As I lay in my truck at the Kinney Lake parking lot I could hear the Robson River gurgling cheerfully behind me. I could see a million stars starting to come out high above me and there were even some birds chirping their final evening songs just outside my window. My trip had already started out on a good note. On the long drive from Calgary I was cruising past the North Saskatchewan River flats near Mount Amery, when I noticed some movement in the far distance across the Athabasca River. It looked like a large cat! I stopped the truck and took out the longest telephoto lens I had with me - only 300mm unfortunately. (I left the 600mm at home which is the last time I do that.) I spent the next 5 minutes playing stare-off with a very large (almost certainly a male) Canadian Lynx! It's the first and only time I've seen one in the wild. What a beautiful and graceful creature! Seeing that large cat stalking along the river like it owned the place felt like a very good omen for my upcoming trip. I had no idea Lynx could get that large. Without the tell tale tufts on the ears I would have thought it was a bobcat or cougar by its size. Eventually the cat disappeared into the forest and I continued my drive north.
[A large Canadian Lynx watches me from across the North Saskatchewan River.]
[The hunter goes back to doing his thing, so I go back to doing mine...]
This wasn't my first time planning a trip to the Berg Lake area. In the fall of 2013 I did a wonderful solo trip there. I scrambled two peaks, Titkana and Mumm Peak and hiked a few popular trails including Snowbird Pass, Mumm Basin and Tobaggan Falls. Because it was late fall I pretty much had the area to myself, which made it a very top quality trip - probably a top 10 for me. I have a large photo of Mount Robson with the Milky Way hanging on my wall and the view of it never gets old.
[A gorgeous evening drive up hwy 93, this is from a rest stop above the Big Bend, looking back south. Cirrus at left.]
This time would be a bit different. Instead of going in the late off-season, we were going in the early off-season. And instead of hikes and scrambles we were planning a fairly serious ski mountaineering objective - the 3426m summit of Mount Resplendent. Resplendent has been on my radar for years already. I knew it could be a ski objective in the right conditions and considering who it's neighbor is, I also knew it would have incredible views of the mighty Mount Robson - the highest peak in the Rockies, looming over 500 meters higher than Resplendent at 3954m!
Of course, several things had to line up in order for this trip to be successful. Ben had just attempted the peak with a few friends and was turned around in low visibility just under the Resplendent / Robson (RR) col. The area around Robson is notorious for rapidly changing weather and precipitation due to the prominence of the Robson massif. The approach to Kinney Lake even has inland species of cedars and hemlock due to the moisture in the area. So we needed good visibility - something not guaranteed by a long shot! The long term weather forecast was calling for a clear Sunday and almost too-warm temperatures for the weekend. We also needed a third person on our rope for safer travel on the heavily crevassed Robson Glacier. Mike Mitchell agreed to join. The final thing we needed was snow. We knew there was tons of snow high up in the Berg Lake area, but the approach for the Robson area starts annoyingly low at around 2800 feet - and there wasn't much snow down here! The thought of carrying my skis on an already heavy winter mountaineering pack was not making my sore back and worn knees very excited - I can assure you! But I'm used to 11000ers by now. They will hurt you. They will test your true desire to stand on their summit. They will try to break you. The trick is to ignore all the suffering that the mountain throws your way and simply learn to accept it as an integral part of the experience. It's gonna hurt real good! Deal with it. ;)
Our trip was planned for Fri Apr 8 to Mon Apr 11. With one day on either end for approach and egress, this would hopefully give us two days for Resplendent if needed. As a further risk mitigation, we were planning a winter camp under Extinguisher Tower to move our base of attack about 500m higher and over 7km closer to Resplendent. We were also planning on attempting Rearguard Peak if we got the chance - since we were in the area anyway. Darn peak baggers... ;)
Eventually Ben and Mike drove in beside me and we all hunkered down for a few hours of restless sleep in our vehicles. It didn't help that some small creature decided to use my truck roof as a race track all night! Even banging on the roof didn't help. I seem to attract rodents while bivying. What's up with that? We forgot to communicate which time zone we were using on this trip, so Ben was up at 05:30 AB time while my phone switched to BC time on me. We ended up rising at 06:30 AB time. Oh well. We 'only' had to go the 18km and around 1100m vertical to the Hargreaves Shelter at Berg Lake and we had tons of daylight to do it in.
We started from the parking lot with our skis strapped to our packs. It is always interesting when you start a ski trip with the snow sticks on the pack and ski boots on the feet! After almost 2km we finally switched to 'skiing'. Make no mistake. This was spring approach skiing at its finest. It included the 'low snow' classics such as bushwhacking with skis, skinning through mud puddles and my personal favorite - skinning across tens of meters of scree, gravel and muddy ice between far flung snow patches that kept beckoning us on with their siren calls that promised solid snow just ahead. Mike was a bit shocked at the abuse Ben and I were dishing our gear and I'm pretty sure he started questioning our sanity on stretches of bare road where we just kept tramping on stubbornly refusing to take the skis off!
[Ben hikes the wide trail to Kinney Lake as we get our first views of Resplendent Mountain at upper right. Robson at left, obviously.]
['Skiing' beside the Robson River.]
[Essential skillz for spring ski trips include navigating through dead fall with no snow. ;)]
When we got to Kinney Lake the snow situation deteriorated even further. The lake ice was way too sketchy to ski across so we had to hike the annoying summer trail up and around it. But there was NO snow here! Not even a patch or two to tempt us. The skis went back on the packs for the trudge around Kinney Lake and well beyond the lake up the Whitehorn Hill towards the Whitehorn campground. The hill is south facing and was completely melted bare. At least the views kept us entertained - especially trying to scope out the various approach options for Whitehorn Mountain, another 11000er in the area that we're interested in.
