The Lyell Icefield and the Lyell peaks in particular, have had my attention for many years. I’ve been doing trips around them and had glimpses and full on views of their lofty and distinct summits many times. Some of the best views were on my remote ascent of Mount Amery, Monchy and Hooge back in 2012 with Eric Coulthard. One of the issues preventing me from visiting the Lyell Icefields early was the simple problem of access. These peaks are remote!
[A shot of the Lyells (V, I and III) from the Summit of Mount Amery in 2012]
I heard a rumor already years ago, that there was a route near the Icefall Lodge that didn't involve going the normal Icefall Lodge, helicopter or Glacier Lake approaches. Although there is nothing wrong with either of the Icefall Lodge routes (either Tivoli Shoulder or Crampon Col), this other route was rumored to be shorter, have spectacular views and was entirely self-supported. The Glacier Lake approach route never sounded that attractive to me, with talk of route finding, bushwhacking, steep and loose scree and days spent just on the approach. I must admit, however, that after doing this approach for Mount Forbes in late April 2016, my view of it has improved somewhat.
Jump ahead to 2014 and the publication of K7 Climbing's Lyells trip, complete with a description of the Icefall Brook approach - now there was enough beta to try this alternate route and Steven, Ben and I put it on our radar. 2015 had a very dry spring. This resulted in the mountains shedding their white coats fairly early and by the end of June we were looking at a July snow pack already. With a free weekend and extra days off, we started planning a Lyell Icefield peak bagging trip. We paid Larry the requisite hut fees for the Lyell Hut and Ben picked me up from my house on Thursday, June 25th at around 3pm for the long approach drive to Icefall Brook.
I've described the Bush River FSR in my trip report for Alexandra so I won't repeat it here. Here's the map I drew of the Kinbasket Lake area with its forestry service roads;
[An overview map - not accurate - gives an idea of the forestry service roads around Kinbasket Lake and some notes that are current as of September 2014. Conditions change yearly. Note: the collapsed bridge to the Lyells can be driven over in a high clearance vehicle. ++]
[The Bush River FSR is usually in just as good shape as the Spray Lakes road ever is.]
We had fantastic road conditions to the Valenciennes River FSR. The Bush River FSR was dusty but traffic was pretty much nonexistent by the time we were on it and Ben drove it like a pro. Once we turned up the Valenciennes River FSR things started to get much more interesting, as expected. The first section was pretty decent as we started climbing steeply on the narrow, exposed, decommissioned road. Soon we were driving through a rushing mountain stream that had taken out the road and washed the culverts down a steep gully. We kept driving, nervously awaiting the 13th kilometer. Why the 13th? Well, in a coincidence of the bad luck digits, the bridge at around km 13 was known to be slowly collapsing. The bridge / road was officially closed at this spot in 2014 but someone probably moved the sign and folks simply started driving over the sagging structure again - classic backcountry BC travel!
[The spectacular scenery along the Valenciennes River FSR.]
We weren't sure what to expect. When we finally saw the bridge, it looked a little more ratty than we remembered from K7's pictures less than a year previous. Steven and I made sure there were no nails sticking out and rearranged the boards at the bottom. Ben very cautiously and nervously drove down the creaking structure and revved up the other side in his Toyota Highlander. Phew! Made it! It was only after crossing the bridge that I looked at the printout from K7's report and noticed that the bridge was now completely collapsed, compared to when they drove it. Oops. It was obvious that the bridge was in much worse shape now than previously. It is now completely dropped to the ground (water) below and the bottom decking is rotting and ready to swallow someone's tires. On hindsight we should not have crossed this bridge in the vehicle we had and should have walked from here - which wouldn't have been easy either.
[It may not look horrible, but it's much steeper than it appears and the bridge is now completely collapsed to the ground / water underneath. This is rotting the bottom decking, as you can see - and waiting to trap someone's tires. There's also a lot of nails poking out so make sure you take a rock and fix these before spinning your tires out on one.]
After the bridge we weren't out of the woods yet. We crossed numerous washouts - some were much easier than others. Another year of no maintenance and I am of the opinion that the Valenciennes River FSR will be for very high clearance 4x4's and ATV's only. Regular SUV's and 4x4 trucks that don't have high clearance will not be able to drive past km 13 and you can already pretty much forget about 2 wheel drive trucks or any type of car or crossover for accessing this part of the Rockies. A particularly worrisome spot after km 13 was at around km 15. Here a creek was flowing across the road, but it was more like a large swampy area with strong current than a creek. The water looked deep and I was surprised Ben's Highlander didn't flood out as we drove through it. Put it this way - we generated a good sized wake going across this spot. Crossing it on foot would have been over knee deep for sure.
[Numerous washouts along the Valenciennes FSR - this is a pretty tame one.]
The stress of the 22km Valenciennes River FSR reminded us again how remote the Rostrum Peak / Bush River peaks are. I think folks living around Golden are a little more used to this sort of thing, but we are spoiled in Alberta with highways and approach trails and aren't used to the feeling of being on decommissioned roads in the middle of nowhere, with very little chance of a tow if things go sideways - which they very easily can out there. We parked on the road where it obviously couldn't be driven further (thanks to another, massive washout) and noted a white Ford pickup that Steven claimed was Trevor Sexsmith's from Golden. Trevor's truck had much more clearance than Ben's SUV and is the sort of truck you need for these road conditions. I set up my mid right on the road and we scouted a way across the raging creek on a single log, so that in the early morning we wouldn't have to stumble around in the dark too much. The air temperature was very warm and the view into Icefall Canyon was looking pretty good already from the road. I was very excited to be starting this trip after so many years of dreaming about it. I meditated as I fell asleep, on the benefits of not bagging too many of the big peaks early in my scrambling career. I'm glad the more remote adventures weren't just another 'tick list item' for me - I can still get excited about them now.
[The road ends officially here! Actually, some ATV's apparently do make it across. I didn't realize it at the time, but this view is looking straight up the Icefall Brook canyon.]
[This log was key in crossing the raging washout near the end of the drivable road. It was slick and icy in the early morning but Ben and Steven still crossed it standing up!]
[The decommissioned road continues on past the washout.]
[Dying light as we walk back to the truck - note Trevor's old Ford and my mid set up right on the road.]
The Icefall Brook Highline Route
We awoke at around 03:30 after a restless night sleeping on the road and got busy preparing for the long day ahead. After a good cup of coffee and some breakfast we were walking towards the log crossing by 04:30 with the sky already quite light in the east. The log was slicker than the night before and I didn't want to fall in the raging creek with my camera gear so I butt-shuffled across. After the creek crossing we walked about 10 minutes further down the road where it took a sharp turn to the right (south), almost going back on itself. Here there is a rocky drainage clearly visible on the left (east) which we entered via light bushwhacking from the road. Looking at Google Earth, you could possibly go further down the road where the drainage has no bush before entering it, but this is unnecessary IMHO - the bush is not an issue here. If you're in thick bush you are off route already. :)
[Steven crosses the slick log at 04:30 in the morning. I wasn't so brave and au chaval'd it!]
[The blue circle is the end of the drivable Valenciennes FSR and where we bivied the first night. The red line is approximately where you leave the road to enter the drainage leading up to the highline Icefall Brook approach trail.]
Light bushwhacking led us into the drainage proper. There was no trail, cairns or flagging of any kind marking this drainage when we did it. Steven was eager to dive into the bush on our left but I wasn't so sure. BC bush is to be avoided at ALL COSTS until you absolutely have no other choice! I could see a choke point high up in the drainage above and wanted to at least go that high before doing any serious bushwhacking. We knew from the K7 report that there was a trail to our left, eventually. I figured it would be easier to find the trail near a narrow terrain feature.
[Light bushwhacking as we head for the open drainage visible ahead and above us. The choke point is just below the snow patch but if you didn't know there was a route here you'd never spot it from below.]
