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 dead
Difficulty Notes: If you go off route you quickly get into mid 5th class terrain. Descent is low 5th class and very loose. This is a serious climber’s scramble.
Technical Rating: SC7; YDS (4th)
GPS Track: Download
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 normal (and harder) south ridge. 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.
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 choice. 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 a bit. 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.
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.
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.
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 – even without a rope. Jon agreed with this and wanted to turn around and get off before we did something dumb and got hurt, or worse. I did (and especially now) not agree with this tactic. I knew that Sonny 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 bad state of mind.
I managed to convince Jon that our best course of action was to finish the climb and tackle the nasty but mercifully short alternate descent instead of turning back at this late 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! 😉 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 just 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. At this point things are a little hazy for me. I can usually pick out a good route really quickly 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 (as of 2016). 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 down climbing 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 5-10 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” and 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 us a message to “let go” and be done with the problem. This is both very interesting and very worrying. 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.
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.
Our mantra was that we “had lots of time – take our time”. This worked extremely well and for some reason the descent was easy and stress-free. We simply descended along the ridge to skier’s right, every time dropping back down skier’s left and then going right to the ridge again until it became obvious that staying left would get us onto ‘regular 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 dead-easy compared to the ascent route but don’t under estimate its looseness – I wouldn’t want to be here with a large group.
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. At this point we also realized that it had taken us only 34 hours to complete the 4 Kane Aster Lake region scrambles.
We weren’t done yet! Over the next two days we would complete another 3 peaks around Three Isle Lake.