[Maybe skinning across Kinney Lake isn't a great idea. Maybe if we go fast enough?]
[Reluctantly hiking with the skis on our packs again, around Kinney Lake.]
[Perfect camping weather and no campers at Kinney!]
[At least we avoided part of the rolling trail (out of sight at right) by short cutting across the Kinney Lake flats at the NW end of the lake before the Whitehorn Hill. Apparently there is a route up the avy slopes just left of center, that can be used to access Whitehorn Mountain - another 11000er in the area, just barely visible at upper right.]
[Mike grunts his way up a VERY dry Whitehorn Hill.]
[The trail to the Whitehorn campground is nice. And dry.]
[Crossing the cable bridge over the Robson River, just before the Whitehorn campground.]
Across the cable bridge near the Whitehorn campground and ranger station, we finally attached the skis back onto our feet where they belonged and started skinning towards the Emperor Hill below the Valley of a Thousand Falls. Sorry to rant here for a second but it has to be said that I was a wee bit disappointed my first time through here. Sure - the scenery is mind blowing and there's some gorgeous waterfall action but a THOUSAND falls? Not even close. It should be called the "Valley of Four Falls and 15 Trickles of Water" or something like that. Talk about false advertising. ;) That reminds me of another ridiculous name - the Canadian Mount Everest Trail near the Kananaskis Lakes area. Everest? Really?
As we skinned towards the Emperor hill, Mike commented that it was looking pretty darn dry. Sure enough! We managed to skin up about a third of the hill before I was skinning on dry scree and the other guys were carrying their skis again! Eventually even I gave up and gave my poor skins a break. After White Falls when the trail took a sharp turn into thicker trees again we finally put our skis back on and left them on the rest of the approach. As we skinned up the interesting and scenic ridge beside Emperor Falls, Mike asked where the Emperor Falls were! He was expecting much more than the half frozen wimpy cascade that we were seeing I guess. I have to say - it's much more impressive in the summer at full flow.
[The skis are back on! Ben skins along the Robson River on route to the Emperor Hill just ahead to the right.]
[Clear, cold, refreshing. The Robson River.]
[Ben really wants to keep the snow sticks on!]
[Starting the steep grunt up the Emperor Hill on very marginal snow.]
[Even Ben has to give up at some point! Skis are once again being carried...]
[Back "in the day", Curly Phillips was paid something like $50/mile to build the trail to Berg Lake and constructed his famous "flying trestle" somewhere near this spot which was used for many years until a new trail was blasted into the rock face.]
[One of my favorite sections of the approach to Berg Lake is this section of trail up the Emperor Hill.]
[Above the Emperor Hill we finally put the skis back on for the remainder of the approach.]
[The exposure off this section can be interesting - especially on descent when the trail is really icy!]
[Emperor Falls is not looking that impressive today.]
[Crossing this bridge was a PITA so I simply descended to the left and bypassed it completely while Mike and Ben did their best yoga moves in AT ski gear beside me! Good times. :)]
[Ben skis up a narrow switchback on the trail above me while Mike completes his morning yoga session on the bridge at left.]
[The always impressive and terrifying Emperor Ridge rises above us as we crest the Emperor Hill section of trail.]
[Note the hand rail at lower left? This section of trail was mighty interesting on descent. By "interesting", I mean "suicidal". Ben is having a good time going up it though! Also note the fishnets that Ben is rocking here.]
The slog from the Emperor Falls view point turn off to Berg Lake was just as usual - much longer than you'd think. Thankfully the snow was pretty good and held our weight thanks to the skis. Snowshoes or boots would have sucked big time along this final stretch, as the snow pack was collapsing in the strong spring sun. We stopped for a break at the Emperor campground beneath the enormous and scary Emperor Ridge on Mount Robson. The sight of the ridge in winter conditions was enough to render me speechless. I'm not going to lie - anyone who looks at that route and thinks that it looks doable is far more of a climber than I'll ever be. Far more. Respect.
[Just past the Emperor Falls campground, skiing along the Robson River flats before Berg Lake but done most of our elevation gains now.]
[Robson's Emperor Ridge towers above us as we navigate the river flats before Berg Lake.]
[Skiing the flats before Berg Lake with the Berg Glacier on the right and Rearguard looming over it. Titkana Peak in the far distance at center.]
Because of the ridiculously warm weather we didn't trust Berg Lake enough to risk skiing across it. We reluctantly went left and skirted the lake on the regular summer trail. Not a huge deal, but not nearly as flat as the lake would have been either... The sight of the shelter was welcome and after 8.5 hours we could finally dry our gear and make a comfortable camp. We even managed to scrounge for dead fall and make a cheery, warm fire in the Hargreaves Shelter. A delightful way to spend the evening!
[Ben skins the trail along Berg Lake behind me with Robson and the Mist Glacier looming on the left.]
[A sight for tired eyes! The rebuilt Hargreaves Shelter is a wonderful place to enjoy a warm fire - provided you do the work of scrounging for deadfall as there is no fire wood provided.]
We prepared for setting up a winter camp under Extinguisher Tower the following day and decided we should get up around 0300 in case Resplendent was in shape. Given our updated forecast which was calling for 80% cloud cover on Resplendent for Saturday, we weren't very encouraged but you never know in the mountains. Just as we were falling asleep a group of snowshoers from Edmonton came stumbling into the hut! They assured us that they had destroyed the skin track (!!) and would try to be quiet. Yeah right... The next two hours were frustrating as I couldn't fall asleep with the head lamps and noise. I don't blame the group though - such are the joys of shared accommodation!