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Mt. Alexandra, Alpine Club of Canada, 2011

Alpine Club of Canada, Calgary Section Mountaineering Camp 2011

Golden, British Columbia is just west of Alberta / BC border in huge Columbia River valley between the Rocky Mountains to the east and the Columbia Mountains to the west.  Our camp is about two hours north of Golden on logging roads up Bush River and then a short helicopter flight in.


The three-week long camp is broken into one-week-long groups, and ours is the last group, going in for the first week of August.  The timing turned out to be  excellent, because Summer 2011  in western Canada didn’t really get started until August.

Saturday, Flight In

Staging area, about 120km north of Golden, at the base of Mt. Bryce

The drive up towards Kinbasket lake from Golden, BC is both beautiful and depressing. We wouldn’t be driving here except for the logging roads, but the clear cutting is everywhere. Around hour 2 we see Mt Bryce appearing – a mountain that has been a bit of a dream for me since first seeing it from the Columbia Icefields more than 10 years ago. Off the edge of the Columbia Icefields, it seemed remote and untouchable. Now there is logging up the valley leading to it, and also on it’s flanks. Is there no land that is sacred anymore, no place humans and their destruction don’t reach? On the other hand, I would not be seeing Bryce today if it weren’t for the logging roads leading to it…  I wrestle with these mixed feelings.

Helicopter coming in for a landing as we fly into the camp.

We get to the Heli staging area around noon and sort gear, and finally meet the gang. I don’t know anybody well on this trip, which should be interesting. I met Dan Kim, Enrique Canto and Jim Prowse on the Battle Range camp two years ago, but did not climb with them, and the rest of the crew are new to me.

We end up waiting until almost 4 until the chopper shows up. The flight in is quick – maybe 5 minutes – but in the previous ACC camp here some folks walked in, taking 3 days because of the heinous bushwacking. The flight up the valley is nothing too exciting, as there are logging cuts on both sides, a logging road on the right, and we are deep in the valley anyway. But once we get to treeline and the alpine appears the view improves dramatically! Suddenly we are circling above a hanging valley – a bowl of rock – and there are glaciers and waterfalls everywhere! Then we see camp, in the middle of three lakes below two serac-walled glaciers. Incredible looking place!

Camp panorama. Behind the two white tents (left) is Coral Peak, then Alexandra, the rocky and glaciated center peaks are Whiterose, and finally Rosepetal at the right.

Another view of the serac wall on the Alexandra glacier.

Once we’ve moved all the gear, claimed camp sites and set up our own tents, it’s time to eat and plan the tomorrows trip.  And enjoy the evening light…

One of almost 10 waterfalls draining into our hanging valley.

Sunday:  Mt. Spring Rice

Up at 6 for a 7am departure for Mt Spring Rice – or something, I can never quite get the name of it straight… Yes it’s Spring Rice. Getting up at 6, the day is overcast. The night had been quite windy, and I didn’t sleep at all well, waking up every time a wind gust flapped the tent. There are 13 of us in camp, and the site is moraine, covered in boulders – there are only a few flat, smooth tent spots. The place I picked forced the tent broadside to what appears to be the dominant wind direction, and even after being well guyed out with rocks as well as pegs it still flapped like crazy.

Rick Collier at the headwall anchor.

We started walking from camp at 7, heading up the headwall along a well-traveled trail through scrambling terrain towards the 5.2 step, that now sports a shiny chain anchor of one good bolt and one questionable piton. The anchor is used mainly for rappelling on descent, or if the rock is slippery wet. Our team of 5 today has two ropes, and we break into John and I on one rope and Rick, Rick and Jim on the other. Rick Collier admits that he is turning 70 (!) this year, and is an inspiration to us all. At 44 I am the youngster in our day’s team.

Jim, Rick and Rick hiking up the glacier. Whiterose (L), Rosepetal and Cockcomb (R) peaks behind.

My goal for the day is to get a feel for the snow conditions, learn the approach, get to know some folks, and generally go for a non-technical glacier walk and see the area.

