Summit Elevation (Aberdeen) (m): 3150
Trip Date: March 08 2015
Elevation Gain (m): 1820
Round Trip Time (hr): 13.5
Total Trip Distance (km): 25
Quick ‘n Dirty Rating: Class 3 – you fall, you break something
Difficulty Notes: Very complex avalanche terrain when done in winter! Do NOT attempt unless you are very confident in the conditions. And even then, give it a second and third thought.
Technical Rating: MN7; YDS (3rd)
GPS Track: Gaia
Map: Google Maps
It seems that every time someone posts a trip report about climbing Mount Aberdeen (and Haddo), folks inquire about an easy ascent via the south slopes – the alternate descent route. While this probably seems anathema to most climbers, it makes perfect sense for folks who simply want to enjoy stunning views from the top of a very well placed peak in the heart of the Lake Louise group without all the messing around with ice climbing and usually taking 2 or 3 attempts to get up the darn mountain since everyone seems to under estimate the ‘short’ approach the first time around! I had a slightly different plan for Aberdeen. Ever since I skied into Paradise Valley with Bill and Wietse a few years ago, I wanted to ascend (and possibly ski down) the massive avalanche gully coming off Aberdeen’s summit, splitting her south face. Why this route over the normal one? At this point in my climbing life, I prefer snow climbing to ice climbing. I also liked the idea of a fast ski out rather than a long, boring walk in the summer. There were some very obvious problems with this plan. The first being that the south face / gully system on Aberdeen is probably among the biggest and most complex avalanche terrain in the park and the other being that if avy conditions would allow safe ascending, they would probably suck for the descent. I knew I’d probably have to wait for spring to make this plan happen. Or would I?
The last few weeks in the Rockies had seen avalanche conditions at “low” hazard ratings at all levels from valley bottom to high in the alpine. While this has allowed almost all the big lines to be skied and / or climbed, it has also meant really crappy snow conditions. Even Roger’s Pass had bad snow when we did the Young’s Peak traverse last weekend! Naturally, however, when ideas for the weekend of March 8 were being floated, I brought up my idea for skiing Aberdeen and Haddo. Steven and Ben were foolish enough to buy into my enthusiasm and we agreed to give it a shot.
At this point I must confess to underestimating the endeavor a “wee bit”. I guess that’s the theme for Aberdeen so why should I be any different right? This explains why we got back to Calgary at 11:30pm and why I’m freaking tired today as I write up the trip report! (The Daylight Savings Time switch on Sunday morning didn’t help matters…) Steven, to his credit, was much more realistic in his thoughts on the objective. I’m glad I was so optimistic or I wouldn’t have even tried, but Steven immediately cautioned that this day would be much longer and bigger than I was planning. My thinking went as follows;
- Given the right conditions (which I assumed we’d have), we should be able to ski up the main avy gully almost right to the upper slopes of Aberdeen on hard avy debris.
- Worst case scenario, we’d ditch the skis and don crampons – simply climbing to the summit on rock-hard snow – conditions that were common all over the Rockies lately. Steven had ascended Cathedral Mountain three days previous in the same general area and aspect, and had rock hard and very stable snow the whole day.
- Little Temple only took us 6.5 hours RT. The way up was slow, but descent was pretty quick, especially on rock hard / icy tracks.
- Given all of the above, I figured a RT time of around 10 hours would be sufficient.
I stubbornly maintain that my thinking was not totally out of line – my issue was the assumption in the first bullet. Given the right conditions… We arrived at the parking area, in the dark at 07:15 thanks to DST. We were a bit surprised to see a guy on the highway, waving us down. This bright member of humanity had decided to follow his rental car’s GPS up the Moraine Lake road in winter! He only made it about 1.5 feet past the end of the parking lot, where he almost ran into the barrier (trying to get around it on the groomed xcountry ski track!!!!) and got himself hopelessly stuck. We half heartedly tried to push him out but he was really stuck and we only had my car – no way to pull him out. He had cell reception and was calling for a tow as we skinned up the Moraine Lake road on a slick sheet of icy snow.
We ascended some very icy xcountry ski tracks before starting up the Paradise Valley approach. Every time I do this trail, I get confused for some reason. Steven rightly asserted that we should simply follow tracks up Paradise Creek just as we did for our Little Temple trip, but I insisted on following the signs and official trail up on climber’s right instead. This wasted a bit of time and eventually I had to admit my navigation error. For some reason I always forget that the decommissioned trail that leads to Sheol and the avy path on Aberdeen doesn’t branch off the main trail until the turnoff to Annette Lake – also the ski route for Little Temple. This is many kilometers (~8) into the valley and takes some time to reach. We followed the decommissioned trail under the Sheol ascent slopes and headed deeper into the valley with stunning views already opening up around us. On hindsight we could have stayed in the creek on a good skin track but the snow pack was fairly supportive early in the day and we made quick time to the lower avy slopes under Aberdeen’s south face.
