As the first peak of my 40's, I thought it would be nice to tag an 11000er that's been on my radar for many years. Mount Athabasca looms over the Columbia Icefields center along highway 93 - otherwise known as the Icefields Parkway. I'm sure it has the most tourist photographs of any 11,000er, except maybe Mount Temple in Lake Louise or Robson to the north. Some people might be surprised that I hadn't done Athabasca earlier in my climbing career, considering that I already completed many of the more difficult Columbia Icefields summits. The truth is, that I'd been saving Athabasca for the perfect time. It's close to the road and fairly easy, so I wasn't in a rush to get it done. There were two options I was considering. The first was a solo ascent in summer or late fall via the unofficial scramble route that avoids most of the glacier and ice. I wasn't scared of the regular routes, but just thought it would be fun to try something different. The second option was to do it in winter conditions via the AA (Athabasca / Andromeda) col and it's this option that I ended up doing on Wednesday, April 8th, four days after leaving my 30's forever in my rearview mirror.
Ferenc sent out an email on Monday, asking if anyone was free to climb anything during the week. He had vacation days to burn and was itching to get to a summit. There was a nice two day high pressure system building and I instantly thought of the two most accessible peaks I still had to do on the Columbia Icefield - Athabasca and Andromeda. Our original plan was to bag both peaks on subsequent days, but that didn't turn out. Oh well - I wasn't complaining too much about having to go back another day for Andromeda!
There are many online trip reports for Mount Athabasca. It is probably one of the most summitted 11,000ers along with Temple, Hector and Victoria. There are several reasons for this, including the fact that it's used for mountaineering courses, it's close to the highway, highly visible (making it very popular) and technically very easy in both mountaineering and approach terms. While it's ascended often, via several routes, it is usually done in spring or summer conditions. In the fall, most routes are icy and the glacier crevasses are eager to swallow climbers. In the winter, all her routes have significant exposure to avalanches and of course the temperatures can be prohibitively cold! Both Andromeda and Athabasca have a nasty habit of catching westerly winds blowing off the massive snow / ice sheet to the west and these winds can catch people off guard. A warm, sunny day in the parking lot can be a very cold one a vertical mile higher.
If you have a keen eye, you may have noticed that my total distance for Athabasca is a bit further than most other trip reports. This is due to the unfortunate closing of the so-called climber's parking lot that used to exist part way up the glacier tour access road. See the following map and descriptions for details.
[The new parking / approach situation for accessing the Athabasca Glacier, Mount Athabasca and Boundary Peak. You used to be able to drive up the red line after driving through or around a gate, and park at the first blue circle which was the 'climber's parking lot'. The two dashed red lines from there are the approach routes for Boundary Peak and three of the popular routes on Athabasca (North Glacier, Silverhorn and North Face). For accessing the main ice field via the Athabasca Glacier, you used to be able to shuttle your gear to the second blue circle which was the parking lot for the glacier tour buses. From there you could descend a steep road to the glacier, saving at least 2km off the yellow line approach from the toe. The red dashed line from the second blue circle is the access for the AA route on Athabasca. Now the old climber's parking lot is the new base for the snow coaches and climbers have to park at the red circle and walk the road for Athabasca and Boundary. For skiing the glacier, your only option now is to park at the yellow circle (if the road is open) or the first red circle (winter) and ski from the toe of the Athabasca. This will add significant time and distance to any Icefields trip.]
Part of any trip up highway 93 involves planning gas / mileage. Due to The Crossing being closed all winter (opening in mid-April most years), your last fill up is in Lake Louise. I've done a lot of planning and know that Canmore has a 24-hour Fas Gas, so I usually fill up there. Lake Louise Esso is open at 06:00 or 06:30 and open until 11pm, so that's another good one to plan. We ended up waiting 20 minutes at Lake Louise and didn't get to the parking lot until around 07:30. I think Ferenc was slightly underestimating how big Athabasca is - he hadn't done a decent mountain trip in 6 months. I knew from Steven that it would be a fairly big day, especially in full-on winter conditions. When I told Ferenc I was expecting a 10-12 hour day he was quite surprised. We walked up the snow coach road under a clear and very cold morning sky. I knew that it would be feeling like -20 so I was bundled up pretty good. I even tried toe warmers in my mountaineering boots, which only seemed to work on descent when I didn't need them anymore... Classic.
