August 20th 2011, a great weather summer weekend! My personal goals were twofold – climb something high and beautiful, and test out some astrophotography gear.
The astrophotography needed a car-camping approach, far from the light pollution of cities or towns, with only a quick hike to get above treeline. Alpine climbing is always my favorite, for the views and the remoteness. A good place to combine those two is the Columbia Icefield area of Jasper National Park (Canada) where the road drives up almost to treeline, there’s a campsite right there, as well as several moderate-grade single-day routes up glaciated peaks. Perfect! Drove out with Marc Langlois on Friday after work to meet up with some friends from the Alpine Club to climb on Saturday.
Part I: Climb Andromeda
After the 4am start and the two hours slog up the morraine, we reached the glacier just before 7 and had our choice of low-angled tottering blocks of ice or a steeper, dirt-encrusted but solid ramp. Gerry, being the most experienced ice climber, volunteered to lead, and up we went.
Gerry does a fine lead, and we all crawl our way up the rubble-covered ice onto the glacier. A short stoll across the glacier below the stunning North Bowl of Andromeda leads us to the base of our chosen route – Skyladder, which is a very popular moderate-angled snow/ice climb leading to the summit ridge.
The weather is beautiful, the snow on the glacier hard and while we did consume some time with the belayed step getting on the glacier, we are moving efficiently. Our main safety concern for the day is the condition of snow on the mountain. Its been a cold wet summer, and now, in late August, there has already been fresh snowfalls in the high peaks. As we approach the Bergschrund at the bottom of Skyladder, we cross a very soft pocket of fresh, heavy snow – maybe a week old – that is up to 50cm deep. We discuss this – the big concern is triggering a similar soft slab on the steeper upper slopes of the route. We decide to cross the ‘schrund and climb up to the shelter of a large rock on the route itself, to assess the snow conditions.
On the way up, small sluffs of snow are coming down, just to our left, and as we get to the shelter of the rock, another larger sluff comes down off the upper slope. It is just after 9 in the morning, and the route has not seen any sun yet. The decision is quick and unanimous to turn back, rather than risk climbing into sketchy avalanche conditions. We’re out of here, and we downclimb and follow our footsteps back down the glacier.
Once on the morraine, and looking back at the beautiful route, there is some second-guessing of our decision, but upon closer examination of the snowfield between the rocks and the ridge, it’s pretty clear that there is a very large wind-slab sitting up there, waiting for a trigger.
Best to avoid wind-slabs on 40 degree slopes with high consequences!
Once back in camp, we have lunch while Enrique, Nathalie and Gerry pack up and head back to Calgary. Marc and I are staying the night. Hopefully the sky stays clear so we can do some stargazing!
Darren Foltinek, 2011