Steven and I found ourselves back in the very familiar confines of the Bow Hut on Wednesday evening after work, May 7 2014. We were hoping to beat a system moving in the next day by staying at the Bow Hut on Wednesday night. We planned on rising very early on Thursday morning to cross the Wapta Glacier in the dark, before climbing Ayesha Peak in advance of the strong spring sun / warm temperatures that could de-stabilize the steep snow slopes that guard her infamous summit block. Ayesha has been on my radar for many years already, ever since I heard stories of her beautiful snow arete and challenging summit block from friends who had done it already years ago. I didn't pay quite enough attention to the parts about her summit block that included 4th class rock, but wouldn't realize that until I was about to start up it myself.
There are two main concerns with climbing Ayesha. Unlike Mount Collie, where you have to deal with a huge summit cornice, on Ayesha you must deal with very steep south facing snow slopes and gullies, followed by a 4th class ascent on loose rock to gain the summit plateau. We were so focused on the snow aspects of the ascent that I think we under estimated the rocky parts - but more on that later. The winter of 2013/14 has been a strange one. Most of the winter was characterized by cold temps and slabby snow conditions resulting in high avalanche concerns. The spring has been really crappy for people in Calgary, but has resulted in plenty of spring skiing opportunities and frozen lakes where usually there's water this late in the season.
After seeing how wintry the Wapta / Bow Lake areas were on our trip up Mount Collie a week previous, we started planning a repeat trip to Ayesha a week later, when the weather maps started showing a 1.5 day break in the weather. We wanted a good over night freeze to provide better travel while crossing the ice field and to firm up the steep snow gullies but we didn't want too much sun to bake the gullies while we were on the summit either. With clouds moving in mid-morning (according to the forecasts) we decided to take a risk, get up at 03:00 and hope to beat the worst of the weather to the summit. The ski to the Bow Hut was very pleasant under a clear and cool sky. The lake was still snow covered and the creek was still passable, although snow bridges were getting a bit thin in spots. We had the hut to ourselves and managed to get there in 2 hours (by 21:15) which gave us enough time to relax by a cheery fire before hitting the sack for a few hours of restless sleep.
[Skiing across Bow Lake on May 7th! A nice evening.]
[Steven wonders if this bridge will still exist tomorrow.]
[The ski track just barely squeaks by the stream in the approach canyon.]
[A peaceful evening with the entire Bow Canyon area entirely to ourselves.]
[The sun starts setting as we work our way up the steep headwall below the hut.]
03:00 came way too quickly but we dragged ourselves out of bed and forced some breakfast down before leaving the hut at around 03:40 for the long slog across the Wapta. As we put the skis on outside the hut we both noticed flickering lights. We were confused for a few seconds before realizing that the northern lights were putting on quite the show! I tried taking some photos but didn't have the proper lens along for it. We followed a solo skier's track up the headwall before leaving it and forging our own path towards the Gordon / Rhondda col. Steven broke trail in 2-4 inches of fresh snow on a firm base, while I carried a picket and the rope.
[Northern lights, stars and Steven's head lamp as we work our way up the headwall to the main Wapta Icefield.]
It started getting light already by the time we were descending to the western flats of the icefield. Collie and Ayesha looked absolutely splendid. The morning sunrise was a subtle affair but gave some nice lighting over our surroundings. As we skied past Collie we snuck glances at the incredibly exposed cornice we'd traversed a week earlier - it looked pretty insane from this angle! Good thing we did it before doing Ayesha. I'm not sure I'd do it after looking at it from below. Ayesha's approach is easier than Collie's. After descending past the south end of Rhondda the route goes gradually uphill on a relatively safe glacier. There's no ice fall to negotiate and we didn't lose as much height as we did for Collie. The tradeoff is that Ayesha is slightly further in total distance than Collie is.
[Pre-dawn light as we descend to the western flats. Collie in center and Ayesha on the right]
[The sun starts to rise in the east (L) as we work our way towards Ayesha (R). Baker and Habel on the far right with Gordon and our approach track at far left. ++]
[Nice lighting as we make our way directly towards the snow arete on Ayesha. Collie at left.]
[It's hard to see in the early morning light, but the exposure of Collie's summit ridge can be seen here in the background on upper left. Remember, a good part of that exposure is from a cornice!]
[Sunrise on gorgeous Mount Collie.]
