Summit Elevation (m): 3467
Elevation Gain (m): 1800
Trip Time (hr): 15
Total Trip Distance (km): 15
Quick ‘n Dirty Rating: Class 4/5 – you fall, you break something or die
Difficulty Notes: Combining Mount Victoria and Huber into one day can either be fairly easy if you’re an experienced mountaineer or complex if you’re more of a beginner like I was at the time. Routefinding throughout the day can be tedious, especially finding the route down Victoria’s west face and down the Huber Ledges at the end of a long day.
Technical Rating: MN9; YDS (5.2, II)
Map: Google Maps
On Sunday, September 9 2007, Kevin Barton and I managed to tag both Mount Victoria and Mount Huber in a long 15 hour day from the Abbott Hut. It took us quite a bit longer than we planned because of new snow (2-6″) and ice on the route. Mount Victoria was much more than just a scramble with snow and ice on down-sloping slabs and exposed rock. We were in crampons for over 12 hours on rock, snow and ice so our feet were NOT happy with us at the end of the day. The weather was simply gorgeous and I am quite chaffed that I forgot my camera in the hut!! (A huge thanks to Wietse for bringing it down for me.) Now for the details.
Wietse, Kevin and I left for the Abbot hut at around 1600 on Saturday afternoon from the Lake O’Hara trail head. Our real adventure actually began even earlier on our 11 km bus ride up to this restricted access area! When we realized that there was only us three plus two campers on the bus we challenged our affable Swedish bus drive to beat his record time up to the lake. I think he almost beat it too! I actually felt a bit bus sick because of all the jolting and rattling on the way up. Someone is going to have to tighten a lot of nuts and bolts on that vehicle soon or it will fall apart half way up.
Not realizing that the trail for Abbot Pass doesn’t actually leave from Lake Oesa, we ended up doing some unnecessary scrambling before intersecting the highway to the hut. The highway was very well marked with painted arrows and little blue and yellow flags (no wonder the Swedish guy works here). We made it up in just over 2.5 hours and walked into a very crowded environment.
The hut was so full that we didn’t really have room to sleep or sit. I only enjoy huts when they’re half full of polite, quite people who don’t snore. Since this has never happened to me except for one time in the Stanley Mitchell hut, I guess I just don’t like huts very much.
We were a bit nervous about the conditions on the hike up due to fresh snow falling on us and the sight of white stuff above on the rock. Once we got to the hut and looked at the lower section on Victoria we were more optimistic – it didn’t look that bad. After talking with a couple of very accomplished scramblers / climbers in the hut we were a bit more nervous again. Alda and Sim were there with their friend Alan to try for Victoria South too. They had done some preliminary scouting and were not impressed with the conditions at all. The rock was slick and covered in fresh snow and since a lot of the lower route seemed to be on down sloping terrain this was not a good thing. After doing some scouting around ourselves we realized that they had a point. A guide in the hut (Sean) told us more about the correct route and suggested wearing crampons all the way up through the rock. This seemed like a good idea, even though it would slow us down considerably, so we went to bed in good spirits, still pretty positive we could make it work.
At 0:500 I woke up to the sound of Alan’s alarm after a very restless night of ‘sleep’. It’s a darn good thing Alan was getting up at the same time as us because my watch died on me over night, but was going again in the morning for some reason. No one had a good sleep, as there was a very loud snoring ensemble in the loft that night. I’m so glad that my wife doesn’t snore – I think I would need a separate bedroom if she did! After scarfing down a tiny bit of breakfast, Kevin and I left the hut at 05:45. Wietse wasn’t feeling up to the challenge of a long, potentially difficult day so he choose to stay back at the hut and agreed to meet us at the tea house by Lake O’Hara at the end of the day. I led the way up the crux on the lower route in the dark, which was interesting for lack of a better word. The rock was slick and one or two of the moves were a bit sketchy. Kevin had some trouble with this initial section, but he’s a rock climber and really needs solid holds before he’s comfortable. Unfortunately for Kev, solid holds are not in abundance on the lower section of Victoria when it’s covered in fresh snow and ice.
