Thursday, August 30, 2012

Mt. Assiniboine Attempt (August 24-27, 2012)

Friday, August 24th

After months of planning, the day of our trip finally arrived! The lingering snow on Mt. Assiniboine had been gone for a couple of weeks and the mountain was in fine shape for climbing. An ascent was looking promising. That is, things were looking promising until the day of our trip. On the night of Aug. 23rd, the area received a dump of snow. Sandy, the manager of Assiniboine Lodge’s reservation office in Canmore reached us on Jollin’s cellphone as we drove to the park. Sandy was responsible for our booking of the RC Hind climber’s hut and was aware of our intention to climb the mountain. She informed us of the storm. Do you want to cancel your trip, she asked. Climbers had radioed the lodge from the Hind hut to say that they had received a foot of powder at the hut itself, and further stated that they had encountered drifts up to 3 feet deep! The message from the climbers was relayed to Sandy via satellite phone from the lodge, where they had received only a couple of inches. The chances of getting up Assiniboine were looking pretty low and even making an attempt could be dangerous.

It was cool and raining lightly in Canmore, but the forecast was nice for the next few days. There’s more to Assiniboine park than just climbing Mount Assiniboine, so after a quick tribal council, off we went up the Spray Lakes road to catch our helicopter. We made our 12:30 check-in time, but due to the weather there was a bit of a backlog and we didn’t fly into Assiniboine until 2 PM. The helicopter ride was a fun, quick ride and took us the 26 km up Assiniboine Pass in about 10 minutes. Just as quickly as the flight started, the helicopter ride was over!

Photo 1. Arriving at the helipad, the snow did not seem as bad as described by Sandy and had started to melt off.

At Assiniboine lodge’s porch there is a spotting scope set up so that people can watch climbers as they make their way up the slopes. We spoke to Claude (a guide at the lodge) who cautioned against climbing the cliff bands to the Hind hut that afternoon. Claude talked us into camping at the Lake Magog campground with our 3 other friends who were not climbing the mountain. It was suggested that in a day or two, with luck, the snow would melt off and we would have a shot at summiting. I had brought a little one person tent and was fine with camping (a 2 pound, 20$ pup tent from Canadian Tire.) We set up our camp and noted how the snow at camp was great for making snowballs and was, in fact, melting away.

Photo 2. Mount Assiniboine was shrouded in clouds (view from Sunburst peak)
Ours was an international group of climbers! There was Emilie from France, her boyfriend Dany from Switzerland as well as their friend Daniel from Chile. Their group of 3 were planning on making their basecamp at Lake Magog and doing some climbs from the campground. The Mount Assiniboine climbers consisted of Jollin (from Quebec), an experienced ‘Jack-of-all-outdoor-trades’; James “the scrambler” (from Alberta and my frequent climbing partner) and of course, there was myself: Trevbo the half breed (half-Jamaican half-Filipino) Newfoundlander. With the exception of James, we all grew up far away but are now all living in Lethbridge.

Photo 3. Sunburst peak from camp.
As there was so much snow, I was doubtful about getting up Assiniboine and wanted to at least snag a few other peaks in the area. Rather than hike with our friends around the lake, I convinced Jollin and James to do a quick and rather uncivilized climb of the easternmost summit of Sunburst peaks. We left after 4 PM and were back at the campsite by 8:00ish. Sunburst had fantastic views but was a bit of a slog. The toughest part was dealing with the slippery, snow-covered grassy slopes at the base. As we ate supper in the cold, I heard a rock avalanche echoing off the mountains above us. Without further ado, we retreated from the cold to our tents for a rest.

Photo. Jim and Jollin on the summit of Sunburst peak.

Photo 4. Jollin descending Sunburst peak to the camp below.
 Saturday, August 25th

Photo 5. First view of Assiniboine. Looks a bit snowy!
I slept ok in my cheap little pup tent, although both my head and feet were touching the tent’s extremities and there was some pretty bad condensation. There was ice in the mud puddles at camp in the morning, but blue skies reigned and Assiniboine finally peaked out from the clouds and revealed a pretty good dusting of snow on her entire Northeast side. As there was just a bit of snow remaining at the campground, I had a hard time believing that there had been a foot of snow at the hut, but there was no denying that Assiniboine was looking starkly white.

