Wow. That 3 letter word pretty much sums up this trip. Don't bother reading further unless you're interested in more detail. :-)
Wow. There - I just said it again. This was one of those trips that'll stick with me for the rest of my life - or at least while I have a reasonably intact memory. Eric Coulthard is one of those people who dreams up trips while looking at his extensive online library of photos and possible routes. While climbing Mount Fryatt a couple of weekends ago with him, he suggested that he might be giving Mount Amery and some other peaks in the area a shot this fall. I quickly picked up on his comments and volunteered to join him. One week later we were planning the trip. (Actually we were already planning Amery on the Fryatt trip - but don't tell my wife that! ;-))
[After getting home and writing up this trip report, Raf sent me a link from another party who did pretty much exactly the same route we did. Amazingly they did not make any of the summits (that wasn't their goal) and because they bivied low down in SE Amery Creek they didn't have time either. They got the route from the 1995 version of the Canadian Alpine Journal (page 97) from a trip report that Jason Thompson published. They mention a lot of crevasses and that they were only "100 meters" from the summit of Hooge but this is inaccurate since Hooge is more than 100 meters from the confluence point that they were on. NOTE: Peakfinder.com doesn't reference the correct high point for Hooge.]
Mount Amery is a gorgeous and engaging peak that can be viewed from the Banff-Jasper highway. I first became enchanted with the mountain when scrambling Mount Coleman (my first trip with Eric, ironically) and have been interested in climbing it every since. It's only been summited a few times in the past and has no obvious or simple route to the top. The first ascent was up broken cliff bands via Amery Creek, with loose rock and crappy weather. Subsequent ascents weren't much better until someone (Jason Thompson and Eric Geppert) found a route up the south side via the SE unnamed valley that brakes through the upper two cliff bands via hidden couloirs. It took Jason and Eric three tries up that unnamed and untracked SE valley to finally break through to the summit! We are indebted to this ascent party and to Rick Collier for publishing his trip report - without this we would never have managed this ascent without multiple efforts and even then probably not.
With the promise of a delightful bushwhack, river crossings and hidden ascent routes through cliff bands how could I NOT be interested in this mountain?! The bushwhack up the unnamed SE valley and the river crossings of both the Alexandra and Saskatchewan Rivers continues to thwart most attempts at this mountain and I suspect it will never see many ascents unless it's officially declared an "11,000er" and even then it will remain somewhat obscure for all but the most determined peakbaggers.
I met Eric at 07:30 at the Sunset Pass parking lot along highway 93 on Friday morning. I was tired already before starting thanks to a 04:00 wake up time but was eager to get started. I had the fortune of being a fly fisherman in a previous life so my river crossings were made pleasant with the aid of waterproof / breathable waders and even felt-bottomed and hobnailed boots to help with slick rocks! Eric only had thick socks to keep his feet warm in his sandals... We managed to cross both the Saskatchewan and Alexandra Rivers without incident - but there was some strong currents in several of the channels. You wouldn't want too much more water than what we had or the river crossings would be the most difficult and dangerous part of the ascent. We found an old raft made from logs and wire on the river flats which was kind of neat - it looked pretty old. Eventually we finished our water crossing with a short bushwhack to the unnamed stream coming down the SE drainage of Amery ("SE Amery Creek").
[Eric is just visible crossing a braid of the Alexandra River with the SE shoulder of Amery visible in the upper left - this is where we ended up 9 hours later and spent the night. ++]
[He's smiling but that doesn't mean he's enjoying himself - it's more of a grimace of pain due to glacial riverwater and bare legs at 07:30 in the morning!]
After ditching our river crossing gear (my feet were still warm and dry while Eric's were frozen numb, which I kindly pointed out to him several times on the crossing) at the mouth of SE Amery Creek we started our main approach. Obviously there were no trails or markings of any kind anywhere on the approach and we paid dearly for our prize. We picked climber's left of the stream thanks to Eric's keen Google Earth nose - he noticed more scree beds coming down to the south side of the creek than the north and figured it would be a nice break from bushwhacking. He was right on the money with his hunch and it probably saved us a lot of time and effort.
