Sunday July 26
Every year the Calgary section of the Alpine Club of Canada (ACC) runs a week-long mountaineering camp. The camps are in remote areas that are otherwise quite difficult to access and are a fantastic way to explore new terrain with great folks from a comfortable base camp.
We start the day in Golden, BC, with an early breakfast at the Big Bend cafe, where there is excellent food, a fun atmosphere and a great selection of hot sauces. All 12 of us drove to Golden last night so we could get an early start this morning, and we are all very awake and excited to be here.
After breakfast and some last minute shopping we do the long and slow drive up the Bush River road, north along Kinbasket Lake. After some 150km on generally good gravel roads we get to the helicopter staging area, where we stack all of our food and gear and commence waiting for the helicopter.
The flight in is stunning, up the Kinbasket River and over ridges with beautiful alpine meadows. At one point our pilot swerves to avoid a golden eagle soaring over the ridges. We spot a patch of smoking forest on a ridge top from a recent lightening strike and he makes a note to call the location in. Soon we are beyond the forest and flying over rocky ridges and glacial morraine, and the long tongue of the Cummins glacier comes into view.
Our campsite is perched on a broad bench below Mt Shipton, next to the Tusk/Cummins glacier and above a steep drop off to the Cummins glacier. A small pond and stream provides water and there are plenty of spots in the moraine for tents, just taking a bit of work moving rocks and flattening the ground.
It takes three flights to get the 12 of us and our gear in, and in between flights we have time to chat with the folks from the first week of the camp, who are flying out as we fly in. We are sorry to hear that the rainy weather we are seeing today is some of the best they have had all week, and they spent most of the week sitting in camp. Yikes, we are hoping for better weather than that!
Our base camp location at the junction of Tusk and Cummins glaciers
The plan for the first day of climbing is to go up the north slope of Mt Irvin with Jocelyn and Barend. It’s a highly-rated moderate climb and will give us the chance to look around and check out conditions on the glaciers.
We leave camp around 6:30 with a quick walk down the moraine to the Cummins / Tusk glacier and around the shoulder of Mt Shipton, at the east end of the long ridge. The day is overcast and as we climb up the Tusk glacier clouds are moving up and down, with an occasional bit of light rain. But there’s no serious storm so we just march on up, across the bare ice of the glacier. Because the glacier is bare ice we leave the rope off and just walk up the gentle slope, zigzagging occasionally around crevasses.
As we turn towards the SW to head towards Irvine, the glacier steepens, we put on the rope, and the day quickly gets interesting as we enter heavily crevassed terrain. We have climbed up into the clouds now, and are navigating these large, complex crevasse fields in a white out, which makes long-distance navigation impossible.
Occasionally the clouds open and we get spectacular views across the Tusk glacier to Reconnaissance Ridge and the south face and glacier of Mt Clemenceau, our main objective for the week.
As we move up, the glacier continuous to be very broken, and we are moving through spectacular huge crevasses, big enough to hold a train. Not particularly dangerous, as the glacier is mostly thin snow over bare ice so there’s little chance of falling in, but rather spooky to be navigating terrain like this in thick fog.
We are aiming for a 45 degree snow and ice slope that runs up the north side of Irvin. There are very steep bedding-plane slabs rising up from the glacier, and a few couloirs of snow that stop before the ridge line. The clouds close in again and we lose visibility but continue working east towards the north slope, crossing a swath of heavy wet snow avalanche debris.
Last week had very wet weather, with rain down low and about 10cm of snow falling up high. The fresh snow was moved around by wind, and there have been some point release avalanches from very steep terrain when the weather is been hot. Fortunately for us the clouds are keeping the snow cool and the fresh snow is well bonded to the underlying alpine ice today.
Another break in the clouds gives us the visibility we need to see our ascent slope. We work our way across the avalanche debris and across another crevasse system to the base of the steep slope. Before we get to the clean snow / ice slope there are a couple more crevasse systems to navigate through, and Jocelyn sets snow pickets and ice screws to protect the tricky parts.
