Day 1, Saturday July 28, 2012
This year’s Alpine Club of Canada, Calgary Section camp is in the Lyell Group of mountains. The Lyells are five peaks, all over 11,000′ (3350m) that sit in a cluster on the NW side of the Lyell Icefield, about 20km directly west of the junction of highway 93 (Lake Louise to Jasper) and the highway 11 (David Thompson), also known as Saskatchewan Crossing. Our approach starts in Golden, BC, where we drive over 100km up logging roads towards Kinbasket Lake and then NE towards the Alberta border. The Lyell Icefield is in Alberta, in Banff National Park, but we are camped just across the border in BC.
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We are nine folks. Enrique is camp manager and chief organizer, John I met at last years Alexandra camp, Will is from Belgium, seems very keen and fit. Bill is a Calgary local. George and Clare are from north of Manchester, just moved to Calgary last fall and light right up when I tell them about my UK Lakes District climbing adventure in June. Casey is the “young guy”, in his 30s, and Colin is a quietly adventurous guy. Should be a good group!
The helicopter staging area is the logging road that accesses Icefall Lodge, and has a couple interesting stream crossings – Enrique and I are in John’s SUV and I’m not sure that my Subaru WRX (“Princess”) would have made it. We spook a wolf on the road, first time I have ever seen a wolf in the wild, and he scampers away quickly up the road and into the forest. At staging, we meet up with Dave Jones group, who is going up to join Dave, Lyle and some others who have been in the Alexandra area last week. Looking forward to meeting up with Lyle here!
The flight in is quick but spectacular, flying up the valley over a braided river and then a headwall with a dozen huge waterfalls cascading down the shear wall. Hard to say from the air, but some appear to be 100 or more meters high. More than one of the streams comes rushing out a hole in the rock, amazing! Above the headwall is the source of these stunning waterfalls, a large and heavily broken glacier tongue that flows from the west, towards the Lyell group.
Camp is in a spectacular location, about 100 vertical meters above the headwall and right next to a lake fed by two waterfalls that come down from the glacier above. Grid reference 957 504 on the Rostrum Peak 82 N/14 map sheet. Mons peak is off to our south-west, and the broken glacier tongue is to our west. The camp is on smooth, glacier polished rock and glacier moraine debris at an elevation of 7350′ (2240m). Despite being just above treeline, there is hardly any vegetation around, as the ground has only been glacier free for perhaps a few decades.
Day 2, Sunday.
All 9 of us head up in three rope teams towards the Lyell group, with the goal of summiting 2 or 3 of peaks 1, 2, and 3, the easiest and tallest of the group. Leaving camp at 4:30, we head out with headlamps under a beautiful clear sky full of stars, around the lake and up very solid snow and gravel-covered polished rock towards the glacier NE of camp. Gaining the glacier easily, we are up onto the Lyell Icefield within a couple hours and starting the long walk towards the group of five Lyell peaks, all of which are over 11,000 feet. It’s about 7km from camp to the peaks, and as we hike across the gently undulating glacier the peaks get closer ever so slowly.
Walking across the icefield is… flat and pretty monotonous! If you decide to wear crampons you need to be careful not to stab the back of your leg, and if you’re not wearing crampons your boots slide around in the snow-bowls formed by the sun. The snow is firm, but the walking seems endless, and an hour later the Lyells still seem far away. Continue slogging, and eventually we are surrounded by these peaks, with Lyell 5 and 4 on our left, and 3, 2, and 1 in front of us.
The Lyell group peaks are numbered 1-5, right-to-left, and we decide to go up #3 and then head for the col between 2 and 3. From 3 we can then traverse to 2 and 1, depending on snow conditions and energy. According to Bill Corbett’s excellent book The 11,000ers of the Canadian Rockies, the five Lyell peaks were originally considered one mountain, named by James Hector after Sir Charles Lyell, who was a patron of the 1857 Palliser Expedition.
In 1972 they were renamed in honour of five Swiss mountain guides. 1 was renamed Aemmer after Rudolph Aemmer, 2, 3 and 4 where named Edward, Ernest and Walter after the bothers Edward Jr, Ernest and Walter Feuz, and number 5 was named after Christian Hasler, Jr. Here’s a excellent article on the history of Swiss Guides in Canadian Mountaineering.
