On Thursday, 03 June 2004, Dan Ronsky, Harvey Brauer, and I climbed Mt. Columbia as a day trip (19.5 hrs - not including the 45 mins we spent on the summit).
In 1999, I got my first backcountry skiing experience when Adam Iwaniszyn got in touch with me and suggested that we do Mt. Columbia as a day trip. Having no idea that I was biting off more than I could chew, I accepted and we gave it a try. As you can tell, we didn't reach the summit on that attempt, but I always knew it could be done as a day trip. I would need to improve my skiing ability and endurance. Since that time, I have had over 70 backcountry ski days, and over 100 days skiing at the resorts. With the improved skiing ability, all that was left was the endurance part. Well....I guess you can't have everything.
Since that trip, I've made four other attempts at Columbia at a more leisurely 3-day pace, only to find myself in a whiteout each time. Then, last year, Adam went back with his regular partner, and they climbed Mt. Columbia as a 21.5 hour day trip. This only confirmed to me that it could definitely be done.
From another angle, Alan Kane has always suggested to me that I just watch the satellite images and when a big high pressure system covers BC, you take off and give it a try. In my last attempt at Columbia (11 May 04), Dan Ronsky and I decided we would take Alan's advice, but instead of the typical three day outting, we would take Adam's idea and do it as a day trip.
On Tuesday of this week, Dan and I found a high pressure system which was going to establish itself over BC from Wednesday afternoon until Saturday morning. That was enough for us. Blair was unable to go this time, so Dan found a third person to go with us. I won't go up to the Columbia with just two people. Harvey lives in Edmonton, but has a condo in Canmore. Dan and I packed Tuesday night and were set to go Wednesday after work.
On Wednesday, we left work mid afternoon, I picked up Dan at his place, then we picked up Harvey from the bus station and headed to the mountains. We stopped in Canmore for dinner and to allow Harvey to pack up his gear. By the time we got to the Columbia Icefields, it was 2330. We didn't see much use in trying to sleep for 30 minutes, so we just put our gear on, and at midnight, we left the Climber's Parking Lot.
As we hiked up the SnoCoach ice road, the full moon was starting to appear. The moonlight reflecting off the glacier was great. You hardly needed the headlamps. We quickly made our way around the SnowDome seracs, then up the Athabasca Headwall. It was really nice to go up the headwall with only day packs. Soon afterward, we arrived at the high point of the icefield (where I usually set up camp). We took the skins off, had a quick snack and drink, then headed to the Trench. We made pretty good time as we arrive at the Trench at 0445. We quickly put the skins back on and headed up the other side. The sunrise was starting around 0430, so we were quickly trying to get Columbia back in view in order to catch the alpenglow on the east face.
We continued our slog over to the face of Columbia. Once there, we took a much needed extended break. We broke out the stove and melted snow to refill our waterbottles. From there, we started up the face. We skied up to just below the 'schrund, then we continued the rest of the way on foot. We took turns kicking steps up the face. Boot penetration was about 6-12 inches.
The face is 2,000 ft of height gain, and that was the hardest 2,000 ft I've ever done. Exhaustion was starting to take over. I had been awake since 0400 Wednesday morning (when I typically get up for work). It took us nearly three hours to ascend that face, and I had a difficult time convincing myself to continue. But knowing if I gave up now, I'd have to do this all over again. I ascended that face thinking with each step, it would soon be over, and I wouldn't have to go back again.
At 1230, we reached the summit. What a great view. No clouds, no wind, 15 degrees, sunny, etc. Reaching the summit was very uplifting. Suddenly I had energy again (within reason). We spent 45 minutes on the summit, taking pictures, etc. Then it was time to go home.
We plunged stepped our way down the face, packed up the stove, grabbed the skis, and made our way back to the Trench. From there, we'd have to ascend about 1,000 ft back up to the highpoint of the Icefields. What a long slog!!!! It just kept going up and up. Finally, we could see Nigel Peak across the highway, and we knew we were almost there. When the terrain starting rolling downhill again, we took the skins off and headed down the headwall. This was very frustrating. The snow conditions were horrible. There was a weak melt freeze crust making it difficult to turn. Dan and I were both on AT gear, and we found the terrain challenging to say the least. Harvey was on old-style tele with leather boots and he found the terrain impossible.
Coming down, the headwall was one of the worst experiences of my life. There were times when I just wanted to unrope and ski down solo, but safety was more important. I have skied down that headwall many times while being roped up, and I've never had a problem, but this time was aweful. It took us nearly three hours to get down.
Eventually, we made our way below the headwall. We traverse the snow-free Athabasca Glacier to the SnoCoach ice parking lot. Then we skied down the bone-jaring ice road, where we took off the skis, hiked up the moraine, and down the road to the truck.
We made it to the truck at 2015, turned on the radio (AM960) and caught the end of the Flames game. We were all cranky, tired, and hurting. More emphasis on the cranky part. We started that long drive home, switching drivers on a frequent basis. Nobody could seem to stay awake. We got coffee in Lake Louise, and more coffee in Canmore (where we dropped off Harvey). From there, Dan and I returned to Calgary, where I dropped him off around 0100. From there, I made my way back to Strathmore, where I arrived home at 0200.
It was a good trip, and we made fairly good time, but more importantly, on my sixth attempt, I finally bagged Columbia.