Frontrange Imaging

Mt. Lefroy, July 2009

Mt. Lefroy, painting by Lawren Harris, 1930

Lake Oesa

Lake Oesa

At 3,423m, Mt Lefroy is one of the classic 11,000 foot Canadian Rockies, located about 10km south-west of Lake Louise, on the border of Banff and Yoho National Parks, Canada. It has has the dubious honor of being the site of North America’s first mountaineering fatality, when Phillip Abbot fell to his death during the first ascent attempt in 1896. It is also well known as the subject of Lawren Harris’ 1930 painting. Today, when conditions are good it is a straight forward mountaineering objective, with the summit about 600m straight above the stunning Abbot Pass Hut, located on the col between Mts Lefroy and Victoria.

Nigel Campbell and I approach the usual way, by taking the bus into Lake O’Hara and then hiking through the beautiful environs around the lake, past Lake Oesa, and up to Abbot Pass. The trail up to the pass finishes on scrambling terrain, is exposed to rockfall, and often has patches of snow or ice on it, so care must be taken when going there.

Marmot by Lake Osea

Marmot by Lake Osea

Abbot Pass hut, built in 1922, 2nd highest permanent structure in Canada.

Abbot Pass hut, built in 1922, 2nd highest permanent structure in Canada.

When we reached the pass it was around 2:00 and the sun had been on the west face of Lefroy for hours, warming the snow and causing avalanches. There were several groups of us, sitting on the patio of the beautiful stone hut, eating lunch and watching the slides come down with a roar every few minutes. Then, we see a group of climbers up on the slopes, heading up for the summit. With growing concern, we all wonder what on Earth they were doing up there so late in the day, with the soft, wet snow avalanching all around!

The group climbs up around a corner and disappears out of view. We hope that they will be ok… Some time later, maybe one hour, we see them coming down the steep snow slopes and watch, fearing that an avalanche will take them out at any moment. We get packs ready and put our boots on, ready for a rescue mission as the group slowly descends the face.

Abbot Pass. Hut is just to the left of the snow, between Mts. Victoria and Lefroy

Abbot Pass. Hut is just to the left of the snow, between Mts. Victoria and Lefroy

Suddenly the lead climber falls, either triggering or being tripped up by an avalanche. We watch in horror as he drops at least 100m, sliding and tumbling in the river of snow and heading for a large cliff. What saves him is a small bench in the mountain where the slope angle decreases from perhaps 45 degrees to maybe 30, and the avalanche slows and cames to a stop as it hits that bench. Amazingly, once the snow has stopped, the climber gets up, shakes himself off, looks way up the mountain at the rest of his party, and then starts walking down the lower-angle slopes to the hut – he is apparently unhurt!

The rest of his party now looks down at the slope towards him, the slope that has just avalanched, and are clearly trying to come up with a plan to get safely down. They slowly work their way down, fortunately without any further incidences. When they all reach the hut safely, we are all feeling, on one hand relieved, but on the other hand angry at them for being up on the mountain at such a late hour, breaking one of the cardinal rules of alpine climbing – “get up and down the mountain early before the snow softens”.

The next morning, Nigel and I leave the hut before 4:00am. It was a beautiful clear night, and the snow had frozen hard overnight, providing us with perfect conditions on the snow slopes. We had crampons, two ice axes each, a rope, and snow and ice protection, but the climbing up the slopes was so solid we only used the crampons and ice axe.

Nigel climbing up the west face of Lefroy

Nigel climbing up the west face of Lefroy

By around 5:30 the first light is hitting the surrounding peaks, turning them the beautiful orange-red of alpenglow, and by the time we reached the summit ridge at 6:30 the sun is up and illuminating the eastern sides of the surrounding peaks – absolutely stunning! We walked along summit ridge, in awe of this most beautiful of places to watch sunrise from, but very mindful of the cornices overhanging the huge drop to the east into Paradise Valley. By just after 7:00 we are standing on the summit.

Gene climbing Lefroy, with Goodsir towers behind.

