Summit Elevation (m): 3411
Trip Date: August 09 2014
Elevation Gain (m): 2150
Round Trip Time (hr): 24
Total Trip Distance (km): 32
Related Trips: Princess Mary, Prince George
Quick ‘n Dirty Rating: Class 3/4 – you fall, you break something or worse
Difficulty Notes: Traverse on cliffs must be dry. Steep glacier to a snow / ice couloir leading up to the summit.
Technical Rating: MN8; RE5
GPS Track: Download (Approach), Download (Climb)
Map: Google Maps
The first ascent of King George was in 1919. The second ascent wasn’t until 52 years later in 1970! I’m sure this mostly has to do with the demanding and remote approach rather than the climb itself. There are enough possible routes and interesting lines on this mountain that I’m sure if the approach was easier and more accessible there would be many more ascents than there is today. Pretty much the only people climbing King George are either the type who really like big, remote terrain or are chasing the 11,000ers of the Canadian Rockies.
I’ve had my eye on this area of the Rockies ever since a few friends climbed it in 2007 and 2008. Height of the Rockies Provincial Park includes many towering peaks and beautiful lakes and is completely non-mechanized (except for rare exceptions). I’ve already stood on some of its summits, such as Joffre, Cordonnier, Warrior and McHarg which are on the border of the park and Kananaskis in Alberta. Now that I’m back from my first real foray into the park’s interior I am already itching to go back.
While the ascent parties that I knew both had lots of ice climbing experience and chose their routes based on this, I do not. Therefore, I had my eyes on the least technical South Glacier route. Roy Stadelwieser, Bill Kerr and Kevin Papke had climbed via this route in 2011 with a couple of guides. I also had a trip report from the infamous Rick Collier who ascended 4 peaks in the area in 1990. Armed with all this beta, how could we possibly go wrong?Another concern I had was the glacier possibly being too dry, the same situation turned Alan Kane back in 1998 and 2014 was shaping up to be a very dry summer too. As with most of the 11000ers, there were lots of unknowns which of course makes them more attractive and only wets the mountaineer’s appetite for adventure!
Eric, Ben, Steven and I left Calgary at around 13:30 on Friday, August 08 2014 in my xTerra, excited to finally be attempting Mount King George! The weather forecast was excellent, with cool cloudy approach conditions followed by a cooler transition day before hot temperatures returned on Sunday. We knew that cool, clear conditions were perfect for a south glacier climb and it was critical to make our bivy site on Friday evening, which put some pressure on us to move quickly on approach. What we didn’t know was the conditions of the approach after the floods of 2013. We hadn’t seen any trip reports since then, from guides or anyone else. This was our biggest hesitation when planning the trip – no information is usually not a good thing.
Interesting Facts on Mount King George
Named by Interprovincial Boundary Survey in 1916. George, King (King George V was the British King during WW I.) Official name. First ascended in 1919 by V.A. Fynn, guided by Rudolph Aemmer. Journal reference CAJ 11-28.
The drive went very well. We made it to the parking spot (lots of flagging) about 4.5 hours from Calgary. Settlers / Palliser road was better than the Spray Lakes road and I drove between 50 and 80 km/h the whole way on it, except for a few rough patches. There was t-storms all around and we saw a few small forest fires high up on slopes on the drive in. We hoped that they wouldn’t get too much bigger on us. We brought chicken wire (and left it there for others to use) to guard the truck against porcupines. After wrapping the truck with the wire, we loaded up our heavy alpine packs and started down a rough trail to the raging Palliser River below.
Apparently in 2010, Mitch Thorton and his buddy R Katrin Olivaw performed some trail maintenance on the log bridge crossing the Palliser River and on the first 3km of approach trail up Fynn Creek, hoping to secure a good approach for subsequent climbing parties. Alas, they forgot to consult their crystal ball before doing all this work, which would have told them that less than 3 years later all their hard efforts would be rendered useless by the incredible floods of June 2013, which destroyed many thousands of hours of trail work and millions of dollars of infrastructure all around the Canadian Rockies. I’ve personally experienced this damage from as far north as the approach to Mount Cline all the way down south of Highwood Pass! Nature really does make fools of us doesn’t it?
