After climbing Mount Sir Douglas on the weekend, I wasn't really expecting anything spectacular from the following week. To be honest, as much fun as Sir Douglas was, I was feeling a bit burnt out and thought I needed a week off. Then the weather got nice. Then Ben and I started emailing. Then I found myself planning to leave Thursday evening for a shot at Mount Victoria - North Peak! Darn it. Nobody said it was going to be easy. ;)
The north summit of Mount Victoria has been on my radar for many years already. It's probably the one summit that I've made and changed plans on, more often than any other. Because it's an easy approach, it's usually the first 11,000er to get planned and then the first to get scrapped in favor of something bigger or more remote. Over the course of the 6 years or so that it's been on my radar, most of my climbing friends have already managed to bag it on days that I couldn't join them. Last year Ben and Steven approached and both would have summitted if not for Ben's crampon issues. As it was, only Steven managed to summit and Ben wasn't going to try again until he knew it would go. After several more false starts this year, Ben and I finally agreed to give it a shot on Friday, July 24th when a weather window looked to be opening in the Lake Louise area, just for us.
There aren't a ton of trip reports on North Victoria, but I'd heard from several sources over the years that it was anywhere from "easy rock and snow" to "moderate rock and ice". Thanks - that helps a lot! ;) Typical for Rockies large peaks, it's all dependent on conditions and route choices. I think I was under estimating North Vic a bit. Parks Canada discourages bivying for this peak, which is strange because IMHO getting a good nights rest and starting 2 or 3 hours earlier on a big peak is ALWAYS the way to go. I understand that there's a good approach trail that can be done in 2 or 3 hours, but it's hundreds of meters of height gain and does take something out of you before you start actually climbing. One hint to save weight on the approach, there's a clean, running water source near the perfect bivy site just before the glacier so don't carry water and fill up there.
[Lefroy is buried in clouds and North Vic is out of sight to the right from the highway along Lake Louise]
[Low cloud hides the big peaks as we approach the cool ledge traverse on the main trail to the Plain of Six Glaciers tea house.]
[Looking back over Lake Louise from the trail]
[On the excellent North Vic approach trail - too bad the vegetation was soaking wet from the storm!]
[Above tree line on the approach trail, looking back at Lake Louise and Fairview Mountain. Note - we're almost as high as Fairview!]
[Ben on the moraines below the glacier. The trail through here is fairly obvious and marked with many large cairns.]
[A gorgeous sunset view over The Mitre. This area is actually a perfect day hike for stronger hikers, well worth the extra height gain and distance from the Plain of Six Glaciers tea house.]
[Another sunset view - from R to L, Whyte, Fairview, Haddo, Aberdeen, The Mitre, Lefroy, Victoria - South, Victoria - North. ++]
The approach for North Vic is very easy and quick, but I was feeling a bit bagged when we finally started up the glacier right above the high bivy coral. Rain on Thursday had saturated the few inches of fresh snow that came down in the same storm and our forecasted clear sky was already clouding over at 05:30! We witnessed a unique sunrise over Lake Louise, now looking like a tiny puddle underneath Fairview Mountain - which was also looking more like a hill than a mountain. We also watched lights flicker to the biffy from the Abbot Hut across the Victoria Glacier and above the Death Trap. As the day slowly dawned, we could see fresh snow on our route and clouds covering our summit. It was also very chilly and we were glad to have our gore-tex on. So far this day was turning out differently than expected...
[Gorgeous sunrise from just before the glacier. ++]
[Sunrise on Lefroy (L) and Victoria (R)]
[Sunrise over Lake Louise - Fairview on the right.]
[Now we're on the glacier as the sun peeks over the horizon and turns everything pink. ++]
Our route was very different this year than last time Ben was attempting North Vic. With tons of snow, Ben and Steven simply walked up the middle of the glacier on their snow shoes and Steven simply went straight up steep snow through the black band to the col. This year was obviously quite different. There were some scary looking holes on the glacier and with the warm temperatures, a dry year and now some rain making things even more of a mess on the glacier, we wanted to avoid crossing as many cracks as possible. We started following some old tracks on climber's right under steep rocky cliffs coming down from Collier Peak high above. When the tracks went towards the glacier on our left, we started traversing high on avy slopes to the right (north of the main glacier). Our route will not work if there's any avy hazard so please don't follow it blindly. The recent snow (how does that happen in a hot, dry year like we've been having?!) didn't help matters any, because it was of 'slurpee' quality. Our crampons insisted on sliding around on it rather than getting a good purchase and on descent this caused Ben no end of headaches with his technical crampons which don't have anti-balling plates on them. The slopes we were on are pretty steep - easily steep enough to slide - and right underneath us were some pretty giant holes so sliding wasn't an option.