First we bushwhacked up steep forested hills past an impressive series of waterfalls in the creek. Eventually we worked our way back to the creek and spent the next 4 hours boulder-hopping alongside it, scrambling up and around waterfalls, over deadfall, up rock-hard scree slopes, through snow tunnels (!), avalanche debris, gnarly scrub and through head-high alders and bushes that were out to trip us up any way they could! Eric kept tempting fate by saying things like "at least it's not head high alders like Jasper bushwhacking". (Two minutes later we were in alders over our heads... ;-)) I enjoyed the bushwhacking for some odd reason - or at least I didn't hate it. I "became one with the bushes" and tried not to fight against the barriers but rather work through them systematically and methodically - it worked because after 5 hours of heading upstream hundreds of vertical meters with overnight packs we found ourselves staring up at an impenetrable curtain wall, thinking "now what?!".
[SE Amery Creek is rarely visited by two-legged creatures such as ourselves and has some gorgeous stream waterfalls alongside.]
[Sometimes we got little breaks were we could walk alongside the creek]
[SE Amery Creek is feed by many beautiful feeder streams coming off the glaciated unnamed summits to the south.]
[When travelling off-trail with an alpine pack you have to concentrate on every step or you'll find yourself flat on your face faster than greased lightning. I'm speaking from experience here... ;-)]
[Note the two snow tunnels ahead.]
[Big enough to drive a hummer through!]
[You won't be driving a hummer through here though...]
[A fire ring at the only good bivy site along the approach - near a small lake. This is probably from Thompson's ascent party who took 3 efforts to find the route Rick Collier and we followed. We bivied here on the Saturday night when we ran out of daylight on the depproach.]
[The small lake near the approach bivy site. And outlier of Amery on upper right. ++]
[Interesting colors and terrain at the tiny lake]
[Looking back across the lake at the small stand of spruce which surround the fire ring and bivy site.]
[Above the lake the terrain tightened into thick scrub before gradually opening up on the south side of the creek to scree avalanche slopes.]
[The route steepened considerably at a nice series of waterfalls towards the end of the valley.]
[Looking back at our approach from near the top of the steeper section. You can just make out the small lake at the far end of the valley before the terrain drops off again.]
[Fall colors are starting to show - note the hanging glaciers above - we'd traverse those the next day on our way to Hooge and Monchy.]
The sun glistened off the dark walls of the cliff band while high above us on every side, huge hanging sheets of snow and ice balanced precariously on the rock beneath. Loud cracks echoed through the cirque as the sun warmed the ice and we witnessed some impressive serac collapses and icefalls while we approached the end of the valley. The curtain wall was not a scramble - not even close. Even from a distance it was obviously not our route up. Thankfully I had Rick's route desciption along and we put it to good use - without it we'd have been done at this point. We started up directly north of the first glacial lake on hard scree slopes heading to a line of cliffs with steep couloirs the only possible breaks through them. We didn't even know about the two glacial lakes back in the cirque until we got part way up this slope and looked down on them.
[Eric is dwarfed by the terrain]
[Nearing the end of the SE drainage. The first glacial lake is on top of the morraine on the left and Amery's ascent slopes are on the left of the right hand mountain visible here. ++]
[Looking at the wall we broke through - you can spot the 'amphitheater' just right of center top.]
[The peaceful cirque was periodically woken up by thundering serac falls from the hanging glaciers all around it.]
[The curtain wall that foils easy access to the upper mountain is visible in the center of this photo. We ascended hard scree slopes to the right (out of sight here).]
[Hoping we can crack through the cliffs on this side!]
[Kind of like Chephren - this slope is much larger than it looks from the bottom! Note the glacial lakes below (the left one is hidden in shadow.]
[Eric tops out on the scree slope. The cairn you see here is built for our return - it indicates an easy route through the upper scree slope cliff band before the couloir.]
With overnight packs we weren't moving quickly, but considering we still had at least 7 hours of daylight we figured we'd move slowly up the mountain and get as high as possible - assisting us in our long summit day on Saturday. When we finally got to the cliffs we could barely make out easier terrain in the steep, curving couloirs that didn't require roped climbing. We headed into the leftmost couloir and were delighted to find dry rock (south facing) and little ledges and tight chimneys that made the scrambling delightful. This couloir is only one of the well hidden cracks in Amery's armor but without it there would be no hope of clambering up Amery without a lot more rock climbing skills than I currently have.
[Looking up the couloir - notice how it curves nicely to the right? This hides the route from casual observers below and is the first 'crack' in the armor guarding Amery's summit.]
[Eric starts up the couloir on nice rock steps.]
[Don't be fooled though - there's plenty of hands-on scrambling and in rain or with snow / ice this wouldn't be a scramble anymore.]
[Fantastic, hands-on staircase scrambling]
[Steep and loose, looking down our ascent route. You don't want snow or ice in here!]
