Alpine Club of Canada, Calgary Section Camp 2009: Melville Group, Selkirk Mountains British Columbia
August 2: Flight in
From Golden British Columbia, we drive 36km south towards the hamlet of Parson, then cross the Columbia River and drive another 20km on logging roads to the helicopter staging area, up McMurdo Creek. The staging area is just a clearing at the end of the road, with room for parking and a landing spot for the helicopter. From there is a 25km flight to Houston Lake, our final destination.
The scenery during the quick flight gets better and better as we approach our destination, and we finally climb up over a waterfall that tumbles over a headwall, and arrive at the hanging valley where Houston Lake sits.
Once at the lake, we quickly say hi and farewell to the folks from the previous week, as they fly out on the helicopter that brings us in. Then it’s setting up and organizing camp, doing a quick exploration hike, and excitedly planning tomorrow’s trip. The flowers around the lake are spectacular; everybody snaps photos. It’s a stunning location!
August 3: Moby Dick Traverse
Scott, Nathalie and I head up and north from camp, towards the west end of Moby Dick mountain, to attempt the traverse to the east side. We cross the glacier, aiming for a reasonable-looking route up to the col between Moby Dick and Benito, to the west. The sky is cloud-free, but not exactly blue, as there are numerous forest-fires in the area, and the valleys are filled with smoke, giving the light a yellow hue.
We decide that a couloir is the most reasonable way to the top. That decision results in spending the next couple of hours climbing a few pitches of very loose and mostly unprotectable dirt, including some delicate moves getting around a car-size chock-stone wedged in place by a few centimeters on each end. Don’t touch it… Finally we top out at the Benito-Moby col and work our way along the ridge.
Traversing along the top of the ridge is spectacular, with fantastic views to the north, into the valley towards Battle Abbey ski lodge. Big terrain all around. The view south, from far above our Houston Lake camp is equally stunning, with glaciated peaks to the (smoky) horizon. We don’t have much time to enjoy the view, as it’s already fairly late in the day as we still have a long way to go. We move as quickly as we can through the large blocks of the summit ridge towards Moby Dick.
Due to the time it took to work our way through the glacier, and the slowness of the 5.5 dirt route to the col, we don’t get to the summit of Moby or finish the traverse. It is late in the day, thunderstorms are building, and we escape down a snow-filled couloir that leads down to the glacier.
On the glacier now, we work our way through a few crevasse fields as the sky darkens, due to both an incoming storm and night coming. We finally get off the glacier and on to the smooth, rubble-covered rock just as the sun sets and a storm hits the mountain across the valley to the south. Things could be worse, we are still dry! We pick our way slowly down the rubble, just barely able to see a cairn in the near-darkness that marks an easy way down. We can see the headlamps of the rest of the group, down in camp, who are no doubt watching us descend, and finally get back to camp by the light of our headlamps. There are leftovers for dinner, no need to cook, hurray!
August 4: Rest day of flower sniffing
It’s important to stop and smell the flowers. Especially when there are 1000s of them.
I seem to have gotten into the habit of one day on / one day off on these mountaineering camps; this week is meant to be a vacation after all. After a good sleep-in I spend the day wandering about taking photos. The wildflowers around camp are stunning, especially given the harsh landscape of nothing but rock and ice surrounding our lake.
Ok, I’m not a botanist and can only identify a few of the plants, and at least for me, knowing their names, or not, doesn’t really change how magnificent this display of alpine wildflowers is.
August 5: Harpoon Ridge
For our guide to the area we are mostly using trip reports from previous years. One of the ‘must do’ routes appears to be Harpoon South ridge, which promises moderate climbing up a long, narrow ridge followed by a pleasant descent down a glacier. Harpoon is west of camp, and with the usual alpine (04:00) start we are off. Hiking around a small lake and then up through meadows and some basic scrambling gets us to the base of the rock in a few hours.
Once on the ridge, the terrain on the ridge is mostly large blocks, and we pick our way steadily but carefully upwards. The blocks are generally solid, but occasionally one moves a couple of inches when you step on it, a very disconcerting feeling as the things weigh a ton or two! We short-rope most all of the ridge, careful to mostly step on, and not in between, the tottering boulders.
At one point the ridge narrows to less than 1m wide, with substantial drops on either side. It’s fun walking, crawling or scooting along this narrow sidewalk. Past this narrow crux, we soon get to the end of the route, and the ridge broadens out into a flat, rock “beach” where it joins the glacier. The summit of Harpoon peak is just across the glacier, not far away, but access appears to be blocked by large crevasses and a bergschrund, so we just hang out on the beach, watching another group cross the narrow crux on the ridge.
