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Ascent to Mount Columbia-SE Ridge on 2012-04-08

Climber: Greg Slayden

Others in Party:Edward Earl
----Only Party on Mountain
Date:Sunday, April 8, 2012
Ascent Type:Unsuccessful - Turned Back
    Motorized Transport to Trailhead:Car
Point Reached:Mount Columbia - SE Ridge
    Location:Canada-Alberta/British Columbia
    Elevation:3400 m / 11155 ft
    Remaining Elevation:341 m / 1119 ft (17% left to go)

Ascent Trip Report

Summary: A three-day mini-expedition on backcountry skis to attempt Mount Columbia via the Athabasca Glacier, Columbia Icefield, and the “Trench”. Cold weather and lack of time forced us to turn back 341m/1118’ from the summit.

Friday April 6th:

Edward and I left the Seattle area for the Canadian Rockies at 7 AM and drove via Sumas WA (gas, border crossing), Hope BC (driver switch), Kamloops BC (ATM, burgers for lunch), Salmon Arm BC (gas), Rogers Pass BC (rest break at ranger station), and Lake Louise AB (phone call, gas, last minute food/gear). We spent the night in the rustic Mosquito Creek hostel 20 minutes north of Lake Louise amongst a friendly collection of Canadians on low-key backcountry ski holidays. We organized our gear in our dorm room and after eating went to sleep early.

Saturday, April 7th:

We awoke at first light and, as quietly as possible, left our common hostel dorm room and resumed our drive north on the Icefields Parkway. An hour later we were at the Athabasca Glacier parking area, containing about 15 cars, all with BC or AB license plates except for us. It took us quite a bit of time to get organized and ready in the frigid morning—we were each carrying 4 days of food, Denali-weight cold-weather clothing and sleeping bags, a camping stove, shovel, ice axe, crampons, 2 pickets, and harness with full crevasse rescue gear. In addition, we had a 4-season tent, full randonée backcountry ski gear and a rope, which we carried most of the time.

We finally started skiing uphill at 9:05 AM--snow and various hiker/skier tracks were everywhere around the low moraine hills, and we got a bit disoriented at first before finding the best ski route through the area and started the long straight slog up the huge maw of the Athabasca Glacier. The weather was OK—frigid with a high overcast—and we could see the impressive form of Mounts Athabasca and Andromeda to the left of the glacier.

There was a well-established ski track up the lower ablation zone of the glacier, so we trudged uphill, past the summer road, now gated, to the touristy “Snow Coach” area where giant buses drove onto the glacier. Currently workers were preparing the area for the summer season, and after leaving behind the engine noise and backup beeps we had the glacier to ourselves. Soon we approached the 3 stair-step icefalls of the glacier, where we thought we might have to rope up. We also heard that it was best to stay away from the right side wall of our valley, and indeed we saw menacing seracs ready to fall from the Snow Dome above.

However, our path clearly led up over the first icefall to the right, but well away from any serac fall, and nowhere near any crevasses, so we just followed the track without bothering with the rope. At the second icefall we saw our first other skiers of the day, a couple and their dog making their way down a ramp. We elected to take a more well-used path that led again to the right past the second icefall, and we hustled here past many large blue ice chunks that had fallen from above. It was cold and early, and the risk of falling ice seemed minimal at present.

The third and final icefall had a huge, wide, gently sloping ramp of snow almost in the middle of it, and again a well-used skin track zig-zagged uphill, so we just slogged on up with our 60+ pound loads. Two skiers came down this ramp while we headed up, and we were also passed by a fast-moving party of four heading up. No one was roped—it seems that this was a heavy snow year, and we were still in early season, so everything was smothered in a deep blanket of snow. There were bluish icefall cliffs visible, but no “classic” crevasses to be seen anywhere on our whole trip.

Neither Edward or I was moving very fast, but on the steep snow above the ramp I pulled ahead to a flagged wand where the party of 4 was resting. I briefly chatted with them—they were headed for Stutfield Peak—before they took off, un-roped again. Edward caught up, we rested a bit more, and then continued uphill into deteriorating weather. It was now a partial white-out, with cold blowing snow making things generally miserable.

We were headed for the “Trench” separating the Columbia massif from the main Icefield, and after a bit we were on the almost completely flat, featureless expanse, guided by GPS to make sure we were headed in the right direction. We passed a tent camp, and eventually decided to rope up, since we were no longer on a beaten-down path and the near white-out reduced our visibility and confidence. Edward went first and I steered him as we plodded onward for a couple miles, with very occasional views through wispy clouds.

