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Cathedral Mountain

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)
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.

Cathedral Mountain Route Map

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… 😉

The Approach

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.)

So comes up behind me as we breach the upper plateau. Narao, North Victoria and other Yoho Peaks in the distance across Cataract Brook Valley.
A magnificent Mountain Goat.

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.

Looking across the winter access gully towards Huber, Hungabee, Biddle and Odaray.
Amazing sunset on (L to R) Narao, Popes, Collier, North Victoria, Victoria and Huber.
View from near our bivy – the peak is out of sight at center. Cathedral Crags at right.
Nearing our bivy site now with the lower Cathedral Glacier visible.
Late afternoon lighting on Ringrose, Hungabee, Wiwaxy, Biddle and Schaffer.
Cathedral Mountain - Approach
Our peak rises in the distance over the Cataract Brook valley.
Our peak rises in the distance over the Cataract Brook valley.
Crossing a cold Cataract Brook.
Crossing a cold Cataract Brook.
So puts his hiking boots back on after the chilly crossing.
So puts his hiking boots back on after the chilly crossing.
A steep, bushy grunt up hill since we didn't find the trail 'til the way back. :)
A steep, bushy grunt up hill since we didn't find the trail 'til the way back. 🙂
YES! A trail!
YES! A trail!
Note the ribbon.
Note the ribbon.
Once hitting the cliff band, we had to traverse climber's left to the upper plateau.
Once hitting the cliff band, we had to traverse climber's left to the upper plateau.
Looking back along cliff bands that we came up underneath from the right.
Looking back along cliff bands that we came up underneath from the right.
Carpets of wildflowers as we work our way up to tree line.
Carpets of wildflowers as we work our way up to tree line.
So comes up behind me as we breach the upper plateau. Narao Peak in the bg.
So comes up behind me as we breach the upper plateau. Narao Peak in the bg.
Another shot from the plateau, Cathedral's glacier at center top and the winter route coming in from the center bottom.
Another shot from the plateau, Cathedral's glacier at center top and the winter route coming in from the center bottom.
So is tiny in the terrain on the plateau.
So is tiny in the terrain on the plateau.
Mountain Goat.
Mountain Goat.
Mountain Goat.
Mountain Goat.
Looking back over the plateau.
Looking back over the plateau.
The winter access gully is steep.
The winter access gully is steep.
Looking back over the plateau at Narao, Popes, Collier and others.
Looking back over the plateau at Narao, Popes, Collier and others.
Hungabee
Hungabee
Nearing our bivy site now with the lower Cathedral Glacier visible.
Nearing our bivy site now with the lower Cathedral Glacier visible.
Amazing views into the Lake O'Hara region, including the very sexy Mount Biddle rising over the Opabin Plateau.
Amazing views into the Lake O'Hara region, including the very sexy Mount Biddle rising over the Opabin Plateau.
Our bivy is just ahead on the rocks under the glacier.
Our bivy is just ahead on the rocks under the glacier.
Ridiculous views of Ringrose, Hungabee, Wiwaxy and Biddle.
Ridiculous views of Ringrose, Hungabee, Wiwaxy and Biddle.
View from near our bivy - the peak is out of sight at center.
View from near our bivy - the peak is out of sight at center.
Mount Huber doesn't often look like a mountain. From here it does.
Mount Huber doesn't often look like a mountain. From here it does.
North Victoria and Mount Huber.
North Victoria and Mount Huber.
Amazing sunset on (L to R) Narao, Popes, Collier, North Victoria and Huber.
Amazing sunset on (L to R) Narao, Popes, Collier, North Victoria and Huber.
Our bivy.
Our bivy.
Sunset on Mount Huber.
Sunset on Mount Huber.
Amazing sunset on (L to R) Narao, Popes, Collier, North Victoria, Huber and Cathedral.
Amazing sunset on (L to R) Narao, Popes, Collier, North Victoria, Huber and Cathedral.
Amazing sunset on (L to R) Narao, Popes, Collier, North Victoria and Huber.
Amazing sunset on (L to R) Narao, Popes, Collier, North Victoria and Huber.

The Ascent

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.

Pre-dawn from the lower glacier looking back at a distant Mount Hector. Balfour at left.

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 summit on the left, Cathedral Crags on the right.
So starts up the final summit slopes.
Amazing sunrise with Stephen on the far left, Cathedral Crag at center and the lower ridge of Narao on the right.

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. :))

Incredible summit view from Carnarvon at left to Presidents, Forbes, des Poilus, Collie, Gordon, Balfour, Niles, Daly and many other familiar Yoho peaks.
Another great summer morning from another gorgeous Rockies summit!
Sunrise views of Hungabee, Deltaform, Biddle, Odaray, Goodsirs, Owen, Chancellor, Vaux, Stephen and more.

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.

Starting our descent. You really can’t trip over your crampons while descending this part of the glacier!
Back on green grass with our mountain looming high above again.

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.

