Banff Assiniboine Expedition II
Rest Day, August 4, 2003:
After a full day on Mount Athabasca, we were ready for a day off. We had relocated to Chateau Gravel Pit the night before and everyone got a good night’s sleep before we all began to stir around 0800 the next morning. We left camp and made our first stop at the Samson Mall, a cluster of touristy stores just off the Trans Canada Highway at the entry to Louise Village. We were looking for a poster we had seen last year depicting Mount Assiniboine and we were interested in getting both a good view of and any information about the route we planned for Mount Victoria. The clerk at the store had both posters and good route information as he was a climber as well. He indicted that Victoria would be a good climb but that the glacier travel portion would be relatively short and that the majority of the climb would be on the prepared trail to and above the Teahouse, or on the rocky ridge leading to the summit. We confirmed this information with a climbing ranger at the visitor center and decided a change of plans was in order. We really wanted more ice than rock and opted to swap peaks in the Lake Louise cirque, picking a rematch with Mounts Haddo and Aberdeen, where we knew the glacier travel aspects of the climb would be substantial.
With the change of peak decided, we headed south to the town of Banff to play tourist and acquire two more 22 cm ice screws that would be required to force our way up the North Glacier Route on Aberdeen. We had lunch, bought the screws at Monod's and picked up the permit we had arranged for the hike out of Assiniboine later in the week. Our tour also included a visit to the world famous Banff Springs Hotel to take in the architecture and finally the rental of a technical ice tool for Ed to use the next day in lieu of two alpine axes. These tasks completed, we headed back to the gravel pit camp to eat dinner and turn in early, wake up was scheduled for one in the morning and that hour always comes all too soon . . .
Mounts Haddo and Aberdeen, August 5, 2003
(North Glacier Route – Canadian Grade II)
By Canadian standards, the approach to Mount Aberdeen is a cakewalk, it only takes about 3 hours to reach the toe of the glacier and the real meat of the climb. Now bear in mind, a rigorous Canadian Rockies approach would be a two or more day affair so you can image how relatively spoiled the average Colorado 14’er climber with regard to accessing peaks. We were up at one a.m. and on the trail by two, setting an easy going pace and keeping the bear spray in close reach given the sign at the trail head warning of the need to make lots of noise and travel in large groups in this known grizzly habitat. So we were starting in fine form, three guys, all tired and walking up the “Grizzly Hollow” trail in the dark in the wee hours of the morning . . .
Mount Aberdeen is not readily visible from Lake Louise proper (the Chateau) but can be seen if one takes the lakeside trail toward the Plain of Seven Glaciers. Our approach however left the main parking lot and circled around and up the flank of Fairview Mountain, eventually reaching the saddle between Fairview Mountain and Saddleback Mountain. The route then heads up the trail to the summit of Fairview for 100 yards before cutting off to the west and leading along the high flank of the glacial valley separating Fairview from Mount Haddo. We made good progress until our headlamps noted a set of beady eyes watching our progress along the trail. We stopped, it stopped, we moved, it moved, we got a bit closer, it got closer, we made noise, it turned out to be a deer. The temps that morning were warm but that was not what caused the sweat each of us experienced during that portion of the approach.
Soon afterward we left the scrub and brush so perfect for bears and descended onto the almost sterile moraine leading toward the toe of the North Glacier. As I said, we had been over all of this ground before the previous year when we attempted this route but were turned back by the shortage of ice screws. We were not going to make that mistake again, so this year we had the correct number of screws and a fair warning about the terrain we were about to climb. We knew that we would have to climb perhaps five hundred feet of 45 degree blue alpine ice, crest the slope and navigate our way through a heavily crevassed rolling glacier and then take on another similar steep section and bergschrund before have a relatively easy walk to the summit of Haddo and Aberdeen. We also knew from our research that this route was deserving of respect as at least two parties had taken sliding falls from the first slope, both times resulting in helicopter evacuations to the nearest trauma unit. No place to casually mess about on the ice.
We roped up and took a curving traverse to the far side of the tongue to eliminate at least a full rope length of the climb by just picking right starting point. We placed an initial belay station and I lead the first section upward. Each rope length required five intermediate ice screws to limit the fall potential before a balanced belay point was constructed using two equalized ice screws. Length by length, we slowly made our way up the tongue, the leader running out the full length and then belaying the following members to the next station. In the meantime, we watched a party of three approach from far below, they set a belay, climbed and before we knew it, they passed us with ease. Now granted, they were all three professional mountain guides, but our rate of ascent was not boding well for success on Aberdeen this year either.
Finally, we made it to within a rope length of the crest of the tongue and simply had to accept the fact the Mount Aberdeen had again come out on top and that we would not be seeing even the flat above this challenging section. The crucial blow was that we were beaten in our race against the sun and once the sun hit the ice, the element of safety all but disappeared. The heat turned the glacier into a maze of small rivulets, each one taking a course that seemed destined for one of our ice screws. The top ice became almost porous and even a chevron cut into the ice above the screws failed to protect them from rapidly melting out, making our decision to descend a critical call. We made the call, climb over, lets get off of here!
Our gear for glacier climbing included a threading tool for hooking cord or webbing through a pair of “vee” shaped holes cut into the ice with a 22 cm ice screw. This method allows the construction of a sturdy anchor, suitable for rappelling and precludes the need to leave gear other than a loop of cord behind. We started placing “vee thread” holes, hooking cords, and rappelling down the face from two threads and one screw at every station. The third person down, pulled the screw and descended on the threads alone to the station below where the first climber was already busily constructing the next set of threads as the second kept the screws covered in chopped ice and the water diverted. We made time off that glacier, not necessarily fast but consistently downward. Six stations later we were on the mild slope at the base of the tongue and looking back up at the slope that had handily beaten us, a second time.
We packed our gear and with our tails between our legs we ate and drank before heading out on the long trip back down the moraines and across the flank of Fairview to the parking lot. Sixteen hours after we left, we were back at the Suburban, having attempted Aberdeen with but one rope length of additional travel to show for another year’s effort. Now I won’t sell this climb short, it was a serious learning experience and now we all three know not only what will happen when the sun hits a steep ice slope but also how to drill vee thread holes, hook the cord and be on one’s way without delay.
We wandered on back to the gravel pit and broke camp so that we could relocate south to the developed campground in Banff proper. We were all in need of a shower, a good dinner and Ed needed to return the rental ice tool that did prove to be of aid on our aborted climb. The plan for the next day required only a bit of shopping and a trip to the Mount Shark helipad so that we could complete the approach to Assiniboine. However, a climb of Assiniboine was far from a given. The fires in the park were growing and had in fact burned down the historic Mount Fay alpine hut and now the national park had ceased to issue any new backcountry permits and called my wife in Wyoming to advise her that our permit was no longer valid. Given that we only had helicopter transport into Assiniboine and a shelter permit for the 17-mile hike out, the remainder of the trip was in jeopardy to say the least. However, we chose to leave the worry for the next morning and instead spent the evening having a good steak dinner at the Keg and then turning in for a full night’s sleep. The woes of the rest of the trip would have to await the next day . . .