Summit Elevation (m): 3404
Trip Date: April 18 2020
Elevation Gain (m): 1550
Trip Time (hr): 6.5
Total Trip Distance (km): 14
Quick ‘n Dirty Rating: Class 4 – you fall, you almost die – unless you’re caught in an avalanche or fall into a crevasse in which case you could definitely die
Difficulty Notes: Winter ascent includes serious avalanche risks and glacier travel. Learn how to manage these risks and perform avalanche burial and crevasse rescues before attempting this trip.
Technical Rating: MN8; YDS (II)
Map: Google Maps
I waited 3 years to finally accomplish what TJ, Megan and I did on Saturday, April 18 2009 – summit Mount Hector. Truthfully, on hindsight, it’s for the best that it took me this long. The ski down was much more pleasurable now that I’m more comfortable skiing powder. I’m not nearly as good a skier as TJ or Megs but I can enjoy myself rather than just do the ‘survivor skiing’ thing. Last year we made an attempt at Hector but turned around just before the headwall due to isothermal snow and a burning desire to ski something more supportive. At the time we were bummed out because the next week we found out that if only we would have struggled up the headwall we would have probably had a great ski day on the glacier. Oh well.
This year, when TJ suggested that he wanted to get rid of his “Hectoritus” I completely agreed. All winter / spring so far we’d been waiting for an opportunity to come up. We needed to have partners available to climb with us, we needed good weather and decent snow conditions. It would also be nice to have warm temps and not too much wind. Yeah right! That’s exactly why it takes 3 years to get up this mountain! To get all those conditions on the right day (i.e. a Saturday) is like winning the lottery. But someone has to win eventually right? We met in the parking lot at 06:00 and started our drive to the trail head. All the way out through the mountains we were under an ‘interesting’ sky of clouds and recent rainfall. This did not bode well for our summit chances. I was putting our chances at around 40%. Normally the weather does not improve much through the day – especially in the spring with warmer temps bringing in moisture and especially on large peaks like Hector.
Interesting Facts on Mount Hector
Named by George M. Dawson in 1884. Hector, Sir James (Sir James Hector was one of the most important members of the Palliser Expedition, becoming the first to travel through much of the Canadian Rockies.) (see biog.) Official name. First ascended in 1895 by P.S. Abbot, C.E. Fay, C.S. Thompson Journal reference App 13-1,97 CAJ 14-9. Other reference Outram Page 278.
We had to laugh as we pulled up to the parking area near the Hector trail head. There must have been at least 10 vehicles already sitting there with more coming in! We had to park on the shoulder of the highway since the parking lot was chock-full already! TJ commented that Hector was probably the only mountain in the Rockies with anyone skiing on it. He was probably closer to the truth than he realized.
We quickly set off up the trail on the right side of the creek. The snow seemed very supportive and obviously the tracks were well-set with so much traffic going in already this day. Soon we were staring up at the avalanche debris that litters the slopes just before the headwall section. I sure wouldn’t want to be in this area after a recent dump of snow – it seems to slide all year long. We humped up the avi debris and took our skis off. The next 100-200 vertical meters was carrying the skis up some pretty steep terrain to break through the headwall. At one point we went straight up an easy-grade waterfall. A few more weeks and I don’t think the route will be viable anymore – it’ll either be pure ice or running water.
After breaking through the headwall we donned the skis and continued tramping up the highway that the preceding parties had so kindly lay down for us earlier in the day. Soon we began to spot some of the groups in front of us and realized just how many people were on Hector this fine spring day! It was a lot. We went up a lot closer to Little Hector than I would have expected. TJ kept asking if maybe the groups ahead were skiing Little Hector but I knew that this many people would not be interested in that pile of scree – especially not on skis.
All three of us were feeling great. The weather wasn’t deteriorating, as a matter of fact it seemed to be improving which was a big surprise. The sun was starting to kiss our faces and the snow pack was glued nice and tightly together. We were also starting to get a sense of the awesome decent that awaited us at the end of all our efforts. Soon we were catching up to the group ahead. As we grunted our way up the northeast slopes of Little Hector I was thinking how nasty this ascent would be in bad avi conditions. You really can’t avoid some of the terrain, either going across it or wandering beneath it. Make sure everything is locked up tight and that you know how to evaluate avi terrain before going on this trip. I guess this is why a lot of people wait till the spring for this one.
After passing our first group (6 self-described cougars – we’ll leave that story alone for now) we quickly caught up and passed another group. On my way past them I asked if TJ had continued on, since he was getting ahead of Megs and I. They laughed and said “Oh – that was TJ? He probably won’t stop till the summit!”. Obviously they knew TJ and as it turned out later this was a group that gets out to the mountains often. I’ve read a lot of their trip reports and experiences and it was cool to finally meet them.
As we worked our way higher and higher on the glacier we began to catch up to the final group of two skiers ahead of us. I saw TJ stop on a particularly steep roll, just before the last plateau under the summit block. As I got closer I realized he was pulling out the rope. When I caught up to him he remarked that the terrain just ahead “sounded hollow” so he was taking good precaution!
Once Megan caught up we all roped together and gingerly made our way over the crevasse. Looking back at my summer pictures from the Hector glacier I now realize that the area we went over is very heavily crevassed and probably best avoided on climber’s right. Years later a friend of a friend would die after falling into a crevasse while skiing down this part of the glacier unroped. 🙁
Eventually we got up the steep summit headwall and prepared to ascend the main summit block. Quite a few people I know have been turned around at the summit block due to underestimating the terrain and finding out too late that some rock gear would’ve been nice to have. We didn’t have any gear other than the rope and a few slings because other people have called the summit block moves no more than moderate scrambling. We had to negotiate around a rock flake and then up a narrow chimney about 6-10 feet high that was choked with snow and ice, but not enough snow to make it easy. I found it exposed and awkward and so did Megs.
When TJ offered a hip belay for the way back down it, I gladly accepted the offer! Unless you are 100% sure of the conditions (i.e. bone dry or a ton of snow at the high col), I would bring some minimum gear for this spot (even just a long sling to put around the flake if nothing else). It’s a small weight to carry if you don’t need it, but what a disappointment if you get turned around after making it mere meters from the summit.
After negotiating the crux it was a steep snow ascent to the summit and 5 minutes later we were enjoying a beautiful (but windy) view. What a great feeling! I loved the fact that I finally got up Hector – I’ve wanted to for a long time and have oft wondered what standing on the lofty summit would be like. The summit on Hector is pretty small and with other groups coming up we decided not to linger too long at the top.
After the belay from TJ (he effortlessly negotiated the crux without a belay) we were ready for one of the best ski descents in the Rockies! Megs flew down way ahead of TJ and I. I had to stop a few times on the way down – it was a blast! The snow was pretty good overall with some crusting lower down. We quickly made our way down the lower headwall and skied all the way out along Hector Creek to the road.
Obviously Mount Hector is one of the most popular ski summits, not to mention 11000ers, along the Icefields Parkway. There is good reason for this popularity, but caution is warranted on both the approach and the glacier. People continue to die in crevasses and avalanches on this route so do not underestimate it just because it’s popular.