Bryce (NE ridge fail)

Bryce from center

Returning to the car from a failed jaunt toward Alexandra by mid-afternoon, I was determined to make the most of my last good weather day with a solid attempt at Bryce. I repacked with a more generous amount of food — closer to 4000 calories instead of the 2500 I had brought the day before — then focused on recovery, eating plenty and going to sleep early. When my alarm woke me again (I was definitely getting run down), I ate a breakfast and a half, then started riding again as soon as it was light enough, taking it a bit easier on the climb to save energy. The previous day’s 4Runner was gone, so I would have the peak to myself.

Smoky dawn on
Rice Brook road

Stashing my bike at the fork, I hiked along the destroyed road, finding some new and useless flagging leading toward the stream crossing. Someone had even done some recent cutting along the bank. Corbett’s guide glosses over the King Edward ford as “short but cold,” while implying that the Rice Brook one is treacherous, so I was worried about how to get across, but fortunately that proved simple. A number of large trees had recently fallen across the main branch, so I could balance across one of them, then switch into wading shoes on a gravel bar to cross the remaining shin-deep channel without even taking off my pants. Too easy!

Glacier below Queant

I left my wading shoes on the other side and took off up the old road. It had looked worryingly green and overgrown from the Alexandra approach the day before, but there was a decent trail, and most of the greenery was just grass and fireweed, not evil willows and alder. I suspected that most of the trail maintenance was done by wildlife, i.e. bears, but someone had recently sawn through some of the deadfall. The trail faded slightly past the cairn parking the south glacier route, but it was still fast walking for the most part to the final cut-block, other than one stretch passing through a collapsed moraine. It was much smokier than the day before, unfortunately, so I could barely make out Bryce’s hanging glacier far above, and the cirque extending from Watchman around to Queant on the other side of the brook, sheltering a badly-shrunken glacier.

Above the green hell

The guidebook instructed me to go to the “upper left” corner of the cut-block, but I was not sure what that meant. I followed a switchback in the road, which looked more used than a faded branch straight ahead, and passed a couple of cairns before it ended. From there I headed straight up through the woods, aiming to get above the green as quickly as possible, then traverse right as necessary. This worked for awhile, as the woods were surprisingly open, but I eventually found myself in a classic thrash, pulling myself up a steep hill through krummholtz. And when I finally emerged above the green, I found myself faced with an extended side-hill across steep dirt, loose talus, and sloping ledges. I found the occasional goat-track, but I had clearly done something wrong.

Traverse below col

I eventually worked my way around a southeast buttress, and found myself at the toe of a small glacier, one of two parts of what was once a larger mass of ice below the base of the northeast ridge. I traversed below it, crossed some tiring moraine and slabs, then made my way toward the other piece of the glacier below the start of the ridge. I found a couple of cairns here, and disturbed some resting mountain goats, but the route was not obvious. At the toe of the glacier, I had a sandwich and debated a bit, then put on my spikes and picked my way up some steep ice onto the glacier’s surface. While it was fortunately largely bare, it was also badly broken up, so I spent some time weaving through a crevasse maze, even ducking through an icy arch, before I reached easier ground. Crossing the flat part of the glacier, I made my way for some northeast-trending slabs on the other side, took off my crampons, and zig-zagged up and back left to emerge near the col.

Ridge from col

Finally, I was at the base of the route. I traversed right below the first headwall, finding some bootprints and a two-pin anchor, then climbed a chossy but dry gully, stemming between the sides to hold the rock and dirt in place. From a three-pin anchor at the top, I traversed back left to the ridge crest, then stayed close to it, steadily gaining elevation on lousy but tolerable rock. I eventually reached the crux, a harder gray band of rock, which I overcame by cutting left, climbing perhaps thirty feet of face, then traversing back right to the crest, finding the promising four-pin anchor. Perhaps there used to be five- and six-pin anchors higher on the ridge, but this was the last one I found.

Center and main peaks from NE

The route is described as a mix of rock and snow, and the first ascent of the complete northeast ridge involved some thirty crampon transitions, but I used my crampons only once, sketched across two flatter bits of ice, and cut a few steps across a couple of ice saddles. Expecting frequent transitions, I had clipped my crampons into my chest strap for easy access, but they mostly just poked me at inopportune times. Above the crux step, the route was rarely harder than fourth class, mostly hiking and staying close to the crest, with occasional short stretches of climbing. The ridge flattened out on some red dirt, then steepened again to the indistinct northeast peak. From its summit I could finally see the central and main (southwest) summits, the former looking mostly dry, the latter still capped in grayish-white. Kaufmann and Outram, on their first ascent in 1902, had dropped left to the south glacier to save time, skipping the central peak, but with the shrunken glacier that looked somewhere between treacherous and impossible now. Besides, the center peak is worth peakbagger points.

