Summit Elevation (m): 3329
Trip Date: September 7 2012
Elevation Gain (m): 2000+
Round Trip Time (hr): 24
Total Trip Distance (km): 36
Quick ‘n Easy Rating: Class 4 – You fall you are almost dead
Difficulty Notes: River crossings, bushwhacking up a remote valley and glaciers including crevasse issues and steep snow slopes. Don’t minimize these wilderness traveling risks and learn how to manage them before attempting this trip.
Technical Rating: MN7; YDS (I)
GPS Track: Download
Map: Google Maps
Wow. That 3 letter word pretty much sums up this trip. Don’t bother reading further unless you’re really interested in more details. This was one of those trips that’ll stick with me for the rest of my life – or at least while I have a reasonably intact memory. Eric Coulthard is one of those people who dreams up trips while looking at his extensive online library of photos and possible routes. While climbing Mount Fryatt a couple of weekends ago with him, he suggested that he might be giving Mount Amery and some other peaks in the area a shot this fall. I quickly picked up on his comments and volunteered to join him. One week later we were planning the trip. (Actually we were already planning Amery on the Fryatt trip – but don’t tell my wife that! ;-)) After getting home and writing up this trip report, Raf sent me a link from another party who did pretty much exactly the same route we did. Amazingly they did not make any of the summits (that wasn’t their goal) and because they bivied low down in NE Amery Creek they didn’t have time either. They got the route from the 1995 version of the Canadian Alpine Journal (page 97) from a trip report that Jason Thompson published. They mention a lot of crevasses and that they were only “100 meters” from the summit of Hooge but this is inaccurate since Hooge is more than 100 meters from the confluence point that they were on but in their defense, Hooge is marked incorrectly on some maps.
Mount Amery is a gorgeous and engaging peak that can be viewed from the Banff-Jasper highway. I first became enchanted with the mountain when scrambling Mount Coleman (my first trip with Eric, ironically) and have been interested in climbing it every since. It’s only been summited a few times in the past and has no obvious or simple route to the top. The first ascent was up broken cliff bands via Amery Creek, with loose rock and crappy weather. Subsequent ascents weren’t much better until someone (Jason Thompson and Eric Geppert) found a route up the south side via NE Amery Creek that breaks through the upper two cliff bands via hidden gullies. It took Jason and Eric three tries up that untracked NE valley to finally break through to the summit! We are indebted to this ascent party and to Rick Collier for publishing his trip report – without this we would never have managed this ascent without multiple efforts and even then probably not.
With the promise of a delightful bushwhack, river crossings and hidden ascent routes through cliff bands how could I NOT be interested in this mountain?! The bushwhack up the NE valley and the river crossings of both the Alexandra and Saskatchewan Rivers continues to thwart most attempts at this mountain and I suspect it will never see many ascents unless it’s officially declared an “11,000er” (which it’s not) and even then it will remain somewhat obscure for all but the most determined peakbaggers.
The Approach via NE Amery Creek
I met Eric at 07:30 at the Sunset Pass parking lot along highway 93 on Friday morning. I was tired already before starting thanks to a 04:00 wake up time but was eager to get started. I had the fortune of being a fly fisherman in a previous life so my river crossings were made pleasant with the aid of waterproof / breathable waders and even felt-bottomed and hobnailed boots to help with slick rocks! Eric only had thick socks to keep his feet warm in his sandals… We managed to cross both the Saskatchewan and Alexandra Rivers without incident – but there was some strong currents in several of the channels. You wouldn’t want too much more water than what we had or the river crossings would be the most difficult and dangerous part of the ascent. We found an old raft made from logs and wire on the river flats which was kind of neat – it looked pretty old. Eventually we finished our water crossing with a short bushwhack to the unnamed stream coming down the NE drainage of Amery (“NE Amery Creek”).
After ditching our river crossing gear at the mouth of NE Amery Creek we started our main approach. Obviously there were no trails or markings of any kind anywhere on the approach and we paid dearly for our prize. We picked climber’s left of the stream thanks to Eric’s keen Google Earth nose – he noticed more scree beds coming down to the south side of the creek than the north and figured it would be a nice break from bushwhacking. He was right on the money with his hunch and it probably saved us a lot of time and effort.
