Hut Elevation (m): 2855
Trip Date: June 26 2015
Elevation Gain (m): 2000
One Way Trip Time (hr): 8
Total Trip Distance (km): 12
Quick ‘n Dirty Rating: Class 3 – you fall, you break something or worse
Difficulty Notes: Remote glacier travel with some bergschrund / serac fall hazards depending on the route and time of year.
Technical Rating: MN7; YDS (I)
Map: Google Maps
The Lyell Icefield and the Lyell peaks in particular, have had my attention for many years. I’ve been doing trips around them and had glimpses and full on views of their lofty and distinct summits many times. Some of the best views were on my remote ascent of Mount Amery, Monchy and Hooge back in 2012 with Eric Coulthard. One of the issues preventing me from visiting the Lyell Icefields early was the simple problem of access. These peaks are remote! I heard a rumor already years ago, that there was a route near the Icefall Lodge that didn’t involve going the normal Icefall Lodge, helicopter or Glacier Lake approaches. Although there is nothing wrong with either of the Icefall Lodge routes (either Tivoli Shoulder or Crampon Col), this other route was rumored to be shorter, have spectacular views and was entirely self-supported. The Glacier Lake approach route never sounded that attractive to me, with talk of route finding, bushwhacking, steep and loose scree and days spent just on the approach. I must admit, however, that after doing this approach for Mount Forbes in late April 2016, my view of it has improved somewhat.
Jump ahead to 2014 and the publication of K7 Climbing’s Lyells trip, complete with a description of the Icefall Brook approach – now there was enough beta to try this alternate route and Steven, Ben and I put it on our radar. 2015 had a very dry spring. This resulted in the mountains shedding their white coats fairly early and by the end of June we were looking at a July snow pack already. With a free weekend and extra days off, we started planning a Lyell Icefield peak bagging trip. We paid Larry the requisite hut fees for the Lyell Hut and Ben picked me up from my house on Thursday, June 25th at around 3pm for the long approach drive to Icefall Brook.
I’ve described the Bush River FSR in my trip report for Alexandra so I won’t repeat it here. Here’s the map I drew of the Kinbasket Lake area with its forestry service roads;
We had fantastic road conditions to the Valenciennes River FSR. The Bush River FSR was dusty but traffic was pretty much nonexistent by the time we were on it and Ben drove it like a pro. Once we turned up the Valenciennes River FSR things started to get much more interesting, as expected. The first section was pretty decent as we started climbing steeply on the narrow, exposed, decommissioned road. Soon we were driving through a rushing mountain stream that had taken out the road and washed the culverts down a steep gully. We kept driving, nervously awaiting the 13th kilometer. Why the 13th? Well, in a coincidence of the bad luck digits, the bridge at around km 13 was known to be slowly collapsing. The bridge / road was officially closed at this spot in 2014 but someone probably moved the sign and folks simply started driving over the sagging structure again – classic backcountry BC travel!
We weren’t sure what to expect. When we finally saw the bridge, it looked a little more ratty than we remembered from K7’s pictures less than a year previous. Steven and I made sure there were no nails sticking out and rearranged the boards at the bottom. Ben very cautiously and nervously drove down the creaking structure and revved up the other side in his Toyota Highlander. Phew! Made it! It was only after crossing the bridge that I looked at the printout from K7’s report and noticed that the bridge was now completely collapsed, compared to when they drove it. Oops. It was obvious that the bridge was in much worse shape now than previously. It is now completely dropped to the ground (water) below and the bottom decking is rotting and ready to swallow someone’s tires. On hindsight we should not have crossed this bridge in the vehicle we had and should have walked from here – which wouldn’t have been easy either. (2018 Update – This bridge has now apparently been completely removed and any high clearance vehicle can easily drive through this area now.)
After the bridge we weren’t out of the woods yet. We crossed numerous washouts – some were much easier than others. Another year of no maintenance and I am of the opinion that the Valenciennes River FSR will be for very high clearance 4×4’s and ATV’s only. Regular SUV’s and 4×4 trucks that don’t have high clearance will not be able to drive past km 13 and you can already pretty much forget about 2 wheel drive trucks or any type of car or crossover for accessing this part of the Rockies. A particularly worrisome spot after km 13 was at around km 15. Here a creek was flowing across the road, but it was more like a large swampy area with strong current than a creek. The water looked deep and I was surprised Ben’s Highlander didn’t flood out as we drove through it. Put it this way – we generated a good sized wake going across this spot. Crossing it on foot would have been over knee deep for sure.
