Mt Victoria is the stunning backdrop to one of the most famous views in the Canadian Rockies: Lake Louise from the Chateau. On a sunny summer morning, the lake in front of the hotel is normally swarming with tourists, with 1000s of photos of Mt. Victoria and the lake taken every day. When John, Keith and I arrive at the parking lot shortly after 3:00 in the morning on Saturday, we find the parking lot nearly empty and only one person at the lakeshore, taking photos of the stunningly clear night sky. We walk quickly past him on our way up the broad trail to the Plain of Six Glacier tea house. We have a long way to go today.
It’s still pitch dark when we arrive at the tea house an hour and 20 minutes later, and it takes a little while to find the faint climbers trail leading up towards Victoria glacier. The trail leads steeply up through an winter avalanche path and into sub-alpine forest, switch-backing and working around small cliff bands before breaking out of the forest into glacial moraine at the edge of Victora glacier. Around two hours after leaving the parking lot, there is a hint of lightness in the sky to the east and we are on the moraine at the edge of the glacier. We rope up and put crampons on for the icy hard snow on the glacier, grateful that the night has been clear and cold so that the snow is hard and well frozen, making for easier walking and safer crevasse crossings. We had seen two faint headlamps above us on the trail, and now we meet up with Kris and his friend, who have gotten a slightly earlier start than we did, and are just about to start off up the glacier when we get there.
Our timing is perfect, as we get on the glacier just at dawn, and as we walk up the glacier we are treated to a stunning light show as the sun pokes up over the peaks to the east and lights up the north face of Victoria. The Victoria glacier, seen so well from the lake shore, is heavily crevassed and ends abruptly at large ice cliffs that drop 100s of meters down into the valley below. On advice from our friend Enrique, we take the long route and go left around a field of large crevasses in the middle of the glacier, to avoid having to navigate, and possibly get trapped by, the open crevasses to the right. The snow is hard and the going is easy as we walk up the broad, gentle slopes of the glacier, easily crossing some large but well-bridged crevasses. Fantastic views of the north face of Victoria and the very broken and crevassed glacier below it.
The next obstacle is a bergschrund guarding access to the ‘black band’ of rock which makes up the col between Victoria, and Collier to the north-east. There is one possible crossing point, and we meet up with Kris and his friend at the same point again. They go down into the icy moat and up a steep rock step to gain the rockband, and we decide to move carefully across a narrow, steep snow lip that bridges the moat. As they start up the loose black rock above us, we need to wait for them, sheltered by a buttress from the rocks that they inevitably knock loose. They are moving diagonally to the left, and once we are out of the path of rock fall, we move up a snow ramp and head roughly straight up the black rock band toward the col.
The black-band of rock is loose and covered in boulders and gravel, but the scrambling is easy as the rock is dry and has plenty of ledges. We make note of a rappel station in the middle of the band, which will be very handy for the descent later. Getting to the top, we find several more rappel stations along the edge of the col, and a lip of icy snow along the very top of the col. We wait again and grab some food as Kris and his friend gain the col, so that we do not knock rocks down on them as we move south-west across the col, towards Victoria.
Running across the col is an icy ribbon of hard snow and ice. I’m not sure if it is a left over snowdrift and cornice from the winter or the upper remnants of the glacier on the NE side of the mountain. It’s about 5m high, and we get on top of it via a steep slope and stroll along it towards the upper mountain.
There are two choices to gain the summit – directly up the rocky ridge, which involves scrambling and at least one pitch of low-grade climbing, or traversing around the ridge to the right, onto steeper snow and ice and then going straight up the face. We decide that the snow and ice of the face is more appealing, and hike up the ridge to the base of the rock, then traverse below it. The travel is easy, but the terrain is steep and icy, so we protect the traverse with ice screws and occasionally rock gear. Once past the traverse, the slope opens up and we head straight up the 45 degree snow and ice for the summit, using ice screws to set up a running belay. The climbing is solid, mostly on thin, hard snow over alpine ice, but steep enough that I occasionally chop a small platform to rest the aching calf muscles at the anchors. After three sets of running belays (roughly six rope lengths) we gain the ridge just before the summit, and it becomes clear that we really are on a big mountain, as we look down on all the other peaks in the area.