First we bushwhacked up steep forested hills past an impressive series of waterfalls in the creek. Eventually we worked our way back to the creek and spent the next 4 hours boulder-hopping alongside it, scrambling up and around waterfalls, over deadfall, up rock-hard scree slopes, through snow tunnels, avalanche debris, gnarly scrub and through head-high alders and bushes that were out to trip us up any way they could.
Eric kept tempting fate by saying things like “at least it’s not head high alders like Jasper bushwhacking”. Two minutes later we were in alders over our heads. 😉 I enjoyed the bushwhacking for some odd reason – or at least I didn’t hate it. I “became one with the bushes” and tried not to fight against the barriers but rather work through them systematically and methodically – it worked because after 5 hours of heading upstream hundreds of vertical meters with overnight packs we found ourselves staring up at an impenetrable curtain wall, thinking “now what?!”
The sun glistened off the dark walls of the cliff band while high above us on every side, huge hanging sheets of snow and ice balanced precariously on the rock beneath. Loud cracks echoed through the cirque as the sun warmed the ice and we witnessed some impressive serac collapses and icefalls while we approached the end of the valley. The curtain wall was not a scramble – not even close. Even from a distance it was obviously not our route up. Thankfully I had Rick’s route description along and we put it to good use – without it we’d have been done at this point. We started up directly north of the first glacial lake on hard scree slopes heading to a line of cliffs with steep gullies the only possible breaks through them. We didn’t even know about the two glacial lakes back in the cirque until we got part way up this slope and looked down on them.
With overnight packs we weren’t moving quickly, but considering we still had at least 7 hours of daylight we figured we’d move slowly up the mountain and get as high as possible – assisting us in our long summit day on Saturday. When we finally got to the cliffs we could barely make out easier terrain in the steep, curving gullies that didn’t require roped climbing. We headed into the leftmost gully and were delighted to find dry rock (south facing) and little ledges and tight chimneys that made the scrambling delightful. This gully is only one of the well hidden cracks in Amery’s armor but without it there would be no hope of clambering up Amery without a lot more rock climbing skills than I currently have.
Once we topped out of the lower access gully we were getting a wee bit winded (remember – overnight packs with glacier-travel gear) but we pressed on anyway. We traversed a broad scree slope heading west (climber’s left) until we could make out another chink in Amery’s armor – the enormous “Greek Amphitheater” that Rick references in his report. Again, impossible looking terrain proved non-technical once our noses were in it and we continued to inch our way up the immense south flank of Amery. The weather was incredible – warm with no wind – and we put the waterfalls in the amphitheater to very good use! The scrambling in this section was upper moderate to low difficult and very steep and exposed in spots – but really good fun on solid(ish) rock.
Kingly white mountain goats gazed down on us from high cliffs, birds soared over our heads, thundering ice falls echoed off rock walls, warm sunshine kissed the backs of our necks and refreshing waterfalls trickled down around us as we climbed higher and higher on a glorious fall day. The weight of our packs and the scratches on our bodies from the approach were fading as we took in our majestic surroundings and realized how privileged we were to be in this special place enjoyed by so few humans in it’s long history.
After the amphitheater we traversed again to climber’s left on really loose and exhausting scree – trying to escape the vertical cliff walls of the summit block that were looming eerily over us. As we rounded the cliff band we were treated to our first summit views. Again, having Rick’s report was invaluable as we traversed under more cliff bands looking for yet another friendly gully. And we found it. A steep, loose, hot and somewhat exposed scramble brought us through the last remaining obstacle to the upper scree bench under the glaciated summit of Amery. It was tempting to just go “bag it” but we were feeling pretty bagged ourselves at this point and decided to search for a good place to spend the night rather than push our luck too far. We ended up gaining some more height onto the snow and scree covered southeast shoulder of Amery, just under the summit cap of ice and snow.
Bivying up at over 10,500 feet was pretty cool. We ate supper and watched a subtle sunset in warm temps and very light winds. We could already see many 11,000ers and other giant peaks including Cline, Wilson, Murchison, Hector, Balfour, Erasmus, Forbes and the Lyells. We looked forward to our views the following day on Amery and on the grand traverse to Hooge and Monchy.
