Summit Elevation (m): 3361
Elevation Gain (m): 1700
Round Trip Time (hr): 13
Total Trip Distance (km): 21
Quick ‘n Dirty Rating: Class 5 – you fall, you are dead
Difficulty Notes: An easy climb or climber’s scramble up the east ridge. A moderate scree bash up the west descent route. Wait until it’s dry!
Technical Rating: MN9; YDS (5.3)
GPS Track: Download
Map: Google Maps
Scott Berry and I completed a east-west traverse of Mount Edith Cavell on a glorious summer day on August 02 2013. Edith Cavell has been tempting me for years already, ever since I started seeing trip reports from friends who swore up and down that the east ridge has some of the best hands-on scrambling / low 5th class climbing to be found in the ‘chossy’ Rockies. They weren’t kidding! There is some minor discrepancy on the rating of the east ridge when doing research on the internet. I’ve seen it rated from a hard scramble to a 5.5, alpine III climb but the official rating is 5.3, alpine III and I think in dry conditions this is a fair rating given my limited alpine experience of course! Scott and I had first brought up the idea of Edith Cavell while hiking up Numa Mountain a few weeks previous. Scott had a few days off to “dirt bag” and I’d been looking for an opportunity to climb Cavell’s east ridge with someone who knows rope work for a while already. Of course we couldn’t control the weather or conditions on the mountain so it was a bit of a hail Mary to plan this climb so far in advance.
As the day approached the weather didn’t look very good at all. I kept waffling on whether we should go for it or not and finally on Wednesday evening we decided to go for it and see what would happen. On Thursday morning TJ shared a guide report from the day previous which indicated good conditions on the east ridge with the caveat that ax and crampons would be necessary to ensure success. The rumor on the east ridge of Cavell is that a short ice / snow slope near the summit is actually becoming the crux rather than the steep rock on the upper ridge. Armed with this recent conditions update and feeling rather optimistic about the improving weather forecast, I drove the 5 hours to the Edith Cavell parking lot on Thursday evening and met Scott in the parking lot just as the last of the (hordes of) tourists cleared off.
Interesting Facts about Mount Edith Cavell
Named in 1916. Cavell, Edith Louise (An English nurse, Edith Cavell was executed by the enemy during WW I.) Official name. Other names La Montagne de la Grande Traverse, Geikie, Fitzhugh First ascended in 1915 by A.J. Gilmour, E.W.D. Holway Journal reference CAJ 7-63. (from peakfinder.com)
I’d never actually been this close to Edith Cavell before, never having hiked the Tonquin Valley or even the Cavell Meadows. As I drove up the long, winding road to the parking lot I was thinking two things. First of all I was thinking of all the many meters of height gain this delightful road was saving me and second of all I was in awe of the way the north face of Edith Cavell kept getting bigger and bigger as I kept driving closer towards it! It started with a “meh – I’ve seen bigger” and ended with “holy crap this thing’s big!!”. The mosquitoes were brutal in the parking lot but they were swarming more than biting and I struck up a conversation with another climber who was sleeping in his van beside us – Leif from Canmore. Leif was planning to solo the east ridge and exit via the west and was also planning on getting up around 03:00. He’d scouted out the approach trail already that afternoon and claimed to have reached the col in about an hour rather than the stated two from the guide books. I should have done the same that evening but was tired from 5 hours of driving and since Scott had already done the first half the east ridge I assumed the way would be really obvious. I should know better by now – nothing is obvious at 03:00.
After gazing at the north face and musing about the various intimidating routes up the various buttresses and couloirs on it we turned in for the night around 21:30. I don’t sleep that well in my truck and the few mosquitoes that managed to sneak in didn’t help any. By the time my alarm went off at 03:00 I think I dozed off for about 3-4 hours at most. Leif was determined to be the first on the ridge and set off from the parking lot around 03:15 while we took a bit longer and were gone by 03:45. Almost instantly I realized that I should have taken the 30 minutes to scout out the approach the evening before. We got to the end of the obvious tourist trail and didn’t know where to go from there! It was pitch black outside and Leif was so far in the distance he was of no help. I really don’t like getting ‘lost’ on the approach, especially when bothering with alpine starts. A similar thing happened on Mount Assiniboine when we left early and didn’t find the highway approach trail until we were on the ridge. The approach is never as obvious as you’d think when you are relying on head lamp to find it.
I’m still not 100% sure where we went wrong but I think we should have been much more climber’s left, but instead we ended up at the lake shore until we trended up left straight to the col at the east ridge. We were never on a real trail and never saw any cairns so I know we weren’t anywhere close the regular route which is probably a highway! Oh well, the approach route was obvious enough even without a trail and we probably only wasted about 15-20 minutes or so – not a huge deal but I was a bit grumpy about it for a few minutes.
As we gained the col on a steep snow slope we were catching up with two other climbers. We spoke to them at the col – they were two young guys from Jasper out for a day of practice with the rope. They couldn’t have picked a nicer day or a better objective to practice on! They got ahead of us on the scramble to the upper shoulder as we took our first break at the col. The weather was beautiful and the views were already stunning as we started the scramble up to the shoulder on the east ridge. I especially liked the view of Mount Fryatt to the southeast in the morning light. The scramble to the shoulder is longer than it looks – like usual on large mountains. I was feeling the heavy pack by the time we finally topped out to the exciting view of the east ridge.
