For 2016, the Calgary Section of the Alpine Club of Canada chose to have our summer mountaineering camp in the Sir Sandford range of the Selkirk Mountains. The Selkirk mountains start in Idaho and Washington states in the south and extend roughly 320km north into British Columbia, bound by the Big Bend in the Columbia River. Click here for the interactive Google map of the area.
At 3519m, Mt. Sir Sandford is the highest peak in the Selkirks, and was named after Sir Sandford Fleming, a Scottish inventor and engineer who emigrated to Canada in 1845 and was chief engineer of the Canadian Pacific Railway.
One of the earliest European explorers of the Selkirk mountains, and certainly the most thorough, was the American Howard Palmer, who traveled and climbed extensively in the area from 1908 to 1912. Palmer led five expeditions into the Sandford range trying to work out a feasible approach to the mountain, and in June of 1911 they finally reached the northwest ridge of Sir Sandford, but were forced back by weather. One month later they attempted Sir Sandford again, but this time were driven back by dangerous avalanche conditions.
The next year, 1912, Palmer and his partner E.W.D. Holway hired the legendary Swiss guides Rudolph Aemmer and Edward Feuz Jr. to make his fifth attempt on Sir Sandford, and finally made it to the summit in June 1912. Palmer’s epic explorations are detailed in his classic 1914 book Mountaineering and Exploration in the Selkirks, A Record of Pioneer Work Among the Canadian Alps, 1908-1912.
In 2008 the ACC Calgary Section camp was in the Adamants, one valley NE of the Sir Sandford area. From the summit of Azimuth Peak, we had a fantastic overview of the Sandford – Great Cairn Hut – Blackfriar area, and that view provided the inspiration, eight years later, to organize this year’s camp and explore this area.
Unfortunately I rolled my ankle very badly at the beginning of July, three weeks before camp, which suddenly forced me to switch from training-mode to rest-and-recover mode. Well, the trip is booked, and in the worst case I should still be able to do some hiking around camp and hang out with friends while other teams do the climbing.
Saturday, 23rd: Setup
Morning stars with a hearty breakfast at the Big Bend Cafe in Golden, B.C. with the whole camp crew. As is the tradition, I grab a bottle of their famous hot sauce to take up to camp and leave in the kitchen tent, because hot sauce makes everything better.
We are the first week of three of the camp, and have driven out to the helicopter staging area with the trailer that holds all the camp supplies.
There’s a bit of bad weather in the morning, with heavy clouds to the west of Kinbasket Lake, and our pilot Mark, with Alpine Helicopters, was delayed flying us in because of the weather. No problem, and when he arrives we divide the mountain of supplies into four helicopter flights; one of gear (plus one passenger), one long-line load carrying the big tents and camp supplies, and two loads of people. By 4:30 we have all arrived at our base camp location, where the katabatic wind is blowing down off the Haworth glacier and the clouds are drizzling on us, and get to work setting up camp.
It takes nearly four hours to setup the classic square-walled kitchen tent, the new dome gear tent, dig out a deep hole (the deeper the better!) and build the outhouse, and setup our personal tents, but by 8:00 we are all done and starting to cook dinner.
A good weather window is forecast for Sunday and Monday, and we break into two groups for the first part of the week. The big prize in the area is Mt. Sir Sandford, and seven of us have decided to head in that direction tomorrow to set a high camp and attempt the peak during the good weather window.
Sunday, 24th: Pallisade
One more injury to deal with. Yesterday, while moving big rocks around to anchor the kitchen tent, I managed to crush a finger, and all night long the throbbing, stabbing pain kept me from sleeping. Well, kept me from sleeping until I took a sip of whiskey, at which point I re-discovered what every wild-west cowboy knew: that whiskey is a good pain killer.
Because of the crushed finger and the still-fragile twisted ankle, I decide not to join the Sir Sandford team that are packing up and leaving this morning, a difficult but obvious decision.
The Sir Sandford team leaves around noon to set up their high camp at the base of the NW ridge of Sir Sandford, about a 4-hour hike from camp. We wish them well and then George, Clare and I head out for a leisurely hike up Palisade, a small mountain between our base camp and Sir Sandford, which should provide good views of the surrounding peaks. Clare is also recovering from an ankle injury, so today will be a good walking-around test for us. The solid mountaineering boots provide good support for the ankle, and walking feels OK.
The leisurely hike up Pallisade turned into a scramble up slippery slabs, through boulder fields and mossy meadows, working our way around to the north-west ridge. The ridge includes a knife-edge section that we bypass along a mossy ledge with some extreme vegetation moves before gaining the more northern of the two summits.
The view of Sir Sandford to the SE is stunning and intimidating, as we are looking square on at the heavily glaciated north face. The upper 1/3 of the mountain is shrouded in clouds, flowing across the peak from NW, with very occasional clear patches in the weather providing brief glimpses of the summit pyramid and the NW ridge that is the normal ascent route.
