April 29, 2014
Wapta Icefield, BC
The mighty Mount Collie sits deeply on the BC side of Wapta Icefield, further away from population and rarely climbed. Many folks would prefer camping at its base or at least staying the previous night in Bow Hut, but fit parties can do it in a day from the Icefield Parkway. There’re big avalanche slopes and terrain traps on the approach, numerous open crevasses to negotiate on the icefield, and the summit ridge is often heavily (double) corniced making it a fairly technical ascent. It’s a major feat to have this peak successfully bagged and the satisfaction I got from that is more than some of the big and remote 11,000ers. The ridge is the craziest I’ve ever seen and it’s certainly the most difficult and the most dangerous winter ascent I’ve ever done (to date).
An Omega block (high pressure system) came and granted clear weather for 3 days in a roll, Tuesday to Thursday. But just like last year’s, temperature would boost up to crazy. Wednesday was supposed to be the first big warm-up of the season and avalanche was forecasted to be high/high/high across the range. So we couldn’t do Mt. Columbia and there’s only 1-day’s window for anything. Tuesday was arguably the best day for ski mountaineering in this entire season. A deep overnight freeze, guaranteed bludbird sky, cool temperature and avalanche condition at low/low/low, there’s no way to miss this day out. Vern and I were eyeing on Mt. Collie throughout this entire winter/spring season so far and it was finally the time to commit to it. Ferenc managed to take Tuesday off work to join us and we were very pleased to have him along.
Other than condition and timing, the most important thing for such a long ski ascent/snow climb in 1-day is efficiency. Light-and-fast is a must even though that might mean sacrificing a bit on safety. We’d bring stuffs that we definitely need and leave everything else behind. Of course food, water and avalanche gears. Other than those we packed light weight ice axe, crampons, one 30 meter 8-mm rope plus some crevasse rescue gears, no ice screw and no snow picket.
Like two days ago, Ferenc nicely invited me to stay over in his house and at 3:40 am Tuesday morning, Vern came by and picked us up. We were cruising westwards into the mountains with millions of stars above. It’s gonna be the day! We managed to get to Bow Lake earlier than expected, and by 6:20 am we were already skinning across the frozen Lake. This was my 7th time doing this approach in winter and I’m getting tired of that so I won’t go in details in my trip report anymore. There’re quite a few big avalanche slopes plus a long terrain trap so don’t underestimate this approach. We saw lots of avalanche debris in the canyon. Ascending the steep slope just before Bow Hut was tricky since the snow was icy and our skins couldn’t grip. My ski crampons helped a big time here, and shortly after this slope we took a short break just outside of Bow Hut (we didn’t go in because I was told it’s an energy sucker).
We followed a set of tracks up the headwall up the eastern half of Wapta Icefield. Higher up the tracks got too faint to follow probably due to the wind, but we didn’t see any tracks on Gordon nor Rhondda. At this point we were hoping them doing Bow to Yoho traverse or even better, climbing Mount Collie… I guess we were right, after a while we saw the tracks again, down a bit and merged to them. They surely picked a nice line towards the broad Gordon/Rhondda col. There’re some crevasses on the Gordon side and the correct way is by aiming more-or-less towards Rhondda. Now we had to lose elevation down the west half of Wapta Icefield. We should have taken the skins off but we opted for not since it appeared to be quite short. It wasn’t thank to the foreshortening view…
Following the fresh set of tracks we soon started gaining elevation towards Collie shoulder. There’re many ways to go through those open crevasses. Last year during my crevasse rescue course the guide suggested going climber’s right but I’ve also seen trip reports indication going straight up the middle. On this day the tracks would lead us climber’s left up an obvious ‘ramp’. The terrain was big around there but having already done the Athabasca Glacier approach, the Collie’s holes and seracs just didn’t look that big… It was also apparent those guys weren’t doing Collie so at one point we had to leave their tracks. There were still open crevasses around so we eventually decided to take out the rope. Turning sharply rightwards, Ferenc was high on energy and broke trail from here all the way to the low point on Collie’s summit ridge (NE ridge).
