Ascent to Mount Columbia-Snow Dome South Slope on 2019-04-21

Climber: Eric Gilbertson

Date:Sunday, April 21, 2019
Ascent Type:Unsuccessful - Turned Back
Point Reached:Mount Columbia - Snow Dome South Slope
    Location:Canada-Alberta/British Columbia
    Elevation:9646 ft / 2940 m
    Remaining Elevation:2628 ft / 801 m (21% left to go)

Ascent Trip Report

Eric and Serge

April 18 – Eric leaves Seattle after work, picks up Serge at Vancouver, camp near Hope, BC
April 19 – Drive to Jasper, pick up permits, camp at Athabasca glacier trailhead
April 20 – Ski to base of snow dome
April 21 – ski Kitchener, Snow Dome, return to car, drive to near Glacier National Park, BC
April 22 – return to Seattle

I had a long weekend for Easter break and was hoping to climb Mt Columbia, the tallest mountain in Alberta. I’m working on climbing the highpoints of all the Canadian provinces and territories, and this was one of my few remaining peaks. Serge was interested as well, and planned to fly into Vancouver from Montreal for the trip.

Spring seems to be the ideal time to climb Mt Columbia because the crevasses on the standard route are mostly filled in. The standard route ascends the Athabasca Glacier to the broad, flat, Columbia icefield, then ascends the steep East face of the summit pyramid. The route is ideal for skis because of its long, gentle slopes most of the way.

Early in the week the weather forecast looked like a window was opening up on Saturday and Sunday, which would be perfect for a two-day ascent. The only issue was a big storm was passing through Thursday and Friday that might make the avalanche conditions dangerous. Most of the route is on low-angle slopes, but the summit pyramid is a sustained 40-degree slope which could potentially slide. Our plan was to give the slope all of Saturday to hopefully stabilize, and by Sunday it might be stable enough to climb.

On Wednesday I read that there would be a planned closure of the Icefields Parkway in Jasper National Park until Saturday noon for avalanche control work. Luckily it was only the southern half of the highway, and our trailhead would still be accessible from the north.

Thursday after work I started driving north, and picked up Serge at the Vancouver Airport. We then drove east through heavy rain until we got tired around 9:30pm and pulled off in a nice stealth campsite near Hope, BC.

In the morning we continued driving through Kamloops and up Route 5 to Jasper. There we picked up backcountry camping permits and heard the news that three climbers had just been killed a day earlier in an avalanche on an east-facing route (M16) on Howse Peak in Banff National Park. That was a bit troubling since there are essentially unavoidable east – facing aspects on the normal route up Mt Columbia. However, the latest avy forecast for Sunday had the danger level dropping, so we continued with our plan of giving the slopes time Saturday to stabilize.

That evening we drove down to the toe of the Athabasca Glacier and pulled into a small lot across the street from the Icefields Discovery Centre. The road down to the trailhead was snowed over and gated, and we were the only ones in the upper lot. There was another gated road heading up hill, and this looked to be the access road for the big busses that drive tourists onto the glacier.

It was snowing hard and windy all evening, and we packed up our gear and went to sleep in the back of the car
around 9:30pm. The next morning, April 20, it was clear and sunny. We put skis on about 50ft from the car and skied down to the lower parking lot, then carefully skied across the thin fresh snow to the base of the Athabasca Glacier.

We roped up there and started up. Surprisingly we were the only ones on the route, even though it was a sunny long holiday weekend. There weren’t even any other cars in the lot. With all the fresh snow that meant there were no skin tracks to follow and we’d be breaking our own trail the whole way.

Serge wasn’t feeling too well, so I ended up taking extra gear and doing all the trail breaking, which made for slow going. We went directly up the glacier, past some tourists in a big snow coach that had driven onto the snow. At the base of the icefall we went right, which was the normal route. This was less crevassed, though it did pass close underneath a hanging glacier coming off Snow Dome.

