Summit Elevation (m): 3388
Trip Date: September 27 2014
Elevation Gain (m): 3900
Round Trip Time (hr): 30
Total Trip Distance (km): 32
Quick ‘n Dirty Rating: Class 4/5 – you fall, you might die or break something badly
Difficulty Notes: A long, complicated approach via South Rice Brook. Moderately exposed scrambling up cliffs to a 5.2 rock step. Glacier travel with many crevasses and snow, ice or rock scramble to the summit.
Technical Rating: MN8; YDS (5.0-5.2, I)
Map: Google Maps
Every once in a while I do a mountain trip that feels like it redefines my approach to climbing, skiing or hiking or whatever activity I happen to be doing at the time. This past weekend I experienced such an event on Mount Alexandra, deep in the heart of the Alexandra River Valley near the headwaters of the Saskatchewan and Columbia Rivers. Here’s some words that come to mind from the past few days; bushwhack, lost, confused, rain, sun, clouds, snow, cold, warm, blue sky, crevasses, snow, ice, rock, streams, lakes, boulders, exposure, waterfalls, mountain goat, exhaustion, blisters, bruises, alders, devil’s club, slabs, fall colors, bear, rough roads.
For some reason, no not for some reason, but because of the stories, the characters, the wildness and the size of the rubbly faces, Canadian Alpine climbing has always struck me as being ‘more out there’ than alpine climbing in many other countries, lets face it, for starters it has bears that may eat you.Nick Bullock
(Nick Bullock is a climber from the UK who recently climbed the North Face of Mount Alberta with his friend, Will Sim. It’s nice to get the perspective of someone from outside Canada once in a while, someone who’s used to climbing all over the world. )
Interesting Facts on Mount Alexandra
Named by James Outram in 1902. Alexandra, Queen (Queen Alexandra was the consort of King Edward VII.) Official name. First ascended in 1902 by James Outram, guided by Christian Kaufmann. Journal reference AJ 35-182; APP 10-147; CAJ 25-25. Other reference Outram 400.
Alexandra has been calling me for many years. I’m not sure exactly when the attraction started but I know it’s been rekindled over the years, first when Rafal, Chester and Marta did it via South Rice Brook and again last year when Jason Wilcox and Anton Baser alder-thrashed their way up Lyell Creek and summitted from the South Alexandra glacier. Both routes sounded very ‘involved’, but the one thing that kept me interested was the remoteness of the location, the beauty of the surrounding peaks and the fact that most people don’t bother with the tough approach and settle for a very short 20 minute chopper ride from Golden to get to the upper South Rice Brook bivy. If you summitted Alexandra via a heli-approach, you should know that you put in less than half the effort of a regular approach – maybe even less! The Alpine Club of Canada also likes to host camps at the South Rice Brook bivy because it’s not in the park and they can chopper people and supplies in and set up massive base camp facilities easily. There’s also a ton of objectives right around that bivy location so it’s ideal for section camps where people are there to learn mountaineering skills.
FYI – I really don’t care how you get to a summit, you can chopper all the way up and land on the damn cairn if that makes you happy. You have to be OK with your methods of bagging and claiming summits and I have to be OK with mine. I just like to make a point every once in a while that flying into an objective does save a lot of time and more importantly, energy. I know this rankles people who fly into base camps, but I don’t really care about that either. 😉
I’ve had some incredible views of Alexandra over the years, some of the best were from high up on Mount Amery, Monchy and Hooge in 2012. Most of my views were from the east, showing the steep walls of her summit with Queen’s Peak, a very near 11,000er, right beside her to the north. September 2014 has been an incredible month for mountaineers around Alberta and British Columbia. After a brief taste of winter left everyone in a tizzy, the weather stabilized as it usually does, and the mountains dried off. Every weekend had spectacular smoke-free views for at least some of the days and this got Steven, Ben and I thinking about big objectives even though it was the last weekend of the month.
I have to admit that we flip-flopped a lot on this one. First it was Alexandra. Then it was Brazeau / Warren. Then it was Saskatchewan. Then it was scrambling in the south Highwood. Then it was back to Alexandra! The weather forecast improved enough by Thursday that we made a final decision that afternoon to attempt Alexandra via the South Rice Brook high line approach. Because we’ve planned it a few times already this year, we had most of the available beta already – it wasn’t much.
