Nugara's trip report from Mount French is what attracted me to this wonderful peak. Great views, 3rd highest peak in K-country and some severe exposure to test hardened scramblers sounded like the perfect objective for a nice summer day. My goal for 2011, if I had one, was to try some more difficult scrambles and start doing more Alpine climbing, especially those involving relatively simple glacier ascents. I started the year well by skiing a bunch of peaks on simple glaciated terrain and solo'ing the west ridge of Baldy in the rain. I think I ended the summer fairly well too - with an ascent of Mount French with So Nakagawa as my company for the day.
Two days previous, on September 9 I managed to summit Mount Vaux, and my legs were still beat up from that mountain on September 11. So and I had scheduled an ascent of French already in February of 2011 so there was no way I was missing this opportunity due to sore and stiff leg muscles. My legs could just suck it up and deal with it. ;-) I met So in the Burstall Pass parking lot at 06:45 (he had scrambled Big Sister the day before and camped in his car over night). Another party was also leaving the parking lot, headed for the French-Haig-Robertson traverse. I don't know why you'd do this traverse on foot since it's a perfect day trip on skis but I guess it's still great views in the summer.
I should have simply followed the same approach up French Creek that we did for CEGNFS and Mount Murray but I had a slow and tired brain this particular morning and we started up French Creek on the winter access trail. This worked out OK. Eventually the trail disappeared on avalanche slopes coming off Mount Burstall but we simply descended back to the creek and picked up another trail. We were on trails of varying degree the entire time. Copious amounts of deadfall made the experience a bit less pleasant than it could have been, but some beautiful waterfalls, that you won't see on the regular summer route, kept us entertained.
[A gorgeous early morning glow near the Burstall Pass parking lot.]
[So hikes along a raging French Creek]
[So leads a short bushwhack around a problem area along French Creek]
[Fall colors are coming out as we continue up the French Creek drainage. The trail is at lower left here.]
[Interesting bits of terrain along the barely visible trail.]
[A really cool waterfall along French Creek. This is looking back.]
[Looking back down the falls as we climb the trail next to it.]
[Yep! We're into the 'suck' for a bit...]
[Following the other side of French Creek now.]
[More interesting terrain as we follow the faint trail.]
[Looking up the old moraines towards the French Glacier which is still out of sight.]
[Finally gaining some real height to the glacier, looking back down our approach route.]
[Looking down at the French Glacier from the moraine.]
Finally after 2+ hours of fast-paced hiking we found ourselves looking at the French glacier from the top of a moraine. So wasn't too happy about the snow-covered ice (we didn't have rope or rescue gear along with the intent of scrambling this mountain) but I encouraged him to 'stick his nose in it' before cancelling our plans just yet. The snow-cover proved to be old and shallow and we felt comfortable soloing the glacier.
(NOTE: You should never solo a glacier without having intimate knowledge of the risk you are taking by doing so - depending on conditions the same glacier can be very tame or very dangerous. PLEASE DON'T use my experiences or trip reports to do dumb things yourself...)
[The glacial snow / ice was pretty melted back, so we felt safe on it. This is looking up the infamous "wind scoop" near the French / Robertson col.]
[So approaches the French / Robertson col on the French Glacier.]
At the 3 hour mark we were enjoying a snack on the Haig ice field with gorgeous views all around. The south slopes of French looked pretty intimidating from this angle. The oddest thing happened when we sat down to eat - we heard human voices - quite a few of them, echoing across the ice field! It wasn't the group behind us as they were well back, out of sight. So mentioned it could be skier's training on the Haig but given the lateness of the summer season he didn't think so. It turns out he was right though. As we made our way to the snow / scree slopes on the south side of French we could see about a dozen x-country skiers below us, training on a pretty extensive system of tracks on the icefield. What a glorious training ground! Some of them stopped to watch our progress up the steep snow and rubble and waved at us when we turned around. I'm sure from their vantage it looked pretty crazy where we were ascending.
[Mount French's south slopes from the French / Robertson col.]
[Great views of the Haig Icefield include (R to L), Robertson, Sir Douglas, Monro, Maude. ++]
[One of my favorite shots of the mighty Mount King George!]
[The xcountry ski team practices.]
[Starting the long haul up the south access slope on Mount French.]
The 500 meters of height gain between the Haig icefield and the ridge of Mount French is best described as ... "HORRIBLE". Every step up is a small step back down. Like on Mount Vaux, but smaller scree that would be much better on the way down, you still want to be here with a very small ascent party or solo due to rock fall. We followed bits of trail where we could find it, working our way through the small slabby cliff bands guarding the ridge. Every once in a while a whole section of slope would simply start sliding down beneath us.
We topped out on the ridge only to realize that almost immediately we had to lose about 20-30 meters of height. At first it looked really nasty but So found an easier bypass on skier's left that took us to the first exposed section of the ridge. Due to the loose nature of this knife-edge, I found it comparable in difficulty to the crux. Less exposed, but much looser. After this we ascended some pretty serious terrain before topping out at a false summit.
[A nice break to take off the crampons and view the Haig Icefield. Jellico on the left.]