The traverse looked LONG from our bivy site but it also looked fairly easy with the only heavily crevassed section being near one particular bump along the way. We agreed to get up at 05:30 to get a early start via head lamp and hopefully witness sunrise from the summit of Amery.
Mount Amery Ascent
I spent a pretty good night in the bivy and woke up at 05:15 to the sound of my alarm. The wind had picked up from the day before but the barometric pressure was steady and the sky was clear so bad weather wasn’t blowing in or anything. Eric also got up and by 06:00 we were roping up and picking our way across the Amery glacier on firm, fresh snow (just enough to cover the cracks). We decided to angle to the col just south of the peak rather than climb all the way to the summit via the north glacier. That way we could simply bag Amery and then come back down and continue on to Hooge and Monchy via the Monchy Icefield.
Our idea worked just fine. We dumped our gear at the col and unroped for the scree scramble up to Amery’s summit. We witnessed sunrise kissing the surrounding peaks just before topping out to a wonderful view that according to one of the few registry entries included 22 11,000ers! We found two summit registers, which is sort of odd considering we were about the 8th (recorded) summit party ever to stand on Amery’s apex… We had forgotten to bring extra registers so we borrowed one and left the other on top after filling in our names. We were the 3rd or 4th party up the NE route. It felt extremely rewarding to finally be standing on the summit after so much effort went into our approach the day before!
After checking out the incredible views and confirming on my altitude watch that the peak is indeed very close to 11,000 feet (a few feet of snowfall would like push it over) we started our descent. We knew we had a long day ahead of us after scoping out the long traverse we had to take across the Monchy Icefield from Amery. I don’t think we realized quite how much work was still ahead of us…
Ascent of Hooge & Monchy Peaks
After ascending Mount Amery, Eric and I began our long (LONG!) traverse around the entire Monchy Icefield to the summits of Hooge and Monchy. You need a lot of factors to come into play before this traverse is worth the effort:
- First of all you need low rivers to access the NE drainage of Amery.
- Then you need good conditions to get up Amery – not too much overnight freeze but not too much melting either. You certainly don’t want snow or ice in the access gully.
- You need the energy to lug an overnight pack high up onto the Amery massif or you’ll run out of daylight if attempting from lower down in the valley.
- A firm high pressure system has to be centered over the Continental Divide to give you at least 2 days of perfect weather – or why bother?
- The glacier has to be in good condition (firm or melted back).
- Water levels have to be low enough that you don’t have to bushwhack the entire length of NE Amery Creek which would suck.
- You need the time off to take advantage of all the above factors!
We got very lucky that all these factors and more lined up for us on our chosen weekend. After the ascent of Mount Amery I put the rope in my pack for a while, as we walked on top of a long scree ridge, just above the small Monchy Icefield. I assume that this scree may not have been exposed back in 1948 – it was probably all glacier back then. Route finding and travel was easy on the traverse, especially compared with our approach the day before. The elevation gain / loss combined with the length of the traverse wore us down through out the day though – there’s a reason no one has ever done this traverse although both the original ascent party and Rick Collier considered it. With bad weather or crappy snow conditions it would be almost impossible to complete in one day – even from high up on Amery and camping on that ridge in a whiteout with any winds would be a nightmare – it’s very exposed to weather systems coming in over the ice fields in every direction. Thunderstorms would also be most unwelcome since we were a good 4-5 hours from any descent options for most of the day and very exposed to the elements up on that ridge.
Given the conditions we had, it was the best high traverse either of us have done in the mountains. Glorious bluebird conditions, firm snow / scree and a pretty tame glacier led to a glorious walk above 10,400 feet that would be very difficult to top. The closest I’ve come to this type of high traverse would either be the high-line to Alexandra, which is much lower, or the Columbia ice fields around the twins. We had views to half of the highest peaks in the Rockies and down into “black hole” valleys, thousands of feet below us on every side. Glaciers dumped waterfalls down hundreds of feet to the valley’s below our feet and collapsing seracs kept us alert with their thundering demise. It was so impressive and so unexpected that we often just shouted back and forth how “crazy the views” were. Fryatt had stunning views a few weekends ago, but this was another level of eye candy. I can’t stress enough how lucky I felt to be enjoying such a grand display of nature! I know there’s wilder places with bigger mountains “out there”, but at times like these I love Alberta and love our great back country with it’s untamed and untouched places.