Monday, 25th: Great Cairn hut
We are up at 5:30 planning for an easy climb today. The morning starts off with heavy, dark clouds coming in from the west and minor rain showers in camp, which demotivates us as we are having breakfast. Another kettle gets put on the stove and we settle in to wait to see if the weather will improve, but there are very dark clouds in the west and we are not very optimistic.
After another kettle of tea goes on the stove and we spend some lazy time in the kitchen tent we bail on the idea of climbing and decide to hike down to the Ben Ferris (Great Cairn) hut.
In 1953 a party from the Harvard Mountaineering Club was in the area to climb Sir Sandford and spent a rainy day building an enormous pile of stones, the 20-ft tall Great Cairn. In 1963, Bill Putnam and Ben Ferris visited the area and proposed building a climbing hut, which was constructed the following year and finished in 1965. The Great Cairn was dismantled and its stones used as building material for the hut.
As we hike to the hut, following the stream down from camp, we are getting radio reports every two hours from the Sir Sandford team, either directly or relayed by Andy, who has stayed behind at their high camp. Despite the stormy weather this morning, the team of Jocelyn, John, Jeff, Clayton and Matt pushed on and reached the summit. Hurrah for a successful ascent!
We hang out at the hut for a while, following the progress reports from the Sir Sandford team as they descend, but eventually we wander back to our camp. Later in the afternoon, we hear that the Sandford team has made it back to their high camp, rested and packed up, and are heading back to our base camp.
By early evening everybody is back in base camp, and by 10pm we have all retired to our tents. The thunder is booming and echoing off the peaks, lightening is flashing above Silvertip and I’m lying in my tent trying to sleep as the clouds open up and dump rain on our little camp. It feels so good to be warm and dry inside a tent in a wild and remote place while there’s a furious storm overhead… as long as you don’t have to go to the bathroom.
Tuesday, 26th, Silvertip
A relaxed start to what should be a short day.
Jocelyn, Annie and I head out with George and Clare, leaving camp around 8:30 and heading for what should be an easy ridge climb up Silvertip. The first obstacle of the day is crossing the broad, braided stream that drains the Haworth glacier and flows down the valley just below camp. In the morning it’s about knee deep at the worst and about 200m wide, which makes for a very cold, refreshing start to the day.
After the crossing we all sit on the opposite bank, drying off our numb feet but feeling wide awake now!
After warming up the feet we head up through lush vegetation and wet boulders following a gentle Z-shaped ramp that goes up the lower slopes to the base of the NW ridge. It’s tedious picking your way through the big, slippery boulders but eventually the ramp ends and deposits us on a nice flat bench at the start of the ridge.
After starting up the ridge, we move right and onto a snowfield / glacier on the north side, then up a clean snow slope that ends with a beautiful mossy bench on the ridge proper. Continuing up the lush moss we reach a clean rock buttress and decide to get the rope out and climb straight up it, while George and Clare move left and scramble around the buttress up easier ground, which saves them an hour. Once again, we learn that taking the rope out always slows the group down, but we just could not resist the nice clean rock on the buttress.
After the rock buttress we are back on snow on the north side of the ridge, pass a stunning blue pond, then back on the rock, working our way up through large table-sized blocks. The blocks are mostly wedged in place but not always, requiring continuous vigilance so that a loose one does not shift unexpectedly and crush your leg.
There are several sub-summits along the ridge, and each one feels like the true summit until you get on top of it and see a higher point farther up the ridge. The ridge is narrow, and the views of Sir Sandford to our left and the Adamants behind us are stunning. We continue to work our way up the ridge and eventually, after a few more false summits, Jo, Annie and I meet up with George and Clare on the true summit. We break out lunch and enjoy the stunning views in all directions while lounging among the big boulders.
All day we have been watching a small team from the Toronto Alpine Club section work their way up Sir Sandford. The Toronto Section camp is based at Fairy Meadows, two mountain ranges away, and the group now on Sandford had taken a helicopter from their camp to the base of Sir Sandford. They are moving quite slowly, and we are concerned about their progress as the afternoon sky fills with cumulus clouds that threaten to develop into storms.
After a relaxing time on the summit, we turn around and follow our ascent route back down the ridge. The views are just as stunning while descending, but the change in direction gives us a fresh perspective, and the sun has moved around to the west. It’s like a whole new landscape.
It takes a while to descend, and when we get to the stream naturally it is higher than it was in the morning and just as cold, but this time the icy water feels great on sore, tired feet. We get back to camp around 7, and what we thought would be a quick day turned out to be about 10.5 hours round-trip.
Wednesday, 27th: Alpina Dome
The silty stream that flows past camp is melt water from the Haworth glacier, and today George, Annie, Andy and I are going to take a little stroll up the glacier. We are aiming for Pallisade Pass and then Alpina Dome. The Haworth glacier has a gentle slope, is covered in rock debris, and is mostly free of crevasses.
