Somehow, despite planning a trip into the Lyell Icefield to climb the last of the Lyells (IV) that I have left, I ended up in the Mount Assiniboine area yet again this year, with Phil Richards of course! It's a long, convoluted story so I'll cut it short. It goes something like;
Plan Lyell trip
Keep planning Lyell trip
Start wavering on Lyell trip
Bail on Lyell trip
Plan another trip
Isn't that typical for Rockies trip planning? The good thing is that it works remarkably well, provided you're very amenable to last minute changes. Even when Phil and I narrowed it down to the two of us going somewhere further south than hwy 1 to avoid the worst of the two weak cold fronts that would be moving through, we still ended up changing our final objective pretty much at the last minute and yet again once we were in the mountains. I think the key to enjoying long, difficult days in the hills is to keep an open mind and not to be too strict on your destinations. If you're willing to change your mind even part way through a trip, you can keep things fun and safe much easier than if you're bull headed about planning something and sticking to it at all costs.
I've had Mount Alcantara and Brussilof on my explor8ion list ever since reading about them in Rick Collier's trip report on Bivouac. They sounded huge, remote and challenging - especially Brussilof. Now that I've done them, I think Rick's categorization of Brussilof as a "moderate scramble" is a bit misleading. I've done many, many moderate scrambles and this was certainly not one of them! Also some of his details are confusing, i.e. he mentions a "broad scree back" and "mostly walking", I have no idea which section of mountain this could be referencing. To his credit, Rick did climb it in bad weather and didn't return the way he ascended so there is a chance things got "simplified" a bit in his memory. Alcantara had seen a few more ascents since it came on my radar (Andrew, Raf, Matt and Matt) but it clearly hadn't become a popular peak either. I was very excited to finally tackle these two mountains and it made sense to plan a bivy to give us two full days to tackle them both if necessary.
This trip started out more dubiously than most when I got a brutal migraine just as Phil drove out of Canmore towards the Banff-Windermere highway which would take us to Settler's Road. I've had migraines my whole life, but thankfully they're more about vision impairment (i.e. "auras") than the stabbing headaches that most people associate with migraines. Of course I say "thankfully", but when you're about to scramble some pretty big, remote mountains, losing a good chunk of your vision isn't ideal! To be honest, it really, really sucked. I wasn't too happy about it, but decided that it wasn't going to stop me this time - I was going to push things a bit and see what happened. Thankfully it was Phil's turn to drive so the vision loss didn't matter too much - I knew it would start coming back sooner or later. The only issue remaining was that usually I lie down and take it easy when a migraine sets in and this time I was going to do pretty much the exact opposite of that. I wasn't sure how my body would respond. As it turns out - it wasn't too happy about the new direction I was introducing.
After the dusty, but easy and straightforward drive down Setter's Road, we turned off onto the much smaller Aurora Creek FSR. A few kilometers of easy driving on this much smaller road brought us to the parking area and drainage leading up between Mount Alcantara and Brussilof, just before the first bridge on the Aurora Creek road. My vision was still quite wonky as we prepped our packs for a one night bivy and the dull headache and nausea that accompanies my migraines were fully settled in. We were surprised to see a truck drive up to the bridge right by our parking spot. Two guys got out and approached us, thanks to my loss of vision I couldn't really see their faces clearly (it's weird, but when I get migraines only spots of vision disappear, not the whole thing - but always people's faces). One of them said, "hey Vern, we met on the Columbia Icefields when I was with Fabrice and Josee". "I'm Jay", he continued. Ah yes! I remembered Jay now! Jay Lund has done many cool trips and I was wondering what he was up to. It turned out that him and his friend Glen were going in to scramble a few of the less popular peaks around Marvel Pass. They were very interested in our objectives too. After chatting a few minutes, they continued up the road and we continued wrapping Phil's SUV with chicken wire to prevent critters from destroying his brakes. Finally, we shrugged into our packs and set off across the bridge, aiming for an ascent line up climber's left of the outflow creek.
[Phil shrugs into his overnight pack with Brussilof and its outliers looming over us.]
