Portal Peak

Summit Elevation (m): 2911
Trip Date: August 1 2014
Elevation Gain (m): 1200
Round Trip Time (hr): 10
Total Trip Distance (km): 19
Quick ‘n Dirty Rating: Class 4 – you fall, you break something or worse
Difficulty Notes:  Difficult, off the beaten track and very loose scrambling with intricate route finding up and through cliffs and very little in the way of trails or cairns.
Technical Rating: SC7; YDS (4th)
GPS Track: Gaia
MapGoogle Maps

I decided to take advantage of a good weather forecast and a day off work on Friday, August 1 2014 to attempt one of my last remaining peaks along the Wapta Icefield – Portal Peak. I’d heard rumors for years that this was only a ‘scramble’, after hearing initially from Dave Stevens that this was a climb – and not an easy one. I remember looking at it from the summit of neighboring Mount Thompson thinking it didn’t look that easy… Originally there was very little beta on the peak and the years went by with me thinking it might be out of reach. In July 2013, Marko Stavrik posted an attempt, after which  Ben and Steven made a successful summit bid in 2014 using his beta. These reports, along with a fairly detailed trip report from Paul Zizka, a Banff photographer who writes about climbing Portal Peak “5 times” on his blog, led me to believe this was a scramble and it went up my priority list. Perhaps because I was solo, or perhaps because I chose to scramble Portal as my first summer objective (hard to believe I haven’t done anything before August this year but I lacked motivation after reaching summit #400 on Marlborough in June), I found it quite difficult – easily as hard, or harder, than some of the toughest scrambles in Kane and Nugara’s scrambling guide books. But I’m getting ahead of myself now.

Portal Peak Route Map

I arrived at the lovely Bow Lake area around 09:00 – a very late start for me but as already mentioned, my motivation has been seriously lacking regarding mountain objectives since bagging my 400th peak in June. I’m not sure exactly why, but it has something to do with my realization that I only want to climb mountains and do hikes that I really enjoy. I am no longer interested in just accumulating summits that nobody gives a crap about. I want to be able to savor and linger over moments spent well, rather than obsess about moments that are still to come or may never happen. I don’t know. Maybe I’m just reading too much philosophy and politics. Whatever! Life goes on, I’m officially back in the mountains now, so there’s that I guess.

I don’t know why, but Bow Lake always gives me a good atmosphere.

The lake was gorgeous, as usual, and the hike around it to Bow Glacier Falls was a nice warm up – literally! It was going to be a hot day. I started hiking up to Bow Glacier Falls, but then started up rubbly terrain on my right when I could see a waterfall coming down on climber’s right – well north of the main falls through steep cliffs. This is where Marko’s route varies from Paul’s. Paul goes up the regular route to Iceberg Lake (above Bow Glacier Falls) on the south side of the falls on a marked trail. The advantage of his route is that it’s much easier than Marko’s and much more traveled (obvious). The other advantage is that it situates the scrambler on the right aspect once you get past Iceberg Lake – something that made my day tougher when I took Marko’s route. The disadvantage of Paul’s route is that you have to cross water twice on ascent (and again on descent) and will have to either get wet boots or take sandals along. It’s also more distance. The only real advantage to Marko’s route is that it’s shorter, distance wise. I’m not sure it’s much shorter time-wise due to route-finding but probably. There’s also some wonderful and unique views of Bow Glacier Falls and the lakes from Marko’s route.

The wonderful scene at the apex of the trail before descending towards the falls (just right of center). Portal on the top right, the moraine access route in the center and the Bow Hut approach on the left. My ascent route on the extreme right and descent route just left of the moraine.

Once I passed the small falls on climber’s right (and filled my water bladder from them) the scrambling started. I went up several steep, difficult steps before topping out to some great views. There were several points on this section already that had me questioning whether I was ready for this stuff (remember my motivation issue? ) but I managed to find routes through the cliffs and the day was so beautiful I kept going. There were no cairns through this section so it was pretty much following my nose and Marko’s GPS track as best as I could.

Looking over Bow Glacier Falls towards Vulture Peak with Crowfoot and Little Crowfoot at left and Olive at right. My descent route follows the interesting moraine at mid-center running town to the left.

From the upper plateau I again followed Marko’s GPS track as much as possible, heading towards impossible looking cliffs towering above Iceberg Lake with the summit of Portal in turn, towering over them. The terrain was hopelessly loose on this mountain – I am shocked that Paul apparently took 10 people up this peak without any injuries due to rock fall!! I was very happy to be solo through the second major cliff band – I think any more than 2 experienced scramblers / climbers on this peak is asking for rock fall incidents. A brain bucket is a no-brainer here. I knew that route finding on the way back down was going to be an issue. Even with a GPS track, obviously the micro terrain can vary greatly between two gullies that look the same from above. Cairns were necessary here and I didn’t build enough. The views were absolutely mind blowing which gave me some motivation to go higher.