Bill Corbett had done the Lyell Creek approach (and hated it) but he’d also written about the South Rice Brook approach. With the benefit of hindsight, his directions were correct but extremely brief. Bill recommends following switchbacks up the ridge past the last river crossing before parking at the crest of the road across from Mount Bryce. From there follow logging roads up the other side of the ridge on foot, go up a nasty cut block to ridge top and avoid heading into the bush while doing a high-line traverse to the bivy. He’s 100% correct, but a bit vague on the details! And there’s a lot of details you need to complete this traverse in a timely manner and not get off route along the way.
I emailed Raf and got a photograph from him, with a route line drawn on it. Again, on hindsight it was kind of misleading, but to be fair to Raf, he’d done the trip years ago and some of his route line went across some major cliff bands and was drawn much lower than the actual high-line traverse route. This was also the problem with Eric Coulthard’s proposed route. Again, to be fair, Eric only proposed this route and it was close, just not quite close enough. Gravsports-ice.com also has a thread on Alexandra with some brief information on the high-line approach. We tried to factor all of this this different beta into our memory banks beforehand and came armed with printouts and maps.Armed with just enough route beta to be dangerous (!!) we set off from the Petro Canada on hwy 1 at around 03:45 on Friday morning for the long drive to Golden and 100 kilometers up the Bush River Forestry Service Road (FSR).
Sometimes the biggest struggle in climbing a mountain is simply getting to it. Clemenceau and Tusk are two 11,000ers that are remarkably difficult to get to, thanks to forestry roads and bridges deteriorating, decommissioned or completely gone. There are other 11,000ers in the wider area that are also in danger of becoming horribly difficult to access. These include King Edward, Bryce, Alexandra and the 5 Lyells. Any decommissioning of any of the bridges on the Bush River FSR would mean a logistical nightmare just to get to the start of the approach for these big peaks – never mind climbing them! Knowing this makes me a little more interested in these particular 11,000ers over the next few years. There’s other logistical problems with these mountains. Due to the few people who do these peaks each year and even fewer who post beta, there is a very good chance a 5 or 6 hour drive could be a complete waste of time due to washouts or any other road changes that occur year to year. It’s all part of the grand adventure that is mountaineering in the heart of the Rockies – just be prepared.
None of us had ever driven the Bush River FSR and we were excited to be finally doing it. We made good time to Golden and proceeded 22km west to the old town site of Donald, turning up Donald Road, just past the weigh scale on hwy 1. We followed signs past the Chatter Creek base of operations and shortly afterwards turned left onto the main Bush River FSR. I’ve been on a LOT of back country roads from northern Ontario to north Saskatchewan to British Columbia this year and the Bush River FSR is probably my favorite. We cruised the first 44km pretty quickly at 80km/h up to Kinbasket Lake. This reservoir was formed in 1973 with the completion of the Mica hydro electric dam (one of the largest earth-filled dams in the world) which blocks the mighty Columbia River and flooded an immense area first known as McNaughton Lake and then changed to Kinbasket Lake in 1980.
Kinbasket Lake is huge. It goes from just north of Golden almost all the way to Valemount which is west of Jasper National Park. Some of the more fanciful approaches for Clemenceau and Tusk involve canoeing stretches of Kinbasket before biking, thrashing and bashing many kilometers of wilderness to the mountain bases. Better make sure there’s no wind in the forecast before crossing this expanse of water… 😉 From a campground on the lake we followed the road as it took a sharp turn to the east, along what’s known as the ‘Bush Arm‘ because the Bush River drains into it at the end of a long, narrow valley. The road kept getting narrower and rougher as we drove around the arm. I came around one sharp corner and found myself staring right into the grill of a logging truck coming down the other way! I think I should get a 2-way radio if I’m going to keep driving these roads. I managed to yank the steering wheel to the right and avoid a collision but from that moment on I was hyper-alert to more trucks. I also switched into 4×4 because the road was narrow and pulling over meant going into a shallow ditch that was usually flowing with water or very wet.
The next 20km or so were a bit nerve-wracking. There simply wasn’t room for me and a logging truck in many spots along the steep mountain on one side and hundreds of feet straight down to the lake on the other. There’s pull-outs along the road so that when you hear a logging truck announcing itself on his radio (that I don’t have) you can pull over and wait. Downhill (loaded) trucks always get right-of-way. It’s quite simple. There are kilometer signs all along the bush roads. When you’re between km 56 and 57 and you hear a trucker call “59 down”, you’d better pull over at the next wider section of road and wait for him to pass or risk getting crushed like an insignificant bug. We had some good fortune to meet a pickup whose driver waved us down. I expected a bit of a lecture on not having a radio, but he was very friendly and asked where we were headed. When we said we were climbing Alexandra his face stayed blank. Then we said we were heading up the Bush River FSR and he nodded – “That’s good, there’s a lot of trucks coming down the Sullivan River Road today”. He radioed the trucks in the area to let them know we were on the road and where we were going. It must have worked because the next truck we met was going a bit slower than the first one.