[Skiers on a white canvas]
[Amazing panoramas start opening up as we gain the ridge on French. From R to L, Robertson, Sir Douglas, Monro, Maude. The Royal Group in the far distance. ++]
[Nearing the ridge, looking back.]
[It's a grind!]
[Mount King George with Princess Mary and Prince Albert to the right and left.]
[Loose scree makes for a tiring ascent to the ridge!]
[Can't stop taking photos. It was an excuse to take a breather... Note Maude Lake in the distance at left? ++]
[Finally we gain the ridge and look at what lies ahead. GULP. :)]
[Looking at the descent from the false summit to the scary crux. ++]
From the false summit we dropped down a bit before encountering the crux. So warned me that he wasn't stopping - I couldn't blame him - no use staring at something this scary for too long! Neither of us hesitated very long before tackling the narrow ridge with absolutely NO room for error anywhere along it. So crossed so quickly I couldn't even get a decent picture of him! I was relieved when he made it (I don't like watching tight-rope performances live, with no safety net... ;-)). I went a bit slower, using my hands when I needed to. Stiff wind gusts didn't help but at least the crux was fairly solid! This is the first time I've ever 'zoned' on a scramble. The world ceased to exist outside of my next move - it was a great feeling!
The looseness of the terrain combined with the need for some route finding makes the whole ridge traverse a climber's scramble at minimum. Many parties will want a rope on Mount French, although finding good protection could be interesting - bring lots of big slings. The fact that we had some stiff wind made things extra-spicy. :-)
[So on the upper ridge before the main crux.]
[A wider shot, showing the crux wall on the right. We are now higher than Robertson on the left. ++]
[Looking at the crux. There's some exposure. :)]
[No stopping So! He walks along the crux like it's another day on the sidewalk...]
Surprisingly the difficulties on French aren't only the exposed ridge sections but also steep, loose terrain near the summit. We climbed a chimney with very loose hand / foot holds and a icy slope leading into it (i.e. if you fell you were going all the way down). I wasn't mentally prepared for this section and found it almost as interesting as the crux just before it - actually it felt a bit more dangerous than the crux due to the very loose nature of the holds and the consequence of a slip.
We only spent a few minutes at the summit. Great views in all directions, obviously, given the stature and location of it. We were the first to sign the register in the two years since Kevin Barton and Keith Bott added their names. There weren't more than around 8 or 9 parties in the register since the year 2000.
[Tons of interesting peaks visible from the 3rd highest peak in Kananaskis Country. ++]
[Mount Sir Douglas towers over everything else on the left, Assiniboine in the far distance at center and Birdwood / Commonwealth on the right. ++]
[Mount Assiniboine on the right, Eon on the left.]
[Mount King George]
[Mount Joffre looms over Mount Northover]
[Another pano looking over Jellico (L), Maude Lake, Joffre, King George and Sir Douglas (R). ++]
[Another pano, this time it's the Spray River Road summits, from L to R, Engadine, The Tower, Galatea, Gusty, Fortress, Chester and James Walker.]
[So on the summit of Mount French]
[I love the way the ridge to the west slopes down to the French Creek valley below.]
Down climbing the chimney under the summit was tricky. The crux was easier for me on return and the narrow ridge just before the first section of ridge after the scree slope was also easier to descend, for me. The scree bash back down the south face was pretty quick and the judicious use of snow patches on the lower section below the French Glacier also saved us time and energy. There was no quick exit beyond the snow patches though! We ended up on the summer access trail (same access as Murray) on the way out. There is no creek crossing until the TransAlta dam this way and it worked great. There was a bunch of avalanche debris (fallen trees) on the trail around the area where you branch off for Murray. Pink flagging on this section could cause you to end up on CEGNFS if you're not careful on ascent. Don't follow flagging up an avalanche gully if you're trying to reach the French glacier - the French Creek trail keeps going straight across the fallen trees and debris and never strays too far from the creek.
[The steep gully under the summit]
[The final bit of ridge we traverse climber's right underneath to avoid]
[One of my favorite shots from the trip - So on the left with the summit block on the right. ++]
[So crosses over the crux on return]
[Looking back at the exposure down the crux. ++]
[So with King George in the bg]
[More exposure to the north off the ridge. Our descent scree slope is oos to the right.]
[The second (on return) crux]
[More loose terrain while traversing to the scree descent slope]
[Finally looking down at scree!]
[B&W tele-pano of distant giants. ++]
[Our ascent tracks across the glacier as we descend back into the French Creek drainage.]
[The muddiest glacial runoff I've ever seen!]
[Dealing with avalanche debris on the return trail]
Mount French is one of my favorite scrambles - a top 10 for sure. Technically this is probably no longer 'scrambling' but might be classified as a low 5th class climb that we solo'd. Calling it a climber's scramble may make some people feel better about not roping up but when you get up on the ridge it's the 'climbing' sections that could make you wish you brought a rope and some protection. The views and obscurity of the mountain make the effort pay off. Our round trip time of just under 10 hours was only achieved because of So's quick hiking pace through the deadfall! :-)
If you're very comfortable on steep, loose and exposed terrain you'll love this peak and should try it some day.