Rethel Mountain (North Couloir)

November 1, 2020


Whistler / Garibaldi Provincial Park, BC

Rethel Mountain is the smallest of the summits in the immediate vicinity of Wedgemount Lake. The standard route goes up the east ridge (3rd class) from Parkhurst/Rethel col and is well written in Matt Gunn’s Scrambles in SW British Columbia while the steep north face offers a few interesting routes for alpine climbing. The obvious couloir that splits the north face is a popular early-season objective for both climbers and skiers, while the steeper walls on the north face offers several mixed climbing routes for more advanced climbers. The summit can also be reached via a direct bushwhack up the west slopes with zero technical difficulty, but such route does not sound very pleasant.

Over the past few years I’ve made three visits to the area around, or even beyond Wedgemount Lake and managed to bag most peaks in the vicinity, but somehow left Rethel Mountain behind. The fact this was the sole leftover objective meant that I just needed to do it as a day-trip and my preferred route was either the unpleasant west slopes on snowshoes, or the north couloir as a snow ascent. The reason to do the west slopes on snowshoes is because I’m a peak-bagger and the summit is usually the only destination that I care, but I knew by heart I wanted to climb the couloir. I managed to resist the temptation to just plod up the non-technical route and made sure I waited for the right window and partners to climb the north couloir. The timing for Rethel Mountain’s north couloir is a tricky fair regarding snow coverage, avalanche conditions and the cornice that usually blocks the exit. Later in the season one likely needs to tunnel through the cornice to top it out, while in early season one faces the challenge of not having enough snow to cover the rough approach terrain and/or the lack of avalanche forecasts.

I had been discussing this trip with both Lily and Winnie for a few weeks, albeit separately, and once a reasonable window seemed to show up we instantly pulled the trigger. Our main hesitation was the avalanche concern because the avalanche bulletins hadn’t started yet, but we all had been monitoring the weather and the snow accumulation for the past few days leading to this trip, that we determined the risk should be low. A 4th member, Pawal who’s a friend of Lily joined the team at the last minute. This trip also happened to be the first day of the time change which complicated our meet-up time at 2:30 am. I screwed up the alarm and woke up 1 hour earlier than needed. It seemed like everyone else managed to set their alarms correctly though and at least nobody was late at the meet-up. I then drove Lily’s Highlander up north through the familiar Sea to Sky Corridor and made to the trail-head at around 4:30 am.

Rethel Mountain via North Couloir. GPX DL

There was very little worth noting about the slog up towards Wedgemount Lake as all we needed was to put one foot in front of another while carrying the uber-heavy packs. We had brought two 60 m ropes, 4 pickets, at least 5 screws, a set of rock gears and avalanche gears in addition to two ice tools, steel crampons and full shank mountaineering boots for each of us. This turned out to be a total overkill, but I wanted to bring the extra contingency to be 100% sure about getting this summit. Both Winnie and I were listening to music for the whole approach as it was boring as fuck and I nearly fell asleep while walking. This hike-up once again reminded me why I prefer to take a helicopter ride whenever that’s an option.. About 200 m under the lake we started to encounter snow and we soon made a stop to swap trail-runners for mountaineering boots. The rest of the approach to the lake was slippery, but we didn’t have to use crampons. The approach took us about 3 hours.

Winnie still having her head-lamp on

One of the impressive buttresses of Rethel’s North Face

Lily plodding up…

A full moon behind Rainbow Mountain

Winnie plodding up with the morning horizon behind

Lily navigating a short stretch of boulder field.

Almost done the trailed portion of the approach…

For Rethel Mountain we didn’t have to actually go down to the cabin and instead, we picked up a set of tracks in front of an obvious knoll feature and traversed the west side of it. There was considerable amount of route-finding through micro-terrain required to reach the west end of Wedgemount Lake but the mental complication was significantly reduced by the existing set of boot tracks. I didn’t think the track was the most efficient line but at least that’s a line that would 100% work, so we just followed even though it was doing some circling at one point. Crossing the lake’s outflow was a piece of cake that only required some rock-hopping.

Our first view of Wedgemount Lake

Rethel’s North Couloir

Aiming for the west end of Wedgemount Lake

Pawal traversing the shore of the lake with Mt. Weart behind

Winnie crossing the lake’s outflow

Wedgemount Lake from the west end

Lily rock-hopping across Wedgemount Lake’s outflow

Traversing to the base of Rethel’s North Couloir was a bit of shit show as we had to negotiate a long stretch of boulder fields covered in 10-20 cm of fresh snow and ice. But again, the route-finding was eliminated by the existing set of tracks but we still had to pay close attention to not bring our legs. This stretch ended at the base of a shallow gully before reaching the main gully. We followed the tracks boot-packing up this first gully then easily traversed over to the main Rethel’s Couloir using a combination of rocks and snow, and once into the main couloir we did one more transition to strap crampons on and take out an ice tool.

