Deltaform Mountain

July 27-28, 2017

3424m

Lake Louise / Banff National Park, AB/BC

Dominating the backdrop of Moraine Lake which is the signature tourism spot of Banff National Park a series of triangular shaped rock peaks form the skyline of “Valley of Ten Peaks” and Deltaform Mountain is the tallest among those. The superb position and the picturesque profile guarantees this peak to be seen millions of times by tourists and hikers, however the name of “Deltaform Mountain” seems unaware by most except for those into scrambling and climbing. This is contrary to other giants such as Mt. Robson for which everybody knows the name.

Apart from its fearsome profile and the fact it’s the tallest in “Valley of the Ten Peaks” Deltaform Mountain is also famed for being one of the hardest in the nowadays-famed 11,000ers family. Any route on this mountain requires extensive rock climbing on shattered limestone and the standard route (NW Ridge over Neptuak Mountain) goes at a modern grade of Alpine III, 5.6. This is not the longest, the most technical nor the worst in terms of rock quality but from all three aspects it does come close to the top making Deltaform Mountain a good test piece for those intending to finish the 11,000ers list, in particular before tackling the two grand daddies – Mt. Alberta and the Goodsir South Tower.

Two years ago I had made a solid attempt with an American friend but turned around in less than 100 vertical meters from Neptuak Mtn. due to fresh snow and verglass covering the rocks. On hindsight we actually had past a good amount of the hard stuffs but at that time we had no idea what to expect beyond that point and the amount of fresh snow could only increase the higher we went. We also got seriously off-route and climbed at least two short pitches of 5.7+ all with snow and verglass. I took two slips on the crux moves and that surely didn’t help building our confidence. Two years later the stars aligned between Ben and myself and with a tons of recent beta on “The 11,000ers of Canadian Rockies” Facebook group we knew we didn’t even need to bring an ice axe nor crampons. Our strategy was to break the climb into two days with a high bivy at Neptuak/Deltaform col. This seems like the norm for most except for guides/pro alpinists (know the route very well) or elite rock climbers (able to free solo the entire route).

Lake Louise is a bit of a drive for me so I left Vancouver fairly early on Wednesday. The traffic through the interior BC along Trans-Canada Highway was surprisingly good and I even earned myself a short nap near Rogers Pass. I chose Rogers Pass as it’s relatively high in elevation and elsewhere was very much like a furnace on this day. And then down into the Rocky Mountain Trench, had a dinner in Golden, BC before crossing the divide and arriving at Lake Louise, AB by around 10 pm local time. Not wasting much time I drove up the Moraine Lake Road and slept in car. There’s apparently a ranger coming in around 11 pm ticketing the car-campers but he/she missed me somehow. And then about 2 hours of sleep later my alarm went off at 2:30 am. Ben showed up with his 105 L backpack (I’m curious what he actually brought) and after briefly checking the gears we were off in about half an hour.

Neptuak to Deltaform ascent route via NW Ridge.

There’s not much to document about this approach, partly because of the boring nature and partly because we did it in dark so no picture was taken. The initial section has some switchbacks although nothing seems steep and the section traversing above Eiffel Lake seems to have some unnecessary detours and contouring adding some extra distance. The trail involves quite a few boulder-hoping sections and that surely required some careful balances in the dark wearing a pair of Nike runners while carrying a heavy pack. And the last thing worth noting is a microwave-sized porcupine which I mistakenly thought as a bear cub… About 10 km later we arrived at Wenkchemna Pass and then boulder-hopped southwards to the base of Neptuak’s NW Ridge before ditching poles, runners, etc.

Morning horizon over Mt. Temple

Neptuak Mountain from Wenkchemna Pass

This was right about sunrise time but unfortunately we just traversed to the shaddy and cold west side of the ridge crest. The initial ledge traverse to the base of the first quartzite pitch was well-marked by a couple cairns comparing to my 2015’s attempt although the 5.6 pitch looked just as hard as what I remembered. This was one section that I was not particularly keen to lead but since I gave Ben most of the group gears to carry (as he had the 105 L pack while I only used my day-pack) I had to share the responsibility of leading for as much as possible. It turned out to be not too bad although a couple strenuous moves took me a while to figure out the sequences. I also placed as much pros to make me comfortable as possible since we had a full rack of cams, nuts, hexes and even pitons, so why not. After a long while we both finished the pitch and then there’s another short, but strenuous step to overcome and then we were back onto the NW Ridge of Neputak looking at a long section of rubble slog ahead.

