May 12, 2012
Columbia Icefield, AB
Castleguard Mountain, a mere “baby” guarding the southern boundary of Columbia Icefield comparing to the nearby 11,000ers, does offer one of the most unique summit panoramic views in the Canadian Rockies. The approach is via the bloody long Saskatchewan Glacier – a straightforward and much less crevassed approach comparing with Athabasca Glacier. I had this trip planned with Jeff Shaw (jeffs78 from ClubTread) for a while but once the condition and weather lined up nicely he was off to the west coast for Mt. Rainier. Rather than doing the entire ascent by myself I decided to take my mom out for a tour up the Saskatchewan Glacier.
Chic Scott’s book says the round trip distance is 30 km which I thought was overly optimistic. I did not own a GPS unit but after some careful measurement on the topographic map I figured the distance should be around 36 km. The forecasted -15 degree overnight temperature never reached but it was still fairly cold in the morning. The snow bridge bridging the initial river crossing was gone but thankfully we brought 4 plastic bags just for for the river crossing purposes. With the bags we didn’t have to take the boots off which was always nice. For some reasons we weren’t able to locate the skier’s tracks leading into the forest but we did mange to find the trail at some point. After ascending up and over a small hill we found the avalanche path on the other side had already slid. We traversed and descended to the valley floor.
From the valley bottom to the toe of Saskatchewan Glacier, it’s a mix of moraine and snow… This is probably the worst type of terrain especially on the way down when the snow has softened. On top of that we had to battle against a not-overly-strong, but cold and sustained head wind. After trying to stay on snow for a few kilometers we got tired of the hopping so removed the snowshoes and just walked on the moraine. We stayed on the left side of the main stream and ended up being on the left side of the thawing lake. An overhanging glacier blocked our way in… We had to back track for about 500 m to find a solid place to cross to the other side. It did work, but lots of up-and-downs were involved. Near the toe, there are several mini stream crossings and mom carelessly slipped into one and got her boots soaked…
We weren’t quite sure what to expect for the glacier but immediately after the initial rise I found bare ice that’s clearly due to wind blown. Probing through, I found the snow was actually quite shallow and we roped up soon. I agreed with what Nugara described in his book: walking on Saskatchewan Glacier is like driving to Saskatchewan… There’s little to explain, just to follow the glacier, staying on right of center. You will find a medial moraine seperating the main glacier from the branch coming from the slope of Andromeda. Staying left of this moraine and follow it up. Near Castleguard Meadows, the glacier swings right slightly and gets steeper for a short section. For the next several kilometers towards the final headwall, we could see the impressive ice falls along the slope of Mount Andromeda, which makes the approach a little bit more interesting.
The ramp up the north slope of Castleguard appeared immediately to our left, but actually quite far away. We kept marching up and the round-shaped Snow Dome gradually showed up behind the horizon, followed by the “white whale” – Mt. Columbia. At this point, mom couldn’t continue due to physical limit just like the day on Wapta Icefield last month. After some hesitation and internal debating I made the call to resume the ascent solo, while mom would wait for me on the icefield. As I slowly gaining height up the north-facing slope ahead, North & South Twin slowly appeared behind and the immense Columbia Icefield slowly showed up its entire entity. My objective, Castleguard Mountain looked completely different from its base than from afar so I got confused as which ridge to take. I ascended a steep wind scoop, but only to find that I still topped out on the wrong (north) ridge… Well, I did have Andrew Nugara’s trip report in my memory so I knew how to correct my mistake. After some steep traversing I did mange to make to the final slope and some step-kicking up a 40-degree slope later I arrived at the summit, with mind-blowing views towards every direction.
After taking the numerous panoramas, I didn’t linger any longer but heading down soon. I used the correct east ridge on the way down, and it was way much easier than the “wind scoop/north ridge/cliff base traverse” route. If I took this way up, I could probably save half an hour. Descending took no time and I soon re-joined my mom at the base of the north slope. We had a quick lunch break. Due to the wet boots/foot, mom was getting very cold and we must kept moving.
Descending Saskatchewan Glacier provided the best example of “marching asleep”. Needless to say, it was very boring. I kinda hope to do this mountain as a ski trip because the terrain is so gentle and my skiing skill can probably handle it. Repeating the same motion again and again and again… After the glacier swings left, snow got slushy. I forgot how long it took us down to the toe. We took a long break at the toe, getting all the glacier gears into backpack, and taking off snowshoes. The final 8km back to car proved to be the hardest. The moraine got muddy unsupportive and snow got isothermal. Post-holing the last 3-4km was a nightmare for us, sometimes calf deep, mostly knee deep, and sometimes thigh deep. We also lost our tracks on the way in and were forced to bushwhack a kilometer or so, thankfully no bears. The final grind up the hill was a slog but thankfully the avalanche debris provided some harder snow to step on. Since our boots were all wet, we didn’t bother to use plastic bags for the final river crossing, but using the river to wash our boots instead.
I should say I underestimated the challenge. Although exhausted, I didn’t get blisters, so I might have the energy to make another smaller summit on Sunday like Big Bend Peak. However, mom felt like having a cold so I decided to drive to Jasper to get some hot stuffs in the following morning. On Sunday morning, I felt a slight injury on my right thigh’s muscle… Although Cinquefoil Mountain is in shape now (well, the only one in shape in Jasper area), I had to save it for another day… After taking some morning photos on Patricia and Pyramid Lakes, we drove back home. Anyway, with a big mountain done, I’m quite satisfied with the weekend.