Summit Elevation (m): 3197
Trip Date: February 11 2012
Elevation Gain (m): 1400
Round Trip Time (hr): 11.5
Total Trip Distance (km): 15
Quick ‘n Easy Rating: Class 3 – You fall you break something. If you’re caught in an avalanche you could also hurt or die.
Difficulty Notes: Winter ascent includes serious avalanche risks. Learn how to manage these risks and perform avalanche burial rescues before attempting this trip.
Technical Rating: MN7; YDS (I)
Map: Google Maps
There are a few mountains that having been hanging around on my ‘to-do’ list ever since I first laid eyes on them or read someone else’s trip report on ascending them. Some are really obvious like Mount Columbia or Mount Vaux, while others have just triggered something in me that makes me really want to stand on their summit. I first noticed Mount Patterson while descending Mount Weed across highway #93 in June of 2006. I don’t really know why, but I love the way it rises above the valley with the Snowbird Glacier and rugged rock towers catching the light. When I found out that this gorgeous peak could be skied I was blown away and knew right then that I would have to try it some time. Since 2006 I’ve kept my eye open for trip reports and there’s been a few, but not many. Raff skied Patterson in March of 2010 and I knew that goldenscrambles.ca had a trip report from July 2010 where they went up the Delta Glacier from Peyto and Caldron Lakes but other than that Google wasn’t returning very much first-hand beta for me! Even the guide book was extremely terse on the description, the author obviously hasn’t completed this trip himself (the wording is “This peak is reported to be a fantastic ski…”). Raff had some sobering words for me every time I’d mention that I was thinking of skiing it. He’d caution that, “you don’t want any sun on that south facing slope”, or “there is some serious avalanche terrain” etc, etc. The spring of 2011 had a few days that I wanted to attempt it, but things never came together and it didn’t work out.
The winter of 2012 has been a weird one. The weather was very warm all winter and with no new snow for a couple of weeks the snowpack was very stable for February and the avalanche ratings in all zones was moving towards “low” – unheard of for an Alberta Rockies winter! I made a valiant attempt at Mount Columbia on the weekend of February 6th but skied off the ice fields without a peak, so when the weekend of February 11th looked to be even more stable, I knew that I had to try to bag a peak somewhere! Hanneke agreed with my assessment and after asking a bunch of people, only Wietse was on board for an outing on Saturday. The agreement we settled on was that we would try to find the parking spot for Patterson and would only attempt it if there was a broken trail from there. I sensed that the approach to the canyon wasn’t easy or obvious and I suspected the ascent from there would cross some dicey avy terrain. Following someone else’s tracks seemed like a good idea. (I had no appreciation how rarely this mountain is actually skied compared to other big ski ascents in the area like Mount Hector and White Pyramid – especially in winter conditions.)
I didn’t expect to find a track but low-and-behold there it was! A set of ski tracks clearly left the parking spot along hwy #93, descending to the river below. Wietse wasn’t sure he was up for such a big ski day (he’d never done more than 1100 meters of height gain on skis before) but he agreed to give it a shot if I’d be willing to lead. I was super-psyched as we geared up and left the parking spot, following the thin ribbon of trail down the embankment. Without the approach track our day would have been much different. There is no easy way to describe the approach to the lower canyon other than the following hints – and of course using the GPS track I’ve provided;
- Park where the guidebook says.
- You should be able to ski down a fairly clear draw right from the highway to the river. Turn left before the river and go through some trees before hitting a very obvious cut line that parallels hwy #93 going south.
- Eventually you have to cross the river on your right. After crossing the river you go up and over a treed ridge (no trail that we could see), trending climber’s left towards the canyon.
- Work your way through some clearings and over another treed ridge before finally coming to the river again. We crossed this easily (very low) and angled towards the canyon on the ski track.
As we followed the set of tracks closer to the lower canyon we noticed that there were fresh turns above us on the avalanche slopes coming off Patterson – this confused us a bit. Why would someone break trail all the way to the lower canyon and then ski some fairly low-key slopes instead of continuing up Patterson? We sort of joked that maybe they were so hard core they did some turns after descending the mountain, but I think deep down we both knew that our broken trail was coming to an end – and soon.
Sure enough. As we approached the mouth of the canyon, the trail ended! Having done an hour of approach there was no way I was turning around just yet. Wietse agreed to continue on and I started breaking trail into the canyon. The lower canyon was short and scenic but as we ascended further the terrain quickly narrowed and steepened considerably. I knew that we had to ascend on the left side of the canyon where it narrowed but the only place to ascend was a major avalanche slope stretching at least two or three hundred meters vertically above us and threatened by cornices above.
Without extremely stable conditions this would be the turn-around spot for me. A slide here would be fatal. The slide would trap you against the canyon walls and bury you under meters of snow instantly. Wietse was more nervous waiting below this slope while I ascended it than I was actually going up it! I tried to do the whole slope on skis but eventually we gave up and put the skis onto the packs. We traversed out of the gully once we sensed that we were getting higher than the inlet creek and our timing turned out to be perfect as we traversed out to climber’s right and saw the creek entering the narrow canyon about 20 meters below us. On hindsight we probably should have just hero’d up the slope on climber’s right rather than try to be ‘safe’ on climbers left. The whole slope is exposed to avy hazard and if you ascend on the right side of it you avoid traversing over to the right to get back into the creek bed. Thank goodness it’s a north-facing slope that spends it’s entire life in the shade. Other than a bit of sloughing it held together perfectly for us. I’d guesstimate that this slope is 40-45 degrees, if it was harder snow we wouldn’t have been able to descend it facing outward which usually puts a slope over 40 degrees for me.