[Our route for North Vic. Note how far to climber's right of the main glacier we were? This only worked in a dry year with no avy hazard on these steep slopes. ++]
[It's chilly, but the snow is already soft as we work our way high on climber's right above the main glacier]
[Mount Victoria - North is directly above my shadow, South is on the left. Note the huge holes under the snow slope - it's much steeper than it appears on this panorama. The black band is obvious above Ben's head.]
Ben carefully probed the glacier / snow slopes as we climbed higher and higher to the black band, clearly visible ahead. We did find some holes and we avoided many others. The worst part of our route was that we were paralleling many of the cracks - the most dangerous way to navigate glacial terrain because if the leader breaks through a snow bridge, there is a good chance the second is on the same bridge and both of you fall into the same hole! Again - please don't just blindly follow our route if the main glacier is well-covered I would highly recommend that route. One advantage of our route was that it presented us with a beautiful and safe bergschrund crossing to the black band. I never felt unsafe with any of the bridges we crossed. After utilizing a short 'via ferrata' (some cord used to rappel the 'schrund) we climbed a final steep snow gully that dumped us onto the lower section of the infamous black band leading up to the Collier / North Victoria col.
[Ben carefully negotiates over the bergschrund, much higher on climber's right than most parties cross it. We had to descend around the rock band in front of Ben and then ascend a short, steep snow gully before getting onto the black band of rock.]
[On rock, looking down the snow gully and the rock outcrop that we had to cross under to access it. A rap station assists with descending over the obvious 'schrund below if you go that route.]
The black band is notorious for giving people headaches on North Vic. People tend to under estimate it and end up with snow, ice, verglass, loose rock and more exposure than they bargained for. This is very evident from the copious amounts of rap / belay stations we encountered while moving through the steep, stepped terrain. We were lucky with conditions. The dry conditions which gave us glacier issues, were perfect for the black band. We found the terrain moderate scrambling at best, albeit with some pretty steep exposure near the top. The terrain was full of little ledges that were surprisingly solid, especially compared to Sir Douglas 5 days previous! ;) As we topped out at the col, past the 6th or 7th rap station, we both commented on how easy and fun the black band was. Looking ahead up the northeast ridge, conditions looked a little snowy but the weather was holding and we pressed on up. Our views to the west and north were quite good at this point.
[Looking over the Victoria Glacier at Mount Lefroy, Temple and Aberdeen / Haddo.]
[Ben starts up the black rock band. It started fairly easy, but steepened considerably near the col, high above us here.]
[Nearing the col, you can see how steep the black band is. It's not difficult with many little ledges and edges to climb or descend, but there is some pretty good exposure if you're not used to this sort of thing.]
[Great views over Sherbrooke Lake towards Yoho and the Wapta Icefields. Summits include from L to R, Des Poilus, Yoho, Ogden, Collie, Niles, Balfour and Daly with many others less visible.]
[Ben proceeds up the northeast ridge from the col. ++]
After a short traverse, we donned our crampons again and kept them on to the summit. The fresh few inches of snow made the rocks slick and a few sections of hard snow with some exposure encouraged us to simply keep the 'poons on and bear with the scrapping and grinding on bare rock that always sets my teeth on edge - like a nail going across a chalk board. At first glance the northeast ridge above us looked pretty easy. We both commented that the crux "didn't look that bad" and kept going. I remembered that Steven had also commented on the crux terrain as he bypassed it on snow, that it "didn't look bad". As we like to say in the mountains, "you never know 'til you get your nose in it". This is also true of the northeast ridge of North Vic. I certainly can't say it's the toughest terrain I've ever been on, but with the fresh snow, cool conditions and wind, combined with some very steep and exposed sections of rock just below the crux, it certainly wasn't the easiest either. We passed two rap stations on our way up to the crux so this should give some indication of the seriousness of the terrain.
[It's a winter wonderland! WTF - where did all this fresh white stuff come from?! The northeast ridge stretches above us with the crux rock step clearly visible and the by-pass looking very icy.]
[Looking back over the col at Collier Peak. ++]
[Another view back - this time we're higher than Collier and closer to the crux. ++]
[Looking down the steep terrain before the crux]
When we arrived under the crux, I knew immediately that I wasn't freeing it in the conditions we had. It was slightly overhanging on climber's right and there weren't many obvious holds on the left either. There was one piton banged into a crack running up the middle, but nothing else. It was frustratingly short, but that didn't make the 4 or 5 moves over it any easier! ;) Ben thought he could free it and then throw down the rope from on top to belay me, but half way up he started having other thoughts. This is one of those cruxes that looks much easier than it feels when you're on it! Eventually Ben sorted things out and managed to clip the pin before I put him on belay. Within about 15 seconds he was over the crux - I told you it wasn't very long... Ben belayed me up and I was exceedingly happy to have that rope on. I don't think I could have led this short pitch in crampons. Kudos once again to Ben for leading. I should mention that there is one thing about the crux description in the 11,000er guidebook that still confuses me after ascending it. The guidebook says;
The other option is to climb the 10-metre rock step, bypassing its prow via ledges on the left (5.3) and then moving back right.