It was a relief when we finally passed the turnoff for the Sullivan River FSR – this road goes towards Clemenceau and Tusk. A critical bridge has been removed from across the Sullivan River Gorge and the road decommissioned at an earlier point on the lake, making for very difficult access to those peaks. We were essentially on our own now, and I could relax a bit more. Soon after crossing the end of the arm and heading north up the Bush River we passed a rustic campground on our right and the road leading to the Icefall Lodge and the approaches to the 5 Lyells.
With low clouds hanging over the surrounding peaks and valleys and fall colors everywhere, the scenery got wilder and more intense the further we drove. The mood was quiet in the truck as we approached km 89. Why the mood? Right at the start of the Bush River FSR there was a yellow sign stating that the road was not open past km 89 by order of the BC ministry of transportation. This made us a bit nervous the whole ride up. Was there a bridge out? Landslide? Logs across the road? The gentleman we met earlier didn’t know when we asked him. The joys of 11,000er approaches – you never know if you’ll actually get there at all! As we passed the 88th km marker sign the mood in the truck grew noticeably tense. We knew we could turn back to km 73 and do the Lyell Creek approach-from-hell if we had to, but in the rain and damp weather nobody wanted to be thrashing through 8 ft alders and Devil’s Club! We drove past km 89 and kept going. And going… Apparently the road was no longer being actively maintained after this point in 2014, but still remained drivable for now. There were no more km marker signs after 89 but the road was in fine shape.
Right after crossing the Bush River around km 94 there was a road going right. For some reason I ignored that road and the faint sign posted on it and kept driving. Soon we realized our mistake and turned back before going up the road which was signed (very faded), “Rice Brook”. From here on the drive got much more technical. The road changed almost immediately from gravel to grass and small rocks / boulders. We gained height quickly up long switchbacks lined with brilliant fall colors, until the approach valley was spread out far below us. We stopped for photos before continuing, never quite sure if we should keep driving or stop and start our approach hike.
Eventually we got to the high point on the road and starting inching around the nose of the ridge we were on, just south of the mighty Mount Bryce which was looming thousands of feet above us across a steep, narrow gorge, it’s upper slopes and summits buried in cloud and mist far above a raging Rice Brook. The road narrowed until it was barely wide enough for my xTerra. Impossibly steep scree and boulder slopes loomed above us on the right and equally precipitous slopes plunged hundreds of feet down to the raging torrent far below, to our left. To be honest, I have no idea why this road is still passable if it’s not being actively maintained. One good rain or snow event and the road will be covered in a rock slide or simply vanish into the deeply chiseled canyon below. On hindsight it was a bit of a gamble to drive further than the initial switchbacks because if a slide happened while we were climbing, we’d have been completely stranded. Even calling for a rescue wouldn’t get my xTerra back to civilization. Trust me – you are WAY out there on your own when you drive as far as we did. Especially being late September, there was nobody coming up that road behind us to thumb a ride from if we ran into any kind of car trouble. I wonder if we took enough precautions for our drive or if we just got lucky?
After crossing the narrow, sketchy traverse across the nose of the ridge, we were back on a more ‘normal’ decommissioned road – rough but safe. We passed a rock cairn that marked the parking spot for Bryce, but we didn’t stop there. The road kept going up the other side of the ridge and we followed it. Why walk further than you have to right? So, up we went! The road was rougher now. Small streams cut channels across it and more and more rocks and debris lay across our path until we were very obviously past the end of the drivable section. And the truck was overheating. 🙁 It was a few tense moments of backing down the very rough section of road we were on and turning around (not easily done on the narrow, slick and steep terrain) before we could finally park and I could pop the hood and let the engine cool down! I found out later that the fins in my radiator were bent, thereby preventing enough air in to cool if off. We all breathed a huge sigh of relief when the temperature gauge started dropping quickly in the cool mountain air. Once it cooled sufficiently, I turned off the engine and we sat there for a few minutes just listening to the ticking of cooling metal and breathing out the stress of the approach drive. It felt like we were already climbing and we weren’t even out of the damn vehicle yet! 😉
Some days feel longer than others. For example, most of my work days feel pretty long compared to most of my play days. Friday, September 26th 2014 was one of the longest ‘play’ days I’ve experienced in the mountains – not by the number of hours, but by the way it felt. Over two hours after leaving the truck parked on a rough track, high above Rice Brook, we found ourselves at a rock cairn marking the parking area for Bryce. We were a few hundred meters lower than the truck at this point! At the same level as Rice Brook. About 1km from the truck. Barely started. With 350 meters of height gain already behind us, and obviously some serious height loss too. And already soaking wet. Oh my – this was NOT GOOD! On hindsight there’s a simple explanation of our predicaments on the approach to the Alexandra bivy. We were too paranoid about the route, had too many conflicting bits of route beta and were thwarted by the clouds, rain and poor visibility to make sensible route choices.