The summit itself is a triangular pyramid of broken rock, with it’s three edges leading north-east down the way we came, west off to a buttress blocking the view of Lake Ohara, and south towards the long and very broken ridge leading towards the south summit of Victoria, about 1km away. It is just after 1:00, time for lunch and photos! All day long we have been pushing hard, and had a set an 11:00 turn-around time so that we would not have to walk across the lower glacier, across crevasse bridges, when the snow is soft and the bridges weak. We decided to push the turn-around time because the day was clear but cool, and the snow has remained hard-frozen on the upper mountain. The glacier, 100s of meters below us, has been baking in the sun all afternoon, and we express concerns to each other that our decision to summit will cause problems in a few hours, when we are back on the glacier and the snow is soft.
Descending the upper mountain starts off with a walk down the ridge from the summit until the ridge becomes steep and difficult, at which point we start a series of lowers and down-climbs. I lower John down the first steep slope, and he puts in a few ice screws, and builds an anchor at the end of the 60m rope, then I lower Keith to the anchor that John has built, and once he is there I downclimb and remove the screws, on belay from the anchor. Repeat for three rope lengths, and we are at the traverse around the rock step. It’s a slow, tedious process down, and the slow pace continues as we fully belay the three rope lengths of the traverse. We make goals of the landmarks in the descent: down the face, across the traverse, down to the col, rappel the rock band, across the glacier, down the little trail to the tea house, and finally walk around Lake Louise. These small goals, an hour or two long, make progress nicely measurable and keep us from dwelling on the long, long way back to the car. The extra safety measure of the full belay pays off when Keith trips and slides a few meters down the slope before I catch him. No problem, he’s not injured, but it’s a very clear reminder to all to be extra vigilant now that we are all very tired. It’s been over 12 hours now and we still have the rock band and glacier to go before getting off technical terrain and onto the easy trail.
John and Keith reload their water bottles from a trickle of snow melt at the col while I scramble along the top of the black rock band to select the best of the three rappel stations and make sure that it’s safe to use. Time and speed are always important on alpine days, and it’s important that we get down and off the glacier before dark. From the glacier back to the lake it’s a trail, which we can do with headlamps if needed. One 30m rappel down the the rock gets us to the 2nd station, and one more 30m rappel and we are onto the easier scrambling terrain just above the bergschrund.
After some careful down-climbing of the soft snow, and a more-careful traverse across the bergschrund snow bridge and we are finally on the glacier.
Fortunately the snow on the glacier is reasonably firm, mostly because it is so late now that the glacier has been in the shade for an hour or two and has refrozen.
Crampons off, we plod down the glacier and around to the right of the central crevasse field, keeping the rope tight most of the way as we work around and over some large crevasses. No problems, and we are off the glacier at the rather late hour of 8:00 in the evening! Unrope and rest a bit at the moraine, before hurrying down the trail to the lake.
Now the main goal is to get back to the car before the pub at the Post Hotel closes and we miss dinner!
On the way down the moraine, the roar of a icefall shatters the silence, and the valley between Mt Lefroy and the smaller peak known as the Mitre fills with a powder cloud from a large serac falling off the glacier on Lefroy. Wow! We watch in awe as the cloud rolls down the valley. Half an hour later there’s a 2nd roar as another serac peels off Lefroy, plummets the 800m down into the valley and explodes into a cloud.
We plod down the thin trail through the forest, taking a quick stop at the tea house (it’s closed of course), then continue down the broad trail to the end of Lake Louise, and then along the trail following the edge of the lake as darkness settles over the valley. We are tempted to put on headlamps, but the trail is smooth enough that we just walk in the dark towards the hotel, feet and knees very sore along the seemingly endless lake. In reality its less than an hour, and then we’re at the car, finally out of the stinky heavy boots and heading for a beer and burger at the Post Hotel pub.
A long, great day, thanks John and Keith for being such troopers!
The next day is a lounging-around, sleeping-in day, and around noon we hike the same trail around Lake Louise to the popular Back of the Lake sport-climbing area and do some fun easy routes. Just by chance, we run into Kris and his friend, the other party on the mountain yesterday, and swap stories. A very full weekend at the beautiful Lake Louise!
©2012, Darren Foltinek