King Edward

King Edward

The spine of the Rockies forms the boundary between Alberta and British Columbia, so their western side is accessed through what is effectively a giant timber operation. On my first visit in 2014, I was taken aback by the scale and ferocity of the logging, with the landscape checkered in endless cut-blocks, and piles of slash lying in new-growth forests of small trees interspersed with large old stumps. Looking past the ugliness, however, BC’s economic engine has two benefits to the dirtbag mountaineer. First, while the capillary roads are ever-changing as new tracts are cut, the arterial roads are well-built and -maintained, and extend far into remote valleys. Second, while Canada’s National Parks are an extractive industry of their own — pulling money from tourists rather than wood from forests — the BC side of the Rockies is mostly Crown Land, meaning recreation is free and unregulated. I had long meant to visit the network of roads up the Bush River, which extend sixty or more miles from the Trans-Canada Highway near Golden, and I was sufficiently sick of dealing with the parks to make the drive.

Clemenceau and friends

While the Bush Road is well-maintained and suitable for any car, it is long, and I do not have the tires or suspension to drive it at high speed, so I spent the better part of an afternoon puttering north, occasionally pulling over to let someone in a pickup truck blast by. One is supposed to beware of logging traffic, as the trucks communicate with each other via radio and drive like they own the roads (which they do…), but I saw none in over two hours on a Friday afternoon. The road eventually reaches Kinbasket Lake, a long, thin reservoir that backs up into several river valleys, and turns east along the Bush Arm. Where the main roads splits, I continued north up the Bush River rather than looping back west toward the Sullivan Arm, an even longer road that used to offer some semblance of access to the Clemenceau Icefield peaks. The road deteriorates slightly, but remains in good shape past the bridge crossing back to the east bank of the Bush River, where I made my camp for the next few days. The “trailheads” for Mounts King Edward, Alexandra, and Bryce are all within an hour’s bike from this spot, and I was sick of driving.

Only thigh deep…

I knew I had 2-3 days of good weather, and did not want to destroy myself the first day, so I started with King Edward, which sounded like the easiest peak. Despite being an 11er, it is infrequently climbed thanks to its remote location and uninspiring character. Corbett describes driving to a removed bridge over an unnamed creek, which is crossed by Tyrolean on a cable or a “short, cold ford,” after which one continues along an old logging road. I thought perhaps I could carry my bike across and ride some of the disused road, significantly speeding things up. However his guidebook was published in 2016, and much of its content is based on his climbs in the early 2000s. Thus its information can be badly out-of-date, especially on the BC side, where in addition to receding glaciers and drier winters, changes in logging and fast-growing brush alter the landscape. I found that the last couple miles of road to the creek crossing are, while bikeable, no longer driven, and the road on the other side is severely overgrown. Worse, the creek crossing at the road was at least thigh-deep in the morning, and the Tyrolean cable is a rusting tangle on the near side.

Glacier comes into view

I had taken off my pants, put on my wading shoes, and found two good sticks for balance, but after poking at the stream, I decided I did not want to wade it. I followed a quad track a short distance downstream, but the ford did not look much better there. The brush upstream was brutal, and I gave up one attempt at exploration, but tried again, staying farther from the bank, hoping that I could find a fallen log or reach a point where the stream split. I thrashed through brush and woods for awhile, then made my way back toward the steep bank, and saw a complicated but dry crossing. I thrashed back down to the creek, crossed a short log to a rock, stepped gingerly over to an old stump, then made a slow, nut-crushing à cheval ascent of another log to the other bank. From there, I regained the old road with more grim thrashing, and left my unused wading shoes on a rock.

Alpine donuts

While what I found was hardly a trail, the old logging road was at least level, and some mixture of occasional mountaineers and more frequent animals maintained a sort of path that followed it, climbing steadily up the side of a ridge between the Bush River and the creek I had crossed, which originate in two tongues of the large glacier south of King Edward. The road ends at a cut-block far up this ridge, where I found an old cairn marking the start of a faint game trail leading through the slash and regrowth. Beyond the block, I thrashed through deadfall and blackberries for a bit before picking up a promised quad track. Whoever built this track had gone to considerable effort, sawing through dozens of fallen logs. Though it fades, I saw signs that the track continued well into the alpine — someone had, at some point, even driven donuts in a post-glacial mudflat well above treeline. As I was saving battery by not listening to anything, I had plenty of time to ponder why any of this was built, and found no good answer.

