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

Stone-tooling toward the Fist

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

Fist route on right

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

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

Willingdon (W ridge, ~10.5 hours)

Willingdon from Clearwater Pass

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

Cliffs above Mosquito Creek

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

Quartzite Col

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

Quartzite Col

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

West ridge

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

Clearwater and glacier

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

Headed back toward Quartzite Col

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

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

Kitchener (E ridge)

Kitchener from parking lot

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

Athabasca, Andromeda

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

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

Lots of this

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

K2 and Kitchener

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

Snow-fin in gap

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

Columbia and the Twins

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

Dome Glacier icefalls

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

Lower Dome Glacier

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


Upper Wilcox ridge

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

Athabasca and trail

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

Red chairs and Athabasca Glacier

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

View east

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

Scrambling up east face

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

Kitchener, etc. from Wilcox

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

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

Robson (Kain Face to SW ridge, 14h50)

Robson from visitor center

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

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

Robson from near col

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

Patterson Spur near center in sun

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


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.