After the intense drive, we left the truck and continued up a rough, overgrown road cutting up the ridge in thick, swirling mist and cloud with the occasional bit of rain. Brief gaps in the clouds revealed the lurking hulk of Mount Bryce across the steep valley, it’s lower flanks covered in bright fall colors and it’s upper rock, snow and ice covered in thick fog. We ran into lots of bear sign almost immediately. Shortly after leaving the truck we arrived at the cut block mentioned in Bill’s book. As I mentioned earlier, Bill’s route description is 100% correct, just a bit vague. This is not a diss on Bill as he climbed Alexandra via another route and can’t be expected to know every route in great detail. Bill does say go up the cut block to the ridge crest, but we weren’t clear on exactly which ridge or from which road, because he also mentions parking a lot earlier than we did. In this case, driving further than the Bryce parking spot screwed us. We thought maybe there was a road further down, on the other side of obvious wall of rock blocking our progress in the distance. Remember, we couldn’t see where the Bryce approach went due to cloud and fog. Eric’s route line went right along the cliffs – that wasn’t going to work either. When we passed a faint animal trail going up the cut block with some blue ribbons laying on the ground in front of it, we decided to keep following the obvious wide road, rather than start ascending a narrow goat trail into the ominous clouds above. In our defense, cut blocks are full of random ribbons from the logging process so you can’t just follow ribbons and assume they mean anything. In this case however, they did.
At the end of the track we bushwhacked up the cut block. We were now externally soaked – at least our rain gear was still effective at this point. We cut across several slick boulder fields before a disagreement broke out as we faced cliffs directly ahead, rising into the clouds above and going almost to the valley bottom below. Steven argued that we should ascend into the clouds, up the line of cliffs. Ben and I weren’t so sure. It was obvious that Eric’s planned route line was right along impossible terrain and our GPS’s were showing very close contour lines all the way around the false summit high above us, hinting strongly at impenetrable cliffs. I knew that Corbett mentioned a ‘ridge top’ and ‘go up’, and there was that animal track back on the cut block that we didn’t follow… In one of the most frustrating hours I’ve spent in the mountains we kept changing our minds. We descended over 100 meters to see if there was a high-line around the north end of the cliffs, only to turn back up the steep scree slope in favor of Steven’s idea to ascend to the west of them and hope a route went around the south side of the peak we couldn’t see above. We seemed incapable of making a firm decision – this is not normal for us!
As we climbed into the mist on muddy scree, Steven suddenly turned around and exclaimed, “But what if I’m completely wrong?!”. We broke into a heated discussion which ended only when Ben and I finally convinced Steven that the only thing we knew for 100% from our current vantage point, was that going down to Rice Brook would work. It wouldn’t be pretty if there were no other roads, but we could bushwhack for a while before going above tree line further on. Bill mentions that approach, and Raf also used it on descent. The gravsports thread also mentioned doing some bushwhacking. So we turned back down-slope and descended all the way to the road we drove in on! How depressing it was to be within sight of the truck (high above us now) after more than 2 hours of bushwhacking, slipping across boulder fields and descending and ascending the same damn scree gully. We already had 350 vertical meters of height gain on our legs, we were soaking wet and hopelessly confused by the route ahead. Honestly, I was almost ready to give up at this point. Other than a few very impressive views of Bryce through gaps in the clouds, we were feeling trapped by the terrain, the weather and the route. But nobody said anything about giving up so we trudged silently forward on the decommissioned Rice Brook road. We were now left with only 8 hours to make our bivy before dark. We could have slept in ’til 06:00 and we would have been just as far as we were now.
