Falling ice and rock slides…

It was 2:30am and there was an unwelcome, but expected, wailing of my alarm to remind me of the ungodly start time we’d agreed the night before.  Before getting up into the cold dark “morning” I lay there thinking about what was in my bag and what I needed to grab before setting off.  My usual head-to-toe approach works well in sleepy moments:

On me (approach, and at the glacier)

  • Helmet (a rather prematurely dinged up Black Diamond Vapour)
  • Black Diamond Cosmo 160 head torch
  • Toque (a little Buff Thermonet hat)
  • Icebreaker T-shirt
  • Black Diamond CoEfficient Hoody (light mid layer)
  • Rab Torque soft-shell jacket
  • Merino boxers
  • Ran Sawtooth soft-shell pants
  • Merino socks
  • Scarpa Mont Blanc Pro GTX boot
  • Petzl Lynx crampons
  • Black Diamond Carbon Z-poles
  • Cebe Lhoste Cat 4 glacier glasses

In the Pack (Black Diamond Speed 40)

  • Lunch and snacks
  • Black Diamond Deployment Hybrid (heavier mid-layer, just in case)
  • Dynafit Patrol 2.0 GTX
  • Climbing Rope (60m)
  • Climbing harness (Black Diamond Momentum)
  • Petzl Laser Speed Ice Screws (2 x 17cm and 2 x 21cm) – working in a rope team of 3 with same gear.
  • Ice screw carabiner – 1
  • 1 HMS ‘biner, 2 lockers, 3 non-lockers, 1 autobloc, 2 prusiks
  • 1 litre of water
  • Suncream (factor 50)
  • First aid kit

Clearly this needed prepping the night before but making sure I didn’t leave anything behind weighed on my mind.  As I finally managed to crawl out of my tent I was greeted by equally sleepy faces all attempting to sound cheerful and excited about the prospect of hitting up the glacier at the foot of Mt Athabasca. Prepping lunch, whilst trying to stomach breakfast at 3am was only one thing that made my stomach churn. The thought of leading the first pitches up the face of the glacier was probably making things somewhat worse.

We all set off up the moraine from the carpark by the Icefields Centre, headlamps lighting the way. Reaching the terminus of the glacier we got ropes ready and crampons on. At this point I really was getting rather nervous. The initial part of the climb was a reasonably shallow angle and so getting protection in wasn’t too much of a priority, but rather getting up the glacier at a good pace was. This was reinforced by the sound of rocks and ice crashing past us only a few metres away.

I will admit that I struggled to get through the transition quickly, and with other groups climbing not far from us there was always a risk of falling ice from above. Through the transition and the guide took the swing lead and sped things up somewhat. I was a bit relieved but frustrated that I hadn’t quite managed to get everything done as quickly as I would have liked. The climb wasn’t particularly challenging but with the rumbles and crashes going on around us, it was certainly a bit of a rush.

Three pitches later and we topped out onto the glacier. We were aware that the overnight temperatures hadn’t dropped enough to assure a good freeze on the glacier. It was a concern but we forged ahead anyway. Standing on the glacier our concerns were realised. The snow was soft, wet, and we were up to hour knees at times, sometimes deeper. This didn’t bode well for attaining any of our objectives. My little team (three of us) had taken on the more technical of the challenges (in terms of climbing). I was looking forward to it despite the additional traverse of the adjacent glacier, over a bergschrund, and finishing with some fifth class climbing (in my alpine boots). However, the day before we’d seen what the sun was doing to the slopes and there were fresh rockfalls, right across our planned route.

We edged up along the side of the glacier to first decision point. It would either be a left to abort or right to head to the col on the west of Athabasca and by Boundary Peak. It was clear from the moment we topped out that we wouldn’t be going far. So with heavy hearts we removed our crampons while watching the sunrise over the Rockies. It wasn’t the worst morning but we were all really disappointed that we didn’t make it even as far as we’d gone 2 days before.

We did have a bunch of fun on the way down though. Bumsliding our way down the snowy sections was a great way to speed our journey and pick up our spirits. A few near misses with surfaces rocks added to the buzz but sadly we didn’t all miss them. For one of us the abrupt stop of a leg was not followed by their body and a badly twisted knee followed. Fortunately it happened not too far from a reasonable clearing and space for a helicopter to come whisk them away to Jasper hospital. In the Canadian parks the entry fee includes helicopter rescue and certainly gives some serious peace of mind.

The last few kilometres was mainly loose gravel trails and took another hour or so to finish up back at starting point. We managed to get some more crevasse rescue practice in over the afternoon and relaxed for the rest of the day. Sadly the chap that injured themselves earlier did quite the number on himself (a nasty ACL injury) that resulted in him not making any more of the course days or the final expedition.

The day had lots of ups and downs (both mentally and physically, pardon the pun) and certainly the ability to call it quits is as much part of being in the mountains as gaining the objective. But it still stung a little not being able to bag a peak. There’s always another day 🙂

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