Views from the start of the staircase section include Bow Lake on the left, unnamed in the middle and Iceberg Lake on the right.

Once I was finally above Iceberg Lake on the obvious staircase terrain I was feeling a bit nervous about my descent. On solo outings I tend to get more nervous – there’s nobody there to help you route find or to lie about the conditions with statements such as, “this isn’t nearly as hard as I was expecting”. I knew that I had to attain this summit in order to get my mountain mojo back, so I pressed onward and upwards towards a break in the south ridge above me on the far (climber’s) left. This section was quite easy and fast and I felt a bit better when I spotted some cairns leading around the south ridge to the southeast face of Portal. The views of the Wapta, Iceberg Lake and Bow Lake were also stunning and the weather was gorgeous. A cool breeze on my face and the absolute solitude of my position reminded me of why I love mountains and why I needed to get my mountain mojo flowing again.

I went up to the Thompson (L) / Portal (R) col at center from here. I should have gone further to my right.

At this point I was slightly misled by a few comments on the linked trip reports. Everyone mentions that it’s probably easier to ascend the summit block on Portal from the Thompson / Portal col rather than directly up the southeast face near the south ridge. Being solo, and having already ascended enough difficult crap, I decided to make life easier (and safer) for myself and ascend from the col. An obvious break in the cliff band above, on the Thompson side of the col, beckoned and so I headed up towards it, contouring around Portal’s southeast slopes. This slope is absolute Rockies CRUD. Very loose rock, everything I touched wanted to come down or break my ankles! I took my time and eventually ground my way up the break and started contouring back towards the col from the Thompson side now. I was nervous. The view of Portal from this side is not for the fainthearted scrambler! My goodness, it looked impossibly narrow, steep and loose. But everyone seemed to think this was the easiest way to access the peak, so I gulped and kept going to the col. When I got there my heart sank and I knew my day was over and my mojo wasn’t coming back today.

Holy CRAP. That does not look easy. What you can’t see here is the actual col itself, which is just ahead of me and obviously beneath me. You can see how loose and blocky the terrain is though. Now add exposure and 5th class up climbing and you know why I needed to find an alternate way up or go back.

I found myself staring down at precariously loose blocks of rock, the entire ridge was actually peeling away from the main mountain at the col, threatening to fall over 1000 feet down the cliffs on the northeast side! I was loathe to turn back but this was crazy terrain for a solo scrambler to attempt. It was simply too loose, too overhanging on the far side and too risky. I couldn’t make myself do it – even though I tried descending to the col, the exposure down the cliff and the freaking loose blocks of rock scared me back each time (I tried it 2 or 3 times). I simply couldn’t make the few moves that were required to cross that loose gap – almost as exposed as the cruxes on Cline except way looser.

I forced myself to sit down and eat a granola bar while contemplating my options. I could NOT allow myself to give up on this peak yet! There was no way I could turn around now. I could see along the cliff band guarding the summit block. It looked very steep and very loose, but there were signs of weaknesses along it. I decided that as long as I didn’t ascend anything I wasn’t 100% confident about coming back down, I would spend the next hour or so trying to ascend along this cliff, to the east of the col on the Portal side rather than from the Thompson side. If I couldn’t get anywhere after an hour I would give up and quit on loose, crappy mountains for good. JUST KIDDING. But I kinda felt like it at this point.

Back down the gully, I traversed just past the snow patch and then found a wandering line up the cliffs on the other side (Portal side) of the col. From here I followed my nose up (mostly) difficult scrambling terrain to the summit.

I descended back down the loose gully on the Thompson side and started traversing along the base of the summit cliff on Portal, looking for cairns or an access through them. I found an access about 100 meters east of the col. It wasn’t much, but it was easier and safer than the direct col access and I started up. From here I found a difficult route up, traversing back and forth the face of the cliff, looking for routes up and even finding the occasional cairn (which was very reassuring at this point). Eventually I recognized some of the terrain from the photos on other trip reports and knew I’d probably make the summit. The last gully I climbed before the summit was definitely 5th class and easily the toughest of the day (almost overhanging and vertical) but it was a nice tight chimney that I knew I could get down if I had to. I also knew that Steven and Ben had found an easier gully and was counting on finding that one. It was a risky move because I didn’t know for sure that this would end near the summit, but I was past caring at this point. I had to make it and I was GOING TO MAKE IT. My mojo was slowly coming back and I needed it to completely come back!

Summit view looking over many familiar Wapta peaks including Crowfoot, Vulture, Olive, St. Nich, Gordon, McArthur, Collie, Rhondda and Habel.

I breathed a huge sigh of relief when a large summit cairn greeted my eyes from near the top of the steep gully. I certainly didn’t save the easiest Wapta peaks for among my last but it felt great to enjoy a cool breeze and awesome summit views from Portal. Being alone and slightly (!) nervous about the descent, I didn’t linger too long but soon started the long journey back. I knew I wanted to try descending the normal access route for Iceberg Lake so I was looking at a longer way back than on ascent – but hopefully a bit easier too. It had taken me far longer than I originally expected to make the summit, thanks to route finding on the difficult terrain and getting off route at the summit block.