Around 11:00 we are past the complex, broken glacier and start up the face proper, a beautiful, clean and smooth slope of snow over ice running about 300m straight up to the summit. The condition of the face is excellent, with 10-25cm of new snow over good ice, and running belays and two ice axes each make for efficient, safe climbing. With 7 ice screws, we run the 70m rope out three times, building ice screw anchors to bring the team together and swap gear.
As we work our way up the slope, we are faced with a mystery. The route description talks about a 150m slope no steeper than 45 degrees, but the slope we are on is more like 300m and steeper – we estimate closer to 60 degrees. Much later, we sheepishly realize that we have climbed the wrong mountain, and we are on Shipton instead of Irvin. Turns out that we got quite lost in the fog on the glacier and stayed right when we should have moved left. Whoops. The good news is that, according to Dave P. Jones, this route was first climbed by members of his party in 2014, and so we have done the 2nd ascent!
Jocelyn leads the whole face, occasionally whooping with joy at the beautiful route and being able to climb again in the Canadian Rockies. The clouds are clearing, and the view behind us, of Tusk and Clemenceau poking through the clouds, is incredible, but we are focused on the few meters of snow and ice immediately in front of us as we climb the face, and there is not much time for sightseeing as we need to get to the top while the snow is still cool and firm.
The slope goes on and on, up into the clearing sky, and finally ends at a 5x5m bench of snow just below the rocky true summit. The sky continues opening up, and we hang out at the summit eating lunch and taking pictures for about 1/2 hour before starting the descent down the ridge towards camp.
The mountains here are folded and steeply dipping shale, and the ridge top is the upper end of a series of shale beds that drop steeply, 60-80 degrees, down to the Tusk glacier on our right. On the left side of the ridge the shattered ends of the shale slabs drop steeply down to the Cummins Glacier, 1000m below.
Travelling along the ridge starts off ok, walking carefully on a snow arete or broad, broken rock, but soon becomes quite miserable, with completely shattered blocks of shale covered in 10cm of soft snow, and big exposure on both left and right. There are several steps, of 4-6m, that require very careful down climbing, with crampons still on the boots. Numerous knife-edge sections require a spicy balancing act.
As we descend Shipton down the ridge the rock becomes more limestone and more solid, and the highlight of the ridge is a stunning knife-edge traverse on good solid limestone, with a wide crack for your feet and the ridge-edge for your hands. After 100s of meters of terribly loose and broken rock it’s a real treat to get something solid to hang on to!
The ridge is just over 1km long, and as we approach the end of it broadens before we turn left and descend the last few 100 meters of loose scree down to our camp, sitting on a rocky bench just above the Cummins glacier.
Back in camp we discuss the weather, swap stories with other parties who were also wandering in the clouds today. The forecast for tomorrow is rain, so we plan on taking a rest day.
Wednesday, Clemenceau bivy
The participants in the first week of camp had nothing but rain and heavy clouds, weather which we have had a taste of for the first three days here. We are receiving weather forecasts by satellite phone, and are all very excited to hear that the forecast for the 2nd half of our week is for a big high pressure system to move in to the area, which means at least three days of clear skies!
We take this great opportunity to make an attempt on our main objective, Mt. Clemenceau, as early as possible in the forecast high pressure window. The normal route up Clemenceau goes up the moderately-angled Tiger glacier on the south-west face, and in order to get up and down the glacier quickly and safely, we set up a high camp on the lower slopes of the mountain. Starting from the high camp will save us about 3 hours in the morning, and allow us to get down off the glacier before the sun hits the face and softens up the fresh snow that covers the slopes.
As we march across the Tusk glacier towards Clemenceau we are quietly excited. The sky is still full of puffy clouds, but it is obvious that the weather is improving. We are not in a rush, and take time to examine the numerous streams carving their way down the Tusk glacier. There is one particularly large stream that has carved a substantial channel in the glacial ice and needs to be crossed carefully, while all the others are small meandering flows which can be easily stepped across.
Parallel to the down-hill flow of the glacier, the surface is marked with prominant light and dark striations, and we puzzle over the cause of these patterns. They appear like layers of clear and dirty ice, but the layers are either vertical or tilted into the glacier. There are some theories about stress-induced differentiation of the ice, but these striking features remain mysterious.