Soon we arrived at the old bridge that was disassembled on the decommissioning of the road. At this point the Bryce route crosses Rice Brook and continues on the overgrown road before ascending to the south glacier. We weren’t lucky enough to have a road and instead, plunged into the bush on our right. The first hour wasn’t too bad. Late September is actually a good time to bushwhack in the BC Rockies. The Devil’s Club (Oplopanax Horridus) was mostly dead and soaking wet which calmed it down a lot. The alders had lost most of their leaves, meaning we could wade through them easier. Don’t get me wrong – the bushwhack was still absolutely horrible. It just wasn’t as horrible as it could have been. Within 5 minutes of bushwhacking I knew I was getting wet. Thankfully it wasn’t too cold, but if rain wasn’t being forced into any available opening in my gear, I was sweating enough to generate moisture from the inside.
As we contoured towards the South Rice Brook valley some of the route beta started to make more sense. The main valley you drive in on is not the valley you follow to Alexandra. Almost immediately upon bushwhacking up Rice Brook you have to contour slopes on climber’s right before continuing up a drainage heading SE – the South Rice Brook. Traversing in the bush took forever. At one point I mentioned that according to the GPS, we should hit a stream in about 500 meters. 1.5 hours later we were still not across that stream. It was a very, very frustrating and demoralizing experience. We struggled on and on in the rain, over fallen trees, under fallen trees, through thick stands of alder and Devil’s Club and across slippery stream beds. Pants ripped on stubborn logs and protruding branches, hands got shredded from lingering Devil’s Club, clothing got soaked and heavy alpine packs slipped around on our sweating backs, throwing us off balance at the most inopportune moments – usually while trying to balance on slick rocks or logs. We tried ascending and traversing steep, loose and muddy cliff bands before getting cliffed out and back tracking back down into the bush. We even managed to piss off a huge Billy Goat – a magnificent white beast that wasn’t too pleased when we kept climbing towards him on a cliff traverse (that didn’t pan out). At one point I knew I was done with climbing mountains for a while. D-O-N-E.
After hours of struggling and wading through the dense BC forest, we could finally spot an opening ahead – we were free! Nope. We weren’t free. Not even close. We went from tall hell, to short hell. Alders and Devil’s Club transitioned to a vast forested slope of Krommholtz. Foolishly (we were getting a little desperate at this point, due to our incredibly slow progress), we assumed the slope would get better and charged headlong into the tangled mess. BIG MISTAKE number 2! About 5 seconds in we already knew we were not going to like our new version of hell. But we didn’t care anymore. We stubbornly continued traversing the slope until we were so tangled in the thick of things there was no turning back – we had to continue on. After realizing the slope was much bigger and nastier than anticipated, we engaged in the new sport of krommholtz-swimming uphill towards a line of cliffs we could spot through gaps – high above us. After way too much time wasted in the gnarly, twisted, stunted krommholtz-crap we finally burst free and found ourselves above tree line and free of the forest for the first time in over 4 hours – still kilometers from our bivy and still under a rainy, gray sky.
I’m not sure about the other guys, but I was feeling the hard approach at this point. I’d done a lot of weekend trips in September and I’m not 20 years old anymore. My knees were not happy with the abuse I insisted on heaping upon them. We agreed to never enter that forest again but rather we were going to make the high-line work from this point forward, no matter what. So, up we went. The next 4 hours were spent racing the clock, trying to make our bivy before dark at around 20:00. We scrambled across a high alpine bowl and then up a steep scree gully, side-hilling on exposed muddy terrain to a high col where we got our first nice views since looking at Bryce hours earlier. The clouds were still low but the rain was sporadic and light as we descended a loose, muddy scree slope and crossed a large alpine meadow to the far side where we ascended yet another ridge to avoid the bush. After this ridge we crossed another meadow and the grassy nose of our 3rd ridge. It was getting dark as we rushed our descent into the final valley above the steep headwall in South Rice Brook and our gorgeous bivy near a rushing stream.
We couldn’t believe we made it by dark! It only took us just over 8 hours from the Bryce parking spot to our bivy. We pushed ourselves very hard to make this time. In good weather, with more daylight we would have easily taken 9-10 hours. Counting our wasted time up front, we ended up taking almost 11 hours total. The rain stopped long enough to make supper and set up tents and sort gear. Just as we began to eat supper it started raining again and we all bailed into our tents for the night. We were soaked, our gear was soaked, our boots, packs and socks were all damp or sopping wet. We looked and felt like drowned rats! I fell asleep at 21:00, not sure I’d even be in the mood to climb Alexandra the next day. I was wiped! And to think we do this stuff for fun! Right?! 😉
After a long and brutal approach, half of it spent in the thick bush along South Rice Brook, we awoke at 06:00 on Saturday intending to be pumped about climbing Alexandra. It was made a little harder by the thick fog rolling through our camp. We slowly got ready, hoping the clouds would dissipate and eventually, by around 07:15 they were thinned out and it was light enough to start our climb. More than one non-repeatable comment about heli-approaches was made as our poor bodies struggled to adjust to yet another day of significant elevation gain.
