On August 20, 2005 Sonny and I scrambled up over 1900 meters from the town of Field, BC to the summit of Mount Stephen. The weather was a beautiful, clear 20 degrees with a light south breeze keeping us cool for most of the day. We started out pretty late for such a big mountain because we first 'had' to get permits which would allow us passage through a world heritage fossil site. I put that in quotes because we ended up meeting 3 other guys none of who actually bothered with the passes. Officially of course, you should get a permit, if for no other reason than to avoid hefty fines of up to $25,000.
My overall impression of Mount Stephen is that if you do the Kane route it deserves it's difficult rating. If you do the 'Sonny' route you are in for a real treat. ;-) The first hint of what was to come came on the drive to the trailhead. Sonny directed me up a nasty back alley when the paved road through town would've worked just fine. Sonny likes to explore different routes.
We started off at the trailhead around 09:30 and quickly started climbing. If there's one good thing about all the elevation gain on this mountain, it's that half of it is done on a good trail. Once we entered the 'blue zone' (no stopping allowed) we kept the pace - a nice slow and steady uphill push that saw us gaining the first 1000 meters in about 2 hours under a nice cool morning breeze. We were feeling quite put off by the fact that we weren't seeing any fossils when all of a sudden we started seeing them everywhere. It was pretty cool to be walking on top of hundreds of very impressive fossils just scattered on the ground all over the place. There were also signs warning us away from the 'red zone' (attack helicopters will come after you).
[Checking out the bewildering number of different 'zones' that all come with the threat of heavy government fines if you're caught misbehaving in them.]
[Looking across valley to the south towards Mount Dennis.]
Soon after encountering the main fossil beds we noticed a guy wandering around the edge of the red zone picking up fossils (a huge no-no here) and gazing into space with a rather empty look. At first I thought he must be a ranger or warden because we were the only permits on the mountain that day but it became pretty obvious that he really had no idea where (or who?!) he was. I asked him some questions and he avoided answering any of them clearly. He didn't really know what time he left the trailhead and thought he could somehow avoid the fossil zones (even though he was right in the middle of it). Sonny and I didn't really become alarmed until he suggested that we continue climbing as a team.
I told him he could join us - what else was I going to say - but under no conditions were Sonny or I going to take responsibility for his lack of a permit or him picking up fossils. If helicopters came for him or rubber bullets started flying he was on his own! ;) Thankfully he very quickly fell behind our increased uphill pace and soon we spotted him making his way slowly back down. I think he got a bit scared by all our talk about crazy wardens and permits. Sonny and I had an interesting discussion about how we didn't really like scrambling with complete strangers because you never know their abilities. After this rather bizarre encounter we continued up very steep dirt / shale slopes until finally we were above the fossil bed zones.
[ASIDE: The story doesn't end here. Once back in Calgary, Sonny got a phone call from the Yoho National Park staff, inquiring about a guy they'd caught with a pack full of fossils, descending Mount Stephen when we were there! Because we were registered, they had our contact information and I generously let Sonny be the 'trip leader' so he got the call. ;) There was a chance he'd have to go to court to help prosecute the guy but as far as I know the case never went further.]
[Above tree line on the lower shoulder with excellent views towards The President, Wapta and Field (L to R).]
At this point we still had 1000 meters of elevation gain to go and even though my cardio was fine, I could feel my legs singing a bit already. We pushed on up the shoulder and through a very loose scree gully until we came to a huge scree slope that had smatterings of a trail interspersed between large fields of chunky scree boulders. We pushed ever upwards towards what we thought was probably the summit bump. WRONG! As we approached the 'summit bump' I realized that we weren't even close yet. We still had 500 vertical meters to go according to my trusty Suunto altimeter watch.
[Sonny trudges up hundreds of meters of this shale like it's nothing.]
[A wind corral on the ridge.]
[This is an extremely shortened view of the way up from the shoulder - about another 1000 meters of height gain left. Also note the 'summit block' at the top of the photo. This is not the summit block! You can either work your way right of this block (once you get up to it) or go straight up through it for the Sonny route.]