Sim, Alda and Alan headed up shortly after Kev and I, and they passed us lower down, well before we were at the ridge. It seemed to take a long time to get to the ridge. It was largely fun scrambling, but the snow and crampons made it uncomfortable. Crampons are great but on rocks they tend to torque your feet in every direction which really strains the ankles and knees. Crampons are also made of sharp steel and the noise of steel scraping across solid rock gets annoying after a while. I am going back to do Vic again in dry conditions because I really think it would be a totally different experience. It was still fun the way we did it, but more nervous fun than relaxed fun. We were following cairns all the way up the east face to the southeast ridge but still ran into some tricky climbing. On one section in particular the scrambling became a bit dicey and Kevin and I had our turn to pass Alan’s group as they roped up for a short section and we soloed it around them. After this section we pretty much climbed as a group of 5 for the rest of the way to the south summit. I was enjoying the climb immensely but was seriously chaffed at my own stupidity. I was on the biggest climb of my life so far, which clear blue skies and views that blew my mind and I didn’t have my camera!! Yep, that’s right. I forgot half my liquid for the day and my camera in the hut. Since we left in the dark, I didn’t check my pack till over an hour into the climb before I realized this stupid mistake. On over 140 peaks I’ve NEVER forgotten my camera till this particular day. ARGH!! (I can assure you it’s now 2019 and I still haven’t gotten over this – at least with today’s phones I always have a camera of some sort in my pocket nowadays.)
Finally we popped out onto the southeast ridge and started making our way slowly and carefully along it. The ridge was the best part of the climb – the views were simply stunning. You couldn’t look around while walking though, because of the slick rocks and the fact that our crampons made us walk like drunks. The east face also drops away vertically and a fall would take you hundreds of feet down into the death trap – and that would not be enjoyable. Eventually we came to the famous ‘sickle’ part of the ridge. The sickle was very interesting to say the least. I’m not gonna lie to you, I was a wee bit nervous stepping down a knife edged snow/ice ridge with the entire east face of Victoria just waiting for one of us to trip or miss a solid placement. We probably would have been well advised to belay at least the very first section but we all made it so no worries. It wasn’t even close to the easy 2 foot wide sidewalk that we were expecting, but it was a fun challenge for sure. Thanks to Alan for leading this section.
After the sickle there were a few more narrow spots on the ridge. Sim belayed Allan up a particularly tricky / exposed section and the rest of us simu-climbed it with Allan bringing us up on belay. The ridge really seemed to take forever because of the snow and crampons on rock, but the views were incredible with clear, cold skies around us. We could clearly make out the Bugaboos and a lot of 11,000ers. Good thing I forgot my camera. 😐 Eventually we finally did make the summit and we all exchanged hearty congratulatory handshakes while admiring the awesome views.
After a few moments in the cold breeze and some quick summit snapshots from Kev’s dying camera we were ready to go back. I presented Kev with a small gift on the summit (Vic was his 200th official summit) and the two of us took off on our bid for Mount Huber. Sim, Alda and Alan stayed on the summit for a lunch break before they would head back down the ridge to the Abbot hut. Next up for us was a jaunt up Mount Huber.
After climbing Mount Victoria, it was time to give Mount Huber a try. We found the descent gully to the Huber glacier (First obvious gully on the way up – pretty wide at the top) and here the snow finally became our friend. Instead of loose scree, we carefully down-climbed a steep snow patch to the first rap station. An easy 30m rap and another careful down climb on snow / ice covered scree brought us to the last rap station. A 30m rap and were half way down an open snow/ice slope leading to the Huber / Victoria schrund.
Because of the fresh snow with underlying ice we felt that I should belay Kevin over the schrund so we set up an anchor (ice screw) and Kev walked over the schrund, no issues. Of course when I went over it I plunged one leg into it – my first schrund and I have to experience it close up I guess!! I should also mention that at this point both Kev and I were absolutely starving. We had wanted to rap the west face of Victoria before things started heating up too much because of the fresh snow and potential sloughing and rock fall issues associated with the warming afternoon sunshine. This concern led us to skip a lunch break on the summit and now after spending all this time rapping and crossing schrunds we could concentrate on our stomachs again – and they were not happy with us. Kev suggested we stroll across the Huber glacier for a bit to get out of the fall line of Victoria’s cliffs. This was a good idea because junk was starting to come down all around us and some of it wasn’t small either.