John and I take the lead, and start walking up the easy glacier slope of the South Rice Glacier, between Rice Brook Mtn to the west and Coral to the east. Snow conditions are generally good, occasionally soft enough to drop in to mid-calf, and the only visible crevasses are small. Where we can, we walk on the ice to avoid unseen crevasses. As we hike up, the weather remains overcast, occasionally spitting rain on us, but the cloud ceiling is still above the highest peaks in the area – Bryce and Alexandra – and we are optimistic for good views of the Columbia Icefields to the north.

The slogging continues, and the cloud ceiling descends. The summit of Spring Rice is now enveloped in cloud, and as we gain the final bench before the slope leading to the summit we climb up into the fog. The summit slopes are lower angled than they looked, never more than 25 degrees, so even though the snow is softening we are not concerned with avalanche danger. John has taken over the lead, and I am grateful for the break from the continuous punching through snow to mid-calf.

John Adams on the summit of Spring Rice in a snowstorm.

The summit is exposed rock, and so we aim for the climbers-right (east) ridge, and as John tops out onto the ridge we realize that it is heavily corniced over a huge drop to the north. We are still roped together, and we back off the ridge and skirt around the rock to find a safer way onto the summit block. We find a 35 degree snow filled gulley that leads easily up to the ridge, but again on topping out John is on the cornice. I stay on the blocky rock for the 20m to the summit.

Not much to see on the summit in the fog and snow, so we just grab a quick photo and descend, meeting up with Rick, Jim and Rick who are on the way up.   Walking down is a plod, as the soft snow is almost as much work down as up.   Skis, need skis now!!  Occasionally the whiteout clears for a few seconds and teases us with views of the nearby spectacular ridge of Fenroy and across the valley to the south to the steep glaciated peaks of Cockscomb and Ego Mtn.

View to the west as we drop below the clouds on the way down from Spring Rice.

John photographing the ridge of Fresnoy during a cloud break descending from Spring Rice

We finally break through the clouds, only to be spit on repeatedly by rain as we trudge across the glacier. A couple rumbles of thunder make us wonder how the folks on the longer and more committing Whiterose traverse are doing, and hoping that they are down off of things and so not in danger of lightening. John and I forge ahead, with Jim and the Ricks coming behind. Jim just arrived from Ottawa, and has not acclimated to the high altitude yet. John and I take it easy and have plenty of time to chat on the way down.

Whiterose peak and glacier. Note the large avalanche below the seracs just below the summit.

Finally we arrive at the rappel anchor, soaking wet as it’s been raining quite hard. As I set it up, the other rope team is coming and will arrive in good time. After rappelling and cleaning the messy rope we wait for a few minutes for the others and then all scramble down the headwall trail, wet and tired, to camp and dinner.

Monday: Hike

Sleep in day! My knees are a bit sore after yesterday, and I don’t commit to any climbs. Needing a rest from the stress of everything (work!) previous to this trip, too.  I’m intending this to be a relaxing trip and am not planning on climbing every day.

Rick Cowburn ascends with Mt. Bryce behind.

Sleep 10 hours, getting up around 8. Eventually, Rick Jr, Jim and Enrique get up and we sit around and chat until noonish. Rick and I head off towards Whirlwind to the south, going light and not taking any glacier gear – one of the maps shows a small glacier, one does not, so I figure that the glacier has disappeared.  Heading up the beautiful meadows to the south of camp, we gain the ridge and are treated to stunning views of “our” hanging valley, Mt. Bryce to the west, and a good view down in the deep valley leading back to the car. Some searching finds a broad, lush green slope leading down the ridge through a cliff band to the wide moraine filled drainage between Whirlwind and Osprey (?) to the west. Heading towards Whirlwind, we discover that the glacier does in fact still exist, and not willing to wander unroped on a snow-covered glacier, we change objectives and head towards the north ridge of Osprey, which promises even better views of Bryce.

Mt. Bryce towers over Rice Brook.

Hanging out in camp that evening we form a group to attempt Mt. Alexandra tomorrow, which requires a 4am start. The evening sky is gorgeously clear, and stays that way after sunset. Now I am completely torn between the need to go to bed early and the opportunity to get some dark sky shots of camp and the amazing surroundings. As usual, photography wins, and I procrastinate doing chores and things until the sky is dark. Well, mostly dark… The sun set at 9:40, but even at 11:00 there is still a distinct glow in the western sky.  As the sky darkens the Milky Way becomes visible, and glows overhead in a stunning arch from Rosepetal to Coral.