We knew from Matt's trip report from Alcantara in 2016 that we were in for a bit of a thrash in good ol' BC bush. I wasn't feeling so positive about the day as we started up an overgrown approach path leading up towards the old clearcut before start of the real bushwhack. My vision was still spotty and the familiar dull headache and nausea were slowly setting in. I made sure that Phil was fully aware that I was considering a successful approach to the bivy as a huge bonus for this day. He assured me that this wasn't an issue, "we have time for these peaks, we're in no huge rush to get them done today". Once we ascended the relatively easy bushwhack on the clearcut things got interesting. The bushwhacking never did reach epic proportions (i.e. Nestor Peak or Alexandra) but some sections were grueling, slow and a bit frustrating. Thank goodness we have light overnight packs or this really could have sucked badly. As it was, after about an hour the bush started to calm down with more open avy slopes and even a streambed to assist us above the first lake.
[We enjoyed a very brief "trail" in the scrub just climber's left of the creek at the bottom of the old clearcut.]
[A glorious day to be bushwhacking up a clearcut! Aye and Eon at center and right behind us.]
[Although the bush was medium-bad in spots, overall I didn't find it too awful on ascent. On the other hand I was comparing it to Nestor Peak, so that's not fair. For most people the bush is going to be a pretty big issue here.]
[The bush calms down a bit near the first headwall.]
As our views slowly opened up, so did our moods. A waterfall in one of the upper valleys was particularly beautiful. I'm sure only a handful of people have walked past this spot and we felt privileged to be there. The outlier of Brussilof towered over this spot - making us feel pretty small as we gazed over the wilderness around us. As we approached the headwall that produces the waterfall, we stuck to climber's left and found the exact spot where Matt and Matt had broken through on a much smaller waterfall and series of wet ledges. After this we traversed some more forest before entering the suck officially, on an avalanche slope beneath the huge SW slopes of Alcantara. We avoided this area on our way back out of the valley! As we kept going and going, I was getting tired. My headache was a constant throb, I couldn't even yell "yo bear" without feeling a stab of pain run through my head and down my neck. We had ascended hundreds of vertical meters by this time, all in the bush and all off trail with overnight packs. As we finally broke into the alpine meadows between Alcantara and the towering NW cliffs of Brussilof, we started searching for a nice bivy spot. Alas, the small lake we were planning to camp by was more of a muddy pond than a premier destination alpine lake, and despite there being some suitable terrain for the mid, we didn't love what we were seeing. So we kept going. Thankfully after ascending an easy headwall above the small lake, we found a patch of level snow near some running water that worked perfectly. We stopped to set up camp, hydrate and eat. We were blown away when we realized we'd ascended over 900 vertical meters to this spot! That certainly explained the slight stiffness in my knees! I popped some Tylenol Cold to help with the headache and hoped for the best. My vision was mostly back to normal at this point - thank goodness.
[A lovely alpine bowl above the first lake with an outlier of Brussilof looming above and a waterfall plunging over the headwall guarding the head of the valley.]
[An interesting puddle that seems to be fairly permanent despite it's diminutive size, the Matt's also stumbled past it.]
[Wild hiking in a pristine backcountry setting in the Rockies. What could be better than this? Not much. Well, maybe not having a migraine would be nice...]
[We went climber's left on approach, hugging cliffbands coming off of Alcantara to avoid some of the bushwhacking. This sort of worked and sort of didn't. You can only avoid so much inconvenience on trackless approaches such as this one. At some point or another you have to embrace the challenges and go with the flow of the landscape.]
[Looking for the next break with Brussilof high above.]
[The interesting - and wet - break through the cliffbands that generate the nice waterfall and guard the upper bowls between Alcantara and Brussilof. There is another - drier - break a bit further to the center that we found on descent that animals have tracked out a bit more.]
[Looking back as Phil crests the cliffband. Note the first lake visible behind us here.]
[Looking up just one of the "easy" ascent gullies on Alcantara's SW face. This one would suck a bit because of the avy debris that we are now experiencing.]
[This sort of shenanigan is getting way too familiar for us. Time to start bagging Kane peaks again?!]
[The first place we were seriously tempted to set up camp. I think Rick's party camped here. Alcantara rising in the distance with Brussilof behind at upper right. We kept going.]
[Phil marches on towards the back of the bowl - you can see at least two or three more headwalls in front of us yet.]
[There's a good argument to be made that we should have camped here. This was a lovely meadow with a pretty good water source. But we pushed on...]
[Wildflowers and the impressive west outlier of Brussilof with Rick's descent couloir looking very foreshortened.]
[It was right around this point when we looked at our GPS and realized we were gaining a TON of height - over 850m already at this point!]
