The first ascent of King George was in 1919. The second ascent wasn't until 52 years later in 1970! I'm sure this mostly has to do with the demanding and remote approach rather than the climb itself. There are enough possible routes and interesting lines on this mountain that I'm sure if the approach was easier and more accessible there would be many more ascents than there is today. Pretty much the only people climbing King George are either the type who really like big, remote terrain or are chasing the 11,000ers of the Canadian Rockies.
I've had my eye on this area of the Rockies ever since a few friends climbed it in 2007 and 2008. Height of the Rockies Provincial Park includes many towering peaks and beautiful lakes and is completely non-mechanized (except for rare exceptions). I've already stood on some of its summits, such as Joffre, Cordonnier, Warrior and McHarg which are on the border of the park and Kananaskis in Alberta. Now that I'm back from my first real foray into the park's interior I am already itching to go back. I've researched a bunch of Rick Collier's (and a few others) reports and other sources and have some plans in the works... ;) Unfortunately the floods of 2013 have closed many of the access roads into the park but hopefully in the next few years they will continue to be repaired. Many of these roads are used by forestry and mining companies for commercial purposes along the edge of the park, so they will likely be repaired eventually. Many of the trails within the park have large sections wiped out by the same floods which will not be repaired any time soon - not enough people use the park to justify the expense. (These trails are user-maintained so maybe a summer with a chainsaw is in order for me some day?)
While the ascent parties that I knew both had lots of ice climbing experience and chose their routes based on this, I do not. Therefore, I had my eyes on the least technical South Glacier route. Roy Stadelwieser, Bill Kerr and Kevin Papke had climbed via this route in 2011 with a couple of guides. I also found an invaluable approach / climbing description along with a GPS file from Mitch Thorton which thoroughly described the route and approach. I also had a trip report from the infamous Rick Collier who ascended 4 peaks in the area in 1990. Armed with all this beta, how could we possibly go wrong?! ;)
Another concern I had was the glacier possibly being too dry, the same situation turned Alan Kane back in 1998 and 2014 was shaping up to be a very dry summer too. As with most of the 11000ers, there were lots of unknowns which of course makes them more attractive and only wets the mountaineer's appetite for adventure!
Drive and Approach to South Bivy
[GPS line of approach and climbs. ++]
[Map of the approach to the bivy via Fynn Creek.]
Eric, Ben, Steven and I left Calgary at around 13:30 on Friday, August 08 2014 in my xTerra, excited to finally be attempting the mighty Mount King George! The weather forecast was excellent, with cool cloudy approach conditions followed by a cooler transition day before hot temperatures returned on Sunday. We knew that cool, clear conditions were perfect for a south glacier climb and it was critical to make our bivy site on Friday evening, which put some pressure on us to move quickly on approach... What we didn't know was the conditions of the approach after the floods of 2013. We hadn't seen any trip reports since then, from guides or anyone else. This was our biggest hesitation when planning the trip - no information is usually not a good thing!
The drive went very well. We made it to the parking spot (lots of flagging) about 4.5 hours from Calgary. Settlers / Palliser road was better than the Spray Lakes road and I drove between 50 and 80km/h the whole way on it, except for a few rough patches. There was t-storms all around and we saw a few small forest fires high up on slopes on the drive in. We hoped that they wouldn't get too much bigger on us! We brought chicken wire (and left it there for others to use) to guard the truck against porcupines. After wrapping the truck with the wire, we loaded up our heavy alpine packs and started down a rough trail to the raging Palliser River below.
[Settler's Road was in amazing shape. The forest fires burning in the distance ahead are a bit concerning though!]
[Ready for another adventure in the bush?! Why not...]
Apparently in 2010, Mitch Thorton and his buddy R Katrin Olivaw performed some trail maintenance on the log bridge crossing the Palliser River and on the first 3km of approach trail up Fynn Creek, hoping to secure a good approach for subsequent climbing parties. Alas, they forgot to consult their crystal ball before doing all this work, which would have told them that less than 3 years later all their hard efforts would be rendered useless by the incredible floods of June 2013, which destroyed many thousands of hours of trail work and millions of dollars of infrastructure all around the Canadian Rockies. I've personally experienced this damage from as far north as the approach to Mount Cline all the way down south of Highwood Pass! Nature really does make fools of us doesn't she?
I was the first one down the trail from the truck and I have to say it was fairly disappointing to descend the trail to the raging Palliser River only to realize that there was definitely no easy bridge crossing in our near future. I desperately searched around in case it was not right at the end of the trail, but nope. There was only a well-placed tree felled across the chasm with it's top branches pruned off that offered any hope at all of a river crossing at this location. We briefly discussed going a few km's further up the road to try the alternate crossing point, but this would put us way behind schedule and off route - no guarantee we'd even be able to cross there anyway. (The river was at full flow on a warm day with recent rain and a few weeks of snow melt due to hot temps.)
