September 26-28, 2014
Bush River / Kinbasket Lake Area, AB/BC
The plan of making an ascent of Mount Alexandra – a beautiful but remote 11,000er, halfway between Lyell Icefield and Columbia Icefield on the Continental Divide has been made for more than a year already and things finally lined up nicely in this past weekend. This September has been superb with sunshine in the forecast for all weekends, but given the gloomy weather on Thursday and Friday we’d expect fresh snow as well as a soggy and miserable approach, doing perhaps the harshest bushwhack in our climbing career in rain. Vern, Ben and I are hardcore peak-baggers and we wouldn’t easily give up this opportunity, so that’s it…
Like many of the 11,000ers, the challenge of Mt. Alexandra is more about getting closer to the mountain rather than ascending it. (I’m not saying the climb is easy though as it’s still a grade II alpine route). It boasts perhaps the most complicated driving of all 11,000ers as well as one of the most arduous approaches. There’re two commonly accepted approach routes, one via Lyell Creek and the other via South Rice Brook. Over the past years a few of our friends had explored these two options. Lyell Creek approach is a 10-hour-plus thrash up horrendously dense alders, 8-foot tall devil’s clubs and thousands of dead-falls. The South Rice Brook approach involves much less bushwhacking, but has probably the worst and yet longest side-hill bashing as well as more than 1000 m of elevation loss/regain. On top of that this route lacks detailed description. The conclusion we got was to take the South Rice Brook highline traverse route. To get there we have to drive to Golden first, then northwards to Donald, onto Bush River FSR on the west side of Kinbasket Lake. We’d drive 94 km up this logging road before taking a much narrower, rougher, ridiculously steeper and yet, decommissioned branch switch-backing exposedly high above Rice Brook. And just before it drops to Rice Brook (which is where you park for Mt. Bryce), we’d continue driving up the switchbacks on the south side of this valley to as far as we could. Well, that’s the adventure we like…
As usual I couldn’t leave Edmonton until 10 pm on Thursday evening so that meant Ben and I would have very little sleep at that night. We made to Calgary by about 1:30 am on Friday morning and met Vern 2 hours later. Vern did an excellent job driving all the way up. It wasn’t without intense moments though. Immediately after starting the Bush River FSR we noticed a big yellow sign saying the road’s closed at 89 km… We decided to go in anyway and thankfully didn’t encounter any barrier nor washout/bridge-out. The only difference we noticed after 89 km was the loss of kilometer marks. I think the more proper term would be “decommissioned”. And, just before parking Vern’s truck got overheated. Thankfully that didn’t cause any major damage otherwise we’d be in a huge trouble.
Due to the thick fog (low visibility), confusion between our route beta and the lack of research (as a result of a busy school week combined with the last minute decision) we made some serious navigation errors. We did park at the correct spot, but instead of gaining steeply to the treeline we picked a contouring line. This line brought us to the base of a impenetrable cliff band. At this point we should have gone up underneath this cliff band but we somehow managed to convince ourselves to drop down to the valley floor… This was frustrating to say the least, so after wasting 2.5 hours we were back to South Rice Brook, hundreds of meters below our starting point… We then hiked up the abandoned logging road and soon enough it ended at Rice Brook. From here on our route became experimental and we’d spend hours and hours bashing through dense alders, Devil’s Clubs and krumholtz (the young grown on avalanche paths). It wasn’t as bad as how the Lyell Creek sounds but still deadly miserable, especially with all the vegetation soaking wet… There really wasn’t much to write for this long section, and our route choice was completely wrong anyway. Long story short it was probably the most miserable 5-6 hours I’ve ever spent in the mountains. I still don’t know how we managed to keep up the motivation since we were literally moving at a pace of 0.5 km per hour.. My mood had dropped to the lowest and I thought we’d need a miracle to make the bivy on Friday.