[Ascending out of the drainage now, looking at the narrows as we ascend the bank to the left (climber's).]
Near the choke point in the initial ascent drainage, we diverted to the bank on our left and I finally spotted our first orange flagging up ahead. Sure enough! A distinct trail cut up the bank from the drainage just under the narrows, up the steep dirt bank, and clearly marked with a ribbon. Excellent! Bushwhack avoided so far. We followed ribbons and bits of trail (obvious) across dirt slopes to a steep avy drainage where the trail went straight up the center. The trail continued to be obvious as we grunted upwards and eventually it took another cut to the left and we started getting our first of many mind blowing views of the valley that was already many hundreds of meters below us now.
[Not obvious in the photo, but the trail up the first avy path is fairly distinct.]
[Don't get the idea that this is a highway or anything like that. It's not.]
[The trail is faint but clear. Note the cliffs ahead? There's many points along the traverse that I thought our route must be ending but there was always a moderate scramble or hike through.]
[Arras at center and the Valenciennes visible at lower right now.]
[The first of many excellent views off the highline trail. We came up on the left.]
[A good omen for me - one of my favorite flowers.]
[As we break treeline the route becomes a bit more scrambly and exposed down to our left. You wouldn't want a lot of snow or ice on this traverse!]
After crossing another avalanche gully we finally started breaking out of treeline for a while. The trickiest section of the approach was near a line of low cliffs which blocked access to the main ledge we would follow all the way to the upper bowl under the glacier. On approach we ended up ascending smooth slabs, on egress we traversed some tricky terrain to the first avy gully before descending to the trail. The trail is a bit indistinct here but you'll know when you're at the cliffs because you'll want to keep traversing and won't be able to without ascending them a bit first. If the route is dry and you're on anything more than moderate scrambling, you're taking a tougher line than necessary.
[The route isn't always obvious.]
[There are sections of smooth slab with running water that require extra care while crossing. One of these had a bolt or two protecting it.]
[We've gained some serious height now - looking back at our approach. ++]
[Ben looks for the best route. He went up here while I scouted ahead on the obvious bench. His instincts proved correct when I got cliffed out shortly.]
[Another gorgeous flower - the Woodland Lily.]
[Above the low cliffband, any time you're not 100% sure where the trail is, head up towards towering cliffs and you'll find it back.]
[Note the trail visible in the scree ahead of us. I can still smell the fresh air as I look back on this photo. Heaven. ++]
We kept following the bench above the low cliffs, traversing some slabby / loose gullies and going higher and higher the entire time. I even spotted a bolt on one of the slabby traverses - probably used when there's snow or ice on it. Exposure to our left, into the Icefall Brook Canyon was dramatic - we certainly didn't want to slip on some of the slabby terrain or we'd be plunging down hundreds of meters to an unpleasant demise. Along with the exposure came some of the best views I've had on an approach - the only one clearly superior being the Alexandra highline approach route. The scramble was amazingly well maintained with flagging, cairns and even some red paint where there was no other options. Eventually we arrived at a section of thick alders on an avalanche slope that were cut down 3 feet wide with a beautiful trail right through! That section would be HELL without a trail cut through it. A big thanks to whoever maintains this section!
[Looking back at the striking form of Arras Mountain with it's infamous "banana couloir" which Trevor Sexsmith recently skied. Note the logging road going very high on Arras' north aspect.]
[Slabby, loose scrambling terrain.]
[The alder / avalanche trail which would be absolute HELL without a wide chainsaw path hacked through it.]
As we continued on the ledge, the views really opened up and became very special. Waterfalls plunged hundreds of meters down from towering, glacier covered peaks all around us - some of them almost impossibly appearing out of steep cliff walls as if by magic. A truly spectacular place that I won't soon forget and will hopefully return to some day.
[A massive waterfall spouts directly out of a blank cliff face.]
[Telephoto of the same impressive waterfall.]