The closer we got to the ridge, the more impressive these cornices appeared, and once we were hitting the ridge crest, looking upwards it was a big wow moment… Holy moly that’s gonna be an awesome and intense snow climb… I’ve successfully led up difficult corniced ridges like Vermilion, Wilson, Balfour, Andromeda, but this one made them like beginner’s level… There’s no time to enjoy the view at this point and we had to immediately concentrate on the challenge ahead. We soon took off the skis and put crampons on. We also decided to keep the ropes on for the ascent in case someone breaking through the cornices so the other two could jump down the other side. There’re two sections of this ridge. There were still lots of cornices on the first section but those are small and we were (kinda) able to tell the boundaries. The actual ridge was knife edged with 40-50 degrees avalanche slopes on both side. There were a few points I had to bail the crest to either south or north side. The traverse on the south facing section was particularly dicey. There’s a bergschrund below waiting to eat us if there’s even a small sluff. The slope was already sun baked and snow already started to ball under my crampons.
A gigantic bus sized cornice marked the start point of the second section. There’s no way to stay on the ridge crest anymore and we had to traverse climber’s right (north) side. This also marked the most intense part. Facing inwards kicking-step and front-pointing while traversing a 50-60 degree avalanche slope with extreme exposure on climber’s right and bus sized cornice on climber’s left, it was more than words can describe. There was a section where I couldn’t even plant my axe in and had to use the ice climbing mode. “Thank” for our earlier decision so we didn’t have a lot of gears to protect it even if we wanted to. Of course I didn’t feel the need of any protection but if any of us slipped or even just a small sluff we’d all gone down… And at the mean time there’s still a real possibility of punching down the cornice so falling off the other side… After a while the slope angled eased a bit but due to the cornice we kept traversing far from the edge until topping out on the summit. The views were needless to say, awesome towards each direction. Giant BC peaks like Mt. Mummery stole the show and Rockies’ 11,000ers were trying their best to compete.
On the descent we decided to rope off just so we wouldn’t all fall down if one member slipped. Downwards was surely more awkward but following a set of tracks was overall easier. And for me, the orientation of the slopes was also in favour as I could hold my ice axe on my dominant hand (right hand) on the descent. I managed to get a lot of photos showing Vern and Ferenc descending the ridge. The descent went by fast and the excitement was relatively short lived. Now looking ahead, a fantastic ski descent was waiting for us!
If every ski trip is like this I’ll quit snowshoeing, honestly. We had the best snow condition. I don’t ever remember being able to do parallel turns in the backcountry before. It felt even better than the resort and we were flying down the Collie’s bowl and then down and around the crevasses onto the Wapta Icefields. It took us about 15 minutes from the ridge to the icefield below, amazing! The slog back up to Rhondda/Gordon col wasn’t as exciting though. The tracks kept going upwards and never came to an end. I felt very tired at this moment due to dehydration. Again, Ferenc was cruising ahead so by the time we finally crested the high point I gave him the rope just to slow him down a bit. Then came the downhill. The snow wasn’t as great as in Collie bowl but still better than most of my previous ski trips. It was a great run down to Bow Hut. This time we went in to drink some water and eat some food…
The rest of the return was also great. We were expecting lots of isothermal crap but on this day, the cool air held the snow nicely and we had a fast run back. The slope just below Bow Hut was a bit awkward for me to descend and the uphill just after the canyon was a bit painful, but other than that I enjoyed the rest more than on snowshoes. There’re lots of side-sloping on this trail and those are horrible snowshoe terrain but perfect for skiing. The slog across Bow Lake was also fast thank to the good snow. Our round trip time was 11 hours on a steady pace.
Overall I think it beats up Balfour and Wilson to qualify my favourate winter/spring ascent to date. We certainly picked the best day to climb Collie and it was all worth to take the day off work. I hope there’s another high pressure system in the next short while, but even if not I’m very satisfied with this season already. Balfour, Ghita, Andromeda, Olive and Collie, that’s not a bad list given the basal facets and persistent weak layers in the previous months.