Once we got out of the bush we had only about 2.5 hours daylight time left. Looking ahead this just seemed hopeless, and a blowing-in wet snow storm didn’t help neither. Ahead it appeared we couldn’t traverse around treeline anymore (cliff bands or more krumholtz which was just a pain in the ass) so we had to aim for a high col way on climber’s right. We also made some mistakes route-finding and ended up dealing with loose, wet and exposed difficult scrambling terrain. Well, I should say we did make the bivy on Friday, without the aid of headlamps even, so there was some sort of miracle. Once cresting over the col our pace boosted up significantly. We still had to traverse around or go up and over two more subsidiary bumps but there’s minimal bushwhacking left. What appeared to be “open slopes” did turn out to be open slopes this time. There was no alders nor Christmas trees and we were simply hiking on grass. I led the way contouring as fast as we could around the second-to-last bump, down and across a waterfall on its upstream side, ascend a break through cliff bands to the final bump followed by losing elevation to our final destination. Excluding the initial hours that we wasted it took us 8 hours to the bivy, so I should say it wasn’t that bad. On the downside both Ben and Vern were soaked through from bottom to top. I kept my rain pants, rain jacket and gaiters on for the entire bushwhacking. They together with my mountaineering boots did an absolutely fantastic job keeping my core dry.
We got lucky with the weather temporarily and it had stopped raining for a while already. We managed to set up camp and cook dinner without the disturbance of rain. But just before finishing my dinner another rain storm came, and lasted for a long time. It rained on us overnight too but at this point we had nothing to do except for catching as much sleep as possible and hoping for the best. At 5 am I woke up with millions of stars looming above. Awesome so I went back to sleep. One hour later I woke up in thick fog….
Without visibility we couldn’t even tell where should we go. There’s a section of 4th class scrambling followed by a 5.2 crux up the head-wall. In order to do them safely we had to wait until the fog staring to lift. It was about 7:30 am when we left camp. What appeared to be ridiculously steep turned out to be much flatter once we got closer. Following our basic mountain senses we got through the lower 4th class section relatively trouble-free. After that we’d slog up a long pile of scree to the base of the 5.2 section. There was a beaten path on the scree thank to the ACC section camp as well as the various guiding parties. We got extremely lucky with condition on the 5.2 step. It was short and not as difficult as expected, but exposed, down-sloping and involved very small holds. We all free-solo’d it. And yes, just above it we started to encounter fresh snow and ice as we transitioning to the traverse under Mt. Coral’s face…
The ledge across Coral’s face was wide enough to just simply walk on, but slippery and exposed. There was again, a beaten path we could follow so in short time we arrived at the other end. And again, there was a bit of elevation loss to access West Alexandra Glacier where we strapped crampons on. The glacier appeared to be relatively straightforward initially but soon we entered a maze of crevasses, just like on Mt. Woolley, except this time we had to zig-zag for probably an hour to find a way through. There were sections we had to balance on an ice arete with width less than 1 feet, with deadly crevasses on both sides… It was crazy. To make a long story short we eventually made through this crap, and rope’d up once hitting continuous (old) snow. The glacier leading towards Alexandra/Whiterose col appeared to be tame but actually not. Near the col we had to cross a monster sized crevasse (that extends right into the rock debris and spans mostly across the col) with questionable snow bridge…
And, the face wasn’t easy neither given the current condition. Immediately we had to deal with snow covered slick and down-sloping rocks. Almost everyone mentioned following a snow gully up but we didn’t have that option thank to the crazy melt-out earlier in this summer. For the entire ascent we had to keep the crampons on and in my opinion the lower 200 meters or so was the trickiest in terms of avoiding the slabs. With the thin snow coating we had to avoid any major piece of slab, and thankfully we managed to do so. Upon arriving at the “bench” terrain started to level out. After a quick energy break we started up this gentle, but very foreshortened glacier. Towards the upper end we had two choices – one was attacking the snow/ice face directly (steeper than 40 degrees) and the other ascending loose and slabby rocks on climber’s left. We picked the rock route. It wasn’t actually that bad with careful route-finding as well as the aid of crampons, but certainly a bit more involved than we thought.
