Simon Peak (Mount Fraser)
April 25-28, 2015
Jasper – Tonquin Valley, AB/BC
The massive bulk of Mt. Fraser has three distinct summits (Simon, McDonell and Bennington), with Simon Peak being the main one. It’s also the highest peak in Tonquin Valley (Mt. Geikie is at 3297 m which is slightly lower than Simon Peak, despite what’s suggested in the ‘book of lies’), as well as the highest summit on the Continental Divide between Fortress Lake and Yellowhead Pass. However, despite its geological significance it has literally no beta except for the few lines of description in the old guidebooks, so when Ben, Liam and I were gaming for a 4-day ski mountaineering trip aiming to bag the highest summit on Mt. Fraser we knew we were in an exploratory mission. The back-up, or bonus objectives would be the more frequently ascended McDonell Peak and a couple other smaller peaks nearby Wates Gibson Hut including Outpost Peak, Thunderbolt Peak and Surprise Point.
There’re a few approach options to this remote area and on skis, it takes at least 1 very long day no matter what route to take. Our preferred route choice was from Portal Creek and over two short-cut cols by Mt. Maccarib and Oldhorn Mountain, taking a more-or-less direct line from the parking lot to Wates Gibson Hut. This felt a wee bit eerie as at pretty much exactly 1 year ago (the exact timing was only off by 1 day), Ben, Liam, Jake and Meghan started their Great Divide Traverse via the exact same route. That was good though as we’d roughly know what to expect and we’d also have a GPS track to follow. The weather was forecasted to be miserable on the 1st day (Saturday) but as we drove up the Marmot Basin Road we realized it’s going to be a gorgeous day ahead.
Right at the start we realized there was less snow at lower elevation compared to a year ago. We tried to skin up the creek bed but soon bailed back to the summer trail thank to the maze of open water and suspicious snow bridges. After that we stayed on the summer trail for a long while until it made sense to drop back into the creek. From there on it was a pleasant ski up Portal Creek, passing Peveril Peak on the right and Lectern Peak on left, and into the alpine basin below Maccarib Pass. Here instead of ascending towards the pass, we picked a line aiming straight towards the 1st high col at the pass between Mt. Maccarib and an unnamed peak to its left. The slope got very steep near the crest and we ended up having to take skis off and kick-step (more like post-hole) up the final 50 m.
Just as what Liam and Ben remembered from their trip 1 year ago, the terrain between the 1st and 2nd high col was big. We had two options here, of which one was to drop down for 100 m or so immediately but we decided to take the other option, a traversing line cutting high on the slope on climber’s right side. Even that there were more up-and-downs than what I’d expect but with Liam and Ben taking turn breaking trail we were slowly getting closer to the 2nd col (a lot of work to do especially given the hotness in this bowl). Ascending towards the 2nd col was again, very steep but at least we didn’t have to take skis off this time. Upon cresting the 2nd col by Maccarib/Oldhorn col we were treated with a head-on view of the Ramparts. Our objective was the majestic one looming on the left but this view also showed the massive height loss we’d have to cover in the next section.
We traversed on the crest towards Oldhorn Mountain for a while before spotting a reasonable line dropping down. The initial 50 m or so was too steep and icy for my like so I boot-packed down while carrying skis. The rest of the skiing down towards treeline was fast and fun, but after that terrain started to get ugly with some increasingly tight bush. One word to describe: miserable, even for the experienced skiers… For me, it was nearly impossible and I ended up walking down with skis strapped in my pack (thankfully the snowpack was still supportive enough in this hot afternoon). After what seemed like eternity I finally rejoined Ben and Liam and at this point we were almost down to Astoria River.
The rest of the trek to Wates Gibson Hut was not as easy as one would think. There was still a fair amount of distance and uphill and for the most important, the hut location was in a weird place and difficult to find. Now after the trip I knew where to go next time (basically if you can get to Outpost Lake then you’re good), but on that day we were getting really confused following a solo skier’s tracks circumventing back and forth (too lazy to pull the GPS out). Eventually after a lot of frustration we made to the Hut. It was an exhausting day out (~11 hours) and by the time I finally could drop that heavy pack I was almost totally beat. The solo skier turned out to be Sean Strang, a guy I’ve talked with before via email and also a fan of my site (nice to hear our sites are helping more people out)! The night was peaceful and we set our alarms up at 4:30 am, hoping for the best for our summit day.
Our mood was high when seeing millions of stars above. After a confusing descent through some tight trees we soon started our foreshortened grind towards the toe of Fraser Glacier. This section was again, following exactly the footsteps of Ben and Liam’s Great Divide Traverse trip. There were a few steeper rolls to go up and over and in short time we were treated with some gorgeous alpenglow view on the Ramparts. The sky was not as perfectly clear as expected looking towards south but at least our objective was free of clouds.