 It was Saturday morning, so Joll, James and I packed up our gear and waited until 10 to head up the Gmoser Highway to allow for snow on the ledges to melt off. We bid our goodbyes to our friends, who were off to climb Windy Ridge. Jollin left Emilie a radio and agreed to touch base every so often.

Photo 6. Jollin on the Gmoser Highway

Photo 7. The Gmoser highway is a loose and exposed ledge system that one needs to traverse to access the Hind Hut from Lake Magog (took us 3.5 hours) from the campground. The BC girls made it via the Baymag mine approach in 5 hours, minus the $150 helicopter ride. The BC approach seems to be the way to go!
The Gmoser Highway is a classic Rockies approach (ie truly representative of any crappy cliff ledge in the Canadian or Montana Rockies). I had heard it referred to as the most difficult part of any ascent of Assiniboine. Luckily, the ledges were more or less free of snow and we had minimal difficulties picking our way across the extremely narrow and exposed, rubble covered route. We made it to the hut in 3.5 hours.

At the hut we met a couple of female climbers from B.C. who had hiked in from the Baymag mine side in 5 hours the previous day. They were casually dropping down the Gmoser ledges to hike to the lodge to meet with Claude, who was a former colleague. One of them dressed in shorts and tank top. It was still a bit breezy and cool.  We wonder
Photo 8. Skirting a snowfield to get above the Gmoser highway.
ed how they would have dressed if it had been hot! As it was only 1:30, they suggested we climb Mt. Strom. I was a bit tired and hungry, so we took a break and headed up Strom at around 3 PM.

Photo 9. View of Mt. Magog from the top of the Gmoser Highway

Photo 10. The snow feature below Mt. Strom

Photo 11. Jollin climbing Mt. Strom.
Mt. Strom was a blast. Jollin and I crampon’ed up a huge-shark fin shaped snow bank that lead to Strom’s summit ridge, and we were at the top of Strom’s 3023 m (9918ft) summit in an hour.  James had wanted to check out the col between Assiniboine and Sturdee and had made his own way up and joined us at the summit. From Strom, Wedgewood peak (3024 m / 9921 feet) looked just a stone’s throw away. Do you want to drop down and follow the ridge over, I asked. It was only 4ish and would only take another hour to walk over and descend to the hut, I stated, matter-of factly. In fact, it took us a bunch more time just to reach Wedgewood’s summit, and another 45 minutes added to that to drop down to the hut. We crossed a steep snowfield to gain the ridge, which was initially easy. At the far end of the snowfield, it got quite steep and we encountered some hard ice. Those conditions were uncomfortable but I was able to bail onto a rock band just above the snow at that point. My boots felt a bit loose for crampon’ing on steep ice, as they are backpacking boots and not true (stiffer) mountaineering boots. A lesson to remember for Santa!

Photo 12. Mt. Sturdee

Photo 13. Crossing snowfield on Wedgewood peak

Photo 14. Snowfield on Wedgewood

Photo 15. Assiniboine from Wedgewood

Photo 16. Dropping down Wedgewood to the hut.
After we got back to the hut, the girls (Alana and Steph from Kimberly and Rossland) arrived back from their visit at the lodge. What time do you guys plan on climbing, they asked. I suggested 5:30ish. They wanted to head up earlier, and said they would depart at 4 AM. Viewing Assiniboine from Strom, we thought that the mountain had dried off significantly and return trip from the hut in 8-10 hours was within reason. We planned to hike back down to the Naiset huts after our summit attempt.

Photo 17. The Hind Hut.
Saturday night, I again heard some rockfall just before bed and we all slept terribly. We were nervous about the climb. I inexplicably had resisted going to use the bathroom and was kept awake by bursting innards. Finally, I got up at 2 AM to use the freezing outhouse. I was greeted by a clear, starry sky. The morning would be beautiful. It was also warmer than it had been for the past couple of days. Although I hadn’t slept, things were looking promising! I banged my head on the outhouse door as I exited whilst looking starward. Never pays to have your head in the clouds.