After crossing the Tusk glacier we work around a lateral moraine to the south-west of Clemenceau, looking for a good route up through rock bands that guard the lower flanks of the mountain. After plodding up around 200m of loose scree we top out on a broad bench of broken shale, and find some stone walls protecting a few sites, each suitable for a small tent. The location is absolutely stunning, with grand views across the Tusk glacier to Reconnaissance Ridge and the massif of Mts. Tusk, Irvin and Shipton.
We are two climbing parties, each with four folks, for the Clemenceau attempt tomorrow. Jocelyn, Barend, Andy and I are the first up the bivy site, and John Adam’s team of Paula, Dom and John M. arrive shortly afterwards. There is plenty of space for the four tents. We have hauled some beautifully pure glacier water up from the last stream crossing on the Tusk glacier, and there is a also a snowfield nearby for extra water.
We setup camp, make dinner and enjoy the stunning views as the sun sets and puffy clouds race across the sky. Unfortunately we can’t stay up late to watch sunset as the alarms are set for 3:00 tomorrow and our fingers are crossed for the promised good weather!
Thursday, Mt. Clemenceau
3am comes early after a restless night where we wake up every couple hours as winds gusts hit the tent. As we crawl out into the dark, it appears that yesterday’s forecast is correct and the sky is mostly clear, the stars are out, and the nearly full moon is lighting up the landscape beautifully. It’s tough but exciting getting up at this hour, boiling water for oatmeal breakfast while trying to warm up, wake up and get ready.
It’s a short walk up rubble slopes towards the glacier just above our bivy site. As we move off the rock to the glacier we find that the surface snow is well frozen, which we very happy about as it means good avalanche stability, strong crevasse bridges and solid footing in crampons.
The nearly full moon is still quite high in the the sky, which greatly helps with navigating across the glacier. The route moves from snow to ice fairly soon, and we are working though icy, open crevasses by headlamp and moonlight. The glacier on the west face of Clemenceau is tremendously broken, and we are roughly following a route guided by a photo of the face taken last year by Dave Jones.
Moving up the western side of the glacier we approach a prominent rock buttress poking though the ice and skirt left around it. The terrain is steep enough here that we put in a snow picket and an ice screw as a running belay. Above the rock buttress we enter a broad bowl below the rocky west ridge and move right towards a moderately steep slope that leads us out of the bowl. The slope has a big crevasse across it which requires a bit of snooping around until we can find a suitable bridge. Once over the bridge we continue up the slope and into another bowl.
Above the horizon the sky shows the Earth’s shadow brightening to pink and blue and the moon is a beautiful orange ball that sinks into the horizon, jagged with the distant peaks of the Columbia mountains. After climbing out of the first bowl, we need to drop into another bowl below the west ridge before gaining a glacial shoulder that appears to offer the easiest line out of the second bowl.
At the top of the shoulder we find ourselves surrounded by absolutely immense crevasses, and after searching around for a crossing, realize that the only way through is to climb down into a crevasse and out the other side. Jocelyn is leading, and we give him a full belay across, as he protects the entry and exits with snow pickets.
After that dramatic crossing, we head up a steep snow slope that leads to the eastern end of the rocky west ridge, one picket and one ice screw for protection. The climbing is solid and straight-forward and we top out onto a broad snowy bench.
We have now crossed the major difficulties and find ourselves on a bench leading to the right-left ramp that provides an easy path through another major crevasse system before gaining the summit ridge.
The broad ramp is a easy walk with incredible, dramatic scenery all around. We are still in the shade and as we gain the summit ridge we climb into a strong wind layer and it gets quite cold. We are very leery of the enormous cornices to our left and work our way up easy snow to the summit block, a small rime-covered mound of snow with an icy crevasse splitting it from the cornice hanging off the back (NE) side. Andy is leading at this point, and he gains the summit via the steep SW side at 9:00, very leery of the cornice on the other side.
The views are stunning in all directions – Columbia Icefields to the south-east, Mt. Robson 125km away, on the far horizon to the north, the big peaks of the Adamant range in the Columbia mountains, 50km south, and nearby, Mt. Tusk and Shackleton behind the big cornices on the south ridge, in the direction of camp.
