Summit Elevation (m): 3747
Trip Date: April 18 2015
Elevation Gain (m): 2000
Round Trip Time (hr): 23
Total Trip Distance (km): 41
Quick ‘n Dirty Rating: Class 3 – you fall, you break something
Difficulty Notes: Crevasses, avalanches and a remote location in the middle of a large ice field are the main difficulties when climbing Mount Columbia. Don’t underestimate this trip just because it’s not technically that hard!
Technical Rating: MN8; YDS (II)
GPS Track: Download
Map: Google Maps
I have been waiting many years to climb Alberta’s highest mountain and the 2nd highest peak of the Canadian Rockies. Ever since reading Dave Stephen’s day trip report in 2004 and a trip by JW and Raf in 2006 it’s been on my radar and in 2009 when a whole bunch of friends climbed it (but not without incident when a number of their party found holes while descending the ramp). I really thought I’d have done it by now, so what exactly was I waiting for? I was trying to be smart about it. While the “Big C” isn’t technically a very difficult climb, there are many hazards that can seriously challenge one’s summit push including;
- Negotiating the icefall, serac zone and glacial tongue (aka the Ramp) on the Athabasca Glacier approach to the main icefield.
- Whiteout conditions on the icefield itself – which are notoriously difficult to predict or anticipate.
- Snow coverage over the many crevasses on the icefield and bergschrund on Columbia itself, and even the summit ridge of the mountain.
- Avalanche concerns on the large and steep east face of the mountain.
- Sheer distance and height gain from the parking lot to the summit and back – many people have underestimated the amount of effort, especially if setting a fresh track.
- Wind and temperatures on Alberta’s highest summit at over 12,000 feet is a concern for summit day – especially if you’re a photographer like myself.
Complicating things was the fact that I wanted some views after all the work that ascending Columbia would entail. I have friends who have summitted in a whiteout, even when the weather everywhere else was mostly clear, and I knew I’d be cranky if that happened to me. Add in the details of finding partners with the same days available, a family and the small detail of a JOB (!) and you can start to appreciate why it took me nearly a decade to finally summit this highly desirable peak.
As the weekend of April 18th approached, all of the forecasts pointed to a strong ridge of high pressure building over British Columbia for at least 3 to 4 days. Making it a bit tricky was the fact that it wouldn’t quite reach the Alberta side of the Rockies which showed some cloud cover lingering. Normally any clouds in the Alberta forecast mean an automatic whiteout on the Columbia Icefield, but in this case things were looking a bit different since the clearing was from the BC side. After much back and forth, Steven, Ben, and I decided that we’d go for it. We all booked Monday off too, just in case we needed an extra day. We figured with 5 windows of climbing opportunity, we’d get it in one of them.
Due to the closure of the climber’s parking lot (thanks to the Sno Coaches new starting spot where it used to be) we slept in the upper Athabasca parking lot on Friday night before getting up around 03:30 and starting our approach in the dark. With only around 3 hours of sleep (two noisy climbers parked next to my truck – next time I’ll pick the far corner of the lot) I was feeling a bit sleepy as we trudged up the relatively flat glacier to the first ice fall. We could see the head lamps of the two climber’s far above on climber’s left on the approach for Asteroid Alley on Mount Andromeda. Eventually we passed beneath them and lost our sight line of their route, I’m not sure they made it up or not but I’m thinking not as they didn’t have the best conditions in the world.
The big question for us was whether or not there would be a viable and safe route through the Athabasca Glacier icefall zones and beneath the seracs of Snow Dome and up the ramp to the main Columbia Icefield. In 2014 there was much concern and frustration in the climbing community about the condition of the ramp and approach and many were voicing the opinion that the route was officially gone forever. The only remaining (safe) option would be the Saskatchewan Glacier approach which is much easier but also MUCH longer and a PITA in the spring when the approach flats are melted out and muddy. On my trip up Mount Athabasca about 10 days previous, I’d noted that the ramp looked to be in perfect condition so we were very hopeful. As an FYI – I’ve observed that every few years the ramp doesn’t form normally for various reasons and the same panic always sets in that it’s “gone forever”. I think it’s going to eventually disappear, but we still have at least another decade before that happens IMHO. Don’t panic – wait for better conditions.