[Tackling some low, easy rock bands on the huge ascent slope under the false summit block.]
[Sonny goofs around on 'extreme' terrain. :)]
[The town of Field is getting smaller as we gain height.]
[It's a huge, foreshortened slope to the bottom of the false summit.]
[Looking down the west shoulder of Stephen.]
Here's where we had two options. If you want to make every other section on this mountain seem quite straight-forward then I would recommend you do the Sonny route. It rivals anything I did on Smuts two weeks ago - actually for me personally it was worse because most of the holds were very loose. Don't get me wrong, it was a lot of fun and like I said it made all the other sections seem quite tame - including jumping over empty space and severe exposure in several other parts of the upper ridge. For the curious, the Sonny route goes straight through the block on top of the huge scree slope. There is a darker opening that you can see from the shoulder and you simply go straight up through it. The first part looks bad enough but once you're about half way up things get vertical and loose really quick. I was temporarily stuck for about 30 seconds in this section desperately trying to find a solid foot / hand hold and finally had to close my mind and just 'go for it'. I made it! ;-)
[Sonny heads up the crux.]
[This shot from Sonny shows the exposure on the alternate crux route.]
The sane, or 'Kane' route follows faint trails around to climber's right of the wall and scrambles up a steep / loose gully back to the left to get on top of it. If you do this route I would recommend the steeper but more stable climbers left of the gully on a bit of a ridge. Once at the top of the crux we noticed the cairns and the much tamer gully climbers right of where we came up. We both agreed that we would be taking a different route down. We took a breather and Sonny climbed a small tower for some cool photo ops and then it was time for the final 500 vertical meters to the apex of this huge peak.
[Sonny celebrates surviving the crux!]
I would strongly recommend that if you are comfortable with steep and exposed places take the ridge as much as possible for the upper part of the mountain. It's possible to go to climbers right around most of this stuff but you will miss out on some excellent scrambling that you've paid a lot of heartbeats for! There are plenty of cairns to guide you up these areas so it's pretty hard to get too far off route. Remember - Kane never expects an experienced scrambler to feel the need for a rope in good conditions on any of his routes.
After our crux we came to an impossibly steep wall (that Sonny briefly considered scaling!) that we went around on climbers right, following cairns through a couple of cool moves that brought us beside another steep slope to our left that we thought about going up. Instead we kept traversing and came to a point where you could either head up to climbers left on steep (cairned) ledges or continue traversing to a steep snow gully. Both options lead you to that steep wall that you see in color in Kane's book. I went up the ledges and traversed a very exhilarating and exposed ridge to the wall while Sonny struggled up the gully.
At this point we heard voices and realized that two guys were coming down the steep wall. It turns out that they didn't have permits and had left the parking area at 07:00. One of them used an old rope that was only held in place by a small rock that was wedged in between two bigger ones, while the other guy removed the rope after determining that it was 'unsafe' - I couldn't believe anyone would seriously consider putting all their weight on such an unprotected / old section of rope! It's at the transition from the ridge to the wall that you do your first jump over a lot of nothing. It's kind of a cool feeling but at the same time you really have to hope that the landing zone holds. ;-)
[Note the two guys down climbing the 'normal' Kane crux wall that protects the summit block. This is definitely a 'no slip' zone and you don't want snow or ice here.]
[Sonny comes up the gully bypass to the bottom of the wall. I jumped a small gap instead.]
Sonny joined me at the top of the wall and we worked our way towards the summit which was still unseen at this point. Here's where I led us slightly off-route. Again, it probably works to avoid exposed traversing by staying quite low to climbers right but eventually you will have to go up anyway. I followed some tracks along snow at the base of the ridge and eventually realized that we'd be better off just going up. We turned back and scrambled up to the summit ridge at the first possible spot. It looks fairly nasty but that's why this is a difficult scramble and after the 'Sonny crux' this was no big deal! :-) The last 125 meters is very exposed and must be bone-dry to even consider. No wind is also preferable here. We topped out on Mount Stephen in 4 hours and 20 minutes from the parking lot.