We passed by a dug-in tent, and another was visible maybe 50 yards away, and we took a quick halt and I looked at my watch and saw it was now 5:30 PM—much later than we thought, and we had no idea where the time had gone today. It had taken us 8.5 hours to move up 693m/3160’ over 11.5 km/7.15 miles. We were tired and cold, and we quickly decided to set up camp now, even though we were well short of the Trench. So we dropped our packs and spent an hour or so digging out a big pit for our tent in the light snow, pitching my Aconcagua-tested tent, and finally crawling inside with our packs. We then spent an hour or so melting snow for drinking water and hot dinner. It was very cold, miserable work making camp with intermittent blowing snow and overwhelming cold. My hands got quite cold as we did all these chores.

I finally settled into my -30F rated down sleeping bag, wearing layers of heavy polypro, fleece, and down, and I started shivering uncontrollably as darkness fell. My legs especially were cold and would not stop shivering. I was worried I was in terminal hypothermia and that if I fell asleep I might not wake up. I started eating and drinking as much as I could—I had little appetite and had to force food down—but eventually I warmed up and slept intermittently.

Sunday, April 8th:

Edward and I were very lethargic this morning. Yesterday’s approach hike had been longer and tougher than we imagined, and my bout with shivering made me want to make sure I was well rested. The day broke to a clear blue cloudless sky, but that also meant utterly freezing temperatures. We roused ourselves, made water, ate breakfast, and finally got our gear together for our summit attempt on Mount Columbia. We started off from camp by 10 AM, not exactly an alpine start.

I insisted that we start off without the climbing skins we had on our skis all day yesterday, since it was clearly downhill to the Trench from our camp, and we also roped up. At first we had to kick and glide a bit, and we saw two guys heading up towards the Snow Dome and soon passed their tent a ways down. We followed faint blown-over ski paths and glided along, and when the deep and pronounced trench came into view, we were able to ski down into it on a long traverse that avoided some bergschrundy areas. I stayed above Edward as we both skied roped together, and we didn’t have to turn as we easily glided to a stop in the middle of the Trench. No one was camped there, and faint ski trails were the only evidence of life.

We took a break, put our climbing skins on, and now I led uphill on the far side, starting off at about 11 AM. I followed a faint ski path that was perhaps two days old as it switchbacked up past a couple of minor bergschrundy areas, then up a few giant white rolling humps, and then to a very long and broad plateau leading inexorably towards the towering summit pyramid of Mount Columbia ahead. The going was over more endless flat expanse of snow. I thought we were making good time and was at this point optimistic about our chances. But it was a long way – over three miles from the Trench to the base of the peak—and again the time seemed to get away from us.

The summit pyramid of Columbia was about 700m/2300’ high, and Edward liked the look of the East Ridge, but I didn’t like all the avalanche crowns from massive slab releases on that side. The East Face seemed too steep to boot straight up safely, so the Southeast Ridge seemed like the best bet. We headed for some snow humps at the base of the ridge, but at this point I think we were flagging quite a bit as we switchbacked uphill. We followed the faint ski paths the best we could, but eventually made our own way.

A large bergschrund ran across the East Face and Southeast Ridge, and we saw a place where snow entirely filled it and headed for it, planning to cache our skis and hike from there. I made one last big uphill push to that point, and, staying roped up, we both took off our skis, took out our ice axes, and I led up the snow hump beyond the bergschrund, kicking steps in the styrofoam snow. Above this the snow varied from hard icy stuff to softer powder, and I headed for a smaller bergschrund above. Our plan was to get over this, then un-rope and climb the ridge to the summit. A rock buttress that needed to be bypassed on the steep East Face was a bit worrisome, as was some cornices on the summit ridge, but it looked doable.

However, as I kicked my way up the very steep snow to the second bergschrund, I stopped to catch my breath and glanced at my pocket watch—it was now 4:30 PM. Edward, on the rope below me, noted my pace was very slow as I broke trail uphill, and I was indeed out of gas. I really wanted this peak, but I was at 3400m/11,155’, leaving me 341m/1118’ to go. That could easily take 1.5 hours, putting us on top at 6 PM. It was light out until almost 10 PM this time of year here, but I was not sure we could get back to camp in 4 hours. Plus, we were very tired and running low on water. Edward and I chatted for a few minutes and quickly agreed to call off our attempt. It was just too late in the day and we had started too late.

