Text message read “Mt Hector Tues you in?”
Mt Hector is part of the elite 11,ooo foot club and a serious mountain. I was familiar with the route and its two crux problems. A waterfall at the start that forces a tricky climb up a 100 foot cliff, and the final summit block, guarded by a nasty bergschrund.
I would have placed this peak in my “not for me yet” list as it requires technical protection. Randy texted back and said it was a great opportunity to learn some new skills. Before I thought much more I said yes and then began to worry for three days that I was in over my head. I have a profound fear of exposure which would be unavoidable here. But I would be going with an expert so it would be a chance to learn things that would otherwise cost hundreds of dollars from a climbing instructor.
I spent the next three days pouring over pictures of the route and its difficulties as well as practicing my crevasse rescue techniques. We wold be crossing a pretty large glacier in summer when crevasses would be not bridged with winter snow. The more I prepared, the more nervous I became. I suppose that’s a good thing.
I put together my pack the night before. Water(2L), food (dried fruit, nuts, chocolate), clothing for sun, rain or snow, crampons, ice axe, crevasses rescue gear, ice screws, harness, gps, map, and camera.
Tuesday morning came early. I woke up at 4:30am and had a big breakfast and met Randy and Doug at the Tim Horton’s in Banff at 5:55am. An hour later we were parked on the side of the road, twenty minutes north of Lake Louise ready to start. Doug had mentioned that due to the huge snowfall last winter, most of the crevasses would be hidden with a thin layer of snow. This was not good news as they would be covered but not by a layer that would support our weight. Since we would be roped up, it wouldn’t be more dangerous, just time consuming and unnerving. Mostly I was worried about the first waterfall crux.
Above: The view across the valley. The snow-crested peak on the right is Mt Balfour, a mountain we went up and over in a whiteout during our week long epic Wapta Traverse last winter.
The waterfall came upon us before I could get too worked up over it. Doug picked out a line up the cliff and Randy and I followed. I was briefly stuck in one spot and started to feel my nerves getting away from me. But I stopped, took a few good breaths and looked at what I was doing. My logic dealt with my imagination and I carried on and up eventually getting to the top of the waterfall wondering what I had been so scared of!
Above: After two hours of steady climbing, we get above tree line and into the peri-glacial wasteland and our first good look at our objective. Even from this distance, you can see the myriad of crevasses crossing the ascent line on the glacier. At the base of the summit rocks, the bergschrund can be seen where the glacier is peeling back from the slope. These can be massive and very difficult to cross.
Above: Finally on the glacier, we don crampons and put on our harnesses and rope up. Pictured above, Randy gets a good look at Mt Hector’s summit block. You get a nice look at the pinkish algae bloom on the ice at 11,000 feet above sea level. According to my “Handbook of the Canadian Rockies” by Ben Gadd, it is Chlamydomonas nivalis which blooms on the ice briefly in August. The colour is due to carotenoid pigments which protect the cell from UV light which is pretty potent up here. Impressive adaptation to such a hostile place for life. I guess we weren’t the only cryophiles up here.
Above: Randy probes the snow for crevasses on our way up Mt Hector’s valley glacier. Top right is a typical crevasse edge we skirted around. If you fell in unroped, you would never be found again. Most of the crevasses here ran perpendicular to our direction of travel which meant lots wasted effort zigzagging around them. The most amazing thing about getting close to the edge of this crevasse was the deep, bass roar of running water echoing off the icy walls from deep underneath the glacier.
Above: Doug takes a rest on a flatish spot before the final push. The glacial ice is just a centimeter or two under the slushy snow on the surface. Attached to his harness are necessary tools for ice travel: ice screws for making anchors, the yellow coils are prussiks for crevasse rescue, and the aluminum stake on his pack is for building an emergency anchor in deep snow.
Above: Doug leads up the steep ice wall to the final rock face.
The final problem lay before us. The transition from the steep ice wall to the rock face. Doug was leading and he traversed sideways across the ice to a crack in the rockface. He secured himself and kept the rope tight while I made the traverse. Beneath me was a thousand feet of ice which I did my best to ignore. The technique involved facing the wall and kicking in the toe picks of the crampons one foot at a time. I did fine for the first few kicks and I was slowly making my way across. Slowly though I began to lose confidence. It takes a lot of faith to kick your toe in the ice and be sure you will stay there.