Sunday, August 26th

The girls got going at 4 AM as planned. We watched their progress over breakfast from the hut, two tiny points of light in the murky darkness. They made impressive time across the boulder field and we could see them moving up the lower slopes by their headlamps. We finally got out asses moving at 5:20.

We crossed the boulder field by headlamp and picked our way across a climber’s trail in the talus that diagonal’ed between two lower black rockbands. I fell a couple of times in the dark and felt like I was a ghost floating around in a dream. I had never started a climb in the dark before but it took us an hour as planned to cross the boulder field to the base of the mountain, arriving just as the gloom of daylight began to illuminate our way.

There were cairns that denoted an upper trail in the scree that lead to the base of the ridge, bordered to the east and below by Magog glacier. We put our headlamps away at the first weakness in the cliffs. Our start to the ‘climb proper’ at this weakness in the cliffs was a shattering blow to our confidence. We were dealing with easy class III ledges; that is to say, they would have been easy had they not been covered with snow! I did not have solid traction with my boots and removed my gloves to make certain I had good handholds as I climbed. My fingers were frozen but the first crux was over in 15 feet or so. How did you guys feel about that, I asked, because I did not feel safe at all. James and Jollin also thought it was pretty bad and Jollin suggested the next time we encountered such difficulties that he could place some protection and belay us up. However, the terrain above that first crux was moderate, and as soon as we put on our crampons on, we realized that those initial difficulties would have not have posed an issue had we been wearing crampons. I have only used crampons on a few occasions and almost exclusively on hard snow or ice. The crampons provided great purchase on the mixed terrain that we were encountering and certainly were of help on snow covered rock. It was a learning experience. We got used to the conditions and I was feeling pretty confident by the time we reached the red band a couple of hours later, which was more than halfway to the summit.

Photo 18. View of Mt. Strom in the early morning light from Assiniboine.

Photo 19. Wedgewood peak

Photo 20. On Assiniboine's ridge at last.

Photo 21. Climbing up the ridge.

Photo 22. The sun, rising in the east was disorientingly right in our eyes most of the morning.
As we approached the red cliff band, we talked about taking out the rope. From afar we had been eyeing a weakness in the cliffs. As we got closer, I said to the others, I’ll just go run up and take a quick look. To my delight, the weakness we found was dry and truly just a scramble and there was no need for the rope.

Onward and upward we climbed. The conditions were snowy and the scrambling was unrelenting, but I was enjoying the ascent. I found that although there was snow, it was possible to find solid handholds on most of the ledges. However, overall we were moving quite slowly. Finally we reached the gray band, the crux of the route. Perhaps overly impressed by our luck on the red band, we initially tried a running belay. A running belay would work well if the group moved confidently with a taut rope, but anyone not marching to the same drummer could foul things up. As Jollin started to lead the climb, James voiced some concerns - and rightfully so - as the terrain was clearly class V and required a proper fixed belay. We re-organized on the fly and I belayed Jollin from an airy ledge. Jollin had some initial difficulty with his second piece but he was able to get a solid cam installed only after screwing around and abandoning a placement. As Jollin topped out above the gray bands we ran into the girls. One of them talked with Jollin as the second rappelled past our climb.

"You two did great," I called as she dropped past my location to my left. "We have been following your tracks whenever we could find them! "

"What? You shouldn’t have been doing that. We have been lost all day!" she shouted back, tongue-in-cheek.

"Did you make the summit?" I asked? 

"No", was the reply. "It just wasn’t very nice up there... also because of the time."

Photo 23. Nearing our highpoint

Photo 24. Typical terrain above the gray rock band.

