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Ascent of Mount Columbia on 2013-05-04

Climber: Greg Slayden

Others in Party:(Edward Earl)
Date:Saturday, May 4, 2013
Ascent Type:Successful Summit Attained
    Motorized Transport to Trailhead:Car
Peak:Mount Columbia
    Location:Canada-Alberta/British Columbia
    Elevation:3741 m / 12274 ft

Ascent Trip Report

Introduction:

In early April of 2012, Edward and I were turned back on our Mount Columbia expedition by extremely cold weather and a lack of time. We were so cold we were late in starting out in the mornings and our high camp was too far from the peak. But we had learned a lot, and for 2013 we vowed to return, adding another day to our planned itinerary (now a four-day trip) and going a bit later in the season. As we had done before, we carefully watched the weather forecasts for the Canadian Rockies and would only go if they consistently showed a long stretch of clear skies.

A nice weather window looked almost guaranteed around the weekend of May 4-5, so over the course of a couple days got all organized and left the Seattle area on Wednesday morning, May 1st for the long drive to the Rockies. After a small detour to investigate the Mount Rainier prominence saddle in Armstrong, BC (don’t ask unless you already understand that reference) we made it to Lake Louise, Alberta by 8 PM. We spent the night in a modern but expensive youth hostel, and before turning in we checked out the famous lake and had a hard time finding a restaurant in shut-down town—it was definitely the off-season, a lull between the ski area closings and the busy summer.

Thursday, May 2:

We drove from Lake Louise to the Athabasca Glacier area on the Icefields Parkway in about an hour and a half, parked in the little parking lot just off the road at 1987m/6519’, and got all packed up. At 9:20 AM we were skiing the slight downhill incline to a frozen lake, and then we started the long grind up 3000 vertical feet of the Athabasca Glacier. The weather was overcast and a strong wind was blowing down the glacier and into our faces all day. We roped up before the icefalls and skirted the first and second stair-step icefalls on the right, seeing very little evidence of falling debris, even less than we saw last April. Then we scaled the wide central ramp that led up the third icefall, arriving up on Columbia Icefield proper.

We plugged on a bit, but when it started snowing we got a bit discouraged and eventually dropped our heavy packs and set up camp, at 2715m/8907’. We were planning on taking two days to reach our high camp in the Trench, so we had no reason to go any further. Snow and spindrift blew everywhere as we cooked our meal and melted snow, but by evening it was clearing a bit. A group of five climbers was camped not too far away, and we saw a couple other groups descending, but overall it did not seem as busy as last year.

Despite initial enthusiasm when we first planned this trip, Edward was experiencing some stress about the climb and had lost his appetite for food. He was not sure if he wanted to continue tomorrow. He finally did eat a bit before we settled down for the night.

Friday, May 3:

We slept in a bit and awoke to a beautiful blue-sky day. All we had to do today was climb a gentle 245m/804’ vertical, traverse the flat expanse of the icefield, and ski down a short ways to the Trench. Edward was feeling better and committed himself to getting to the Trench today so we would be in position to summit the next day.

It was downright warm as we hauled our heavy packs uphill from the camp. The group of 5 camped near us, and another group of skiers, were headed for the Snow Dome, and we peeled off the main skin track for the Trench. We had time today and could have made a side-trip to the Snow Dome (vertical gain and loss of 500m/1640’), but we wanted to stay focused on the main goal of Mount Columbia and not take any detours that could sap our strength.

We took a couple rests, including one at our campsite spot from last year (2950m/9678’), and finally skied the gentle slopes down into the Trench and set up camp on the far (west) side at 2690m/8825’. We could have gone further, but we were done with the nasty business of hauling our heavy overnight packs uphill.

It was a relaxing day and evening, tending to camp chores. Edward seemed in good spirits, and my only complaint was painful toes from my boots, which was odd, since on previous trips with these boots it had not been an issue.

Saturday, May 4:

We awoke at first light, around 6 AM, and I started stirring to get ready. Sadly, during the night Edward had experienced a return of his anxiety about the climb. He had no appetite for food and found it (psychologically) very difficult to even put his boots on. He decided he would not go for the summit.

I was very torn by this. I wanted him to get this peak, and we had both put a lot of time, effort, and money in getting ourselves to this high camp. And while many people would consider a solo ascent of Mount Columbia foolhardy or suicidal, I had been considering it since Edward told me of his thoughts on our first night out of the trip. The weather was perfect and we had not seen a single threatening crevasse anywhere so far, so it seemed like it was at least worth an exploratory attempt.