Once we topped out of the couloir we were getting a wee bit winded (remember - overnight packs with glacier-travel gear) but we pressed on anyway. We traversed a broad scree slope heading west (climber's left) until we could make out another chink in Amery's armor - the enormous "Greek Amphitheater" that Rick references in his report. Again, impossible looking terrain proved non-technical once our noses were in it and we continued to inch our way up the immense south flank of Amery. The weather was incredible - warm with no wind - and we put the waterfalls in the amphitheater to very good use! The scrambling in this section was upper moderate to low difficult and very steep and exposed in spots - but really good fun on fairly solid (for the Rockies) rock.
[Eric tops out of the couloir.]
[The incredible "Greek Amphitheater" is the 2nd chink in the armor guarding Amery's summit.]
[Eric traverses over to the amphitheater.]
[Looking back from near the bottom of the amphitheater]
[Looking up the amphitheater. The waterfalls are splendid in warm, sunny weather but in colder temps they would make sections of this climb very treacherous. Rick had to scramble up pretty steep terrain on the right side to avoid verglass and water ice.]
[Loose and exposed terrain at the bottom of the amphitheater]
[The two glacial lakes are now in full sun as we struggle our way up the amphitheater on loose rocky ledges and small cliff bands.]
[The scrambling was fun on the ascent but got old fast on descent. Each one of these cliff bands is just high enough to be a PITA while trying to descend safely. Terribly loose rubble is scattered all over the place here.]
Kingly white mountain goats gazed down on us from high cliffs, birds soared over our heads, thundering ice falls echoed off rock walls, warm sunshine kissed the backs of our necks and refreshing waterfalls trickled down around us as we climbed higher and higher on a glorious fall day. The weight of our packs and the scratches on our bodies from the approach were fading as we took in our majestic surroundings and realized how privileged we were to be in this special place enjoyed by so few humans in it's long history.
After the amphitheater we traversed again to climber's left on really loose and exhausting scree - trying to escape the vertical cliff walls of the summit block that were looming eerily over us. As we rounded the cliff band we were treated to our first summit views. Again, having Rick's report was invaluable as we traversed under more cliff bands looking for yet another friendly couloir. And we found it. A steep, loose, hot and somewhat exposed scramble brought us through the last remaining obstacle to the upper scree bench under the glaciated summit of Amery. It was tempting to just go "bag it" but we were feeling pretty bagged ourselves at this point and decided to search for a good place to spend the night rather than push our luck too far. We ended up gaining some more height onto the snow and scree covered southeast shoulder of Amery, just under the summit cap of ice and snow.
[Man, those alpine packs are starting to get heavy! We're now above the amphitheater and gaining the shoulder under the upper cliff band guarding the summit plateau.]
[Phew! We've made the upper shoulder just below the cliffs guarding the summit plateau. Mount Wilson is visible as the glaciated peak on the far left and Erasmus is just visible in the center distance between the two unnamed peaks on the Monchy Icefield across the approach valley. ++]
[Eric traverses beneath the upper cliff band headed for a notch / couloir that will help us break through it. Mount Amery's summit is visible as the triangle of snow above. ++]
[Eric starts up the final gully breaking through the upper cliff band.]
[The upper cliff band is pretty much impenetrable accept for a few steep gullies / couloirs. ++]
[Eric comes up the rock rib beside the gully that offered a bypass to the cliff blocking it higher up near the summit plateau.]
Bivying up at over 10,500 feet was pretty cool. We ate supper and watched a subtle sunset in warm temps and very light winds. We could already see many 11,000er's and other giant peaks including Cline, Wilson, Murchison, Hector, Balfour, Erasmus, Forbes and the Lyells. We looked forward to our views the following day on Amery and on the grand traverse to Hooge and Monchy! The traverse looked LONG from our bivy site but it also looked fairly easy with the only heavily crevassed section being near one particular bump along the way. We agreed to get up at 05:30 to get a early start via head lamp and hopefully witness sunrise from the summit of Amery.
[Looking back at our tracks with Amery rising on the right and the Lyells in the far distance over Monchy / Hooge at center. ++]
[Eric stands at our chosen bivy location, high on the SE shoulder of Amery's summit plateau - over 10,500 feet high.]
[Looking over Erasmus to Murchison, Wilson on the left.]
[Distant view of the Lyells.]
[Amery is so close...]
