Ascent to Mount Wilcox-Southeast Slope on 1992-08-07
|Date:||Friday, August 7, 1992|
|Ascent Type:||Unsuccessful - Turned Back|
|Point Reached:||Mount Wilcox - Southeast Slope|
| Elevation:||2799 m / 9185 ft|
| Remaining Elevation:||85 m / 277 ft (10% left to go)|
Ascent Trip ReportToday I was determined to do the first hike of my trip, and last night I had checked a map I had bought and decided to attempt Mt. Wilcox, a minor summit on the east side of the Icefields Highway, across from the Athabasca Glacier. I was not really up for a major summit in the Canadian Rockies, such as Mt. Columbia, highest in the Columbia Icefields area, because these peaks are very heavily glaciated and much more difficult than those in the American west. Also, the weather was still pretty rotten.
So I left the Athabasca Falls hostel and drove south past awesome mountains and the incredible Athabasca Glacier area, where sno-cats took tourists across the glacier that came right down to the road, and parked a bit beyond it, at the Wilcox Campground. Here I got ready for the first serious hike of my trip: I changed into my three-layer clothing system of polypro, pile, and Gore-Tex; threw food, map, extra clothes, and miscellaneous doodads into my daypack; put on my leather hiking boots; put on sunblock to avoid getting burned in the thin atmosphere; made sure I had my keys and wallet in my pack; locked my car; and set up the trail.
I hiked uphill through dense forest for a while before emerging above timberline in nice meadow. It was very cloudy and windy, but the views from the ridge I was on over to the awesome snowy peaks of the Columbia Icefields were incredible despite most of the higher summits being hidden by clouds. The trail switchbacked up and around, and after several rests it took me behind Mt. Wilcox, to where I couldn't see the Icefield Peaks any more, and finally to a large cairn in the center of a broad, grassy valley. Here I took a long rest and contemplated the sharp ridge of Mt. Wilcox up ahead. From the cairn there was no trail up to the peak, but it looked like very easy cross-country travel.
It was, too. I was somewhat out of shape, and had to rest frequently, but I crossed the grassy valley, made my way up the rocky southern slopes of the peak, sometimes having to crank out a steep section of talus, and was soon up on the serrated knife-edge crest of the peak. All I had to do was find a way north along this ridge to get to the summit. The drop off to my right was incredible, down to the highway.
Unfortunately, though, the weather started deteriorating rapidly when I gained the ridge. Clouds rolled in, engulfing me, and then it started to snow lightly. I reached a very precarious section of the ridge, where I would have to carefully lower myself down mini-cliffs, using my hands, and the exposure was dramatic, and after some thought decided to turn back. If it was sunny and dry the rock would not have been too bad, but in the wind and snow I didn't want to chance it. I downclimbed the more gentle right side of the ridge a little to see if I could avoid the crest of the ridge, but I didn't see any easy routes, and the final summit pinnacles, which weren't too far away, looked menacing anyway.
Also, the snow started picking up in intensity, and this more than anything finally made up my mind that retreating was the best option. So I carefully made my way back down the precarious knife-edge ridge in what was basically a raging blizzard. I had trouble reconciling this with the fact that it was early August at 52 degrees north (London's latitude) and only 9000 feet up, not really that high at all. By the time I was descending the easier slopes down to the grassy valley the snow had accumulated significantly and I was almost in a white-out. This caused me to become disoriented, and I lost my way for a while, trying to find the large cairn in a sort of featureless landscape. The snow let up after a while, and once I could see the nearby mountains I was able to re-orient myself and trudge through a couple inches of wet snow to the cairn.
Once I was on the trail, descending towards my car, it became much clearer, and the snow either melted very rapidly or else it didn't snow much lower down, because my descent was almost entirely snow-free. I saw other hikers on the trail, heading uphill, and I also saw a bighorn sheep browsing on grass above me--I was even able to quietly approach it to take its picture. Also, the views of the Icefield peaks were, oddly, now better, since the cloudy ceiling had lifted a little. After more descent through wet forest I returned to my car, having set a long-lasting personal Canadian height record of 9185 feet despite not getting to the 9286 foot summit of Mt. Wilcox.
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