August 26, 2014
Kananaskis – Smith Dorrien Valley, AB
I’ve been wishing to ascend Mt. French ever since I read Vern and So’s trip reports two years ago. The scenery, the challenging terrain combined with the fact it’s the 3rd highest peak in Kananaskis Country kept attracting me. It’s by no mean easy though. To reach its summit one has to do glacier travel and overcome a narrow and loose ridge section with absolutely no room for error. These factors had deterred most scramblers from even just thinking about it. Over the past few months Doug Lutz and I had been talking about giving French a shot sometime in this summer and everything finally lined up nicely on this past Tuesday. I needed a bit more convincing since I only had 1 day to rest after the exhausting Cinnamon/McKirdy back-to-back. However, with the glorious weather forecast there’s no way I could reject this opportunity. This might be my only chance in this year.
We both had a somehow busy day on Monday. I met Doug at Gasoline Alley by 9:20 pm and off we went towards Kananaskis Country. Doug managed to convince me the French Creek approach being doable in dark so in the next morning, we woke up by 4:30 am and started shortly after 5. Doug had previously done Mt. Murray so he knew exactly where to go. We firstly hiked on Burstall Pass trail for a short distance before talking a old logging road branching to the left. This old road eventually downgraded to a narrow trail, and shortly after that we picked a log jam to cross French Creek without wetting our feet. On the left side of French Creek we picked up another trail and this trail would eventually lead us to the alpine. The trail was mostly easy to follow with the exception of a few spots. Even with GPS tracks we still got off-trail for a few times but we managed to quickly correct ourselves without doing too much of a detour. The dead-falls were annoying but we generally managed to stay off from any real bushwhacking terrain. It was a long way to the treeline and once there we decided to continue up the moraine on climber’s left. We went a bit too far left and had to do either a long horrible sidehill traverse or lose elevation to access French Glacier. This glacier was mostly free of snow. There were a few crevasses but we managed to step across them easily. By the time we reached the French/Robertson col we were 3.5 hours after leaving the parking lot.
Most of the crevasses on this approach was near French/Robertson col on the Haig Glacier side. We had to step/jump across 3 or 4 of sizeable holes or use the snow bridges which were very strong in this morning. There was also a big crevasse on the slope of French which was exactly where So’s GPS track led towards. We managed to avoid it by staying a little higher. Once onto the rocks we firstly picked a line up a mini rib instead of the scree. The rib was relatively short lived so scree slog was unavoidable once we gained the SW slopes. The scree on this mountain was horrible for going up but excellent for coming down. It was a tedious process and the slope was very foreshortened. I knew we had to get higher than Robertson first before cresting the south ridge.
Right at the start of the ridge we had to dip down a little bit. Here we had two choices. I picked a line down skier’s left on scree or snow while Doug tackled the direct knife-edge ridge. That gave him a bit of warm-up for the real crux. After this bit there’s some moderate but very loose terrain to overcome before the false summit. Then a bit of easy ridge walk brought us to the crux – “French Guillotine”… At places the ridge narrowed down to within 1 feet with shear drop-off on each side. While there’s absolutely no room for mistake, there’s little hands-on climbing involved and we both got through quickly. Immediately after that we left the ridge crest and picked a traversing line on scree to intersect the ridge up high. The directly line would also work but more difficult. The last bit to the true summit involved ascending a loose gully. Thankfully all the snow had melted in this shady place and it was only class 3 scrambling for us, and soon after that we stood on the summit, with incredible vistas all around.
It was very early in the day so we stayed on the summit for a long time. While eating lunch Doug started to think about why not giving Piggy Plus a shot. I had some doubt about this idea as I knew by the time we got down into the forest I’d have little motivation to slog back up, so I threw out my idea – why not do Mt. Jellicoe instead. While, that would work perfectly so that’s it. After making this decision we immediately started the descent. We missed the scree ramp just above the crux and had to down-climb some loose and exposed terrain on the ridge crest. Nothing too terrible though. Back across the crux was a little bit more interesting than on the way up thank to the little bit down-hill factor. Back at the first avoidable crux we all picked the directly knife-edge line fore more “fun”.. The scree surf down the SW slopes was fast and furious but there were a few shallower or slabby spots to give us a bit of surprise if not paying attention. Snow had softened considerably but there’s minimal snow coverage so we still had to strap the crampons on.
And the day continued with an ascent of Mt. Jellicoe. It’s originally our back-up plan but now became our bonus objective.