I was the first one down the trail from the truck and I have to say it was fairly disappointing to descend the trail to the raging Palliser River only to realize that there was definitely no easy bridge crossing in our near future. I desperately searched around in case it was not right at the end of the trail, but nope. There was only a well-placed tree felled across the chasm with it’s top branches pruned off that offered any hope at all of a river crossing at this location. We briefly discussed going a few km’s further up the road to try the alternate crossing point, but this would put us way behind schedule and off route – no guarantee we’d even be able to cross there anyway. (The river was at full flow on a warm day with recent rain and a few weeks of snow melt due to hot temps.)
After a few hard swallows we decided to buck up and cross the river on the log “au chavel” (butt shuffle it). I’ve never done one of these before and it was more than a bit unnerving. We had to undo all the buckles on our heavy alpine packs (in case of falling in the water or our packs would drown us) which made them very unstable. Then we had to shuffle across the fast-moving water one at a time, our feet dangling just above river. The log started bouncing a bit once we were half way across and there were branches clinging to the sides that we had to lean and lift our feet over. Of course when we leaned over, our unbuckled packs would threaten to rotate off our backs, pulling us into the drink! We couldn’t look at the raging river just underneath our feet either, or we’d immediately start feeling dizzy. Good times. HTFU. After making it across the log we picked up a good trail heading downstream to a clear cut in the forest above Fynn Creek. The trailhead was up and over the clear cut on its north end and was well marked with a number of ribbons.
The trail dipped to Fynn Creek fairly quick and was obvious, i.e. you know when you’re on it! I’d read many trip reports that spoke of a “confusing array of trails” along Fynn Creek but there was only one obvious trail that was flagged when we were there. I looked very hard for other trailed routes high above the creek but didn’t see anything. Unfortunately the trail quickly started deteriorating once we got near to the creek. The incredible floods of 2013 have at least doubled (probably tripled or quadrupled) the width of Fynn Creek! It washed away large sections of the first 1 – 1.5km of trail along the creek and filled the creek bed with thousands of trees from the freshly collapsed creek sides. The destruction was shocking. As far as I’m concerned, the only fix is to cut a new trail far above Fynn Creek on its east side or take a risk with cutting something close to the creek again. We were forced to climb very steep banks along the creek where the trail was washed out, only to encounter thick bush and be forced back to the creek. Thank goodness the trail leaves the creek after about 1.5km and starts traversing away from it in the forest or we’d probably still be thrashing around in there somewhere.
We could hear thunder echoing in the distance, but direct rainfall avoided us. I write “direct” because we still managed to get thoroughly soaked from head to toe, thanks to the wet vegetation we were forced to wade under, over and through! The floods weren’t the only damage to the trail, there was much dead fall and overgrown sections on the higher traverse as well. It seemed like nobody had done this approach for a long time. The occasional ribbon encouraged us to flounder over and around huge messes of fallen trees and eventually we found ourselves looking up at the seemingly impenetrable headwall to the upper valley.
This next part of the trail was extremely steep. We started in the forest with even more tangled masses of dead fall to negotiate (again, ribbons encouraged us that we were on route) before finally getting onto a dirt trail running straight up a ridge line. And I mean straight up! No switch backing here! By this time our feet were soaked, our pants were dripping wet and we were sensing daylight slipping away quickly. We kept a good pace though, eating fresh blueberries on the way up and the anticipation of a great climb kept our spirits high despite the less-than-ideal approach conditions. We don’t mind rough approaches – they keep the crowds at bay and provide us with a better wilderness experience.
With the sun rapidly setting, we started the traverse across the King George glacial outflow stream towards the waterfall plunging down cliffs under the south bivy site to the west. Crossing the outflow was the first challenge, but we managed to keep our boots “dry”. We could have just walked right through the stream since our feet were soaking wet anyway from all the wet vegetation. The next challenge was picking a route through the glacial debris field before losing elevation to find a route up on climber’s right of the waterfall. For the first half we were bushwhacking in the dark, up very steep and cliffy terrain. This is the sort of terrain where you have to grab branches and trees above you and heave yourself up hill. Eventually we stumbled on a rough track and followed it up. Thank goodness the bivy site is right at the crest of the valley! We arrived at camp just as the full moon was starting to cast shadows.