The scree section from Amery to the south end of the icefield was a delightful walk. Being unroped meant we could walk at our own pace and enjoy photographing our surroundings and peering into the “black hole” on our right (Amery Creek valley). Willerval was showing it’s true colors by shedding rocks at regular intervals – we were glad not to be on it’s eastern flanks, that’s for sure! In an incredible display of instability we watched with our jaws dropping as hundreds of tons of rock came off the east face of Willerval and thundered down to the valley below!! I’ve never witnessed such a grand feature collapse in the Rockies. It was impressive and somewhat scary. There is no way to predict an event like that and if you were caught in it or under it you would have no chance of escaping. You kind of expect snow and ice to eventually collapse but when part of the face of a mountain falls off in front of your eyes it’s unnerving.
As we slowly continued towards the south end of the icefield we got off the scree and back onto glaciated terrain – subsequently the rope came out of my pack and we slowed down a bit as Eric probed the glacier carefully. Near the summit of the first glaciated bump we could see many crevasses. Eric actually stepped in one and probed another before we were out of that terrain. We traversed high above an incredible cwm between the Monchy and Lyell icefields (some crazy exposure above a notch) before trudging up to the final high point just before Monchy.
One of the oddest aspects of our trip was that we didn’t know for sure which of the ‘bumps’ on the way to Monchy was Hooge Peak! Eric took a wild guess between two candidates, but we decided to build cairns (small) on both just in case we were wrong. We also decided to place our register on the way back since we knew where Monchy was and could maybe deduce the correct ‘bump’ for Hooge in the opposite direction! Good thing we waited to place the register because as it turns out, nobody really knew where Hooge Peak was – other than the original ascent party.
As we crested the high point before Monchy we noticed a small rock cairn. This was a bit odd because the previous 5 or 6 high points hadn’t had any cairns on them and suddenly this one did? Hmmm. I asked Eric if he was sure where Monchy was since the other high point to the north looked pretty much just as high as the one we were on and he responded that the next high point was definitely Monchy.
As we looked at the cairn we noticed a small, rusted container in it! My hands were trembling as I tried to pry the rusted lid off the container. We knew it had to be very old and we were starting to suspect it was an original register. Finally I managed to pry the lid off and very gingerly took out the faded and worn piece of paper inside. We had pretty much given up trying to find any text on the paper until Eric noticed that it could be unfolded one more time. We gingerly unfolded the paper and I could make out some faded text! “July 20 1948” and “Hooge Pk”! Very cool. There was other text markings including “camped in … valley” but most of the text was covered with rust from the container or simply weathered off. A very old pencil was also in the container.
Well, now we knew which high point Hooge Peak was! 🙂 Finding this register and realizing we were almost certainly only the 2nd ascent party on this mountain was one of the coolest experiences of my life. Weird, I know, but I really love going places nobody else bothers with. Especially ones with views like we had from Hooge Peak. After taking in the summit views which included Forbes and the north face of the Lyells we continued on to Monchy Mountain which wasn’t very far to the north of Hooge.
After finding a summit register on top of Hooge Peak we were re-energized to find another on Monchy. In the words of the original ascent party;
These two summits are really two points on one long ridge and should not be considered two separate summits.Journal reference CAJ 32-16
But they are, so who am I to argue? Sometimes you spend 3 days getting one summit, other times you get 6 in one day. It doesn’t really matter in the end but I’m not going to forgo claiming a summit just because there’s another one right nearby that’s easily accessible. Especially in this case since they’re not so easily accessible!
Alas, when we summitted Monchy we couldn’t find a cairn or a register anywhere. We searched for quite a while under the snow and on the scree slope but the cairn was gone and the register with it. This is a very exposed summit which must get hammered by all kinds of nasty weather so it’s actually quite amazing that Hooge’s cairn / register were intact. We built a cairn of our own and placed the extra register we’d taken from Amery in it.