At this point we were feeling optimistic about our snow conditions. They weren’t quite as solid as we were expecting, but this meant a nicer ski down. We started up the steep avy gully and entered a massive terrain trap in short order. This is not a place to linger! I can’t even say I recommend anyone ever go up this terrain in the winter. If you insist on it, make sure you trust the conditions both above and below you. The trap doesn’t seem like much until you ski above it and notice all the terrain that funnels from the unnamed summit to the west. There are thousands of feet of steep snow slopes and overhanging cornices all funneling into this narrow rock canyon. It makes the Bow Hut approach look like child’s play – trust me. After ascending above the terrain trap we found ourselves in the huge bowl below Aberdeen’s summit. This is another type of terrain trap, as all the snow shedding down Aberdeen’s south face will end up here. Again – I can’t recommend you venture here in winter under normal circumstances. We observed that only very steep, thin slopes were shedding snow, but were starting to feel the hot sun on our necks and wondered about spending time under cornices.
We had a decision to make at the bottom of the huge bowl. Do we tempt fate and trust conditions enough to skin (or crampon) all the way up Aberdeen’s descent gully to her summit, or do we take what appeared to be slightly safer terrain up on climber’s right and hope it works out? We basically threw the virtual dice and ended up on the ridge to climber’s right of the avy basin. I was a bit conflicted about this choice because we knew we wouldn’t be skiing much of this route and I was really hoping to possibly ski off Aberdeen’s summit. But I also had to admit that the huge avy terrain around the bowl was scary. Very exposed and very foreshortened. Cornices hung hundreds of meters above the bowl, off the unnamed summit between Aberdeen and the Mitre and there was some evidence of these failing in the warm sun.
There was another issue that was becoming apparent at this point. Our snow pack was collapsing. It was much warmer than forecast (a predicted high of -6 but Ben’s thermometer already showed +6) and the snow was becoming very punchy. This meant a horrible ski down and not great ascent conditions either. Steven’s idea to lug snowshoes in was started to look brilliant at this point. Oh well. Nothing to do about it now. We headed up the ridge until it was too steep to skin and proceeded on foot. Good thing we had views to distract us because from this point on life sucked for a while. Even Steven, on snowshoes, was wallowing around. Avy conditions were still OK, but a punchy crust with no support meant wallowing and swimming uphill every time we hit a snow patch. Which was often on the lower ridge. I was already feeling quite tired thanks to a head cold and tooth pain. The wallowing in unsupportive snow, while ascending a route that was looking more and more like it might not work out was conspiring to dampen my spirits a little bit. Good thing the views were stunning and good thing the weather was brilliant.
We ended up on some pretty complex avy terrain despite trying to avoid it by ascending the ridge. The snow didn’t seem interested in sliding or releasing so we doggedly pressed upwards despite the difficulties. Near the top of the ridge we were forced to traverse climber’s left, across several steep and exposed avy gullies that reminded Steven and I of our adventure on Ayesha. This terrain is not for the faint of heart – and you’d better trust the snow pack if you ever end up here!
Finally, after hours of working our way up complex winter terrain, Steven kicked the last steps up a very steep and thankfully very hard snow slope to the upper ridge, just above the Aberdeen / Haddo col. Home free right? Nope.
Winter climbing is always a bit extra spicy (as we discovered on Peyto a few weeks ago) and Aberdeen’s summit block was no different. Even though nobody mentions difficult scrambling to attain her summit, we found ourselves scrambling up a very steep rock step with a loose, overhanging boulder at the top, before delicately balancing along a knife-edge ridge and ascending a final section of loose snow to the apex. On hindsight we all agreed that it was a good thing we didn’t ascend the normal descent route, because one look at what we climbed up to get to the summit would have convinced us not to bother with Haddo! It was already much later in the day than we wished, so after snapping photos of our incredible summit view and signing the register (first since October 2014), we made our way carefully down the exposed summit block and started the easy traverse to Haddo Peak.
None of us felt like bothering with Haddo. We were exhausted from the challenging snow conditions on ascent, the wind was howling and quite chilly, we were hungry and thirsty and we were going to be home a lot later than planned. But there was no bloody way we were coming back for that tiny bump on the end of a gentle ridge either. So we sucked it up and did the traverse, descending over 100 meters to the col and then re-ascending to the summit of Haddo. The wind was almost knocking us over at this point so we didn’t linger. On the way back up to our packs on Aberdeen I started feeling light headed and entered the fantastic “zombie zone”, which usually means I’ve pushed it a bit too far and should probably eat something. The last time I felt like this was while descending Edith Cavell on a hot afternoon when I imagined someone with a black dog was on the trail in front of me. It took half an hour before I realized I was imagining the whole thing – I was alone on the trail.
Thanks to the lateness of the hour and the fact that clouds were now pouring in over Lefroy, the snow conditions were still relatively safe on descent. We carefully crossed the avy gullies and plunge stepped the ridge to our waiting skis. The ski down the lower avy gully / terrain trap was horrible. A punchy crust with bottomless crap underneath made skiing almost impossible. At least the terrain trap was rock hard so we could sort of get some turns in there. Conditions for skiing didn’t improve until we hit the main ski track going down Paradise Creek. With head lamps on, it was fun zipping down the rolling terrain. The occasional side plunge into tight trees was interesting too, especially in the dark! The final section of trail above the xcountry track was almost suicidal in the dark, but we ripped it anyway. It was fast!!
Finally, after 13.5 hours of moving almost constantly, we arrived back at the car. I have to say that while I’m delighted we attained these fantastic peaks, via a rarely (ever?!) ascended winter route, I cannot, in good conscience, recommend Aberdeen’s south face / ridge / gully as a winter objective. The summit views are stunning and the snow climbing near the top is a ton of fun but the terrain hazards are very extensive and almost impossible to manage properly. This is a case of the rewards probably not justifying the risks.