When I finally saw the upper east ridge from the shoulder I was delighted to NOT see snow or huge amounts of ice greeting us. We ate our breakfasts under a windless sky and warm sun, trying to spot Leif on the ridge above us and trying not to be intimidated by the steep and narrow ridge itself. I was feeling great and looked forward to getting my nose into things and soon we were off and climbing onward and upward to the summit.
The ridge was steep almost right away. The exposure down the north face was fairly intense but the solid quartzite lived up to it’s good reputation and the climbing was fun. It reminded me a bit of Assiniboine’s north ridge. We managed to climb most of this upper ridge solo. The first 5.3 section almost brought out the rope but I suggested we “get our noses into it” first and this proved a good call. We solo’d up this section with no issues and kept going. The climbing goes on for quite a while with some really exposed sections but nothing I found too ridiculous. I’m not saying I’d be delighted to down climb this ridge but going up it on dry rock was a pure delight.
Eventually we got to the upper 5.3 section and decided to pull out the rope since I’d hauled it all the way up this far! Technically we didn’t NEED the rope here but it felt steeper than the first pitch we solo’d further down and was again, very exposed so neither of us minded the comfort of some protection. After half a pitch we took the rope back off and solo’d the rest of the way up. Near the top of the east ridge the rock suddenly becomes much looser than lower down. I had one incident where a ledge I was traversing actually came completely off the mountain and thundered down a steep gully below! I guess Edith Cavell is still in the “chossy” Rockies after all.
At the top of the ridge we encountered what’s becoming more of a crux on the route than the rock – an exposed snow / ice traverse that leads to the cornice on top of the summit. This traverse is very short and only involves 4 or 5 exposed steps but if you slip here it’s not going to be pleasant. I had to use my steel crampons and plant a firm ax in order to over come this piece and so did Scott. I don’t recall if this section is very easy to protect but I could see some folks not liking it. Soft or loose snow would be even more of an issue here than ice, IMO. We topped out on the summit about 7 hours after starting from the parking lot. It was windless and gorgeous with views forever in all directions and clouds just starting to build in the valleys below us.
We weren’t 100% sure which of the summit ridge ‘bumps’ was the true summit so we ended up traversing to the westernmost one before realizing that the first one (easternmost) is the highest point. This is when we also realized that most scramblers probably don’t attain the true summit, since it is covered in snow and ice and has some tricky traverse sections on the upper ridge if there’s snow. There’s also a huge cairn on the lowest summit and nothing on the highest so if you’re scrambling up the west ridge, make sure you traverse all the way east. We stopped for about 40 minutes on the lower summit and I was amused to find I had full cell service at the top of Edith Cavell – a useful thing to have if you get into trouble on this mountain.
After a nice summit break we headed down the west ridge. A few reasons made us decide against rapping the east one, I was exhausted and worried about concentration for the whole way down, we still had a party of two coming up the east ridge, the clouds were building and we didn’t want to get into any weather issues while on the exposed ridge. I also wanted to scout out the Verdant Pass hiking trail / area.
Some people have told me about issues either they, or their friends have had, with getting lost on the west ridge descent. If you have visibility this really shouldn’t be an issue anymore. There’s a highway beaten into the scree for most of the way – if you’re not following it or obvious cairns you’re off route. We briefly went skier’s left before cutting back to the right staying above a snow patch and then following the ridge almost to the Sorrow col. At this point the trail is obvious down the south bowl from the west ridge and we spent an hour or two working our way down on ledges, loose scree and waterfalls. This was a long, moderate scramble and wasn’t difficult but did require a certain amount of concentration to be safe. I certainly wouldn’t want to be stuck with more parties here – it was very, very loose and we kicked off quite a few rocks while descending.
There is only one ‘easy’ way down this south bowl so if you get off route you’ll have to find it somehow. The key is to traverse almost all the way to the Sorrow col before descending into the bowl. From there you should be fine. You can even go right over the first summit after the col and then descend very easy slopes to skier’s left down to the Verdant Pass trail but this involves some more ascent and isn’t really necessary. You could probably also bag Mount Sorrow quite easily but this seems to be a let down after such a gorgeous climb and we didn’t have the will or energy anyway. The walk out from the bowl along the Verdant Pass and then the Astoria River trail is long – much longer than we expected. Scott was having some knee issues so I went ahead in order to save him 2km back up the highway to the parking lot. I was so tired by the time I was on the pavement that I had a few hallucinations including a bear and a dog on the road in front of me! That was weird but kind of fun too. I always seem to hallucinate dogs when I’m really tired – I have no idea why.
Edith Cavell proved to be worth the wait for me. I’m glad I waited so many years to catch it in perfect condition and to have a climbing partner like Scott to celebrate with on the summit. This was a deeply satisfying climb for both of us – not too difficult but lots of fun hands-on stuff and incredible views and environs to explore all around the mountain. The history of this mountain is also fascinating and interesting to contemplate while on it. The upper mountain has enough spice and exposure to keep almost any climber happy and the final snow / ice traverse adds a bit of kick just for good measure. Many people wonder if the east ridge really is “just a scramble” or not. After climbing it, I can say that in dry conditions it can be soloed by experienced and confident scramblers or climbers – assuming they’re comfortable with ax / crampons for the final traverse under the summit. That being said – this is certainly not an easy scramble and if you go up without rope or protection you are taking risks if you run into conditions en route that require you to back down it or climb on in less than ideal conditions.