Only 9 in the morning and the cold, howling wind does not take the joy at being on top of 4th highest peak in the Rockies in perfect weather.
There’s no lingering at the top, and we quickly take a few photos before down climbing to get out of the wind, off the rather precarious summit block and back on to the relative comfort of the ridge we came up.
As we descend the summit ridge we meet up with John A., Paula, John M. and Dom coming up, and we shake hands and congratulate them on their soon-to-be summit.
The descent follows our up track, and we do not waste any time, trying to get down as soon as possible before the snow softens dangerously. The descent goes well, but the softening snow means we are breaking through the frozen crust more often, which makes for frustrating walking, and I punch a leg into small crevasses three times.
This photo, taken a few days later from a ridge on the south side of the Cummins glacier, shows the upper portion of the west face of Mt. Clemenceau and the approximate route we followed up the glacier.
We are back at the bivy site by 1:00 in the afternoon and relax and pack up our camp while waiting for John’s team to get back. Some cumulous clouds have built up and the afternoon is beautiful as we stroll back down the Tusk glacier back to the main camp. The glacier is full of interesting features carved by the flowing water; streams and mill-holes and, and as we are in no hurry, we stop to investigate.
Mill-holes are beautiful and spooky holes created by water drilling down into the glacier. They appear bottomless, black pits that actually end at the base of the glacier where the ice rests on the bedrock, which on a glacier like this is likely to be 50-100m deep. I have seen them as small as 30cm in diameter and as large as 10m. Sometimes they have a stream flowing into them, falling into the depths, and sometimes they are dry, with the stream that created it having changed course. They are terrifying because they are quite randomly spread around glaciers, and do not follow the regular patterns of crevasses.
We also find this puzzling circular feature which we call a glacial cinnamon roll. It’s about two feet in diameter and has a small trickle of water flowing into and out of it. The dark stuff is mud mixed with fine rocks, which melts down into the surface of the ice as the mud gets warm on a sunny day.
In the middle of the glacier, 100s of meters from any rock wall, we find a large boulder perched on icy pedestals and figure that the rock has shaded and protected the ice from melting. Photo stop!
Eventually we get back to camp, where our friends, food and celebratory beers are waiting. Mission accomplished.
Friday, rest day at camp
Today everybody is in base camp, resting. I wake up at 10:00 after roughly 12 hours of sleep last night, whew that felt great! Eight of us went up Clemenceau yesterday and four went up Tusk, one of 3 11,000 foot peaks in the area, and despite being a gorgeous day, without a cloud in the sky, everybody is lounging around camp.
Jocelyn is doing yoga by his tent in the morning, and I do some qigong out on the glacier-polished rocks. George, Clare, Casey and Jeff are preparing to head to the Clemenceau bivy site today for an attempt tomorrow, some folks are just eating breakfast, while others tuck into lunch. Clothing and gear is scattered about drying in the warm sun, and folks are reading and relaxing.
We see the Clem crew off with a big hurrah and photo session around 2:30, then an hour later have to launch a resupply mission after receiving a call on the radio that somebody broke a crampon and could we please meet them halfway on the glacier with spare parts.
John and I head out with the parts and have a great conversation as we hoof up the bare ice – it’s the first time I’ve had the chance to chat with him this trip, as we have ended up on different climbing parties. It’s also good to get out for a little walk, to stretch the muscles and move a bit after a big day yesterday.
After delivering the spare parts, we head back to camp and come across the skeletal remains of what we think was a mountain goat. Other than a few flies, some small shrubs and one tiny tree, we have not seen any other living things up here, and are very surprised to find these remains. There is certainly no meat, and only a few tufts of fur, and we wonder how old this skeleton is. It could be only a few years old, or perhaps the glacier melted back and revealed this skeleton of a goat that died hundreds of years ago.
Sitting outside watching the sunset with John, Paula, Dom and Andy in the evening drinking beer, wine, and whiskey and eating chocolate while discussing life, meaning, and why we do such silly things as climb mountains.
