Summit Elevation (m): 3479
Trip Date: April 08 2019
Elevation Gain (m): 1500
Round Trip Time (hr): 9
Total Trip Distance (km): 14
Quick ‘n Dirty Rating: Class 3 – you fall, you break something
Difficulty Notes: The AA col route is exposed to rockfall and avalanches along the approach. In winter there is also significant avalanche hazard on the climb to the col.
Technical Rating: MN7; YDS (II)
GPS Track: Download
Map: Google Maps
As the first peak of my 40’s, I thought it would be nice to tag an 11000er that’s been on my radar for many years. Mount Athabasca looms over the Columbia Icefields center along highway 93 – otherwise known as the Icefields Parkway. I’m sure it has the most tourist photographs of any 11,000er, except maybe Mount Temple in Lake Louise or Robson to the north. Some people might be surprised that I hadn’t done Athabasca earlier in my climbing career, considering that I already completed many of the more difficult Columbia Icefields summits. The truth is, that I’d been saving Athabasca for the perfect time. It’s close to the road and fairly easy, so I wasn’t in a rush to get it done. There were two options I was considering. The first was a solo ascent in summer or late fall via the unofficial scramble route that avoids most of the glacier and ice. I wasn’t scared of the regular routes, but just thought it would be fun to try something different. The second option was to do it in winter conditions via the AA (Athabasca / Andromeda) col and it’s this option that I ended up doing on Wednesday, April 8th, four days after leaving my 30’s forever in my rear view mirror.
Ferenc sent out an email on Monday, asking if anyone was free to climb anything during the week. He had vacation days to burn and was itching to get to a summit. There was a nice two day high pressure system building and I instantly thought of the two most accessible peaks I still had to do on the Columbia Icefield – Athabasca and Andromeda. Our original plan was to bag both peaks on subsequent days, but that didn’t turn out. Oh well – I wasn’t complaining too much about having to go back another day for Andromeda!
There are many online trip reports for Mount Athabasca. It is probably one of the most summitted 11,000ers along with Temple, Hector and Victoria. There are several reasons for this, including the fact that it’s used for mountaineering courses, it’s close to the highway, highly visible (making it very popular) and technically very easy in both mountaineering and approach terms. While it’s ascended often, via several routes, it is usually done in spring or summer conditions. In the fall, most routes are icy and the glacier crevasses are eager to swallow climbers. In the winter, all her routes have significant exposure to avalanches and of course the temperatures can be prohibitively cold! Both Andromeda and Athabasca have a nasty habit of catching westerly winds blowing off the massive snow / ice sheet to the west and these winds can catch people off guard. A warm, sunny day in the parking lot can be a very cold one a vertical mile higher.
Part of any trip up highway 93 involves planning gas / mileage. Due to The Crossing being closed all winter (opening in mid-April most years), your last fill up is in Lake Louise. I’ve done a lot of planning and know that Canmore has a 24-hour Fas Gas, so I usually fill up there. Lake Louise Esso is open at 06:00 or 06:30 and open until 11pm, so that’s another good one to plan. We ended up waiting 20 minutes at Lake Louise and didn’t get to the parking lot until around 07:30. I think Ferenc was slightly underestimating how big Athabasca is – he hadn’t done a decent mountain trip in 6 months. I knew from Steven that it would be a fairly big day, especially in full-on winter conditions. When I told Ferenc I was expecting a 10-12 hour day he was quite surprised. We walked up the snow coach road under a clear and very cold morning sky. I knew that it would be feeling like -20 so I was bundled up pretty good. I even tried toe warmers in my mountaineering boots, which only seemed to work on descent when I didn’t need them anymore… Classic.
From the end of the road, we spotted some tracks going up moraines on climber’s left and followed them up. I was pumped about possibly having a broken trail all the way, but that idea was soon dashed when the tracks stopped about 500 meters up the approach. The moraines steepened considerably at this point, and we donned our snowshoes to assist in the ascent. The snow pack was definitely at full winter levels from the base of the climb to the summit. Thankfully the base was supportive and the avalanche ratings proved accurate as the snow pack wasn’t sliding or showing any major weaknesses all day. I’ve been warned that the approach is very foreshortened on Athabasca and this is certainly true. Looking ahead, the terrain looks mild and close but as you climb it you realize you’re gaining a lot of height and everything is bigger, steeper and further than at first glance. This is very typical of snow ascents and the Twins are another great example of being much bigger and further than they first appear.