[Snow Dome and the Athabasca Glacier approach from the snow coach road.]
[Athabasca from the snow coach road - it looks so close! It's not. From here you can see the approach for the north face routes including the Silverhorn and the North Glacier routes.]
From the end of the road, we spotted some tracks going up moraines on climber's left and followed them up. I was pumped about possibly having a broken trail all the way, but that idea was soon dashed when the tracks stopped about 500 meters up the approach. The moraines steepened considerably at this point, and we donned our snowshoes to assist in the ascent. The snow pack was definitely at full winter levels from the base of the climb to the summit. Thankfully the base was supportive and the avalanche ratings proved accurate as the snow pack wasn't sliding or showing any major weaknesses all day. I've been warned that the approach is very foreshortened on Athabasca and this is certainly true. Looking ahead, the terrain looks mild and close but as you climb it you realize you're gaining a lot of height and everything is bigger, steeper and further than at first glance. This is very typical of snow ascents and the Twins are another great example of being much bigger and further than they first appear.
[Ferenc follows the tracks up frozen snow off the road.]
[The lower ice fall from the AA Glacier. The route to the glacier skirts this on climber's left via rock and scree. The impressive Andromeda Strain climb is marked.]
[Looking back at Ferenc and our approach through the lower moraines.]
[The tracks end. Boo. Note the cairn and the faint sign of a buried track in the scree underneath the snow cover.]
We managed to skirt the ice fall from the AA glacier on climber's left through snow covered rock / scree with faint glimpses of the trail underneath the fresh snow. There is some exposure here, especially with snow, but nothing too concerning. It reminded me of the scrambling section on the Aster Lake approach for Mount Joffre. From the top of the ice fall we wandered up fresh snow on climber's left, along the gorgeous AA glacier valley. We gained more height than I imagined we would towards the end of this alpine bowl. I can echo the warnings I receive for this route - it's further and bigger terrain than you may suspect. It's technically easy, but that doesn't mean it's without objective hazards (i.e. crevasses, avalanches, rock fall) or no physical effort.
[Up close and personal with the AA Glacier ice fall.]
[Again, there is a faint trail under the snow. Thanks to the brutal winds this area sees, there was little chance of big slides on this section.]
[Some awkward moves on 'shoes!]
[You don't want to get caught in a slide here. The snow was a bit punchy but as you can see, pretty thin. Chances of a big slide here were slim for us but with recent loading I wouldn't want too much more snow on this slope. Note the practice gullies showing up at distant left.]
[Looking across the Athabasca Glacier towards Snow Dome, Kitchener and K2 (L to R).]
[This is where a slide would take you over the headwall section.]
[Over the headwall and firmly on the AA Glacier now with Snow Dome, Kitchener and K2 in the background. ++]
[Roped up on the AA Glacier with the AA Col directly ahead and above Ferenc.]
[The AA Glacier is a special place, nestled between two 11,000ers and not visible from the road. Kitchener in the background here.]
Sidebar re: Routes / History on Mount Athabasca
Mount Athabasca was the first high peak to be climbed near the Columbia Icefield on August 18, 1898 by Norman Collie and Hermann Woolley. I can only imagine their thoughts as they became the first humans to view the immense icefield from above, viewing giants like Mount Columbia which nobody had ever seen before! That must have been an amazing experience. In the words of Collie;
A new world was spread at our feet; to the westward stretched a vast ice-field probably never before seen by human eye, and surrounded by entirely unknown, un-named, and unclimbed peaks.
I thought it would be nice to put together a sidebar of the climbing routes on this incredibly beautiful, accessible and popular mountain for your reading pleasure. Some of this information was gleaned from the excellent ClimbWild page put together by Henry Timmer.
[Photo from Sean Dougherty's book, "Selected Alpine Climbs in the Canadian Rockies". See below for route descriptions.]
North Glacier II | 1920 by Josheph Hickson, E.L. Reford and Edward Feuz Jr. This is another 'easy' route to the summit, along with the AA route. It is exposed to serac fall and prone to wind loading but otherwise is a pretty simple glacier prod to the AA col and from there up the Silverhorn and to the summit.