We hiked down to our skis, took some time removing our skins and getting our gear together for the descent, and then started skiing downhill roped, since there were a few widely-spaced bergschrunds in the vicinity. However, as is usually the case with roped skiing, this was a disaster. I could not help skiing over the rope, and I would get it tangled around my leg, and after several turns Edward got ahead of me and was pulled down when I was not keeping up. We decided the terrain was safe enough to ski un-roped, and the risk of injury or accident was greater from rope mishap than crevasse fall.

So the bottom half of the ski down the summit pyramid was effortless and fun on the soft windslab snow. I fetched a cracker box I had accidentally dropped at a rest stop on the way up, and then we built up speed to get started on the long, flat three miles back to the Trench. At first this was pretty flat and we had to kick and glide, but near the Trench we were able to get into what I call “moving sidewalk” mode where we just stood still in our skis as we flew along the gently sloping snow at a good clip. Eventually it got steeper and we made nice turns, and carefully followed our uphill track down into the Trench. We were there at 6:30, just 2 hours down from our high point (it had taken us 5.5 hours up).

The day had been almost perfect weather-wise, with just a few clouds in a mostly blue and windless sky, but now it was getting late and the wind picked up as the sun sunk low, making us a bit chilled as we put our skins back on for the 1.8 miles and 853’ uphill back up to our camp. Normally this would have been no big deal, but in our fatigued state it became a death march. We passed the camp of the two guys we saw this morning and had a brief chat—these were the only other people we saw all day. Otherwise we just plodded on in our outbound track as the sun set and a deep chill permeated everything on the Icefield.

We arrived at 8:45 PM, after taking two hours to ski uphill back to our tent. We got inside as quickly as we could, melted water with our balky stoves to rehydrate and prepare warm meals, and got into our sleeping bags as soon as possible, taking no time for any luxuries like brushing teeth or looking at maps. We were lucky we turned around when we did—an arrival any later would have been even more miserable and perhaps dangerous. Tonight it was Edward’s turn to shiver uncontrollably from time to time, and he also felt some frostbite on two of his fingers.

We had both been to Denali, myself entirely in May, and unless my advancing age has sensitized me more to the cold, these two nights were the most frigid of my life. We both had our full Denali gear—sleeping bags, down jackets, etc. and still found ourselves chilled to the point of despair.

Monday, April 9th:

Once again we were in no hurry to get out of our sleeping bags. It was another clear, nice, but cold day, and eventually we got our stuff together, took down the tent, and packed everything up. We were heartened by having a day that was 95% downhill. We thought about skiing up the looming mass of the Snow Dome above us, but were just to spent physically and mentally at this point. So at 10:30 AM we shouldered our heavy packs and set off eastwards across the icecap, feeling once again like Antarctic explorers.

We started off with skins on our skis and roped up, since we were headed uphill on a very slight angle. After about half an hour Edward, in the lead, left our faint path from Monday to gain an almost imperceptible rise on the snow. I wondered what was up and soon realized he thought he had identified the triple-ocean divide point that the Columbia Icefield is most famous for. We stopped and discussed our situation—the terrain here was flatter than Kansas and our little hill had maybe 10 feet or less of prominence, so it was hard to tell if we were at any exact point. It seemed like as good a candidate as any for the hydrographic apex, but given the shifting nature of ice, the extreme flatness, the confusion over the junction of 4 major drainages here (2 going to the Arctic, 1 each to the Pacific and Atlantic), and possible lack of correlation between the topography and where the ice/water might actually wind up, any further Lobdelization seemed pointless. Once home I reviewed our location and all available evidence and feel there was not much more anyone could do to claim to have stood at the exact point. Our camp site was actually very close to a possible triple divide site.

We headed back to our outbound path, but not before I had my only skiing fall of the trip when I went to check my GPS while trying to both keep stride with Edward and hang on to my poles, and I got my ski tips crossed trying to avoid the rope. It is never fun to fall down on flat snow wearing skis and a 60+ pound pack—either the pack or the skis have to come off before you can stand up.

Once back on our path it started going downhill perceptibly, and we stopped to strip off our skins and un-rope for the 3000-foot ski descent to the car. At first it was kicking and gliding, then coasting, and finally some real turning as we neared the wands marking the entrance to the Athabasca Glacier and several recent ski tracks in the snow, likely from yesterday. The snow was not awesome—semi-soft sastrugi/windslab—but we both managed to turn easily, which for the backcountry counts as perfectly fine.

As a more experienced skier, I was a bit concerned with Edward skiing down the icefalls with a heavy pack, but he did OK, making wide snowplow turns, resting often, and only falling twice on easier terrain down lower. We both skied down the steep ramp of the upper icefall without incident, quickly cruised past the flat, icy zone where giant blue ice balls from above were scattered about, and once down some snowy moraine sidehills past the two lower icefalls we once again were in “moving sidewalk” mode where we could just stand up on our skis and coast downhill for a mile or so.