Due to the constant strong winds in this area the snow coverage on Fraser Glacier was a lot less than expected. There was bare glacial ice visible near the start and a lot of holes (some are really big) presenting. Liam led a nice line up climber’s right side first aiming towards the East Ridge of Bennington Peak before cutting sharply left and crossing a big hole on a snow bridge. From here on the route finding became simple as we simply put one foot in front of another, aiming at the high col by the S. Ridge of McDonell Peak. Liam was the machine on skis and broke trail almost entire way up this foreshortened glacier. By the time we crested the S. Ridge we were already higher than Outpost/Memorial Peaks looking back. The ridge was wind blown so we ditched skis shortly after.
I took over the lead once the bootpacking started. About another 100 m up the ridge it was time to don crampons as terrain started to get trickier. McDonell Peak was apparently not as simple as we thought as we slowly worked our way up the narrow ridge covered with rime. According to the ‘book of lies’ there were 2 options to get Simon Peak. One was going up and over McDonell and the other involved losing a lot of height to Simon Glacier before ascending some very steep snow back to Simon/McDonell col. Neither looked very feasible to us on this particular day due to the winter condition, but also thank to the snow we discovered a neat traversing line cutting right underneath the summit block of McDonell. I love snow climbs so went for it. The initial part involved negotiating some rime covered rock (aka. the “snow gargoyles”) before dropping onto some 50-degree ish sections. After that the slope angle decreased to averagely 45 degrees for the rest of this traverse, but oh man that was a long one. The view was very foreshortened (just like any other glaciated peak) and it took me quite a while to finish the traverse. For the most part I had to face inwards and kick step into the slope. Looking back I got some crazy pictures of Ben and Liam following.
From the col it was a simple, but again, foreshortened hike to the summit of Simon Peak. There were enormous cornices to avoid but other than that there was no technical difficulty. The peak was very high and we pretty much had to work our way up getting higher than all the nearby summits. Too bad some clouds rolled in just before we made to the top, obscuring some of the views. But even that, we were all amazed by the vistas in this rarely visited area. It was very nice to see the backside of the Ramparts and being able to look down at all peaks on it.
With the sun slowly heating up the hills we didn’t linger any longer than necessary before starting the descent. Due to the slight uphill direction the traverse felt a bit easier on the way back. Soon we made back to the S. Ridge of McDonell Peak. This peak didn’t look easy to any of us but since it was “right there” we decided to give it a try. The ascent of McDonell and back down its south ridge is written in a separate trip report. The rest of the descent down to where we ditched skis was uneventful. Everybody was excited about the long run down Fraser Glacier, and we were right. The first part was a bit crusty but for the most of it the skiing quality was very good.
The rest of the skiing down to Wates Gibson Hut reminded me the “7 steps to paradise” on Youngs Peak – fast and fan as we worked our way down 1 roll after another. Near the end we took a different line than in the morning cutting over skier’s right. It avoided us elevation regain but the price we paid was a section of very steep forest. I ended up removing my skis and walking down again. It was only 3 pm when we made back so there’d be plenty of time to rest up. We had a couple options for the 3rd day – Thunderbolt, Surprise Point, Outpost or even a couple longer options. My feet were getting quite a few blisters at this point so by heart I did not want to try anything long, but we’d decide depends on weather. The decision was made to leisurely ascend Thunderbolt Peak. Apparently it was better than expected and the 3rd day is also written in a separate trip report.
We got a newly updated weather forecast via Ben’s Delorme InReach saying the temperature would shoot up to 21 degrees on Tuesday… Oh well… Guess we’d make an early start and take the long way out then, looping to the backside of Mt. Clitheroe and then up and over Maccarib Pass. It’s about 30 km back to the parking lot and we set our alarms at 6 am. It was another gorgeous day in the mountains. After some unpleasant bush skiing we found the correct snowmobile trail leading uphill from Astoria River to Amethyst Lake. We removed skins and it was a fast ski across this long flat section, especially with the wind blowing from behind aiding our speed.
The rest of the way up to Maccarib Pass was not so fun though. We just kept going up and up and it seemed like the grind would never end. Liam and Ben did the right thing to not use skins (due to the sticky and wet snow the skins were apparently not needed on this gentle uphill). I had my skins on and it was considerably slower. The weather also started to get cloudier at this stage which didn’t help my mood neither, but with some patience I was slowly getting to the pass. Dropping down the other side the terrain was still, very gentle. But it’s overall downhill so we made pretty good in time. We also stayed a bit higher on the left (north) side before dropping down towards Portal Creek. With Liam the machine setting up the tracks the rest of the skiing down Portal Creek was fast and fun for Ben and I. We managed to stay in the creek or slightly on skier’s right in the bush almost all the way back, despite the snow bridge collapsing underneath us..
Overall I felt a great sense of success to have the highest peak in the Ramparts bagged on my first try. Kudos to Ben suggesting this objective too as I wasn’t really thinking about skiing Mt. Fraser before. It’s definitely another highlight in my peak-bagging ‘career’ and probably my favourate trip in this year so far. Speaking this objective, it’s a big and serious mountain in winter conditions. I bet not many people would be interested in attempting it due to the very long approach and the seriousness of the terrain, but if you do end up making the summit in a clear day, then it’s a real prize. After trip we met Liam’s dad, David at LouLou’s in Jasper and shared some stories. Apparently he’s also going to do some obscured trips this summer so we might end up teaming up for a trip!