Just above the toe of the glacier we come across a large moulin with a small glacial stream flowing into its black depths. These glacial features, also called mill holes, are always dramatic and spooky, usually as deep as the glacial ice, and spaced quite randomly around the glacier. Seeing a big, wide open one like this, deep enough to appear bottomless, is a great reminder to always keep the rope on when a glacier is covered in snow that hides these hazards. Since there is no snow on the lower part of the glacier, we feel very comfortable walking unroped, since the holes are clearly visible and easily avoided.
Just before Pallisade Pass we turn right and head up a beautiful, clean snow arête that leads to a secondary summit, a point named Lichen Top by John, Annie and Paula on an earlier trip. Halfway up the arête we turn left and follow an adjoining snow ridge that leads easily up to the main summit, a broad snow covered dome with a collection of stakes meant to guide CMH helicopters in for heli-ski landings in the winter.
The sky is blue, the sun is very hot, there is no wind up here, and we have lots of time before the afternoon storms threaten, so we lounge about eating lunch, napping on the lichen covered rocks, and wandering over to the rock edge to enjoy grand views of the western end of the Sir Sandford range, where glaciers lay like white cloaks over the shoulders of mountain and flow down into lush green valleys.
After a leisurely hour on the summit, we start the descent by strolling down the west ridge a little ways, then swing around to the north, following a snow ridge that drops steeply above an icy glacial wall. It’s an easy, beautiful descent line that would be absolutely fantastic on skis!
Hiking around moderate terrain like this in the summer often makes me think about skiing, and how much fun this terrain would be in the winter or spring, with skis on my feet: a far superior way to travel across the land. We finish the small summit loop and rejoin the ascent ridge briefly before dropping off of it to the north and heading for Redan Pass. The only slightly technical ground we encounter is a small patch of 25 degree glacial ice as we drop down the pass. From Redan Pass, 35 degree snow-covered glacial ice leads down to the flatter Haworth glacier.
In the evening Boris and Ray from the Toronto section camp come in to our base camp, after descending from their high Sir Sandford camp. They had a long day yesterday, with a successful summit, and are now trekking back to Fairy Meadows. We welcome them into our big, comfortable kitchen tent with tea and food and trade adventure stories.
Trying to lose weight for their big trek west tomorrow over two high passes to get back to Fairy Meadows, they leave us with half a mickey of whiskey (!) and some chocolate bars (!), very surprising items to remove from your pack! They must be truly desperate to shed weight. We spend the evening swapping stories and giving them advice on navigating the terrain below our camp and getting up the first of the passes on their trek tomorrow. They camp overnight with us, and appreciate being able to cook and dry their gear in our big tents this rainy evening.
Thursday, 28th: Geology, laundry, and flying pigs
One more high-ambition trip this week as Jeff, George and Clayton take off this morning for the high camp site to attempt the Minaret, a spire that graces the col between Sir Sandford and Vidette. The Selkirks North guide-book, by David P. Jones, says that the Minaret has seen several attempts but remains unclimbed due to fragile, low quality rock.
Everybody else has a rest day planned, and are just relaxing this morning; Jeff, Jocelyn and Clayton had a big and difficult day yesterday on Blackfriar, and those of us with injuries (Clare and I) are sore from hobbling all over the mountains. After a big breakfast of pancakes, bacon and eggs, there are camp chores like fetching water, and personal chores like washing 2-day old socks and 4-day old shirts.
The horseflies and mosquitoes are out in force this morning, so we mostly hang out in the kitchen tent, writing up trip reports, drinking tang and tea and chatting. Then, before you know it, it’s lunch time.
After lunch, Clare, Annie, Matt and I walk down to the Great Cairn hut to make some calls on the satellite phone, since we don’t have satellite coverage at our camp location due to a lack of southern sky visibility.
On the walk back I find several rock slabs, polished by the movement of the recently-retreated glaciers, that have incredible rock folding, the result of the Adamant granite pluton intruding into this region and deforming and cooking the existing rocks. Geologic folding takes place on scales ranging from many kilometers to millimeters, and these range in size from 10mm to 50cm. Stunning!
The Sir Sandford range is one edge of a granite batholith (the Adamant group to the east), and when the molten rock pushed it’s way into the existing sedimentary rock, the heat and pressure cooked and folded the sedimentary rock, metamorphosing them into schist and marble. Small mica crystals are everywhere, and shiny silver and black mica bands run in folds through the surrounding rock. As the rock erodes and breaks down into sand, the shiny mica crystals remain, and litter the ground as millions of tiny mirrors.
These crystals reflect the light from your headlamp while walking around at night, and the landscape sparkles with a 1000 gems. It’s one of the little things that makes this camp very special!