[Finally we found our campsite on the little snow patch at center. Alcantara is conveniently rising straight up the gully at left (we'd descend here) and the Brussilof col is out of sight above the next headwall at center right. ++]
After setting up camp there was way too much daylight remaining to not at least try for a peak or two. I mean, we couldn't just sit around camp and enjoy a lovely afternoon of peaceful meditation right?! Originally we were thinking we'd ascend Alcantara first and save Brussilof for Saturday morning, before exiting to our next objective, but I suggested that maybe we should do the more complicated and lesser known ascent first. Phil agreed, so we packed our bags and headed up yet another headwall behind our camp, aiming for some very ominous cliffs guarding the col between Alcantara and Brussilof to the east. At first we were thinking that we could break through the rock wall on far climber's right before traversing a ledge system back left to an obvious break in the upper cliffs to the col. As we approached it however, the climber's left walls started looking more and more broken and doable. We changed our minds and headed there instead. Sure enough! As we worked our way up the cliff, it kept getting easier and easier. No more than moderate scrambling on fun, blocky terrain to the obvious break. From there it was a steep moderate scramble and we were on a gorgeous ridge traverse leading towards a very intimidating north ridge of Brussilof. So far, so good. This was becoming a very enjoyable scramble already. My headache started to fade into the background a bit more.
[Above camp now, heading for the far line of cliffs.]
[Hmmm. Where can we break through this sucker? We initially thought climber's right via the snow before traversing way to the left and then up to the crest. As we got closer, however, the cliffs just left of center started appealing more.]
[Looking back over our approach route from just below the cliffs. Brussilof at left here. The mountains in this area are big and the valleys are deep, making them a challenge to ascend. Oh - and there's no Kane or Nugara "highways" out here either! ++]
[Dang it! Where do we go?! Up Phil. Just go up. It's not rocket science man. Don't overthink it! ]
[Man - this sucker is starting to look a bit huge and a wee bit complicated too! The summit of Brussilof at center as we climb to the col.]
[Big terrain - and bloody loose as you can see. But we really enjoyed the blocky, ledged terrain. It reminded me of the SW face of Mount Assiniboine.]
[Phil comes up the blocky, moderate step to the ridge crest. It may look pretty loose - and it was - but this is as solid as these mountains get!]
[Nice views from the col looking east towards Mount Aurora and Byng at left and Red Man Mountain at center. The snow slope we used to access the NE ridge of Brussilof is just visible at far upper right - the lower line. ++]
In his report, Rick mentions "steep snow and scree with the odd scrambly bit" on the north ridge. While technically this is 100% correct, it's a bit of an understatement. From a mountaineering or alpine climber's point of view it's sufficient, but from a scrambler's point of view there's a bit more to it than that. As we approached the north ridge, we could clearly see the line of snow up a north gully on the west face that we needed to ascend. This already puts the mountain at more than "just a scramble", as many scramblers wouldn't be prepared for it or have the skills necessary to ascend snow like this. Phil told me later that normally he'd have turned back already at this point - he's simply not comfortable yet on steep, exposed snow / ice. I love snow and knew that this slope wasn't quite as bad as it looked from a distance, so I persuaded Phil to get our noses into it and see where things went from there. As usual, once we got under the slope I could see that we could work our way between the rocky cliffs and snow and would feel pretty protected in the shallow moat. I led up steep snow to the rock / snow line and from there it was a mix of steep, loose rock and snow until the gully got a bit icy for my taste and my light, aluminum crampons. We transitioned to some really steep and manky dirt / rock (kept my crampons on for this) before topping out on the gully. My headache was slowly fading at this point - likely because I was really enjoying the challenging terrain. I kept telling Phil how fun this was! My day was rapidly improving on Brussilof. Phil somewhat reluctantly agreed that this was, indeed, a lot of fun!
[Phil marches along the col towards Brussilof and our ascent line - now clearly just above him to the right.]
[As you can see, the terrain is horribly loose here - nothing stayed where it was after you stepped or pulled on it. The two snow options are just above, looking much less steep than they were, but still showing why this is the obvious route choice.]
[Phil comes up the snow with Alcantara's impressive south ridge rising beyond. That's our next challenge but we won't think about now...]
[Now we're cooking with gas! Looking up the snow gully - some sections were quite steep where we used the rock wall at left to assist over vertical steps.]
[Looking down at Phil, who's clearly having a blast here.]
[A better representation of the steepness of the snow gullies - compare this with the photo above the previous one. Angles can be tricky to capture on camera while you're busy trying not to slide off a mountain while taking them. I love the colors of Alcantara's south ridge, which we'll be scrambling in a few more hours.]