We managed to skirt the ice fall from the AA glacier on climber’s left through snow covered rock / scree with faint glimpses of the trail underneath the fresh snow. There is some exposure here, especially with snow, but nothing too concerning. It reminded me of the scrambling section on the Aster Lake approach for Mount Joffre. From the top of the ice fall we wandered up fresh snow on climber’s left, along the gorgeous AA glacier valley. We gained more height than I imagined we would towards the end of this alpine bowl. I can echo the warnings I receive for this route – it’s further and bigger terrain than you may suspect. It’s technically easy, but that doesn’t mean it’s without objective hazards (i.e. crevasses, avalanches, rock fall) or no physical effort.
Sidebar re: Routes / History on Mount Athabasca
Mount Athabasca was the first high peak to be climbed near the Columbia Icefield on August 18, 1898 by Norman Collie and Hermann Woolley. I can only imagine their thoughts as they became the first humans to view the immense icefield from above, viewing giants like Mount Columbia which nobody had ever seen before! That must have been an amazing experience. In the words of Collie;
A new world was spread at our feet; to the westward stretched a vast ice-field probably never before seen by human eye, and surrounded by entirely unknown, un-named, and unclimbed peaks.Norman Collie
I thought it would be nice to put together a sidebar of the climbing routes on this incredibly beautiful, accessible and popular mountain for your reading pleasure. Some of this information was gleaned from the excellent ClimbWild page put together by Henry Timmer.
- North Glacier II | 1920 by Josheph Hickson, E.L. Reford and Edward Feuz Jr. This is another ‘easy’ route to the summit, along with the AA route. It is exposed to serac fall and prone to wind loading but otherwise is a pretty simple glacier prod to the AA col and from there up the Silverhorn and to the summit.
- Silverhorn II | 1947 by Rex Gibson, Frank Smythe and Noell Odell. This route is slightly steeper and as a consequence is quicker to ice up, than the North Glacier route. It lies on climber’s left of the North Glacier route and goes straight up from the north glacier to the summit of the Silverhorn on steepish snow / ice. Be prepared for ice if you choose this route, no matter what time of the year you go.
- The Hourglass III A3-A4 | Unknown first ascent. I search alpine journals and the internet for a long time and couldn’t find a first ascent for this route. This is a variation of the North Face route which ascends to climber’s right near the summit where the north rock face meets the snow / ice. This is where the “hourglass” feature is found. I’ve heard this route is getting more rocky and less icy as the mountain dries out.
- North Face III 5.8 | 1971 by Duane Soper and Dean Rau. This route is changing with the drying out of the face. It has been rated as low as 5.4 but now seems to be rated much higher. In this excellent climbing article, Barry Blanchard rates it at 5.7.
- North Ridge III 5.5 | 1898 by Norman Collie and Hermann Woolley. Collie and Woolley descended the North Glacier route. The North Ridge route is rarely done anymore, but it sounds and looks intriguing, also sounds frustratingly loose and chossy. This route can be accessed higher up by heading straight for the ridge from the North Glacier route once on the center glacier.
- North Face Bypass III 5.3 | Unknown first ascent. This seems to be a guide favorite and is also popular with local climbers. It sounds like the best mix of snow / ice climbing to the upper part of the North Ridge route, which is presumably better rock than the lower part.
- AA (Athabasca / Andromeda) Col II | Unknown first ascent. One of the easiest routes on the mountain, although subject to rock fall and avalanches depending on conditions. This route is often used for the descent from any north face routes, due to the fact that it’s usually safer late in the day due to it’s north aspect. Don’t under estimate this route, as it can be very icy later in the season and there may be a rappel required to descend over the ‘shrund.
- Practice Gullies III | Unknown first ascent. These are considered part of Andromeda but can be seen on the approach to the AA col. Steep snow / ice up to 45 degrees. “f” is also one of these gullies but may appear as the AA Col from above, when descending from Andromeda. Rock fall and avalanche hazards. People mistakenly descend these when coming off Andromeda and end up with more than they bargained! The best way to descend Andromeda is via the AA col which is labeled “e“.
- Andromeda Strain V 5.9 A2 W4 | 1983 by B. Blanchard, D. Cheesmond and T. Friesen. Another Andromeda route and obviously a hardcore one – a true mountaineering test ground on rotten rock and ice.