Lily negotiating the ugly boulder fields

Lily with Wedgemount Lake behind

Lily and Pawal ascending the shallow “first gully”

Me leading the traverse into the main gully. Photo by Winnie M.

Entering the main Rethel Couloir

It’s unfortunate for us that the existing set of tracks took the right hand couloir variation to follow the route that Eric Carter recently put up on the north face, so beyond that fork we were on our own breaking trail. The post-holing wasn’t too bad at the start but from halfway up we were wallowing at least knee deep in the soft powder. Winnie and I took turn breaking trail and I have to say that the duty was very heavy. The slope of this couloir never seemed to exceed 45 degrees except for maybe the last 5 meters. Winnie volunteered to lead the cornice pitch and did an excellent job wallowing a trench up the climber’s left side. The cornice had not fully formed yet so we did do a great job at timing the conditions. Even with Winnie’s tracks there were still at least two or three exposed and dedicated moves while topping out, but nothing nearly as crazy as what I’ve seen on other reports. Once everyone topped out we ditched the backpacks and went for a short walk to tag the summit.

Starting the plod up the couloir

Winnie breaking trail up the lower portion of the couloir

Lily and Pawal ascending the lower couloir

Me taking turn wallowing. Photo by Winnie M.

Winnie wallowing up the upper portion of this couloir

Lily coming up with Wedgemount Lake behind

As you can see, the cornice hadn’t grown too big yet

Winnie trenching a tunnel through the shallowest part of the exit

Me topping out Rethel Couloir. Photo by Winnie M.

Lily climbing to the top of the couloir

Pawal approaching the top.

Pawal topping out Rethel Couloir

Lily and Winnie plodding the easy slopes towards the summit

Partial Summit Panorama from Rethel Mountain. Click to view large size.

Partial Summit Panorama from Rethel Mountain. Click to view large size.

The rugged towers on the east ridge of Rethel Mountain

Phalanx Mountain etc. on Spearhead Range

Winnie approaching the summit of Rethel Mountain

A close-up shot of Mt. Weart

A close-up shot of Wedge Mountain

A zoomed-in view of the iconic Black Tusk

Mt. Cook, Mt. Weart and Wedgemount Lake in one shot

A closer look at the east end of Wedgemount Lake

Me on the summit of Rethel Mountain

Winnie’s version of me on the summit. Photo by Winnie M.

Our group shot on the summit of Rethel Mountain

On the descent we decided to rappel the cornice pitch. Lily and Winnie went down a single strand 60 m rope while Pawal took the 3rd position, placing a few pickets to protect my down-climb. I took down the anchor and down-climbed with Pawal giving me a belay from below. The rest of the descent involved mostly plunging the soft powder facing out, so quite easy. Once down to the entrance of the couloir we met two climbers going up. One of them turned out to be the famous BCMC leader Farbod. I had never met him but Winnie, Lily and Pawal had all climbed with him before. After exchanging some beta we resumed the descent. Navigating the boulder field still required a ton of care, and so was the slippery traverse on the north side of Wedgemount Lake back towards the trail.

Winnie descending the uppermost west slopes

Winnie now rappelling into the couloir

Pawal rappelling

Farbod and his partner climbing up.

The shadow of Rethel Mountain on Wedgemount Lake

Lily descending underneath Rethel’s North Face walls

The west end of Wedgemount Lake was already frozen

Yet another shot of Wedgemount Lake with Mt. Cook behind

This stretch of boulders was sketchy

Crossing the lake’s outflow on the return

One last shot of Wedgemount Lake from its west end

We took one last long break before committing to the hike-out. After descending the top 100 m we picked up the ditched trail-runners. I debated about whether to switch footwear here or lower, and opted to switch footwear right here. I figured that with our balance skills we should have no problem walking down the slippery trail without microspikes, and I was correct. The rest of the descent was boring as fuck that I don’t think there’s a point to go into the details.

Just a typical shot of Winnie descending Wedgemount Lake Trail

We were down to the parking lot with actually a couple hours of daylight time to spare, but we opted to just drive home anyway. I again, did the driving work despite the lack of sleep and we all made back home for dinner, albeit a bit late for a few of us.