After scrambling Devon Mountain we contoured the north side and headed towards the winding trail leading to the largest of the Devon Lakes beneath Mount Willingdon. The air was warm and humid and I thought we'd probably get some storms coming through (as forecasted) in the evening so we wanted to get to our bivy before any 'weather action' started.
Our plan was to summit not only Willingdon, but also Crown Peak and Southeast Tower - two outliers of the main summit and impressive peaks on their own. Crown Peak is known to be very close to another 11,000er and I wanted to check my altimeter to see how close it could be. Because we were planning on the two additional summits, it made strategic sense to ascend the south ridge route on Willingdon, rather than the normal west ridge route. There isn't a lot of beta on the south ridge other than a few brief mentions of it being an "easy scree" descent or similar comments. We did have some hints from people like Sonny Bou, that it wasn't quite as simple as advertised but we left our rope at the car and hoped that we wouldn't need it. We did have steel crampons and axes along in case of snow or ice on the route (these items make the pack much heavier, which is why we give them such careful thought before bringing extra gear along). We didn't want to bivy too far from the south ridge so we worked our way up the pristine alpine / karst valley between the normal route and the south ridge and set up camp under a small cliff, which would offer some shelter from strong west winds.
[Working our way around the northwest side of Devon - looking back at Mosquito, Ramp and Quartzite peaks.]
[Following the trail to Devon Lakes (R) and Mount Willingdon (L). ++]
[Looking across the largest Devon Lake at Devon Mountain from nearby the 'normal' bivy location. ++]
[Working our way up into the valley between the normal west ridge approach (L) and the south ridge approach (R).]
[We finally reach a nice bivy spot and crash for the evening.]
I was relieved to have my tarp (a tent footprint) along again on this trip, as we got pummeled by thunderstorms, hail and rain that evening and over night. One lightening strike in particular was close enough to give us a bit of a scare! Ben had a pool of water at the foot of his bivy sack and Eric actually drank water out of some pools that formed near his head to keep his sleeping bag from getting wet. Talk about hard core!! The rain and cool weather made me realize how critical good gear is though. Things can quickly get dangerous if you're not prepared properly on back country trips in the middle of nowhere.
[The view from under my tarp. Eric is sitting in the rain rather than get cooped up in his bivy sack already. This is the reason I recently purchased a single tent to bring along on trips where rain is a possibility...]
[An intense storm passes by just to the south of us.]
We woke up early on Friday morning to clouds and fresh snow on the mountain. :( This was disappointing but there wasn't much we could do so we reluctantly decided to give it a "go" and see what happened. The summit was buried in clouds and none of us were very motivated as we made our way slowly up valley and then around cliff bands on climber's left and began the scree slog to the south ridge / Crown Peak col. After about 300 meters of elevation gain we had to make another call. Very dark, ominous clouds were building in the south and west and the entire cloud cover was lowering, not clearing as we'd hoped when we set out from camp.
Eric really didn't want another 11,000er in clouds (like Recondite a few weeks previous), Ben and I weren't too motivated to continue either and Steven was gung ho to bag the peak no matter what. We went up another 100 meters or so but when rain started falling in the areas around us it was time to hold a vote. This is where a good team is essential. The last thing you want as a team is for things to get nasty or people to split off the team and we all decided that it was most prudent to turn around and head back to camp. We could always head up later in the day if things improved, or even the next day before heading back.
[A 'sort of' nice morning on Friday - but it's cloudy and the summit is in clouds too. ++]
[The team prepares to leave in dark, soggy conditions.]
[Not bad views, but shortly after this the weather really moved in and we turned around. ++]
[Defeated for today! Summit is in clouds above us here.]
All the way back to camp we tried not to second guess our decision (none of us turn around very easily) but it was tough - especially when the summit briefly went out of the clouds and the sun came out! As soon as we arrived back at camp our decision was justified in the form of an intense rain shower. Thank goodness we weren't stuck high on the summit in that weather! For the rest of Friday we were sent scurrying into our bivy sacks by wave after wave of rain / sleet / snow showers coming in from the west. At least 5 or 6 waves came through and the temperature dropped a bit more with each one! By the evening Willingdon, Crown and Tower all had fresh snow well below their summits (what little we could see of their summits) and we were feeling very bummed out and bored. I'm extremely pleased that on my next extended overnight trip I'll have a single tent and am planning on getting a small e-reader for boring, rainy days at camp. I entertained myself by eating M+M's by their color and one-by-one just to make them last longer. ;)
[Eric sits in the rain in this view from my bivy sack. I was very happy to have a tarp so I could at least keep my head and shoulders out of the sack without getting soaked.]
