Mount Kitchener

April 21, 2019


Columbia Icefield, AB

Among the dozen 11,000ers on the immense Columbia Icefield of Canadian Rockies Mt. Kitchener does not stand out by any measure. From the icefield this is nothing fancier than a rounded dome of snow, albeit a gigantic one like its neighbour – Snow Dome and the south-west slopes can be done as an easy diversion from the main approach route to the illusive Twins. For real alpinists the north face “Grand Central Couloir” is the way up, and for amateur mountaineers the E. Ridge offers an aesthetic line, although much of the climbing is “type 2 fun” according to friends that have done it. When it comes to peak-bagging I’m the type that gives no damn about what-is-so-called “style” or the route to take, and for over 99% time I pick the easiest route no matter how unaesthetic that is. This would be the case for Mt. Kitchener. The south-west slopes is nothing but a walk-up on skis or snowshoes from the main icefield, so why not..

About 4 years ago I had made a peak-baggin’ slam onto the northern branch of Columbia Icefield, ascending the two Stutfields, all four Twins along with Mt. Cromwell in a course of 4 days – a trip that I’m still proud of today. However, on the last day a layer of clouds rolled in and Ben and I somehow convinced ourselves it’s smarter to leave Mt. Kitchener behind for “the next trip”… At that time I had no complaint because I was never sure whether or not the quest to complete all 54 or 58 11,000ers would ever be on my agenda. Several years had past with literally a ton of changes in life, and now in 2019 with only six 11,000ers to go and especially with Mt. Robson, Mt. Alberta and the Goodsirs already down I had no excuse but pressing on to bag the whole list no matter what. A trip to get back up onto the icefield was then brought back on the agenda but then I soon realized the crux would be to assemble a group for the mission. Ben had already climbed Mt. Kitchener via the east ridge and most skiers and climbers aren’t keen on Mt. Kitchener for the sake reason that who would plod all the way up there to tag a rounded dome of snow that one can barely pick up any speed on the descent, and not to mention the objective hazards one needs to push through on the Athabasca Glacier approach. It took me literally two months to find only one keen skier. Towards this past Easter long weekend a short, but solid weather window seemed to kick in but instead of only checking with skiers I threw out the idea to my snowshoe partners too. To my great surprise it only took me half a day to put together a group of six, three from Vancouver and three from Alberta, all on snowshoes and all super duper stoked about the trip. The trigger was pulled. No one else had been up on an icefield of this size and I was also stoked to show them my old playground.

Al posing for some Instagram shots entering Mt. Robson Park

Just have to show a zoomed-in shot of the mighty Mt. Robson…

Meanwhile I coordinated the approach with Eric Gilbertson’s group gunning for Mt. Columbia and the plan for my group was to start at 3 am and use Eric’s skin track to navigate the Athabasca Glacier approach hence doing Mt. Kitchener in one long day. On the morning of Saturday Mel and Al picked me up from my home in White Rock and we soon sped down Highway 1 eastwards into the interior of BC in Mel’s rental vehicle. Mel’s excellent at dodging cop’s radars and we got to Valemount by noon, about 2 hours faster than my anticipation. Al had never seen Mt. Robson in person so we made a tourists’ stop there and took several Instagram’s photos. Our next stop was Maligne Canyon’s parking lot to practice crevasse rescue because this trip was kinda serious on that I wanted to make sure that we were (somewhat) prepared in case shit happened. An hour or two later Antonie showed up and the four of us together did another few runs before calling a day. Too much knowledge going in and I could see that my friends were already mentally exhausted so we packed and sorted the gears out, went to Jasper’s North Face pizza for a big dinner and then drove to the toe of Athabasca Glacier at 10 pm. There were only two vehicles there – one that I recognized as Eric’s from Washington state and the other had an Albertan plate. I checked the vehicle and sure enough, Natalia and Tom had made there earlier than us. We agreed to wake up at 2:30 am in order to start at 3 am, and then I pitched my solo tent to let others sleeping in our respective vehicles. There’s a full moon and the wind was next to none.