[Looking across hwy 93 to Cline and Wilson (R). ++]
[Forbes is a beauty. And the highest peak in Banff National Park]
[Corona Ridge at left in the distance, Murchison at right.]
[Wilson on the right, Cline rising behind.]
[What a bedroom for the night!!]
[Vern takes in the awesome views from his bivy site. Murchison, Wilson, Sarbach, Chephren, White Pyramid, Howse and Erasmus are all visible here.]
[Sun setting on peaks across hwy 93.]
[Murchison and Totem Tower over Erasmus]
[Sunset on Mount Cline.]
[Sunset on Mount Wilson.]
[Sunset on Erasmus.]
[Mount Forbes catches the last remaining rays of sunshine.]
[The Lyells are also high enough to catch the last rays.]
[Darkness comes in from the east as the sun flees in the west. ++]
[Darkness settles in to the east over Cline and Wilson]
I spent a pretty good night in the bivy and woke up at 05:15 to the sound of my alarm. The wind had picked up from the day before but the barometric pressure was steady and the sky was clear so bad weather wasn't blowing in or anything. Eric also got up and by 06:00 we were roping up and picking our way across the Amery glacier on firm, fresh snow (just enough to cover the cracks!). We decided to angle to the col just south of the peak rather than climb all the way to the summit via the north glacier. That way we could simply bag Amery and then come back down and continue on to Hooge and Monchy via the Monchy Icefield.
[Early morning crossing the Amery Glacier, looking back east. ++]
[Roping up for the glacier walk. We angled up easy slopes to the col just left of center and then dumped our gear and scrambled to the summit on the right.]
[Still pretty dark]
[Looking back as we cross the glacier - the sun is rising in the east. ++]
[Looking back over our approach tracks]
[Eric at the col - Amery rising behind him.]
[Looking east from the col]
Our idea worked just fine. We dumped our gear at the col and unroped for the scree scramble up to Amery's summit. We witnessed sunrise kissing the surrounding peaks just before topping out to a wonderful view that according to one of the few registry entries included 22 11,000ers! We found two summit registers, which is sort of odd considering we were about the 8th (recorded) summit party ever to stand on Amery's apex... We had forgotten to bring extra registers so we borrowed one and left the other on top after filling in our names. We were the 3rd or 4th party up the SE route. It felt extremely rewarding to finally be standing on the summit after so much effort went into our approach the day before!
[Just before sunrise - a view off the summit ridge towards the Columbia Icefields.]
[The sun kisses the peaks of the Lyells.]
[Mount Columbia catches the first rays on the ice fields.]
[Eric on the ridge]
[Mount Bryce's turn!]
[Mount Columbia, North Twin and Saskatchewan gets some rays. ++]
[Incredible sunrise on many 11,000ers including (L to R), Lyell V, Lyell I, Lyell III, Alexandra, Bryce, Columbia, South Twin, North Twin and Athabasca. ++]
[Looking back over our bivy site as the sun rises over Mount Cline.]
[The Lyells (L), Willerval and Alexandra catch the morning rays.]
[Looking over the Monchy Ice Field to Forbes. ++]
[Eric goes for the summit]
[Vern on the summit of Mount Amery]
[The Lyells with more light.]
[Mount Willerval on the left (lower) and Mount Alexandra just right of center.]
[Bryce, Tsar, King Edward and Columbia (L to R)]
[Brazeau, Warren at center-right and Poboktan on the right.]
[We owe these guys for scouting the route 18 years ago for us!]
[We owe these guys (and Rick in particular) for publishing the route.]
[Looking across the Monchy Icefield at Mount Forbes and the Lyells. Our entire traverse is visible, ending just before Willerval on the right. ++]
[Mount Oppy rises over Willerval on the left, Alexandra on the right.]
[The sun is now officially up and if you expand this pano you will count a TON of 11,000ers! ++]
After checking out the incredible views and confirming on my altitude watch that the peak is indeed very close to 11,000 feet (a few feet of snowfall would like push it over) we started our descent. We knew we had a long day ahead of us after scoping out the long traverse we had to take across the Monchy Icefield from Amery. I don't think we realized quite how much work was still ahead of us...
[Eric descends the south summit ridge as our long traverse spreads out in front of him and the day dawns clear and calm.]
After our ascent of Amery we traversed to Hooge Peak and Monchy Mountain before continuing a long, tiring day down to the access creek.
