It seems that every time someone posts a trip report about climbing Mount Aberdeen (and Haddo), folks inquire about an easy ascent via the south slopes - the alternate descent route. While this probably seems anathema to most climbers, it makes perfect sense for folks who simply want to enjoy stunning views from the top of a very well placed peak in the heart of the Lake Louise group without all the messing around with ice climbing and usually taking 2 or 3 attempts to get up the darn mountain since everyone seems to under estimate the 'short' approach the first time around!
I had a slightly different plan for Aberdeen. Ever since I skied into Paradise Valley with Bill and Wietse a few years ago, I wanted to ascend (and possibly ski down) the massive avalanche gully coming off Aberdeen's summit, splitting her south face. Why this route over the normal one? At this point in my climbing life, I prefer snow climbing to ice climbing. I also liked the idea of a fast ski out rather than a long, boring walk in the summer. There were some very obvious problems with this plan. The first being that the south face / gully system on Aberdeen is probably among the biggest and most complex avalanche terrain in the park and the other being that if avy conditions would allow safe ascending, they would probably suck for the descent. I knew I'd probably have to wait for spring to make this plan happen. Or would I?
The last few weeks in the Rockies have seen avalanche conditions at "low" hazard ratings at all levels from valley bottom to high in the alpine. While this has allowed almost all the big lines to be skied and / or climbed, it has also meant really crappy snow conditions. Even Roger's Pass had bad snow when we did the Young's Peak traverse last weekend! Naturally, however, when ideas for the weekend of March 8 were being floated, I brought up my idea for skiing Aberdeen and Haddo. Steven and Ben were foolish enough to buy into my enthusiasm and we agreed to give it a shot.
At this point I must confess to underestimating the endeavor a "wee bit". I guess that's the theme for Aberdeen so why should I be any different right? :) This explains why we got back to Calgary at 11:30pm and why I'm freaking tired today as I write up the trip report! (The Daylight Savings Time switch on Sunday morning didn't help matters...) Steven, to his credit, was much more realistic in his thoughts on the objective. I'm glad I was so optimistic or I wouldn't have even tried, but Steven immediately cautioned that this day would be much longer and bigger than I was planning. My thinking went as follows;
Given the right conditions (which I assumed we'd have), we should be able to ski up the main avy gully almost right to the upper slopes of Aberdeen on hard avy debris.
Worst case scenario, we'd ditch the skis and don crampons - simply climbing to the summit on rock-hard snow - conditions that were common all over the Rockies lately. Steven had ascended Cathedral Mountain three days previous in the same general area and aspect, and had rock hard and very stable snow the whole day.
Little Temple only took us 6.5 hours RT. The way up was slow, but descent was pretty quick, especially on rock hard / icy tracks.
Given all of the above, I figured a RT time of around 10 hours would be sufficient.
I stubbornly maintain that my thinking was not totally out of line - my issue was the assumption in the first bullet. Given the right conditions... We arrived at the parking area, in the dark at 07:15 thanks to DST. We were a bit surprised to see a guy on the highway, waving us down. This bright member of humanity had decided to follow his rental car's GPS up the Moraine Lake road in winter! He only made it about 1.5 feet past the end of the parking lot, where he almost ran into the barrier (trying to get around it on the groomed xcountry ski track!!!!) and got himself hopelessly stuck. We half heartedly tried to push him out but he was really stuck and we only had my car - no way to pull him out. He had cell reception and was calling for a tow as we skinned up the Moraine Lake road on a slick sheet of icy snow.
We ascended some very icy xcountry ski tracks before starting up the Paradise Valley approach. Every time I do this trail, I get confused for some reason. Steven rightly asserted that we should simply follow tracks up Paradise Creek just as we did for our Little Temple trip, but I insisted on following the signs and official trail up on climber's right instead. This wasted a bit of time and eventually I had to admit my navigation error. For some reason I always forget that the decommissioned trail that leads to Sheol and the avy path on Aberdeen doesn't branch off the main trail until the turnoff to Annette Lake - also the ski route for Little Temple. This is many kilometers (~8) into the valley and takes some time to reach. We followed the decommissioned trail under the Sheol ascent slopes and headed deeper into the valley with stunning views already opening up around us. On hindsight we could have stayed in the creek on a good skin track but the snow pack was fairly supportive early in the day and we made quick time to the lower avy slopes under Aberdeen's south face.
