Edith Cavell

Entire ridge from trailhead

With over 6000 feet of prominence, Edith Cavell stands by itself about fifteen miles south of Jasper, its mile-high north face and long east ridge making it a striking landmark. The ridge is a classic moderate alpine route, with class 3 through 5.3 climbing leading from a low col through two steeper sections separated by a flat bench to the three-pointed and often snow-covered summit. The summit was first reached by an easier talus route from the southwest, and harder routes have been established on the north face, including by Fred Beckey and Yvon Chouinard. But viewed from the base of the north face, the east ridge strikes one as the correct way to climb the mountain. The quartzite layers tilt slightly up in that direction, producing positive holds rather than rubble-covered outward-sloping ledges, and the streaks of dirt on the north face’s hanging ice and snow make its hazard clear.

I had intended to climb this ridge on my first trip to Canada in 2014, only to be turned around by fresh snow, and again in 2017, when the approach road was closed for repairs. Since then, Canadian Michael Burke put up an impressive 1h55 ascent from car to summit. He has beaten some of my times from back in 2017 when I was significantly faster, and I was coming off two wearing days on Hungabee and Murchison, so I had no chance or intent to set a record, but still wanted to make a solid effort.

Hanging out in the trailer parking at the base of the narrow access road, I found myself next to a couple in a large and very hashtag-vanlife van, complete with roof-mounted cellular antenna. The guy came over and introduced himself (I instantly forgot his name), and I learned that he was indeed living full-time out of the van, and intended to climb the east ridge as I did, though with gear. He also informed me that the park wardens had given him quite a bit of grief for trying to sleep around Jasper. You are technically only allowed to stay in designated campgrounds, but at $20-30 per night, doing so would quickly double the cost of a trip like mine. Enforcement had been deliberately lax when I was last here in 2017, but that was before COVID and the corresponding explosion of hashtag-vanlife. Apparently Jasper, like some parts of the United States, has been driven to crack down, a worrying trend for someone like me. But I slept unmolested, and woke to find a multi-hundred-thousand-dollar overlander vehicle parked nearby, so… go figure.

Annoying col below start

Mine was the only car in the day lot at the trailhead when I arrived around 6:00. I grabbed my prepared pack, sauntered over to the trailhead, started the clock, and took off at a purposeful walk up the initial paved trail. Where the trail turned to rocks and passed along the old moraine, I saw one pika scurrying for cover, then another with a wad of grass in its mouth. This is their preferred habitat, and I remembered seeing several back in 2014, along with piles of grass drying in the trail. The turnoff toward the East Ridge was helpfully signed “climbers’ trail / sentier des grimpeurs,” so nailing that part of the approach was easy. Unfortunately climbers have found multiple ways to the base of the ridge, likely depending upon snow conditions, and I wasted a bit of time boulder-hopping after the one I followed along the top of the moraine disappeared. I crossed a couple of low-angle snow-patches, finding them soft, then struggled up the headwall, using the snow at first, but quickly transitioning to dirt and rock. This was unpleasant, but the previous evening’s rain had softened both dirt and snow, so I was able to scuff in steps until I could reach the more solid rock.

First pitch of ridge

From the saddle, I eyed the start of the ridge, and was not impressed. It starts out as a broad low-angle face split by a couloir, with grassy ledges and scree chutes throughout. I picked my way up the obvious line right of the couloir, finding occasional cairns and bits of use trail. It was pure joy compared to Murchison’s wretched talus the day before, but nothing exceptional. As the face steepened, the rock bedding began to emerge and I sought out some steeper sections, whose sharp, positive holds promised good climbing ahead. The steeper sections became more frequent, and I was eventually climbing regular class 3-4 sections separated by dirt ledges. The ridge was still broad, and it was possible to find easier ground in loose gullies to the left, but it was more fun and efficient to stay closer to the right edge.

Middle flat stretch

The rock degraded as the ridge flattened to the broad bench in the middle, and I struggled up a bit of wet dirt and loose talus. The summit finally came into view from here, and it looked both high and distant; this is a long route, rising over 3000 feet from the col, and I had only completed a bit less than two thirds. I followed bits of use trail along the flat section, then resumed climbing in earnest. The upper ridge is much narrower, offering fewer options, and here I finally found some climbing to justify the 5.3 rating. It was rarely sustained, and not terribly exposed, but the best parts were on par with the northwest ridge of Sir Donald, with the incut holds making them a sort of stone ladder. At a pause, I noticed that I had become totally absorbed in the climb, barely noticing how hard I was breathing, constantly moving my glance between my hands, feet, and the route ahead.

Upper ridge

I emerged rather abruptly on the eastern summit, finding a helpful bootpack on the snowy crest connecting it to the other two. I believe Peakbagger say the east is highest, but the register is on the west, where the walk-up route (and my descent) ends. The short traverse was tedious, as the steps were close together and the snow somehow both punchy and icy. I took the rock to the left where I could, and eventually reached the final summit in 2h36, far from the 1h55 record but still respectable. I had been climbing in just a t-shirt, but thin clouds and a breeze forced me to put on my hoodie and shell to sit around. The views were diminished by the clouds and haze, but I could still see plenty of impressive peaks to the west and south, including what was probably Mount Hooker and its surrounding icefield. I could also see Jasper to the north, which meant I had cell service, so I messaged friends and family before I started to get too cold. The forecast called for thunderstorms around noon, so I did not want to linger.

Chevron, Blackhorn, Throne

From the western summit, I followed cairns and use trail along the edge of the massive north face, then deviating south along a rib to get around a cliff band. Some terribly loose side-hilling got me back to the west ridge, where I again picked up a trail, which started clear but faded as it traversed above a broad south-facing bowl between Edith Cavell and Sorrow. Lured by easy chutes and possibly some boot-prints, I left the ridge early to boot-ski down deep, loose scree. This worked for awhile, but I had started down too early, and had to traverse right across a couple ribs to avoid some impending cliffs. I regained the normal route toward the bottom, and it gradually coalesced into a clear trail by the time it reached grass and meadows between Edith Cavell and the broad, two-horned Chevron Mountain.

Angel Glacier, Cavell Pond and Lake

Though I thought it was only a climber’ trail, the route is well-defined and shows plenty of trailwork. I jogged a bit, but the trail was rooty and my legs were dead, so I mostly just walked quickly. I encountered one couple speaking French, and a park warden with a friend, starting far too late to climb Cavell, but perhaps out for a hike to the meadow or to Verdant Pass. The main Astoria River trail was a well-trod highway, and fairly boring with limited views, but I was too tired to jog. It was not even noon, and the promised storms had not come, so I had no reason to hurry. I walked the trail back to the road, then skirted the edge of the pavement back to my car, shrinking from the fast, aggressive-looking pickup trucks that seem popular with Albertans. The parking lot was almost completely full by now, and I took some pleasure in occupying my prime spot for the rest of the day, having lunch, taking a nap, and thinking about where to discreetly spend another night.

4 responses to “Edith Cavell

  1. Bob Argiropoulos says:

    Congratulations Sean! I’ve been coveting that one for a long time.
    Hopefully we will meet up while you are up here. See you soon. Bob

    1. drdirtbag says:

      Thanks, Bob! I have a few more things to do up here in the north, but will definitely spend some time back your way.

  2. George says:

    Ice axe and crampons required?

    1. drdirtbag says:

      Not when I did it. There was hard snow on the summit, but low-angle with a fresh bootpack.

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