Climb to center peak

Continuing, I traversed left of the jagged crest on some remarkably poor gray rock, then dropped slightly before climbing steeper terrain with bits of fifth class here and there to the central summit. While none of the climbing was particularly difficult, the exposure and poor rock demanded constant focus, which was mentally taxing, but which also distracted me from fatigue and hunger. At least as I saw it, the “skill” this route mostly requires is being able to stay “on” for hours at a time. I skirted the center peak’s icy summit blob to the left, tagging the highest rock point, then began dropping to the saddle with the main summit. This part required a few short, steep downclimbs, but the limestone was sharp and sticky. I found a large boulder with a long sling around it, but was not sure which direction people hoped to rappel. The crest cliffs out, so after checking out my options, I retreated just past the slung boulder, downclimbed a loose gully to the north, and traversed along some chossy ledges and extremely rotten rock to the col between the central and main summits.


From the final saddle, I picked my way up some awful, steep, loose yellow dirt and talus, which eventually steepened to the usual mix of walking and short alpine boulder problems. Earlier in the day, I had been worried about how long I had taken to reach the base of the ridge, but it looked like I would reach the goal in less than eight hours from my bike. Estimating that this would correspond to a six-hour return, I would be back to the car around full dark. I was feeling awfully proud of myself… until I finally got a close look at the summit “snow arete.” When the guidebook described an “spectacular snow fin [that] is not as bad as it looks,” I had assumed that it would be something like Eldorado in the Cascades, which requires balance, care, and a head for heights. What I should have anticipated was that, with Canada’s pathetic winter and early summer, the “snow fin” had melted down to its icy core. With boots, crampons, and perhaps two axes, I would have easily and securely traversed across the south face, but I had just my running shoe crampons and a single axe. I started along the ridge à cheval, knocking down the weird fin of snice along the crest to make a better seat, but this tactic would not work on the steeper parts, or on the remaining hardened cornice. With no way to reach the bare rocky slopes south of the summit, no desire to cut steps across the south face, and no other tactics coming to mind, I admitted defeat.

Columbia Icefield

Strangely, I was only mildly disappointed to turn back so close to the summit. I knew what I would have had to do to succeed: carry my heavy mountaineering gear the whole way for the final two hundred yards, costing me an hour or two on the other nineteen miles of the route, some of that by headlamp. I also knew that, in its current dry condition, the northeast ridge was not enjoyable enough to repeat. Going up the ridge and down the southwest glacier might be fun in the right conditions, but I am not expert enough to predict when that will be possible. While some rock routes in the ever-drier Canadian Rockies are becoming easier or better, traditional mountaineering routes like this are usually worse.

Approach glacier

I had my second-to-last sandwich, then began picking my way home. I was sluggish on the climbs by now, but fortunately only had one big grunt over the central peak. Needing a bit of self-manipulation, I promised myself the last sandwich when I made it past the climbing, down the ridge and below the glacier. The ridge went about as expected, slow on the uphills and quickly on the flats and downhills, except when the choss-on-slabs was more difficult down than up. Downclimbing the crux required thoughtful and careful movement, but at least the small holds were mostly solid. The dirt-chute around the first headwall was worse going down, but again just required patience.

Steep part of approach glacier

I was determined not to reverse my route over the glacier, so after retracing my way down the ramps, I continued to zig-zag down and left, searching for breaks in each layer. Some required low-fifth-class downclimbing, but I made steady progress, eventually descending below the glacier’s steep bulge. It looked from above as if I might be able to avoid the ice entirely, but that eventually proved difficult and tedious, so I put on crampons one final time to walk down the low-angle glacier to its toe, where I finally sat down, stowed my axe and spikes, and ate that last sandwich.

Balance-beam moraine

Though the “dangerous” mountaineering work was done, I still had a long ways to go, and more route-finding. I continued down the valley below the glacier, crossing as many streams to the right as I could before they joined to become too formidable. I soaked my feet on a couple, but did not really care, as I did not have too much distance to cover. I traversed back to my upward path at one point, followed it, then left it to follow the crest of an old moraine, which seemed like it would get me well below treeline before I had to engage in vegetable combat. This proved tricky but also engaging and amusing, as the crest of the moraine was balance-beam narrow. I eventually dismounted where it descended into shrubbery, crossed a final cascade, and entered the fight. I had hoped to bash straight down to an old roadbed, but I was not so fortunate. The woods here had much more undergrowth and deadfall than on the other side, and the old cut-block was littered with old debris and badly overgrown with brush and berries. Mindful that I was bashing through prime bear-grazing terrain, I occasionally yodeled, but mostly just let my spontaneous cursing at bashed toes and shins announce my presence.

Queant cirque again

Fortunately I had recorded a track on the way up, so I could just bash my way back to its closest point, finally emerging on the road. From there it was a long but mostly easy downhill walk back to Rice Brook, which was still less than knee-deep, then a short plod up to my bike. Worn though I was, the cruise down to the car still cheered me up. I did not bother with dinner or an alarm: whatever the weather, tomorrow would be a rest day.

PS: If you have some spare time, I encourage you to read James Outram’s account of the same climb in August 1902, from his book In the Heart of the Canadian Rockies.

One response to “Bryce (NE ridge fail)

  1. Janie says:

    That is amazingly interesting rock! I’ll send the photo to Dave B. to see if he can identify it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *