On Sunday, February 7 2016 I finally managed to get out to Abraham Lake along Hwy 11 in David Thompson Country for an attempt of Mount Michener - something I've been planning to do for a few years now. Originally Doug Lutz and I were planning to take Friday off for this venture, but thanks to 100+ km/h forecasted winds, we canceled our plans and worked instead.
Saturday I was looking at the "high" avalanche ratings for the alpine, thinking that my weekend just went bust when Doug messaged me that winds were forecast to be in the 20-40 km/h range for Sunday and that he was game to give it a shot. I was immediately on board with that plan. One issue with the Abraham Lake area is the drive. It's not very close to Calgary - but then again, neither is the Wapta or Columbia Icefields areas and I've done plenty of day trips there over the years. Doug and I agreed to meet in Rocky Mountain House around 05:30 which meant an early wakeup time of 03:00 for me.
The roads were bare and traffic was obviously non-existent once I was off the Hwy 2 corridor between Calgary and Edmonton. While I was bombing down highway 54 past Innisfail I noticed a strange cloud pattern to the north. Soon I realized that these were probably northern lights and started debating whether I should stop and take some photos. I didn't want to be late to meet Doug, but I know the value of stopping even when it's inconvenient and after turning north onto hwy 766 and looking directly at the dancing lights in the sky for about 5 minutes I gave up resisting and stopped alongside the highway. I shut off the truck and found myself standing in the middle of the highway with my tripod, gazing up at a million stars and the dancing green ghosts in the sky in silence - the ticking of the cooling truck engine and the howl of distant coyotes being the only noises I could hear. I set up the camera and fired off a few shots before tearing myself away from the scene and continuing on my drive.
[The night sky over highway 766 was pretty darn impressive.]
I met up with Doug along Hwy 11 in RMH and we continued to the trailhead in his car. This is the first time we've met and the first scramble we'd be doing together. We parked on Hwy 11 after the Windy Point Lookout where the road dips almost to lake level and directly across from our objective. It was still very dark at 07:00 so we took our time getting ready. By around 07:30 we were roped up and ready to cross Abraham Lake.
I grew up on a farm in southern Manitoba and am very used to driving, fishing and walking across frozen water, so crossing the lake wasn't a huge deal for me. It was a bit weird to see some open water near the shorelines but the ice was at least 1-2 feet thick in most places so I had no concerns. That being said, Abraham Lake is Alberta's largest man made lake and is dam controlled (Bighorn Dam) which means it can lower dramatically in winter, destabilizing the ice. There are also two rivers flowing through the reservoir (Cline and Saskatchewan) which further destabilize sections of ice and cause currents that can whisk you away, under the ice, should you fall in. Given these factors, Doug and I chose to rope up and bring some rescue gear (ice screws, crevasse rescue setup) in case one of us got wet.
Crossing Abraham Lake at sunrise was quite special. We were about 10 minutes too quick, on hindsight, but due to the lack of clouds it didn't matter too much. We had perfect conditions - no snow on the ice and thick ice. A couple of times the ice settled, which was unnerving, but due to the thickness there were no concerns. We got some cool shots of the methane bubbles in the clear blue ice, the phenomenon that make the lake famous with landscape photographers, before clambering up the shore near the northwest ascent ridge of Michener. After leaving the rope and screws on the rocky shore line we started the short bushwhack up the lower NW ridge, following old prints in the snow from a group that ascended a few weeks before us.
[Doug looks back at me from part way across Abraham Lake with Michener and our ascent route behind him.]
[It would be easy to spend an entire day just on the lake but we had a peak to bag! ;)]
[On hindsight we should have hung around for 10-15 minutes but honestly, there were no clouds and we thought sunrise was a bit of a bust.]
[On the shoreline with Michener oos on the right, looking east.]
[Panorama from the SE shoreline looking back at Mount Abraham. ++]
[A very interesting side channel coming into the lake from the Michener shoreline created this massive hole in the ice.]
[Gaining the lower NW ridge of Michener, looking back at Abraham Lake towards Vision Quest and Coral Ridge. ++]
[There is some bush, but thankfully it's not too thick and ends rather quickly. Also, the lack of snow made things much easier here.]
[We pop out of the thicker bush onto good rock and a very stiff / cold west wind coming off the lake.]
There was a surprising lack of snow, thankfully, and soon we were popping out onto the ridge proper, on great rock and sideways to a very nippy west wind. The views back down to Abraham Lake were, of course, stunning and we took many photographs behind us as we climbed the ridge. Thanks to a very restricted diet for the last 5 weeks, I could certainly feel my energy levels waning a lot quicker than I'm used to, but the interesting and new scenery helped, as did the desire to keep moving to avoid frost bite. ;)
[The ridge was good fun on mostly solid rock - I really enjoyed this part of the scramble. The views didn't hurt either.]
[Doug on the ridge with the lake below.]
[Abraham Lake stretches out almost in full view. ++]
[Doug takes on some good rock.]
[Doug on the ridge with Coral Ridge, Mount Stelfox, Bright Star and part of Vision Quest across the lake.]
[The summit nipple comes into view. I use that term intentionally, since apparently we are actually summiting 'Pheobe's Tit', not the high point of Mount Michener.]
[The lake looks a lot closer than it is here!]
[Elliot Peak (L) and Sentinel Mountain (C).]
[Coral Ridge, Mount Stelfox and Vision Quest in the foreground.]
[Looking over the Cline River confluence at Lion, Lioness, Cline, Troll and Dasent (L to R) with Purple Peak in front of Lion.]
