French, Mount

Summit Elevation (m): 3234
Elevation Gain (m): 1400
Trip Date: September 11 2011
Round Trip Time (hr): 10
Total Trip Distance (km): 21
Quick ‘n Easy Rating: Class 4/5 – You fall you break something or more likely die
Difficulty Notes: Some very exposed and narrow traverses and a steep, loose gully near the summit. Only attempt in good weather and dry conditions if you want to keep this a ‘scramble’. Note: You will also be crossing a benign glacier on approach to this peak.
Technical Rating: SC7; YDS (4th)
GPS Track: Gaia
Map: Google Maps

Andrew Nugara’s trip report from Mount French is what attracted me to this wonderful peak. Great views, 3rd highest peak in K-country and some severe exposure to test hardened scramblers sounded like the perfect objective for a nice summer day. My goal for 2011, if I had one, was to try some more difficult scrambles and start doing more Alpine climbing, especially those involving relatively simple glacier ascents. I started the year well by skiing a bunch of peaks on simple glaciated terrain and soloing the west ridge of Baldy in the rain. I think I ended the summer fairly well too – with an ascent of Mount French with So Nakagawa as my company for the day.

Mount French Route Map

Two days previous, on September 9 I managed to summit Mount Vaux, and my legs were still beat up from that mountain on September 11. So and I had scheduled an ascent of French already in February of 2011 so there was no way I was missing this opportunity due to sore and stiff leg muscles. My legs could just suck it up and deal with it. I met So in the Burstall Pass parking lot at 06:45 (he had scrambled Big Sister the day before and camped in his car overnight). Another party was also leaving the parking lot, headed for the French-Haig-Robertson traverse. I don’t know why you’d do this traverse on foot since it’s a perfect day trip on skis but I guess it’s still great views in the summer.

So hikes along a raging French Creek.
A really cool waterfall along French Creek. This is looking back.

I should have simply followed the same approach up French Creek that we did for CEGNFS and Mount Murray but I had a slow and tired brain this particular morning and we started up French Creek on the winter access trail. This worked out OK. Eventually the trail disappeared on avalanche slopes coming off Mount Burstall but we simply descended back to the creek and picked up another trail. We were on trails of varying degree the entire time. Copious amounts of deadfall made the experience a bit less pleasant than it could have been, but some beautiful waterfalls, that you won’t see on the regular summer route, kept us entertained.

Finally gaining some real height to the glacier, looking back down our approach route.

Finally after 2+ hours of fast-paced hiking we found ourselves looking at the French glacier from the top of a moraine. So wasn’t too happy about the snow-covered ice (we didn’t have rope or rescue gear along with the intent of scrambling this mountain without climbing gear) but I encouraged him to ‘stick his nose in it’ before cancelling our plans just yet. The snow-cover proved to be old and shallow and we felt comfortable soloing the glacier.

Looking down at the French Glacier from the moraine. The distant col is our target to access the Haig Icefield.

NOTE: You should never solo a glacier without having intimate knowledge of the risk you are taking by doing so – depending on conditions the same glacier can be very tame or very dangerous. PLEASE DON’T use my experiences or trip reports to do dumb things yourself.

At the 3 hour mark we were enjoying a snack on the Haig Glacier with gorgeous views all around. The south slopes of French looked pretty intimidating from this angle. The oddest thing happened when we sat down to eat – we heard human voices – quite a few of them, echoing across the ice field! It wasn’t the group behind us as they were well back, out of sight. So mentioned it could be skier’s training on the Haig but given the lateness of the summer season he didn’t think so. It turns out he was right though. As we made our way to the snow / scree slopes on the  south side of French we could see about a dozen x-country skiers below us, training on a pretty extensive system of tracks on the icefield. What a glorious training ground! Some of them stopped to watch our progress up the steep snow and rubble and waved at us when we turned around. I’m sure from their vantage it looked pretty crazy where we were ascending.

Mount French’s south slopes from the French / Robertson col.

The 500 meters of height gain between the Haig icefield and the ridge of Mount French is best described as … “horrible”. Every step up is a small step back down. Like on Mount Vaux, but smaller scree that would be much better on the way down, you still want to be here with a very small ascent party or solo due to rock fall. We followed bits of trail where we could find it, working our way through the small slabby cliff bands guarding the ridge. Every once in a while a whole section of slope would simply start sliding down beneath us. We topped out on the ridge only to realize that almost immediately we had to lose about 20-30 meters of height. At first it looked really nasty but So found an easier bypass on skier’s left that took us to the first exposed section of the ridge. Due to the loose nature of this knife-edge, I found it comparable in difficulty to the crux. Less exposed, but much looser. After this we ascended some pretty serious terrain before topping out at a false summit.