With a good perseverance we eventually arrived at the upper snow field/glacier that would eventually lead us to the summit. Weather was coming in and out at this point. We lost views towards the distant peaks but on the positive side we got excellent clouds scenery. It was an extraordinary moment to realize we did make the summit. A day ago at the same time I would not think about that…
Descending the slabby and snow covered terrain on the SW Face was relatively straightforward but did require extra caution. Negotiating back through the maze of crevasses was tricky thank to the afternoon heat. We did put a foot or two into a crevasse on terrain that was safe earlier in the morning. We decided to keep rope on and tight throughout the descent. This slowed us down infinitely when it came to the zig-zagging section but at this time of the day nobody was in a rush. It was also apparently nobody was in the mood to ascend Mt. Coral, nor did we have enough time neither. Lower down we decided to rappel off a bolted station down the 5.2 step (our 30-meter rope was just enough), and after that we down-scrambled the lower 4th class headwall. It was surprisingly late in the day when we finally made back to camp. We had probably only an hour or two’s daylight time left to kill, but that’s sufficient for picturing evening glow on the giants. There’re so many sexy peaks nearby that we all agreed we’d come back! The night was peaceful but oh man there was so much condensation going on.. Almost everything got iced up in the morning..
On Sunday morning we woke up under crystal clear sky. After packing up our iced-up gears our depproach day started with alpenglow on Mt. Bryce. We were all psyched about getting the views that we missed on Friday. And if the terrain made sense we’d explore the highline traverse as well as the “4 lakes”. Overall we knew this day would be extremely taxing (physically and mentally), but there were still a lot of things to look forward to. So off we went. Retracing our steps up-and-down or sidehill around the initial two bumps went uneventfully and in short time we were on our way to the high col on the 3rd bump. This was a tediously tedious slog… Over the high col we immediately faced our first major problem on this day – the concrete hard, frozen and slippery scree… Ben slipped immediately and got a cut on his arm. We figured that’s not gonna work so made the decision to keep going upwards, up and over the peak on our right side. The ground looked sunnier on the eastern aspect and we also got some excellent views. Oh man Mt. Bryce is huge! It reminded me looking towards Mt. Robson from Cinnamon Peak…
For the next bump we had a few choices. We could ascend a reddish high col way on the left (west) side or we could contour around treeline dealing with tedious side-hilling and occasional but very dense bushwhacking. We voted for the treeline option since we weren’t 100% sure about the other side of that red col. The treeline contouring was actually more pleasant than we thought, but once around the other edge we had to make another decision. It’s apparent we couldn’t descend straight into the next valley (valley with 4 lakes). We could descend for more than 100 m followed by reascending to the lowest lake, or we could go up the ridge followed by descending to the lakes. Either way we had to deal with a ton of elevation loss and regain. We decided to explore the high route. The higher we went the less confidence we had but thankfully after zig-zagging through some steep slabs we managed to find a difficult scrambling route up our ridge line, and thankfully again, we did find a easy route down into the next valley. These lakes are among some of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen (including Lake O’Hara area).
Keeping exploring the highline traverse we’d soon enter the most experimental part. According to Vern’s GPS the highest lake was on the left (west) side of the last bump. This was a bit against the concept of “contouring around treeline” but since we were here anyway we had to give it a shot. There was again, a bit WOW moment upon cresting the last high col. So far the scenery had been exceeding our imagination and no doubt this highline traverse is the most scenic approach I’ve done to date. I led the way side-hilling across a steeper scree ramp around the last corner, and then a trouble-free line appeared in front of us.. Yes, we did find a way through. We scree-ski’d down to treeline and then entered the bush. Now we were only a kilometer away from Vern’s truck. To get there we still had to deal with dense bush but it only lasted for half an hour or so.
Back to the truck, there was no surprise except for a black bear wondering around. There was no flat tire nor dead battery and soon we were on our long journey back home. Thankfully again there was no big boulder coming down blocking the narrow and exposed logging road. Vern again, did a fantastic job driving out of the wilderness. It was a long way back to Edmonton for Ben and I though, and we made back by 1 am on Monday morning, which wasn’t too bad.
Overall this trip was a blast and I still can’t believe we already had Mt. Alexandra bagged. It was a dramatic adventure just like Recondite Peak we did last year that I’ll never forget. Speaking this objective, I think the highline traverse is definitely the way to go. Yes it involves about 1100 m elevation loss (thus regain), but you essentially trade off bushwhacking for awesome views. Comparing to eight-foot devil’s clubs and alders higher than my head I’d rather prefer elevation loss/regain anyway. And once again, we did an excellent job picking Mt. Alexandra as our objective in this past weekend, and this September has been a blast! Four big 3-day mountaineering trips in different areas with incredible views from each and it can’t get better than that!