August 11-13, 2015
Icefield Parkway (North), AB
The mighty Mt. Saskatchewan is a giant just to the south of the immense Columbia Icefield. At marginally under the magic number of 11,000-feet this peak isn’t nearly as high as some of its neighbours (Mt. Columbia, Mt. Bryce, The Lyells to name a few), but it’s a truly recognizable peak from almost every vantage point in its vicinity. Over the past 3 years or so I’ve ascended pretty much all the major ones surrounding Mt. Saskatchewan (with the exception of Amery group), so needless to say I’d like to eventually stand on top of this giant sooner than later. With some perfect weather and conditions shaping up towards the Wednesday of this week I just had to ascend something “big”. Unfortunately I couldn’t have a full day on Tuesday to approach some of the bigger objectives and friends were either going for 11,000ers or having to work, leaving myself figuring something else to do solo.
The inspiration for an ascent of Mt. Saskatchewan mostly came from Eric’s trip report. It took him 3 attempts via various routes to solve the problem and the conclusion I got was to use his “Valley to the North” to approach rather than the traditional Terrace Creek or the Saskatchewan Glacier. Though with some unavoidable elevation loss and regain, this is the shortest (half day) and avoids glacier travel all together. Having 2.5 days meant I’d also have opportunities to ascend some of the nearby peaks including Saskatchewan North Towers and/or Terrace Mountain. The ascent would be up the SW Ridge which has two short stretches of 5.4 climbing. To avoid down-climbing them I brought a 30-meter rope, a few pieces of pros and a bunch of slings and webbing.
I arrived at the Big Bend parking lot by late afternoon and started the trek shortly after 5 pm. For the initial section I challenged Eric’s route and went for my experimental choice. The first major variation was to avoid the 1 km (one-way) hike on an old abandoned road by fording the N. Saskatchewan River (a major river crossing). It’s flowing fast and high but by crossing at a braided section it’s only slightly higher than knee deep – definitely not any easier than the road-walk but did save me time. The second variation was to follow Big Bend Peak’s scramble route to crest a treed shoulder before descending ~50 vertical meters in open forest, rather than bushwhacking from the start. The open scree slope by Big Bend Peak gave me a bush-free line to go up high so despite the extra height loss I figured this might be able to shave more some time off my approach. And once down to the unnamed creek/river my route merged to Eric’s, following the “valley to the north of Saskatchewan” upwards and onwards.
Following Eric’s advice I stayed just to the climber’s right of this unnamed creek/river to avoid bushwhacking. The bush beside the creek did not look very friendly with lots of underbrushes, some alders and tight timbers. Unfortunately there were still a few places that I had to bail into the forest thank to either tight spots or canyon-like features. There were at least 4 or 5 canyons I passed by. Taking pictures of them was cool but I didn’t want to risk slipping into the canyons by going too close. The edges were generally down-sloping and wet and a slip into the canyon would for sure be fatal (even with friends nearby to help). To bypass the tight spots the bushwhacking was as expected, pretty ugly but thankfully they were short-lived. For the most parts I managed to stay directly beside the creek (with a place or two traversing on ledges of no wider than half a meter)…
It took me quite a while to reach treeline and it’s here that Eric’s group ascended a scree slope up climber’s right side towards the glacier below North Towers. I challenged Eric’s route again and by studying the topo maps it’s obvious that I could keep following the main creek until pretty much close to the glacier below Mt. Saskatchewan before taking a rising traverse line towards climber’s right. This route looked more gradual so I opted for it – pretty much as expected, generally easy travel with some side-hilling and rubble slog, but nothing terrible. The N. Face of Saskatchewan was directly on sight for this section with the striking Cleopatra’s Needle stealing the show looking leftward. There’s also fresh water sources coming down from climber’s right side along pretty much this entire section saving me from carrying unnecessary weight. Up the slope aforementioned I arrived at two beautiful tarns and ahead would be the long flat rubble bench leading towards the final slog to SK/NT col.
The slog to SK/NT col was not so much fun though – foreshortening and mostly on very loose ground. The terrain was actually a rock covered glacier so that explained why it’s so loose. The other side of this high col was a shear drop-off but the terrain far to the skier’s left (south) looked easy. The way to descend was by continuing uphill along the ridge crest (towards Mt. Saskatchewan) followed by an exposed scree ledge traverse. This dumped me at the big pile of loose rubble with the bivy site visible at somewhere 300 vertical meters down the slope. Descending this pile of rubble was not fun though as it’s mixed with sections of moraine-like concrete-hard dirt, but the reward of finding a 5-star bivy site was waiting for me ahead. This site was quite unique with a stream of water leaking from the ground and a nice, grassy flat bench for tent or bivy sack. It took me 4.5 hours to get here from the parking lot.
On the second day I woke up by 5:30, had a quick breakfast and off by 6 am. The initial business was to descend (yes, descend) another 100 vertical meters or so down a grassy ledge to the SW Ridge. There’s a false ascent ridge before the SW Ridge proper that could be confusing for folks not doing research or without a GPS unit. Thankfully I didn’t make that mistake so dropped into the bowl between the two ridges and up the far side. I ditched ice axe and crampons as the route appeared to be bone dry and continued onwards. The lower ridge had a loose section to bash up that felt tedious. I chose to ascend more to the climber’s right that had relatively solid(ish) rocks and opted for a rock band rather than the treadmill scree. Then the next section was pretty much an easy plod along the ridge crest with occasional detours on the right (south) side. A long while later I reached the 1st cliff band.