Cathedral Mountain
Pre-dawn as we start up the glacier.
Pre-dawn as we start up the glacier.
Finally on the main glacier with a view to the gorgeous summit of Cathedral Mountain.
Finally on the main glacier with a view to the gorgeous summit of Cathedral Mountain.
Sunrise.
Sunrise.
The summit on the left, Cathedral Crags on the right.
The summit on the left, Cathedral Crags on the right.
A great view back with Cathedral Crag on the left now.
A great view back with Cathedral Crag on the left now.
Looking at Biddle and Hungabee through a gap in the ascent ridge.
Looking at Biddle and Hungabee through a gap in the ascent ridge.
Looking back over the approach glacier as we get higher.
Looking back over the approach glacier as we get higher.
Starting up steeper slopes to the summit.
Starting up steeper slopes to the summit.
Sunrise with Stephen at left, Cathedral Crag at center  Narao on the right.
Sunrise with Stephen at left, Cathedral Crag at center Narao on the right.
A bit icy.
A bit icy.
So starts up the final summit slopes.
So starts up the final summit slopes.
Sunrise.
Sunrise.
Reflections as we ascend.
Reflections as we ascend.
Reflections as we ascend.
Reflections as we ascend.
A beautiful morning to get high (on a mountain).
A beautiful morning to get high (on a mountain).
Although the slope is easy, there is some exposure to the left.
Although the slope is easy, there is some exposure to the left.
Final steps to the summit of yet another Rockies peak.
Final steps to the summit of yet another Rockies peak.
So stands on the summit of Cathedral Mountain.
So stands on the summit of Cathedral Mountain.
The rising sun casts shadows over many familiar peaks.
The rising sun casts shadows over many familiar peaks.
Mount Vaux is a favorite of mine. Chancellor on the left.
Mount Vaux is a favorite of mine. Chancellor on the left.
The always impressive and always fearsome looking Goodsir Towers.
The always impressive and always fearsome looking Goodsir Towers.
The always impressive and always fearsome looking Goodsir Towers.
The always impressive and always fearsome looking Goodsir Towers.
The Bugaboos in the distance with Chancellor at right in the foreground.
The Bugaboos in the distance with Chancellor at right in the foreground.
Looking over Carnarvon towards the distinctive Laussedat.
Looking over Carnarvon towards the distinctive Laussedat.
The highest peak on the Wapta Icefield, Mount Balfour, looms over Mount Niles.
The highest peak on the Wapta Icefield, Mount Balfour, looms over Mount Niles.
A panorama of most of the Yoho peaks and Wapta Icefield.
A panorama of most of the Yoho peaks and Wapta Icefield.
Forbes, des Poilus, Yoho and Mount Collie.
Forbes, des Poilus, Yoho and Mount Collie.
Hungabee in the foreground with Deltaform rising over Neptuak beyond.
Hungabee in the foreground with Deltaform rising over Neptuak beyond.
The Goodsirs rise over Mount Odaray.
The Goodsirs rise over Mount Odaray.
Ringrose, Hungabee, Deltaform, Neptuak and Biddle.
Ringrose, Hungabee, Deltaform, Neptuak and Biddle.
Glacier Peak, Mount Ringrose and Hungabee Mountain.
Glacier Peak, Mount Ringrose and Hungabee Mountain.
Mount Owen.
Mount Owen.
Forbes and des Poilus.
Forbes and des Poilus.
The little hut on the summit of Mount Stephen is visible.
The little hut on the summit of Mount Stephen is visible.
The rising sun gives us some special views.
The rising sun gives us some special views.
The rising sun gives us some special views.
The rising sun gives us some special views.
Descending Cathedral's upper mountain.
Descending Cathedral's upper mountain.
Descending Cathedral's upper mountain.
Descending Cathedral's upper mountain.
Don't trip on the crampons here!
Don't trip on the crampons here!
Jökulhlaups necessitate some equipment to drain this tarn that forms on the lower Cathedral Glacier.
Jökulhlaups necessitate some equipment to drain this tarn that forms on the lower Cathedral Glacier.
Jökulhlaups necessitate some equipment to drain this tarn that forms on the lower Cathedral Glacier.
Jökulhlaups necessitate some equipment to drain this tarn that forms on the lower Cathedral Glacier.
Descending the lower Cathedral Glacier.
Descending the lower Cathedral Glacier.
Descending the lower Cathedral Glacier.
Descending the lower Cathedral Glacier.
Descending the lower Cathedral Glacier.
Descending the lower Cathedral Glacier.
A last look back at a very special place in the Canadian Rockies.
A last look back at a very special place in the Canadian Rockies.
Descending to the bivy.
Descending to the bivy.
Descending from the bivy back to the plateau.
Descending from the bivy back to the plateau.
Descending from the bivy back to the plateau.
Descending from the bivy back to the plateau.
Fossils.
Fossils.
Descending from the bivy back to the plateau.
Descending from the bivy back to the plateau.
Back on grass and in warm sunshine.
Back on grass and in warm sunshine.
Descending through the upper larch forest.
Descending through the upper larch forest.
Descending through the upper larch forest.
Descending through the upper larch forest.
Descending through the upper larch forest.
Descending through the upper larch forest.
Back on the wonderful trail in the forest.
Back on the wonderful trail in the forest.
Back on the wonderful trail in the forest.
Back on the wonderful trail in the forest.
This is a cairn / marker for the unofficial trail up to the plateau on Cathedral Mountain.
This is a cairn / marker for the unofficial trail up to the plateau on Cathedral Mountain.
This is a cairn / marker for the unofficial trail up to the plateau on Cathedral Mountain.
This is a cairn / marker for the unofficial trail up to the plateau on Cathedral Mountain.
Crossing Cataract Brook.
Crossing Cataract Brook.
Back on the Lake O'Hara approach road.
Back on the Lake O'Hara approach road.
A last glance back at Cathedral Mountain.
A last glance back at Cathedral Mountain.

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