On Friday, September 09 2011 I joined Sonny Bou for a scramble up Mount Vaux in Yoho National Park. Mount Vaux is not your everyday scrambling objective. There are a few reasons for this;
No officially published route (surprising given it's stature and location).
It's a huge objective both in stature (over 2200 meters or 7260 feet of elevation gain) and in looseness.
It's under the magical 11,000 foot mark by a few hundred feet and isn't deemed 'worthy' by much of the climbing community.
The 'problem' with Vaux is that it's a beautiful mountain! I've been staring at it for years from other peaks, wondering what it would be like to stand on it's summit. It kept tempting me to try and this year I finally reached a breaking point after standing on a number of gorgeous Yoho mountains including Des Poilus, Yoho and Cathedral. I was determined to attempt scrambling up Vaux and solving the mystery of standing on it's summit.
The fact that there are no published routes up Vaux doesn't mean there's no beta on it. The veritable Alan Kane has a trip report on his web site detailing a scramble that he and Sim Galloway did back in 2000. The trip report is simple but clear and I always thought I would just follow the big gully to the top where I would scramble through a difficult cliff band and pop out on the summit ridge - no fuss, no muss!
When a couple of friends attempted this route back in July of 2007 they reported back that the scramble route either didn't exist or was very difficult to find. This debate continued for 4 years and I decided it was time to end it once and for all. Is there a scramble route up Vaux that doesn't require technical gear to ascend AND descend?
After a brief debate about Kane's route photo (which Sonny has conclusively proved is wrong - do not get confused by the route photo - use Sonny's instead), with both Alan Kane himself and also Rick Collier (Rick didn't descend the ascent route due to it's objective hazards), I felt ready to finally organize an outing. I didn't want a large ascent party because of the loose terrain and I wanted some company that would be comfortable on loose, exposed and giant mountains. Sonny Bou immediately came to mind. Greg Ng also indicated he would like to join. Than it snowed. A brief dump of white stuff before the September long weekend combined with a brief cold front and Vaux seemed out of reach for this year. But a week of warm weather and we were back on! I got an email from Sonny asking if I would be willing to take Friday off for the attempt and I most certainly was. A 03:30 alarm woke me on Friday and by 07:00 we were parked at a small gravel pullout right under the giant avalanche ascent gully of Vaux. This pullout leads right into a small logged area at the base of the gully - no need to park in the campground.
[From the clearing near the pullout you can see the massively foreshortened gully that we will ascend left of center. Chancellor is just in sight on the right.]
After leaving the bear spray in the car because I didn't want to lug it up 2200 meters I thought we'd probably run into a bear. After walking through a huge patch of fresh raspberries and bunch berries on the way up the lower gully I knew for a fact we would encounter a bruin at some point in our day! We grunted our way up 100's of meters of height gain, simply following the huge avalanche gully up and ever UP. We chatted for about the first 500 meters which helped pass the time, but eventually we struck up our own paces and separated as we climbed.
[Already hundreds of meters of vertical above the Trans Canada highway but only just starting the scramble! ++]
[Gazing down the gully - we haven't even passed tree line yet...]
[Finally gaining height into the middle of the gully which can be seen curving to the left up ahead.]
The avalanche gully is HUGELY foreshortened. On some mountains you're glad that the summit is in view the entire ascent. On Vaux it's a wicked temptress that calls out to you for hours on end and never gets closer! It's a wee bit depressing how slowly the cliff bands that look 'right there' from the car are no nearer after 2 hours of ascent. My strategy was to pick a rock far in the distance were I would take a short break and look back. The 'small rocks' turned out to be big boulders and the car was shrinking quickly behind us, so I knew that I was gaining on the peak even if it didn't seem like it at times. The other mountains all around Vaux slowly started shrinking as the sun began to light them up. Thank goodness the ascent was in shadow all morning.
[Thankfully we're in the shade while ascending this beast. Getting much higher now. ++]
[Getting even higher now, looking down the massive gully.]
[A tele of Sonny slogging up the massive scree gully with our access gully in the sun behind him.]
[The terrain is horribly loose, the higher you go. It was likely covered by ice a short while ago and gets rearranged by avalanches each winter. The snow gully I should have ascended at upper right.]
As I followed the gully slowly to climber's left I developed a route hunch. I figured that lingering snow patches against the cliff walls to my right would be a great asset compared to the increasingly loose, nasty terrain in the gully itself. I think most people would be inclined to head straight up from where I was, but this will cliff you out eventually. The issue to accessing the snow slopes next to the cliffs was some down sloping, slabby cliff bands that had some running water going over them. I waited until a traverse to my right became possible and slowly worked my way over to the snow. Crampons and ax came out and up I went - the snow was excellent compared to the scree and boulder field.
