Mount Saskatchewan Junior
April 21, 2013
Icefield Parkway (North), AB
The unofficially named “Mt. Saskatchewan Junior” is one of the many highpoints near Terrace Creek valley. It’s a slightly higher point than the nearby Big Bend Peak and offers slightly better views. Both objectives are well documented in Andrew Nugara’s Snowshoeing in the Canadian Rockies book. There’re many ways to ascend these two peaks and the route we took differs from Nugara’s direction.
After summitting Big Bend Peak, our group decided to descend the back side (west side) instead of retracing our steps down the avalanche slopes we just went up. Note that the west side where we went down also involves big avalanche slopes so there isn’t a absolutely safe way up Big Bend Peak under snowy condition. Initially we decided to go down via north ridge and then cut west into the slope below, but after a quick check, it involves a drop-off right away. However, the NW slope looked to be doable but the initial part was steep and rocky. We packed snowshoes and went down on foot. It was slippery but manageable. Lower down we encountered snow that offered good plunging-step. After fun run we encountered icy parts and since not everyone brought crampons up we were forced to traverse skier’s right into rocky terrain. Some fun winter scrambling brought us back to the North ridge. Following it down for another hundred meters or so I picked a line and dropped down the west slope. The other three took a line further down the ridge.
My line wasn’t fun since the snow wasn’t deep enough for snowshoes, and the ground beneath was still frozen and slippery. But I was the one finishing this part the first though. I had the concern that the “ramp” that leads down to the lower glacier could be a drop-off. I was getting nervous while approaching it since I still couldn’t see a “ramp” thing going down and the glacier just appeared to be much lower. Once I got there, I found it wasn’t a drop-off, but definitely steep enough to cause concerns, and if the snow was icy then we definitely would need crampons. It was frustrating so I waited for the other guys to show up. We searched further towards skier’s left, and Vern soon spotted a line down the steep band. Nice! By going left we also avoided some elevation loss and regain. This line was not as steep as the previous one I saw, but still very steep. We went down one at a time, and up the other side, we were on the glacier now.
This glacier provides a short-cut way up Mt. Saskatchewan Junior compared to the route described in Nugara’s snowshoeing book. According to Eric’s photos taken in summer, this glacier, though small, does have some small crevasses and a big bergschund. Given the thick snowpack we thought it would be pretty safe to travel. One fact that applies to all glaciers is the foreshortened view. I knew Mt. Sask. Junior is higher in elevation than Big Bend Peak, so my strategy was to look back. Ben was apparently in a better shape than I did and he broke trail for most of the way up, and as we got closer we turned climber’s left and gained its east ridge, and then the view suddenly opened up. Despite the fact we just summitted Big Bend Peak a couple hours ago, we still got a “wow” moment here. Mt. Saskatchewan was just beyond impressive. I’d be happy to climb it someday and according to Eric it’s not overly difficult neither.
Our objective appeared to be quite impressive from the East ridge, and the final summit block appeared to be quite steep, with a big schund on right side waiting to eat us if we slipped. The ridge also goes over a couple small bumps. It was indeed steep near the summit, but I didn’t feel it being that exposed. We managed to snowshoe all the way up. The view towards the other side was just amazing, with part of Columbia Icefield spreading out in front of us. We discussed about tagging the other peak, but since it’s not the official summit we didn’t bother. The main reason was to save energy for the next day. We already increased ambition today and if we kept going further we wouldn’t have enough energy for a 2000 vertical meter ascent tomorrow.
We eventually retraced our steps down. The initial part felt a bit awkward, and I suggest you taking off snowshoes and plunge-step down the ridge. Since the terrain below was on the glacier we didn’t do any fancy thing to short-cut our route. We just simply went down our up-tracks, and followed the glacier all the way to its exit, contouring around Big Bend Peak on its SW side. We were constantly being distracted by the big views. The descent was soft and fast, but would have been even faster on skis. Oh well..
Once we reached treeline we cut sharply left resisting to lose elevation. There were a couple of avalanche slopes to cross in the trees, and the snow in the trees was very hard that side-hilling on snowshoes was very painful. I even turned facing uphill and moved sideways to reduce the stress to my foot. Anyway it worked and we contoured around Big Bend Peak and eventually rejoined our uptracks in the trees. The rest of the day was straightforward from here, and we simply enjoyed the day. I was worrying about the possible isothermal snow, and thankfully it never happened on this day. The snow was still rock hard even at parking lot level once we got down. The bridge over Saskatchewan River could still hold our weight on the way back.
Our round trip time was 9.5 hours which was much faster than what Nugara suggested in his book. We got both peaks in the most efficient way, that was, traversing over the summit of Big Bend, ascending Sask. Junior via the glacier, going down Sask. Junior by the glacier again and contouring around Big Bend on its south side resisting elevation loss and regain. And we got the perfect snow condition that we never encountered significant post-holing the entire day. However, the route we took, or Nugara’s route, does involve lots of big terrains exposed to avalanches, and our route involves glacier travel. These two peaks are far from being straightfoward, and they should be treated as mountaineering objectives. We still had lots of time but we were tired. So after driving back to Rampart Creek Hostel, it didn’t take us that long to go to bed. A quick weather check revealed good news, and we were all hoping for the best. And the next day would be my biggest ascent to date!