As we approached the gorgeous snow arete leading to the upper ridge, we realized (yet again!) how foreshortened everything on a glacier is! The snow arete looks pretty small until you're climbing it! There was so much snow that we probably could have skied right up the entire arete. Steven didn't feel comfortable skiing the terrain, so we ditched the skis when the east side of the arete steepened considerably. (We also could have skied up the gully to climber's left of the arete, but on descent the snow had a brutal crust on it so on hindsight I'm glad we didn't bother skiing it.)
[The arete looks gorgeous rising to Ayesha's south ridge, but it doesn't look that big right? Baker rises at center with Habel at far right.]
[The arete looks much smaller than it is. The terrain is extremely foreshortened here.]
[We skied part way up the arete. Mount Baker rises at center.]
Steven broke trail (hey - I was carrying all the extra gear remember?! ;)), which grew wasn't easy when it got over his knees on the top of the arete! We decided to try climber's left in the gully and this worked well for the last half of the ascent to the south shoulder. The good news was that the snow was bonded really well to the harder layer underneath and we felt no signs of instability as we ascended. It took us 3 hours from the hut to the base of the arete.
[A gorgeous morning as we ascend the arete in soft snow.]
[Looking back from the arete - we're finally gaining some real height! "Collesha" rises impressively on the right. ++]
[A wider view of the western icefield before the clouds move in includes (L to R), Baker, Habel, Rhondda, Gordon and Collesha. ++]
[One of my favorite shots from the trip, looking down the beautiful snow arete to our skis and back over the Wapta to Mounts Gordon and Olive. This is only about 1/3 way up!]
[A tough job trail breaking up the arete. We eventually switched to the other side which was less exposed and a bit firmer.]
[Looking back over our approach line and tracks up the lower part of the arete.]
[On the other side now. We could have skied up this gully but it was very crusty on return so it wouldn't have been as much fun as it looks.]
Once on the south shoulder (~4 hours after leaving the Bow Hut) we could see that clouds were moving in on us. This wasn't a horrible thing as the sun was finally up and the air temperature was warmer than I was hoping for already at 07:45. Along with the true summit of Peyto, Habel, Collie and possibly Balfour, I think Ayesha is one of the most technical summits of the Wapta. I think only the true summit of Peyto is harder. Right off the bat we had to get up, or around a steep rock section on the south ridge. Steven ascended the rock directly (difficult scrambling), while I decided to try steep snow on climber's right. The snow was definitely easier than the rock, but steep. It was a good test for what was to come and was unexpected.
[Looking to the summit block from just below the south ridge. The summit is in clouds and you can see the rock step we have to get over, or around.]
[What a gorgeous and wild place this is! Collesha on the left, with Collie and Des Poilus in clouds. Ayesha on the right.]
[Steven comes up the rock - I took steep snow instead.]
[Peyto Mountain shows up over the Baker / Habel col.]
[Steven on top of the rock scramble, following me up the south ridge now. What a view! Rhondda and Habel in the clouds on the left and Gordon in clouds at center. ++]
We had a good view of the snow gullies on Ayesha a week earlier, from Mount Collie, so we knew there was plenty of snow. What we didn't know was how safe the snow was going to be - especially considering the dump of at least 30cm since we'd been on Collie! As we traversed semi-exposed snow slopes to the base of the gullies we were happy to observe good bonding between the snow layers and good step-kicking conditions.
I should point out that you must be extremely confident of the snow conditions for both the traverse to the gullies and the gully climb itself. Any slides between the south ridge and the west ridge above the gullies will result in death. There is no room for error here. Ayesha is a long way in the middle of nowhere and it takes a lot of effort just to get to those snow slopes, but if there is any signs of instability I would caution you to turn back. (There's always "Collesha" if conditions aren't too bad - this is the rather impressive summit between Collie and Ayesha - and this was our backup plan if we got turned back on Ayesha.)
[We begin our traverse to the snow gully on fairly benign slopes.]
[Mont Des Poilus looks huge from this angle!]
[We get some blue sky on our traverse. You can start to see the exposure down to the left. ++]
[The slope steepens and the exposure 'sneaks' up as you go along. Crampons are a must in order to be safe. Even here, there was very hard snow under the fresh stuff and it was important to get the teeth of the crampons into that harder layer.]
[This is where even a small slide would send you.]