As the sky got lighter we finally got personal with the lower icefall and I spotted a very nice line up the climber’s right side. There were two possible routes, the first being a skiable ramp right up beside a large crevasse while the second was a very steep roll even further climber’s right that could be ascended by kick steps. We skied up the ramp next to the crevasse and figured on descent we’d take the steep roll instead. The seracs were thankfully still quiet (in the shade) as we sped underneath them. The ramp was in perfect condition – wide and well filled – as we grunted up it with our over night winter packs weighing us down. As soon as the strong spring sun hit the seracs there was a large “CRASH” and chunks of ice and snow shed off above our route of an hour before! We also observed a large ice / snow avalanche from the opposite side of the valley beneath Androlumbia which went crashing violently down into the depths below. It was a stark reminder of the objective hazards one must pass before earning the right to many of the Columbia Icefield summits.
From the top of the ramp we started the long slog across the ice field to the trench. We seemed to have the entire place to ourselves – it was wonderful! I was a bit nervous that the clouds might start thickening, but they never really did. I was so tired at this point that several times I literally nodded off and only the rope tugging on my harness kept me from falling into a deep sleep – that was a new experience for me! After what seemed like a pretty long time we finally started down into the trench. Here we had to wander about 1km south before there was a viable route through the crevasses that line either side of this geological depression that divides the ice field on the way into Mount Columbia and plunges down to the base of the Twins and Columbia Lake far below.
We had decided that in order to give ourselves a good shot at the summit over multiple days (if needed), we would deny ourselves the pleasure of setting up camp either on the near side of the trench or in the bottom of it, but instead, we would go about 2-3km further – up the west side and closer to our destination. We were all tired by the time we crested a low rise above the trench and shrugged off our packs at a nice level spot with great views of Columbia and a straight run down into the trench for our return. It took us roughly 8 hours to reach camp. Mount Columbia stared us down as we set up our camp under a warm spring sun and very little wind.
As we set up camp, five snowmobiles came howling over the glacier from the BC side! We’d heard rumors of people snowmobiling to the summit of Snow Dome but never thought it possible. Well – after 6 years of attempting it these daring folks from Golden managed to navigate some pretty hazardous ice falls beneath Mount Columbia and spent the next few hours zipping all over the glacier. Obviously this wasn’t our ideal scenario but I realize that it’s a big world and there’s all kinds of ideas of how humans should enjoy themselves so I’m not going to say much more about it here. We chatted and they were nice enough – and very surprised to see us – more surprised than we were to see them! They weren’t doing anything illegal either as the park boundary runs from Columbia to Snow Dome and they stayed on the BC side of it. We were disappointed that ‘our’ perfect white canvas that we wanted for photos from Columbia was now full of tracks but c’est la vie!
In a clear highlighting of different mentalities, one of the snowmobilers offered to tow us the rest of the way to Columbia! We politely pointed out that just getting there fast and efficient wasn’t really the point of our trip. They did offer to break us a trail to Columbia and after bagging Snow Dome they did exactly that. Unfortunately the snowmobile tracks were useful for crevasse avoidance (if they didn’t fall in chances were, we wouldn’t either!) but for skiing they weren’t ideal as they were too uneven to ski in and just as much work as the unbroken canvas right beside them.
Sidebar: Routes & History of Mount Columbia
Mount Columbia is the highest peak in Alberta and the 2nd highest (next to Mount Robson) in the Canadian Rockies. I think that deserves a short side bar. Unlike Mount Alberta or the Twin’s Tower, there aren’t very many routes on Columbia, probably due to its remoteness and the plethora of other peaks that folks can find new routes on. Even so, I’m surprised there aren’t any other routes than those listed here, considering how big and sexy this mountain is.
- East Face II | 1902 James Outram guided by Christian Kaufmann. This is the standard route and is considered quite easy, technically. An excellent resource for the routes and history of Mount Columbia can be found on climbwild.net. First ski ascent by Rex Gibson, Striling Hendricks and Ken Boucher in 1937.
- South East Ridge II | 1924 by O. Field, E. Stenton, C. Smith and M. Brooks. This route is very slightly more difficult than the East Face route due to more (rotten) rock blocking the route – circumvented by steep face climbing on snow or ice. Robin Tivy writes about this route on Bivouac.com.
- West Face 5.5 | 1951 by George Ball and David Micheal. I couldn’t find any more information on this route but it has been done by Rich Gebert as a pretty impressive solo effort in July 2004.
- North Ridge V 5.7 WI3 | 1970 by Graham Thompson and Chris Jones. The first ascent of this route was very difficult and sustained climbing over 2.5 days. It isn’t done very often, as I couldn’t find very many trip reports detailing ascents of this remote and wild ridge. A modern version of this route was done recently by Colin Haley and Ian Welsted where they pretty much ascended unroped for most of the route, but did avoid some of the more serious terrain by traversing climber’s right.