We followed cairns across both streams coming out of the nearby lakes, including one set of nice stepping stones and one very slippery double-log bridge. After this there were more cairns until the lower headwall next to the obvious square island of trees that Bill mentions in his book. On ascent, we lost the trail and cairns for a while and picked our own route up the steep lower headwall. The rock was very grippy and pocketed on this section so climbing it was fairly easy. I didn’t think descending it would be as trivial – some parts were fairly steep and exposed. Above this section we came on the scree cone leading to the 5.2 crux.
There was a highway worn into the scree, which we gratefully ascended. ACC camps have their benefits! We were worried about snow or rime on the crux rock step but it looked clean. Even better – it looked pretty easy for 5.2. We could clearly see a viable ascent route to climber’s left of the rap route and Ben proceeded up it with little hesitation. Steven and I followed and other than some exposure and friction moves, it wasn’t much more than difficult scrambling. We all agreed that we were happy to rappel on descent – especially given the bolted chains making it safer than down climbing the exposed slab that we ascended. We were delighted that our 30m rope would be (just) enough for the rappel. Fresh snow and rime coated the rocks right about the crux, once again we had lucked out big-time on conditions. I can save you a lot of pack weight at this point. You shouldn’t need 2 axes or any rock or ice pro other than crevasse rescue gear and a 30m rope / rap gear to climb Alexandra. We brought way too much climbing gear. I hate carrying extra weight when it’s not needed, especially as much extra weight as we did. It’s good to be prepared but too much preparation works against you in the form of weight.
From the crux it was a pleasant traverse up and down ledges crossing the cliffs on Coral peak’s south face. It’s a simple route, but you would never know it was there from a distance. Our views of Whiterose, Rose Petal, Whirlwind, Osprey, Fried Rice and Fool’s Gold across the South Rice Brook valley were getting better and better as the fog slowly lifted and we were left with friendlier, puffy clouds.
When we got our first view of the West Alexandra glacier we noticed it was heavily crevassed. We donned crampons and started up the left side, eventually weaving our way around some massive holes as we worked higher to the col. I don’t like crevasses. They scare me. I’ve punched through a few bridges in my adventures over the years, and the feeling you get when you look behind and see a hole descending into the cold icy blackness, is not something I enjoy. The snow was frozen rock hard and we knew any bridges were stable enough to last the summer, but some of the narrow icy lips we traversed over led us to don the rope before continuing above the neve, where fresh snow could be hiding a deep, icy trap.
The climbing from the col was vastly different than I was expecting. For some reason, I expected a short snow / ice gully leading to an upper 35 degree glacier which we would easily climb up to the summit block before cutting right and then back left, up to the summit. Reality was nothing like that! We did climb in very late season conditions, so it may be different for most folks. I led up a scree gully on climber’s right from the col – almost on the edge of the SW ridge where it drops off sharply to the valley and glacier on Alexandra’s SE side. No trip reports mention this start – they all go up either a steep snow gully (snow covered rocks for us) or ledges to the left (snow covered and slick for us) of this gully. Our route was easier. We ascended about 100-150 vertical meters on steep scree before cutting across the slopes to our left, across the ‘snow’ gully and on top of the slab section which was now transitioning to more blocky, and much easier terrain. We ascended this blocky terrain for another few hundred vertical meters in another shallow, gully before finally getting enough snow in a gully to our right to utilize properly. From here we scrambled up to an upper plateau on hard snow (max 35 degrees).
The next section of the climb was also much different than expected. I thought we’d see a nice 35 degree snow-covered slope rising to a summit block. Nope. Directly above us was a pretty easy looking steep, snow covered rocky slope. To the right was an obvious snow slope but accessing it looked a bit complicated and it also looked fairly steep. It topped out to more rocks – but not ‘nice ones’ like the left-hand slope. Needless to say, we didn’t complicate things and ascended the snow covered rocky slope on the left. It was a good climb in crampons, weaving around and over large boulders and small bands of rock, using the snow wherever we could. At the top of the slope we continued straight up a snow hump. I noticed Ben and Steven were stopping ahead of me and wondered if they were cold or something. I yelled ahead, asking if the remaining terrain looked good. They laughed and said, “No! We’re on the summit!”. Weird. I really expected another few hundred meters of height gain at this point. But I was pretty darn happy to be done the climb I can assure you of that.