Traversing this narrow ledge horizontally out towards the first pitch

Ben negotiating the only “interesting” move on that ledge

The typical terrain on the “nose pitch”

Ben partway up the 5.6 pitch. The hardest moves were below him

Great view of Mt. Biddle

Topping out on the NW Ridge proper now. Hungabee Mtn. behind

As expected, the next stretch was super tedious and it seemed like every piece of rock we touched would end up rolling. Having already ditched the poles didn’t help neither but with good patience we cruised through this class 2 section without much of an issue, and then the ridge steepens with plenty of 3rd and 4th class climbing here and there. We generally stayed on the ridge crest even though that involved some exposed scrambling. Upon hitting the first 5th class pitch on the upper Neptuak I suddenly picked up my memory as this was the first place we went off-route last time. The correct attack was right by the nose starting from about 3 m to the left and then up a chimney. The next pitch was attacked near the crest as well, but on climber’s right side and involved two strenuous moves on thin holds. We skipped these two pitches by free soloing but upon seeing the next step we opted to break the rope out.

A long section of scree slog like this. Not fun…

Another view of the south ridge of Hungabee Mountain

Ben scrambling up an exposed step. This is before the climbing starts

Traversing around to bypass some obstacles.

Looking down from the first pitch on upper Neptuak’s ridge.

This will be the next pitch. Attack also near the ridge crest.

Ben partway up the previous pitch.

And then, soloing the next pitch.

The reason to break the rope out was because of a good belay station and some good cracks offering easy gear placements. The wall looked vertical but there’s lots of textures. Most parties would prefer climbing an obvious crack but I’m the one who doesn’t know anything about crack climbing but thankfully I found a couple thin holds on the right side and overcame it by pure face climbing techniques. And then we were back at scrambling and now with the “black bands” ahead this was the turn-around point of my previous attempt. Without snow the gully on climber’s right looked much easier and turned out to be mostly 3rd and 4th class albeit on some very bad rocks. And then we hit the summit ridge of Neptuak with the summit only 10 minutes away across an airy traverse over some rock blocks.

We pitched out this short section. Very fun climbing.

Onto the black rocks now. This is the typical terrain.

Lots of no-fall zones on this type of pebble-covered-down-sloping-slabs

Ascending into the black chimney

A view of Mt. Temple

Above the chimney now, more 3rd class scrambling on choss

The summit ridge traverse on Neptuak. Not as easy as you might think.

By far we had been doing good on time so took a short break on the summit of Neptuak Mountain while studying the route ahead. The NW Ridge of Deltaform Mtn. didn’t look bad at all from this angle but the descent down to Neptuak/Deltaform col was not supposed to be easy. Well, it started out easily on some solid blocks but soon we were looking down the first step (4th class). It didn’t look too bad so instead of rappelling using the fixed station we decided to down-climb. This probably costed us more time on hindsight as the black rocks were absolutely shitty and every hold had to be tested multiple times before committing. The only good thing is that we knew there’s no need to use a rope on the way back up this step a day later. For the lower step after trying a bit to down-climb we opted to rappel over a vertical lip, and then we got to spend at least an hour setting up the camp and chill.

From the summit of Neptuak looking down towards the col

Starting the descent off Neptuak’s SE Ridge

Soon we had to face this type of 4th class shit again.