There’s a large crevasse spanning the slope below the 2-3 col, and we move far left to cross it, then work left from the col to gain one steep snow-step up on to the summit plateau. There’s a bit of a traffic jam at this point, as about six folks from Dave’s group are coming down, and all nine of us are going up. We wait for them to come down, and as I’m standing there on the edge of this steep feature, here comes my buddy Lyle, tromping through the softening snow! They thank us for letting them pass, and we all move up the step, one rope-team at a time, and then there’s another traffic jam as we all gather on the summit. Stunning views of the Columbia Icefields and Alexandra group to the west of us, across a very deep and forested valley, and to the east Forbes dominates the skyline, towering above everything else.
After descending Lyell 3 to the 2-3 col, we hoof it up Lyell 2, take a very brief break on the rounded summit, then stroll down the 1-2 col and go up #1. Even though the terrain is simple, the walking is not as easy as it sounds due to being at over 3000m and I’m not feeling particularly in shape right now! Phew! Try and suck some oxygen in the lungs and work slowly up the snow slopes of #1, then along the rocky ridge to the summit and back down.
The snow is soft and mushy on the way down, and the strolling across the icefield once again feels endless, but now we have the grand view to the east, where the towering pyramid of Mt. Forbes dominates the skyline.
I am mesmerized by the play of the afternoon light across the icefield and peaks, as small clouds stream across the sky and cast their shadows on the land, calling “photo stop” several times to capture the scene.
After a few hours we have crossed the icefield and are descending back to camp, where good food and a cold beer awaits. It feels great to take of the boots and then enjoy the late afternoon sun at our new home for the week. What a fantastic first day, and we’ve all gotten a good feel for the area, as well as gotten an idea of folks energy levels. Long slogs across flat glaciers, and moderate-angled sloped up big peaks certainly has me wishing that we could have brought skis on this trip!
Day 3, Monday.
Rest day. Most people claimed last night to be keen to head up Mons today but in the end it was only the hard-core group of John, Bill, Will and Casey. The other five of us watch with binoculars from the “patio” while alternating between eating, snoozing and talking. Discussion on solar charging. Enrique recommends goalzero.com which offers modular kits of panels and batteries, recommended by rafting guide friend of his. Afternoon walk over to the rounded rocks past Enrique’s campsite to watch the light play across the stunning icefall.
Lyle stolls into camp in the afternoon – they have gone up #5 and then bailed on an attempt of #4 because of snow and weather conditions. He’s been in the mountains for a week and a half now, and is out of beer and good food, so I give him one of my precious beers and we sit outside chatting. They were camped in the Alexandra area last week, and got up a lot of peaks. Fun talking about the peaks in that, just north-west of here, where Enrique, John and I were for the 2011 Calgary Section camp.
Take an evening stroll with John, cameras and mugs of Scotch in hand, up the rocks to the west of camp to watch the evening light bathe camp and the lake: stunning. The evening sky is clear and beautiful, and we hope for a good overnight freeze so we can get up Lyell five and maybe four if we’re lucky tomorrow.
There are six folk heading for Forbes tomorrow: George and Clare, John, Bill, Casey and Will. They’re going to go fetch the “Forbes camp” that was dropped, just on the BC side, and move it over to the standard meadow camping site below the Forbes glacier. I’m tempted, but decide that I’d rather have a new experience than revisit Forbes after the most-memorable 2001 trip with Jocelyn. We have had great views of it from the Lyell Icefield, towering above everything else in the neighbourhood. We bid the gang farewell and good luck, and all toddle off to bed.
Day 4, Tuesday
4:00 rise for a 5:00 departure. I set the alarm 15 minutes early, hoping for a some clear skies to take a night photo. The sky is partly cloudy at 3:50, but a shoot a quick pano anyway. The nearly full moon has set behind the ridge across the valley, but still lights up the sky and surrounding mountains a bit. Enrique, Colin and I are heading for Lyell Five today, and will be gone before the Forbes group is up.
