Summit Elevation (m): 3189
Elevation Gain (m): 1700
Round Trip Time (hr): 24
Total Trip Distance (km): 20
Quick ‘n Easy Rating: Class 2/3 – You fall you sprain or break something – as long as it’s not on the summit snow slopes.
Difficulty Notes: A fairly benign glacier crossing with some snow slope exposure in several places near the summit, where a slip could be fatal.
Technical Rating: MN6; YDS (I)
GPS Track: Download
Map: Google Maps
On Friday, August 26 2011, So Nakagawa and I ascended Cathedral Mountain under a gorgeous early morning sky from our bivy site near the glacier. Cathedral is one of the most picturesque mountains I’ve ever climbed and this makes it into a top summit for me. Given the very cooperative weather over August, I knew that I wanted to climb something with a glacier and a bivy on the weekend of August 26th. Originally I was contemplating Mount Wilson but after thinking about it for a while, I realized that Cathedral Mountain was even higher on my ‘hit list’. Why? For the past 3 years I’ve been trying to find perfect conditions to ski Cathedral but every time those conditions arose (not that often) I had other commitments and couldn’t do it. I’ve spent quite some time in Yoho over the past few years and every time I find myself looking longingly at the lovely summit of Cathedral.
After staring at the peak from the Monarch campground the entire weekend previous, I knew that I could no longer resist its charms any longer! So agreed to join me on this venture. We decided that to ensure the best glacier travel conditions, and because we both love photography, we would try to ascend almost to Cathedral’s glacier on Thursday evening before climbing to the summit on Friday morning. In researching a summer route up Cathedral it became obvious that few online trip reports kind of guessed where the route would go. Nugara’s site was down so we pretty much had the ski route from Chic’s book and the trip from goldenscrambles.ca to go on. Which was OK – but they didn’t exactly find the most pleasant route either…
So suggested that we don’t got the route that Josée and Fabrice or the Nugara’s had done. Based on my looks at Google maps satellite terrain and So’s interpretation of the ski route, we decided to head in on the Lake O’Hara road around 3.4 km before crossing the river and bushwhacking our way up to the hanging valley which would give access to Cathedral’s upper slopes. We should have added 300 meters to our guess and we would have been heroes.
As it was, we managed to cross Cataract Brook (COLD) and started our bushwhack, aiming for the obvious low point in the hanging valley above. Several times, as we slogged through thick alder and low bushes I wondered if we should try heading climber’s left to the stream that I could hear. The problem with streams and bush is that because of the moisture, often it’s much harder to climb a stream than the ridge beside it, so I didn’t scratch that hunch. The bushwhacking sucked, especially with the heavier packs due to our overnight plans. Eventually So noticed that the trees to our right were a bit more open. He headed right and I reluctantly followed – I knew we had to trend left at some point. We were both right. Soon I stumbled on a delightfully robust trail switch backing it’s way up through the forest! Yep! We found a perfectly good trail, complete with ribbons and cairns where needed. Ooops. Oh well! Better late then never.
After finding the trail our progress improved dramatically. We climbed up to a line of imposing cliffs where ribbons and cairns guided us left and up. Eventually we reached the upper valley and climbed above the larch meadow and to the brink of the abyss guarding Cathedral’s upper slopes (NOTE: The winter route and summer route join at this point. The winter route would work in summer, but would be much more of a scree slog, especially the final push to the upper plateau. With a great trail, the summer route is the way to go if you’re not on the snow sticks for this ascent.)
Once on the upper plateau we traversed climber’s right to access the glacier and our bivy site. The scree was annoying here but snow patches helped. Once at the top of the slope we trended left towards the lower glacier. Around 4 hours after leaving the car we were at our bivy site on smooth rocks beneath the glacier. We enjoyed supper and some amazing sunset views across the Cataract Creek Valley towards Narao, Victoria and Huber before turning in for the night.
After a relaxing and very scenic evening and night at the bivy site on Cathedral, we were ready for the summit. At 05:30 my alarm went off and we exited the warmth of our bivy sacks and sleeping bags and prepared for the glacier crossing. I had my 30 meter rope and we had full crevasse rescue gear with us. Now that I’ve seen the glacier up close, I’m not convinced that there are any holes big enough to rescue anyone out of but it’s good to be cautious and prudent just in case. Put it this way – the Cathedral glacier is not a monster to be feared.
The morning was quite still and the sun was just starting to lighten the horizon as we tramped up the first section of ice, So leading the way. Although the glacier is pretty tame, it’s one of the most gorgeous sections of Rockies that I’ve been to in a while. Des Poilus was nice, but Cathedral is magical! You have to experience it to know what I mean. Especially in the pink glow of an early sunrise, we were constantly stopping just to suck in the scenery around us.
The route to the summit was obvious. There was a pretty narrow section before the final 250 vertical meters that reminded me a little bit of the sickle on Victoria, but much tamer. This section must be a bit intimidating on skis though! You can’t slip here. We got to the summit at 07:30, about 1.5 hours after leaving our bivy. This included a ton of stops for sunrise pictures.
After about 45 minutes on the summit we started to head down. Of note in the summit register was a number of summit parties from the Elizabeth Parker hut led by a mountain guide, including ascents by 10 and 14 year old siblings! (Note: Since my ascent of this peak I’ve had many friends easily complete it as a day trip from the parking lot. There is no real need to bivy other than how enjoyable it can be. )
On descent we followed the trail we found on ascent, which led predictably to the small stream we bushwhacked beside on ascent. (!!) The trail descended on skier’s left of the stream all the way to the (closed) Cataract Brook trail where it was clearly marked with a large pink ribbon and a rock cairn. So, if you bushwhack or otherwise go in on the Cataract Brook trail, simply follow it up until you see the ribbon and cairn just before a bubbling stream and head up on the obvious trail.
A fainter (but still very obvious) trail continued down beside the brook from the Cataract Brook trail. We followed it until it petered out near the meeting of the stream and Cataract Brook in the valley. Here we crossed the brook and immediately ended up on the Lake O’Hara access road! This route should be pretty easy to find and will save you a lot of time and effort in the bush! To find it simply trek about 3.7 km along the Lake O’Hara road before crossing the brook. Tramp up the brook shore until you encounter a stream coming off of the Cathedral Massif. Follow faint animal trails up the stream on climber’s right until they merge into an obvious climbing trail. When you hit Cataract Brook trail go about 10 meters climber’s right and continue up past the pink ribbon / cairn.
Cathedral Mountain is a gorgeous peak offering budding mountaineers a great glacier experience without too many objective hazards, assuming avalanche conditions are tame (like in late summer). I consider it a top peak for views and for the great and fairly relaxing mountaineering experience it provides.