Night panorama, looking east towards Alexandra and Whiterose, taken around 11:00pm.

360 degree night panorama, taken around 11:30pm. Milky Way is just becoming visible above Whiterose peak.

The mountains are silhouetted against the sky, and the glaciers glow with reflected light from the still-bright western sky.  And the later it gets, the darker the sky gets and the more I want to stay up to continue photographing the stunning sky!   It’s a magical night, but the alarm is set for 3:50, only a few short hours away. Shoot the last panorama, crawl into the tent and look at the time – midnight!   Ugh, it’s going to be a rough morning and long day with less than 4 hours of sleep, but the stunning clear sky rich with stars are so worth it!

Tuesday: Mt. Alexandra

Jim on the ascent of Alexandra

3:50 the alarm goes off after a cold, restless, and short night. The sky is already brightening, as I can see the silhouette of Coral though the tent skylight, with a clear sky behind. I wonder if it ever gets fully dark now? The clear night means a good freeze of the snow on the glacier, exactly what we need for a safe ascent of Alexandra, and after a quick breakfast, Jim, Rick Cowburn and I are marching towards the headwall by 5:20. I set a ‘guides pace’, trying to preserve energy for the day. We have set a 1:00 turnaround time, because the steep upper snow slopes face south east and get the most sun, which will turn the snow dangerously soft. The overnight freeze was very good, and when we get onto the first snow patches leading to the glacier the surface is hard and icy. Crossing the glacier is very easy traveling, with crampons on the hard snow, and we are starting up the Alexandra face by 9ish, having made good time at a reasonable pace.

The lower slopes are just starting to get sun, and are still hard and icy. We have three snow pickets and I setup a running belay, which unfortunately with only the three pickets lets us run for about two rope lengths before requiring an anchor to collect the pieces and start again. Two anchors gets us to the top of the first steep section and onto a broad bench before the 2nd steeper section leading to the summit ridge. We stop on the bench to refuel, then continue on.   The upper section has been in the sun for an hour and is starting to soften, and we need to move quickly.

At our turn-around point

The climbing is easier, because of existing bootprints and the softer snow, so I place fewer pieces of gear, but the pace slows down. The snow is getting soft, and I usually am able to keep on top, occasionally breaking through, but looking back Jim is breaking through regularly – an exhausting and frustrating slog!   It’s apparent that we are not going to make the summit, and at 1:00 Rick calls out the time, we get within talking distance and decide to turn back.

The sky had clouded in, which is what allowed us to get as high as we did because it kept the snow from softening dangerously, but there is now a band of blue sky moving through. The views are breathtaking, from Mt. Forbes about 10km east to Mt. Clemenceau 30km to the west, and south far across the Columbia River valley, with stunning glaciated peaks all around – but the sunshine means the snow is now softening very quickly, and we need to get off of these upper 40 degree slopes now. We switch from downclimbing to lowering to increase the speed of the descent until we are just above the bench and we can all walk together to the lower slope.

Jim descending

Getting off the bench and onto the lower steep slope is a relief, because the lower slope is facing more south-west, and has not been in strong sun yet. The rush and avalanche danger is over, and we plunge-step in perfect snow, still on a running belay, down the 35 degree slope, occasionally switching to down climbing through steeper sections. Some rocks break off a band and go sailing past us, a reminder not to hang out.  Back on the glacier now, we retie the rope into glacier mode – 10m or so between us instead of using the full length as we had up and down the face, and walk on down, easy traveling on the still-firm snow. Hiking up the scree to the ledge traverse across the south flank of Coral I am struck by how far away, and how far below us, camp is – there are still around two hours left before beer and food.  Sigh. The traverse is not difficult, but it often consists of a skinny path through the scree above a big cliff, and so requires constant attention and careful footwork.

After the short rappel, we pick our way down the headwall path, which involves careful scrambling for much of it, and remark that if we never have to come down this way again that will be just fine! On our 15th hour we get back to camp, catch up with the other adventures of the day and eat. I give Jim one of my 6 precious beers as a reward for his hard work. No summit but a fine day out with great views.