We are walking by 5:00, and the sky is partly cloudy, with heavy looking dark clouds to the south. Doesn’t look good, and we mentally prepare for rain, snow, storm, whiteout etc. We head up the same way as on Sunday, around the east side of the lake and up the slope to the rocks and snowfields below the glacier tongue and then onto the Lyell Icefield. There is a brief, brilliant display of alpenglow on Mons Peak as the sun rises and lights up the land below the cloud ceiling, and then it is gone. Visibility is good and the snow is solid on the flat icefield, and we take off the crampons, which makes walking much more efficient.
The long walk across the flat glacier has been very quiet, almost spooky, with no wind and the low clouds absorbing all sound. I’m at the front of the rope, and it feels like I’m all alone out here. Colin also comments on the haunting atmosphere, says it feels like an English bog. The clouds have been concealing most summits in the area since early morning, and by about 8:00, after 3 hours of hiking, we slowly hike up into the cloud and visibility goes to nil. We are following the tracks of Lyle and group from yesterday, and feel good about being able to get up and down without getting lost as long as the track does not get filled with fresh snow. Up we move, at a good pace without the weight and bother of the crampons, surrounded by the eerie stillness and pure whiteness of the cloud. It feels like a dream, step after step, left, right, pole, pole, repeat 1000s of times in the white emptiness. Once in a while a crevasse would appear out of the fog, small ones that are easily stepped over on the flat glacier, and bigger ones that we detour around as we climb the broad slopes leading up to peak five, “Christian”. This terrain would be fantastic on skis, all broad slopes of moderate angle, but it’s a long plod on foot. The snow remains firm, though, and we move at a good pace through the fog.
Suddenly the sun comes out as a large patch of blue sky passes overhead, and our spirits lift as the stunning vista of endless mountains covered in thick puffy clouds is revealed. We can briefly see the pointy summit of our destination as well, a steep slope cut horizontally by a large bergschrund, with a passage on climbers left. After a few minutes the blue sucker hole has passed, and we are back in the fog. Before starting up the steep slope to the summit, we take a lunch break, and also a pause to see if the weather will clear at all. With this fog we have no chance of seeing any thunderstorms developing, and we would really rather not be up there if that happens.
Unfortunately nothing in the weather changes, and after 20 minutes or so we head up the 35-45 degree slope. Crossing the bergschrund requires moving to the far left of the slope, and at one point we move all the way to the rock edge, with a drop of 100s of meters to a glacier that flows west into the valley, around 1500m below us. The view into the valley is stunning when the cloud occasionally reveals it, and then when the clouds sock in again the sense of the (now invisible) vast void beyond the rock edge is powerful.
Enrique leads up the last pitch, and then Colin and I pass him and continue around the large cornice at the false summit, down into a small rocky gap, and start up the other side, only about 5m vertical. As we are nearing the top, I hear a strange sound, that at first I think is the flapping of some loose fabric on my pack, and Colin, only a couple of meters behind, hears something similar, and figures that it’s his water drinking tube, buzzing in the wind. The buzzing, flapping sound continues, and I continue to puzzle over it, until suddenly it hits me – it’s the buzzing of electricity off the aluminum snow stakes on my pack! I turn around to look at Colin, and see that the metal point of his hiking pole is at the top of his pack. DOWN NOW!! I yell at Colin; being very near the summit is the worst possible place to be in this growing electrical storm. We turn around and work our way quickly across the icy gap and race back to Enrique, who is confused and disappointed because he has not heard any buzzing, but trusts us and turns around to descend.
The three of us race down the slope, plunge-stepping as quickly as possible down the soft snow on the face, and a couple minutes later the low rumble of thunder confirms the urgency of our descent. The electric buzzing stops for a few seconds after the thunder, and then continues again. Down, down, down! We drop the 60m vertical to the ‘schhrund in a few minutes and the buzzing stops. Hail and snow are blowing all around, but everything feels better as we get down off the face and onto the lower, moderate angled slopes. A close call, and we continue quickly down to put as much distance as possible between us and the electrified summit.
As we drop, the snow and hail storm changes to a rain mixture, but the adrenalin is keeping us warm. We continue without stopping, now mostly out of danger of the lightening but wanting to get down below the storm. Eventually it stops raining and blowing on us, and we are left in a calm, thick fog that envelopes us for the next two hours. Once again the fog and silence lulls us into a dream-like state as we walk endlessly down through the mist, following our footprints in the snow.