We all agree on why we climb:
To achieve the rare feeling of complete focus when you are fully engaged;
To see and experience unique and special things;
To suffer – occasionally being cold, scared, hungry and tired – makes one appreciate what we have in life;
There is nothing like the astonishing beauty of wilderness;
To share these feelings with people who understand.
Saturday, Cummins glacier hike
After a relaxed morning John, Paula, Andy, Dom and I leave at 9:00 for a walk across the Cummins glacier below and south of our campsite. The plan is to go check out some peaks at the head of the glacier, to the NW, as well as the ridge to the SW. From camp we walk down to the Tusk glacier and then descend over a bulge, entering a large crevasse field that requires moving to the right to get around the big ones.
At the edge of the Cummins glacier a wide rocky moraine begins, at the base of Reconnaissance Ridge, below an active rockfall zone. We walk up the low-angle glacier heading west, aiming to have a look at Mt Sharp and Morrison at the head of the glacier.
Upon gaining the top of a high point on the gently rolling glacier, we find ourselves once again in the middle of a heavily crevassed zone. The crevasses are surprising, as the glacier is basically flat and straight at this point, and we guess that there must be a hill beneath the glacier that is disturbing the surface. It’s a good reminder that no matter how benign and gentle the glacier appears, there can always be crevasses.
The day is warm, and the glacier is melting furiously, with dozens of small streams meandering, some slow some fast, down the glacier. The water in these streams is fantastic, cold and pure. Well, pure except for some dirt and surface bacteria, but it sure tastes good!
The ridge at the south edge of the glacier is comprised of white quartzite, broken into large sharp edged blocks and run through with quartz veins. The blocks are precariously perched on each other and we work our way carefully up through them to the ridge top, where the rock type changes to a pinkish quartzite, similar to that around Lake Louise, covered in lichen. I’m puzzled by the dramatic change in rock type at the very crest of the ridge.
Andy and I run up to the highest point on the ridge and get great views of the upper part of Clemenceau, hang out for a bit, and then drop back to the rest of the crew to descend the ridge back to the glacier.
On the way back across the glacier we run across numerous small streams that are continuously merging into larger and larger streams, which eventually becomes a raging torrent that has dug a 2-3m deep canyon into the ice. We follow this stunning stream down the glacier until it veers off to the south into a glacial depression and we need to head north back to the Tusk glacier.
Andy has the idea of putting a tracker into a Nalgene bottle and sending it down stream to track the path of the river that flows under the glacier, which we excitedly talk about that project for a while, as we slowly wander back across the glacier to the steep glacial bump leading back to camp.
This was planned as a casual glacier walk, but the GPS has logged over 900m of vertical and a dozen kilometers, and we’re a bit tired as we climb up the slopes of the Tusk glacier back to camp. We should have stayed further left to avoid some big crevasses, but instead took a short-cut and find ourselves dead-ended by a large crevasse that loops around the entire top of the bulge. It is too wide to cross, and there are no bridges, so after checking both left and right we are forced to drop down the bulge again and cross the crevasse down low where it pinches together. The sun is behind us now, and shines down into the depths of some crevasses, lighting them up beautifully.
Back in camp all the teams have returned from their adventures today and the party has begun. It’s a beautiful, warm evening and the low sun lights up this magical place as we sit outside on the patio and enjoy dinner and drinks and stories.
Sunday, final morning
The day starts with an absolutely stunning blue sky. We are up quite early as we have to take apart camp and be ready to fly by noon. The packing goes quickly, and we have plenty of time to lounge around enjoying the sun and warmth.
When the chopper arrives the relaxed atmosphere changes very suddenly. It’s very important to remain calm when working around helicopters, but it takes some practice as it’s a very intense environment when the chopper suddenly arrives with all of it’s wind and noise.
On the way out we have great views of Tsar Mountain, inspiring some discussion about the location of next year’s camp!
Big thanks to George and Clare for organizing this year’s camp and to everybody else: Jocelyn, Barend, John A, Paula, Andy, John M, Casey, Jeff, and Dom for being such fantastic folks to hang out and climb with. A fantastic week!
Special thanks to David P Jones who provided us with invaluable route information from his upcoming Rockies guide books.
– Darren Foltinek, August 2015