[My setup for the bivy. Kept me dry through a LOT of rain! Rocks and trekking poles are critical to making this shelter work.]
We were very fortunate that Ben had a two-way communications SPOT device and managed to get a weather forecast for Saturday which predicted mostly clear and sunny with the possibility of fog in the early morning. I mentioned how cool it would be to get above the clouds if there was fog but we didn't expect that to happen. This boosted our spirits a bit but we were cautious not to trust the forecast too much either! The clouds slowly started to lift around 19:00 but when we turned in for the night it was still very cloudy and cool. I set my alarm for 04:00 since we had a long day ahead of us if we were going to bag 3 peaks and hike all the way out in one day.
[A break in the clouds shows fresh snow up high]
At 03:00 I awoke to Ben and Steven chatting. I asked what time it was and Ben said he thought around 04:00 unless his GPS was an hour out. I checked my watch and assured him he was an hour early! :) We all had so much sleep / rest from Friday that I think we were chomping at the bit on Saturday. Best of all? The STARS WERE OUT! The bad part? Ben noticed on his night photos that clouds were starting to roll in from the north / east... :( We got up and left camp in pitch darkness around 04:20 - nervously noting the clouds that were starting to block the millions of stars shining above. Initially we went a bit too close to the upper cliff bands under the west ridge before angling up to climber's right on loose scree which meant some early morning (i.e. pitch dark) traversing on concrete-hard scree gullies, which sucked.
[An early morning pano from freshly snowed scree. It's actually much darker than on this photo. ++]
[Clouds are thickening up around and above us as we approach the south ridge proper after getting a bit too close to the upper cliff bands under the west ridge.The trail in the scree isn't a permanent one - we just made it in the loose slope.]
By 06:30 we were topping out high on the south ridge, above the col to Crown Peak and with the sun just trying to rise in the east. I wrote "trying" because of a low, thick band of cloud that had built up all around us, hiding the summits from view and potentially ruining our summit views. :( There was nothing we could do however, so after taking some interesting shots of the sun rising under the cloud bank and the surprisingly big tarn nestled between Willingdon and Crown, we continued up the south ridge into the mist and clouds leading to the summit.
[Looking down on the tarn between Willingdon and Crown - we weren't expecting that to be there! Note the thick cloud cover - we thought this was as good as our views would get this day. ++]
[Eric and Ben on the south ridge - now we're in the clouds.]
[Steven traverses a snow arete on the ridge - we were grateful for crampons and axes at this point! You can't see it well on this photo but the exposure to our right is straight down a pretty broken up glaciated face and to our left is rocky cliffs.]
[More foggy scenery from the south ridge ascent]
The first part of the south ridge above the col was fairly straight forward even though we couldn't see much! Frozen scree was our main concern and then we arrived at some huge snow scoops which seemed to abut a very steep and broken glacier on the north side of the mountain. After donning the crampons for a somewhat narrow and exposed traverse on a rock-hard snow / ice arete we started to wonder if this was the same "easy scree" that we'd heard about.
Steven and I were a bit ahead of Ben and Eric and eventually we came to a very exposed and steep arete. Steven began a careful traverse, planting his ax and feet carefully in the slope, front pointing the hard snow / ice and inching to a steep rock cliff band on the opposite side. I didn't say anything at first but I wondered what the heck we were gonna do once across the arete?! The rock looked vertical and was full of snow and possibly ice and the terrain around it was pretty exposed for a 'simple scree hike'! I mentioned this to Steven and he paused - I don't think he'd looked too carefully at the other side either. He said he'd give it a look and I said I'd try to find the rumored 'hike' and backtracked to Ben and Eric who were waiting a bit lower down on the ridge.
