March 4, 2015
Yoho National Park, BC
For a day-trip in March, you just can’t ask for a better day than this past Wednesday. The avalanche condition was low/low/low, weather was guaranteed bluebird, temperature was cool and road condition was “green” for pretty much anywhere in Alberta.. So my solution was simple – to skip a day for a peak.. Obviously it’s a weekday trip so I had to go solo, but given the conditions I felt safe to attempt pretty much anything I wanted except for heavily crevassed terrain. Over the past few years I’ve read quite a few trip reports about how awesome Cathedral Mountain is, so the choice was simple. As a winter mountaineering objective this big glaciated peak is fairly straightforward, but does require a (relatively) long day, as well as an absolutely bomber snowpack.
There’re two commonly accepted routes on Cathedral Mountain. Most ski mountaineering parties ascended this mountain via the “south couloir route” described in Chic Scott’s Summits and Icefields as it avoids bushwhacking and is the officially published one. Vern and So “discovered” a new route that goes up climber’s right side of the obvious creek (in summer) and managed to avoid that couloir all together, but their route does involve steep and tight bushwhacking. In last April, Brandon Boulier’s K7 climbing group followed Vern and So’s route and reported good travelling conditions on snowshoes, and that’s exactly what I would do on this day.
My day started from waking up at a not-so-alpine hour of 6:30 am. I knew it’s going to be a long day but given the recent “bullet-proof” snowpack I was expecting my Lightning Ascents to give me fast and easy uphill travelling, and they did not disappoint me. After hiking easily up the Lake O’Hara fire road for about 3.5 km I arrived at a large marshy opening area where I was supposed to leave the road. A solid ice bridge allowed me to cross Cataract Brook without wetting my feet and soon enough I picked up a set of ski tracks heading into the bush. After easily gaining 100 vertical meters or so I realized those tracks were following the creek up so leading towards the south couloir route. It was very tempting to use their tracks but I decided against it and stuck with my original plan, so I veered sharply climber’s right and began my own trail-breaking in the increasingly steep bush.
In the next hour or so I could totally see why this wouldn’t be a popular ski route. The bush was fairly dense at places and the slope was quite steep. I would not want to be on skis for this section, neither on the ascent nor on the descent.. The snow was not “bullet-proof hard” neither so I did have to do my own work post-holing. At a couple places I had to haul the tree branches to pull myself up against the gravity. About midway up I came to a micro terrain feature (a cliff band and a gully). I crossed the gully and ascended steeply up its climber’s left side. It was here that the trees had become sparse but I still had to post-hole for quite a long section before entering the larch forest at treeline. The views were opening up and apparently it’s going to be another gorgeous day in the mountains.
Following basic senses I avoided the temptation to ascend the “natural line” via a broad gully feature on climber’s right as it’s subjected to big slopes on that side, so stuck fairly to the left. And soon enough I arrived at the exit point of that “south facing couloir”. Looking down it felt ridiculously steep but I did see multiple sets of boot tracks. It was obvious that those skiers had indeed come up (and down) this way. Form here on the summer/snowshoe route joins the ski route and the next section would be the crux. For about 1 km I’d have no choice but traversing some 30-35 degrees south facing slopes subjected to overhead hazard and with not-so-great run-out zones. Of course the condition was great on this day. It was actually almost too good and the snow had become rock-hard making some strenuous and fairly sketchy travel on snowshoes. If it was a little bit steeper I’d for sure have to switch gears to crampons and ice axe. And towards the end this section I ascended perhaps the steepest slope (35+ degrees) on this trip, straight up climber’s right side onto the “flat bench” just below the glacier. Here’s also where Vern and So bivy’d on their trip.
For some reasons the cold wind suddenly picked up and by the time I made to the toe of that glacier I was forced to put balaclava and ski goggles on. It was brutally cold for a while but at least the views kept improving. I also managed to pick up the set of ski tracks up the glacier making the already-pretty-tame glacier even tamer. The tracks led me up initially way towards climber’s left but turned sharply right once crossing a wind-scoop feature before ascending more-or-less straight up the “icefield”. It didn’t take me long to arrive at the base of that beautiful summit ridge traverse.
The last section along the summit ridge looked fairly steep from afar but actually not too bad. The snowpack had to be very stable though as a slide would likely send climbers down the cliffs below, same for a slip if the snow is icy… The skiers managed to skin to within 50 m from the top before boot-packing but with the built-in crampon systems I managed to snowshoe right to the summit. The views were mind-blowing towards each directions with giants like Hungabee, Goodsirs and Sir Sandford stealing the show.
Due to the fact I was soloing I didn’t linger much longer on the summit. After carefully descending the summit ridge (making sure not to lose balance on the hard snow) I got back down to the “icefield”, and easily plunged down using or right beside my own tracks. Negotiating that long rising south-facing traverse was still strenuous but at least the sun had softened the snow a little bit. I also managed to walk back without the need to take my snowshoes off. Now the pressure was finally off. After taking a necessary lunch break I got to enjoy a fast plunge down the steep sparsely treed terrain immediately below treeline. This was the only section with good snow. Lower down not so much as I re-entered the steep and tight bush. But overall I managed to descend fairly fast and efficiently.
The final walk along the Lake O’Hara road went by uneventful and my round trip time was 8 hours 40 minutes on a steady pace. I did not feel like rushing neither so it’s overall not as long as advertised on other websites. I can see that bivy site will be very gorgeous with the sunset/sunrise views for photographers, but speaking this climb it should be a solid day-trip for fit parties. There isn’t really anything “fancy” on this mountain and I’d definitely recommend as a winter ascent, just be sure to pick a day with stable snowpack.