July 8, 2015
Gwendoline Mountain is the highest peak in the Starbird Range. Sandwiched between the world-class Bugaboos to the north and the Jumbo/Farnham 11,000ers group to the south this mountain range is in the heart of the Purcells at roughly 50 km west of Radium Hot Springs and Invermere. There’re various climbing routes up this prize objective with the most common one approaching from Catamount Glacier and Olive Hut. That route is also often used as a snowmobile/ski ascent route in winter conditions. Eric, Ben and I climbed this peak via a different route approaching from Welsh Lakes, up and over Alpha Centauri/Carmarthen col, around North Star Peak on North Star Glacier and then ascending the NE Ridge/N. Face on either rock or snow. This is a considerably longer and more complicated route than the Catamount Glacier approach but the biggest advantage, also the main reason for our choice was to use the upper Welsh Lake as a base camp for all the peaks nearby, including Mt. Alpha Centauri, Antrim Peak and Leitrim Peak that we successfully ascended in the first 2 days of this trip. Weather was good on Day 3 so off we went.
The first part of the business was to repeat the slog over some miserable boulder fields to the base of Alpha Centauri/Carmarthen col. This part always seemed longer than it looked but with good perseverance we made there in good time. We filled up our water bottles and then slogged up a low-angled snow slope on soft snow (no need for ice axe nor crampons) and then onto the very loose rock. The ascent was either on loose boulders or concrete hard moraine/dirt for a while but the terrain improved slightly higher up. We merged to an upper snow field, easily ascended it and then it’s time for the last 50 meters to the col. Ben and I picked a direct route exiting the snow but Eric found a different line that’s “not much more than a walk-up”. After that we were surprised to see a few cairns guiding us to the col, indicating previous parties in this region, likely from the old ACC mountaineering camp.
Ahead would be the long glacial plod down and around the lower slopes of North Star Peak on North Star Glacier. The glacier looked fairly tame but upon close inspection we found cracks and crevasses right from the start. Good thing we brought enough mountaineering gears. There’s fair a bit of height loss and near the lowest point the snow depth had decreased to less than 1 foot. My poles probed easily down to glacial ice through thin and slushy snow. Thankfully there weren’t many crevasses around here. Once the glacier started going up again we stayed relatively in the middle of a compression zone but near the top (convex roll) we had no choice but to deal with numerous crevasses and sketchy snow bridges. Thankfully none of them was troublesome and we quickly made our way towards the distant Gwendoline/Scotch Peaks col (with a moderately steep snow slope to ascend near the end).
Once cresting the NE Ridge of Gwendoline I still couldn’t see the rest of the route up. I knew from earlier observation that the direct ridge crest likely wouldn’t go due to a couple pinnacles so at some point we had to bail down to the N. Face side on (likely) steep snow. That was exactly the case though but the snow was not steep. Eric and I went for the most obvious snow line on a rising traverse line aiming at the distant NW Ridge while Ben opted for staying as much on the rock as possible close to NE Ridge. Ben’s route was more difficult but he did make to the top slightly faster, likely because we had to deal with some knee-deep post-holing and that’s never a fast process…
Thank to the smoke our views were not nearly as great as I would expect before this trip. But considering the widespread forest fire all around BC and Alberta we couldn’t complain much about that. The visibility at Whistler was down to 2-3 km and comparing to that we actually got quite lucky with the views… Now it’s time to get down. After briefly considering attacking the nearby Black Fang we reversed our snow route down to Gwendoline/Scotch Peaks col. From there we easily plunged down the snow slope towards North Star Glacier, only to put 1 leg completely into a crevasse on a place I did not expect to see a hole… Oh well.. Roped up again we marched across the icefield under the 30+ degrees sun. It felt like a furnace and the snow was melting fast.
After what seemed like a very long time we started gaining height again, and now what. Carmarthen Peak looked like nothing more than just an 1-hour detour from the main glacier, but it also looked fairly uninteresting from our vantage point. As a peak-bagger that’s exactly where I’d go next. Eric and Ben as more explorer-climber than peak-bagger weren’t motivated but since we were on glaciated terrain at this point they agreed to come along.