The break through the first cliff band was fairly obvious at roughly 20 meters to the climber’s right. It’s an obvious gully system that “didn’t look bad” from up-close. The rocks were loose but the terrain never exceeded “difficult scrambling” as I made my way slowly upwards. I exited the band on climber’s left and found rappelling cords (on a big boulder) indicating previous parties not comfortable down-climbing this section. The hard stuffs were yet to come! Here came the second cliff band. The break was roughly 50 meters to the right of the ridge proper as I traversed underneath the band. It’s easy to spot but the terrain was looking considerably harder this time. By carefully picking my way up there’s still two cruxes – the first one was a tight chimney with the climber’s right side being overhanging and the second crux was around a corner, an exposed vertical wall with not-so-good holds. Both sections were only 5 meters high but felt awkward, and in between there’s an exposed ledge traverse with a few awkward moves involved.
Above the second cliff band I ditched my technical gears as the terrain above was supposed to be scrambling only. The section immediately ahead was a long series of short rock bands separated by nothing but Rockies’ choss. All of those rock bands were easily ascended with route-finding but did require a bit of zig-zagging and quite a bit of route-finding. Upon getting close to the summit ridge the terrain started to level out and the ground slowly transitioned to treadmill scree. I bypassed the false summit by side-hilling on a scree ledge and gained the final summit ridge at false/true col.
The ascent of true summit appeared intimidating from afar but the breaks started to appear once getting closer. Attacking directly would not be possible so I started traversing on an obvious scree ledge while looking for “scrambling terrain”. The key was to be patient here as the easiest way existed roughly halfway down the traverse as I discovered on the descent. I went up too early and had to deal with a few interesting moves.
On the descent I decided to check out the false summit as well. It turned out be a better viewpoint (in my mind) with non-obstructed views looking towards the Columbia Icefield. Too bad the sky was quite smoky thank to the forest fire but oh well… I resumed the descent, carefully picking my way down that series of short rock bands. It’s impossible to retreat exactly where I went up but all routes would go by following basic sense. At the 2nd cliff I decided to make 2 rappels rather than risking to down-climb the 5th class stuffs. I would if I had no choice but given the rappelling slings it made sense to use them. I’d already studied where to rappel during the ascent and I managed to pick the line and avoid that awkward ledge traverse.
Between the two cliff bands I nearly made a route-finding mistake by going down a “wrong rib”. I realized it not far down so didn’t waste too much energy/time. Descending the first cliff band required caution but nothing terribly hard. It’s probably only 3rd class terrain so no need to use that rappel anchor (even though it looked fairly solid). The lower ridge consisted of a lot of loose dinner plate rocks and treadmill scree that’s tedious to ascend, but fast and fun on the descent. Back to the grassy bowl I took a long break soaking in the views. At this point I already decided against Terrace Mountain so that meant I had the entire afternoon ahead of schedule. I felt completely lack of energy for the lack of food and sleep in the past few days so once getting back to camp I took a 3-hour nap. I woke up around dinner time and figured might as well wondering around to NT/TAV col making as ascent of the nearby North Towers. The timing would be at sunset so given the smoky sky it’d offer some incredible views. (The ascent of the North Towers of Mt. Saskatchewan is written in a separate trip report as it’s a separate peak).
After a well-deserved rest I slept in on the 3rd day, waking up around 9 am. I rarely cook hot breakfast but did so on this day since I was not in a rush at all (I decided against making any other ascent on this day so all I had to do was to hike out). Too bad I started seeing a band of dark clouds approach from the west indicating the weather might collapse. Indeed I slowly worked my up back up to SK/NT col (very tedious) the wind started to pick up. I thought I’d be hiking out in the rain but thankfully the weather magically cleared up once this band of clouds dissipated. Down the other side I carefully retraced my steps following closely to my GPS track. I took a lot of breaks on the hike-out, partially because I was tired and partially because this would be my last time visiting this area…
Back into the trees I followed even closer to the creek this time but still had to do a few sections of short, but dense bushwhacking. Lower down I had the option to continue down this valley following Eric’s route out for completeness but decided against it. I didn’t feel like venturing into unknown bushwhacking terrain so followed my GPS out up and around the lower Big Bend Peak’s shoulder. The 50-meter elevation regain was frustrating but didn’t take too long. Descending the open scree slope was fast and in short time I was back to the abandoned old road by Saskatchewan Glacier’s approach. I followed this road back to Big Bend and forded the river (thigh deep this time).
I did not find the views on Mt. Saskatchewan or its surroundings to be as awesome as people make it sound even though I had good weather, but that could due to the fact I did too many trips in this area in just 2 years and everytime (except for Mt. Alexandra) I had perfect weather. I also did not find the ascent to be that enjoyable neither as the majority of it was nothing but slog on Rockies’ choss. It’s indeed better than peaks like Murchison but there’s no comparison to the classic climbs like Sir Donald or Edith Cavell. I did find this area to be enjoyable though – remote, beautiful and pristine, so overall I’d still recommend Mt. Saskatchewan to compatible parties looking for a relatively straightforward, but big and rarely ascended objective.