We talked this over for a while. Edward seemed OK with hanging out in the tent all day, and he understood how badly I wanted this peak, how much sacrifice I had made so far, and how close we were. I would never have allowed Edward to ski down the Athabasca glacier alone, so I felt good he would be safe in the tent today and not out on his own. As I got dressed and ready, I felt I owed it to myself to head uphill towards the peak carefully and see how things went, one step at a time.

While packing I discovered that my inner boots were in the wrong boot shells, a left-right mixup that was the source of my foot pain on the trip so far. Also, by going solo I could leave behind my heavy pickets, rope, and harness. So I was hesitantly confident as I exchanged a heartfelt goodbye with Edward and set off at 8 AM.

We thought we had heard voices earlier this morning, but I saw no tracks from anyone else but us in the Trench as I skinned up its relatively gentle west side on hard, icy snow, nowhere near any crevasses or bergschrunds. Once up a bit the grade eased and I settled in for the long, mostly flat slog towards the pyramidal beacon of Mount Columbia ahead. The snow softened a bit and I started sinking in, but even on slight uphills skis provide some nice kick-and-glide. I felt very alone and isolated in the cold but clear morning, and some extensive high cirrus had me concerned a little bit on what was otherwise a fine day.

About halfway to the base of the peak I saw a skin track, and I merged into it to make my going easier. I assumed it was from yesterday or the day before, and I even convinced myself the pole plants were from downhill travel. At about 10 AM I reached a very minor low col just before the uphill to Columbia, and as I looked up I suddenly realized there were four climbers high on the peak! I was not alone, easing my anxiety quite a bit.

I followed the skin track as it started gaining elevation more seriously, eventually switchbacking past some large but harmless snow-filled crevasses. Above was a triangular debris field of snowballs that the steep slopes higher had rained down, and the group on the peak had cached their skis at the abrupt bottom edge of the snowball zone, where the slope suddenly got steeper. I skinned up to the ski cache site, seeing only three pairs of skis, so I assumed that one of that group was skiing from the summit.

It was now 11 AM and I was at 3355m/11007’. The group had made a nice boot-path straight up the soft, deep snow of the east face, and it looked very inviting—all the hard work of postholing, breaking trail, and routefinding had been done for me. So after stashing my skis and grabbing my ice axe, I was on my way. The first part of the path was through the snowball field, but it was easy climbing in bomber foot placements on a slope that wasn’t yet super-steep.

Then a bunch of snowballs started raining down on me, and even one tiny rock. Overall this was harmless, but I was still concerned—this seemed to point to some instability. But I looked and saw climbers coming down, and I soon realized that their plunge-stepping was the source of these snowballs and it would soon be over. The lead climber came first, plunge-stepping facing out, and I thanked him for the boot-path they had made—he then warned me about a minor bergschrund higher up. I had miscounted and there were in fact only three in this team, and the other two passed by me shortly, one facing out, the other short-roped and more carefully backing down.

The snowball rain stopped, but now I was alone again on the peak with only the boot-path for comfort. The grade steepened and was close to (or above) 40 degrees for the remaining 1000 vertical feet to the summit, and in some places the group’s plunge-stepping had obliterated their nice uphill track. But overall it was straightforward snow climbing on deep, semi-consolidated snow perfect for step-kicking. The weather was great—the high cirrus from the morning was gone—and all I had to do was grunt it out.

I was a bit freaked out, though, mainly by the continuous nature of the steepness--this was one the longest pitches of steep snow climbing I had ever done, very comparable in height and angle to the “fixed lines” on the West Buttress of Denali. There was no place to rest—once I made a solid butt seat and solid foot buckets and sat down, but the vertigo was overwhelming in this perch and I quickly turned back towards the slope and rested standing up. Also, while most of the time a fall here would just be a long snowy ride to gentler slopes, the route skirted the right edge of some rock bands and one did not want to tumble towards those. At least the “bergschrund” I had been warned of was a just a small hole into a rocky cave-like area, and I crossed it with one dynamic step.

I was also getting tired and dehydrated by the endless climbing, so I needed more and more rests. The route made a few minor bends once it cleared the rock bands, and finally the grade eased a bit as it made for an icy dome with a minor overhanging cornice. I staggered up this last slope, mounted the cornice, and found myself on the crest of the peak. Wow! I was a few feet from the false summit, and I was happy to see the main summit was a trivial 200-foot stroll away on the next icy dome. I headed over there and stepped on the highest snow I dared to (further out than the footprints of the other party), not wanting to risk a cornice collapse. It was 1:20 PM and I was atop Mount Columbia at last.

