July 4, 2015
Lake O’Hara/Louise, AB/BC
Everybody who has visited the Canadian Rockies should probably have a picture of Mt. Victoria – the giant glaciated peak dominating the backdrop of Lake Louise, a place that sees perhaps millions of tourists every year. I saw it for the first time in the summer of 2009 and during the same trip I hiked up the Plain of Six Glaciers trail to its end and got a closer look at this giant. Five years later I successfully stood on the summit of its northern sub-peak, also known as North Victoria, as well as another giant nearby – Mt. Lefroy. Almost exactly 1 year later, in the early July of 2015, plans lined up nicely between Ben, Ferenc and myself for a summit bid on the true summit of this mountain.
Having already bagged 32 11,000ers before this trip I have to admit that Mt. Victoria (and its lower neighbour, Mt. Huber) are no longer on the top of our to-do lists. The access is easy by the 11,000er standard, and in the ‘right’ conditions the technical climbing should be very straightforward to us. However, due to weather and time constraint our choices were limited and eventually we decided on Huber/Victoria at the last minute. As usual for the last-minute decisions we had to face some logistic issues – both the Abbot Hut and the bus ride to Lake O’Hara was full. Solution? Let’s just day-trip them from the parking lot… Oh well..
There’re two commonly used routes for Mt. Victoria – the classic SE Ridge starting from Abbot Hut and the W. Face that’s often used as a descent route for folks doing Victoria to Huber traverse. We had good beta for both routes and it seemed like the W. Face would be the most efficient way to bag this mountain as it’s much shorter and more direct than the SE Ridge. Another advantage of going up & down this route is that we’d ascend Huber Ledges first before descending it, so much unlikely to make route-finding mistakes. So at 4:30 am in the morning all three of us gathered together at Lake O’Hara parking lot and shortly after we started the long 11 km slog up the road. It’s a truly tedious and boring process, but at least it’s only a 2-hour hike, so not that terrible.
After contouring around the lake for roughly 100 meters we took the side trail branching steeply up the left side slopes. It’s the Wiwaxy Gap “alpine route” and very well maintained. I have no idea why the officials call it an “alpine route”, but I guess there’re a few “exposed” sections by hiker’s standard and the majority of the visitors here are hikers anyway. For us it’s just an easy hike, albeit quite steep. Eventually we made to Wiwaxy Gap, with the twin summits of Wiwaxy Peaks to our left and the impressive lower slopes of Mt. Huber (the Huber Ledges) to the right. The Huber Ledges did not look easy to us but given the vast amount of information we knew it’d go as a Class 4 scramble.
There were paths and cairns here and there leading up climber’s right side of the connecting ridge. Soon enough we crossed over the ridge to the left side and picked up an intermittent trail system. It’s indistinct at sections but generally easy to follow in a diagonally traversing line. The crux came at a 20-meter rock band with no obvious easy route up. We didn’t bother to search around so went relatively straight up and that involved a few tricky and awkward moves to a 2-bolt station. (On the descent Ferenc found an easier zig-zagging line while Ben and I rappeled from the station). After this bit of excitement the terrain became gentler, and again, diagonally up climber’s left on some obvious ledges/paths. Eventually we hit the toe of the Huber’s north glacier. There were two pre-built (flat) bivy spots for folks doing overnight stay. One could fit a large tent and the other was for 1-person tent or a bivy sack.
We geared up for the first glacier crossing. It’s relatively easy and short but did show a few holes. On the rear end we had to scramble up a short rock step to gain the upper glacier. With crampons on it’s a bit awkward but nothing overly difficult. Then we were on the upper glacier leading towards Huber/Victoria col. At this point we made the decision to ascend the supposed more-technical Mt. Victoria first. There were quite a few crevasses en route that we crossed on snow bridges, and the bergschrund appeared to be filled in.
Some easy snow climbing after crossing the bergschrund brought us into a large gully system. We exited the snow on climber’s left side onto piles of loose rock. It’s almost impossible to avoid rock falls here and I knocked down quite a few chucks towards Ferenc and Ben just when transitioning onto the dry ground. From here it’s almost impossible to tell the exact route we took but by following basic sense we managed to stay entirely on (loose) rock avoiding the temptation to hit that icy gully. I believe the icy gully was the “normal” route according to Bill Corbett’s 11,000ers book, but as non-ice climbers we all preferred loose 4th class terrain. The terrain brought us to a tight chimney and after ascending it we topped out on the upper SE Ridge of Mt. Victoria.
From here on to the summit of Mt. Victoria was nothing more than “easy mountaineering” for roughly 30-40 minutes given our conditions. All the rocks were scrambling only and the exposure was pretty tame despite what’s usually described by other sources. There were a few snow aretes to ascend but those were easy given our experiences on snow. I honestly thought the snow aretes on S. Ridge of Mt. Willingdon to be more difficult than Victoria’s, but that could just due to the perfect conditions we had. From the summit, Mt. Huber looked fairly icy but still presented snow climbing lines; Mt. Lefroy looked like ugly late-season conditions; North Victoria looked just like a bump on the ridge and the Victoria/Collier col was dry but the bergschrund was still filled in.
The descent went uneventful until we started the face part. The down-climbing was straightforward but avoiding rock fall was a different matter. To make it possible we all went down fairly slowly and close to each other. Back to the snow we strapped the crampons on, walked down the slope and easily crossed the ‘schrund. Now it’s time to think about our next objective, Mount Huber.
Now after finishing the Lake Louise classic snow-and-ice 11,000ers (North Victoria, Lefroy, Victoria, Huber) I actually think the main summit of Mt. Victoria is the easiest one (at least given the conditions we had). The other three all involved steep snow climbing but for Victoria it’s mostly a scramble with some easy snow and glacier travel.