Summit Elevation (m): 3266
Elevation Gain (m): 1700
Trip Time (hr): 16
Total Trip Distance (km): 22
Quick ‘n Dirty Rating: Class 3/4 – you fall, you break something or die
Difficulty Notes: This is a big mountain with big terrain. Good weather and dry conditions are highly recommended to keep this beast within the realm of ‘scrambling’. Do not underestimate!
GPS Track: Download GPX File
Technical Rating: SC6; YDS (3rd)
Map: Google Maps
After a solo scramble on Observation Peak, I met up with Keith Bott for the trek into the bivy on Mount Chephren on August 07 2009 in the evening. I had Chephren on the radar for a long time already and finally all the pieces of life aligned to allow me a good chance at this giant. And make no mistake about it. Chephren is every bit the giant you may have heard or suspected it is! Just gaze at it from the highway sometime and you’ll have a pretty good idea of how big this mountain really is.
As Keith and I soon discovered, there’s a reason that Chephren is not more popular than it is – it’s not an easy approach, never mind the actual mountain itself! The trail to Chephren Lake is not that inspiring and even though there is a trail around the left hand side of Chephren Lake, it gets less and less traveled the further you go until you’re bashing through trees and clouds of bugs. The bugs were so bad that we couldn’t breathe without inhaling some.
After that bit of ‘fun’ you get to hop over a boulder field that seems to never end. Boulder hopping is one of those exercises that seems like a good time until you spend 10 minutes with a 55 liter pack doing it. Then it becomes tedious. You have to concentrate 100% on your footing because the second you look up to admire the scenery (which was stunning) you miss your landing and twist or break an ankle or bend a hiking pole or any of a number of things which would suck.
After the endless boulder field we had some time to suck in the pristine wilderness surroundings we were in. It made all the suffering worth it – big time. The area beneath Howse, White Pyramid and Chephren is one of the most lovely mountain environments I’ve been to in a while. Waterfalls cascaded from steep hanging glaciers to form fast flowing streams of pure, ice cold water, pink rock glowed in the setting sun, wild flowers were everywhere and looming almost 2 km above us were three massive mountains. A very impressive scene that has stuck with me over the years.
We found a very nice bivy spot that was well used, but since we had some good day light we stubbornly pushed on a bit further, closer to Chephren’s ascent slopes. The first stream coming off Howse was easier to cross than the second one but eventually we did manage to cross both of them. With the sun setting we had to make a call to either return to the excellent bivy site we’d ignored or set up our own. Since we found a flat spot with soft ground and very little vegetation we simply pulled out our bivy sacks and set about making and eating supper in the growing darkness.
The night was cool but not cold and the full moon ensured that it never actually got that dark. I slept so good that I didn’t even hear my alarm at 04:45 and we ended up sleeping in till 05:25! Oh well. By 06:00 we were starting up the lower moraine to access the south slopes of Chephren. The sun was just coming up and Howse Peak provided us with a show for the next couple of hours. I was feeling fantastic and kept feeling great all day – I was delighted to finally be on this mountain and the weather and scenery was like a stimulant to me, giving me good energy all day. I should point out that if I had done the approach slog the same day as our ascent I don’t know if I would have enjoyed Chephren quite so much. I would HIGHLY recommend that you do the bivy, simply to give yourself some time in this beautiful area and to get an early start to your actual ascent of Chephren since the approach is so much work already.
I found the lower slopes really enjoyable. We went right up the moraine until spotting the gully Kane mentions. There was a tiny bit of water running in it but since we didn’t carry our crampons we chose to ignore Kane’s warning that we may need them in this case. Good thing we didn’t have to regret that decision!! I had pictures of the route from my jaunt up Observation the day before so we knew we probably wouldn’t need to carry crampons – unless you’re very sure about it you should carry them on this particular mountain.
The huge grassy slope, followed by small benches of rock was absolutely brimming with wild flowers of every color and kind. It was easy to walk quickly up this terrain and the only bad part was the unrelenting mosquitoes! Keith ended up putting bug spray on they were so annoying. A very interesting encounter took place as we gained the lower rock bands. We ran into a majestic billy goat and his mate. The billy wasn’t too happy with us but grudgingly allowed us to pass by. This is the closest I’ve ever been to these magnificent creatures and I was surprised how big they are! It took us about 2 hours to reach the first rock band from the bivy at a steady pace.