We are very glad to have our track to guide us down through the thick soup. We finally pop out of the fog a few hundred meters above camp, and are treated once again to the stunning view of camp and it’s lake, the glacier behind, the valley below and Mons and other peaks in the background, all draped in heavy cloud. We wonder how the gang of six is doing over at Forbes today. Forbes is just around the corner, but we have not seen it all day due to the low clouds and fog.
Glad to be back in camp and the chance to dry out and rest after a soggy day of slogging with a bit of electric excitement that still has us buzzing. Later in the week, we talk to other people who have gotten up Lyell 5, and they tell us that the summit was less than 30m away from where we turned around. The debate rages on as to whether or not we can claim that summit. For me, a summit is a very well defined point, and whether you made it or not is clear, but other folks are more generous with their definitions, haha.
Day 5, Wednesday
Up at 5:00 for a pee run, and the full moon is just about to set behind the ridge behind the broken glacier. I not one to miss a photo-op like this, so I take a moonlit pano of camp and area with a sky that is so bright the tent doesn’t show that it’s being lit from inside. I’ve been trying to reconcile the vastly different paths that the moon and the sun take across the sky this week. The sun rises above Division mountain every day, while the moon has been getting up just to the north of Mons Peak, and following a low arc in the sky. At new moon and full moon, the moon is certainly sitting on the ecliptic. As I write this blog, back in Internet land, I look into this and discover that the moon’s orbit takes it as far as 5.2 degrees north or south of the ecliptic.
After a lazy breakfast, Colin and I head off for a walk to see the waterfalls plunging down the headwall into Icefall Brook. Absolutely amazing (dozens of photos); there are 13 or so streams (depending what you count) plunging down on the sides of the valley that we can see, and at least three (or four) more on the other side, all dropping 200-300m, some in free fall for over 100m. Tons of fantastic fossil corals on the way. Colin and I take a very relaxed pace to the edge of the canyon and back – it’s really nice to enjoy a relaxed day in such wild and beautiful surroundings.
Back in camp we change the outhouse, which requires finding a new spot to dig a 2-foot deep pit. Not an easy job when it’s mostly solid rock! We find a spot where the gravel is deep enough and dig our new hole, mount the toilet-seat-box on top, and then Enrique tests it by jumping on the box. Safety first!
Camp is great, without any of the usually numerous bugs or squirrels, and hanging out or doing chores does not involve the usual constant mosquito and horse-fly swatting. We are above the “life line”, camped in rocks that have only recently – estimates are a few decades – been uncovered by the retreating glaciers and there is still barely any vegetation here.
We receive word that that the Forbes team has summited and is back in camp by 8:00, a long day! They say there was some stress on the trip due to complicated glaciers and difficult route finding up the ridge, plus dealing with weather as several thunderstorm cells went through. Make plans for Mons tomorrow, 3:30 wake up and in bed by 9:45.
Day 6, Thursday
It rains continuously all night, and my sleep is very restless. Wake up at 2:30, look outside and the mist and rain is thick, making it unlikely that we’ll climb anything today. Sleep solidly, finally, until the alarm goes off at 3:30 for the alpine start. Looking outside the fog is so thick that I can barely see the kitchen tents, about 20m away. My headlamp cuts a nice beam through the fog as I walk over to Enrique’s tent to confirm the obvious – we are not going anywhere today! Colin has boiled water in the kitchen tent so we have a tea and then I head back to bed.
When I finally wake up around 9, the morning is actually quite beautiful, in a quiet, wet way, with clouds and fog rising from the valley and sporadic rain.
The beauty of living outdoors is that the weather is right in your face all the time. The weather is always there, constantly changing, and usually the main factor in the daily decision making. Such a refreshing change from the urban existence, where bad weather is usually not much more than a minor nuisance.
We have had a visitor overnight. Enrique reports that a porcupine has moved into our shiny new outhouse pit, so we all head over there to flush him out. Turns out it’s a marmot, who appears to be sleepy, scared and very unhappy that we have upset him in his warm and dry little hole. Sorry little dude, but you gotta go! We remove the outhouse box-seat and walk away, hoping that he will just leave. Suddenly Enrique gets a call from the Forbes team that they are requesting a helicopter evacuation – seems that someone has sprained an ankle on the descent yesterday and they do not feel that they can walk back to our main camp. Everybody is ok and safe in their camp, and the situation is not an emergency, so we head back to the kitchen tent to coordinate the flight, leaving the marmot alone.
