April 15, 2009
I have always been planning to take a day off for climbing should conditions be perfect on a weekday. After many years it finally happened. A week of warm weather stabilized the snowpack then a cold snap brought some fresh snow and after that, for just one day, sunny but still chilly weather. So we had day-long good snow stability, beautiful fresh snow covered mountains and a sunny day. What else do I need? A partner.
I lured Andrew into the trip. He was on spring break but had no plans or partners for a bigger trip. So he had nothing to lose and just casually replied yes to my e-mail inquiry about attempting Mt. Wilson. The normal route would have been multi-day and hence was out of question for me but the more direct route has reportedly been done in a day - though usually from a nearby campground.
Why Mt. Wilson? I climbed its namesake fourteener in Colorado as one of my most memorable trips there and was curious about its brother. More importantly, I really liked Chic Scott�s route description with lots of potential snow climbing and a brutal 2000 m gain for a full day.
We left the car about 700 metres northeast of Saskatchewan Crossing at a meadow at 6:30. We crossed the meadow and started the not much anticipated bushwhacking. Luckily, the elevation of Saskatchewan Crossing is so low that there was almost no snow during this bushwhacking as opposed to the expected dreadful �Snowshoe Slush Cup�. Additionally, we soon picked up a well broken game trail in the otherwise not too dense forest, so it really became a breeze � well, except the last 15 minutes when we had to leave the trail and head toward the ascent avalanche gully.
Finally on hard snow, we made good progress in the gully, and finished out the first 950 m elevation gain to the saddle in 3:15 in spite of numerous photo breaks for the beautiful sunrise and weird avalanche debris in the scenic gully. Conditions, as expected, were excellent�
Unfortunately, the most challenging and frustrating part of the trip was just in front of us. We had to descend a north facing 40� slope for a 150-metre loss. The only bad news in the avalanche forecast was that some wind-loaded north slopes showed local instabilities, all the rest was great. I told Andrew to be prepared with his probe and shovel just in case, and started to cut through the slope trying to connect a couple of rock outcrops. I did sink in hip deep once but didn�t set off anything... whew. I made it through the most scary part and yelled Andrew he can follow me. We made it down to the large Wilson Icefield which was a completely different world then the south slopes on the other side. Everything was snow covered in this perfectly silent world, and even a Mt. Victoria-style hanging blue glacier contributed to the scenery.
Soon we donned our snowshoes but after about a half an hour they started to ball in the baking sun so we cached them and continued on foot. I knew I would regret leaving my snowshoes at lower elevation higher up but I was running out of energy and just couldn�t commit to carry my snowshoes any further. It was indeed more efficient on foot for quite while in about 20 cm of powder on top of a hard layer. We tried to keep a consistent pace and picked a snaking line to avoid steep ups and flat areas. I was so thrilled by the good conditions, blue skies and views that I didn�t even realize how long it took us to cut through the icefield. Then some clouds moved in and the final ridge came into view and all of a sudden my motivation went way down...
If we make the summit and won�t have any views of the Columbia Icefield the purpose of the whole trip would be lost. The final ridge also looked fairly threatening. Just below the multi-storey building size cornice a huge avalanche fracture crown was visible. We estimated it to be at least 10 m tall� Now we have travel somewhere above all this. I would have taken a different line if this was not the clearly described route.
As we got to the first steep part of the final ridge it became icy (once again just as in the route description) and we had to don crampons again. Cornice hanging in the air to the left or big steep snowslope on the right -- which one shall we choose? Well, we just tried to sneak in and out between the two threats. In 10 minutes it was all over and we felt safe again for the very last section of the ridge.
The helicopter pad and repetition station were somewhat spoiling the pristine environment and the clouds almost took the views but we didn�t complain. We still had fairly good views in all directions and seeing a half socked-in Columbia Icefield was already a special treat. We did pick an almost perfect day.
The cloud cover actually made our descent easier as further down the snow that was already melting on our way up refroze. It didn�t mean we could walk on top but at least we didn�t have to posthole in slush. Andrew took the lead on the way down and I fell way behind. Then we reached our snowshoes and loaded our backpacks again. Climbing back up the saddle was painful as it brought up our total elevation gain to 2130 m, a bit more than expected...
On the south side of the ridge I glissaded as much as I could but the ride quality wasn�t that great. Andrew didn�t bring his crazy carpet and he is not a great believer in abusing pants either so he just walked down. At least I could pause and soak in the panorama a few more minutes before returning to bushwhacking. Once again, after a 15-minute Class 3 bushwhacking we found the game trail and strolled back to car long before sunset (12:40 total). That was just perfect because we could enjoy some amazing sunset views along the Icefields Parkway on our way home.
As I put it during our trip somewhere high on the icefield while trailbreaking steadily, "Good workout". And as Andrew replied, "That�s the understatement of the year."
Andrew's trip report: http://www.freewebtown.com/anugara/wilson.html