After enjoying the views in every direction we turned back for the long trudge back to the bivy. Good thing the weather was perfect and the views were great, because that’s all we ran on for the next 4 hours! The trudge back across the icefield was a lot of work – even though technically easy. My legs didn’t have the energy and the lactic acid would build up the second I began any uphill work – no matter how gentle or small the hill was! We took our time and plodded around the ridge towards Amery at a pretty benign pace. By the time we trudged back up the final high point beneath the south summit ridge of Amery we realized that our dream of getting out on the 2nd day wasn’t going to happen – we’d be bivying one more night.
We trudged across the Amery glacier to our bivy (I stepped in a crevasse part way across – so be forewarned, they do exist!) for a round trip time of just over 10 hours for the trip. We were moving steadily all day and both of us don’t require as much food as most on these types of trips so I would expect most parties would need at least 16+ hours to bag Amery, Monchy and Hooge via our route from the lower NE Amery valley where Rick bivied. I think if you want to bag these summits via our route, you’re going to have to bivy somewhere high in order to do it.
Egress via NE Amery Creek
By 16:30 we were leaving the NE shoulder of Amery and heading back down the mountain. The way up didn’t seem so bad, but due to our heavy packs and tired bodies the way down was more difficult than I expected. It took time and energy to slowly pick our way down the gullies and couloirs because everything cliffs out from above. It’s easier to climb up the small cliff bands because you can spot the breaks from below. There’s so many of these cliff bands we couldn’t possible cairn our ascent route on the way up either.
At one point I was so sick of marginal hand / foot holds and the big pack getting in the way of my downclimbing in the amphitheater that I nearly committed the dumbest act of my climbing career. I got frustrated and decided to drop my pack down the small band and climb after it. Eric watched in disbelief as I threw my pack down. It didn’t drop and stop – of course! It started to careen down the amphitheater. Arg!!! I felt pretty stupid as I watched all my gear (including my camera!!) bounce down the mountain. Thank GOODNESS it somehow came to rest about 100 feet lower with nothing broken. I’m such an idiot… 😉 I didn’t repeat that mistake even though the down climbing remained somewhat tedious all the way down the amphitheater.
One back at the hidden couloir we again took our time and slowly negotiated the steep down climbs with heavy, unwieldy packs. The scrambling sections on Amery would certainly be much easier with day packs. Finally we broke out of the couloir and started down the long scree / cement slope to the upper NE Amery Creek valley below.
The sun was starting to set as we took off (or ‘stumbled’) down the NE Amery Creek. We really wanted to make the nice bivy that the Thompson party used, near the small lake about half way down the approach valley. We didn’t like the fact that the temps were so warm all night (4 degrees at 10,500 feet when we woke up) because this meant the melting wouldn’t slow down enough to have a big effect on the water levels in the Alexandra and Saskatchewan rivers for our crossing the next morning. These rivers are big enough – they don’t need a strong melt cycle to make them bigger!! The thrash through the deadfall, over boulders and scree and up and down along the creek was tiring after walking 30km already this day but we managed to find some energy and made the bivy site just as darkness moved in. It never felt so good to just sit and eat. It felt really, really good – what a day it’d been!
The temps stayed very warm all night again and we decided to take off at first light to catch the lowest river levels possible. By 07:00 there was enough light to start our bushwhacking again and off we went! We both had more energy than I though possible – I actually felt enough energy to spend a few more days out – I felt really good. We made it to our river crossing gear in about 2.5 hours from the lake and geared up for the crossings. The crossings went very well, we managed to find the slowest (shallowest) braids to cross and managed to keep the water under waist deep for the most part and usually knee deep. I think some tourists taking photos from the highway must have wondered what the heck we were up to as we finally gained the road and the parking lot.
Mount Amery, Monchy and Hooge was a special trip for me. It was the very best that the Canadian Rockies has to offer and has only been matched by a few trips since – trips like Alexandra, Fortress, Catacombs and possibly Recondite, Stewart and other lesser traveled areas of the Rockies’ back country. Amery will never be popular since it’s almost certainly below the ‘magical’ 11,000 foot mark and is simply too much work for most people to bother with. Which is exactly how I hope it remains.