Our confidence was thrown for a loop by the fact that the girls, going so fast and strong, had decided to abandon the summit. They had been doing well but had turned back because of the late hour. It was already after 12 noon and we had been going for just about 7 hours steady ourselves. Perhaps we should also consider retreating? Jollin belayed James and myself above the gray band and afterwards, we continued on in a running belay with myself at the front. We didn’t perform the running belay properly, however, as I weaved back and forth wildly and then would wait for the others to follow, rather than travelling ahead with the rope taut. I could have also placed a piece of protection or two or sought out one of the many fixed rappel stations we encountered and simply clipped the rope in with a biner or a quickdraw. In truth, I didn't truly think we needed to be roped up and was focused simply on moving up to the more technical terrain above where I thought we could reorganise.

James had been moving slower than normal all morning and had mentioned he was feeling a bit sick even before we had left the hut. The terrain didn’t ease up as much as we had hoped above the gray cliff band and finally after travelling as a group in a half ass’ed running belay, we stopped just below the final cliff band and James called a discussion to order.

It was late in the day and we were moving slowly as a group. James admitted that although we were past the crux, it just wasn’t his day and he did not want to continue. With that out in the open, as a group, we decided to pull the plug. The fact that the girls had also turned around was a factor. The descent was going to be tricky and could take just as long or longer than the ascent. There was some concern about the danger of rockfall from snowmelt. We had started just a bit too late in the morning, overestimating our abilities and underestimating the mountain. According to Jollin’s GPS, we were over 11,500 feet and the summit was just another 300 odd vertical feet to go. However, at our pace it was going to take us another hour to summit and to go further would risk downclimbing in the dark.

Photo 25. The summit. So close and yet so far.
Turning back was a confusing, frustrating concept. Although I too voted to drop down, it was far from easy. We had planned this for so long. We were so close. I felt strong and had been doing well and could move fast on my own. Did one really need to rope up? It was slowing us down! Yes, one should rope up, it was icy and generally unsafe otherwise; it was difficult scrambling and possibly class V further up on the traverse around the cliff band to gain the final summit ridge. I know Jollin also struggled with turning back and would probably would have continued without James if I had asked him. I swallowed such thoughts with my peanut butter bagel and tried not to choke.

After the decision was made, we had a break at an abandoned rappel station at the edge of the ridge in the sun. The rappel station was representative of most of the other rappel setups on the mountain, consisting of a couple of old slings wrapped around a big rock horn, with two old and questionable pitons hammered into adjacent cracks adding up to an embarrassment of cordalettes and webbing. We had a couple more circular-loop conversations about possibly continuing. Should we split up to continue on to the summit? What would you do if you were on your own? Finally the obsession faded, and I enjoyed the views below and soaked in the warmth of the sun. Magog glacier looked like it was miles below us. I realized that I was also beyond my comfort zone. Going further up would be selfish. It would push Jim, one of my best friends, further out of his comfort zone, either that, or abandon him to the cold on an icy ledge while Jollin and I pushed on ahead. Jim is generally a stronger climber than me, and with all the stuff we have done in the hills together, I really shouldn’t have been questioning his judgement. So down we went!

Photo 26. Jollin rappelling.
The descent did indeed take every bit as long as the route up. The downclimbing on snowy ledges was dicy, so we hit every rappel station we could find. We inspected each rappel station briefly (far too briefly) before dropping down. I kept taking my gloves off as we rapelled to set the rope through my ATC.

"Don’t lose your gloves", Jollin said to me. I didn’t lose them right at that point, but maybe an hour later. Stupid things happen when a person is tired! I was lucky that it had warmed up over the day and didn’t get frozen hands.

Finally after 10-12 roped drops, we ran out of rap stations and we started to downclimb. The terrain was extremely loose and steep. Jollin disappeared below us for a time, at which point James and I both dislodged huge nuggets. I released something the size of an old tube tv, at which point I called down to Jollin to ask him to wait up to ensure we did not crush him with rockfall. We hadn’t seen the girls recently and I was worried.

"Did you see them recently?" I asked.

"No. I hope we didn’t kill them!" Jollin said.

Luckily around that time (it was 6:30), we saw two tiny figures departing the hut, making their way back via the Baymag mine approach - back to the civilization and the world below.

