Just returned exhausted from a climbing trip on the Wapta Icefields. We gave ourselves three days up there to hopefully get some good weather and get some summits. Mt Olive, Mt Nick, Mt Gordon and Mt Rhondda would be our ideal list if the weather was good. Joining me was my usual trip partner Randy and an old friend of his Toby, an experienced mountaineer from the UK.
The weather did not look promising but I was excited enough as I left bright and early at 6am. We chatted in the car a bit on the way. Toby is in the RAF and on leave, so he has a certain military bearing about him and on first impression possessed a quiet, calm English manner. I wanted to get on the same page for any possible emergency response so we discussed crevasses rescue techniques.
We pulled the car off the Icefields Parkway and got suited up. The winds usually funnel off the icefields here presenting you with an icy wall for a greeting. But for the first time it wasn’t bitterly cold which I took as a good omen. Day one’s objective was to haul our supplies up to the hut on the glacier then try for a quick climb up either Olive or Nick.
Heavy snow had been falling lately and there was no trail leading up to the hut as there often is. Breaking trail always sucks energy out of you. Apart from the extra physical energy it takes to climb through calf deep snow uphill all day with a big pack, there is a mental fatigue as well. Following a trail allows your mind to drift a bit. Figuring out where to go is not the hardest task in easy terrain but it draws energy from you continuously. We shared the task of leading through the snow. The person leading would go until they were exhausted then fall in behind for the next person to lead. Hopefully you would be somewhat recovered by the time it was turn to lead again. The big challenge was the final headwall before the hut. I was secretly thinking how hard it would be and how much I wanted to break trail over it to see how my cycling training was paying off.
Above: I started a turn just before the headwall and managed to climb the whole steep pitch through knee-deep snow. I thanked my spin classes and gasped for air at 8000 feet. Here Toby (yellow pants) and Randy make their way up following my trail in the deep snow.
Many people report that the hut at the foot of the Bow Glacier has some energy sucking force in it. Both Randy and I were familiar with this and intended to try not to spend any time in the hut. It’s not supernatural or anything it’s just that there is usually a blizzard out and the hut is out of the wind and calm and once inside, it becomes difficult to face the environment again. We therefore rushed to ditch sleeping bags, food, extra clothes and such in the hut and get out glacier and climbing gear. After 5 minutes we were in our climbing harnesses and out the door with weather getting worse.
Above L/R: Toby and Randy on our way up the glacier to make an attempt on Mt St Nick in the background.
As we climbed up the glacier, the snow depth increased and with the combined altitude, slope steepness and wind, our pace dropped down. I found myself counting my steps and noticed that Randy was giving up lead after exactly 80 steps down from 100 and then from there down to 50. He must have been counting as well. I was by now fighting to lead for 40 steps before keeling over and letting the next in line bash up the snow for as long as they could. Continuous probing of the snow depth was telling us it was time to put rope on as we were leaving a deposition zone where the crevasses were well bridged.
Above: With weather getting worse, the latest probe tells us to get out the rope and tie in. You can see the collapsible 3m graduated probe in right of picture we use for measuring snow depth on the glacier. Below: Toby ties in and gets his equipment organized.
The rope complicates our trailbreaking system. It becomes impossible for the middle person to take their turn leading without everyone getting off rope and tieing in at a different position. The rope makes quick turns at lead difficult. Rope travel is slow to begin with since you must always keep the correct tension on the rope. If you fell through the snow into a crevasse, the more slack between you will increase your fall force.
As the weather got worse for climbing, we could at least be happy knowing we would be enjoying an amazing ski through perfect powder on the way down to the hut. Below: I’m a bit disappointed in the weather. Between my climbing harness, pack and avi beacon, I seemed to be quite tied up!
Randy and I like to make a habit of thinking out loud in the backcountry. We find that by always saying what you’re thinking, you can hopefully avoid missing some sign. We pretty much have an ongoing conference mentioning every observation and clearing any decision made while leading. We were now at the point where whiteout conditions seemed to be with us for a while. Toby was up for making an attempt even in the whiteout or calling it quits. I suggested that while summiting in a whiteout was theoretically possible, we may as well do blindfolded jumping jacks at the hut for 4 hours then stick our heads into the snow for a similar but safer experience! We discussed whether it was safe for one person to ski down and for two to continue but we ended up not needing to decide that as everyone thought it was a bad idea to try to summit. We coiled up the rope and skied 1200 vertical feet back down to the hut.
Above: Randy enjoying some “magazine cover” skiing back down the mountain. People pay thousands of dollars to go heli-skiing with guides for this kind of experience. We ski it for free the hard way.