Silverhorn II | 1947 by Rex Gibson, Frank Smythe and Noell Odell. This route is slightly steeper and as a consequence is quicker to ice up, than the North Glacier route. It lies on climber's left of the North Glacier route and goes straight up from the north glacier to the summit of the Silverhorn on steepish snow / ice. Be prepared for ice if you choose this route, no matter what time of the year you go.
The Hourglass III A3-A4 | Unknown first ascent. I search alpine journals and the internet for a long time and couldn't find a first ascent for this route. This is a variation of the North Face route which ascends to climber's right near the summit where the north rock face meets the snow / ice. This is where the "hourglass" feature is found. I've heard this route is getting more rocky and less icy as the mountain dries out.
North Face III 5.8 | 1971 by Duane Soper and Dean Rau. This route is changing with the drying out of the face. It has been rated as low as 5.4 but now seems to be rated much higher. In this excellent climbing article, Barry Blanchard rates it at 5.7.
North Ridge III 5.5 | 1898 by Norman Collie and Hermann Woolley. Collie and Woolley descended the North Glacier route. The North Ridge route is rarely done anymore, but it sounds and looks intriguing, also sounds frustratingly loose and chossy. This route can be accessed higher up by heading straight for the ridge from the North Glacier route once on the center glacier.
North Face Bypass III 5.3 | Unknown first ascent. This seems to be a guide favorite and is also popular with local climbers. It sounds like the best mix of snow / ice climbing to the upper part of the North Ridge route, which is presumably better rock than the lower part.
[Photo by Greg Horne, taken from the Athabasca Glacier shows the AA Col route (1), AA Glacier (b), AA Ice fall (c), The top of the Silverhorn (d) and the AA col (e). Note, this route is pretty close to what we did, while many climbers go up to the col (e) first before proceeding up the Silverhorn.]
AA (Athabasca / Andromeda) Col II | Unknown first ascent. One of the easiest routes on the mountain, although subject to rock fall and avalanches depending on conditions. This route is often used for the descent from any north face routes, due to the fact that it's usually safer late in the day due to it's north aspect. Don't under estimate this route, as it can be very icy later in the season and there may be a rappel required to descend over the 'shrund.
Practice Gullies III | Unknown first ascent. These are considered part of Andromeda but can be seen on the approach to the AA col. Steep snow / ice up to 45 degrees. "f" is also one of these gullies but may appear as the AA Col from above, when descending from Andromeda. Rock fall and avalanche hazards. People mistakenly descend these when coming off Andromeda and end up with more than they bargained! The best way to descend Andromeda is via the AA col which is labeled "e".
Andromeda Strain V 5.9 A2 W4 | 1983 by B. Blanchard, D. Cheesmond and T. Friesen. Another Andromeda route and obviously a hardcore one - a true mountaineering test ground on rotten rock and ice.
Scramble Route I | Unknown first ascent. This is an alternate route that is reported to be no more than rock scrambling and can be solo'd by experienced alpinists quite easily. Note that you should not be on the AA Glacier and should also not attempt this route if you're not confident on assessing and route finding big terrain features. There are rocky cliffs on the upper part that shed a lot of rock on warm days. The lower slopes above the glacier are avalanche prone and should be frozen or dry. Wear a brain bucket and go with a small group!
As we approached the end of the AA glacier, we could see the serious terrain that confuses and complicates most descents from Andromeda. After doing the Skyladder route (which is apparently becoming more difficult thanks to a retreating glacier) on Andromeda, many parties get lost or stranded over night while trying to descend to the AA Glacier from the AA col. There are two very steep ice couloirs coming off Andromeda's east ridge that leads to the AA col, these are called the Practice Gullies and were bare glacial ice when we were up there. I think some people get lost and try to descend these gullies, rather than going further along the ridge and eventually rapping or down climbing to the AA col and descending from there. Andromeda Stain is another impressive climb up Andromeda from the AA Glacier.