- Scramble Route I | Unknown first ascent. This is an alternate route that is reported to be no more than rock scrambling and can be solo’d by experienced alpinists quite easily. Note that you should not be on the AA Glacier and should also not attempt this route if you’re not confident on assessing and route finding big terrain features. There are rocky cliffs on the upper part that shed a lot of rock on warm days. The lower slopes above the glacier are avalanche prone and should be frozen or dry. Wear a brain bucket and go with a small group!
As we approached the end of the AA glacier, we could see the serious terrain that confuses and complicates most descents from Andromeda. After doing the Skyladder route (which is apparently becoming more difficult thanks to a retreating glacier) on Andromeda, many parties get lost or stranded over night while trying to descend to the AA Glacier from the AA col. There are two very steep ice couloirs coming off Andromeda’s east ridge that leads to the AA col, these are called the Practice Gullies and were bare glacial ice when we were up there. I think some people get lost and try to descend these gullies, rather than going further along the ridge and eventually rapping or down climbing to the AA col and descending from there. Andromeda Stain is another impressive climb up Andromeda from the AA Glacier.
Ferenc wasn’t thrilled when I told him we had to go straight up the huge snow slope at the end of the valley. At this point it was becoming obvious that the fresh snow was almost knee deep and the going was getting tough! Since I was carrying the rope, Ferenc broke most of the trail up the lower slope until the angle got too steep for ‘shoes. At this point I wondered if we should ditch the ‘shoes and crampon straight up the slope on climber’s left, slightly to the left of the actual AA col. The slope was slightly lower angled to the left and looked to easily break through the rocky cliff band above. Ferenc was reluctant to ditch the ‘shoes so he told me to try, and if my method was quicker, he’d follow. How’s that for a sly way to get me breaking trail?! It quickly became obvious that the snow was supportive enough under the fresh stuff to quickly crampon straight up. Soon I was way above Ferenc and could see him taking off his ‘shoes. I was in my favorite element. Steep snow, ice ax and crampons, a clear sky and stunning mountain scenery all around me! I whooped out loud several times while climbing. I couldn’t help it.
The route up slightly climber’s left of the AA col worked perfectly. The snow was supportive and we broke through the upper cliffs easily to the broad, wind blasted col. Spectacular mountain and glacier scenery greeted us from all directions, as we looked up with some reluctance at the significant height gain still awaiting us, leading up to the top of the Silverhorn. I led up the Silverhorn as Ferenc took a break at the col. As I ascended I heard the familiar sound of serac fall and sure enough – a massive serac was crashing off the Andromeda Glacier far below us! An amazing scene of snow, ice and rock lay all around us as we worked our way up the Silverhorn. Castleguard and the Saskatchewan Glacier lay far below our vantage. We were slowly creeping up on the same height as Andromeda behind us and could now see the giants of the Rockies, including Forbes, the Lyells, Alexandra, Bryce, Columbia, King Edward, North Twin, Snow Dome, Kitchener, Twins Tower, Alberta, Woolley, Diadem, Brazeau and many others.
After a slight descent from the top of the Silverhorn, we gained the final snow ridge to the top of the mountain in a cold breeze and brilliant sunshine. The views were stunning in every direction. Truly a remarkable summit and well worth waiting for a clear, wintry spring day to do it! I once again felt the amazing privilege of being able to enjoy spectacular days like the one we were having. We took our usual smattering of summit photos before retreating slightly off the summit roll to a warm and windless perch on a flat area near the top. It was 30 minutes of sublime enjoyment, gazing at the world beneath our feet without a breath of wind and utter silence. Ferenc noted that we could hear our hearts beating – that’s how utterly still it was. A very special experience that I won’t forget soon.
We had a long drive home and with only 3 hours of sleep the night before, we knew we had to get going from our perfect summit rest area. After taking 6 hours to ascend, we weren’t sure how long our day would end up being. We left the summit around 14:00 and made short work of the long descent to the AA Glacier, even glissading part of the steep slope beneath the AA col! There was no sign of the usual ‘schrund – it was filled with avy debris from the steep slopes above. This is another good reason to do the route in winter conditions – all the crevasses are filled in. It was a very warm and pleasant trudge back to the car from the AA Glacier. We surprised ourselves with a round trip time of just over 9 hours – not bad considering we broke trail up to knee deep.
I was supremely happy with our effort and count Mount Athabasca as one of my favorite snow (shoe) climbs. It’s wasn’t a very technically challenging climb, but the combination of views, weather and steep snow fulfilled everything I like about mountaineering in the Rockies.