[More water cascading from hanging glaciers on the peaks across Icefall Brook.]
[Looking back at the trail in scree with the Valenciennes far below.]
When our trail plunged once again into fairly thick forest, we were taken aback a bit. We thought we were above treeline - but this is BC and the treeline is high. Thankfully the trail was still obvious and flagged - at least for a while. Eventually we came to yet another rushing stream crossing - this time with a conveniently placed tree to assist us across. Once across however, the trail vanished! Crap! We had been doing so well up to this point. Stubbornly we pushed into the bush, instantly losing any semblance of route or trail. Random orange ribbons were scattered in the forest, but did not in any way contribute to a trail - even a faint one. On descent we realized our mistake. The best route from this spot would be ascending on climber's right of the creek (don't cross the log) until near treeline and almost at the towering cliffs above. From here the best route is to cross the creek where it's braided and traverse climber's left on open, rocky terrain towards an obvious upper bowl above treeline beneath the glacier. After a brief bushwhack we broke treeline and entered the back bowl of the ledge leading towards the glacier, clearly visible now.
[Where did this bush come from? Oh well - at least there's a trail. For now...]
[Believe it or not, we're still on a trail.]
[A glimpse upwards to the towering cliffs above on the right and a "twin" falls. It may be possible to head up here already, to avoid the bushwhack ahead.]
[At least the 'whack isn't horrible at this point.]
[We should not have crossed here, but rather gone upwards on climber's right of this creek to the cliffs above before traversing higher. The trail vanished at this point.]
[The creek we crossed on the logs above.]
[The trail disappears.]
[A huge tree - especially considering our elevation.]
[Starting to run into snow patches - note the plunging waterfalls across Icefall Brook Valley.]
[Scrambling up another rocky ledge as we break treeline.]
[Finally we break tree line and are at the same height as the ice fall - the Lyell Hut is high above us but visible already on the rock outcrop at center skyline, if you have a strong telephoto lens.]
Once above the final tree line, our views only improved even more. The clouds were slowly starting to dissipate and we started mixing ice fall and glacier views with green valley floors, crashing waterfalls and snow. Wild flowers were blooming in the alpine too - adding some brilliant color to the canvas we were trekking on. We worked our way up to climber's right - always gaining height wherever possible. Some folks stay too low here and get into trouble. We avoided the slabby terrain towards the middle of the bowl where ancient glaciers have carved their paths in the past and stayed as high as feasible on climber's right.
[A very well deserved break in an incredible setting.]
[WOW! Looking back along our approach bench from our first break spot, towards Arras Mountain with "Twin" falls on the left. ++]
[Continuing on past a few stubborn stands of trees - this is where the hiking becomes truly magical.]
[Myriad of waterfalls coming off the glacier.]
[Glaciers have scoured this terrain over the last few thousand years.]
[Too many waterfalls to count as we slowly contour high on climber's right towards the distant glacier. ++]
[Finally we get views of the Lyell Glacier to the hut at center distance. Note the furious melt going on!]
[Water plunges hundreds of meters into Icefall Canyon.]
[This is a special place that many folks fly over without experiencing - to me places like this are as special, or more, than a summit.]
[Waterfalls everywhere! I think soon after this falls, the Mons Hut is accessed by contouring up on climber's right and descending a bit towards the Mons Icefield. The Lyell Hut is way out of the photo on the left.]
[Looking back down Icefall Brook with Mons Peak the left. ++]
[Passing through an interesting boulder field.]
[A telephoto shot looking back at Arras Mountain.]
[Getting high enough to start using snow patches for more efficient travel. We're nowhere near the glacier at this point.]
[Brilliant green alpine meadows contrast with the rock, snow and ice in the distance. ++]
[Gorgeous 'little' corner of the Canadian Rockies that sees very few human feet each year.]
[We approach a major terrain feature beneath the glacier - a large lateral moraine. ++]
[Steven starts the grunt up the hardpack lateral moraine.]