Ferenc wasn't thrilled when I told him we had to go straight up the huge snow slope at the end of the valley. At this point it was becoming obvious that the fresh snow was almost knee deep and the going was getting tough! Since I was carrying the rope, Ferenc broke most of the trail up the lower slope until the angle got too steep for 'shoes. At this point I wondered if we should ditch the 'shoes and crampon straight up the slope on climber's left, slightly to the left of the actual AA col. The slope was slightly lower angled to the left and looked to easily break through the rocky cliff band above. Ferenc was reluctant to ditch the 'shoes so he told me to try, and if my method was quicker, he'd follow. How's that for a sly way to get me breaking trail?! It quickly became obvious that the snow was supportive enough under the fresh stuff to quickly crampon straight up. Soon I was way above Ferenc and could see him taking off his 'shoes. I was in my favorite element. Steep snow, ice ax and crampons, a clear sky and stunning mountain scenery all around me! I whooped out loud several times while climbing. I couldn't help it.
The route up slightly climber's left of the AA col worked perfectly. The snow was supportive and we broke through the upper cliffs easily to the broad, wind blasted col. Spectacular mountain and glacier scenery greeted us from all directions, as we looked up with some reluctance at the significant height gain still awaiting us, leading up to the top of the Silverhorn. I led up the Silverhorn as Ferenc took a break at the col. As I ascended I heard the familiar sound of serac fall and sure enough - a massive serac was crashing off the Andromeda Glacier far below us! An amazing scene of snow, ice and rock lay all around us as we worked our way up the Silverhorn. Castleguard and the Saskatchewan Glacier lay far below our vantage. We were slowly creeping up on the same height as Andromeda behind us and could now see the giants of the Rockies, including Forbes, the Lyells, Alexandra, Bryce, Columbia, King Edward, North Twin, Snow Dome, Kitchener, Twin's Tower, Alberta, Woolley, Diadem, Brazeau and many others.
[Looking back down at Ferenc after ditching the 'shoes and rocketing straight up the steep snow slope.]
[Looking north off the steep snow slope to the AA col. Our tracks just visible at bottom center. Andromeda looming across the AA Glacier at left.]
[Looking up at the rock bands above our route. We easily broke through them on good snow.]
[Ferenc follows me up the steep snow slope with the impressive NE face of Andromeda and the very difficult Andromeda Strain line somewhere behind him (approx. marked "a"). Raphael Slawinski put up a new line to climber's left of A. Strain with Scott Semple in 2006. They named it DTCB or "The Doctor, the Tourist, His Crampon and Their Banana”! They rated it at V M7, 700m. The practice gullies are coming down from the left of this photo, marked "b". The direct line to the AA col is marked "c".]
[As you can see, this is a pretty steep slope. You definitely want stable conditions here and snow is vastly preferable to scree or ice.]
[Ferenc takes the lead for a bit.]
[Ferenc continues to break trail for a while as we get higher up the west face beneath the AA col.]
[NOW we're talking!! Incredible views from the AA col area looking back at Andromeda and the Columbia Icefield. ++]
[Mount Bryce looms over Castleguard and the south ridge of Andromeda.]
[Great views towards the Lyells, Farbus, Oppy and even Alexandra at far right just sneaking into the photo.]
[Ferenc takes a break at the AA col, while I start breaking trail up the Silverhorn. We're sneaking up on 11,000 feet at this point. The practice gullies and part of Andromeda Strain are now clearly showing on Andromeda's northeast face at center left. ++]
[A loud "crack" followed by ominous rumbling turned my gaze to the icefall coming off Andromeda's south flanks. A massive serac fall broke the morning stillness and resulted in an impressive snow and ice avalanche.]
[Ferenc follows me up the ridge to the Silverhorn. You can also start to see why people get lost while descending Andromeda to the AA col. It's not straight forward terrain if you didn't ascend that way.]
[The Silverhorn ridge is pretty easy, technically. I was out of breath though.]
[Ferenc takes over the lead.]
[Vern ascends the Silverhorn Ridge. The descent slope from Andromeda to the AA col doesn't look very easy from this angle. Photo by Ferenc Jasco.]
[More impressive views from near the top of the Silverhorn, looking back at Mount Andromeda with Bryce at distant center and Snow Dome and Kitchener at right. ++]
[The impressive view from the Silverhorn to the true summit of Mount Athabasca! ++]
After a slight descent from the top of the Silverhorn, we gained the final snow ridge to the top of the mountain in a cold breeze and brilliant sunshine. The views were stunning in every direction. Truly a remarkable summit and well worth waiting for a clear, wintry spring day to do it! I once again felt the amazing privilege of being able to enjoy spectacular days like the one we were having. We took our usual smattering of summit photos before retreating slightly off the summit roll to a warm and windless perch on a flat area near the top. It was 30 minutes of sublime enjoyment, gazing at the world beneath our feet without a breath of wind and utter silence. Ferenc noted that we could hear our hearts beating - that's how utterly still it was. A very special experience that I won't forget soon.