Mt Forbes is in Banff national park, so we phone the Banff Rescue Service on the satellite phone to arrange a non-emergency evacuation. The weather here at the Rice Brook camp is thick clouds and rainy, but apparently at the Forbes camp the weather is better. Banff rescue says that they should be able to get there in one hour. Wow, that’s quick! Enrique was on the sat phone for a total of 12 minutes reporting the relevant details of victim status, exact location (UTM coordinates) and the fact that he is with five people, safe in a camp. By 11:40 the helicopter has arrived and by 11:55 Casey has been flown out. We call the Forbes team again and make sure that we have Casey’s car keys (!) and ask about their return plans. They plan on breaking camp immediately and should be back here by 6 o’clock. Very impressed, once again, with the rescue service and how efficient everybody was. Looking forward to seeing the rest of the Forbes group here this evening. At 12:30, Enrique and I are sitting in the tent, discussing this and listening to the rain and grauple pour down on the tent. In bad weather it’s great to have the big canvas tents to hang out in, with comfy chairs for lounging and room to stand up and move around.
In the late afternoon, after the storm is finished, I head up towards the glacier to visit Lyle and Dave in their camp. Dave Jones is a bit of a local legend, having climbed just about every peak around here, written the Selkirks guidebooks, and is well past his 45th climbing season. Every summer he runs a series of “work camps”, and spends between 4 and 6 weeks living and climbing in the mountains. We chat about their previous week in Alexandra, where Enrique, John and I were last year with the ACC, and Dave tells us about his current project: a definitive guide to the Canadian Rocky mountains, from Jasper to the US border, that he plans to publish in four volumes over the next few years.
There is one thing in this stunning area that is a continuous source of anger to me and other folks in our camp. The western side of the Rocky Mountains is as beautiful as anywhere in Banff or Jasper National Park: there is more rain and snowfall here, and the increased precipitation levels result in larger and more active glaciers, deeper valleys and richer vegetation and life below treeline. And yet, very little of this region is protected from industrial exploitation. From our campsite, we look down into a magnificent valley dominated by Arras Mountain, a stunning peak of vertically-tilted strata rising 2000m above the valley and only 7km from Banff National Park. The lower, treed flanks of Arras, like most mountains around here, have been subjected to clear-cut logging and have an ugly, steep logging road switch-backing through the destruction of the mowed-down forest.
Is there no place left on Earth that is too beautiful or too remote to be spared being used and destroyed to satisfy our endless need to grow and consume?
Day 7, Friday
Another attempt at Mons. Been watching this shapely peak catch the first and last rays of the sun all week, and it’s been on my list since going up Forbes with Jocelyn in 2001. Must do! The weather in the morning is foggy again but after two camp days I’m determined to get out. Last night, Colin and Enrique said that they were in, but when I wander over to Enrique’s tent in the morning fog he bails, wanting to rest his sore knee and thinking that the weather will stay wet and that the snow will be soft. Back in the kitchen tent, I try and recruit somebody to join us from the team of 5 going up Lyell #5. George is interested, as he has not been up Mons yet, and eventually he agrees to join us – yes!
We are off by 5:00 and heading east across the moraine in fog that alternately clears and fills in again as patches of clouds move up the valley. Occasionally we have to wait until the fog clears so that we can see the route before continuing across the undulating terrain and getting on to the main lateral moraine running down the valley, which we need to cross on our way over to Mons. There is one steep rock step on the way, about 5m high of very solid rock, and fun climbing. About two hours from camp we are putting on the harness and rope at the edge of the glacier, very close to the Mons hut. The valley fog has dissipated, the sky is showing signs of opening, and we are optimistic that the weather will let us get up the peak today.
The route across the glacier and up the main slopes of Mons is straight forward and the snow is solid, making for excellent step kicking, with no need for crampons until we approach a bare ice patch at the half-way point. We work our way around some crevasses in the middle of the upper slope and are soon at the crossing of the massive bergschrund, on the far west side of the summit ridge. The crossing is still in good shape, and on the summit ridge we find more good snow for a few 100m and then easy scrambling on broken rock for the remaining 300m to the summit. The sky has cleared completely of clouds overhead, but there is lingering cloud in the valleys far below that is rising as the sun heats things up. Stunning views in all directions, and the summit is calm and sunny: absolutely beautiful.