[Panorama of peaks on the west side of the lake - click for named summits. ++]
It seemed to take a while, but eventually we found ourselves looking up at the final ascent ridge before the crux and the summit block. On hindsight we should have followed Mike / Steven's advice and stuck to the ridge, but the terrain looked challenging enough from below that we followed easier looking scree slopes around climber's right of the lower part of the ridge. After traversing scree we had to gain the ridge from the west, which was the least amount of fun we had all day. The scree on this slope is horribly loose and I welcomed every snow gully I could use to make some progress back to the ridge! Doug's right knee started giving him issues on this horrible treadmill scree and I started to get a bit ahead of him. We're both experienced scramblers so I wasn't too concerned and kept going in order to keep warm.
[Here's where we had a choice to either go directly up the ridge on the left or contour climber's right around the ridge on scree before ascending it from the south side. We chose the traverse and ascend option which on hindsight wasn't the right one... :)]
[Oh! This is going to be a blast! ;) Looking back at Doug as we start the scree traverse.]
[Scree slopes and the summit block up ahead. The ridge we should have stuck to is oos on the left.]
[Great panorama from back on the ridge, just under the crux, now includes the far eastern arm of the lake and the Bighorn Dam at the far end on the right. ++]
I'm not going to lie, as I stared up at the crux gully in the cold wind, with snow blowing down over cold rock, I wondered if it was really only 'moderate'. As I started up (without crampons at this point), I found the first part to be much easier than it appeared. The crux itself was tricky without the crampons - I regretted not having them on almost immediately. I was getting cold in the -17 wind chill and spindrift blowing down the chute from above, so I bullied my way through the crux before forcing myself to stop and don my crampons for the rest of the scramble to the summit and of course for descent. I could see Doug behind me, so I knew he'd be coming up and I started breaking trail through snow drifts to the summit.
[Staring up at the crux gully - it doesn't look bad from here but with snow squalls howling down over it and exposure on climber's left, it didn't feel great without crampons. The crux is alongside the rocky rib at upper center trending left to right.]
[Looking back from the crux over the ascent ridge - Doug is a tiny dot left of center - Bright Star, Vision Quest, Abraham, Allstones and Windy Point Ridge in the bg.]
[Looking down from the summit slopes after the crux (oos at lower left).]
The summit views did not disappoint! Even though some clouds had moved in, the views of Abraham Lake along with prominent ridges and peaks such as Abraham, Elliot, Corral and Vision Quest were stunning. Mount Cline and Resolute looked pretty big and there were brief glimpses of large mountains to the west including Stewart and others. The clouds did obscure some of the larger peaks, but I was just happy to finally be on the summit of Michener after quite a few years of pondering it.
NOTE: After posting this trip report to the scrambling Facebook page, a discussion arose between myself and Eric Coulthard about whether or not the summit everyone claims as 'Michener' really is the true summit. Looking at the first photo below, I personally done see a higher summit, but apparently some maps hint that there might be. Whether or not the claimed summit is the absolute high point is sort of a moot point, since it's definitely the peak known as 'Pheobe's Tit' and therefore is an official summit regardless. But now you know... :)
[Kista Peak at far left and Mount Mumford right of center. Possibly a higher summit of Michener left of center, but personally I don't think so.]
[Amazing views over Abraham Lake from Mumford and Elliot on the left to Abraham and Windy Point on the right. ++]
[Doug comes up after the crux - I was heading down but decided to back up to the summit with Doug.]
The views of unfamiliar peaks such as Windy Point Ridge and Kista Peak were also neat. I was getting fairly cold hands from operating my camera (huge disadvantage of using the iPhone touch screen for photos BTW...) and so I started back down to get a break from the wind. Doug was just coming up the ridge when the sun started coming out, so I turned back up and bagged the summit a second time with him. ;) After a few more summit shots with Doug, I started down.
[Another great summit panorama with Doug in it this time. ;) ++]
[Doug can't get enough of this scenery! ++]
Down climbing the crux in steel crampons was much easier than I was expecting, but it is exposed and very slick thanks to the snow that blows over it constantly, and I think in winter conditions it's as hard as some of the easier 'Kane difficult' scrambles that I've done over the years so I would have no problems labeling it as an easy-difficult or hard-moderate in winter. I got some good photos of Doug descending the crux before we continued down our route in the stiff west winds that were now about 40-50 kph - still quite light for this area, but chilly on this particular day.
[Looking back up the crux gully as Doug approaches it from above.]
[Doug delicately down climbs the crux.]
[Pano of the crux terrain (upper right) showing some of the exposure and the views around it. Doug is in this shot somewhere! ++]
[One more shot of the crux terrain (L) and the summit block (R) from the top of the NW ridge.]
[Doug heads down the scree off the NW ridge. ++]
[Great lighting as we descend the ridge. ++]
[Looking back up at the ridge (L) and summit. Sticking to the nose of the ridge is apparently only moderate scrambling.]
[Doug points something out to me as we descend.]
[A cairn marks the way through the forested lower ridge with Abraham Mountain in the bg.]
[Doug takes on the light bushwhacking back near the lake.]
[Doug and the interesting side channel that we found. ++]
It seemed to take a long time to get back onto Abraham Lake, but we took our time and enjoyed the crossing, stopping to photograph the interesting lines and bubbles in the ice. I really enjoyed this unique winter scramble. The crossing of Abraham Lake combined with winter views and dry rock scrambling in February makes Michener one of those unique Rockies peaks that every peak bagger should have on their mountain to-do list. Doug and I got along great and I can see us doing more adventures together.
[Roped up and ready to cross Abraham Lake.]
[The ice is fractured in many places, leaving very nice abstract 'nature art' for the lens to love.]
[Looking back at Mount Michener from the fractured lake.]
[Rivers run in the ice!]
[A perfect intersection.]
[Another look back at Michener from the lake - with bubbles in the fg.]
[Gorgeous afternoon panorama across Abraham Lake with Kista, Michener and Elliot (L to R) in the bg. ++]