Summit Elevation (m): 3342
Trip Date: May 8 2015
Elevation Gain (m): 2500 (from parking lot)
Round Trip Time (hr): 10 (from high camp)
Total Trip Distance (km): 48 (from parking lot)
Quick ‘n Dirty Rating: Class 2 – you fall, you sprain something
Difficulty Notes: Glacier travel in an extremely remote location and some avalanche risk to the Cromwell / Stutfield NE2 col make this a peak to be taken seriously. No technical difficulties to the summit – beware the cornice!
Technical Rating: MN7; YDS (I)
GPS Track: Download
Map: Google Maps
The winter of 2015 was an interesting one in the Rockies. Many ski resorts had to close early, thanks to low snow and temperatures that soared above normal. Calgary didn’t even seem to get winter at all! In a strange twist, however, we started to notice that the glaciers and mountains along the Divide had plenty of coverage – even though valley bottoms were completely melting out. I’m still not sure what caused this, but one theory is that the snow that fell, stuck – more like a coastal snow pack than a regular Rockies ‘crap’ pack. Whatever the case, when Ben, Steven and I traveled up the Athabasca Glacier and to the summit of Mount Columbia in late April we were delighted to discover great coverage and a fully formed ramp to the main glacier. When schedules lined up and the weather started to look good for the second weekend in May, we made plans for another trip to the northern peaks of the Columbia Icefield.
When the dust settled it was four of us doing the trip in 2015. Kevin Barton was joining the ‘regular’ group of Ben Nearingburg, Steven Song and myself. Of course Ben and Steven were planning to bag ALL of the peaks in the area and even hoping to finish off the Columbia Icefield peaks completely with an ascent of Mount Kitchener on our exit! I only had two peaks left to chase on this trip, Mount Cromwell and South Twin Peak. Kevin had almost all of them to do, having only done West Twin two years previous with me and a bunch of our friends.
Kevin and I slept in the Rampart Creek Hostel on Wednesday night and met Steven and Ben in the parking lot at the Icefields just after 05:00 on Thursday morning. (Another group from the Calgary Scrambling and Mountaineering Club – CSMC were slightly behind us and attempting the exact same peaks we were.) Thanks to a full moon and early sunrise we didn’t even need our head lamps as we walked to the toe of the Athabasca and started skinning up to the first ice fall. There was even more coverage than 3 weeks previous and we skinned up the ice fall and the ramp, following another group that was heading into Mount Columbia. We were hoping for a skin track turning north to our destination but alas, there was only a blank white canvas going up the slight draw around the flank of Snow Dome where we had to go… Oh well! Let the games begin… Steven led the long trudge around Snow Dome and eventually down and up onto the long series of humps to North Twin. The sun was HOT and the snow started to stick badly to Steven and Kev’s skins. Nobody had skin wax so this became a major issue. The CSMC group stayed behind us, so we didn’t get the advantage of shared trail breaking either. We doggedly pushed on until the weather started closing in from the north. We were expecting this and started thinking about stopping to set up camp. The CSMC group finally caught up and passed us but they soon discovered that leading in the ankle to boot-top deep fresh, sticky snow was not much fun and within 20 minutes we passed them again. 🙂 Unless you’ve made this trek on skis to the northern end of the Columbia Icefield before, especially in warm weather or bad conditions, you will always underestimate the amount of effort it takes. Rob (leader of the CSMC group) and I both only needed South Twin and Cromwell and we both agreed that making a camp near North Twin was paramount for success. We also both agreed that it was easier said than done to make this far camp.
Steven really wanted to push another 2km closer to North Twin, but Ben and I were sick of the heavy packs (I was loving how I spent hundreds of dollars getting my gear as light as possible and then carried the extra 60m rope… LOL) and leery of setting up a good winter camp in the rapidly changing weather. The CSMC group was already stopped about 300m behind us when we finally took off our heavy approach packs and set up camp in rapidly deteriorating weather. We ended up cooking and eating in the mids thanks to heavy snow and a gusty wind. In the late afternoon and early evening it snowed very heavily along with pretty strong winds that lasted all night. It always seems to be windy up on the ice fields, but considering we were camped higher than the summit of Castleguard at over 3200 meters, this should not be a surprise!