After a few hard swallows we decided to buck up and cross the river on the log "au chavel" (butt shuffle it). I've never done one of these before and it was more than a bit unnerving. We had to undo all the buckles on our heavy alpine packs (in case of falling in the water or our packs would drown us) which made them very unstable. Then we had to shuffle across the fast-moving water one at a time, our feet dangling just above river. The log started bouncing a bit once we were half way across and there were branches clinging to the sides that we had to lean and lift our feet over. Of course when we leaned over, our unbuckled packs would threaten to rotate off our backs, pulling us into the drink! We couldn't look at the raging river just underneath our feet either, or we'd immediately start feeling dizzy. Good times. HTFU* ;)
[Crossing the deep and fast Palliser River au Chavel on a bouncy log...]
[Eric finishes the traverse - it looks much easier than it feels when you're half way across.]
After making it across the log we picked up a good trail heading down stream to a clear cut in the forest above Fynn Creek. The trailhead was up and over the clear cut on its north end and was well marked with a number of ribbons.
[We found a rough trail cutting along the side of a clearcut.]
[The clear cut - there are ribbons but not in the clear cut itself. Just head north.]
[Eric comes to the trailhead above Fynn Creek. You can spot the approach road down behind him.]
The trail dipped to Fynn Creek fairly quick and was obvious, i.e. you know when you're on it! I'd read many trip reports that spoke of a "confusing array of trails" along Fynn Creek but there was only one obvious trail that was flagged when we were there. I looked very hard for other trailed routes high above the creek but didn't see anything. Unfortunately the trail quickly started deteriorating once we got near to the creek. The incredible floods of 2013 have at least doubled (probably tripled or quadrupled) the width of Fynn Creek! It washed away large sections of the first 1 - 1.5km of trail along the creek and filled the creek bed with thousands of trees from the freshly collapsed creek sides. The destruction was shocking. As far as I'm concerned, the only fix is to cut a new trail far above Fynn Creek on its east side or take a risk with cutting something close to the creek again. We were forced to climb very steep banks along the creek where the trail was washed out, only to encounter thick bush and be forced back to the creek. Thank goodness the trail leaves the creek after about 1.5km and starts traversing away from it in the forest or we'd probably still be thrashing around in there somewhere.
We could hear thunder echoing in the distance, but direct rainfall avoided us. I write "direct" because we still managed to get thoroughly soaked from head to toe, thanks to the wet vegetation we were forced to wade under, over and through! The floods weren't the only damage to the trail, there was much dead fall and overgrown sections on the higher traverse as well. It seemed like nobody had done this approach for a long time. The occasional ribbon encouraged us to flounder over and around huge messes of fallen trees and eventually we found ourselves looking up at the seemingly impenetrable headwall to the upper valley.
[The first section of trail towards Fynn Creek from the clearcut was obvious and debris-free.]
[This is what a flood does to a back country creek with trees growing on its bank. I think there used to be a trail in there somewhere!]
[Some short sections of trail with longer sections of blow-down and collapsed trees in between.]
[I find that the key to 'enjoying' sections of tough travel in the bush is to lower my expectations. Slow down and just accept the fact that you're in the "suck".]
[Quite lovely country, but all this humping alpine packs up and down washouts did get old after a while. Remember - we're also soaked from head to toe thanks to some t-storms that rolled through ahead of us.]
This next part of the trail was extremely steep. We started in the forest with even more tangled masses of dead fall to negotiate (again, ribbons encouraged us that we were on route) before finally getting onto a dirt trail running straight up a ridge line. And I mean straight up! No switch backing here! By this time our feet were soaked, our pants were dripping wet and we were sensing daylight slipping away quickly. We kept a good pace though, eating fresh blueberries on the way up and the anticipation of a great climb kept our spirits high despite the less-then-ideal approach conditions. We don't mind rough approaches - they keep the crowds at bay and provide us with a better wilderness experience. ;)
[Getting soaked from head to toe despite no rain thanks to all the shrubbery.]
As we got higher up the headwall we noticed more and more ribbons. This was a very good thing because the trail grew very indistinct in places. Sometimes we'd be wandering aimlessly in a circle looking for the next ribbon or a bit of trail! I cannot thank Mitch enough for his GPS track. Without it we never would have made the south bivy on Friday - not a chance. We got lost and off route even with flagging every 20 meters and constant checks of the GPS. Mitch's track was slightly off the trail, but close enough to use. When we finally topped out we knew we still had the toughest route finding ahead of us.