[Phil transitions out of our ascent gully onto the really manky dirt / rock slope between the two snow gullies. On descent we just stayed in the snow gully from the top and avoided this dangerously loose section altogether.]
[Big terrain just above the snow gullies looking back towards Alcantara.]
From the top of the snow gully to the crux is impossible to describe in any detail which is maybe why Rick's report is so scarce of details. It certainly isn't "mostly walking" or a "broad back" though - that I can tell you! There's a lot of routefinding on loose, blocky terrain while traversing very steep ledges and wondering the whole time if the next section is going to be a dead end or not. We didn't build enough cairns on ascent and despite thinking we knew exactly where we went, the terrain tripped us up several times on return. As I gained a crest on the ridge and looked towards Rick's "moderate chimney" I figured our attempt might just be ending early after all. The crux crack is only "moderate" for a climber - it's certainly more than that for most scramblers, including myself. Again, I knew that we had to get our noses into it and so we did just that. There was no other option on the blank face of the wall blocking the ridge - steep walls fell off hundreds of meters on either side of the ridge. This makes the crack easy to find - it's literally your only option! Once I looked closer, I again figured we'd be able to make it up the first 10 feet or so. After that there was a slightly overhanging crux before the terrain got blocky and laid back a bit more.
[Phil follows me across the first steep ledges as we traverse to the NE ridge. A false summit rises behind him here. We came up from the other side of the ridge. Cairns are essential for guiding you back in this complicated terrain. Not quite a "walk on scree".]
[Whoa. Seriously? We're not in Kansas anymore kids. We will ascend right up this face, just climber's left of the nose. Exposure is down hundreds of meters on either side here.]
Phil went up the first section, a bit awkward but no biggie. I followed him up, as usual it was slightly harder than it looked from below but soon we were both sizing up the crux. Phil thought it looked pretty stiff, but I was feeling pretty great about it - it was my favorite "difficult" terrain, a chimney. I love chimneys, as they generally allow you to stem your way up or down while feeling pretty secure. In this case, it was a matter of using hands and feet to counterbalance my way over the lip and onto the less exposed face above the crack / chimney. Phil followed and admitted that it wasn't quite as bad as it looked - although obviously we both agreed it was still much more "difficult" than just "moderate" scrambling. I found myself really enjoying the more complicated terrain. Just as on Assiniboine, the steepest terrain is more solid with tons of huge holds and the ledges are a bit of a nightmare, liable to collapse under you or on top of you at any moment.
[Sweet views off the ridge crest back towards Mount Alcantara.]
[Phil starts up the bottom of the crux crack.]
[Phil stems over the crux just before the "crack" becomes a "chimney".]
[Much easier terrain after the crux, but a slip here would suck badly. Don't slip here.]
The terrain above the crux wasn't trivial either. Very loose rock was a common theme, as were exposed ledge traverses, small cliff bands to circumvent and views that knocked our socks off as we got higher and higher. Generally the ledges were on climber's left (SE) and firmer terrain was on the ridge crest. Everything we touched was suspect and no hold could be completely trusted, slowing us down and making us feel a bit frazzled at times. Finally we found ourselves blocked by one more steep snow arete that was bypassed on yet another ledge traverse below the summit block on the SE face before contouring back up and towards the summit which was conveniently located right on the middle of the ridge. I was super excited to see a register and opened it to see we were only the 5th recorded ascent since 1929 and first in almost a decade since Colin Jones ascended it in 1999.
[Apparently the first ascent party approach up this valley from the east to the Alcantara / Brussilof col and then followed the same route we did to the summit. A false summit visible at upper right. The Royal Group visible at distant center. ++]
[It's all steep, loose, blocky and ledged terrain. Just don't trust ANYTHING to your full body weight and make sure you are ready for slippage at any moment. It's pretty slow and mentally tiring to be on this terrain - I clearly had flashbacks to the interminable SW face of Mount Assiniboine as we ascended and descended Brussilof.]
[It's a beauty of a day to be out here! Peaks such as Byng, Red Man, Currie, Sir Douglas and King George all visible.]
[Looking back along a shoulder on the ridge below the summit at Alcantara with Eon, Aye and Assiniboine just peeking out now. Our approach from mid right and lower approach from the road at mid left - you can see one of the lakes here. ++]
[Scrambling up to the ridge just before the summit with our approach valley far below us now. ++]
[Dang it! Nothing's ever easy is it?! To avoid unnecessary exposed snow climbing along the obvious arete ahead, we chose to dip down to the left and ascend to the summit that way. It worked fine. ++]
[The last few steps to the top!]
