Trip Details Date: June 29-30, 2019 Summit Elevation: 3,388 m Total Elevation Gain: 1,992 m Total Distance: 19.6 km Round Trip Time (Travelling Time): 21:33 (12:25) Difficulty Notes: Avalanche and crevasse hazard. There are also sections of scrambling and technical climbing that we did not reach. GPS Track: Victoria-North-Attempt
Time for a much overdue update! Continuing on the theme of big mountains, we attempted to climb the North Peak of Mt Victoria over the July long weekend. After a valiant effort, we turned around right after crossing the bergschrund. We lost too much time navigating over the schrund and generally being slow. By the time we were ready to start up the more technical sections the weather had warmed up, destabilizing the snowpack and weakening snow bridges. Between that and the scary experience of crossing the schrund, I was not comfortable going on and asked the group to turn around.
Trips like this reveal a lot about my psychology. On the way up I was excited to tackle a more technical peak and enjoying the stunning beauty of Mt Victoria, Mt Lefroy and the Death Trap. But, once we turned around, all those happy memories faded, replaced by shame and frustration. While the trip was a mix of joy and struggle, my memory of it is negative. Writing this post will be an interesting experiment. Perhaps spending more time reflecting on the good parts of the trip will reshape those memories a little.
The trip began with a hike to the Plain of Six Glaciers Tea House. A couple of friends joined us for the hike to the tea house and then returned home, leaving just the crazy ones to attempt Mt Victoria North. The journey out to the tea house is very beautiful, and I highly recommend it. We even managed to grab parking spot right by the trail head. I guess there are benefits to arrive when everything is starting to shut down. 😛
After enjoying a nice warm dinner by the tea house, the three hikers returned home and we started the trek up to the bivy site. In hindsight, I should have had dinner at the bivy instead of at the tea house. I ate a lot of food (being forced to clean up after Brian and a couple other guys 😉 ), and my stomach was not happy going up those switchbacks. However, it was nice to share a meal with everyone—and get an extra half sandwich off one of the hikers.
The bivy site was spectacular! We had a close up look at the glacier on Mt Victoira, the Death Trap, Mt Lefroy, etc, with Lake Louise far behind us reflecting the setting sun. The only thing we were missing was a look at Victoria North, which was hidden in the clouds. The one drawback to our spot was that we were expecting to camp on snow and not the rocks we ended up on. So guying out the tent required some creativity, but we managed.
After a very short night’s sleep, we got up and made breakfast. We lost a lot of time here, taking almost two hours to get ready. But, we got there eventually and started our way up the glacier by headlamp. The sun rose shortly thereafter. That is one of the tricks with Victoria North. You want to get going as early as possible so that you can get down before the weather warms up too much. However, all the reports we read suggested waiting until just before sunrise so that you don’t have to navigate the glacier by headlamp. The glacier wasn’t as bad as we were expecting (at least until we reached the bergschrund), but it was quite early in the season with a lot of recent snow to cover up the holes. I expect it gets worse in the summer.
I was pretty tired when we approached the top of the glacier. The heavy packs we carried up to the bivy site were taking their toll, and sadly they weren’t much lighter this morning. The short night also didn’t help, and I am finding that I am not quite fit enough for these bigger peaks. I am starting to do some training to make sure I am in better shape next year (and not having to take two months off to write a thesis should help too).
And then the fun began. The other party quickly made their way across what we thought was the bergschrund, only to discover a larger open crevasse behind it. They seemed to be making progress though, so we decided to follow them. However, that progress was short lived. After much struggle, they couldn’t find a way across and decided to turn back. They went all the way back to camp, choosing to try again the next day because it was already getting late in the day.
We didn’t have the luxury of trying again the following day, so we decided to press on. We aimed to cross the bergschrund right at the edge of the cliff band where it was thinner and there was only one crevasse instead of two. Nathan led the way with a belay from Brian who managed to place a nice snow picket. I belayed Brian across before following myself.
I was the heaviest person in the group, so when I followed Nathan and Brian’s footsteps across the narrow snow bridge, naturally I sunk in. Naturally, I also assumed that I was falling into the crevasse and prepared for the worse. A few moments later I came to stop and realized that the snow was simply compacting under my superior mass. Of course, there is no way to tell the difference until you come to a stop or find yourself dangling in mid air. I took two more terrifying steps, waiting to see where I’d end up. Thankfully the bridge held and I got across. Ihor followed shortly.
Now it was decision time once again. We planned to climb up to the col and see how the conditions were doing. We assumed that we could have to turn back at that point, but we could get lucky and make the summit. After the terrifying crevasse crossing, I was not ready to climb a hopefully supportive snow slope only to turn around, climb down again and recross the crevasse under worse conditions. I voiced my concerns and we agreed that the risks weren’t worth the slim chance of making it to the top. And thus ended our attempt at Mt Victoria North, except that we still had to get back down to camp.
Now that we were above the bergschrund, it would be a lot harder to catch a fall, especially with the thin snowpack on this steep slope. Thankfully Brian found a deeper pocket right above the snow bridge where he placed a picket. And so we began our descent back down across the crevasse. I still doubted the snow bridge and had little confidence in the picket, but I had to get down. So I gingerly stepped back down onto the bridge, expecting to fall in and pull the rest of the team down with me. Fortunately, I was wrong on both accounts. The snow bridge held. And once everyone but Brian was down, Ihor and I tested the picket and could not pull it out even when we were throwing both of our weight onto it. I guess we were pretty safe after all.
The snowpack was destabilizing though. As we descended the glacier, a small sluff rained snowballs down on us. That’s as close to an avalanche as I ever want to get. However, that was the only indecent, and we were soon back to camp. We packed up and made our way down the valley where summer awaited us.
So what did I learn? Probably the biggest thing is how much failure can hurt. If I am going to be tackling taller and harder peaks, I will probably get turned around more often and will need to learn to make the most of it, being thankful for what we were able to do and see together.
Secondly, I am going to run into new and terrifying challenges—such as crossing sketchy snow bridges. I will have to learn how to tackle them safely and trust in my team, or turn back. The crevasse crossing on this trip was a great example of being safe, while also being absolutely terrified. It will be important to know when I am safe—even if I don’t feel—and when I am in true danger.
And finally, we will need to work on being more efficient. That will require greater fitness on my part as well as better planning and organization.
In hindsight, this was a good learning experience. I am glad to be working on some easier, more relaxed trips this summer, but I am also looking forward to getting back and taking on some big mountains.