I did not spend very long at all on top. It was very windy and cold all of a sudden, since my ascent route was in the lee the whole way, and I also felt somewhat disoriented. I had been dreaming of climbing this peak for over 20 years, but never expected to be on top alone, and the endless panorama of peaks made me feel very isolated and exposed. It didn’t feel right or safe to have a nice summit sojourn. I did sit down for a minute and considered donning warmer clothes and eating, but after unsuccessfully trying to take some photos with my broken camera I returned to the false summit, dropped back over the cornice to a warmer area, and carved out a perch just below there for my summit rest. Here I ate what I could despite a very dry mouth, drank, rested, and steeled myself for the decent I was dreading—all the way up the decent had been in the back of my mind like a dark cloud.

At 1:45 PM I set off downhill, at first facing out and plunge stepping, since the angle was not super steep. But this was pretty terrifying, so I quickly changed to backing down, using my uphill boot-steps and a one-handed ice-axe self-belay. This was not as slow as the full two-handed self-belay, and I tried to allow gravity to do as much as possible—I was able to give my sunburned mouth a break by breathing through my nose. It went OK, and I just focused on each step. I would consider trying face-out plunge stepping every now and then, but it seemed best to play it safe given my isolation. Only once below the rock bands did I literally “take the plunge”, since the run-out was very safe, so the last 400 feet or so of my descent was fast and easy.

I was back at my ski cache at 3:10 PM – it had taken me 2:05 up, and 1:25 down, with 25 minutes total resting at or near the summit. Now I could finally relax. I took a break, tightened up my ski boots, and made nice turns down the gentle bottom 250m/820’ feet of Columbia’s summit cone. Once at the minor col I had to free my heels for some very low-angle uphill skiing, staying in the skin track of the other party, but once past the high part of the plateau it was good times as a long stretch of effortless 10 mph “moving sidewalk” skiing turned into some fun turns down to the Trench and our camp and Edward. I was back around 4:05 PM, about 40 minutes from the ski cache--what a fun way to descend 2000 feet over 4 miles.

Edward was expecting me—the party of three had stopped by on their way down and told him that I was going for the summit, and they had even seen me as a dot near the top as they headed for the Trench. As I unpacked, took off my boots, and rested in the tent, I gave him the blow-by-blow of my trip, and he told me how he had enjoyed a relaxing day of sleeping, cooking, melting water, and enjoying the spectacular scenery. I was back with plenty of daylight left, but we both agreed there was no point in moving camp given the effort it would have taken.

While pleased with my ascent, I still had conflicting feelings and was having a hard time processing them. Mainly, I wished my friend and companion from my two expeditions to the peak has shared in the accomplishment. Also, I knew that without the other team and the boot-path they had made, I almost certainly would have turned back—I just would have been too spooked to be 100% alone on a 1300-foot step snowy face like that, breaking trail. I had also been very fortunate with the weather, the lack of crevasses, the snow conditions, and Edward’s willingness to hang out all day. It was a solo ascent that simultaneously felt very lonely, yet also not very solo at all.

Sunday, May 5:

We got up around 7 AM to another bluebird day and, with no real time pressure, did our camp chores and got all packed up, setting off at 9:40 AM for the car. We first did a long uphill slog from the Trench to the summit of the Columbia Icefield and then down towards the Athabasca Glacier. The slope changed from real uphill to gentle uphill to imperceptible uphill to flat, then to imperceptible downhill to gentle downhill to real downhill. The middle part of this is unlike almost all other mountain trips—a huge expanse of flat snow extending for miles, and you make almost no tangible progress towards distant landmarks. It is very much a small taste of Antarctica or Greenland. I can’t imagine doing this trip by plodding along in snowshoes—the skis make the slight uphills a bit faster and the downhills trivial and fun.

Once the slope started steepening we had our one long rest of the day, at 2885m/9465’, where we took off our skins, locked down our heels, and put away our rope (making my pack awfully heavy). We started down towards the maw of the Athabasca Glacier, trying to follow the uphill skin track others had made. Here we encountered a party of three skiers who had been on the Twins Tower, skiing roped. Later we learned that they were expert skiers, but roped together they were slow and clumsy, and would often get tangled in the rope and fall down—once one of them complained of getting his head hurt. Given what Edward and I knew of the terrain, skiing unroped was the safer option, since the risk of injury from rope-inflicted falls with heavy packs was greater than the risk of falling into a crevasse.

