Trip Details Date: June 15, 2019 Summit Elevation: 3,479 m1 Total Elevation Gain: 1,646 m Total Distance: 13.4 km Round Trip Time: 11:58 Difficulty Notes: Avalanche, crevasse and rockfall hazard. A few steep/exposed snow slopes and a short section of easy-moderate scrambling. GPS Track: Mt-Athabasca
The summer “hiking” season has gotten off to a rather interesting start. The rubber paving work I did in May, several personal commitments and the uncertainty of job hunting greatly limited the number of trips I could do. But, when I managed to get out, we did some big trips. Like this one up Mt Athabasca.
This was probably my first true alpine start. We got to the Icefield Centre at 10 pm and got two hours of sleep in before getting up at 12:00 am. After repacking and grabbing a quick bite to eat, we started down the snow coach road at 1 am. A week or so earlier I commented that I hadn’t done an sunrise hike in a while. Perhaps I spoke too soon.
The weather was a little concerning this weekend, likely why we were the only ones in the parking. We drove through several rainstorms on the way to the Icefield Centre, and it continued to rain while we slept. Thankfully it ceases around 11:30 and the skies cleared, allowing us to start our hike under the light of the moon. We were worried that there’d be a lot of fresh snow on the mountain and somewhat regretted not bringing out skis. However, our fears appeared unfounded, and it looked like the mountain barely got any snow, at least to my untrained eye.
The other problem with the rain was that it kept the temperature fairly warm. We were expecting only a marginal freeze, but when we got up it felt like we weren’t going to get any freeze at all. But as we hiked up the road the temperature dropped under the clearing skies and our hopes started to rise.
Of course the start of our trek was not without incident. A couple of the guys realized that they had forgotten their sunglasses, an easy mistake at 1 am in the morning. While they jogged back to the van, the rest of us enjoyed the comfort of the snow coach station. The issue resolved, we hiked a little further down the snow coach road before turning off to climb our way up the moraines.
Climbing up the moraines in the dark was an interesting experience. We could usually see a faint trail through the rubble, but we knew there were many of these and couldn’t tell where they led. We ran into several snowy patches. Some of them were slushy and rather useless, but others were firm enough to offer a much easier ascent route than the rubble beside them. Again, it was hard to tell if these were going to take us where we wanted to go or sidetrack us. In the end it all worked out though.
We heard a couple of waterfalls near us, which was pretty cool but also brought our minds back to the potential lack of an overnight freeze. Close to the hidden waterfall, we found a short bit of scrambling. It is hard to tell where the best route is in the dark, but the trail led us to a pretty straightforward section. We reached the glacier shortly thereafter.
The snow was not nearly as supportive as we would like. We saw old posthole tracks, but we had packed snowshoes, so we quickly donned those and made our way up the glacier as the alpenglow began.
We soon reached the ascent gully. There were many signs of avalanche activity, so we were glad to be there early and with a decent freeze. We took off our snowshoes and began the ascent. Unfortunately we chose to take the snowshoes up with us in case we needed them later. We never did and ended up dropping them off a little ways above the top of the col. I guess better safe than sorry.
We found the bergschrund just a little way up the gully and crossed it without trouble. After that it was just a long climb on okay snow. Near the top the snow made way for scree. The transition is always awkward, but we made it and got to enjoy the view down the backside of the col, towards the Saskatchewan Glacier.
There are a lot of different ways to get up the col. The GPS track we were following went up further to climbers left. Where we got up actually put us on the wrong side of the final ridge. However, there is a nice path around the bottom of the ridge, so it wasn’t a big deal. And we got to see down the other side of the col, something you couldn’t do it you went up further left. If you come our way, just made sure you circle around the ridge instead of trying to go straight up it.
We then began the climb up to the false summit. The snow was a lot firmer here, so we dropped off our snowshoes and put on our crampons. The path goes back and forth a lot between snow and scree, so watch your axe placements/footing and take your time. The sun was now up and I enjoyed the phenomenal views as clouds drifted around the mountains. Meanwhile my body was starting to give out. We had been going for over six hours and climbed almost 1,500 m since our early start and the summit wasn’t in sight yet.
But then we topped out on the false summit, and the true summit of Mt Athabasca lay directly ahead. It was a moment of excitement and dread. The summit seemed far away with a lot of elevation needing to be lost and regained. The snow arete looked precarious with a lot of big slots lurking below it. But I was also exited to walk along that airy ridge, to reach the and to survey the lands all around. And so on we went!
There was less elevation loss than expected and the ridge walk was shorter than it looked. The snow was firm and the way broad enough. And so we reached the top. Getting our summit panos and selfies required a lot of careful tip toeing, but we got our fill in. And then it was time to head back down again.
Eight and a half hours after starting our journey, we began our way back. We were surprised and thankful to have had the mountain all to ourselves, but civilization finally caught up to us as we reached the col. We found two other parties, totaling about 16 people, waiting for us. The larger group was from the Edmonton ACC and the others friends from Calgary and Lethbridge. We left them with words of encouragement and the sad news that the summit was till a goods way off.
We then made our way down the steep slopes below the col. A headache was bothering (owing to some mix of sleep deprivation, exhaustion and altitude) and aggravated each time my crampons pounded down into the snow. The descent down that gully seemed to take forever. We reached the bottom just as the sun began hitting the slope. I have not heard of a tragic end befalling the other two parties, but I sure was glad we got down when we did. The amount of avalanche activity evident on that slope is deeply concerning.
We managed to trap across the glacier in our boots, the trail now well packed down by the other parties. We missed our skies but did enjoy a fun glissade down the lower portion of the glacier before getting back onto the scree. It was fun to see the icefalls below the AA col that we had missed in the dark, as well as the seemingly tiny waterfall beside it.
Soon we were off the moraines, back to the snow coach road and then back to the van (though it felt like a long march to our tired bodies). It’s always great when you can get a twelve hour in before 1 pm. ;-P
It was good to get back to the van. 11,000ers do a good job of draining you but do offer a fun challenge and great views in return. I am thankful that we made it to the top, especially on this weekend where the the weather turned away a lot of other parties. And it looks like we’ll be back at her again this weekend…
P.S. The true crux of any good trip is keeping at least one person awake on the drive home. It required a team effort, but we made it.