The stress of the 22km Valenciennes River FSR reminded us again how remote the Rostrum Peak / Bush River peaks are. I think folks living around Golden are a little more used to this sort of thing, but we are spoiled in Alberta with highways and approach trails and aren’t used to the feeling of being on decommissioned roads in the middle of nowhere, with very little chance of a tow if things go sideways – which they very easily can out there. We parked on the road where it obviously couldn’t be driven further (thanks to another, massive washout) and noted a white Ford pickup that Steven claimed was Trevor Sexsmith’s from Golden. Trevor’s truck had much more clearance than Ben’s SUV and is the sort of truck you need for these road conditions. I set up my mid right on the road and we scouted a way across the raging creek on a single log, so that in the early morning we wouldn’t have to stumble around in the dark too much. The air temperature was very warm and the view into Icefall Canyon was looking pretty good already from the road. I was very excited to be starting this trip after so many years of dreaming about it. I meditated as I fell asleep, on the benefits of not bagging too many of the big peaks early in my scrambling career. I’m glad the more remote adventures weren’t just another ‘tick list item’ for me – I can still get excited about them now.
The Icefall Brook High-line Route
We awoke at around 03:30 after a restless night sleeping on the road and got busy preparing for the long day ahead. After a good cup of coffee and some breakfast we were walking towards the log crossing by 04:30 with the sky already quite light in the east. The log was slicker than the night before and I didn’t want to fall in the raging creek with my camera gear so I butt-shuffled across. After the creek crossing we walked about 10 minutes further down the road where it took a sharp turn to the right (south), almost going back on itself. Here there is a rocky drainage clearly visible on the left (east) which we entered via light bushwhacking from the road. Looking at Google Earth, you could possibly go further down the road where the drainage has no bush before entering it, but this is unnecessary IMHO – the bush is not an issue here. If you’re in thick bush you are off route already.
Light bushwhacking led us into the drainage proper. There was no trail, cairns or flagging of any kind marking this drainage when we did it. Steven was eager to dive into the bush on our left but I wasn’t so sure. BC bush is to be avoided at ALL COSTS until you absolutely have no other choice! I could see a choke point high up in the drainage above and wanted to at least go that high before doing any serious bushwhacking. We knew from the K7 report that there was a trail to our left, eventually. I figured it would be easier to find the trail near a narrow terrain feature.
Near the choke point in the initial ascent drainage, we diverted to the bank on our left and I finally spotted our first orange flagging up ahead. Sure enough! A distinct trail cut up the bank from the drainage just under the narrows, up the steep dirt bank, and clearly marked with a ribbon. Excellent! Bushwhack avoided so far. We followed ribbons and bits of trail (obvious) across dirt slopes to a steep avy drainage where the trail went straight up the center. The trail continued to be obvious as we grunted upwards and eventually it took another cut to the left and we started getting our first of many mind blowing views of the valley that was already many hundreds of meters below us now.
After crossing another avalanche gully we finally started breaking out of treeline for a while. The trickiest section of the approach was near a line of low cliffs which blocked access to the main ledge we would follow all the way to the upper bowl under the glacier. On approach we ended up ascending smooth slabs, on egress we traversed some tricky terrain to the first avy gully before descending to the trail. The trail is a bit indistinct here but you’ll know when you’re at the cliffs because you’ll want to keep traversing and won’t be able to without ascending them a bit first. If the route is dry and you’re on anything more than moderate scrambling, you’re taking a tougher line than necessary.
We kept following the bench above the low cliffs, traversing some slabby / loose gullies and going higher and higher the entire time. I even spotted a bolt on one of the slabby traverses – probably used when there’s snow or ice on it. Exposure to our left, into the Icefall Brook Canyon was dramatic – we certainly didn’t want to slip on some of the slabby terrain or we’d be plunging down hundreds of meters to an unpleasant demise. Along with the exposure came some of the best views I’ve had on an approach – the only one clearly superior being the Alexandra highline approach route. The scramble was amazingly well maintained with flagging, cairns and even some red paint where there was no other options. Eventually we arrived at a section of thick alders on an avalanche slope that were cut down 3 feet wide with a beautiful trail right through! That section would be HELL without a trail cut through it. A big thanks to whoever maintains this section!
As we continued on the ledge, the views really opened up and became very special. Waterfalls plunged hundreds of meters down from towering, glacier covered peaks all around us – some of them almost impossibly appearing out of steep cliff walls as if by magic. A truly spectacular place that I won’t soon forget and will hopefully return to some day.
When our trail plunged once again into fairly thick forest, we were taken aback a bit. We thought we were above treeline – but this is BC and the treeline is high. Thankfully the trail was still obvious and flagged – at least for a while. Eventually we came to yet another rushing stream crossing – this time with a conveniently placed tree to assist us across. Once across however, the trail vanished! Crap! We had been doing so well up to this point. Stubbornly we pushed into the bush, instantly losing any semblance of route or trail. Random orange ribbons were scattered in the forest, but did not in any way contribute to a trail – even a faint one. On descent we realized our mistake. The best route from this spot would be ascending on climber’s right of the creek (don’t cross the log) until near treeline and almost at the towering cliffs above. From here the best route is to cross the creek where it’s braided and traverse climber’s left on open, rocky terrain towards an obvious upper bowl above treeline beneath the glacier. After a brief bushwhack we broke treeline and entered the back bowl of the ledge leading towards the glacier, clearly visible now.