[Ribbons got us through to the top of the headwall. Without them we'd still be there thrashing around somewhere!]
[A bit of a trail goes a long way mentally, even if it's pretty much overgrown.]
[Our first real views - Joffre on the left. Note how dark it's getting?]
[The trail is much more distinct up near the top of the headwall thanks to more scree and less tree.]
[Traversing near the top of the headwall section]
[The key thing to remember is that you will be traversing back and forth near the top of the headwall.]
[More traversing through and up and around rock slabs near treeline.]
[A first glimpse of our destination - but first we have to ascend more and then cross over before descending and re-ascending. Dang! ;)]
[Less and less bush the higher we get. What a relief.]
[The sun is setting as we near the traverse to the south bivy]
[Finally on top of the headwall! Now we only have an hour left to thrash our way to the south bivy in growing darkness.]
With the sun rapidly setting, we started the traverse across the King George glacial outflow stream towards the waterfall plunging down cliffs under the south bivy site to the west. Crossing the outflow was the first challenge, but we managed to keep our boots "dry". We could have just walked right through the stream since our feet were soaking wet anyway from all the wet vegetation. The next challenge was picking a route through the glacial debris field before losing elevation to find a route up on climber's right of the waterfall. For the first half we were bushwhacking in the dark, up very steep and cliffy terrain. This is the sort of terrain where you have to grab branches and trees above you and heave yourself up hill. Eventually we stumbled on a rough track and followed it up. Thank goodness the bivy site is right at the crest of the valley! We arrived at camp just as the full moon was starting to cast shadows.
It only took us 4:40 to reach the south bivy camp, which means we would have made the lower "normal" bivy in about 3:40. Considering the condition of the approach, I think we moved pretty darn quickly. Sleep came very easily after all that work.
[Crossing the outflow from King George Glacier. For the 'normal' bivy, we would have just kept going without crossing for another 2 minutes. Instead we had another hour from here.]
[Crossing over to the other side of the valley. Our bivy is somewhere over there in the obvious gap. It got too dark for photos after this shot. See the video for more of the approach.]
Mount King George
Saturday morning came too quickly! We "slept in" until 04:20 but by 05:20 we were finally on the move, picking our way up the lower glacial debris field under the south glacier of King George with Mount Princess Mary rising dramatically into the night sky on our right. When we reached the lower south glacier we could see that it was pretty tame. We didn't even need crampons to ascend it - the angle was very tame.
The real surprise was looking up at the King George / Princess Mary col and realizing that we were in for a heckuva scree slog! King George isn't normally associated with the words "scree slog" but in the dry conditions we had, there was no snow except for on glaciers - and even that was disappearing quickly. We picked routes up the horrible scree and started ascending to the cliff band high above. Eventually a faint trail appeared in the scree and we followed it - stepping on bigger rocks (that didn't move) when we could. We knew there was an easy route through the cliff band above us but it sure wasn't obvious from below.
[Eric started his day by dumping water into his pack... His new hydration system was NOT his best friend this particular morning! ;)]
[Early morning on the approach, looking back over our bivy]
[Still on rock but getting higher.]
[Our first glimpse of King George! It's to the left of the pointy outlier straight ahead.]
[On the rapidly diminishing glacier, looking back at our approach valley]
[Looking at the scree slog to the col from below. That's the short slog. The long one is from there to the pointy outlier where the cliff traverse finally starts on more solid ground. At least 300 vertical meters to get there.]
[Starting the scree grind.]
[Eric takes advantage of a tiny bit of snow on his slog to the col. We didn't actually go right to the col - rather we started up the scree slope to the cliff traverse well before that point. Princess Mary looms in the background here.]
[Steven and Ben at the Princess Mary col.]
[The views are opening up behind us as we slog to the cliff traverse. Princess Mary on the left. ++]
As we approached the cliffs we finally started gaining height on nearby Princess Mary. After the slog in 12 hours previous, I was tired just thinking of trying to ascend Mary after George so I put that thought on hold and concentrated on one mountain at a time.
The route through the cliffs was obvious and well marked with cairns. If you're scrambling, you're off route. This is just a hike - 3rd class terrain at most. It's also pretty much a horizontal traverse until the very end when we gained a few meters before hitting the upper south King George glacier. The upper part of the route is a wild and wonderful place. A waterfall cascades hundreds of feet down dark cliffs below. Seracs hang impossibly steep above the waterfalls. A cool wind blows off the glacier while warm sun hits the back of your neck. It's a pretty special spot to be. As I looked over the glacier to the high summit block with it's steep access couloir I was excited to finally be here.
[Arg. Almost there...]
[Ben starts up towards the traverse bench.]