The final stage of our journey was making a few turns down the toe of the glacier, waving to some car tourists on short hikes (the first people we had seen all day), and a short but heartbreaking uphill of about 20 feet to the parking lot that necessitated either putting our climbing skins back on, or post-holing. We chose the former, and were back at the car by 2:30 PM.

We organized a bit and then drove off south. We stopped at Bow Summit on the Icefields Parkway to use a restroom, and then I drove all the way to Golden, BC, where we found a reasonably-priced motel for the night. We organized gear some more, had well-deserved showers, and got dinner at an “abc Country” restaurant out on the commercial strip. I also went for a little walk around town.

Tuesday, April 10th:

We packed up and left our motel in Golden, headed for Seattle. However, at 8:30 AM just outside town, an information sign and a construction crew flagger both told us that the Trans-Canada Highway over Rogers Pass was closed. Apparently, a rockslide had left 30 feet of boulders over the road, plus there was an avalanche on the other side, both triggered by recent warm daytime temperatures. The official radio station said the road would open at 3 PM, with “low confidence”. We had heard the pass was closed for part of yesterday, and felt lucky not to be driving it then, but today it was even worse. Yesterday we had looked at the map for alternates, and knew that the only other reasonable way home was to head south to I-90 in Idaho and then west to Seattle.

Our planned route from Golden to my house would have been 508 miles in a time of 8:53, and our detour route was 632 miles and 10:41. But the extra two hours seemed like a better bet than waiting around Golden for over 7 hours and then getting home by midnight, if we were lucky. So we didn’t have to debate long before heading south on BC 95 towards Cranbrook.

Edward drove at first, and we changed drivers at Canal Flats, BC. I drove south (we had a minor detour when we missed a turn near Kimberly) to the border crossing at Kingsgate/Eastport and then to Bonners Ferry, ID, where we bought gas and snacks. Edward drove to Sandpoint, Coeur d’Alene, and the Spokane airport; I motored us west on I-90 to Ellensburg (last gas stop), and he took us home to Seattle at around 6:30 PM.

Postscript:

Mount Columbia is a big mountain and its scale and overall remoteness makes it more like a Yukon/Alaska summit than almost all peaks in the Lower 48. It’s about a 26-mile trip, much of it over terrain reminiscent of Antarctica. The weather is often bad and hard to predict, and there is significant danger from icefall and crevasses during most of the climbing season. I recommend setting off on this quest only if you have a reasonable weather forecast, and even then a 4 or 5 day trip is probably a good idea. Skis are definitely the way to go here, since most of the distance is either flat or nicely angled for quick downhill runs, but even then a party’s speed will vary with their skiing ability.

We had several factors in our favor: clear, settled weather (excepting the afternoon white-out on day 1); tons of snow to minimize the crevasse danger to near zero; cold weather to minimize rockfall/icefall; good snow conditions; and relatively long daylight hours. But working against us was the overall extreme cold and the windy white-out on day 1, plus our heavy packs and not yet being in peak summer condition for a trip of this nature. We camped too early on day 1, and left too late on day 2, and had too far to go with not enough time.
Summary Total Data
    Elevation Gain:1932 m / 6342 ft
    Extra Gain:259 m / 853 ft
    Distance:41.8 km / 26 mi
    Route:Athabasca Gl/Trench
    Trailhead:Icefields Parkway  1986 m / 6519 ft
    Quality:8 (on a subjective 1-10 scale)
    Route Conditions:
Snow on Ground, Snow Climb, Glacier Climb
    Gear Used:
Ice Axe, Rope, Skis, Ski Poles, Tent Camp
    Weather:Cold, Calm, Clear
Ascent Part of Trip: 2012 - Columbia Icefield (2 nights total away from roads)

Complete Trip Sequence:
OrderPeak/PointDate
1(Attempt) Mount Columbia2012-04-08
2Snow Dome-South Slope2012-04-09
GPS Data for Ascent/Trip


 GPS Waypoints - Hover or click to see name and lat/long
Peaks:  climbed and  unclimbed by Greg Slayden
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Note: GPS Tracks may not be accurate, and may not show the best route. Do not follow this route blindly. Conditions change frequently. Use of a GPS unit in the outdoors, even with a pre-loaded track, is no substitute for experience and good judgment. Peakbagger.com accepts NO resposibility or liability from use of this data.

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