It only took us 4:40 to reach the south bivy camp, which means we would have made the lower “normal” bivy in about 3:40. Considering the condition of the approach, I think we moved pretty darn quickly. Sleep came very easily after all that work.
Saturday morning came too quickly! We “slept in” until 04:20 but by 05:20 we were finally on the move, picking our way up the lower glacial debris field under the south glacier of King George with Mount Princess Mary rising dramatically into the night sky on our right. When we reached the lower south glacier we could see that it was pretty tame.
We didn’t even need crampons to ascend it – the angle was very tame. The real surprise was looking up at the King George / Princess Mary col and realizing that we were in for a heckuva scree slog! King George isn’t normally associated with the words “scree slog” but in the dry conditions we had, there was no snow except for on glaciers – and even that was disappearing quickly. We picked routes up the horrible scree and started ascending to the cliff band high above. Eventually a faint trail appeared in the scree and we followed it – stepping on bigger rocks (that didn’t move) when we could. We knew there was an easy route through the cliff band above us but it sure wasn’t obvious from below.
As we approached the cliffs we finally started gaining height on nearby Princess Mary. After the slog in 12 hours previous, I was tired just thinking of trying to ascend Mary after George so I put that thought on hold and concentrated on one mountain at a time.
The route through the cliffs was obvious and well marked with cairns. If you’re scrambling, you’re off route. This is just a hike – 3rd class terrain at most. It’s also pretty much a horizontal traverse until the very end when we gained a few meters before hitting the upper south King George glacier. The upper part of the route is a wild and wonderful place. A waterfall cascades hundreds of feet down dark cliffs below. Seracs hang impossibly steep above the waterfalls. A cool wind blows off the glacier while warm sun hits the back of your neck. It’s a pretty special spot to be. As I looked over the glacier to the high summit block with it’s steep access couloir I was excited to finally be here.
The route up the glacier was obvious. We simply donned crampons, took out both axes and traversed steep glacial snow about 100 meters before we could side-step up the rest of the slope, or front point straight up it. The snow was very firm, which made travel efficient and quick on steel crampons with two ice axes.
I loved using two axes, I’ve never done that before and it made the climbing feel very secure. We didn’t rope up on the glacier for two reasons – firstly it would be more dangerous since a fall by anyone would pull the others down and secondly, we could easily see all the crevasses and schrunds so we didn’t feel exposed to that danger either. I crossed nearby the lower ‘schrund and it was a deep sucker! You definitely did not want to slip on the glacier – it was too steep and hard for self-arrest and if the bergschrund didn’t swallow you the 1000 foot cliff below certainly would.
Ironically I found that the 40 degree upper couloir felt safer and less exposed than the south glacier did. With intervening rocky outcrops and a giant scoop on the glacier just under it, I felt like there was more chance of surviving a fall on the couloir than the rest of the glacial ascent line. The snow went all the way up the gully to the summit snow ridge – but ice was starting to show. Another week and this gully will be more ice than snow, or melt completely out.
The summit views were stunning in every direction. It felt so good to be on top of King George! I remember looking at the east face from my Northover Ridge hike back in 2006 thinking that I’d never have the skills or ability to reach his summit. Funny how the years change you. I realize that my route was “easy” and that others have done far more serious climbs, but for me this was a great moment. I don’t measure myself against others – that’s a losing game. I only measure against me – and this one felt great.
We didn’t want the steep snow slopes to soften too much, so after a short break and reading an impressive summit register (which we had to carry up from the lower ridge to the true summit cairn – not sure why it was down so low?) we started the descent. The snow was slightly softer than earlier, but in a good way.
Instead of front pointing, we could side-grip most of the slopes which helped speed things up a bit. The steepest parts of the couloir and approach slopes were still down climbed facing into the slope and getting a good ax placement between steps. It was still early in the day as we descended the crappy scree slope after the cliff band traverse, so we started chatting about attempting a route up Mount Princess Mary.
After ascending Princess Mary we exited towards the regular bivy site for King George and from there we bagged Mount Prince George the next day. After descending the King George Glacier to the normal bivy, we descended our route from the previous day to Fynn Creek and out to the Palliser River and Settlers Road.