At one point the slope was steep enough that we took off skis and kicked steps up. After that we quickly passed under the hanging glacier, then zig-zagged up the wide snow slope on the upper icefall. At the top of the icefall the slope angle dropped and the skinning much easier. Distances were deceiving because the icefield was so large, and it seemed like we were making very little progress.

Eventually we crested a small hill and got our first views of Mt Columbia in the distance. We were near the triple divide point on the south slope of Snow Dome, where theoretically if you pee in exactly the right spot it will drain into the Pacifica, Atlantic, and Arctic oceans. It was getting late so we decided to camp there.

We melted a bunch of snow, cooked dinner, and went to sleep around 9:30pm when the sun was just setting. Coincidentally Steven was planning to climb Mt Kitchner nearby the next day, and I texted him on my inReach to see when he’d arrive. I also texted Matthew on the inreach to see if he could check the latest avy forecast.

That night I checked the inreach around 3am and Matthew said the avy forecast for Sunday had deteriorated. The Friday storm had dumped more snow and been windier than expected, and it was considerable avy danger above treeline for Sunday and Monday, with the biggest concern wind slab and persistent slab on E-N-NW slopes. The standard East face route sounded very dangerous. The south ridge route appeared to be safer, but some cliff bands on the bottom would need to be skirted on the east aspects which could be risky. It was probably a good idea for us to wait for more stable conditions to try the summit. .

I slept til around 6am and then got out and waited for Steven’s group. They arrived around 6:30am as planned, and I decided to join up with their group to climb Mt Kitchener and let Serge rest and recover. The route up Mt Kitchener followed low-angle slopes and had no avalanche concern. Steven’s group of three was all on snowshoes, and I tied in on the end of the rope and skied behind them. Another group of three of Steven’s friends followed soon behind.

We rounded Snow Dome, then I took the lead breaking trail to the col between Snow Dome and Kitchener. I heard occasional whumping of the snow under my steps, which is usually a sign to watch out for avalanches. The terrain was very low angle and of no danger, but it made me glad to not be on the steep slopes of Mt Columbia that morning. From there the terrain was very mellow, so we unroped and went at our own paces. Steven and I got up Kitchener first, and Steven probed the snow thickness with his avy probe so we could get as close as possible to the top without standing on a cornice that might break off.

The rest of the group soon caught up and we had a nice break on the summit. Steven has done almost all of the 11,000ers, and just has five left after Kitchener. Kitchener was my first 11,000er. Steven had already done Snow Dome so he said his group would follow their tracks back to the trailhead. But I figured I might as well tag another easy summit. So I skied down solo from Kitchener, then skinned up to Snow Dome. The summit was very flat, but I found a metal pole sticking out that marked the true top.

When I transitioned back to ski mode to head back down I noticed an important spring in my bindings had broken. This meant the brakes on the skis no longer worked. With some effort, though, I managed to attach the ski to my boot and still ski down. It was a fun ski back to camp, arriving around 1pm.

Serge and I packed up camp and started heading back down. It was a fun ski down the icefall, past the hanging
glacier, and back down to the toe of the glacier. The whole time there was only one other group on the icefield, a group of three skiers who went up to the top of the icefall then skied back down.

At the base of the glacier the fresh snow from Friday had all melted out, so we had to carry the skis back to the car. By now there were at least 100 people walking around, quite a different scene than Friday or Saturday. We grabbed some overpriced pizza and French fries at the Icefield Discovery Centre, then started the drive back. It was a very scenic drive south through the Icefield Parkway, and we made it to just outside Glacier National Park before finding a place to camp.

The next day we drove through the rain to Vancouver where I dropped Serge off, then I made it back to Seattle that night.

Link to full trip report and pictures.
Summary Total Data
    Total Elevation Gain:9646 ft / 2940 m
Ascent Statistics
    Gain on way in:9646 ft / 2940 m
    Start Trailhead:0 ft / 0 m
Descent Statistics

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