Summit views looking east over Bow Lake. Jimmy Simpson on the left.
Looking over Dolomite Pass with Cirque Peak at left and Puzzle Peak and Dolomite at right. In the background beyond Cirque lie Clearwater, Willingdon, Crown and South Tower.

I found the easy gully down from the summit, it was east of where I ascended. I believe Ben and Steven came up even more east than this gully, so there’s more than one way up Portal – just no easy or obvious ones! This easy gully is very short and soon I was back in difficult terrain, often having to down climb facing inwards which always means difficult terrain for me. Thank goodness for all the cairns. Every hold was loose and everything I gripped or stepped on threatened to come out. I took my time and tried to be as safe as possible before finally exiting the summit block and starting down the crappy rubble on the southwest face.

Great views from near the bottom of the “easy gully” near the summit. Steven and Ben probably ascended the terrain directly ahead of me here. We all traversed off to the right (out of sight) on descent.

The sun was very hot on my face as I rounded the south ridge and began picking my way back down the “staircase” on the lower east side above Iceberg Lake. Once in the cliffs after this section, I was getting a bit tired of all the route finding, backtracking and steep, loose, difficult terrain. Eventually I ended up traversing well to the northwest on a ledge, descending beside a permanent snow patch and back to the upper plateau leading to the unnamed and Iceberg Lakes. You can see this line on my GPS track where I go north.  

Looking over the headwaters of the Bow River that flows through Calgary and eventually into Hudson’s Bay.

Paul Zizka has done this peak 5 times?! He is way more hard core than I am – or maybe the trick is to do it often and then it doesn’t seem so bad! But if 10 other people went up with him at the same time, I’m thinking he must have a slightly easier line than the one I ended up on – especially through the cliff bands above Iceberg Lake. Either than or I’m just getting weak and fearful in my old age, which is entirely possible. Reading his trip report after getting home, I think he goes up the first cliff band above Iceberg Lake more south than Marko or I did. This is another advantage of ascending from Iceberg Lake – you get a better sense of the cliffs above from that direction than approaching from the east like I did.

A wonderful pano of the Wapta Icefield draining into Iceberg Lake on the far right and then into Bow Lake on the far left.

I picked my way down to the unnamed lake above Iceberg and then down from there to the shores of Iceberg Lake (there’s a lot of unofficially named “Iceberg Lakes” in the Rockies BTW). This is a sublime area of the Rockies – one of those places that most of the hordes of tourists just beneath don’t even know exists – much less bother going to. With a roaring waterfall plunging off the Wapta Glacier on the far side of the lake, and Bow Glacier Falls plunging towards Bow Lake on the other, I took a break and once again marveled at how lucky I am to experience these moments of peace. I also wondered how crossing above Bow Glacier Falls was going to be and when I got there I started thinking I might have to back track and descend my ascent route to the north! The water was rushing pretty good in the late afternoon heat.

On the other side of Iceberg Lake now, Portal rising just left of center.

After traversing back and forth a few times along the outlet stream I realized that the best idea would be to wade through the lake just above it. This is where it’s widest deepest, so less current. I was hot, tired and the day was getting long so I simply walked into the lake with my boots on – not even bothering to roll my pants up! It worked and felt great! I emptied my boots on the other side and wrung out my socks before continuing. I had no idea where the trail was but surmised it would be somewhere around the obvious moraine on the southeast side of Bow Glacier Falls. Sure enough, when I got near the top of this moraine, there was an obvious trail in the scree just off the crest of it on the east side. You can easily spot my descent route on my route map – the most southerly line.

The trail traverses along a ledge cutting across a major cliff band. This is looking back from where I came (oos to the right).
Looking the other way from the last photo along the cliffband trail. I followed it out and then descended to the right before crossing the flats to the Bow Glacier Falls hiking trail.

Getting down to the flats by the falls involved more than I thought it would. There’s a pretty good trail most of the way, including a delightful traverse through a cliff band before plunging all the way down to the valley floor. At this point you can either cross the stream coming down the winter access route to Bow Hut and take that trail down, or traverse to the Bow Glacier Falls hiking trail and cross that stream. I did the latter option and it worked fine. After crossing again in my boots and draining them, I continued on the excellent trail around Bow Lake to the parking lot.

My trip time was much longer than I expected on a “short” peak (I thought it was around 12km). On hindsight I went almost 20km and 1200 meters height gain on difficult, loose, hard-to-route-find terrain so 10 hours wasn’t that bad I suppose. Did I enjoy Portal Peak? Well, now that I’m down I did! Would I do it again? Nope. I would hike to Iceberg Lake again, but I don’t like tempting fate more than I have to on unpredictable terrain like that found on Portal. I’m really happy that Portal gave me my mountain mojo back, but one trip up to that loose-as-crap summit is good enough for my lifetime.

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