[A regular "who's who" of local climbing legends.]
[Now that's a bloody sweet view! The Marshall, Aye, Assiniboine and Eon (L to R) are even "huger" than Brussilof and all are likely harder and for sure longer to ascend. Originally we were planning on an ascent of Eon to cap off our weekend.]
[Enjoying the summit views looking north (L) and east (C,R) including peaks such as Alcantara, Marvel, Byng, Currie, Joffre, Sir Douglas, Red Man, White Man, Talon, Soderholm and the Royal Group. ++]
[Joffre in the distance left of center with the Royal Group and King George at right. Smuts and Birdwood over Warre and Vavasour at mid left and White Man Mountain in the foreground in sunlight with Talon and Soderholm at right foreground. ++]
[Aurora, Byng and Morrison at center left with Red Man and Sir Douglas at right. Currie at center.]
[The always impressive and majestic Mount Assiniboine towers over the Aye / Eon col.]
[The Monarch looms in front of a distant Mount Ball and even Mount Temple is visible far to the NW.]
[Talon just out of sight to the left with Soderholm at right. The Royal Group including Queen Mary, Prince John, and King George rising impressively beyond.]
[Phil checks out the views from the SW end of the summit block - note the impressive rock wall of the west outlier at right. ++]
[Views off the SW end of the summit ridge are impressive. Soderholm and Talon at left with unnamed outlier and tarn at foreground left. ++]
[How the heck did I do this with a bloody migraine?! Jeez. Looking way down around 1700 meters to the Aurora Creek FSR and our approach route with the Baymag Mine site at left and the Assiniboine Lake approach to Mount Assiniboine at center going right up the Assiniboine Creek drainage. The Mitchell River Valley at center heading towards strange sounding mountains such as "Centurion" and "Octopus". The valley at left branches off the Mitchell River and leads towards peaks such as Daer, Harkin and Selkirk. ++]
[A better photo of the Mitchell Group over the Baymag Mine. Selkirk at center with Daer and Harkin to the left with Mount Sam and Octopus splitting the valley with the Mitchell River Valley at right.]
[A great view of the giants of the Assiniboine area including (L to R), Octopus, Centurion, The Marshall, Aye, Assiniboine, Eon and Alcantara. ++]
After enjoying a break on the summit and taking our usual plethora of summit photos, Phil and I turned our attention to the complicated descent towards Alcantara. My throbbing headache was under control at this point, and we were talking about heading up the south ridge of Alcantara from the col with Brussilof. The descent to the col was, as expected, slow and a bit involved. Most of the technical bits weren't too hard to reverse - especially the chimneys weren't horrible to downclimb.
[This is the only "walk on scree" which doesn't last very long. Another special place to be in the Rockies with some excellent views over the core Assiniboine area. Marvel Pass at center distance. ++]
[Careful to press down on rocks rather than pull on them!]
[Looking back up the crux wall / crack / chimney.]
[Continuing the loose descent past the crux which rises above Phil. What you can't see on the photos is that the exposure on the other side of the crux is just as severe as the one you see at right here.]
[There is some airy views on Brussilof. They are invigorating to say the least.]
[Another view back at the crux wall.]
[We had some spectacular positions and views on this scramble. Looking back at Phil traversing some ledges with the end of the summit ridge high above. ++]
The snow gully was slow, but fairly easy as well - it certainly helped to have kicked steps and the confidence that it already worked fine on ascent. As the afternoon shadows lengthened and the day shifted into evening we set our sights on the magnificent looking south ridge of Alcantara, rising impressively to its lofty summit hundreds of meters above us.
[Working our way carefully down the snow gully. We had to be extra careful about pulling huge rocks down on ourselves or each other on this scramble. Everything moved and nothing was truly "solid".]
[Phil downclimbs the last steep bit of snow in fine form.]
[Exiting the mountain back to the Alcantara col via steep, loose scree.]
[Our next objective - Mount Alcantara and its south ridge - invites us forward.]
I have to say that Brussilof might sneak onto one of my "favorites" lists. It ticked a lot of boxes for me. First I ignored and overcame a brutal migraine. Then we had the fun snow climb followed by intricate routefinding and steep, blocky climbing including a neat chimney / crack feature. Then there's the summit itself, which has only been visited a handful of times over the past 100 years. That's a lot of positives for any mountain!