July 30, 2012
Lake Louise, AB
Due to the forecast thunderstorms, I was planning on staying in Calgary for a day. But when I woke up, I still wanted to do something. I knew I could avoid the storms by starting the day at 4 am, but that’s just theoretically. When I go solo, waking up early was almost an impossible thing, not to say that I had to drive to the mountains from Calgary. I thought about Devil’s Thumb near Lake Louise which involved only a short section above treeline so even if thunderstorms came I’d still probably be okay. Note that I’ve done quite a few ascents under the same forecast (60% chance of thunderstorms), and got charged a few times already. I have to say that bagging a peak in the alpine in this condition without a super early start was risky, but that’s the decision I made.
I arrived at Lake Louise near 11 am, and the parking lot was almost full… Note that this was a Monday and it was still that damn busy. I can’t imagine the situation in Canada Day…. I hesitated a bit and decided to bring both my helmet and Alan Kane’s scramble book as I had some secret mind about increasing my ambition to the nearby much-bigger Mt. Niblock and Mt. Whyte. There was still some snow in the upper bowl but I decided to leave ice axe in my car.
I quickly passed a million tourists along the trail to Mirror Lake, and then another thousand tourists on the way up Lake Agnes… This was my third time doing Lake Agnes approach (first time for The Beehive, second time for Mt. St. Piran) and I don’t want to describe it for too much. The sky was mostly cloudy.
I didn’t bother to check the Tea House, and quickly made my way circumventing the north side of the Lake. While doing so, pieces of blue sky appeared above Mt. Whyte, and the sky quickly turned partially cloudy from overcast. There were lots of stuffs going in my mind and I thought maybe the forecast was wrong. It might be the time to do Niblock to Whyte, and save Devil’s Thumb for a rainy day or a day when I was short on motivation or energy. At the backside of Lake Agnes, before the boulder field, I managed to find a faint trail. It basically went around the rock pile on its north side, while staying on firm ground for a long distance. But eventually you still have to ascend the loose rock pile though. At this point, more and more blue colors appeared above me… I felt very energetic but that could be a death trap though…
If you can deal with loose scree, then Mount Niblock is pretty much a walk up on well trodden paths, with the exception of first cliff bands (ie. the waterfall). Lots of cairns mark the way through this obstacle, so route-finding isn’t an issue. However, there’re two short sections requiring hands-on scrambling. It’s not a big issue though, and it’s much easier than Mount Temple’s crux, even if wet. Once through the waterfalls, I was in the upper bowl, where lots of snow remained. The terrain was very gentle and the snow actually offered better footing. I went slightly climber’s left to circumvent the next obvious rock band, and then turned sharply climber’s right, following one of the several obvious paths and cairns, towards Mount Niblock. Everytime you lose the trail, you can find a cairn somewhere up. At this point, I started to lose blue sky… The trail eventually led me to Niblock/Whyte col, on Niblock side. Just about to top out on the col, I heard the first thunder, way in the distance in Yoho. I got my first view of the other side once at the col, and man, it was way worse. Yoho was already soaked in.
From the col, Mt. Niblock is only 15 min round trip if you go fast. It was so close that I didn’t want to turn around. I pushed on. The storm came much faster than I imagined. From sunshine to first buzzing sound on my pole only took 15-20 min. I also started to hear more thunders from both west and north directions. It was so fast (well, based on what happened next, this storm was very intense). Attaining the summit was easy, but there were several spots that I had to top out on the ridge crest briefly. As long as I was on the ridge, I could hear buzzing sounds on my poles. I left my poles at one point and did the final push without them. Soon I arrived at the summit. I didn’t stand above the cairn as my hair was starting buzzing… I used maybe half a minute to take a necessary panorama, and during which, my camera started to buzz…
After that I ran down the upper ridge for as quickly as possible. I didn’t even bother to linger at the col, but descended for about 20 meters down the talus slope, where I finally could relax a bit.. Hail started to fall by this time. I briefly looked at Mt. Whyte for a few seconds. In my mind I did not want to leave it behind but on this day I had no choice, as I didn’t want to die on the ridge. After putting on my jacket, I started running down the upper slope.
Even though I got away from ridge crest, this area is still far above treeline so still very dangerous. Thankfully the terrain wasn’t too hard, and I could run down the upper slope. I didn’t bother to follow the trail, but entirely used the talus/scree slope (which is safer), directly down. There were lots of 1-meter high minor rock bands, and I just jumped down. More and more thunders came, and they were getting closer. After about 20 min down the col, thunders started to appear right above Niblock and Whyte. I also saw a lightning striking Mount St. Piran, or maybe somewhere in Skoki. I couldn’t tell exactly as they’re in the same direction. Once down the upper slope, the snow on the basin helped for a faster run down. I soon arrived at the top of the waterfall. I followed the cairns down the waterfall, and ran down the rock pile below to the trail. I finally could relax now, and I knew I was safe by this point. Okay, I didn’t count how many thunders I heard, but for the least, a hundred. The hail turned into heavy rain soon. I was joined by a group of 4 coming down The Beehive at the west end of Lake Agnes. I made my way quickly towards the tea house. By this time, the rain was getting heavier and heavier. I waited in the tea house for about half an hour. Oh gosh, if I was out in this time period, I could get soaked through bottom to top in a mere of a few minutes… There were also a million tourists waiting in the tea house…
After the heaviest rain passed by, I went out and started down the trail, together with other tourists. I was concerning about another heavy downpour so I made my way down quickly. To my surprise, pieces of blue sky and sunshine started to appear as I got back to Lake Louise. I waited at lake shore for a while and it turned sunny quickly. Since I still had lots of energy, I decided to give Tower of Babel a shot.