Wednesday: Rest

Wake up at 9 after about 11 hours of sleep when the sun hits the tent. Another clear morning, after breakfast its time for some laundry and a sponge bath before the afternoon clouds and showers come in. Catching up on writing this journal and moving the outhouse are other tasks. Quite a few folks are in camp today – Rick and Jim, plus Dan Kim, who’s been going hard everyday until now – as well as the other Dan and Don. It’s a confusing bunch of names with two Ricks, two Dans and a Don.  2:30 now and time for lunch… The plan for tomorrow is the Whiterose Traverse, a high ridge line connecting to Whiterose Mtn. that is meant to be one of the best routes in the area.

Thurs: Whiterose Traverse

5:00am and the sky is clear above camp, an excellent start to the day!

3:50 wakeup. Had problems getting to sleep last night because of 11 hours sleep the night before and then another nap in the afternoon. All packed up, with lunch made the night before. Need to spend about 10 minutes bandaging up a nasty blister on my shin that got infected on Tuesday, then breakfast and we’re off. We are 5 – Don Boll is trip leader, plus Barend Donkers, Rick Cowburn. John, who had a very big day on Queens Peak yesterday, said he may come along, and after a 15 hour day I am pleasantly surprised when he shows up for breakfast at 4:30! He’s a super nice guy, and while not claiming to be very experienced, seems to be rock solid and extremely fit.

Hiking up towards Whiterose from the Alexandra glacier. Don, Barend and John.

Gaining the ridge of Whiterose, around 9am. Not a cloud in the sky or a breath of wind - perfect weather, but the snow is already beginning to soften from the sun.

When it comes time to rope up for the glacier, I team up with Rick, with Don, Barend and John on the other rope. My goal is to keep breaks to a minimum, move efficiently and at a moderate pace.

Mt. Bryce, at the western end of the hanging valley below Alexandra, as viewed from Whiterose

We march steadily up the glacier towards the Alexandra / Whiterose col. The climb up to Whiterose is easy along broad snow shoulders and the views get steadily more beautiful. The sky started off crystal clear and it is now a stunning blue, without any wind and only a few clouds from horizon to horizon. Wow, what a day!!   The clear sky means stunning views but also means that the snow will be softening quickly in the sun, and we need to continue to move quickly and efficiently, to get up, across and down before it all turns to mush.


Rick working his way up the first ridge of Whiterose, with Alexandra behind (right) and Bryce in the distance on the far left.

The snow on eastern aspects, which has been baking in the sun all morning, is getting soft, and we have been post-holing more and more regularly as the sun gets higher. All other aspects still have excellent hard snow, which makes for efficient walking and fast travel.

Crossing the ridge towards Whiterose is straight forward, but there is a big drop to the left and smooth, steepening roll to the right, an easy walk on this sunny day, and we see the tracks left by the first traverse group, earlier in the week, who did this in a white-out. We comment on how grateful we are for the perfect weather!

Gaining the ridge towards Whiterose

We are five folks, and broke into two rope teams, as smaller rope teams are generally make for faster and easier traveling, following the “rule of groups”: the bigger the group, the slower you move. Having two rope teams has not only been very good for group speed, but has setup some amazing photographic opportunities on this most stunning traverse!

Traversing the ridge towards the summit of Whiterose.

Traversing the ridge towards the summit of Whiterose. Mt. Bryce is the big peak at far right.

The climb and traverse to the Whiterose summit goes smoothly, with no technical sections at all, and the two rope teams leap-frog each other. By 11:00 Rick and I catch up to the ‘fast’ team on the summit, everybody having moved very efficiently.

We all take a relaxed lunch and photo break at the top, and then head off for the descent, which involves a 50m rappel off a rocky point south of the summit.

Above a crevasse on Whiterose

Darren on the summit of Whiterose

As we approach the rappel station, I exclaim to Rick that the views on this trip just keep getting better! The rappel station is a large and very solid-looking pinnacle on the south-west side of Whiterose with a fantastic view of the stunning north face of Cockscomb mountain across a very deep valley. Rick talks about how days like this are the reasons you climb, which the Mountain Gods throw out as a treat every once in a while to keep you coming out!