Above: I’ve mostly forgot my disappointment as I blast through perfect, untracked snow on a mountain all to ourselves. (Toby’s photo)
Back at the hut we cooked supper and each ate like two people. We shared the hut with two seasoned vets from Kimberly, BC who were trying to get to Mt Balfour but had been storm stayed for two days. We talked for a few hours telling mountain stories. Toby spent two months in Antarctica working on a British science mission and had many amazing tales from his experience. Our new friend Alan from Kimberly told a great story of climbing Mt Kilimanjaro and Randy recounted a climbing trip in Borneo. The two vets from BC asked if we wanted to share trailbreaking the next day by working together. We liked them already so it was easy to say yes.
Like the night before, I felt as though I got no sleep. The wind blew in gusts that were loud enough to startle me even with earplugs. The hut is bolted to the rock with metal cables but it rocked from the storm winds all night.
We woke to a continued blizzard but we thought we would make an attempt anyway. We could navigate by compass bearing in the whiteout untill the technical part of the climb. Then if it let up, we would be well positioned. We geared up and began the long, tough climb. Above: Toby grabs a picture of Randy breaking trail and me close behind as we climb up the glacier towards the Olive/Nick Col. Unfortunately, the other rope team of Alan and Rob couldn’t keep up to us even following our trail so we ended up breaking trail ourselves. The blizzard would let up and return in waves getting my hopes up and then dashing them.
After ascending the glacier we were suddenly stopped short by a crevasse that appeared right in front of us. The blowing snow waned and we could see it blocked our path for several hundred meters. We changed formation on the rope and tried to bypass it when we were confronted by another system of crevasses. We seemed to be hemmed in. After much discussion, Alan and Rob finally caught up to us and had a look for themselves. They quickly decided to retreat and thanked us for the trail anyway. Below: Rob and Alan pulling the pin.
We tried to find a way around the crevasse system. The best way seemed to be heading straight into the blizzard to outflank it, but this meant getting more disoriented on the vast blank whiteness of the icefield. The better visibility way was to try and squeeze between the crevasses and the rock face. I felt this way was inherently dangerous as the glacier was under stress as it curved around the rocky outcrop. The safer way would be to try and outflank it. But wandering in the whiteout trying to pick our way seemed unsavoury. Under blue skies we could easily pick our way through it I’m sure. After a half hour of dipping our feet in each pool we decided to admit defeat and head down. I found it difficult to make that call with each of us yelling our opinions and suggestions across the howling blizzard. We had to be roped and spaced due to the crevasses danger so it was exhausting yelling to the other end of the rope through the storm. The conditions that forced our defeat were also giving us amazingly fun skiing on the way down. Below: Toby enjoys some knee-deep powder skiing back to the hut. With near zero visibility, you really couldn’t tell if you were moving or not. Luckily I’ve had plenty of experience skiing like this so you just trust yourself. Though when you get to the bottom, you almost always fall over because you realize too late that you’ve stopped and then you just topple over!
Another night in the hut awaited us. Alan and Rob melted some snow for water for us and did our dishes in exchange for our trail breaking that day. It was very nice to show their gratitude. Everyone was in their sleeping bags early ready for another attempt the next day. Randy and I ended up talking late in to the night. The barometer was rising and the weather was supposed to be improving so I was excited to perhaps get one of our intended 4 summits!
We awoke the next day to the same wind and snow! We decided we would make an early dash up and if the weather cleared we would try and summit St Nick race down, pack up the hut and make the trek down. Needless to say we had the same battle up the glacier in a whiteout before giving up.
Above: Randy and Toby leaving the hut on the last day. Conditions don’t seem so good!
Above: Packed up and heading off the glacier and back down to the highway. Our thoughts turned to getting down safely and chocolate milk at the gas station. Toby on the left wears a high definition camera on his helmet. I’m looking forward to getting some of his video
As always, I’m so grateful for such great partners who are both trustworthy and fun. And for the wonderful people I meet in these places. These hidden jewels of the earth are not free to seek. They are seen only in trade for hard work and much learning, all which I owe to others.
Below: Starting the 2 hour ski down to the highway.
Fall Down Seven Times, Get Up Eight…
So says the picture that Suz hung in our bathroom. A very appropriate description of my relationship with Mt St Nicholas. A brief pictorial summary of the attempts over the last 3 years:
Above: 1st attempt with Peggy, Randy, Hugo, Emil. A blizzard forced us down within 100m of summit. May/12
Above: 2nd attempt with Randy, difficulties negotiating ice on the glacier caused us to miss our window of opportunity. Jan/14
Above: 3rd attempt with Randy and Toby. After gaining over 1000 vertical meters, a blizzard forces us down. March 5/14
Above: 4th attempt with Randy and Toby. Unexpectedly hemmed in by crevasses. Bad weather makes it difficult to safely find a route through them. March 6/14