Thanks to the clouds, it was much colder on the summit than during the climb (we did most of it in short sleeves) and the views were mostly a whiteout. We got incredibly lucky with some brief, amazing views down the Alexandra River valley to the east and over to the Columbia Icefield to the north. These views included giants such as Amery, the Lyells, Saskatchewan and Andromeda. We tried to linger on the summit in case the clouds cleared off, but soon it was obvious that they were thickening instead.
On our descent we got glimpses of the Lyells, Whiterose and other peaks to the south such as Arras, Valenciennes, Icefall, Kemmel and Lens. A surprising number of peaks around Alexandra are over 10,000 feet and with the clouds, snow, rock and ice the scenes were very dramatic and changed rapidly as we descended. We managed to get a good look at the Lyell Creek approach, which looked fairly manky this late in the season. Queen’s Peak, at 10,971 feet and right beside Alexandra, looks larger than it’s more popular neighbor from certain angles. It doesn’t sound like an easy climb either.
From the col we again roped up, very aware of the huge holes we navigated around and over on ascent. The snow was noticeably softer and presumably weaker as we navigated down the broken glacier. I punched through one bridge as I stepped off of it, which was enough to make me nervous for the next hour as we slowly negotiated our way back along our tracks. We wanted to keep the rope as tight as possible but with the three of us winding comically down the mountain, it was a pretty slow process! Oh well. Better safe than sorry in this case. Some of the ice bridges between holes were less than 12 inches wide, so we had to be very careful when balancing along these. You really don’t want to snag your crampons on your pants when you’re staring down into dark abyss on either side!! The views of Coral, Fresnoy, Queens and Whiterose kept us distracted from our painful blisters caused by wet boots the day before. Queens looks to be the hardest of these ascents, the others looked fairly straight forward depending on route choice of course.
Once we finally got back on rock our pace quickened. Soon we were back at the rock step where we set up a rappel and quickly got down the crux. 30 meters of rope was just enough for this section, I wouldn’t want to try with less.
Down climbing the headwall section was interesting. Mostly it was easy to moderate scrambling, always looking for the easier way down – usually following bits of trail or even cairns. Towards the bottom we descended some steeper terrain but managed to get down reasonably. We found the main approach trail on descent (that always happens!) and noted that it went right through the ‘tree island’ on climber’s right, before following cairns back to the creek crossings. It felt good to be down safely from Alexandra and we enjoyed a few hours of day light eating supper, talking about the various objectives in the area and already planning a much longer return trip to the area (5 days at least) before night once again settled over our bivy. We were tired and I wondered how the next day would go. We talked about traversing the high-line to the mythical “four lakes” before taking to the bush, but we still didn’t really know where exactly the high-line route went after the point we gained it on ascent. And there was no bloody way we were going back in that Krommholtz mess.
I awoke at 04:00 and took some photos of a spectacularly clear Milky Way directly above my tent. These are the moments that live on in memory, long after the bushwhacking scars have faded.
As we sat eating breakfast in the early morning light I think we were all wondering what our third day on Alexandra was going to be like. It felt like we’d already spent a week in this isolated place and it was only around 45 hours from the truck! We agreed that we should come back for a week some time. There are a lot of sexy peaks around the upper South Rice Brook bivy location including, Spring Rice, Spring Brook, Queant, Coral, Fresnoy, Whiterose and others.We struggled back into our heavy approach packs and set off from camp, up the moraines to the south, towards the trees on a faint trail hammered into scree. We couldn’t help but sneak glances over at the now-familiar peaks behind us. When would we be back? This is a special place and it was going to be hard to forget about it. It was going to be hard not to come back sooner rather than later.
Our original plan for egress was to retrace our approach across the first three ridges using GPS and our memories before groveling up and over yet another ridge, by-passing the Krommholtz forest and descending to the rumored lakes that we’d read about in several trip reports. From these lakes we’d hit the bush rather than risk getting cliffed out further on. At least we’d by-pass a large amount of the worst bush we encountered on approach. And unlike the approach, everything was relatively dry this time – other than a hard frost in shaded areas. The day was gloriously sunny and the breezes were gentle and cool. As we gained height over successive each ridge, the views kept improving in all directions. It almost made up for the height gain / loss on my poor knees! We crossed the first few ridges, no problems. When we ascended the third one on loose scree we topped out to a frozen solid descent gully on the other side.