Gene climbing Lefroy, with Goodsir towers behind.

Darren on Lefroy summit ridge

Darren on Lefroy summit ridge, with Lake OHara behind (center) and Abbot Pass (right)

We see a couple of climbers following our steps, about half an hour behind us. They are also climbing “solo”, without the need of roped protection, as they are both clearly very comfortable with the excellent conditions.

My camera is out (of course!) as the first climber crosses the summit ridge, heading towards the summit block where Nigel and I are enjoying the stunning views. As he gets closer, I see that it’s my friend Lyle, who we had met in the hut the previous day! I am shooting pictures as fast as I can, composing and capturing different panoramic scenes of Lyle and his friend Gene approach us along the ridge.

Gene on Lefroy summit ridge.

Gene on Lefroy summit ridge.

Lyle on Mt. Lefroy summit ridge.  Banff National Park, Canada.

Lyle on Mt. Lefroy summit ridge. Banff National Park, Canada.

That's worth getting up at 3:30 for! Darren on Lefroy summit block, with Mt Victoria and glacier behind.

That’s worth getting up at 3:30 for! Darren on Lefroy summit block, with Mt Victoria and glacier behind.

Lyle and Nigel on the summit of Lefroy

Lyle and Nigel on the summit of Lefroy

Then Lyle joins us on the small summit block, and we are laughing and sharing snacks while enjoying the perfect morning from this most incredible of viewpoints. After a short time on the summit it is time to head back to the hut. The north face of Mt. Victoria had sun on it for a couple of hours, but the west face of Lefroy, that we are on, will not see sun for several hours. The snow is still very hard and safe as we down climb the steep slopes and then walk back to the hut.

We get back down to the hut by around 9:00, in time for a quick 2nd breakfast. There was a group of trekkers who stayed at the hut last night, and this morning have left to descend the “death trap” route towards Lake Louise. Nigel and I quickly decide that that if we hurry and pack up, it will still be early enough to go through the canyon that forms the “trap” part of that route safely.

Abbot Pass hut

Abbot Pass hut

The route drops off of Abbot Pass steeply to the north and crosses a glacier before entering a canyon that is directly below both the huge north face of Victoria and the NW face of Lefroy. In the afternoon heat both of these faces will be avalanching down into the canyon, hence the name “death trap”. We rope up and hurry down the glacier, following the path of the trekkers and on the lookout for crevasses.

Canyon at the base of Mt Victoria (left) and Lefroy (right)

Canyon at the base of Mt Victoria (left) and Lefroy (right)

The canyon is about 40m wide and maybe 60m high – an intimidating terrain trap. As we enter it, we see that the Victoria side is full of of avalanche debris, while the Lefroy side is a maze of crevasses. Fortunately there is a path down the middle that is easy walking, and we continue to hurry along, eager to get out of there as soon as possible before the daily avalanche cycle begins.

We are almost out when a roar overhead announces that we were not quite quick enough, and are horrified to see an avalanche appear straight overhead, sailing over the canyon walls like a waterfall that has just been turned on. We both instinctively leap to the right, away from it, towards the crevasse field. Hmm, no place to run. The avalanche lands to our left, contributing to the debris pile, and we realize that we are safe for now. I quickly get out the camera and take a video… and then we scurry out of there before anything bigger decides to come down!

After the canyon it’s a basic slog across the moraine towards Lake Louise. It’s clumsy and difficult walking on the boulders, so we decide to climb up the lateral moraine towards the Tea House, from where a nice trail leads back down to the lake. Moraines are difficult and nasty to climb, often steeper than they look, and our efforts to get to the top of this one provide some good entertainment for the hikers looking down on us on their way back from the tea house. Eventually we get up there, and then stroll back to the Chateau at the head of the lake.

After a rousing game of rock, paper, scissors (five tied rounds!) I win the last round and sit on a patio having a beer while Nigel hitchhikes back to Lake O’Hara to get our car.

Thanks for the great weekend Nigel!

Darren Foltinek, July 2009

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