Between 1908 and 1912, when this area was explored by Howard Palmer, the glaciers were much larger, and the Sandford, Haworth and Silvertip glaciers merged and flowed together past Pallisade. At that time, the present site of the Great Cairn hut was covered in glacial ice by these merged glaciers, but by the 1950s, when the hut was built, the glaciers had obviously already retreated past that point.
The movement of these glaciers down-valley polished the bedrock, and the subsequent 100 years of glacial recession and melt have exposed all that polished rock. While there is some loose rock debris covering it now, the smooth bare rock is exposed in many places in the valley.
The glacial retreat over the last 100 years, revealed by comparing photos and maps from Palmer’s 1914 classic journal is remarkable. This map shows the extent of the four glaciers in the area – the main Sandford glacier, the glacier on the north face of Sir Sandford itself, the Haworth, and the Silvertip glaciers, and how they flowed together and terminated past Pallisade, below the slopes of Azimuth Mountain. The terminus the Haworth in 2016 is about 4km up-valley from where it was in 1914.
The retreat of the glaciers is continuing, and this study using Landsat satellite imagery measured the Haworth glacier retreating by 1000m between 1986 and 2013. The mass balance of a glacier is the difference between its winter accumulation of snow and the loss of ice due to summer melting. When the mass balance is negative the glacier is shrinking, retreating up-valley and losing height.
After dinner back in camp, Clare pulls out some inflatable pigs, and we all have great fun tossing them around. There’s meant to be some sort of game involved, something about the way they land, but nobody really cares about that. The joy is simply watching them fly through the deepening twilight of the evening sky!
Out here, disconnected from the Internet, cell phones, social media and that constant barrage of trivial stimulation, life is simple again and it’s a wonderful thing.
Friday, 29th: Belvedere Peak
Last day of this beautiful week, and the sky is brilliant blue overhead. Time for another walk.
The first part of the walk requires crossing the wide, braided stream formed by the melt of the Haworth glacier. We are getting used to this crossing, but it’s still a shockingly cold way to start the day. The glacial sediment has deposited thick beds of mud that would suck the sandals right off your feet, so the best way to go is simply barefoot. And much as you try, procrastinating getting your feet cold and muddy does not help, so the best thing to do is just embrace the full icy cold, sucking mud, numb feet experience and just charge right into the stream.
Once on the far shore, we warm up and dry off the feet, and hike up the Z-ramp leading to the shoulder of Silvertip, same as a couple days ago, but this time we continue around the shoulder and onto the Silvertip glacier, heading north toward Belvedere Peak, our destination of the day.
Crossing the Silvertip glacier we get great views of Blackfriar, which Jocelyn climbed earlier this week with Jeff and Clayton.
We work our way slowly up and around the gentle contours of the Silvertip glacier and eventually reach the broad slope of big boulders that is the south face of Belvedere Peak. There is nothing technical on this ascent, and after crossing the Silvertip glacier and plodding carefully up an endless field of table-sized boulders, we arrive at the summit and commence with lounging and gazing at the stunning views while munching on lunch.
As usual, by early afternoon the cumulus clouds are building and we need to head down and back to camp before a storm hits. The boulder field below the summit is the only moderately tricky part, and provides some interesting scrambling through the giant, car-sized and lichen-covered boulders.
All day long we’ve been in radio contact with the crew on Minaret. They are putting in a valiant effort, but the incredibly weak, friable marble forces them to turn around after climbing the first, lower-angle portion of the spire. We are all relieved when we get the report that they are safely back in their high camp. The Minaret remains unclimbed.
Once again, crossing broad, gentle glaciers like this one, I’m wishing that I had skis on my feet, to turn the rather endless plodding into gliding and turning. But beauty like this is well worth suffering sore feet and knees for.
Of course, before we can get back to camp there’s the glacial stream to cross. Thanks to the heat of the day, it’s now higher and faster than it was in the morning, but camp is right there, only a few 100m away, and the promise of dinner is strong motivation to just wade right in and get it over with. And again, the cold water actually feels good on sore, tired feet.
As has now become a tradition, after dinner and drinks it’s time to
sign the camp with some light-writing. Perhaps there’s more alcohol this year than usual, but it’s really difficult to coordinate the crew to write backwards with headlamps, and laughter echos across the valley as we keep trying to get a legible result.
Saturday, 30th: Flight out
Suddenly the week is over and it’s time to leave this fantastic place.
We leave the big tents set up for the next week, and pack up our own gear under dark, threatening skies heavy with rain. With helicopters the rule is “hurry up and wait”, and once our gear is all packed up and moved to the landing zone, we cover the mound of bags with tarps and head back to the kitchen tent to wait a few hours.
Special thanks to Clare and George for organizing this amazing week, and everybody for making it such a fun time!
Darren Foltinek, 2016