A very pleasant stroll across the glacier (probing carefully for crevasses because of the fresh snow) brought us to Huber’s lower slopes. We had a very pleasant lunch in the warm sunshine before proceeding up an easy slope to Huber’s upper schrund. Then we spent well over an hour trying to figure out a safe way across it. With the fresh snow drifts and some dicey looking bridges a safe path over the gaping void was certainly not obvious to us. Finally Kev stepped up and with me giving him a shaky belay off a couple of moderately solid snow stakes he made a committing ‘lunge’ move and made it across. Kev quickly put in an ice screw and gave me a belay and we were looking up the east face of Huber. With about 2″ of fresh, but solid snow on top of hard ice it was in shape but not in perfect shape. Since I still have to get used to even moderately steep snow / ice climbing, I actually wanted to place pro on the way up this part of the climb and Kev kindly agreed. There’s something amazing and mesmerizing that happens deep within yourself as you peer hundreds of feet down an uninterrupted frozen, white plane beneath you. There’s also something a bit discomforting in the same situation when you realize that a tiny mishap will send you sliding down, out of control to an unpleasant end. That is why I felt much more comfortable with some protection in the form of well placed ice screws. This, of course, took a lot longer then soloing the slope unprotected would have.
We went straight up the face, kind of between the two recommended routes but it worked out nicely. Right near the top we went up over a soft snow ridge onto the northwest face an climbed to the summit on a beautiful snow arete, which was extremely steep with soft snow. I’m actually quite surprised that the snow stayed on a slope that steep – I think the wind really packs it on there. 2.5 pitches from the upper schrund and were on top of our 2nd 11,000er for the day. It felt awesome, but we were way over our estimated time and it was becoming obvious that we were going to miss our bus ride down from Lake O’Hara.
We made our way carefully down Huber and cautiously back over the schrund and onto the glacier proper. The Huber glacier is beautiful, but has some massive holes on it. I was quite surprised how crevassed some parts were – especially on the Victoria side. With darkness heading our way we certainly didn’t have time to fall into anything and Kev did a great job getting us over the main glacier safely. Once over the main glacier we realized that there was a slightly technical down climb to the small Huber glacier. This was not a huge problem but again, time was not on our side anymore. Thanks to some route beta from JW we knew where to aim for on the other side. Once across we realized that we only had about 1.5 hours of light left to get through the tricky Huber ledges.
We were both dying from thirst (I also forgot my 2nd bottle of Gatorade so I only had 1 liter of drink all day) but with no water sources around we had to ‘suck it up’ and get out of there. I led us through this section as quick as I could, and actually it wasn’t as bad as I was expecting. There are rumors floating around that it’s easy to get lost on the ledges due to an over abundance of trails and cairns. I simply followed the obvious cairns and trails, even though sometimes it looked like an impossible route. The trickiest section had us doubling back from the ridge and traversing a 12″ wide ledge along a 30 foot cliff before coming back to obvious trails again. The scrambling was upper moderate to even difficult in places but the ledges were quite firm and a lot of fun. After what seemed like forever (but was only about 1 hour) we were at the gap. At this point our peace was interrupted loudly by a chopper that came thundering up the valley and promptly landed right right at the Wiwaxy gap just above us! A warden proceeded to get out of the chopper and flagged us down. Kev and I were surprised to find out that we had been reported overdue (by Wietse of course) and since the wardens were busy rescuing a broken ankle case in the area they were just checking to make sure we were OK! We said we were fine and asked for a lift but the chopper was full. The warden hinted that we might get a ride down from the lake though – incredible service from the wardens to check in on us like that.
After swearing at the never-ending trail down to Lake O’Hara from the gap we were delighted to find a young warden (Eric) waiting for us at the trail head. He very graciously offered us a ride down the 11 km approach road from the parking lot and we didn’t refuse that offer! Wietse was waiting for us at the West Louise lodge. It turns out that Wietse ran into a warden on his way out from the ACC hut that evening and casually mentioned that his two buddies were going to miss the last bus ride out from the lake. The warden then offered to check in on us just to make sure that we were OK, since there was a chopper going over our area anyway. Over all we were very impressed with the friendliness and professionalism of the Banff Wardens. It was a long 15 hour day but what a great day out! My first two 11,000ers will not be forgotten soon. While I’m sure that the stuff we did is ‘old hat’ to many experienced mountaineers, it left me with a deep feeling of satisfaction. I never felt too unsafe because Kevin is naturally a safety conscious kind of guy and I owe him big time for taking a chance on a rookie.