The traverse went well and soon we were kick stepping / wading our way up very steep gullies to the west ridge of the summit block. The steepest section required front pointing and step kicking across a 50 degree slope before finally topping out on the west ridge. It felt so good to be alive and in this wild place! I am so lucky that I have the health and family support to enjoy these adventures. There is nothing quite like finishing a tough, exposed section on a wild, remote mountain with sun, clouds and a cool breeze on your face, and just standing there feeling it and drinking it all in deeply. These are the moments I live for. This is the difference between being alive and just living.
[Looking back at our tracks from the traverse.]
The exhilaration of the snow climb was cut off by the realization that we weren't done yet... I remember reading Kevin Barton's description of "low fifth class" climbing on the summit block, but I guess I was so focused on getting good snow conditions I forgot about that part. Looking up at the summit block from the west ridge brought it to mind pretty darn fast! There was no turning back at this point, however, and we had a rope and some gear if we needed it so we kept going.
[This is the steepness of the gully - taken on descent by Steven.]
[Vern traverses out of the gully - photo by Steven.]
There are two difficult scrambling (4th class) rocky sections on the summit block. The first is a very loose and exposed slope which is accessed via a short, steep crack. With snow, ice and ski boots it always feels extra spicy to climb on rock in the winter! After this section we came across a rappel station that people use on descent to avoid down climbing what we'd just come up. There was also another short, difficult little crack that we had to ascend before finally marching to the summit - now in thick clouds with no visibility. Oh well. Ayesha is one peak that I didn't mind having clouds on. It made the thought of descending the snow slopes less troubling!
[Steven ascends the difficult scrambling section to the summit plateau.]
[Vern comes up to the summit - photo by Steven.]
[Another short, awkward section just before the summit plateau.]
[The views from the summit plateau were stunning - we just couldn't actually SEE them!]
[Vern is pumped to be on Ayesha's summit at last. I dreamt of this for many years.]
After a very brief summit stay (we quickly decided that waiting for any clearing in the weather was pointless), we headed back down. We considered rapping but given the weather conditions (cold, blowing, cloudy) and our comfort level on difficult scrambling terrain, we tried down climbing first. The down climbing went well and other than a few tricky spots with loose rock and no solid holds, we felt it was manageable. Descending the snow gully was slow, deliberate step kicking until we could plunge step (face outwards) on the bottom before quickly traversing off the south face and back onto the south ridge to the arete.
[Steven follows me down the ridge, this is descending the second rock band just before the summit plateau. You can spot the rap station in the lower left of the photo.]
[This is where the rap will take you... This is the terrain just above the steep snow gully. We didn't bother.]
[Just above the first difficult rock band on our way down in a white out. This is looking at the false summit which is west of where you top out of the gully.]
[You REALLY don't want to slip here! Steven is on the crux of the descent, steep and very loose rock on slabs which is tricky to climb in ski boots!]
[Exiting the 4th class section.]
[Dropping into the snow gully - carefully kicking firm steps to avoid an uncontrolled descent.]
[Steven descends the gully literally right under me since it's so steep! We had to stick close because I was bombarding him with snow bombs. I wanted to avoid kicking him in the face with my crampons too though.]
[Vern traverses back to the south ridge - photo by Steven.]
[The clouds are moving in as we quickly descend the south ridge to the top of the arete.]
[A last look back at the rock wall we first faced on the south ridge. I went around it on climber's right and up steep snow.]
Once back at our skis we took a food / water break and threw around the idea of ascending "Collesha" - the striking, unofficial summit between Collie and Ayesha. The weather made our decision easy as a whiteout moved in over the ice field, soon covering us in light snow and blinding brightness in every direction! We managed to gingerly pick our way along our ascent tracks back to the Bow Hut - not without some feelings of disorientation in a world devoid of reference points. After a break in the hut and replenishing the firewood we'd used the previous night, we managed to slog our way back to the parking lot on slushy spring snow.
[The ice field is totally socked in as we ski off the arete.]
[A brief break in the white out as we approach the south end of Rhondda before skiing back up onto the main Wapta.]
[This is what it's like to ski in a white out. You'd better have good tracks or a GPS, or both or you could end up somewhere you didn't want to be. This is called "skiing in a ping pong ball".]
[A brief clearing in the clouds as we ski past St. Nicholas and Olive.]
[A last look back at the "wild Wapta" from the Bow Lake flats, including St. Nicholas at left and The Onion at center.]
Ayesha is a gorgeous mountain. Just don't under estimate her difficulties and you'll enjoy a great feeling of accomplishment when you finish a successful climb to her elusive and difficult summit. I think this was one of my favorite Wapta climbs simply due to its remote nature and varied terrain.