[Finally at the traverse section. Ben surveys our approach and next peak. ++]
[Starting the traverse with Princess Mary in the background.]
[An obvious ledge when you're on it. ++]
[This looks like fun!]
The route up the glacier was obvious. We simply donned crampons, took out both axes and traversed steep glacial snow about 100 meters before we could side-step up the rest of the slope, or front point straight up it. The snow was very firm, which made travel efficient and quick on steel crampons with two ice axes. I LOVED using two axes, I've never done that before and it made the climbing feel very secure. We didn't rope up on the glacier for two reasons - firstly it would be more dangerous since a fall by anyone would pull the others down and secondly, we could easily see all the crevasses and schrunds so we didn't feel exposed to that danger either. I crossed nearby the lower 'schrund and it was a deep sucker! You definitely did NOT want to slip on the glacier - it was too steep and hard for self-arrest and if the bergschrund didn't swallow you the 1000 foot cliff below certainly would. ;)
Ironically I found that the 40 degree upper couloir felt safer and less exposed than the south glacier did. With intervening rocky outcrops and a giant scoop on the glacier just under it, I felt like there was more chance of surviving a fall on the couloir than the rest of the glacial ascent line. The snow went all the way up the gully to the summit snow ridge - but ice was starting to show. Another week and this gully will be more ice than snow, or melt completely out.
[Steven having fun on the lower glacier.]
[It's a long way down if you slip.]
[Steven on the roll just before the little dip to the col. This little dip would probably stop you if you slipped in the col! ++]
[Great views over the roll and down to our approach valley. Steven and Ben approach the bottom of the upper couloir at right. ++]
[Starting up the access couloir to the summit on perfect glacial snow]
[Looking out from the bottom of the upper Couloir at the nice little break on the top of the South Glacier.]
[Steven climbing the lower couloir, Eric visible at the "roll" between the couloir and the main south glacier.]
[It gets steep near the top.]
[Getting high now - note Eric at the bottom of the couloir.]
[Vern climbing the couloir - photo by Ben Nearingburg.]
[Near the top it's almost pure ice in sections but we still managed to stay on snow.]
[Looking down from on top of the couloir]
[On the summit ridge looking south.]
[Ben traverses the last few steps to the summit of King George]
The summit views were stunning in every direction. It felt so good to be on top of King George! I remember looking at the east face from my Northover Ridge hike back in 2006 thinking that I'd never have the skills or ability to reach his summit. Funny how the years change you. I realize that my route was "easy" and that others have done far more serious climbs, but for me this was a great moment. I don't measure myself against others - that's a losing game. I only measure against me - and this one felt great.
[View over the summit ridge looking east. ++]
[Views to the north (R) and west including Assiniboine at far right. ++]
[We stood on the summit of Mount Joffre a few months ago, looking at King George!]
[View north along the Royal Group includes Prince George (R), Albert, Henry, John and Queen Mary.]
[Excellent summit panorama including the Royal Group just right of center and Prince Albert and Prince George at the right. ++]
[The summit register dates from 1970 - the second ascent. The first? 1912! Click to view the complete register. ++]
[Looking over at Mount Sir Douglas and Burstall Pass to it's left]
[Mount Assiniboine towers over Mount Queen Mary and Prince John. Mount Prince Henry on the right. Queen Mary Lake is at lower center. ++]
[It felt good to be on top of this 11,000er - I've been thinking about it for many years already.]
[Pano on the west side - Princess Mary at center left. ++]
We didn't want the steep snow slopes to soften too much, so after a short break and reading an impressive summit register (which we had to carry up from the lower ridge to the true summit cairn - not sure why it was down so low?) we started the descent. The snow was slightly softer than earlier, but in a good way. Instead of front pointing, we could side-grip most of the slopes which helped speed things up a bit. The steepest parts of the couloir and approach slopes were still down climbed facing into the slope and getting a good ax placement between steps.
[Leaving the summit.]
[Leaving the summit ridge.]
[Dropping into the couloir.]
[Steven downclimbs the couloir.]
[Looking down the couloir at Steven down climbing beneath me.]
[Ben and Eric finish downclimbing the couloir above Steven and I.]
[Ben and Eric come out of the bottom of the couloir.]
[Having fun on descent - the snow held up well for us.]
[Finishing up with a steep traverse to the cliff bench - this was probably the most exposed section. ++]
[Another view of the most exposed part of the South Glacier, just above the ledge traverse.]
[The icefall from the south King George Glacier]
[Looking along the scree bench at our next attempt - Mount Princess Mary.]
[Negotiating the ledge traverse - looking back at Steven and Ben.]
It was still early in the day as we descended the crappy scree slope after the cliff band traverse, so we started chatting about attempting a route up Princess Mary.