Soon Mike, Enrique and Jacqueline join us on the beach, and we all hang out, have lunch, and enjoy this beautiful, relaxing spot before walking down the glacier and back to camp. There’s even some sand on this beach, formed by erosion of the rock and accumulated here because it’s flat, so we take our boots off and wiggle our toes in the sand, a very rare thing to do high on a mountain ridge next to a glacier!
Once off the glacier, it’s a gentle stroll back to camp through moraine and then through the flower and boulder-filled meadows to the west of camp. Dump the pack, grab a cold one and relax for a bit before joining the rest of the crew in the dinner tent for the swapping of stories over dinner.
Not that there was anything wrong with the trip two days ago, but it was fantastic to complete a casual, fun route, on pretty good rock (forgetting already about the tottering boulders), with no route-finding issues, no weather worries, an easy descent, and an early return to camp. Fun!
August 6: Hanging out in camp
Quality vs. quantity thing for me, and today is another day off.
There are a few of us hanging out in camp today, and many flowers get photographed as folks wander about the stunning boulder and flower-strewn meadows surrounding camp, enjoying their rest day with camera in hand.
Jim, from Ottawa, has picked out one of the most picturesque spots for his tent, right on the shore next to a huge boulder.
The sky is blue, and the water on Houston lake is glassy smooth, making for a very beautiful, peaceful and relaxing morning. Ahhh, vacation!
The beautiful, soft early morning light is done now, and I’m thinking that it’s high time for breakfast, so I stroll back to my tent, put the camera away and go cook up some oats.
August 7: Redburn – Whitejacket – Proteus traverse
Another alpine start means leaving camp at first light to maximize the hours of daylight that we have. Everything has been packed and made ready the night before, and I have time to take a quick panorama of the stunning pre-dawn sky before we start hiking upwards.
I’m not an early-riser by nature, and it’s painful for me to get up well before dawn. The reward, though, of watching the day slowly brighten and the mountains turn rosy-orange with alpenglow from half-way up a mountain makes it incredibly worthwhile. We head up to the north of camp again, toward the Proteus glacier, aiming slightly north-west.
Once up the glacier, we find some good rock by which to gain the long ridge, and then a treat of smooth slab broken up by large cracks, which is the best quality rock we’ve had this week. The climbing is easy and the protection is solid, and we just use running-belays to quickly gain the summit of Whitejacket.
Descending west from the Whitejacket summit brings us to a rappel from a rather precarious-looking boulder slung with cord. The boulder does not give us the best feeling of security, and is a little difficult to get to, being at the end of a narrow ridge and overhanging a 30m drop to the col between Whitejacket and Proteus, but it’s the only way down. We test things, back up the rappel and then rather nervously descend to the col.
The traveling along the ridge is quick over mostly good rock and easy ground until we start working our way up Proteus, where we’re faced with another steep dirt-gully-from-hell. We look for an alternative passage up, but find nothing. The gully is loose and difficult to protect, with some awkward moves to get over and around large blocks. Very careful not to knock rocks down on my partners… These annoying and dangerous places seem to be a necessary evil of climbing, but after some careful work, this one is over with soon enough, and then we’re standing on the summit of Proteus, the final summit of three on this most amazing traverse!
Today the skies are free of smoke and beautifully clear, and it’s been a complete joy to be traversing this high, long ridge, hitting three summits along the way on the best day we’ve had this week.
The day has been reasonably long, and it feels good to be at the top of Proteus, but we’re not done yet. After a quick snack and some (more) photos, we look for the descent, down a ridge to the SSW to the glacier between Proteus and Harpoon – the same glacier that we descended two days ago.
There are some interesting bits on the ridge, but nothing requiring a rappel, and we reach the easy and familiar ground of the glacier in good time, and then it’s a basic plod, plod, plod back to camp. The sky is still clear and we have lots of daylight left.
Despite the long day, for some reason I’m still awake at 11:30 at night. Perhaps it’s because the sky is beautifully clear and I have this photography problem.
August 8/9: Camp
After yesterday’s long day out and late night photo session, there’s now way that I’m doing another alpine start, and so Friday is another rest day for me.
And then Saturday is flight day, time to head back to “reality”, whatever that means. These weeks pack a lot of intense living – early starts, loose rock, great weather, incoming storms, sketchy rappels, incredible views, great friends, late nights – into a very short time, and yet they feel like a long vacation. Quality and quantity.
Thanks for a great week, everybody!
Darren Foltinek, 2009. darren (at) frontrange.ca
Post Script: Ray Norman, 1946-2011
Even though Ray and I never climbed together this week, it was a pleasure hanging out with and getting to know him. You tend to meet kindred spirits on these trips, and connect to people quickly and strongly. I was very saddened to learn of Ray’s death in an avalanche accident in February, 2011.
Climb on, Ray.