We lounge about, eating lunch and taking photos for about an hour, just enjoying the luxury of perfect weather on the summit. The clouds are rapidly forming in the valleys, occasionally boiling up and rising to and beyond summit height, but nothing is threatening us. We comment to each other how this has been such a relaxing peak, starting off with low expectations in the wet weather this morning, and nothing stressful about the approach or climb. I encourage George and Colin to start down ahead of me, partly so I can get some pictures of them descending, but also because being alone on a remote summit is an incredibly special feeling. They start down the ridge, I take a few pictures, and then once they have disappeared from view, I just pause to look around for a few minutes, relishing the feeling of not seeing another human for probably 100km in any direction.
The view of Forbes on the way down Mons is stunning. Despite the beautiful and calm weather on Mons, Forbes has a boiling plume of cloud coming off its summit that runs for several kilometers to the south. We can clearly see the full Forbes glacier, and further down the valley lies Glacier Lake. Once again, memories of the fantastic 2001 trip up there, as I recall the staggeringly long slog in to Glacier Lake and up the valley with a massive backpack. And then out again a few days later! Fantastic to see the area again from a different perspective.
The views continue to stun us, but I’m photographically challenged, and technologically frustrated, today as my little camera, despite putting a fresh memory card into it yesterday, claims to have no memory for pictures, which means I have to sort and delete pictures from the camera here in the field. On the other hand it makes me shoot less but more carefully, kind of like the old film days when 36 exposures was a lot!
In the evening we are all comfortably back in camp, the gang from Lyell 5 having made it back shortly after our leisurely return. The afternoon weather is clear and beautiful, and we set the chairs up outside on the “patio” and commence to finish all the beers. Tonight is our last night, and we can’t let any alcohol go to waste! After cooking up our last dinner, the party continues, with Lyle showing up because I may have mentioned the possibility of leftover drinks on our last day.
Staggering back to my tent under the mostly clear sky I notice that the moon is just rising, and even though I’m completely exhausted from the early start, and more than a little wobbly from finishing the booze, I drag the tripod out and setup the camera to take a quick panorama of the stunning night. A great way to end a fantastic week!
Day 8, Saturday
Today is pack up and fly out day. The morning is absolutely beautiful, without a cloud in the sky, and we all spend the morning in a very relaxed mode, slowly packing our gear, having breakfast, taking photos, and suntanning. We need to be ready to fly by 1:00, plenty of time, and we work efficiently and there is no rush.
It is complete luxury to spend a perfect day in such a beautiful spot, just soaking up the stunning environment and enjoying the sun. I’ve spent plenty of time hanging out in camp, but today I discover new details in the rocks I missed, and new perspectives to capture the feeling of the place.
The glacier-polished limestone around camp is just thick with fossils, mostly corals and there’s time to enjoy those and once again be in awe of the geologic process of mountain-building that has resulted in fossils of ocean-bottom life from 100 million years ago, now up here at 2000m above sea-level.
Once we are packed, we haul our bags and leftover food and garbage boxes – a surprisingly small load – over to where the helicopter will land, and then commence with more relaxing, everybody taking some last minute photos, and chatting about the week. This camp is in a magical location, and such an full week we are all sad to leave this wonderful place!
As we hang out on the rocks, we are keenly listening for the sound of the helicopter. There it is, and we watch it fly up and down the valley, two flights, to pick up Dave Jone’s camp.
When the helicopter comes up valley the third time it is for us, followed by two more flights that take us out and bring in the participants for next weeks camp.
The helicopter arrives with some of the gang for next weeks camp, including my friends Dan and Don and Nathalie, and we very briefly say hi during the loud, windy, and totally focused time that the helicopter is touched down, still running, and then we are off for the five-minute flight down the valley to our waiting cars.
The group shots, hanging out in paradise, minus Casey, who took the evacuation out because of his injury. Thanks everyone for a fantastic week in this beautiful place, and special thanks to Enrique for organizing and managing the camp!
Darren Foltinek, 2012