After that bit of fun we thought the rest of the approach would be fairly benign, “continue up the creek for about 1-2 km until a headwall” – according to the guidebook. The next km or so wasn’t especially nightmarish, but we were forced to cross some more exposed avalanche slopes above the creek. These weren’t giant snow fields but were steep enough and exposed enough that a slide or even a small slough would carry us into the creek below, probably drowning us if we didn’t suffocate first. We also ended up taking our skis off a number of times to negotiate the creek bed which had very steep snow banks, small waterfalls (frozen of course) and even a section with old frozen snow that proved much more dangerous than the glacier high above us. I almost ended our day early, falling through a snowbank and into the creek while trying to negotiate a narrow section. Thank goodness the creek wasn’t deep at this point and I quickly scrambled out of it with nothing more than a fresh layer of ice on my ski boots!
Approximately 3 hours from the parking spot we stopped for lunch under the headwall, just before turning climber’s right up the long slope towards the summit block. The weather was perfect. Warm and sunny with no wind whatsoever. The sun was a winter sun, which was a good thing. A strong spring sun would probably have made me think twice on this trip. The terrain was very scenic, no big surprise given that area. I’ve had good luck with amazing views on outings like Mount Weed, Mount Noyes, Observation Peak, Mistaya and Caldron Peak.
Mistaya Mountain towered over us with a backdrop of deep blue sky as I broke trail up to the right, underneath the headwall beneath her summit. I was in a fantastic mood for some reason. It felt so good to be skinning up under the great conditions we were experiencing – it was just one of those days that felt so great to be alive and healthy! I was also feeling in great cardio condition after my 62 km on the Columbia Icefields the weekend previous. Then I was struggling around with a heavy pack and mountaineering gear, so going up a mountain with my winter day pack felt like nothing comparatively. I never really felt out of breath all day, but my legs started to get weak as I got higher, probably due to the tough weekend 6 days previous.
As we approached the summit mass of Patterson, the terrain steepened considerably. This is where the small glacier sits, just as you turn climber’s left to reach the high col under the summit ridge. I angled a hard left up this slope, preferring the icy crust in the shade, rather than the fully sun-exposed southeast slope of the main glacier. After finally getting up this very steep roll, I descended slightly off a wind scoop before topping out just south of the col at the top of the main glacier. I was a bit concerned about being cliffed out here but it worked out perfectly.
I didn’t really know how far Wietse was behind me at this point, but the number of daylight hours was waning quickly as I ditched my skis and continued up the summit ridge on foot. I knew that 16:00 would be the perfect time to be descending off the summit, but it was already 16:20 by the time I got there. The views were mind blowing yet again. Clouds pouring over the divide from BC added drama to the scenery. I could spot Wietse far below, coming up the ridge now. I was very glad to know that he’d make it to the summit.
The summit register was quite old (1989) and placed by the venerable Rick Collier. There were no entries since August of 2010 when the east ridge was climbed. This surprised me a little, but given the huge day and the serious avy slopes I wasn’t totally shocked to see that this summit is visited far less often than similar ones like Hector and White Pyramid. A friend of mine claims that Patterson is ascended quite often but nobody bothers signing the register. I find this hard to believe because it’s a big enough day that you would sign the register if you made it all the way to the summit. The register is also not the type to be buried in snow because the cairn is tall and stores the register in the top… Whatever the case may be, we were the first official party in two years to summit Patterson on skis and in the end – who cares?
I tried to stay on the summit long enough to greet Wietse but the clouds moved in and made things very chilly. After 30 minutes on the summit I began to head down – I could wait for Wietse lower down. I passed him about halfway down to the col and agreed to wait and take some shots of him going to the summit. I was quite pumped that both of us would make it.
Wietse was quite shocked when he joined me back at our skis and I told him it was 17:20. He assumed it was much earlier but was wondering why the sun was setting already… 😉 We skied down the slopes I had avoided on the ascent as we didn’t like the icy crust on our ascent route. The slope was very steep at the top of the glacier but soon mellowed out enough that we could actually do some controlled turns. The rest of the descent to the top of the canyon was a mixture of great skiing, good skiing and survival skiing. Just before getting to the initial avy slope in the canyon darkness fell. The darkness helped us ignore the seriousness of the snow slope as we plunge-stepped down it into the canyon bottom. We descended the rest of the way to the car with only Wietse’s headlamp, which was kind of comical!
We noticed a new set of ski tracks following ours to the bottom of the first avy slope in the canyon where the ski party must have turned around. For the rest of the trip back to the car we had a great ski track – thank goodness it didn’t snow or blow while we were gone! 12 hours after leaving the car we were back. This was a very satisfying outing for me and I highly recommend it as a ski ascent in low avalanche conditions. A top 5 peak for me at the time and likely still a top 20 as of 2019.