Mt. Kitchener standard route. GPX DL

The following morning we did manage to wake up on time but didn’t start until 3:30 am. Packing up the tent and stuffs was a bit miserable in the cold. There are two ways to access the lower Athabasca Glacier. In the previous three trips I had used the glacier toe’s approach but this time I opted for the Snowcoach Road option. Hiking up the Snowcoach Road requires a bit more elevation change and distance but is no-brainer in the dark and this is especially true for snowshoeers because one doesn’t need to worry about carrying the cumbersome skis and/or wearing the uncomfortable ski boots. Once making to the end of the Snowcoach Road we roped up in two teams of three with me leading in front heading climber’s right in hope to join Eric’s skin tracks. Once picking up their lone set of tracks the rest of the morning was a simple matter of putting one foot in front of another. The second roll of icefall was steeper than what I remembered probably due to glacial recession over the past several years but with Lightning Ascents we managed to climb the 40-degree slope without having to boot-pack. The glacial coverage on the “ramp” was as good as it could get, although the headwind was kind of brutal. The grunt up and beyond the “ramp” onto the icefield proper was such a foreshortened drag that involved over 500 m elevation gain. On the previous day I received a message from Eric via inReach that he’s going to wait for us at camp because his partner was “too exhausted to climb anything”. The first business for us after getting onto the icefield was to head over towards Eric’s camp and see how they were doing, even though that meant a slight deviation from the most efficient line contouring around Snow Dome. We got there just past 7 am and sure enough Eric was waiting for us in his huge parka. With the perfect weather in stock it must be a tough call for him not soloing Mt. Columbia but in any case he decided to join our team for Mt. Kitchener.

Above the “ramp” and still was in pitch dark. Photo by Mel O.

Looking back at Mel and Al soaking in the morning glow despite the wind and cold.

Alpenglow on the distant 11,000ers – Mt. Alexandra and The Lyells

Eric G. and his ski camp at the base of Snow Dome.

Al and Mel happy to make their first trip onto the icefield.

The deal was then for me leading and breaking trail on the first section contouring around Snow Dome and once the route became obvious Eric would take over the lead breaking trail on the second half. There weren’t a ton of route-finding because I basically just went retracing our Twins’ approach tracks, although this stage had more elevation gain than I thought. After climbing up a few gentle, but long rolls of elevation the terrain flattened out. There’s a huge sagging in front and based on my research that crevasse marked the position where we should branch off from Twins’ approach track. The four of us took an energy break there to let the other three catching up. The next three kilometers would be nothing but a straight plod towards Kitchener/Snow Dome col although micro-terrain had to be taken care of. We had to side-hill a long stretch as well as lose some elevation before the col.

Ascending onto the 3000 m elevation zone above the skier’s camp.

Mel, Al and Eric all on on their first time up onto Columbia Icefield.

Rolls and crevasses on the south side of Snow Dome

Me leading the way with The Twins showing up. Photo by Mel O.

A closer look at South Twin

Looking back at the other rope team with Mt. Forbes looming behind

Natalia, Antonie and Tom snowshoeing with the wall of Mt. Alexandra behind

Eric taking over the lead here.

Looking back at Natalia, Antonie and Tom plodding with Mt. Bryce behind

Eric, Mel and Al plodding… It’s beautiful but very monotonous

Looking back at our tracks side-hilling on the west flanks of Snow Dome

South Twin, North Twin and Stutfield Peak to the north

Al taking a break…

After what seemed like eternity we finally got to Kitchener/Snow Dome col

From the col the summit of Mt. Kitchener looked to be “right there” but according to the GPS we still had over 3 km distance and about 300 m elevation gain left. We were getting tired at this point so to shave off some loads we decided to ditch everything including the ropes and backpacks, while carrying only the jacket and a bit of food/water. Eric and I went ahead to break the trail and meanwhile it’s good to catch up with him to discuss our big expedition in June-July time frame. The highest point on the summit was suspected to be on a cornice so we stopped at about 1 vertical meters below, which I felt having enough of legitimate reasons. After snapping enough summit photos Eric skied down to tag Snow Dome while others showed up on the summit one by one in the next 20 minutes or so. Overall we didn’t linger too much longer than necessary because of the length of our return journey.

You don’t sense the scale unless putting people into the shot… Photo by Mel O.