After the sound of engines died off and the smell of gasoline diminished we finished digging in camp and looked at our watches. I think we all knew this would happen because we’ve done it many times before including Cirrus and Joffre. We tend to get bored quickly and after sitting around camp for 15 minutes someone suggested that we probably had enough time to “at least break trail to the base of the mountain for the next morning”. Yeah right! We were going to bag the peak on the first day and we all knew it. We dug a food cache to protect our dinner from the famous ice field ravens and packed our summit packs for a late afternoon / evening ascent. Steven figured 3.5 hours and having been there before (in a failed 2012 attempt), I was much more conservative at 5 hours. It was 15:00 when we left camp, so even 6 hours would be enough to get back in some day light. Off we went!
The huge bulk of Columbia never seemed to get closer as we labored kilometer after kilometer towards it’s huge base on the icefield. After an hour we were finally skiing up from a slight depression at its foot and after over 1.5 hours of skiing from our base camp, we were finally looking up at some avy debris on the east face and up our intended route to the summit. There were no tracks for us to follow here – it was time to break trail for over 600 vertical meters to the summit of Alberta’s highest mountain. We abandoned the snow sticks and transitioned to crampons and axes for the east face snow climb.
The southeast face looked fairly easy up close, but as we started kicking steps we realized that this was a big bloody mountain and wouldn’t give in quite as easily and quickly as we thought! The snow conditions were nearly perfect as Steven led masterfully upwards – one methodical kick step at a time. We went straight up climber’s left on the face, just right of some rock outcrops. Hours went by as we worked upwards – we were all feeling tired from the approach and the altitude by the time we finally got above the outcrop and started traversing slightly left over some massive exposure down the south face. Do not underestimate this snow face – it’s big and it’s bloody steep. At least 40-45 degrees in spots, depending on your line, and obviously very prone to wind loading and avalanching. We were lucky to be ascending on old avy debris as it was firm and had already slid. The upper face was even more solid, since any recent wind-loading had avalanched off and cleared down to the settled base below. I can see why many people turn back after coming all the way in to bag this “easy” giant.
The biggest problem with climbing the highest mountain around, is that you start off well below all of its neighbors and as you ascend, you keep looking over at them, knowing that you eventually have to climb higher than their lofty summits! I kept sneaking glances behind us at the huge mass of Mount Bryce – it was a wee bit depressing that we would be higher than it before we could claim our current summit. Every time I looked back at Bryce it still looked huge. We knew there were crevasses all over the place on Columbia and as we transitioned off the east face to the hard, windblown section just under the summit we could see seracs above us on our right and even more exposure to the south face on our left. We picked a line in between and continued cramponing upward until Steven yelled, “crevasse” and progress halted for a bit while he figured out how to cross it. With a lunge he was across and soon it was Ben’s turn. Except he found the crevasse a bit too friendly and soon Steven and I were both pulling hard on the rope while Ben worked himself out of the deep hole – thankfully he only fell half in!! Good thing we were roped…
Soon after finding the crevasse we ascended a final, steep roll and popped out near the summit of Alberta’s highest peak to a wonderful evening view of countless other peaks – all of them lower than us. The wind was cool and clouds were starting to form but we were delighted to have the summit in the bag already on our first day. After a myriad of photos it was time to descend – while we still had enough daylight to do so safely. It was obviously going to take us longer than even my estimate of 5 hours since it was already 19:30 when we summitted and around 20:00 when we started our descent.
The descent went quickly – I managed to go down facing outward while Ben and Steven were more comfortable facing in. If the snow was any harder I would have joined them, but I’m heavier than those guys so my feet plunged into the slope no problems. The ski run back to camp was fast and easy and we finally got back just as darkness was settling in around us for a round trip time of around 6.5 hours from camp.
We finally stumbled back into our camp in late evening lighting after a 17 hour day, on 3 hours of sleep I might add! It felt really good to finally attain the summit of Mount Columbia after dreaming of it for so many years. I realize it’s not the pinnacle of mountaineering difficulty, but it’s a big, beautiful mountain and it threw up enough challenges to produce a nice summit-glow in all of us. We enjoyed some hot brews and supper before collapsing in our warm sleeping bags after a very long and tough day. Our plans for Sunday were to make our way over to Snow Dome, set up camp near the ramp and perhaps get me up Andromeda depending on conditions / energy levels.