The implication in the above description, is that the ledge traverse itself is the 5.3 crux, not the move "back right". I looked climber's left from near our crux but the terrain wasn't that inviting. I think without snow, it could be traversed and possibly a gully that was out of sight could be the "moving back right" section before re-gaining the ridge. We certainly didn't traverse any 5.3 ledges and I'm 95% certain we didn't bypass the "prow", but went straight up it, only very slightly climber's left of the front nose. Hmmm. UPDATE: After emailing with Bill Corbett (author of the 11,000ers book) he agrees with the obscure description is going to remove it from the new version. The crux is indeed, exactly where we ascended.
[Ben is halfway up the crux here - he's decided to clip the pin and get a belay over the top. It looks much easier than it felt... ;)]
[A pano looking back from just under the crux.]
After the crux it was a short ascent to the summit of North Vic. The clouds weren't lifting and we were rather chilly after dealing with the crux, so we didn't linger long. After snapping some photos and signing the 2002 register (4th ascent party of 2015), we started down. As we rapped the crux we saw two figures far below, just starting the crux northeast ridge section. We waited for them part way down the ridge near one of the lower rap stations and after exchanging greetings we kept going down while they climbed above. He was studying to be an apprentice guide and she was his 'practice client'. They were short-roped and moved efficiently towards the crux above us. We down climbed everything under the crux, but a few of the moves felt a wee bit desperate. I was glad for the 'poons since they gave me purchase on some tiny little holds that otherwise would have been way too slick to use.
[Pano from the summit looking north and east. ++]
[Looking west over Odaray towards the Goodsirs and Mount Vaux.]
[A 2002 register - quite old for an accessible, Lake Louise 11,000er]
[Looking over Collier Peak, Lake Louise and Fairview towards the Skoki region.]
[The traverse to Victoria - main summit looks fun! Lefroy looks a bit bare compared to usual. ++]
[Mount Vaux rises over Mount Owen]
[One more view over the teal colored Sherbrooke Lake (L) and Wapta Lake (R) towards the Wapta Icefield. Even Daly looks small now!]
[Cathedral Mountain is an all-time favorite peak of mine. Carnarvon was my last Kane peak and the Presidents trip is another fine memory.]
[Ben descends the summit with Fairview, Haddo and Aberdeen looking a lot lower than us and Temple buried in thick cloud on the far right.]
[Rapping the short crux. A 30m rope would have been plenty for us, but if you wish to rap the sections beneath the crux, a 60m might be good too.]
[Two bright dots come up towards us]
[Not as easy as it looks...]
[This view of Ben down climbing and the climber on the crux gives a better insight to the terrain on the northeast ridge - it isn't horrible, but it is exposed in places.]
[Ben is past the last crux on the ridge, and the other party is just clearing the last moves on the crux.]
[One more look at the other party clearing the crux above us. You can see it's not long, but still very exposed - a fall anywhere above us here would certainly sting - and likely permanently...]
[Approaching the col with the black band wrapping around the Victoria Glacier beneath us.]
[Ben descends to the col in this view looking down the North Vic glacier to the west.]
From the col, we easily down climbed the black band, taking care not to slip on the little ledges. The snow gave Ben some crampon issues on descent to the bivy site - he has more technical than general mountaineering crampons and they don't have very good (any?) anti-balling plates on them. I felt sorry that he was so unstable on the steep, exposed snow, because I could 'simply' walk downward most of the time, without feeling insecure at all. He told me later that with every step down, he felt like he could lose his grip and slide into the crevasses far below - not a pleasant way to walk down a mountain! Eventually we made it past snow line and onto old / hard snow and ice before the bivy and rock. The hike out was fast and pleasant, with class II tourist-dodging as we approached Lake Louise itself. :)
[Carefully down climbing the black band]
[While not especially difficult, it is steep and loose in places - you certainly can't afford a slip here and should be cognizant of climbers above]
[Down climbing the steep snow gully to the schrund]
[Crossing the schrund up high on climber's right, above the main glacier which is below us here.]
[Finally off the steep snow and descending towards the bivy / rock on the left.]
[Haddo and Aberdeen start to look like mountains again as we descend towards the Plain of Six Glaciers.]
[A final pano of the Plain of Six Glaciers peaks. ++]
[A glance back at our summit, high above the trail at upper right.]
Overall, I really enjoyed North Vic. The terrain was varied, with snow, glacier travel, rock and great views all around. It was a wee bit spicier than I was expecting, which is also nice. Climbing gets boring if there's never any surprises.