The first rock band has a section that was worrying me a bit since I’d heard of it from Jason Wilcox. Soon after taking off up the first cliff band I found the section he’d warned me about, there was a big white rope hanging down a narrow and over hanging crack about 30 feet high. I tried climbing up the crack but my pack wouldn’t even fit properly! After spending a few frustrating moments trying some different moves I came to the conclusion that the only solution was to find another way up – this is supposed to be a scramble after all. Kane mentions the ‘green rock’ on climber’s left is a good way up so I made my way about 20 meters left of the crack with the rope, and sure enough, there was an easier way up. It was still difficult, steep and exposed but at least it wasn’t over hanging and my pack fit.
After almost an hour of careful negotiating through the difficult and loose terrain in and above the first cliff band we finally came to the second cliff band, the black one. Luckily we didn’t need our crampons – a week or two earlier and I’m sure we would have. We managed to get on top of the snow field (literally on top, not on the slope itself) and worked our way up through this band till we were standing on the shoulder of Chephren, looking up at the last 300+ vertical meters to the top. This final 300 vertical meters is pretty much just exhausting! Lots of very loose scree with difficult scrambling if you choose the direct route, which we did. We never found the rope that Andrew mentions, but we certainly found the difficult scrambling. I followed a faint trail up to the last cliff band and then we could choose either a right or left gully to climb through it. I started up the right one but soon backed down when it got to be technical terrain. The left gully was also more rock climbing than scrambling but at least the holds were reasonably solid.
Once through the final crux we grunted our way up horrible, loose, nasty, crappy, non-fun, (did I mention LOOSE) scree till finally popping out on the summit. I made it up in about 4.5 hours from our bivy, Keith was about 20 minutes behind me.
The views from Chephren’s summit were absolutely amazing! All that work was made worth it because the views were among the best I’ve ever had on any of the 200+ summits I’ve stood on so far. We could see several ice fields from Wilson to Columbia to the Mummery, Freshfields and the Wapta. There were so many named peaks in sight that we didn’t even bother trying to identify them all. There wasn’t a breath of wind on the summit and even the pesky smoke from BC didn’t ruin too many of our views – mainly just the southeast view towards Lake Louise. It didn’t hurt that we were on the summit at 10:30 either – the afternoon haze wasn’t building yet.
I was very surprised to see that only 1 party made the summit in 2008. We were the first of 2009. Some years had as many as 4 ascents but most had less, or even none. I can see why there are so few ascents – the approach will guarantee that Chephren will never be a crowded summit and that’s a wonderful thing since it seems to be rare nowadays to be alone on a summit, much less the only summit party of the year on a guidebook peak.
After an hour at the summit we decided to start the long trip down and out to the parking lot. We were originally planning on bivying somewhere on Sarbach that evening so we wanted to be at the cars by 17:00 but that plan changed a bit as you’ll read later. The trip down the first part of the summit block was very quick and easy on that horrible scree (not so horrible to descend).
Once we got to the cliff bands it took almost as long to down climb as to up climb them. We were glad for the several small cairns I’d built on the way up to mark our route. Once off the last cliff band we had hundreds of meters to go to get to our bivy site.
The last ‘crux’ off the descent was our big mistake of taking the crest of the moraine down. The rock hard moraine with it’s steep sides threatened to give us some major ‘mountain-rash’ if we slipped and the small pebbles made slipping a very real possibility! I finally ended up bailing off the moraine before it could get me – Keith managed to get all the way down with no ‘rash’ incidents.
After packing up camp we spent the next 2 hours on the miserable ‘depproach’ around the lake and back down the Chephren Lake trail. The bugs were still bad but now it was also quite hot and our legs simply didn’t like the workout. I could feel the effects of doing two mountains in 2 days and the heavier pack didn’t help either. Eventually we stumbled out to the cars around 18:00 and decided that we were not heading up Sarbach that evening!
We ended up staying at the Waterfowl campground and at 04:00 when we awoke to do Sarbach it started raining so we ended up doing Sheol Mountain instead.