Once above the final tree line, our views only improved even more. The clouds were slowly starting to dissipate and we started mixing ice fall and glacier views with green valley floors, crashing waterfalls and snow. I discovered later that one of the most spectacular falls is named “Cerberus Falls” and has some data on the Internet. Wild flowers were blooming in the alpine too – adding some brilliant color to the canvas we were trekking on. We worked our way up to climber’s right – always gaining height wherever possible. Some folks stay too low here and get into trouble. We avoided the slabby terrain towards the middle of the bowl where ancient glaciers have carved their paths in the past and stayed as high as feasible on climber’s right.
We eventually gained two small tarns with well-defined bivy corrals and sublime views back down Icefall Brook / Canyon. The turnoff to the Mons Hut is somewhere before these lakes on climber’s right, wherever you can scramble through the cliff bands above. After the two tarns we managed to find supportive snow which led to the glacier and finally we were roping up for the last trudge up to the Lyell Hut which was just barely visible with my telephoto lens.
Even though the hut was clearly visible at this point, it still took us 1.5 hours to plod over to it on our ‘shoes. The scenery kept getting better and better as we climbed towards the hut. Just before the hut, we noticed that we’d have to go up a pretty big snow scoop on the edge of the glacier before descending slightly back to the hut. This was always fun at the end of a long day but the hut sits well protected on a small outlying ridge of Christian Peak (Lyell 5) so this is the price we paid for that safety. As we descended the snow towards the tiny hut and biffy we noted that it was only around lunch time! We took 8 hours on the approach – certainly not too bad for a remote 11,000er and with no technical difficulties whatsoever as a moderate scramble.
We commented several times on approach that it is too bad that so many folks choose to chopper into this special place when there’s so many easy ways of accessing it on foot. (Glacier Lake, Icefall Lodge via Tivoli Shoulder or Crampon Col and Icefall Brook) Many choose to chopper into the Mons hut and then walk from there to the Lyell Hut after summiting Forbes and / or Mons Peak. I’ve said it before, I don’t personally care how others access their mountains, but I will say that covering half the height gain and distance to a summit in a chopper is NOT the same thing as doing the entire approach on foot with an alpine pack. I don’t just mean physically different either. The whole point of climbing a mountain for me, is experiencing its essence as much as possible. Hiking, bushwhacking and scrambling up along the Icefall Brook high-line route was a cathartic and soul-enriching experience that brought me closer to the essence of the mountains I was planning to climb. I had time to think about why I was there. I had time to reflect on the different alpine zones as we climbed higher and higher through them. I got to enjoy rushing streams and waterfalls and dip my cup into them as I crossed – drinking deeply straight from the earth. I sat on my pack near some wild flowers, watching them blow gently in the morning breeze while streams of water flowed out of a blue glacier high above me and crashed down the cliffs below. These are just a tiny fraction of the immeasurable moments that people flying overhead miss out on as they rush towards the lofty summits above, ticking off yet another list item in the back of a dog-eared book before chasing off after yet another one.
The Lyell Hut
YMMV of course and there are many reasons people don’t do approach hikes to remote peaks, but if you can, I strongly recommend you don’t pass on this particular one. The Lyell hut is pretty stellar, even though it’s not cheap at $42/night. Larry does a good job maintaining the hut and it’s probably the best sealed alpine structure I’ve ever stayed in considering it’s location and surroundings. The heater seems finicky based on the comments in the hut register but obviously we didn’t need it on our trip.
Egress via the Icefall Brook Highline Route
The egress from the Lyell Hut after 3 days of intense peak bagging was a bit different than our approach. The weather was threatening, with gray clouds and the occasional rain shower and we weren’t hanging around to see if there would be thunderstorms embedded in those gray skies! Now that we knew the route, we didn’t waste any time trying to find it on descent. Seeing a group of majestic white mountain goats was pretty cool. This area must be heaven for them.
The only slight issue we had on descent was near the end of the ledge traverse, where the trail goes down a small cliff band. In the rain, we wanted to avoid the slick slabs and stayed high until crossing a few tricky gullies (very hard scree and very steep). Eventually we made it across and simply descended to the trail that we knew was in this gully further down. We were very surprised to make it all the way out from the Lyell Hut to the truck in around 4 hours!! Yet another reason I think using helicopters for access to this area is so unnecessary. You really can’t complain about a non-bushwhacking 4 hour exit from a group of 11,000ers in BC. 😉 As we descended we noted the shocking amount of melt over the past 3 days of hot, sunny weather. Much of the snow on the approach glacier was now melted and ‘new’ crevasses were showing up everywhere.
The drive back was interesting thanks to the furious melt and recent rains. The swampy / fast current section was very close to flooding Ben’s SUV – the water was at floor boards level! The bridge also fought back – a piece of decking broke as Ben was driving across and ripped the rear bumper half off! Yikes. We managed to do field repairs but without a high clearance truck I’m not sure I’ll drive further than KM 13 on this road again. The rest of the drive back went without a hitch.