[The final trudge to the summit of Mount Athabasca with a mind blowing view over the Saskatchewan Glacier. ++]
[Ferenc heads for the top!]
[Near the summit, we had to ascend a steep snow bank to the final ridge.]
[Ferenc stands on the summit of Mount Athabasca.]
[On a clear day like we had, you can spend a lot of time identifying peaks that you either have already stood on or want to climb some day. This is the view south and over the Saskatchewan Glacier (L), west over the Columbia Icefields, north up Hwy 93 (C) and finally east (R) . ++]
[A slightly tighter panorama looking east (L) and south (R). The Cline River Valley and the South Boundary Trail at left with the Saskatchewan Glacier at lower center right. ++]
[Mount Bryce looms over Castleguard.]
[Mount Columbia looms over Mount Andromeda. Mount King Edward to the right of Columbia.]
[Many of the northern Columbia Icefield peaks including from L to R, Columbia, King Edward, Andromeda, Snow Dome, South Twin, North Twin, Twins Tower, Kitchener, Cromwell, Alberta, Woolley, Diadem, Mushroom, Charlton, Unwin, Warren, Sunwapta, Brazeau, Poboktan, Nigel, Cline River Valley, Willis, Stewart. ++]
[A steep pano looking off the summit of Athabasca over Boundary Peak, down the North Glacier to the Icefields Center and Mount Wilcox far below at center distance and Boundary Peak at foreground left..]
[Tele of Wilcox and the Icefields Center.]
[Ferenc at the summit.]
[A steep pano looking west off the summit, note Ferenc in the top right. ++]
[Vern near the summit of Mount Athabasca - photo by Ferenc Jasco.]
[The Lyells on the L and Alexandra between them and Bryce on the R. ++]
[The mighty Mount Forbes at distant left with the Lyells at right and Oppy at far right.]
[Mount Saskatchewan at right with Mount Amery at distant center. Both of these peaks are very close to 11,000 feet themselves.]
[Mount Cirrus at left with Mount Stewart at distant right.]
We had a long drive home and with only 3 hours of sleep the night before, we knew we had to get going from our perfect summit rest area. After taking 6 hours to ascend, we weren't sure how long our day would end up being. We left the summit around 14:00 and made short work of the long descent to the AA Glacier, even glissading part of the steep slope beneath the AA col! There was no sign of the usual 'schrund - it was filled with avy debris from the steep slopes above. This is another good reason to do the route in winter conditions - all the crevasses are filled in!
[Ferenc starts the long walk back down - long but quick. The top of the Silverhorn just to his right.]
[The terrain is steep enough that fresh snow or avalanche conditions are an issue - find Ferenc on the ridge below me.]
[I love this perspective of the AA Glacier and Andromeda.]
[Steep, fast descent to the AA Glacier.]
It was a very warm and pleasant trudge back to the car from the AA Glacier. We surprised ourselves with a round trip time of just over 9 hours - not bad considering we broke trail up to knee deep!
[Getting away from the steep slopes, looking back at Ferenc exiting the face to the AA col.]
[A very pleasant descent of the AA Glacier.]
[Looking back at the AA col (L) and the practice gullies (R).]
[Descending the AA Glacier - it's more height gain than I realized in the morning!]
[Ferenc is tiny in the huge terrain just above the AA Glacier headwall.]
[Another look back up the AA Glacier.]
[Just above the rock bypass to the AA Glacier icefall.]
[Descending alongside the headwall.]
[Descending the icefall bypass.]
[Looking back at the icefall and the top part of Andromeda Strain.]
[Looking down the moraines just above the sno coach road.]
[View back from near the old sno coach parking area.]
[The road was being cleared in preparation for the snow coach icefield tours - there's still a LOT of snow here!]
I was supremely happy with our effort and count Mount Athabasca as one of my favorite snow (shoe) climbs. It's wasn't a very technically challenging climb, but the combination of views, weather and steep snow fulfilled everything I like about mountaineering in the Rockies.