So starts up the SW face of French. Note the ski track on the glacier at distance here?
Skiers train on the Haig Icefield. Maude (R) and Jellico (L) on either side.

From the false summit we dropped down a bit before encountering the crux. So warned me that he wasn’t stopping – I couldn’t blame him – no use staring at something this scary for too long! Neither of us hesitated very long before tackling the narrow ridge with absolutely no room for error anywhere along it. So crossed so quickly I couldn’t even get a decent picture of him! I was relieved when he made it (I don’t like watching tightrope performances live, with no safety net. ). I went a bit slower, using my hands when I needed to. Stiff wind gusts didn’t help but at least the crux was fairly solid! This is the first time I’ve ever ‘zoned’ on a scramble. The world ceased to exist outside of my next move – it was a great feeling!

On a high point just before the crux wall visible to So’s left. The Royal Group visible at distant left with Sir Douglas, Robertson, Assiniboine and many other peaks visible now.

The looseness of the terrain combined with the need for some route finding makes the whole ridge traverse a climber’s scramble at minimum. Many parties will want a rope on Mount French, although finding good protection could be interesting – bring lots of big slings. The fact that we had some stiff wind made things extra-spicy. Snow or ice would be suicidal without protection here.

Looking at the crux. There’s some exposure. Mount Smith Dorrien at right.

Surprisingly the difficulties on French aren’t only the exposed ridge sections but also steep, loose terrain near the summit. We climbed a chimney with very loose hand / foot holds and a icy slope leading into it (i.e. if you fell you were going all the way down). I wasn’t mentally prepared for this section and found it almost as interesting as the crux just before it – actually it felt a bit more dangerous than the crux due to the very loose nature of the holds and the consequence of a slip.

Near the summit now – we will drop to our right and find a loose gully to access the summit from here.

We only spent a few minutes at the summit. Great views in all directions, obviously, given the stature and location of it. We were the first to sign the register in the two years since Kevin Barton and Keith Bott added their names. There weren’t more than around 8 or 9 parties in the register since the year 2000. 

Summit panorama from Mount Smith Dorrien at left to Jellico, Joffre, Beatty, King George, Sir Douglas, Assiniboine, Birdwood, Smuts and many, many other peaks visible.
Another pano, this time it’s the Spray River Road summits, from L to R, Engadine, The Tower, Galatea, Gusty, Fortress, Chester and James Walker.

Downclimbing the chimney under the summit was tricky. The crux was easier for me on return and the narrow ridge just before the first section of ridge after the scree slope was also easier to descend, for me. The scree bash back down the south face was pretty quick and the judicious use of snow patches on the lower section below the French Glacier also saved us time and energy.

So descends loose / exposed terrain just under the summit. We will transition back to our right to the exposed ridge visible at mid center here.

There was no quick exit beyond the snow patches. We ended up on the summer access trail (same access as Murray) on the way out. There is no creek crossing until the TransAlta dam this way and it worked great. There was a bunch of avalanche debris (fallen trees) on the trail around the area where you branch off for Murray. Pink flagging on this section could cause you to end up on CEGNFS if you’re not careful on ascent. Don’t follow flagging up an avalanche gully if you’re trying to reach the French glacier – the French Creek trail keeps going straight across the fallen trees and debris and never strays too far from the creek.

Back on the gorgeous Haig Icefield – So is barely visible at bottom left. Jellico, Maude, Monro and Sir Douglas visible here.

Mount French is one of my favorite scrambles – a top 10 for sure. Technically this is probably no longer ‘scrambling’ but might be classified as a low 5th class climb that we soloed. Calling it a climber’s scramble may make some people feel better about not roping up but when you get up on the ridge it’s the ‘climbing’ sections that could make you wish you brought a rope and some protection. The views and obscurity of the mountain make the effort pay off. Our round trip time of just under 10 hours was only achieved because of So’s quick hiking pace through the deadfall! If you’re very comfortable on steep, loose and exposed terrain you’ll love this peak and should try it for yourself.

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