As another weekend approached, the familiar email chains started to fly once again. Weather reports and routes were scouted and by the time the dust had settled there was 2 options remaining on the table; Mount Joffre or Mount Cirrus.
Joffre was higher on the list (being 600 feet higher... ;)) but the weather forecasts couldn't quite agree on how much rain each area was going to get or when it was going to arrive and in what fashion (i.e. snow, t-storms or just a sprinkle). Given our dislike of crappy summit views, especially on peaks with tough approaches, we settled on Cirrus and finalized the plans for that objective.
I've been interested in Cirrus ever since seeing it from Mount Coleman back in 2009 (my first trip with Eric). Mount Amery (another adventure with Eric) was also a trip that was inspired while ascending Coleman... Since then I've had a few friends do it and they all seemed impressed enough that it was bumped up in priorities. Last year I spotted it again from Mount Cline and was determined to make it happen in 2014. My intent was always to do it in summer or fall since I wanted Coleman Lake to be melted for its views, but it didn't turn out that way. Reading Rick Collier's report on Bivouac.com made me realize how lucky we were to get the views we did from the summit, so maybe it's a better snow climb anyway! Snow certainly made it spicy on the upper ridge - but now I'm getting ahead of myself.
The group met at the small pull off across hwy 93 from the access drainage at 09:00. By 09:30 we were grunting up the steep gully. I know people have lugged their skis up here, but WHY?! Considering the avy slopes, the incredibly steep terrain and thicker bush near the top, I have no idea why you would bother with skis! They certainly won't be any quicker and will add considerably to the suffer factor on the approach. We had snowshoes strapped to our packs, which makes for a much smaller / lighter overall pack and IMHO is the perfect tool to use if you're doing Cirrus with snow. We stayed climber's left of the stream and avoided most difficult terrain before continuing to trench higher above the creek and across several avalanche slopes above the first tarn before Coleman Lake. We were surprised that the first lake was almost ice-free. The views back towards Amery and Saskatchewan were impressive too! Don't underestimate this first grunt to Coleman Lake - it's over 500 meters height gain and is quite steep in places. You'll also want a GPS track or some cairns for descent so that you don't get suckered onto cliff bands.
[Looking across highway 93 from the pullout at our steep ascent gully.]
[Like I said, it's steep!]
[The bush isn't too bad if you choose your route carefully. We never got too close to the stream but you're either avoiding the stream on one side of cliffs on the other.]
[Staying high on climber's left as we cross avy slopes above the steep gully. This is looking back at Amery (L) and Saskatchewan (R).]
[Mount Amery is a beautiful peak. I bivied with Eric on the shoulder just left of the summit.]
[We were surprised that the first lake (tarn) was already melting - an outlier of Coleman rises above.]
[Beautiful environs around Coleman Lake]
Once we arrived at Coleman Lake we stayed high on climber's left, since it looked impossible to traverse right by the lakeshore. Coleman lake was mostly frozen over, but signs of spring were everywhere near the alpine including about 6 varieties of flowers and even butterflies flitting around us occasionally. The smell of new growth was invigorating too! This would be a wonderful place for a summer hike / bivy, being only 1.5-2 hours from the hwy but feeling very remote and not visited by many people due to the nature of its access.
[Still traversing the lake - note the cliff bands on the L that you must traverse above.]
[Coleman's north glacier doesn't get many ascents]
[Finally finished traversing the lake with Coleman's north glacier looking very impressive.]
After traversing the lake (and getting soaked feet thanks to no more waterproofing on my mountaineering boots) we descended a bit before taking a gully to the pass that leads into the Whitegoat Wilderness and out of Banff National Park. I should note here that there are two route possibilities from the slopes north of the lake, just before the pass. There is the option of going straight north through an obvious pass (Rick Collier did this route) which involves more glacier crossing, or the option we did which was descending to Huntington Creek to bivy and approach on climber's right of the glacier rather than left.
[The purple line is the approach, the blue one is the first option (slightly more technical, more glacier / crevasse risks) and the red is the easier (safer) option. The routes join at the face and proceed to the summit from there.]
After descending on surprisingly firm snow (it was quite warm and already noon), we found a perfect place to set up camp. Steven and I had conversed already by the cars that if we had time and good weather we should attempt the peak already on day 1 and this is exactly what we ended up doing. Considering we were done in camp by 15:00 already, there was no way we were going to sit around for 7 hours in good weather with the summit staring us in the face! :) We strapped on the 'shoes and started up the moraines towards the rock fin that would guide us to the summit slopes.
[Heading up a snow gully to the pass.]
[Heading over the pass and descending to the Huntington Meadows below. Our first view of Cirrus rising in the far distance at left.]
[Beautiful Huntington flats]
[The snow was pretty supportive except near rocks... ;) We didn't wear snowshoes on the approach either, which didn't help Ben in this situation.]
[Everything was melting furiously]
[Impressive views from my tent]
[A great place to call home for a night! Looking over the pass to Coleman from our bivy.]
[We're pretty small in the landscape]
The snow was very stable as we climbed past the fin on climber's left. We may have strayed briefly onto the ice field, but it was fairly benign on the right hand side and we weren't concerned about crevasses there. After about 1.5 hours we found ourselves staring up at a 30-35 degree slope leading to the upper ridge. We hummed and hawed a bit about how safe it was, but things were locked up very solid and the snow pack was extremely dense on this slope - probably due to several slides over the winter season combined with a good melt-freeze cycle. Here's where the 'shoes were awesome! If we were on foot we'd have been sinking to our knees or even waists on the approach. With 'shoes we managed to go straight up the entire slope to the summit ridge without sliding or even having to switchback. I love skiing, but 'shoes were the perfect tools for this objective at this time of the year.
