Northover, Mount

Summit Elevation (m): 3048
Trip Date: Wednesday, September 6, 2006
Elevation Gain (m): 650
Total Trip Distance (km): 10
Quick ‘n Dirty Rating: Class 4/5 – you fall, you are very, very dead
Difficulty Notes: If you go off route you quickly get into mid 5th class terrain. If you stay on route you are still in 5th class terrain. Descent is 4th class and very loose. This is a serious climber’s scramble.
Technical Rating: SC7; YDS (4th)
GPS Track: Gaia
Map: Google Maps

Jon and I scrambled Mount Northover as part of our Northover Ridge backpacking trip in September 2006. We first ascended Warrior Mountain and Cordonnier before continuing on to Northover. Once we got back to the gravel flats it was decision time. All day Jon and I had been glancing nervously (and somewhat excitedly) at Mount Northover looming ominously to the north and west. We had originally planned on climbing it the next day after backpacking to Northover Pass, via the alternate descent route. Now we were thinking that maybe it was a better idea to summit using the regular (and harder) south ridge route. This would not only be more satisfying but would also mean more time the following day on the ridge and on the trek to Three Isle Lakes.

Mount Northover Route Map

Our minds made up, we started out for the grassy lower slopes of Mount Northover while Rod headed back to camp for a snooze. I think I may have forgotten to explain in detail to Jon just how difficult Mount Northover was or he might have joined Rod. 😉 As we started up the lower grass slopes of Mount Northover (which is also part of the Northover Ridge route) I began to have my doubts about the wisdom of our last minute change of plans. Mount Northover is one of the most serious scrambles mentioned in the Kane book and I knew that doing it with only 2 or 3 granola bars and a bit of breakfast in our stomachs and 6 hours of fairly strenuous scrambling already under our belts was maybe pushing things. In the end, since the whole point of our September trips is to push ourselves, I quashed my inner whining and continued on up the slope. 

Jon leans into our third peak of the day up the lower section of Northover’s south ridge.
The lower ridge is delightful scrambling on easy slab and grass. The summit is just visible here – already threatening us!

Once we got onto the south ridge proper, the scrambling was good fun. There were short bits of scrambling up small cliff bands and slabs interspersed with typical Rockies rubble. Then, as we neared the scary looking summit block things started getting more interesting. And by “interesting”, I mean they ramped up several notches of difficulty.

At a certain point while going up Northover’s south ridge, you will find yourself straddling a narrow ridge with over 1000 feet of empty space on either side thinking “Dang! How did I get here anyway?!!”. Or anyway that’s what happened to Jon and I. We kept pushing up the mountain as the ridge got narrower and more exposed. After each exposed piece the terrain would level off for a bit and we would think it was basically done – only to have it revert back to exhilarating. I use the word ‘exhilarating’ on purpose here. There is a certain freedom and rush when you’re balancing on solid rock, high above the ground below – but also a certain terror! We were feeling very physically and mentally fatigued at this point and soon came to the realization that we had officially pushed things too far.

Things start to get serious on the south ridge.

Once again, a decision had to be made. The suggestion has come up that the descent of Northover is so horrible that a person would be better off to descend the ascent route. Jon agreed with this and wanted to turn around and get off before we did something dumb and got hurt, or worse. Although he had a point, I also knew that Sonny Bou had no problems on the descent and that he said it was quick. I knew that given what we had already come up, our descent would be anything but quick and we would be exposed to all the same hazards as before – except we’d be retreating and in a  depressed state of mind.

Jon balances up a narrow rib, also called the “corner slab section”. Shortly after this we would once again pow wow on what the hell we were doing! It’s much steeper and more exposed than it appears here.

I managed to convince Jon that our best course of action was to finish the climb and tackle the much shorter alternate descent instead of turning back at this juncture. I figured we had already done at least 2/3 of the hard stuff. Jon muttered something about “I’m going to kill you when we get down” but kept following me so I figured that was a good sign. Either way I was likely dead at this point. We stopped to eat our last granola bar before continuing higher. I can’t stress enough that the fatigue factor played a huge role in making this difficult scramble that much more difficult. I remember when I did Mount Smuts, which is just as exposed or worse, I scampered right up the ridge without a second thought – no problems, but I wasn’t nearly as tired on that one.

The trickiest sections below the crux were a very narrow but solid ledge that we tackled on hands and feet and a very narrow and exposed ridge that we kind of butt-shuffled over and side-smeared across. Soon we were standing under the crux section just below the summit. These things are always a lot bigger when you’re right under them aren’t they?! I started up the slabby terrain in a small crack that led just left of the section that Kane warns his readers *not* to get into. This is called the “S” crack or chimney by other scramblers. At this point things are a little hazy for me. I can usually pick out a good route but this time I failed, with almost fatal consequence. 