[Skiing the icy Moraine Lake road]
[Skiing the icy xcountry ski trail - sensing a theme here yet?]
[The Paradise Creek approach valley is quite lovely. Mount Temple looms on the left. We saw a massive serac failure on its upper north face which was kind of awe inspiring to watch and listen to first thing in the morning!]
[Ben on the lower avy slopes under Aberdeen - Mount Temple in the background.]
At this point we were feeling optimistic about our snow conditions. They weren't quite as solid as we were expecting, but this meant a nicer ski down. We started up the steep avy gully and entered a massive terrain trap in short order. This is not a place to linger! I can't even say I recommend anyone ever go up this terrain in the winter. If you insist on it, make sure you trust the conditions both above and below you. The trap doesn't seem like much until you ski above it and notice all the terrain that funnels from the unnamed summit to the west. There are thousands of feet of steep snow slopes and overhanging cornices all funneling into this narrow rock canyon. It makes the Bow Hut approach look like child's play - trust me. After ascending above the terrain trap we found ourselves in the huge bowl below Aberdeen's summit. This is another type of terrain trap, as all the snow shedding down Aberdeen's south face will end up here. Again - I can't recommend you venture here in winter under normal circumstances. We observed that only very steep, thin slopes were shedding snow, but were starting to feel the hot sun on our necks and wondered about spending time under cornices.
[The views open up behind us as we ascend the avy slopes under Aberdeen. From L to R, Pinnacle, Eiffel, Deltaform and Wastach]
[Vern and Ben skin up the steep terrain trap at the bottom of Aberdeen's south face. Photo by Steven Song.]
[Apologies for the slightly mis-focused shot, but it does show the cool terrain we ascended from valley bottom.]
[And here's the massive bowl on the lower face. It's extremely foreshortened in this view. You'd be forgiven for wondering why the heck we didn't just go straight up to the col in the distance. There are several reasons, although this was my original plan. Firstly, it's much, much further than it looks. We'd be spending hours in extreme avy terrain with many overhanging cornices above steep snow slopes. Secondly, the ridge to our right seemed more wind blown and safer from this vantage point.]
We had a decision to make at the bottom of the huge bowl. Do we tempt fate and trust conditions enough to skin (or crampon) all the way up Aberdeen's descent gully to her summit, or do we take what appeared to be slightly safer terrain up on climber's right and hope it works out? We basically threw the virtual dice and ended up on the ridge to climber's right of the avy basin. I was a bit conflicted about this choice because we knew we wouldn't be skiing much of this route and I was really hoping to possibly ski off Aberdeen's summit. But I also had to admit that the huge avy terrain around the bowl was scary. Very exposed and very foreshortened. Cornices hung hundreds of meters above the bowl, off the unnamed summit between Aberdeen and the Mitre and there was some evidence of these failing in the warm sun.
There was another issue that was becoming apparent at this point. Our snow pack was collapsing. :( It was much warmer than forecast (a predicted high of -6 but Ben's thermometer already showed +6) and the snow was becoming very punchy. This meant a horrible ski down and not great ascent conditions either. Steven's idea to lug snowshoes in was started to look brilliant at this point. Oh well. Nothing to do about it now. We headed up the ridge until it was too steep to skin and proceeded on foot.
[This photo should convince you of the seriousness of the avy terrain in the bowl! These are only a tiny fraction of the slopes leading to the terrain trap and bowl beneath this unnamed peak that lies between Aberdeen and The Mitre]
[Steven grunts up to the ridge while Ben and I take a slightly more conservative line on skis. You can see there's more rock on the ridge - and slightly less avy hazards, at least from this angle. While there is some evidence of sluffing, the overall snow pack was solid all day - no whumping or collapsing anywhere around us.]
[Everything is foreshortened on the approach, even small slopes are big once you're on them. Ben and Vern are breaking onto the ridge after negotiating the terrain trap. Photo by Steven Song.]