[Finally back at the Amery col - our bivy is across this small glacier on the far shoulder. ++]
[Re-crossing the Amery Glacier]
We trudged across the Amery glacier to our bivy (I stepped in a crevasse part way across - so be forewarned, they do exist!) for a round trip time of just over 10 hours for the trip. We were moving steadily all day and both of us don't require as much food as most on these types of trips (fat reserves for me! :-)) so I would expect most parties would need at least 16+ hours to bag Amery, Monchy and Hooge via our route from the SE Amery valley where Rick bivied. I think if you want to bag these summits via our route, you're going to have to bivy somewhere high in order to do it.
By 16:30 we were leaving the SE shoulder of Amery and heading back down the mountain. The way up didn't seem so bad, but due to our heavy packs and tired bodies the way down was more difficult than I expected. It took time and energy to slowly pick our way down the gullies and couloirs because everything cliffs out from above. It's easier to climb up the small cliff bands because you can spot the breaks from below. There's so many of these cliff bands we couldn't possible cairn our ascent route on the way up either.
At one point I was so sick of marginal hand / foot holds and the big pack getting in the way of my downclimbing in the amphitheater that I nearly commited the dumbest act of my climbing career. I got frustrated and decided to drop my pack down the small band and climb after it. Eric watched in disbelief as I threw my pack down. It didn't drop and stop - of course! It started to careen down the amphitheater. Arg!!! I felt pretty stupid as I watched all my gear (including my camera!!) bounce down the mountain. Thank GOODNESS it somehow came to rest about 100 feet lower with nothing broken. I'm such an idiot... ;-) I didn't repeat that mistake even though the down climbing remained somewhat tedious all the way down the amphitheater.
[The scree slope / crumbly cliff bands above the amphitheater just below the upper mountain.]
[Eric makes his way down the theater above me.]
[The theater is steeper in some sections than others. With a big pack it was a PITA working our way through all the cliff bands on the way down.]
[Some sections are very loose too.]
[The amphitheater is big!]
One back at the hidden couloir we again took our time and slowly negotiated the steep downclimbs with heavy, unwieldy packs. The scrambling sections on Amery would certainly be much easier with day packs. Finally we broke out of the couloir and started down the long scree / cement slope to the upper SE Amery Creek valley below.
[Looking down the hidden couloir.]
[Down climbing the steep couloir.]
[The scree slope is hard - not nice to run down.]
The sun was starting to set as we took off (or 'stumbled') down the SE Amery Creek. We really wanted to make the nice bivy that the Thompson party used, near the small lake about half way down the approach valley. We didn't like the fact that the temps were so warm all night (4 degrees at 10,500 feet when we woke up) because this meant the melting wouldn't slow down enough to have a big effect on the water levels in the Alexandra and Saskatchewan rivers for our crossing the next morning. These rivers are big enough - they don't need a strong melt cycle to make them bigger!! The thrash through the deadfall, over boulders and scree and up and down along the creek was tiring after walking 30km already this day but we managed to find some energy and made the bivy site just as darkness moved in.
[We start the long trudge down SE Amery Creek - looking back where we came from.]
[Fall colors and a nice stream start off our descent.]
[Beautiful fall colors]
[A calm, beautiful lake to camp nearby on exit]
It never felt so good to just sit and eat. It felt really, really good - what a day it'd been! The temps stayed very warm all night again and we decided to take off at first light to catch the lowest river levels possible. By 07:00 there was enough light to start our bushwhacking again and off we went! We both had more energy than I though possible - I actually felt enough energy to spend a few more days out - I felt really good. We made it to our river crossing gear in about 2.5 hours from the lake and geared up for the crossings.
The crossings went very well, we managed to find the slowest (shallowest) braids to cross and managed to keep the water under waist deep for the most part and usually knee deep. I think some tourists taking photos from the highway must have wondered what the heck we were up to as we finally gained the road and the parking lot.
[The stream isn't exactly easy to walk down.]
[The route is directed high above the creek before rejoining it near the Alexandra River junction at the end.]
[Amery on the upper left as we arrive back at the river flats. Saskatchewan in the far distance left of center and Coleman on the right. ++]
[Eric crosses the last of the river flats with Amery rising on the right. ++]
Mount Amery, Monchy and Hooge was a special trip for me. It was the very best that the Canadian Rockies has to offer and has only been matched by a few trips since - trips like Alexandra, Fortress, Catacombs and possibly Recondite, Stewart and other lesser traveled areas of the Rockies' back country. Amery will never be popular since it's almost certainly below the 'magical' 11,000 foot mark and is simply too much work for most people to bother with. Which is exactly how I hope it remains.