I was having a great time ascending - even with the giant elevation gains. The day was shaping up to be one of those incredible fall displays of blue skies, orange and yellow slopes and a faint cool breeze kissing your face. I took fresh fruit along and stopped about 4 times on the way up to munch on it's juicy goodness - it was so invigorating! The views were mind blowing after the first 2 hours so stopping for a few minutes wasn't hard. My fitness is usually pretty good by the end of summer and after lugging a heavy pack up Des Poilus and Cathedral I felt great with the day pack on Vaux.
At the top of the snow patch I was tempted by a narrow snow couloir further to my right but didn't know if it would go or not (it would have been perfect on hindsight) so I reluctantly bailed back onto the rock, still about 400 meters below the summit ridge with a huge wall of gray rock looming to my right. For the first time I began to wonder if there was indeed a route through the terrain in front of me and if we'd be able to get back down the route even if we found it!
[Starting the curve to climber's left, the lower south ridge is now showing up on the left in this view back down my ascent route.]
[On snow, finally!]
[Back on slabs covered in loose rock. :(]
[Great views to the Bugaboos]
[Taking advantage of another snow patch]
[Higher than most other peaks in the vicinity now - still not at the crux. ++]
[The unmistakable form of Sir Donald]
[Sir Sanford is another recognizable form.]
So far my hunch was working perfectly and it continued to pay off. I guess my mountain senses were due for a good day. I ascended a steepish rock buttress above the snow slope, working my way climber's right towards the wall of gray rock. At the top of the buttress I was confronted by a narrow snow arete (the top of the couloir that I didn't ascend). The arete ended at the gray wall of rock. As I examined the arete and wall behind it I noticed a possible route up some ledges and around a small seepage coming down from the orange rock slopes above. This looked very promising and was about the right height to be the 15m crux that Kane mentions in his trip report. Sonny was quite a ways below me at this point so I left a cairn for him, hollered a few times to make sure he was OK, waited for his affirmation and put the crampons back on for the arete traverse (the snow was very hard and a slip would have been uncool).
[The snow arete just under the crux wall to the ridge. I used crampons to cross it and was glad I had them along.]
The crux was very steep with loose handholds but firm little ledges that I could work my way up on. When I topped out on this section and looked back I felt a wee bit apprehensive about getting back down it, but told myself that the ledges would make it manageable. The trick I do with difficult sections is to break apart the difficulties into small steps of one or two moves instead of looking at the whole problem as once. After leaving another cairn for the way back (cairns don't last long on this mountain so don't expect to find mine if you go) I turned to the task of getting to the summit ridge. I was still over 300 vertical meters from the summit at this point.
[Looking up the loose and steep crux - much steeper than it appears here.]
[High above the snow arete now, climbing to the ridge and looking back down.]
The final bash to the summit ridge was steep and again, very, very loose. I can't state clearly enough how loose Vaux is. Some day the whole mountain will collapse under it's own looseness - I'm sure of it. :-) I wouldn't ascend with more than 2 people and I would make sure you are good at dodge ball first. Just remember that rocks hurt a little more than dodge balls do. I touched some rocks as big as myself and they would rock back and forth! Putting my weight on anything was an exercise in slow pressure to see if it would hold or send me tumbling down the mountain. I was surprised to find a couple of cairns still standing on the final section to the ridge. They were very handy, guiding me a bit to climber's right onto slightly easier terrain above the crux. When I finally topped out on the ridge next to the Hanbury glacier I could hardly believe I was almost there!
[Note the steep headwall to the right? Don't try to scramble that... ;)]
[Finally on the easy summit ridge]
I trudged up easy scree next to the glacier for the last 50 vertical meters and found myself standing on the summit of Mount Vaux with almost no wind and mind blowing views stretching out in all directions. It had taken me just over 6 hours to climb the ~5km gully on Vaux. Mountains that were looming above us on the drive in, were now little bumps compared to my vantage point. The Hanbury Glacier looked very nice and inviting - too bad there's no easy route down it or I wouldn't hesitate recommending it as a descent option.
[One of the best summit views I've had - Chancellor at extreme left, looking west over the Trans Canada. ++]
[Looking over the Hanbury Glacier at the Goodsir Towers and Lake Louise peaks. ++]
The summit register showed that we were only the 15th party since 1961 to find and sign it. I know other's have been up but obviously the register was buried in snow for some of them. We were the first party since 2009 according to the register. It was interesting to see that there was a 'burst' of ascents (3 or 4) when Kane put the route on his web site. I'm sure this will happen once Sonny and I re-confirm the route on our sites. That's OK - this is a gorgeous mountain that deserves more ascents!