I knew that Linda and Antri had gone up, left of the overhang with no problems so I thought that’s where I was. All of a sudden I realized to my dismay that I had an overhanging corner move above me! I could not navigate that section safely, especially with my big mountaineering boots on. I have never been so worried or scared on a route before or since. It was so steep that when I looked down I was looking through my legs at thin air for hundreds of feet, and there were not a lot of hand or foot holds available to me. Going up was not an option but going back down was quite simply the hairiest thing I’ve ever done! I couldn’t stop thinking about that moment for the next two days. I think it was some sort of post traumatic stress or something – I’ve never had that before. I really had to dig deep within myself to summon the courage to start backing down the route. I honestly felt an overwhelming desire to simply stop trying and give up – a very weird and disturbing experience for me. I had to fight through a powerful and disturbing urge to simply “let go” for a good 5 to 10 seconds. This is the closest I’ve come (as far as I know) to dying in the mountains – I really believe that.

Update 2016 – I’ve often meditated on this feeling of simply “letting go” that I experienced on that hazy, warm afternoon so many years ago now. Since this scramble in 2006, I’ve climbed many hundreds of mountains and many routes that were more exposed and difficult than Northover (i.e. the NE ridge of Mount Assiniboine). I’ve never felt so helpless on any route or in any situation. I have heard of more than one mountaineering accident (including in the Rockies) where the person in trouble seemed to simply “let go” to fall to their deaths. I think this is probably exactly what happens. The human mind only takes so much and then it solves the current overwhelming issue by sending a final, strong message to simply, “let go” and be done with it. This is both very interesting and very disturbing. I’m only glad I resisted that powerful urge and I caution the reader to be cognizant of it.

I’m not sure if Jon realized how desperate my predicament was but he waited patiently while I talked myself down to a safer stance. I still don’t know how I did it but somehow I made some friction moves and desperate lunges against smooth ‘holds’ and backed down. The adventure wasn’t quite over yet. Now, with my route-finding skills in serious question and my nerve absolutely shredded, I had to find a way up the crux! Thankfully I correctly guessed that we must not be far enough to climber’s left and had enough sense to pick out a ledge traverse (exposed on smooth slabs) slightly below our position. This traverse took us up and around the ridge and to the base of a crack trending up to climber’s right. The crack led up to safer terrain and to the main summit where we both gulped in the fresh air – very relieved to be done the ridge and alive to talk about it. Update 2023 – Reading through more recent reports such as Mike Mitchell’s 2017 report, I am less clear now whether we were climber’s left of the “S” chimney or in the chimney itself. I’m still reasonably confident that we were climber’s left of the “S”, but only by a matter of feet. We definitely exited the same upper chimney to the summit ridge.

Unbelievable exposure down the SW face of Northover as Jon clambers up the crack that I found, leading to the summit. Northover Lakes far below. This photo compared to photos by Mike Mitchell makes me think we definitely ended up in the same exit crack that they did, above the “S” chimney.
Another view down the loose crack / gully that led us to the summit.

We did not spend much time on the summit as we were out of food and running low on hydration. Instead we immediately traversed over to the south summit a short distance away and then began our way down the alternate descent.

A short traverse to the south summit – the Northover Ridge route below and trending right with Onslow and Defender in the bg.

Our mantra was that we “had lots of time – take our time”. This worked extremely well and for some reason the descent was simple and stress-free. We descended along the ridge, dropping down to our left and then going right back to the main ridge again until it became obvious that staying left would get us onto slab-free scree again. It took us 36 minutes to go from the summit of Mount Northover to the Northover col – and that was taking our time, going down most of the route on our butts and hands due to the looseness of the terrain. We even butt-scooted right past a freshly placed bolt! The terrain was easy compared to the ascent route but don’t underestimate how loose and exposed sections of it are. I wouldn’t want to be here with a large group or with any hint of snow or ice.

Jon bravely tackles the steep, loose and exposed alternate descent to the west shoulder of Northover. I can’t believe we didn’t even wear helmets on this difficult scramble! Idiots…
Almost off the difficult stuff while descending the west face of Northover to the shoulder – which is out of sight to the left here.
Looking down from the col to the Northover Tarns at lower left and Joffre and Warrior above.

From the west shoulder, it was an easy plod back to the campsite at Aster Lake. By the time we got there Jon forgot to kill me and we had supper instead which suited me just fine. At this point we also realized that it had taken us only 34 hours to complete all 4 of the Aster Lake region Kane scrambles.

Apparently, since the two Northover Lakes are outside of Alberta and the park, random camping is allowed near them. This is a great alternative to the busy, expensive and porcupine-infested Aster Lake campground!
Interesting lighting as the sun sets to the west.
Great fall colors around Aster Lake.
Jon is happy to be hiking on easy terrain again. Sarrail and Foch in the distance (I wouldn’t ascend Mount Foch for many years until 2020).

We weren’t done yet! Over the next two days we would complete another 3 peaks around Three Isle Lake.

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