Ascent of Mount Columbia on 2019-05-26

Climber: Eric Gilbertson

Date:Sunday, May 26, 2019
Ascent Type:Successful Summit Attained
Peak:Mount Columbia
    Location:Canada-Alberta/British Columbia
    Elevation:12274 ft / 3741 m

Ascent Trip Report

May 26, 2019

Eric, Mike, Terrance, Oakley, Steven, Merrick

Friday – Leave Seattle after work, drive to RV lot at Icefields Discovery Centre
Saturday – ski to saddle below Snow Dome
Sunday – summit, ski back to car, drive south
Monday – drive to eastern Washington
Tuesday – return to Seattle in morning

Mount Columbia is the tallest mountain in Alberta and one of my few remaining Canadian province/territory highpoints. This spring I determined to prioritize Mt Columbia over mountains in Washington and started monitoring the weather forecasts in early April. Luckily I live close enough (an 11 hour drive) that it is possible to squeeze Mt Columbia in a long weekend, so I can afford to wait for a weather window and make a last-minute decision to go for it.

In late April a weather window lined up with a holiday weekend and I made an attempt with Serge. However, the avalanche conditions ended up being very dangerous and we ended up turning around early. (During the five-day window when we were up near the mountain there were three separate avalanche incidents in the vicinity resulting in five fatalities).

Over the next few weeks I monitored the weather pretty closely, but a weather window and stable snow conditions never lined up with a Saturday, the only day I could squeeze in the summit. Finally by late May a weather window looked to line up with the Memorial Day long weekend. Steven Song connected me with some of his mountaineering friends in Edmonton who I could team up with so I wouldn’t have to climb solo.

We agreed on a two-day Saturday-Sunday trip to give time to tag a few other peaks in the vicinity if the weather
worked out. I left town Friday after class and beat the holiday traffic headed out of town. I crossed into BC at Sumas, met Steven Song at Costco to drop off some gear with him for an upcoming expedition, then continued north.

I tried to be very efficient and minimize stopping time. I refueled in Kamloops, then pushed on to Jasper where I topped off the tank and picked up a few gas station sandwiches for dinner in the car. I then drove south on the Icefields Parkway, through occasional cold 38F rain, and reached the Icefields Discovery Centre at 10:15pm. I met up with the rest of the team in the RV lot and we slept there that night in the cars or in tents. The latest weather forecast was for marginal weather Saturday with chances of snow, but clear weather Sunday.

I had a bit of trouble sleeping since I was still recovering from a bad cold. Three weeks earlier I had skied the Fuhrer Finger route on Rainier as a car-to-car trip while I had just gotten sick and that made it worse. I ended up being sick and not exercising at all for the next three weeks, and was hoping I’d be recovered enough for Mt Columbia.

We got up at 6:30am and drove over to the climbers lot to pack up. It started raining, but we waited it out and started moving up at 8:30am when it had cleared. We carried skis up the short trail, hopped over the cable and got to the toe of the Athabasca Glacier. There we put skis on, turned on our avy beacons, and roped up.

As we headed up a few tourists followed us unroped, which seemed unwise but we couldn’t stop them. The skies were cloudy, the summits socked in the clouds, and it looked like it could start raining or snowing again at any minute. Luckily it held off, though.

Higher up the glacier we passed the parking lot for the snow coaches and headed to the right side of the icefall. We saw one party of two in front of us and they took the climbers right route going beneath the seracs. Just as they crossed beneath the seracs we saw a large section of the wall fall off and collapse onto the glacier. We later learned it didn’t come near them, but we were rattled enough to take the left route instead.

We detoured across to the left side of the icefall, then weaved through some crevasses and met up wit the base of the ramp. There we intersected the track from the other skiers and zig zagged up the ramp until the angle eased. I was surprised there were no other parties on the route with the good forecast for Sunday, but later learned that the previous weekend was a holiday weekend in Canada (Victoria Day Weekend), and most climbers who would go up to the Columbia Icefield has just done it the previous weekend. So that made this weekend much less crowded, even though it was a holiday weekend for Americans.

As the terrain leveled out above the ramp we discussed our plans. The original plan had been to split up into a group climbing Andromeda and a group climbing Snow Dome, then meet up at camp. However, Andromeda was deep in the clouds and looked like most of the climb would be in a white out. Oakley was already planning to climb it via the sky ladder route up Andromeda Monday, and I was hesitant to push my body any harder than necessary to climb Columbia while still recovering from my cold. So it was an easy call to avoid the whiteout ascent.

We pushed on to the saddle below snowdome around 12:30pm and met up with the other two skiers as they were setting up camp. They had also planned to climb Andromeda, but bailed from the whiteout. They had made excellent progress on a snow wall and were planning to climb Columbia Sunday just like we were.