[That is a LONG way down! Looking 2000 meters north off the summit, down to the Kicking Horse River with Mount Hurd well below me on the right.]
[The "King of the Wapta Icefield" - Mount Balfour]
[Looking over The President (L) and Vice President (R) towards Des Poilus, Yoho and Collie.]
[Looking towards McArthur]
[Mount Forbes is easily visible from Vaux. Of course, it's always visible as the highest point in Banff National Park...]
[Sir Sanford is the giant on the left.]
[Mount Rogers lies to the west]
[Mount Sir Donald is another giant peak to the west in the Selkirk mountain range. ++]
[The Bugaboos are visible through haze to the west including the Howser Spires, Bugaboo Spire and Snowpatch Spire.]
[Chancellor is another huge, loose mountain in the Ottertail Range that is rumored to have a scramble route.]
[The impressive and terrifying NW face of the Goodsir Towers! I think the peak to the left is Teepee Peak.]
[Looking over Cathedral Mountain towards Skoki with the summit of Mount Hector on the left.]
[Mount Stephen on the right in the fg with Willingdon, Crown and Tower in the distance at left.]
[Niles (L) and Daly (R) with the long ridge of Mount Ogden in the foreground.]
[Another pano looking west. How many can you name? ++]
[View towards Forbes. ++]
[The Wapta Icefield at left and O'hara on the right. ++]
[Mount Temple looms in the distance with Hungabee on the left and Biddle in the fg.]
[The summit register is old school.]
[The register doesn't have many entries since 1961. ++]
[Another shot of Sir Donald to the west.]
[The very impressive Sir Sanford on the left. ++]
[Zoomed pano of the Lake Louise peaks from Victoria (L) to Biddle, Temple, Hungabee and Deltaform (R). ++]
[Sonny comes up the summit ridge.]
[Sonny is very happy to finally stand on the lofty summit of Mount Vaux!]
[Colorful tarns near the Hanbury Glacier]
[A different sort of pano - the Kicking Horse River winds its way down the valley below. ++]
[One last shot of the Goodsir Towers looming over a small tarn beneath the Hanbury Glacier.]
Sonny eventually joined me at the summit and we relaxed for another 40 minutes before heading down. The descent was brutally long and the loose terrain kept trying to throw us off the mountain but we made it eventually. Being tired on that terrain was brutal because any time either of us lost concentration the mountain would immediately try to trip us up. The crux was very tricky but we took our time and managed to down climb it. We used the snow slopes to our advantage which saved some time and our knees. The fresh water on route was a God-send in the hot afternoon sun and I kept dousing myself with it at every opportunity. Sure enough - we also ran into a black bear on descent. It was blocking our route through the berry patch in the lower gully but eventually moved off to the side and we passed it with no issues.
[Sonny starts the long descent - note how bloody unattached everything is?! This is what the Goodsirs are reputed to be like too.]
[Loose and steep above the crux - you don't want a large summit party on Vaux.]
[Carefully down climbing near the crux.]
[Looking from across the snow arete back towards the crux wall. Sonny is retrieving a dropped GPS which is better than retrieving a dropped Sonny! :)]
[There's still a lot of loose and tricky terrain to down climb after the crux.]
[The snow was almost too hard to glissade safely.]
[Looking back at Sonny as we take advantage of a huge snow patch on descent.]
[Huge terrain in the upper bowl on Vaux.]
[I love these trees on the cliffs - they are determined to survive.]
[Much further down the drainage now, looking down the 'chute' that is near the bottom.]
[Running water! Sonny enters the chute.]
[The bear that I KNEW we'd run into when I made the early morning decision to leave the bear spray at the car...]
[Looking back at Vaux with the ascent gully clearly visible. Man that thing is huge!]
[Next on the list? Chancellor glows invitingly in the warm setting sun.]
It felt great to bag this giant peak 'by fair means' (no rope) and I felt great the whole day. Windless, clear, warm conditions were essential to how much fun I had. I think on a windy day there's probably a lot of rock fall on Vaux. You should consider taking a rope if you're not comfortable with climber's scrambles - but good luck finding solid protection! The best way I could describe Vaux is that it's like Mount Stephen, only 300 meters more gain, a lot looser and no trail. Our round trip time was just under 12 hours including over an hour at the summit and a few longish breaks on the way down.