Another high pressure weekend this late in a hot spring could only mean one thing: Columbia Icefields Adventure. Or any other glaciated area with mountains. Or a high sheltered north face. But we chose the icefields.
Matt had spied a descent off the classic route up Kitchener; the East Ridge. Earlier this winter we drove past it and took some photos, it seemed like the hanging glacier wasn’t too hanging so it was worth having a look. After getting myself stoked on some minivan alpinism stories Matt showed up and we lumbered up to the Columbia Icefields Centre. After some quick recon on our creek crossing we cooked some eats and passed out, hoping that 4hrs sleep would be enough to function on.
We woke to a warmer than expected night but reasoned that being a little higher and on a favourable aspect we should go anyway. We waded the Sunwapta and proceeded to bruise our ankles on scree for a few hundred vertical meters before playing a game of hopscotch with boulders and breakable crust. Eventually we left behind our wet runners switched to skins, finding the snow much more supportive than expected. Some more sidehilling on scree revealed the north face of Kitchener, with the coveted Grand Central Couloir prominent in the centre. Descending our ridge and gaining a moraine also revealed our objective, the hanging glacier spilling directly off the east ridge. Note: don’t try and save time by shortcutting, just take the regular approach to the GCC. It’ll be faster.
You can tell it’s early because of what time it is.
Fricken sweet alpenglow.
With some finagling through a gully system we were sure it would go. Given the fact that we’d have to lose some more elevation and yuuuuuuge overhead hazard Matt and I decided to continue up the standard E ridge approach, not climbing the line. This is always a risk as the snow quality and route details are unknowns but we decided that we’d rather not spend a few hours under menacing seracs. The standard strategy for minimising overhead hazard is to just rename said hazard to something friendly, but this monster was having none of our nonsense. Surprisingly there were two sets of footprints coming down off the ridge.
Matt on the stairmaster. This is the alternate route down, which would also be some fantastic skiing.
Is there anything better than a high pressure day up here?
It was a bit of a grind to gain the ridge and continue up it. A real grind. Matt had done a lactate threshold test the day previous and I had eaten something disagreeable so we were both hurting a bit. Arriving at the notch we looked at it, threw rocks at it, I even rapped into it and hit things inside it with an axe. Finally we decided it wasn’t worth doing. Our reasoning was that it was getting hot, it would take too much time and it looked a little sketchy. The summit would have been a bonus but throwing in a climb in the middle of a ski line? That’s just not cricket.
F U Notch.
Call me John Deere ‘cos it’s harvest time.
Clicking in we got some glorious corn in a stunning position, with exposure on both sides and Athabasca and Andromeda jutting up on our right. I overshot the entry to the line to gain a good vantage point and snapped some shots of Matt dropping in. The snow was the perfect steep skiing snow, chalky, predictable and hard but not too hard. We made short work of the first pitch and scraped our way down to the hanging seracs, with the snow changing rapidly to frozen coral reef. Not ideal.
High contrast panorama. You can just see Matt in the bottom right.
The exposure really opened up as we started to work the gullies, Matt guiding with beta shots he’d taken earlier. We found ourselves with salvation in sight, unfortunately guarded by a couloir filled with frozen marbles and a few rocks that required dry skiing. We were slipping with axes in hand for this section, any mistake would send us sliding off a cliff to the moraine below. Eventually we made it through and shared some whoops and maybe a fistbump. Some fine views, a glorious position and solid technical skiing all combined to make this a descent worth remembering.
A little spicy here.
The descent in all its glory. Severely foreshortened.
The exit was also worth remembering, as it was terrible. We were forced to regain a few hundred meters to retrieve our shoes and careen down isothermal snow patches, finishing with a some scree running and river wading. We also saw the source of the footprints; a track heading up Grand Central. Solid work by whoever bagged that big fella.
We took two 30m ropes, planning to leave one at each side of the notch or to combine them for rappels if we got into trouble. I also packed a small set of nuts and some pins for the notch or anchors.
Being able to see this from the Icefields Centre was a little bit of a bonus.