Halfway across, I started to get the sick feeling that I wasn’t being held up. I stopped and felt myself slowly moving. I called out that I didn’t feel secure. Perhaps from some skiing instinct, I took my outer foot and kicked the picks in sideways with the length of my foot along the wall. This was a bad idea and Doug shouted out calm but very seriously to kick my toe straight in right now. I did my best but was having difficulty getting a good purchase. “I feel like I’m coming out!” Nothing worse than feeling like things were going wrong but in slow motion.
Sure enough, the feeling of weightlessness washed over me and I watched myself fall, the ice passing in front of me. Because I was traversing across to Doug, I swung like a pendulum underneath his position on the rock. Not far but enough to andrenalize me something awful. I drove the toe picks of the crampons into the ice and like a shot kickstepped up to the rockface and pulled myself up the rock onto a small ledge. I had dragged my hand at the ice perhaps instinctively trying to grab it. I only succeeded in ripping off most of the skin on the fingers of my left hand which bled profusely but otherwise I was okay.
Doug climbed up a little further and put in an anchor to make it more secure as now Randy would have to follow me. Since Doug was now climbing, that meant I had to remain where I was. He asked me if I was in a good place and I said I would be fine. The ledge I was on was about 3 inches wide with a handhold by my head at an elevation of around 11,100 feet. Altogether a pretty crazy place to loiter. I was plastered to the rock and still feeling pretty lightheaded from the fall. Once he gave me the okay, I proceeded to do the 5.4 grade rock climb that I had been studying for the last five minutes. Randy followed once I was in a better spot, chosing a different route to the rockface which proved better and we were soon all on the rock without incident.
Above: Once the anchors were fixed, I took my camera out and grabbed a shot of the view from my “waiting room” on the tiny ledge.
Above: Doug places anchors at our new safe spot. The summit is just a short climb away. The final 50 meters is a scramble up a cliff. The summit itself is pretty small and covered with broken rock blasted by lightning and frost action.
Above: The reward! Amazing view from the summit. From this vantage you can see half of the Wapta Traverse we completed last winter which follows the peaks of the whole skyline.
Once we had our fill of the view it was time to make our way down. Getting from the summit rubble onto the rockface and then onto the iceface involved setting up more anchors. In the short clip above: Randy makes his way from the summit rubble across to the descent crack on the rockface. It looks harmless but he’s traversing along a drop of a few thousand feet! “I’m not going to fall, but better safe than sorry” says Randy. I didn’t fall either but was very glad to be roped up as well. Above: Back on the ice, we set up another anchor system for the steep ice wall.
Above: Randy makes his way down the ice. For those wondering why Randy doesn’t just slide down, the reason is because he would soon enough be going a hundred kilometers an hour after which he would rocket into a crevasse! As is often with high altitude pictures with no reference frame, it’s difficult to get perspective on how far down or the angle of the wall we’re on. It was on this section of downclimb that Randy “discovered” a thinly covered crevasse. He discovered it by falling through. Luckily there was lots of tension on the rope at the time, and he didn’t fall in very far. He marked the spot and I unglamorous rolled over it spreading my body weight out to avoid falling through. I punched through a bit a dragged myself out with little fanfare.
Once on the flat part of the glacier, we followed our tracks back through the crevasses which speeded things up quite a bit. It was a welcome relief to leave the glacier and take off the rope and crampons! We were at nearly 12 hours since we left the highway and the appearance of living green things was a welcome sight as we lost elevation. Just the waterfall left to negotiate. It was pretty tricky and we were briefly thwarted having descended ourselves into a corner so to speak. We decided to climb up a bit and actually traverse across the waterfall. After 10 minutes of recon we found a suitable and safe spot but it still gave me the willies!
Above: Randy and Doug pause for a picture halfway down the waterfall descent.
A wonderful trip with lots learned! It did leave me a little shaken up though. The fact that I was roped up did little to comfort me in the split second when I began to fall at the top. It was a difficult sensation to rid myself of and I found myself very quiet on the way home. Great trip partners as always though.
By the time I dropped off the guys in Banff and drove back to Canmore, it was well on dark. I celebrated with a bottle of Cava, the Spanish equivalent of Champagne. My hands were so hacked up though, I had to get Suzanne to open it for me!