Now we had choices. There were two couloirs to choose from and a traverse above tree line. The ‘red’ south couloir to our left was easy but further, and we had no idea what the other side looked like. The north couloir (on our right) was closer but looked steep and slabby near the top. Again, we had no idea if the other side (where the lakes were supposed to be) would go or not. We decided to traverse the slopes above the Krommholtz field instead. We knew this route would work and were planning to bushwhack down from the end of that traverse – maybe after at getting a glimpse of the lakes. First we had to descend from our col – and this proved interesting! On ascent we’d traversed sketchy muddy cliffs up to this col – there was no way to do this on frozen mud! We tried to descend anyway until Ben lost his grip and narrowly avoided serious injury. We plodded back up to the sunny col and decided to go up and around a small summit on the north end of the ridge. I remembered that there was a large ledge we could probably descend from there, that I’d spotted on ascent. Thankfully this worked and we managed to work our way into the alpine bowl just above the Krommholtz field.
The traverse above the Krommholtz and beneath slabby cliffs, worked well. We found ourselves at a pretty steep drop off into a gully coming out of the 4-lakes area. We scrambled to the edge and were delighted to see two sparkling tarns beneath us – the lakes weren’t just a myth after all! As we looked down at the unappealing forest below us, someone wondered out loud why we couldn’t just ascend the ridge we were on and then descend back to the lakes and try the entire high-line route back to the truck? So naturally, up the ridge we went! 😉 The scrambling here was moderate / difficult on steep scree-covered slabs and required some intricate route finding. I’m not sure I’d recommend it for descent – I’d take the ‘red’ couloir instead. Soon we were traversing onto a ridge running between the two cols from the two couloirs. This ridge looked worse than it was up close, and when we got to the end of it we were treated to stunning views of the lakes below – there were three obvious ones, the largest one situated in a upper alpine bowl separated by a steep drop down to the other two smaller pocket lakes. (Some people drop down to these two lakes on ascent and then go back up to tree line to avoid either of the two aforementioned cols and the scrambling we did.)
We traversed the larger, upper lake on it’s southeast shoreline following a nice goat path before taking a well deserved break along a small stream feeding into the west end of the pond. The warm sun and cool breeze, combined with the sparkling surface of the lake and fresh water from the stream was the complete opposite of what we experienced on our difficult approach. It was a lovely few moments in a lovely setting. We all commented how nice it would be to bivy at this spot.
We still had a long drive ahead of us (assuming the truck started and the road wasn’t washed out.) and soon we were trudging up the final easy slopes to the col just south of the minor summit that stands above the ridge we drove up on approach. Without clouds obscuring it’s summit, we could see that the peak was entirely surrounded by steep cliffs. We crossed our fingers and hoped for a ramp leading through on the opposite side, presumably to the ridge and eventually back to the truck. First things first – we ascended to the col and proceeded down a lovely, wide high alpine meadow to an even lovelier high alpine tarn. This is the mythical “first lake”. Mount Columbia and King Edward reflected off it’s still surface and the views we got from it’s west end were stunning! Our views the entire egress were stunning. This makes the high-line approach a no-brainer compared to any other approach to Alexandra, IMHO. At least on a clear day you are distracted from your suffering by amazing views in every direction.
We nervously traversed to our left (north) along a wide scree ramp, hoping against hope that it wouldn’t cliff out. It didn’t! Hallelujah!! We were absolutely delighted to see a clear route to the ridge we drove up from the scree ramp we were on! Further down the ridge we passed a large rock cairn – the first human sign we saw on the whole high-line traverse – don’t expect any trails or cairns from the ridge onward until the bivy. We were so relieved to have made it down to the ridge, we forgot to look for an easier way down and simply took the ridge crest through the bush to the top of the clear cut. I think we could have cut down near the cairn to our right and avoided the bush almost completely, if not completely. When we finally waded out of the thick bush on the ridge to the top of the cut block there was a faint animal trail running along the top of it. I was sure that this was the trail we ignored on ascent. It was. When we arrived back at the approach road, we built a cairn and made the flagging more obvious. Take this trail on ascent. Follow it up and then along the top of the cut block until you hit scree / boulder slopes. Follow this slope up to ridge top and then the ramp to the first lake.
Just before arriving back at the truck we spotted a large black bear on the road! Thankfully it slowly moved out of our way and even more thankfully, the truck started no problem and didn’t have any flat tires. The ride home went smoothly and pretty quick. Needless to say, Alexandra was an amazing adventure and not one that will fade any time soon. Since completing this trip I’ve driven past the Rice Brook road many times while trying to complete an ascent of Mount King Edward which proved to be much more stubborn than Alexandra but caved eventually. I still have to go back to the area for Mount Bryce and I’m looking forward to the opportunity.