Very gingerly down-climbed the first pitch as opposed to rappelling

Below the first pitch we had some scree skiing and then a long plateau

Now what?! Another pitch of black shit

We rappelled this one instead

Well. 3 separate tents on Robson (group of 3) and now 2 sets of bivy gears (group of 2) on Deltaform.. I thought we were “light-and-fast” or maybe not…

Eventually after melting enough snow for drinking water we had to keep going. Ben’s green tent and my orange emergency bivy sack made some decent contrast with the black rocks so I took a lot of pictures of the set-up. Right off the bat on Deltaform’s NW Ridge out of the col we had to face the first challenge. Climbing straight up the brown rock step was impossible and the solution was by a gully steepening into a chimney on climber’s right side (stiff 4th class). And then there went a long section of 3rd class scrambling intermittent by a couple 4th class steps mostly attacked on climber’s right side. It’s easy going until the ridge steepens up dramatically. Looking up we could see two fixed stations indicating the “direct option” as the preferred rappelling route but on the ascent we had to traverse climber’s right into a water-worn gully according to the various sources. The gully had some minor route-finding challenges but went at mostly 3rd and 4th class with one short pitch of 5.easy on good-quality quartzite. This brought us to the base of a snow field and working our way up climber’s left side on the edge of the snow we arrived at the summit block.

Ascending chimney on climber’s right to attack the initial cliff band out of the col

Upwards and onwards along Deltaform’s NW Ridge

Our camp from above the first step

Gorgeous SW Face of Mt. Temple

Looking back towards Neptuak Mountain

Ben ascending a tricky move beside the snow.

This is the very typical terrain. On and on and on…

You gotta love difficult scrambling…

Another shear band attacked by chimneys on climber’s right side

This is the place you start traversing a long ways due climber’s right

Ben evaluating the route choice

The plan was to attack this gully at the middle. Good choice

Starting at the final wall guarding the false summit

Scrambling above the permanent snowfield now.

The final headwall appeared 5th class but I decided to scramble it as well. Getting to the start of this pitch requiring some careful traverse on the edge of snow and kicking into the snow wasn’t an option as it’s pure ice near the edge. The climb turned out to be harder than I thought and I ended up placing three cams to protect a couple exposed moves. Once reaching the top station I tossed a rope down to Ben just so it’s safer. And then a short but exposed traverse later we got to look down into the last obstacle – the infamous notch before the true summit. Not knowing whether a 30 m rope is enough or not to reach the bottom we decided to rappel off it on a single strand.

Ben climbing up the 5th class wall to the false summit

Meanwhile I took a picture of the anchor. Note the number of tats..

A bit of knife-edge traverse across the false summit

Staring down into the infamous notch

From the notch looking south

From the notch looking north into the Super Couloir

Rappelling off the false summit into the notch

Now let’s face the last pitch of the ascent – a 5.6 face climbing with absolutely no protection to get out of the notch. It looked terribly blank and vertical but at least the rock is solid. I had hauled rock shoes all the way to this point so might as well using them. The climb turned out to be not too bad and wherever I reached to grab something I could always find a hold, albeit thin and small. The climbing was “face climbing” on limestone at its finest and felt very much similar to the notch pitch out of Eisenhower Tower’s Dragon’s Back. I ended up climbing this pitch without a belay (as there’s no place to put in any pro) and then belayed Ben up using a decent-sized boulder on the summit. The summit celebration was short as weather was moving in and we had to get off this thing fast..

I led up. Thin holds 5.6 with absolutely no place to place gears

Ben following up the pitch. Hardest moves are not visible in this shot

Summit Panorama from Deltaform Mountain. Click to view large size.

Moraine Lake below with Mt. Babel above. Bow Valley peaks behind

Looking south down into the Prospector Valley into the giants in Kootenay N. Park

The infamous Goodsirs…

Hungabee, Huber, Victoria, Lefroy

Mt. Temple

Moraine Lake

Great lighting on Mt. Fay

The summit register on Deltaform Mtn.

Ben and I on the summit of Deltaform Mountain

Rappelling off the summit back into the notch was easy but climbing back out of the notch on the near side was surprisingly hard. Even with rock shoes it took me a good while and to be honest I actually felt a couple moves here were the hardest I did on the entire trip. Ben had a bigger pack and didn’t use rock shoes and it took him a good 20 minutes to figure it out, but considering he’s a 5.11 climber that says something. After that we all easily rappelled off the near side of false summit and then worked around the snow field (some 3rd/4th class down-climb). Combing the two ropes we did two station-to-station rappel off the “ridge direct” option which essentially helped us skipping that loose water-worn gully all together with the ledge traverses. Lower down along the ridge we did at least 3 additional short rappels to skip a couple cruxy moves. Meanwhile we got hit by a thunderstorm which certainly helped speeding things up.