[Eric follows up the moraines above our bivy]
[The rock fin that we go left of is just above the boys' heads here.]
[Spectacular views, looking back at Coleman]
[Passing by the fin on Climber's left]
[Looking back down on the Huntington Glacier, we probably avoided it on the lateral moraine, but it's pretty tame on this side anyway. In this view you can spot our col on the left and the other approach's col on the right.]
[The slope steepens as we gain height.]
[Getting higher than the col between the south fins and Cirrus, Alexandra shows up in the distance.]
[Steep slopes to the upper ridge]
[Looking back at our ascent tracks. The snow was just soft enough to give our 'shoes good purchase but not too soft to be dangerous.]
[Spectacular views as Eric comes up to the ridge where we switched to crampons. We are at the height of the two outliers and Coleman, about 500 feet to go.]
The shadows were lengthening but the weather was perfect and we had stunning views in all directions as we attained the final ridge before the summit bump. Here we dumped our snowshoes and put on crampons and grabbed axes. The ridge was exhilarating and tricky in spots, combined with some steep scrambling and exposure it was thrilling to be at 10,000 feet on a beautiful spring evening on the last day of May! The final slog to the top went without incident and within about 3.5 hours of leaving our bivy we found ourselves staring at a sea of peaks in a nice cool breeze.
[This is why we ditched the 'shoes... ;) We're not quite there yet!]
[Looking down at the Big Bend in Hwy 93 from a gap on the ridge]
[Eric follows us up the spicy ridge]
[Vern ascending a step in the ridge - photo by Steven Song]
[Eric is pretty small on the ridge next to the giant terrain in all directions!]
[Vern on the ridge - photo by Steven Song]
[Ben and Steven just about to break through to the summit]
[Vern on the summit of Cirrus]
After snapping a million photos of familiar peaks in all directions it was time for descent. Going down the ridge required some delicate steps and careful down climbing but we all made it back to the 'shoes without issue. The snow pack held up wonderfully all the way back to camp where we still had at least an hour of daylight before turning in for the night.
[The summit cap was small so we took turns with the photos. This is looking east, south and west.]
[Summit views west and north include the Big Bend in hwy 93, the Columbia Icefield and many familiar summits.]
[Looking over our ascent route at Mount Coleman which I climbed in 2009]
[Looking over Pinto Lake towards Mount Cline]
[Brazeau is an 11,000er I haven't climbed yet]
[Some familiar Columbia Icefields peak including South Twin, North Twin, Twin's Tower and Kitchener]
[Mount Columbia looms over Andromeda and the Saskatchewan Glacier approach valley.]
[Castleguard is a lovely shaped peak]
[Mount Bryce is huge from any angle...]
[Mount Alexandra is high on my "want" list! Queens peak always looks 'sharp' too. ;)]
[Too many dang 11000ers that I haven't climbed yet!! In this case, it's the Lyells (well, 4 of them anyway)]
[Forbes is a very gorgeous peak and also very high. Hopefully I stand on its summit one day.]
[I really enjoyed my one day ascent of Cline with Ben in 2013]
[Mounts Alberta, Diadem and Woolley]
[On descent, looking across the hwy 93 valley towards Amery, Hooge, Monchy and Willerval - another great memory from a trip I did with Eric in 2011.]
[Some delicate down climbing along the ridge]
[Ben waits for Steven while taking in the wonderous views off the descent ridge.]
[Vern and Ben descending the ridge - photo by Steven Song]
[Careful steps! Photo by Steven Song]
[Eric follows down the ridge - you can spot one of the rock bands we had to scramble either over or around.]
[This section was frozen rock hard already and care was needed to negotiate it safely - no slip zone!]
[The late evening light was nice - there was also no wind and the sun was still warm as we carefully descended the upper mountain.]
[A steep and fast descent down the 35 degree face to the Huntington Glacier]
[It's a fairly steep slope - especially near the top]
[Gorgeous evening lighting]
[Ben and Eric]
[Heading back to camp]
[Looking back as we descend past the rock fin]
The next day we slept in 'til 06:00 and by 07:00 camp was packed up and we were hiking out under a lovely morning sky. The snow was nice a frozen (would have been front pointing on Cirrus!) and we took advantage of this as much as we could. The descent back to the cars down the manky approach gully was steep and hot but we made it without too many scars. What a great trip! The four of us always seem to have a good time when we head into the hills and this time was no different. I highly recommend Cirrus as a spring ascent on snowshoes if you're comfortable on exposed snow ridges. Otherwise wait 'til summer and it's basically a scramble.
[Re-ascending to the col]
[Looking over Coleman Lake and our ascent tracks from the day before towards Mount Saskatchewan - a near 11000er.]
[Can't get enough panos of Coleman Lake!]
[Descending to the steep access gully with Saskatchewan stealing the show]
[Back in the bush! I had a wood tick from here - but only one. I think... ;)]
[Steep waterfalls in the access gully that you have to avoid on climber's left.]
Our round trip time, including an hour break in camp was 14.5 hours. Considering we had heavy overnight packs, I think a strong party could easily day trip Cirrus in around 14 hours round trip. Of course, you'll have to get lucky with the weather and conditions, since you'll be up high at mid to late afternoon. Avoiding storms can be tricky on a peak that's so close to many ice fields and across from the large Columbia glacier.