Mt Athabasca – North Face

by Skyler

I’ve just finished ten days straight of field work in Jasper National Park. Now half way through July, I’ve not had a full rest day since I drove out here from Vancouver, on June 28th. I was drawn to Jasper as much for the climbing as for the chance to make a bit of money. If anything could keep me here, it would be the quality of the alpine ice, the size of the peaks, and the ease of access. The rock quality is stimulating at least.

I drove out to Jasper with Fix de Ruydts, and met up with Michal Rozworski and Geoff Martin for an introduction to Rockies mountaineering before I was due to start work. The four of us were finally united in the icefield parking lot at about 10:30PM  the night before we planned to climb (June 30th, 2012). We all agreed that the North Face of Athabasca looked most inspiring. Alarms set for 4AM, we curled up in the backs of the cars for a few hours of sleep.

Fix powers-up, making the best of a crushed carton of eggs. Athabasca’s N Face at far left.

At the trail head we wrote down our team information in the climbers’ registry, noting that Barry Blanchard was guiding ahead of us on the mountain. Big names. Weird. Our chosen route is steeped in history rarely found in the Coast Range. Here we could taste news-making ascents of the ’60s and ’70s in a playground of Golden Era heros. Now the north face of Athabasca is merely a single day test-piece to tick off before other classic Rocky Mountain north faces – an enjoyable day outing more than the adventurous feat it was forty years ago. I’m reminded that history is still in the making in the Coast Range. Nonetheless, the climbers’ registry was void of entries for the north face so early in the season.

Fix and Geoff soloing on the lower part of Athabasca’s N Face

The sun rises early and sets late in late June in the central Rockies. We never turned on our headlamps for the hike up the lose moraine to the edge of the glacier. Once on the glacier we followed tracks to the base of the Silverhorn route, where we split off, keeping our distance from a leering icefall, toward the bergschrund at the base of the N face. Once over the ‘schrund we unroped and soloed up the 45-50 degree snow slope. Somehow I talked my way into the coveted lead of the crux pitch. I would lead first and Fix, the pro photographer, would follow so that he could photograph the next team’s lead. Rock beats scissors, and Michal got the sharp end for the second team. We spotted a more direct, ice-clogged gully that looked steeper and nicer than the traditional crux pitch. Under a few centimeters of heavy snow lay an attractive pitch of solid water ice.

Michal climbs toward the crux. Our variation is directly above him.

Being the owner of several fancy ice screws, Michal kept  most of his good gear. Somehow I found myself wrist-twisting in an old screw below a short vertical step and bottoming out 22cm beasts in the thin ice after endless-feeling run outs. But after a slow and surprisingly stressful pitch of ice I was left grinning. Run out, off route, again. The variation was harder than I’d anticipated, and hanging on one arm for minutes each time I placed a screw made for exhausting, high-value climbing. I was surprised by how natural it all felt.

I was left with one long screw and some rock gear by the time I built a belay. The rock looked a decade away from gravel so I plugged in the screw, finding a thick enough patch of ice after several tries, and equalized it with a vigourously pounded ice tool. I encouraged Fix to avoid weighting the rope as he followed. Fix left the gear in place for Michal, unfortunately, and so we were not able to add another piece to the belay until three of us stood crowded around the chaotic mess of slings and carabiners. Michal’s fancy crankable ice screws went unused, of course, as he danced up the pre-protected pitch. Doing with less is the essence of both alpinism and dirt-baggery, and we were all the happier for the run outs and the entertaining anchor.

One more pitch of steep snow brought us to the summit ridge where we joined back together as a single rope team and marched into the now impenetrable fog. Thinking back, I wish we had unroped as we traversed the crevasse-free ridge. To rope together, but not place protection on exposed terrain can be a suicide pact – one slip earns four falls. But I was glad to be pulled along by Geoff’s seemingly bottomless well of energy and cheer. Fix’s crampons were balling badly, spontaneously building him unpredictable skis. He, undoubtedly, needed to be on a short rope with a braking assistant.

At the summit we found tracks from the guided group on the Silverhorn route which we followed down through swirling white until we fell out of the cloud and onto the AA Glacier. Some glissading, and several hours of slogging through heavy snow and horrendous Rocky Mountain scree brought us to the Snocoach (Icefield monster truck tours) terminal. Here we smiled at an attractive young tour bus driver who gave us a lift a few minutes down the road to the car park.

More fun to be had in the Andromeda “Practice Gullies”. Viewed on the descent.

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