Good thing we had views to distract us because from this point on life sucked for a while. Even Steven, on snowshoes, was wallowing around. Avy conditions were still OK, but a punchy crust with no support meant wallowing and swimming uphill every time we hit a snow patch. Which was often on the lower ridge. I was already feeling quite tired thanks to a head cold and tooth pain. The wallowing in unsupportive snow, while ascending a route that was looking more and more like it might not work out was conspiring to dampen my spirits a little bit. Good thing the views were stunning and good thing the weather was brilliant.
[The skis are left behind and the hundreds of vertical meters of boot packing begin!]
[This is the reason we're on the ridge. It's tough but contains less objective hazards under a sun that's much stronger and warmer than the forecasts implied. The only issue is that we have no idea if this route will go...]
[Notice how huge the terrain gets, the closer you're to it? The south face of Aberdeen is very foreshortened from the valley floor! Once again, you can see how exposed to avy hazards the terrain near the bottom of the ascent slope is.]
[The ridge wasn't as wind blown as we were hoping. Due to the foreshortening, many of the 'small' snow patches were really snow fields and were knee to waist deep, thanks to the collapsing crust. :(]
We ended up on some pretty complex avy terrain despite trying to avoid it by ascending the ridge. The snow didn't seem interested in sliding or releasing so we doggedly pressed upwards despite the difficulties. Near the top of the ridge we were forced to traverse climber's left, across several steep and exposed avy gullies that reminded Steven and I of our adventure on Ayesha. This terrain is not for the faint of heart - and you'd better trust the snow pack if you ever end up here! Finally, after hours of working our way up complex winter terrain, Steven kicked the last steps up a very steep and thankfully very hard snow slope to the upper ridge, just above the Aberdeen / Haddo col. Home free right? Nope.
[The terrain just keeps getting bigger and the views better! Mount Temple is majestic across Paradise Valley. ++]
[At this point we are finally slogging to the more complex terrain near the summit ice field. We originally were hoping to bypass this terrain on climber's right but that wasn't possible so we ended up traversing climber's left instead.]
[Stunning views towards Lefroy and Victoria as we look ahead to more serious terrain that we'll have to traverse to break the upper cliff bands on the south face. ++]
[This photo exaggerates the terrain a bit, but it was "one-at-a-time" across these gullies! There were cornices high above us here, so we crossed quickly and efficiently to limit our exposure.]
[These are the cornices hanging over some of the narrow couloirs we crossed. Some of this terrain reminded us of Woolley and Diadem's couloirs.]
[Looking across the cliffs that blocked our progress and forced us climber's left.]
[Steven breaks trail across a slope that reminded both of us of Ayesha's key summit block access avy slope.]
[Ben follows us across the upper avy slopes on the south face. ++]
Winter climbing is always a bit extra spicy (as we discovered on Peyto a few weeks ago) and Aberdeen's summit block was no different. Even though nobody mentions difficult scrambling to attain her summit, we found ourselves scrambling up a very steep rock step with a loose, overhanging boulder at the top, before delicately balancing along a knife-edge ridge and ascending a final section of loose snow to the apex. On hindsight we all agreed that it was a good thing we didn't ascend the normal descent route, because one look at what we climbed up to get to the summit would have convinced us not to bother with Haddo! It was already much later in the day than we wished, so after snapping photos of our incredible summit view and signing the register (first since October 2014), we made our way carefully down the exposed summit block and started the easy traverse to Haddo Peak.
[Ben ascends the snow slope to Aberdeen's summit block. Haddo at center left. We came up from the south face near the rock outcrop directly behind Ben.]
[Steven comes up the crux on Aberdeen's summit block. It was bloody steep but short and not very exposed on the climbing side. The main issue was a very shaky boulder, balanced right at the top of the climb which had to be clambered over to get up!]
[Ben traverses the summit ridge]
[Ben on the far right, Fairview on the far left with Haddo, Little Temple and Temple in between. ++]
[Summit pano looking north over Mount Fairview and Haddo Peak across the Trans Canada hwy at the Lake Louise ski hill. Piran at far left, Little Temple at far right.]