Photo 27. One last rappel past our first crux of the day.
As we downclimbed, we found another isolated rappel station and used it to drop down, but the terrain finally eased up. The snowy downclimbing went on and on. We found the girls footprints, as well as our footprints from the morning’s ascent. I think Jollin was starting to get pissed that we were moving so slowly now that we were done rappelling, but then suddenly there we were at the first crux of the day, almost at the base of the mountain! Jollin seemed ecstatic, as he thought we still had a ways to go. I excitedly found a solid looking piece of webbing wrapped around a boulder and whipped out the rope without discussion. It might have been possible to downclimb that one last ledge system with crampons, but with a rappel already set up for us, what was another few minutes of rope work?

Finally we were back on the talus fields and were soon cruissing the boulder strewn moraine to the Hind Hut, safe and sound, nursing bruises to our ego and actual bruises from slips and minor rockfall. We got back with daylight to spare but it was after 7 PM and it had been a 14 hour day.

At the hut, Jollin radioed Emilie and notified her that we were back. Unfortunately we would have to stay at the hut as it would be too late to climb down to the Naiset huts to join up with them as planned. Jollin had been in touch with the trio throughout the day. They had done a successful climb of Nub peak and had bought a bottle of red wine at the lodge. I realized how I missed not being able to hike as planned with Daniel, Dany and Emilie. They were having a pleasant glass of wine and were no doubt relaxing in the afterglow of a great day in the mountains. Our climbing trio, in contrast, was just plain uncivilized!  Icy, hurried climbs. Hut life that included massive, disgusting farts brought on by freeze dried, boil-in-a-bag food. Luckily we had the hut to ourselves that night. We had one last gross-out, boil-in-a-bag meal and we all slept soundly with the mountains shining down on us from above. It had been a great day, after all.

Monday, August 27th.

Left hut at 6 AM. Dropped the Gmoser Highway via 2 rappels to a scree ramp below. Back at cars by 5 PM. Took 11 hours with full packs via Assiniboine Pass, covering 30 km from hut to Mt. Shark. Back home to my loves by 10. What a trip!

Photo 28. James rappelling the Gmoser Highway.

Photo 29. We saw a fair number of toads on the hike back through Byrant Creek

End notes:

(1) Mt. Assiniboine is one of Alberta’s 11,000 footers and is often referred to as the Matterhorn of the Canadian Rockies. From Assiniboine lodge at Lake Magog, the distinctive pyramidal shape of her summit beckons to photographers and mountaineers alike. Most climbers will try the classic NE ridge, a technical (5.5) ascent. Although we were aware of a potentially easier way up the mountain on the SW side, we were not sure of the route and had made up our mind to give the ridge a shot. Although there are a couple of technical pitches, the route finding on the ridge, we figured, would be more or less obvious. Under good conditions, it is generally a shorter day than any other route from the climber’s hut. My plan was to climb the NE ridge with my buddies James and Jollin, (based out of the Hind hut) and descend the second day and do some hiking with our friends Dany, Emilie and Daniel, who would be camping at Lake Magog and spending the last night at the nearby Naiset huts. Our group of 6 had booked a helicopter ride on the way in and would hike together back to the cars at Mt. Shark at the end of our trip.

(2) On Saturday, after hiking up Strom and Wedgewood we ran into 3 chaps at the hut who had crossed the Magog glacier to do a rock climb of one of the gendarmes on the ridge. They had been on Assiniboine on the day of the storm and had been chased down at the red band – this was the group that had radio’d the lodge and whose beta had been relayed to us via Sandy. They had started too late to continue on because of the snow, but apparently a group of Koreans had started earlier in the night and had made it up and down, somehow, in the snow storm. They suggested we start as early as possible and said our chances for the next day were good, due to all the melting that had already taken place. They gave us some other good beta on the route, as well as some tips on rappelling the ledges of the Gmoser Highway. Rappelling Gmoser would save time and eliminate some sketchy, loose down climbing. The trio were not staying the night and were just having a quick bite at the hut before returning to the world below.

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