I slept like a log after the exhausting approach and when I awoke to the sound of snow and wind on the mid at around 05:30 I turned over in my sleeping bag and dozed off for another hour or so before finally getting up and checking out the conditions. The sun was up and other than a very stiff wind, the weather was looking perfect for an attempt of the Stutfields and Mount Cromwell. We forced down some breakfast in the frosty air and skinned towards the Stutfield Peaks on fresh snow that went at least ankle deep – but at least nobody’s skins were sticking to the snow in the cool morning air. I’d already skied both Stutfield and Stutfield NE but to get to Cromwell, you pretty much have to summit the main Stutfield Peak anyway, so I was going to repeat that one whether I wanted to or not. 😉
Steven led up the steep lower roll on Stutfield and we trudged our way slowly but surely to the summit bump. We actually summitted a smaller bump to the north which gave us great views into the black hole and towards Mount Alberta and Woolley / Diadem. After a brief summit stay it was time to push on. Cromwell might look close, but we knew that it had taken Raf’s party a long day to bag it back in 2013 and we were counting on the same.
I knew where to descend Stutfield to avoid the crevasses on its east flank (head down on the south end) and soon we were trudging along the valley between the Stutfield peaks, heading north to Cromwell. The route was obvious and the views of Stutfield from the east were impressive. Mount Alberta and Engelhard also came into view. Eventually we had a choice to make. We could traverse a snowy avalanche slope across a large alpine bowl on the west face of Stutfield NE before descending it’s north ridge to the Cromwell / Stutfield NE col, or we could go down the bowl (crevasses and avy terrain) and then ascend to the col. Raf’s team was forced to descend the bowl due to conditions, but we had way more snow than they did and ended up traversing the west face of Stutfield NE before skiing down to the col where we gazed up at Cromwell’s south ridge / face and wondered if we could ski the whole thing!
Ben and I decided it was worth skiing, so we skinned up the lower south ridge before taking the skis off and humping them up a narrow section just under the upper face. We switched leads up the south face until we got close to the summit. From here I took out my avy probe to make sure we didn’t trespass too close to the edge. The views were awesome from the top. We could see the tiny bump of Little Alberta beneath us and the surrounding 11,000ers including Alberta, Stutfield, Stutfield NE, Woolley and Diadem. We could also see the tiny dots that were the CSMC group, faithfully taking advantage of our tracks once again – not that I blame them! I certainly would have followed their tracks if they got up earlier and led the way up Cromwell, or South Twin for that matter. Interestingly, several devices only measured the summit of Cromwell at around 3340m – so not quite an 11,000er (50 feet short) and not as close as other peaks that I’ve measured that are known to be close. Due to variation in devices it is extremely close, so who really knows? Raf measured it at 3351m with a very similar device in 2013.
While Kev and Steven plunge-stepped the south face of Cromwell, Ben and I enjoyed the fast ski down it. I managed to ski down the entire south ridge to the col. It was fast and fun. I’m not sure how many people get to ski this slope, as it’s often wind blasted and covered in sharp scree. My skis took a core shot on this slope, thanks to the shallow snowpack in spots. After greeting the CSMC group, I took off from our group, following our tracks back over Stutfield and to camp while the other three guys bagged Stutfield NE and joined me at camp 2 hours later.
I really enjoyed Cromwell. I think it deserves more attention than it gets, but honestly I can see why it’s not popular. It’s literally the furthest summit from the Athabasca parking lot and when compared with its neighbors it’s the “baby of the bunch”. Without enough snow to ski it, I’m not sure anyone other than obsessive peak baggers would find it necessary to slog all the way to it’s summit, unless you take one of the 5.7 routes up more challenging lines.