Barend tossing the rope at the rappel off Whiterose

As Barend sets up the rope, I set up with the camera for what could be the best photos of an already very photogenic trip.  Like most mountain rappel stations, moving out over the 50m drop with the huge emptiness of the valley to the south is intimidating, and everybody moves slowly and carefully, double checking security and rappel setup, and working hard to avoid sending rocks down.

Then everybody else is down, and I am alone in this most incredible of places, a very special feeling. I setup and slowly start the descent down the loose and very steep gully. Talking to Enrique later he tells me that occasionally the traverse is done in the other direction, by climbing this buttress – yuck! We are able to walk the ropes far away from the rock before pulling them, and there are no worries about the knot getting stuck. A very easy-to-clean and picturesque rappel station, perhaps the highlight of this excellent route.

Barend rappeling off Whiterose

Don and John rappeling off Whiterose

We’d heard stories in camp about a “very steep” snow slope after the rappel – “70 degrees”.   The slope turns out to be only 45 degrees with excellent steps from previous parties – the mountaineering equivalent of fishing stories I guess.  I setup a belay for Rick, and Don’s rope team heads off for the short and easy scramble up Rosepetal, something neither Rick or I have any interested in, as we have been looking down on Rosepetal for the last hour of the descent.

Once down the slope Rick and I lounge in the sun, waiting for Don and the gang to come down Rosepetal.  The descent back to camp, through heavily crevassed terrain below Rosepetal sees John fall waist deep into the same crevasse that Peter had earlier dropped his butt into while glissading down. With another week or two of hot sun melting the snow this slope will be much more difficult to navigate as these crevasses open up. Exiting off the glacier we slowly pick our way down the moraine and loose rock debris to the gravel flats and back to camp. 11 hours with plenty of breaks, on one of the most beautiful routes I’ve ever done!!

Friday: Rest

3:00am panorama of another beautiful clear night.

Rest day. Went to bed at 7 or so last night, with only soup for dinner, after feeling not very good because of all the sun. Woke up at 2:30 to brilliant stars shining through the tent window, forced myself awake and then spent almost 2 hours stargazing and photographing the sky.  It is such a treat to be able to see clear skies, up high in the mountains, far from any cities or towns that throw up light pollution.

Just before 4 some folks are getting up for the last alpine start of the trip, and the sky is just starting to lighten with the coming dawn. Stunning night! Back to bed around 4:30 and slept until the sun hit my tent around 9, then a sponge bath and writing this journal until 11:30 – now it’s really time for breakfast!

By evening everybody is back in camp and we all sit around outside the group tents having dinner, finishing the booze, and of course swapping stories about the week.  And exclaiming over and over how lucky we are to have had such amazing weather this week!

Clayton

Rick Collier

Enrique Cantos

Rick Cowburn

Peter

Dan Kim

Dan

Don and Barend

ACC Calgary Section Camp Week 3 celebration. Front, clockwise: Darren, Jim, Dan, Don, Barend, Dan, Rick, Rick, Enrique, Clayton, Peter, John, Jeff.

John Adams

Rick Collier

Aurora appears behind the clearing thunderstorms to the north and west.

Most afternoon have seen seen thunderstorms build up, and today is no exception.   We watch the storms grow and pass, and in the evening there’s a good lightening storm over Mt. Bryce, down the valley to the west.  As the sky darkens the storms move on and then we are treated to a subtle Aurora – wow!

Saturday: Flight Out

ACC Calgary Section Camp 2011, Week 3. Left to right, back: Dan, Don, Jim, Peter, Barend, Rick, Rick, Clayton, John, Jeff. Front: Dan, Enrique, Darren.

Paintbrushes in front of Whiterose peak and glacier.

We all get up early on the last day – another beautiful day!  The great weather just never ends, but it’s time to pack up camp.  We are the last group in this location, so we need to take down the common camp tents and gear.

Last thing to be packed away is the Alpine Club flag, so we all pose for a group shot before that, too is packed up.   Everything is done by about noon, and we spend the rest of the afternoon lounging about waiting for the helicopter.

Our ride arrives on Saturday to carry us and our mountain of gear on the five minute flight back to the staging area.

A great camp! Thanks to the group, special thanks to Enrique for all his hard work organizing, and extra-special thanks to the Gods of Weather!   Hope to see you all at next year’s camp…

Darren Foltinek, August 2011.  darren (at) frontrange.ca

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