At first we let the three roped skiers go first, but Edward was actually faster than they were, so we passed them and went first down the somewhat narrow upper ramp of the top icefall. I would stay back and make sure Edward was OK with his careful snowplow turns before catching up by having what fun I could have with the fall line given my heavy pack. Edward did not fall once in the ramp, an excellent performance.

We schussed the flats between the top and middle icefalls, heading for the left side (right when facing uphill). There were now many more seracs and snowballs here than on our upward trip, so we gave the debris zone a wide berth, but wound up skiing down a ramp through the middle icefall that we didn’t like, between 2 crevasse zones. We side-stepped uphill out of that easily and headed for the ramp we had used four days ago—it was steep but had good run out. Edward carefully side stepped down this slope, and the three roped skiers caught up to us, finally decided to unrope, and, finally free, took off like the expert skiers they were.

Once Edward was down the middle icefall I followed, carving big turns in the deep, mushy snow, and we then made quick work of the easy bypass ramp of the bottom icefall and were next schussing down the broad slopes of the Athabasca, past the Snow Coaches. Once again it was super nice to have skis and effortlessly travel at 8 to 10 mph in a straight line while standing still in our bindings.

We reached the toe of the glacier and then the worst part of this day began. In the days since we had left the trailhead, a great deal of snow had melted, leaving behind a mess of gravel moraine, melting lake, and partly snow-covered road, much of it uphill. There was no good way to traverse this obstacle course, so we would up taking off our skis and carrying them uphill while postholing through deep snow when not on solid ground. It was torture, especially so close to our car. We finally arrived at 2:15 PM, happy to drop our heavy loads and start the transition back to civilized life.

That afternoon we drove to Golden, BC, and got a motel, shower, and good food. The next day (Monday, May 6) we drove from Golden to Seattle via Revelstoke, Salmon Arm, Kamloops, Hope, and Sumas.

Epilogue/Notes:

First, thanks to Edward, who made this trip possible and unselfishly stayed at high camp all day. He told me he felt like a member of a winning team even if he didn’t score the touchdown, a very kind sentiment.

Although considered one of the easiest big peaks in the Canadian Rockies, that is a relative statement, and this peak poses new challenges for US climbers familiar with peaks in the lower 48. The summit climb is only for those comfortable and confident on sustained slopes of very steep snow, since belaying the entire slope would be very time-consuming. Also, distances are very long on the 13-mile approach, and the desolation of the Icefield makes it very demoralizing to see an objective in sight that never seems to get closer. Skis help immensely in overcoming these distances, especially on the descent.

It is definitely a good idea to be flexible with your dates and only start your expedition when there is a good weather window. We did this on both of our trips and it really helped. There are countless tales of parties waiting out storms for days and days on the Columbia Icefield, no one’s idea of fun.

There are many advantages to an April/May trip to the Columbia Icefield. Crevasses are more covered, serac fall is less, the snow is not yet bottomless mush or ice, and there is more snow down near the trailhead.

On our trips, deep snow buried pretty much all hazardous crevasses on our route. We roped up while skinning uphill or on the flat, but we felt quite safe in skiing downhill unroped, and hidden slots were not a concern to me on my solo summit day. However, some may feel we were reckless and lucky not to die. And I don’t recommend what we did unless you have serious glacier experience and consider the matter very carefully. In late spring and summer the danger increases greatly, and parties should definitely rope up at all times.

The other great danger is falling seracs and rocks on the right side (facing uphill) of the Athabasca Glacier icefalls. Give as wide a berth as possible to any visible debris, and in late spring and summer a route on the left side of the glacier might be more prudent.
Summary Total Data
    Elevation Gain:2315 m / 7596 ft
    Extra Gain:280 m / 919 ft
    Distance:43.5 km / 27 mi
    Route:East Face
    Trailhead:Icefields Pkwy  1986 m / 6516 ft
    Grade/Class:II
    Quality:8 (on a subjective 1-10 scale)
    Route Conditions:
Road Hike, Snow on Ground, Snow Climb, Glacier Climb
    Gear Used:
Ice Axe, Rope, Skis, Ski Poles, Tent Camp
    Nights Spent:3 nights away from roads
    Weather:Cool, Breezy, Clear
Ascent Statistics
    Time Up:2 Days 5 Hours 20 Minutes
Descent Statistics
    Time Down:1 Days 2 Hours 15 Minutes
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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