Rappelling off the summit into the notch

True summit from the false summit

It took Ben a while to figure out the sequence to climb back up the false peak

Looking back towards the false summit. Partway down now.

Ben setting up the next rappel

This is already the 3rd rappel on our descent.

The 4th rappel got us down the “ridge direct variation” section

Good thing this big storm missed us…

Clouds and Hungabee area

Mt. Temple was hitting hard by that storm

It looked like another storm was blown in… Meanwhile let’s enjoy some sunshine

Looking back up the “ridge direction variation”. On the ascent we traversed to the right

Lots of long flat walks like this. The climb is never sustained

Another rappel (#6 off Deltaform)

More rappels…

Yet, another rappel.

Looking back at Deltaform Mountain. Still only partway down now.

The lighting was so good that we stopped regularly for photos, but once back to camp it’s clear that another storm was blowing towards us on a rapid pace. The thunders were fierce and it’s not very fun to hide inside my emergency bivy sack. There’s not even a zipper and I had to use my jacket to cover my face. The bivy sack turned out to be not 100% water proof neither as my bag got soaked. Thankfully the storm passed by quickly allowing us to stretch a bit and cook dinner. The bivy sack was so uncomfortable that I eventually just used it as a ground tarp and “open bivy” on top of it. This worked out actually very well thank to the fact there’s no additional precipitation overnight.

Neat rainbow after another thunderstorm passed us.

It looked very gloomy towards Neil Colgan area

Almost back to the col

The last rappel to get back to the col

Great lighting now towards Moraine Lake

Our campsite. Note that another storm was blown in…

After the storm passed it’s right by evening alpenglow time. This is Mt. Tuzo

Camp on Neptuak-Deltaform col and dusk horizon.

The plan for the following morning was to sleep in till whenever we wanted but for some reasons I woke up right by sunrise time. I quickly went up and grabbed some photos but then it’s impossible to fall asleep again. There’s some clouds building up and we all had some concern that it might rain on us again so the decision was to skip a couple extra hours of sleep and just go out. For the lower step on Neptuak’s SE Ridge we skirted around on climber’s left side (class 2 but very chossy) and then for the upper step we simply climbed up the exact line we down-climbed (4th class and very chossy).. Reversing the summit ridge of Neptuak was easy but after seeing the pile of black shit down below we decided to rappel as much as possible as long as there’s a fixed station.

It’s sunrise time!

Morning alpenglow on the north face of Deltaform.

Morning glow on the Goodsirs

Let’s go out now. Looking at Neptuak’s SE Ridge

Traversing this ledge to avoid the lower climbing step

The upper climbing step is unavoidable.

Very careful work is required

Negotiating back across Neptuak’s summit ridge

A bit of snow to throw in here and there adding in the variety

We tied the two ropes together and two rappels from station to station got us down through the gully and then the ledges of the black rocks. Moving down-climber’s right to the edge we did two separate short rappels (using a single 30 m rope) down that corner pitch. The short rappels didn’t work out as we planned so the ropes were tied together again, and two more rappels later we were down the upper 5th class of Neptuak’s ridge. For the 3rd and 4th class sections we decided to down-climb. It worked out nonetheless but took a good amount of mental strength out of me, so that once we hit the lower crux we opted to add an additional rappel to skip a strenuous down-climb. This involved leaving my quadruple cordelette on the mountain. The two last rappels off the nose involved a committing overhang and my two cents for those intending to climb Deltaform is to be very confident on all kinds of rappelling. 17-18 in total for the whole trip and you gotta rappel in all kinds of awkward positions with deadly exposure had you screwed it up..

First rappel off Neptuak’s black chimney

Second rappel got us bypass the scree-covered-down-sloping ledges

3rd rappel got us down that fun face/corner pitch

This is the 4th rappel. We soloed this pitch on the ascent

The 5th rappel descends down-climber’s left. We also soloed this pitch on ascent

Now onto “scrambling” terrain we decided to down-climb

Sure enough we got disoriented and ended up having to down-climb this..