[The moraine is huge and very obvious, looking back down Icefall Brook towards Mons (L) and Arras (C). ++]
[Climbing the large moraine to get above slabs on our left. This was a good move and got us onto easier snow covered terrain near two small tarns.]
[Amazing fossil imprints in the rock.]
[Using snow patches to avoid slabs which can be seen on the right side of the photo. ++]
We eventually gained two small tarns with well-defined bivy corrals and sublime views back down Icefall Brook / Canyon. The turnoff to the Mons Hut is somewhere before these lakes on climber's right, wherever you can scramble through the cliff bands above. After the two tarns we managed to find supportive snow which led to the glacier and finally we were roping up for the last trudge up to the Lyell Hut which was just barely visible with my telephoto lens.
[Ben takes photos as we traverse a rock rib along the small tarns which are out of sight to the right here.]
[At the top of the slabs now, this is looking back at Mons Peak.]
[Ben hikes beside the first tarn - just visible at lower right. Note we are high above slabs to our right and heading directly to the glacier now.]
[Hiking alongside the largest of the tarns. ++]
[Looking back at the highest (and largest) tarn on the left with Mons Peak at center left and Tivoli on the right. ++]
[Three days later this ice cave was surrounded by only ice - the snow melted quickly!]
[From near the bivy spots just above the largest tarn looking back at Mons and Arras. ++]
[Mons Peak and Icefield. The Mons Hut is out of sight behind the shoulder on the left but can easily be accessed using this same approach.]
[Another telephoto, looking at our approach bench at center left with Mons rising above it. Arras Mountain at center. We have gained a lot of height but have hundreds of meters more to go the hut yet. ++]
[It's hard to tell if we're on snow or glacier, so we've roped up to be safe.]
[Onto the glacier and the real plod begins...]
[A plod with a VIEW! Looking back down the glacier. ++]
Even though the hut was clearly visible at this point, it still took us 1.5 hours to plod over to it on our 'shoes. The scenery kept getting better and better as we climbed towards the hut. Just before the hut, we noticed that we'd have to go up a pretty big snow scoop on the edge of the glacier before descending slightly back to the hut. This was always fun at the end of a long day but the hut sits well protected on a small outlying ridge of Christian Peak (Lyell 5) so this is the price we paid for that safety. As we descended the snow towards the tiny hut and biffy we noted that it was only around lunch time! We took 8 hours on the approach - certainly not too bad for a remote 11,000er and with no technical difficulties whatsoever as a moderate scramble.
[It's a bright world ahead of us as we slog up the initial steep roll at the toe of the icefield.]
[As the glacier flattens behind us, the brilliant white is almost overwhelming. Without sunglasses it would be. Division Mountain at left with Mons and Arras at distant center now and Tivoli at right.]
[The Lyell Hut is somewhere on that shoulder of rock - you can just barely spot it now.]
[We went a bit too high on approach. The outcrop / Lyell Hut at center ahead of us.]
[Impressive views west include La Clytte (L) and Lens Mountain (C-L).]
[We've turned 180 after ascending the bottom of the snow slope and are now heading up a roll before the shoulder and the hut.]
[Descending back to the hut, looking over our approach and the Lyell Glacier. Mount Forbes is now visible on the left. ++]
We commented several times on approach that it is too bad that so many folks choose to chopper into this special place when there's so many easy ways of accessing it on foot. (Glacier Lake, Icefall Lodge via Tivoli Shoulder or Crampon Col and Icefall Brook) Many choose to chopper into the Mons hut and then walk from there to the Lyell Hut after summiting Forbes and / or Mons Peak. I've said it before, I don't personally care how others access their mountains, but I will say that covering half the height gain and distance to a summit in a chopper is NOT the same thing as doing the entire approach on foot with an alpine pack. I don't just mean physically different either. The whole point of climbing a mountain for me, is experiencing its essence as much as possible. Hiking, bushwhacking and scrambling up along the Icefall Brook highline route was a cathartic and soul-enriching experience that brought me closer to the essence of the mountains I was planning to climb. I had time to think about why I was there. I had time to reflect on the different alpine zones as we climbed higher and higher through them. I got to enjoy rushing streams and waterfalls and dip my cup into them as I crossed - drinking deeply straight from the earth. I sat on my pack near some wild flowers, watching them blow gently in the morning breeze while streams of water flowed out of a blue glacier high above me and crashed down the cliffs below. These are just a tiny fraction of the immeasurable moments that people flying overhead miss out on as they rush towards the lofty summits above, ticking off yet another list item in the back of a dog-eared book before chasing off after yet another one.
