March 29, 2013
Icefield Parkway (South), AB
Although this was my first attempt on Mt. Hector it was my 3rd time seriously considering it. Two years ago in May a good overnight freeze plus sunny weather made me almost going up this Rockies’ mountaineering classic solo, but I chickened out at the last minute when I drove by Lake Louise. I didn’t know why, but my instinct told me it wasn’t a good day, so I parked at Skoki, and bagged Purple Peak and Lipalian Mountain. Indeed it wasn’t a good day because I forgot my sunglasses at home… The second time was one week ago. Ben and I had everything lined up nicely (weather, moon light, avalanche and established skin tracks), but backed off again at the last minute and did Mount Habel which involved less crevasse hazard. Eventually, the stable weather pattern persisted through the following week, and I figured out this Easter Weekend would be a good time ticking off 2 of my proposed giant objectives. I was very glad to have two more volunteers wishing to do this “the best ski runs in the Rockies” on snowshoes.
After a bunch of emails back and forth, Ben, Mike, Grant and I met up at Louise Hostel by Thursday evening. We did a quick last-minute gear check and we briefly taught Grant some basic stuffs about beacon search and roping techniques, and then went to bed hoping the weather could hold. It was forecasted to be variable cloudiness. That meant we might can get some perfect photos but there would be also a good potential that we could get white-out condition. We also had a copy of Dow Williams’ excellent trip report just in case we got lost in the dark.
And we woke up at 3:30 in the morning, had a quick breakfast and started shortly after 5 am. There were abundant skin tracks and it was very hard to get lost. We stayed on the climber’s right side of Hector Creek and in short time we made to the base of the 1st significant avalanche slope. It was a BIG one. We tried to follow the up-tracks avoiding post-holing, but still went too far up and had to slide-slope on some very steep terrain to regain the supposed gully/canyon just above the waterfalls. There wasn’t any ice in the gully and it was a simple (but steep) walk up. It was a long one. Now we could start to see some brightness starting to show up on the skyline, and we followed tracks into an alpine bowl. The route then went up on climber’s right, side-sloping avoiding losing elevation. We quickly went through this traverse, with big slopes threatening to slide on climber’s right side, and then we were staring at the second head-wall. This one was much easier than the first one, and we quickly gained to its crest, where the rocks forced us to take off snowshoes briefly. With Little Hector looming impressively to our right we had our first break of the day. The moon was still very bright as this point. Now, instead of trying Dow’s route which involved a 3rd significant avalanche slope, we decided to go up straight towards Little Hector and once there we quickly traversed underneath its avalanche slopes to the base of Hector Glacier.
Ben and I each hauled up a 35m climbing rope, so we had 70m which was enough for a 4-person team. We’d already calculated the division points (10 arm lengths for me), and it didn’t take us long to get ready for the glacier. Again, the skin tracks were still very clear and there was no route-finding involved. That was good because not far up we had to cross a snow bridge over a huge gap. The only open crevasses we saw was near the beginning, at climber’s right. But if you’ve seen this glacier in summer, you would know there were lots of monster-sized holes. The clouds were obscuring the summit, but they soon passed by, and then another cloud rolled in. They did provide some awesome photographing opportunities, but I didn’t like it. If the clouds went down to the glacier and we lost the skin tracks, we would be in trouble. We had equipped with GPS, but that was only useful to back-track, since none of us had downloaded the way points. Glad the clouds never went down, and we didn’t enter into them until way up high. Even so the visibility was not too bad, and it wasn’t a total white-out.
The terrain steepened up considerably as we approaching the summit block. At one point I had to traverse climber’s right trying some switch-backs since it was too steep to go straight up even for snowshoeers. The clouds magically cleared up, and we were treated with awesome views towards each direction. The Wapta started to show up at this point. Our pace also went down a bit, probably due to the altitude. I felt very okay and I was high on energy. But the post-holing also slowed me down. Eventually we made to the base of summit block, where we were treated with some fierce and cold winds. I had no choice but to add a layer (which is rare). The crux looked to be very easy form our vantage point, and we all felt good scrambling up it without rope. It wasn’t exposed and only involved 1.5m of rock. The rocks were snow covered and down-sloping. But again, it was short. Everyone but Grant put on crampons just in case it got icy higher up. Grant just bought his brand new crampons and he was more confident with just boots. We all made it through. It was much easier than the crux on Habel which I just did 1 week ago. Compared to that one, Hector’s crux felt like a beginner level. But don’t get me wrong, it was still a moderate scramble on down-sloping slippery rocks. After this bit, we kept following the boot tracks up towards climber’s right aiming for the least steep area. It was easy scrambling from here, and we made to the summit of this 11,000er in a perfect timing. The clouds were obscuring the view towards Skoki, but it was crystal clear towards the other directions.
It was cold so we didn’t stay long up there. The descent went easy until the crux. It was a bit awkward due to the slippery down-sloping rocks, but even so we all got through facing outwards. It sure would be a lot tougher if icy, and we didn’t get any ice at all. Again, it was windy and cold at the col, and nobody was interested in checking off the lower sub summit, so we quickly geared up, and went down. Snowshoeing down-hill with ropes on wasn’t than fun and we all kept falling. But again, it was much more relaxing than skiing. We took our time soaking in the excellent views. The views were very different from on our way up, due to the difference in the time of the day. It was brighter now compared to in the morning. Lower down, the clouds went in obscuring Hector again, and we were glad to be off its summit. We met 2 groups of skiers on the lower part of Hector Glacier. I hope the clouds could lift up again and they could get some views.
We kept the ropes on until we found a shelter spot, where we got our lunch break. I didn’t bring much food up there except for a few muffins and energy bars though. We all had the concern that the afternoon sun would make the terrain trap dangerous, we quickly went down. In daylight time we got a much better perspective of this area, and the terrain trap indeed looked serious. It was too steep and I decided to take off the snowshoes and walk down. I can’t believe some skiers don’t need to take off skis for this part. I would need years till getting to that level. We kept following the gully, but it eventually ended at the waterfall. I wonder if any skier had accidently went down that waterfall. It was a big one, and we went sharply right to the big avi slope below. The snow was still strong at this point, and we all got down without an issue. The rest of the way back to the car was a pleasant down-hill walk.
I’m very glad to bag Mount Hector on my first try. This is also my 2nd 11,000er, and it felt very good to stand up high. From what we’d seen, Mount Andromache was clearly doable given the conditions, and maybe Little Hector as well. If not because of the big plan on Saturday, they two would be down my list now. But on the other hand, saving these two for summer time meant I’d also get to see the blueish Hector Lake and the crevassed Hector Glacier.
Be sure to take a look at Ben’s excellent time lapse video showing the clouds movement during our ascent.