Eric skinning to the summit on this never-ending slope.

Summit Panorama from Mt. Kitchener. Click to view large size.

Eric on the summit of Mt. Kitchener – his first 11,000er!

Mel approaching the summit of Mt. Kitchener

Al and Mel crashed on the summit of their 1st 11,000er!

Mt. Brazeau and Mt. Warren to the east.

The top half of Mt. Alberta showed up.

This giant to the west is Tsar Mountain

Sunwapta Peak with Poboktan Mountain behind

Mushroom Peak in foreground; Mt. Unwin and Mt. Charlton behind on right

Mt. King Edward guards the western edge of Columbia Icefield

No need to introduce – Mt. Columbia

North Twin and Twins Tower

Me on the summit of Mt. Kitchener – 11,000ers #53/58

Mel, Al, Eric and myself on the summit of Mt. Kitchener

Al, Antonie, myself and Mel soaking in the views. Photo by Natalia F.

Our group-of-six abandoned the idea to ascend Snow Dome because of tiredness. Once leisurely walking back down the mellow SW slopes of Mt. Kitchener to where we ditched gears we made another decision to abandon ropes on the return hike. Tom volunteered to take care of that juicy 60 m rope while Mel and Antonie carried the two 30 m ropes. There’s literally not much worth documenting about the return hike other than it’s very, very long. The skiers had already packed and headed out before we got back to their emptied camp. The soft snow on Athabasca Glacier’s “ramp” was very fun for plunging down. Lower down on the second icefall we also didn’t need to take off snowshoes for that short pitch of 40-degree descent. For the last part of the hike we decided to follow the skiers’ tracks down to the toe of Athabasca Glacier. While this option involved less amount of elevation gain/loss the mud and isothermal snow on the moraine sucked balls a big time… Our round trip time was under 14 hours and I must say that we absolutely crushed it.

Time to start the descent… It’d be a long ass plod to get back

Antonie happy to tag his 1st summit on the icefield.

Snow Dome is very aptly named…

The seracs on the east/north walls of Snow Dome

Dudes plodding with Twins and Stutfield Peak behind

Mel and Mt. Columbia

Plodding, plodding and more plodding…

Lenticular clouds building over The Twins and no wonder it’s windy…

Slowly saying goodbye to Columbia Icefield

Tom plodding far ahead with Mt. Bryce behind

Looking back at Al and Antonie playing in the big terrain

Mel descending the last roll towards the skier’s camp

Mel snowshoeing with Mt. Columbia behind as the backdrop

A zoomed-in shot of Mt. Saskatchewan

Probably the first time in history that snowshoeers dominated the icefield.

Plodding back towards Mt. Andromeda now

Natalia far ahead heading down towards the exit

Natalia just above the “ramp” on Athabasca Glacier

Partway down the “ramp”

Words don’t speak the size of the terrain here…

Looking back at the “ramp” of Athabasca Glacier. Last time for me, never again.

Descending the skier’s left exit between the icefalls

Natalia snowshoeing down the second icefall.

Antonie, Mel and Al plodding with the giant seracs looming above

The layers of icefalls on Athabasca Glacier

A zoomed-in shot of the Skyladder Route on Mt. Andromeda

A closer look of the north face of Mt. Andromeda

Looking up towards the A/A valley between Andromeda and Athabasca

Onto the lower glacier now. Nigel Peak in front

Almost back. This is Mt. Athabasca

Done. Goodbye Columbia Icefield~ ~

After farewell to each other Al, Mel and I headed north for more food in Jasper. Antonie decided to join us there for the pizza party. I even texted Ben to see if he could make the party but he had other commitment. By around 7 pm we got back on the road again and Mel somehow managed to drive all the way to Barrier in a single shot. Al’s friend offered us a stay in their house which we greatly appreciated it. No one was looking forward to another night of car-camping. Monday was pouring rain for much of southern British Columbia and our timing was as perfect as I could ever get. Mel did all of the drive again to bring us back home before the long weekend rush hours and that concluded another efficient 11,000ers mission. 53 down, only 5 to go – Clemenceau, Tusk, Warren, Lunette and Lyell IV…