[Looking south and west from Aberdeen's summit. From L to R, Little Temple, Temple, Babel, Eiffel, Allen, Wastach, Deltaform, Hungabee, The Mitre, Lefroy and Victoria. ++]
[The impressive north face of Mount Temple]
[I can't get enough of this view over Paradise Valley. The easy descent slope off Aberdeen's summit is on the right and leads to the col that we avoided. We briefly considered not bothering with Haddo and just going down this route but the idea of endless wallowing to our skis and the lure of a second summit ended that thought pretty quick.]
[Hey! Barry was up here last July! :)]
None of us felt like bothering with Haddo. We were exhausted from the challenging snow conditions on ascent, the wind was howling and quite chilly, we were hungry and thirsty and we were going to be home a lot later than planned. But there was no bloody way we were coming back for that tiny bump on the end of a gentle ridge either! So we sucked it up and did the traverse, descending over 100 meters to the col and then re-ascending to the summit of Haddo. The wind was almost knocking us over at this point so we didn't linger. On the way back up to our packs on Aberdeen I started feeling light headed and entered the fantastic "zombie zone", which usually means I've pushed it a bit too far and should probably eat something! ;) The last time I felt like this was while descending Edith Cavell on a hot afternoon when I imagined someone with a black dog was on the trail in front of me. It took half an hour before I realized I was imagining the whole thing - I was alone on the trail.
[Descending the summit ridge. Good thing we came up this way or we wouldn't have bothered with Haddo, I'm sure.]
[The crux looks worse than it was. It was super exposed on the south side, but a fall down the short side would probably not kill you. Although it might sting a little. ;)]
[Steven descends the crux]
[Down climbing the steepish snow / glacier slope back to our packs before traversing to Haddo. This slope wasn't that steep but you didn't want to slip!]
[Steven kicks steps down from Aberdeen's summit block - the crux crack just above him on the left.]
[Despite some clouds pouring in over the divide, still great summit views on Haddo Peak. ++]
[A surprising amount of bare glacial ice on the regular route up Aberdeen. Victoria in the distance.]
[Little Temple (L) looks very "little" next to "Big" Temple (R)! The funny part is that it's still a 1000m vertical height gain on skis to its lowly summit...]
[Great views into Paradise Valley and towards Aberdeen (R) from the summit of Haddo Peak. ++]
[Looking ahead to our partial re-ascent of Aberdeen to our waiting packs which are sitting to the right of the intermediate summit near a small rock outcrop.]
Thanks to the lateness of the hour and the fact that clouds were now pouring in over Lefroy, the snow conditions were still relatively safe on descent. We carefully crossed the avy gullies and plunge stepped the ridge to our waiting skis. The ski down the lower avy gully / terrain trap was horrible. A punchy crust with bottomless crap underneath made skiing almost impossible. At least the terrain trap was rock hard so we could sort of get some turns in there. Conditions for skiing didn't improve until we hit the main ski track going down Paradise Creek. With head lamps on, it was fun zipping down the rolling terrain. The occasional side plunge into tight trees was interesting too, especially in the dark! The final section of trail above the xcountry track was almost suicidal in the dark, but we ripped it anyway. It was fast!!
[Back across the exposed gullies]
[You can barely spot Ben in the flat light - a tiny dot up on the lower ridge. Skiing really sucked here - a punchy crust with no support underneath.]
[Very 'skis' out of the lower terrain trap. Photo by Steven Song.]
[A lovely sunset over Little Temple from Paradise Creek.]
[Speed skiing in the dark! Lots of fun - definitely way more fun than walking out would be! ;)]
Finally, after 13.5 hours of moving almost constantly, we arrived back at the car.
I have to say that while I'm delighted we attained these fantastic peaks, via a rarely (ever?!) ascended winter route, I cannot, in good conscience, recommend Aberdeen's south face / ridge / gully as a winter objective. The summit views are stunning and the snow climbing near the top is a ton of fun but the terrain hazards are very extensive and almost impossible to manage properly. This is a case of the rewards probably not justifying the risks.