We dropped gear and started making camp next to them. The clouds somehow seemed to be dissipating on Snow Dome, so Steven, Merrick, and Terrance headed up to tag the summit while Oakley, Mike, and I started making our camp. We had each already climbed Snow Dome so decided to devote our effort to making an amazing campsite.

Over the next few hours we built 6-foot-tall snow walls in a perimeter that could comfortably hold two tents, plus a kitchen area with a table and benches. As the afternoon progressed Andromeda remained socked in the clouds, but Snow Dome cleared out and the team reported good views from the summit. We could see in the direction of Mt Columbia from camp, but it was socked in the clouds all day.

We went to sleep around 8pm ready for a 4am wakeup. I had a bit of trouble sleeping from my stuffy nose, but
somehow had been ok during the whole climb up on Saturday. It felt amazing to finally have exercised after three weeks of resting, and I hoped I would be ok to finish the climb Sunday.

The next morning we were suited up and moving by 5:30am. Mt Columbia had started out still socked in the clouds, but the clouds were gradually clearing and it looked like the day would be dry as expected. We skied unroped down from camp to the trench, with half the group going with skins and half without. After 30 minutes we were in the trench and put the rope back on.

I led the Eric-Oakley-Mike team up out of the trench following vague tracks from the previous weekend. There were a few crevasses near the trench but the rest of the route was basically crevasse free. I climbed steeply out of the trench then followed a gradual ascent making a beeline for Mt Columbia. By now the skies were mostly clear with just the summit of Columbia passing in and out of one pesky cloud that seemed to be stuck on it.

I eventually reached a point just below the bergschrund below the east face and stopped to take a break. The rest of our team caught up, as well as the two-man team. We all agreed the snow was pretty icy and it would be sketchy to try to ski the face. Steven solidified this decision in my mind by telling a story of a friend who dropped a ski at the base of the face and the ski slid all the way off the glacier down to the Athabasca river. The guy ended up strapping an ice axe to one foot and ski/scooted out the whole way like that.

We put crampons on and I led the way up the now cloud-free summit. I skirted the lower bergschrund on the right, then cut left below the upper bergschrund to gain the southeast ridge. From there I ascended basically straight up, just right of a few rock bands. The angle got gradually steeper until I hit an inflection point at the uppermost rock band. Step kicking was slow going and I was surprised to see no evidence of any earlier boot tracks, despite seeing the ski tracks lower on the mountain.

Above the upper rock band the angle eased and I stomped out a platform to take a short break. The rest of the team caught up, then Steven led the last bit. We crossed over a small crevasse, then crested the summit after about 5 minutes, around 11am.

I had read about the first summit being a false summit, but the first summit was obviously the tallest point around. I think it depends on the year which point on the summit pyramid has the highest snow. Just to be certain, though, we walked over to the northern shorter summit also.

Steven got some souvenir snow from the top and I found a few summit rocks in a nearby outcrop. It was cold and windy, but sunny with excellent views. The other guys pointed out the nearby peaks to me like Mt Alberta just to the north and Mt Tsar to the northwest, one of the most remote 11,000er peaks.

We soon started back down, which involved downclimbing the steep slope facing in, using our big bucket steps. It was slow going, and once we got below the lower rock band and changed to plunge stepping facing outwards, which was much faster.

Below the bergschrund we took a break, then strapped on the skis and glided down the mountain. Unfortunately the terrain leveled out enough that we had to do a bit of skate skiing, but we soon got to glide back to the trench.

At the trench we transitioned back to skins and skinned back to camp around 2:45pm. There we melted snow, packed up, and soaked up our last views from the top of the Columbia Icefield. Mt Columbia was still transitioning in and out of one pesky cloud, even though the skies were clear everywhere else.

We started heading down around 4pm, and soon had fun turns down the ramp. This time we decided to cut skiers left under the seracs. This was safer on the descent since we could pass through very quickly and it wasn’t as heavily crevassed as our ascent route. We took turns gaining speed at the bottom of the ramp and blasting past the seracs very quickly. Nothing fell on us, and we soon gained the lower Athabasca.

From there it was a fun glide back down to the toe, where we took off skis and walked back to the parking lot by
5:30pm. I was excited for some victory pizza, so quickly went over to the Icefields Discovery Centre, but unfortunately the restaurant decided to close early at 5pm that day. So my dinner was a leftover sandwich and some chips.

Our team parted ways and I drove down to Saskatchewan crossing, then turned on highway 11 to find a campsite just outside the park boundary at the Cline mountain trailhead. The next morning I took my time admiring the sights along the Icefields Parkway, then drove back to Washington, making it to near Washington Pass for the night. I drove back to Seattle early Tuesday morning.

Link to full trip report and pictures.
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