Columbia and retreating glaciers

The long ridge I was following ends in the icefield lying south and west of King Edward, which used to connect to the Columbia Icefield via their exit glaciers in the valley to the east. These glaciers are now much diminished, with old moraines hinting at their former extent, and it seems that the ski traverse between the Clemenceau and Columbia Icefields, which passes through here, will soon be impossible. Passing through the quad playground, I made my way across slabs and debris toward the point of rock closest to the peak, where I donned crampons and easily mounted the ice. I zig-zagged my way north, avoiding some long and obvious crevasses on my way to more level ground. Fortunately for me, the holes were mostly open, so I was able to plot a safe course through the regular holes, which appeared even in the flatter parts. Part of this safe course led me through some knee-deep slush near the peak, evidence of relentlessly warm days and a lack of overnight refreeze.

Approach ridge from climb

I was worried about the transition to the rock of the peak, but fortunately the snow and ice had not completely separated from it, and I was able to weave through the more broken glacier near the base. The initial climb up the near corner of the southwest face was outward-facing slabs, but they were relatively clean and made of sticky limestone. Above, I stuck near the right-hand side, where there was the most exposed rock, but still had to deal with some horrible loose limestone scralus. I listened to the steady rattle of rocks down the southeast face, and admired the turquoise terminal lake slowly emerging from behind Columbia’s snow-free east west face, in the hole between it and the Twins. I found a bit of fourth class climbing getting through a short cliff band, but nothing particularly difficult until reaching the tilted summit knob. As I had read in the route description, I contoured around to the right on a rubble-covered ledge, then stemmed and climbed my way up a short pitch of low-fifth-class rock of poor but adequate quality. Beyond, it was an easy trudge up more scree to the highpoint, at the near end of a long, rotten, serrated ridge.

Columbia and its icefield

It was fortunately not too smoky, and I could admire the expansive and seldom-seen view in all directions. To one side were the “backs” of Columbia and the Twins, at the northwest end of the Columbia Icefield. To their north I could see Woolley and Alberta, looking just as unassailable from this side, with the headwaters of the Athabasca River seven thousand feet below the peaks. Far to the other side, I could make out Tsar, Clemenceau, and Tusk, the three most remote 11,000-foot peaks. Between me and Clemenceau lay a lifeless landscape of lesser peaks and glaciers. I tried to enjoy the summit, but was mindful of the long return. I skipped down the scree, carefully downclimbed the crux, then thankfully found more boot-skiable scree than I had expected on the way down. At the small intermediate cliff-band, I removed and packed up an enormous wad of tat wrapped around a boulder, doing my mitzvah to atone for other climbers’ sins.

Bryce on return

I followed my out-track most of the way down the glacier, then headed right to the top of the ridge rather than returning through the post-glacial plain. This turned out to be no easier, and did not save any time, but at least it was different, and gave me a better view of the large and fractured glacier at the head of the Bush River. I rejoined my outward path before reaching vegetation, and followed it back to my wading shoes, which I strapped to my pack unused. I thrashed down through the woods to the river, and most of the way upstream to my previous crossing, then stopped in dismay. The river was flowing much more strongly than in the morning, and the already-precarious step between the rock and old stump was awash in churning water, making the crossing useless. I retreated a bit, then returned in disbelief to take another look. Other than waiting until the middle of the night, my only option was to ford the river at a safe-ish place.

“Safe-ish” meant reasonably calm with a decent runout, and the former bridge location seemed like the best option. It had been at least thigh-deep in the morning, and would be significantly worse now, but it had to be done. I returned to where I had left my shoes, then thrashed downhill until I hit the old road-cut, which I followed to the bank. In preparation, I took off my pants, put on my wading shoes, and double-bagged my phone in my pack. To save weight, I dropped the mess of tat I had harvested on the bank, undoing the good I had done. I also grabbed a stout pole as tall as I was, intending to use it to brace myself against the current in the deepest part. Before I could think too much, I strode out for the other side. The water soon came to my waist, then to my chest. The pole worked for a few plant-and-pivots, but the combination of current and buoyancy eventually overwhelmed me, and I was swept downstream when about halfway across. I had some runway before joining the Bush River, and began swimming toward the far bank, but progress was slow. Fortunately the river is shallower downstream of the old bridge, and after a couple of tries, I managed to steady myself and plow ashore through knee- to thigh-deep rapids. I had lost my bear spray, sunglasses, and some granola bar wrappers, but fortunately still had the rest of my gear.

I followed the quad track back to the road, stripped naked to wring out my clothes, then fetched my bike and re-dressed for the ride back to the car. Somewhat to my surprise, two guys on motorbikes passed me headed toward the creek, perhaps out for a joyride. I passed the same assortment of cars parked at a junction along the main road, presumably mountaineers headed to peaks along the Icefield. Back at the car, I lay my gear out to dry as much as possible, then made sandwiches and plans for the next day. I was tired and somewhat shaken, but determined to make the most of the good weather.

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