More about the typical down-climbing. We found an anchor so you could rap it too.

Finally onto the scree slope now

Looking back at the upper Neptuak’s ridge

The station of the second-to-last rappel

This one gets you to a very committing overhang. That exposure is unreal

This is the last rappel down the 5.6 initial pitch.

Easily reversing the traverse across some boulder fields we re-joined the Wenkchemna Pass trail at just below a snowpatch. All left was a 9-km hike out on a well-defined trail. There’s no 4-person bear restriction on this particular day so there’s no need to worry about getting caught by a warden so all felt like a victory run back down, although the trail did seem to become tiring and tedious towards the end. One strap of my backpack snapped about halfway down which added a bit of things worth noting to this otherwise, mundane walk-out.

Back to the trail now. Time to hike out

As much as the scenery goes on this trail

Almost back to the Sentinel Pass junction.

I had some other plans but just like a week ago after Mt. Robson, there’s no way I could mentally handle another tough climb immediately after pulling one of the hardest 11,000ers off. On the other hand there’s also no way I could find enough motivation to slog up a scramble or some piles of Rockies choss so the decision was to head home immediately for some well-needed resting. In one single push I drove back to Revelstoke and had a dinner in the A&W, and in another single push I made all the way to Merritt before calling it a day. To make things more luxurious I actually pitched the tent out which I rarely do for car camping. The next morning I drove the rest of the way back.

As mentioned in my introductory paragraph, Deltaform Mountain is one that has reputation to have some of the worst rocks in the Rockies and after the climb I have to disagree with that. Even without touching the Goodsirs I can tell you right here that some scrambles (or border line scrambles) I’ve done are not much better in terms of rock quality. The NW Ridge on Deltaform itself was especially good quality for the majority sections and the nature of a ridge climb means the rockfall danger isn’t that high at all. It’s no wonder why some guides would do this route again and again. I can see that especially if you know the route well this is more of a classic climb than a horror show.

It’s interesting that nobody gives a detailed description of the route information. I’ll keep it brief but here’s a sequence of the climb. Note that I’m not a rock climber so my rating is just for a general idea of what to expect. Also note that I’ve now climbed 2 years in BC coast so my “4th class” might be harder than you think.

  • At the base of “nose” traverse a narrow, cairned ledge horizontally right for about 30 meters.
  • Climb the nose pitch in a “cove” feature – a sustained 5th class pitch on generally good quality quartzite, from left to right with some zig-zags. (5.6, crux on Neptuak)
  • Bash a long way up scree and then up some 3rd class (route-finding)
  • The scrambling comes to a sharp end. Stick close to the ridge. Traverse left for about 3 meters then up a chimney followed by a few exposed moves (5.4)
  • Stick close to the ridge but attack from right side. (5.4)
  • It appears hard, but climb a face/corner on climber’s right side of the ridge crest. A short pitch of fun 5th class (5.5)
  • Now hitting black rocks. Traverse out for about 20 meters and ascend down-sloping ledges covered by pebbles which steepens into a chimney. (4th class)
  • Traverse exposed summit ridge to Neptuak.
  • 2 rappels down 2 steps in a sequence to Neptuak/Deltaform col. (4th class if down-climbing)
  • A short but fun step to get out of the col on Deltaform side (4th class)
  • A long section of “difficult scrambling” intermittent by a few harder steps mostly attacked from right side (4th class)
  • Upon the ridge steepens dramatically, traverse right for about 30-40 meters
  • Ascend the water-worn gully on mostly 3rd class terrain but with a short but enjoyable section (5.3)
  • Scramble up skirting around the left side of the permanent snow field (3rd class)
  • Climb the final headwall from the right side (5.4)
  • Traverse the false summit and then rappel into the notch.
  • Climbing out of the notch on thin holds to Deltaform summit (unprotectable 5.6, crux on Deltaform)
  • Rappelling back into the notch
  • Climbing out of the notch on the near side back to false summit using a top-rope (5.6)
  • Unless you want to down-climb 5th class, expect 17-18 rappels in total for the whole trip. All station are good and fixed as of July 2017 but always bring extra cords just in case.
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