At the summit we enjoyed a beautiful panorama of mountains, ruined slightly by a small shack that is anchored to the mountain with a bunch of thick steel cables. The summit register is actually in this shack and there is a warning in the register that if you let the trailer door shut behind you, you are trapped inside and will have to exit a small window! The register was from 1988 and we added our bits of wisdom to it. Sonny composed his 'trooper shot' before we reluctantly headed back down.
[Near the summit, looking over Cathedral Mountain towards Popes, Collier, Victoria North and South, Huber, Glacier, Wiwaxy, Ringrose, Hungabee, Deltaform, Yukness, Biddle, Schaffer and Odaray (L to R). ++]
[Sonny and Vern celebrate a most excellent summit.]
[View over the Presidents (L), Wapta (C) and up the Bow Valley (R). ++]
[Excellent view of Victoria North, South and Huber with it's route from the Wiwaxy col visible. Click here for approximate route line for the Huber Ledges.]
[Looking over McArthur Pass and down the Ottertail River.]
[Hungabee is one of the sexiest looking 11,000ers IMHO. ;) Ringrose to the left and to the left of that is Mount Fay.]
[Can't get enough views of the Lake O'Hara / Lake Louise area peaks. Even Mount Ball is showing at far right, just to the left of Biddle.]
[Field and the TCH lie 2000 meters below us.]
[Mount Forbes is another sexy 11,000er. The President and Vice President in the foreground.]
[The long ridge of Mount Balfour rises right to left over the Wapta Icefield.]
[Deep valleys and souring glaciers define the Wapta region. Collie at left with Baker, Habel, Rhondda and Gordon to the right.]
[Hungabee looms over Opabin Lake.]
[Chancellor and Vaux (R) loom to the west. Sonny and I would join forces again for the mighty Mount Vaux in September 2011.]
[Burgess and Walcott are tiny in the foreground, Carnarvon rising on the right in the bg.]
[Mount Owen (fg) is dwarfed by the scary Goodsir Towers in the distance beyond. Sentry at left.]
[A slightly wider view south includes Owen, the Goodsir Towers, Sentry, Sharp and other peaks along Helmet and Ochre Creeks (R to L).]
We stuck more closely to the ridge on the way down and agreed that it was exposed but more fun than avoiding it. There were a couple of places where we had to jump over small gaps and the jump from the base of the wall back onto the ridge was very interesting. Best not to think too long about what you're doing in these situations!
[Sonny starts down the summit ridge - the summit shack in the bg.]
[More of the exposed summit ridge.]
[Terrific exposure on our right - all the way down to the town of Field - descending the summit ridge.]
[Vern descends the difficult summit ridge.]
[Looking back along the summit ridge to the summit shack.]
[Descending the crux wall to the gap on the lower right.]
[Sonny avoids the gap on the right by down climbing small ledges on the crux wall.]
[Vern descends the crux on Mount Stephen.]
We avoided our crux gully on the way down by going to skiers left and negotiating our way down the more stable terrain on the sides. After this there were no other obstacles. Dipping our heads in the creek on the way out was a really good refresher and Sonny led us at full speed to my waiting car.
[Avoiding our ascent crux by down climbing the 'right' gully.]
[The gully we missed on the way up is certainly easier than the crux we ascended but still loose and steep.]
[Descending the endless scree slope to tree line.]
[Through the scree 'gate'!]
[The orange sign means "keep going!!" - entering the fossil beds on descent.]
Our round trip time was 8.5 hours including 50 minutes at the summit. Overall this was a fabulous trip. Both Sonny and I commented more than once that it didn't seem like 1920 meters height gain. I think it's partly because we were both feeling pretty good and there are enough fun parts in the last 500 meters to keep you from thinking about all the effort it's taking. A highly recommended trip for experienced parties.