While Steven checked out the crux, Ben, Eric and I tried to find a safe, simple way around it. We failed, and ended up climbing a steep, icy rock couloir to the crux rock step. I knew we could get UP the step, it was coming back down that concerned me. Eventually we all scrambled up the step (crampons helped on the snowy rock) and started up a final easy scree slope to the summit where Steven was waiting for us. While we were looking for a way around the crux a miracle happened. We realized that the clouds were getting thinner as we climbed and by the time we were above the crux we were above them! We realized then, that our views off the summit were going to be mind-blowing, with a sea of clouds hiding everything but 11,000 peaks in every direction!
[OK - this is no longer a 'simple scree hike'! With hard snow, glacier ice and fresh snow to spice up the rock, the south ridge didn't give up easily. Out of sight behind Steven is a drop down a steep rock and ice coulior and in front of him is an almost vertical glaciated face with a yawning 'shrund about 50 feet down! We had to climb the snowy rock cliff at the end of this traverse to complete the crux section. Of course, I was concerned about coming back DOWN that rock...]
[Why is Ben smiling? Because we just came out of a cold, icy couloir and realized that we are going to be above the clouds on the summit! (check the background)]
[Above the crux, the last scree slope to the summit and our views are going to be AMAZING.]
The summit views knocked our socks off. In every direction there was a carpet of clouds and floating on top were the summits of all the giants of the Rockies - and only the giants! I haven't been above the clouds very often on mountains - in Alberta it's very rare to get this kind of scenery. We were delighted that we turned around the day before and now had the pay off that patience brings - a summit view that will not often be repeated for any of us. We spent a long time on the summit, marveling at the changing views as the clouds started to dissipate with the warmth of the rising sun. We couldn't have had better timing. If we were 30 minutes earlier we would have been descending by the time the clouds settled under the peak. If we were 30 minutes later the cloud layer wouldn't have been half as thick or dramatic - it was just perfect timing. As the clouds disappeared we got our second mind-blowing views of the day - clear and sunny. It was awesome.
[Amazing summit views to the east, south and west. Crown and Tower just peaking out on the left. ++]
[Looking west over the carpet of clouds. Only giants are showing... ++]
[Zoomed shot / pano of some Rockies giants peaking up through the clouds. From L to R these include, Temple, Deltaform, Hungabee, Lefroy, Victoria, Goodsir Towers, Vaux, Hector, Balfour, Mummery, Forbes, The Lyells, Amery and many BC peaks as well. ++]
[Looking directly east from the summit. Harris is almost visible at left and Crown and Tower are just visible on the right. ++]
[Vern on the summit of Mount Willingdon with Crown and Tower in the background.]
[The clouds are starting to dissipate already - Harris is now visible and Tower and Crown are more visible. Also note the steep glacier under the north side of the south ridge. ++]
[I love this shot of Recondite, considering that we were in clouds on her summit two weeks ago and now we can ONLY see her summit! Augusta must be very close to 11,000 feet as her summit is not much lower than Recondite but still not quite poking above the clouds!]
[Mighty Mount Forbes and the Lyells]
[The clouds continue to thin in this view towards the Lake Louise peaks.]
[Mummery Icefield peaks.]
[Looking over Mount Harris. ++]
[And the clouds start to dissipate - giving us more amazing views! ++]
[We start back down the south ridge, heading for Crown Peak and SE Tower]
After enjoying the summit it was time to keep going. We still had two more peaks to bag and a long trek back to the parking lot! The descent through the crux and snow arete's on the south ridge was not simple scree hiking - we took our time on the crux and balanced delicately across some terrain that reminded me of the sickle on Mount Victoria. Once at the tarn between Murchison and Crown Peak we took a short break before continuing up Crown.
[Ben comes down the crux]
[The rock around the crux]
[This section was front-pointing and traversing across a slightly over hanging cornice which was balanced over a pretty big 'shrund which is not visible here. Fun times! ++]
[Vern balances across an arete just after descending the crux rock step (Steven Song photo)]
[Ben and Steven climb up a short, icy slope to another arete]
[Views on descent were awesome! ++]
[Vern balances down a 'sickle' on Willingdon's south ridge - easy but you don't want to trip over crampons on this section!]
[Where's all the 'scree'?! :) ++]
[A surprising view of Willingdon's summit from the south ridge.]
[Mount Balfour looks awesome from here!]
[Almost at the col]
[The unexpected tarn between Willingdon and Crown. Willingdon on the left here. ++]