[Looking over the tiny Lyell Hut with Icefall Peak at center and Rostrum at left with Bush the pointy peak in front and almost hidden. Rostrum Tower in the distance at center.]
The Lyell Hut
YMMV of course and there are many reasons people don't do approach hikes to remote peaks, but if you can, I strongly recommend you don't pass on this particular one. The Lyell hut is pretty stellar, even though it's not cheap at $42/night. Larry does a good job maintaining the hut and it's probably the best sealed alpine structure I've ever stayed in considering it's location and surroundings. The heater seems finicky based on the comments in the hut register but obviously we didn't need it on our trip.
[Preparing the packs in the hut before heading out for an attempt at Christian Peak and Arctomys.]
[The hut is neat and organized. 12 people would be tight though!]
[The view from the kitchen window ain't too shabby either!]
[The 5.3 climb to the bunks is interesting... ;)]
[I love the biffy's bright red door. There's no window - so either bring a headlamp or keep that nice red door open while you're doing your business!]
Egress via the Icefall Brook Highline Route
The egress from the Lyell Hut after 3 days of intense peak bagging was a bit different than our approach. The weather was threatening, with gray clouds and the occasional rain shower and we weren't hanging around to see if there would be thunderstorms embedded in those gray skies! Now that we knew the route, we didn't waste any time trying to find it on descent. Seeing a group of majestic white mountain goats was pretty cool. This area must be heaven for them.
[Descending in much different conditions!]
[The ice cave from our ascent is now completely surrounded by ice instead of snow]
[Our pace wasn't slow on exit but the views were still pretty good!]
[Much more blue ice visible now. You can see the slabby terrain below, that should be avoided as much as possible. ++]
[Spot the goats?]
[The weather is really starting to close in as we get near the traverse bench]
The only slight issue we had on descent was near the end of the ledge traverse, where the trail goes down a small cliff band. In the rain, we wanted to avoid the slick slabs and stayed high until crossing a few tricky gullies (very hard scree and very steep). Eventually we made it across and simply descended to the trail that we knew was in this gully further down. We were very surprised to make it all the way out from the Lyell Hut to the truck in around 4 hours!! Yet another reason I think using helicopters for access to this area is so unnecessary. You really can't complain about a non-bushwhacking 4 hour exit from a group of 11,000ers in BC. ;) As we descended we noted the shocking amount of melt over the past 3 days of hot, sunny weather. Much of the snow on the approach glacier was now melted and 'new' crevasses were showing up everywhere.
[The flowers are loving the rain!]
[A last look back at a very special place. ++]
The drive back was interesting thanks to the furious melt and recent rains. The swampy / fast current section was very close to flooding Ben's SUV - the water was at floor boards level! The bridge also fought back - a piece of decking broke as Ben was driving across and ripped the rear bumper half off! Yikes. We managed to do field repairs but without a high clearance truck I'm not sure I'll drive further than KM 13 on this road again. The rest of the drive back went without a hitch.
[Creeks were raging on exit but we managed to cross them without too much hassle]
[Ben's bumper after the bridge incident. Note the sign in the background?]
[Yep! This is the sign from the previous photo. :)]
[Saying goodbye to the Valenciennes River FSR]
[Our route line for the Icefall Brook / Canyon approach to the Lyell Hut]