Summit Elevation (m): 3398
Trip Date: June 27 2015
Elevation Gain (m): 600 from hut, 2600 from Valenciennes FSR
Round Trip Time (hr): 4 from hut
Total Trip Distance (km): 6 from hut
Quick ‘n Dirty Rating: Class 3 – you fall, you break something
Difficulty Notes: Glacier travel and steep snow to the summit and a bergschrund which can be problematic, depending on the time of year.
Technical Rating: MN7; YDS (II)
Map: Google Maps
Friday, June 26 was a lot longer and involved than we originally planned it – a one day record amount of height gain for me at around 11,000 feet in total. It involved the entire approach to the Lyell Hut from the Valenciennes forestry service road and the subsequent ascents of Ernest, Edward and Rudolph peaks – three 11,000ers. We agreed to “sleep in” on Saturday and therefore didn’t get up until 06:00. You know you’re an alpinist when 06:00 is considered sleeping in.
Obviously our goal for the weekend was to ascend all the Lyell peaks. This included Walter Peak, which is considered one of the more technical of the 11,000ers to climb. There are two main routes to Walter’s summit. The ‘easiest’ route is over Christian Peak via the south ridge. The more sporting route is from the north ridge from the col between Walter and Ernest via a steep snow / ice climb followed by a 5.4 pitch and then some exposed low 5th class / steep snow to the top. There is, however, another route that very few consider nowadays. The first ascent of Walter was done via the west slopes of the peak, ascending to the Christian / Walter col and then following the south ridge to the apex over and around some very tricky pinnacles. This route is mentioned by Corbett in his guidebook as “no longer feasible” due to glacier retreat, but Rick Collier and his party successfully ascended it in 1992 and given our rapidly deteriorating snow conditions, we decided to try it as well. Our main concern were the pinnacles just before the summit, that many summit parties mention as being some of the toughest terrain on the route. Given our slurpee snow conditions we were also concerned about the heavily corniced ridge that we’d seen from Ernest Peak the day before.
Interesting Facts on Christian Peak
Named by Sydney R. Vallance in 1972. Hasler, Christian jr. (Christian Hasler jr. was a mountain guide who worked in the Rockies during the early 1900’s) Official name. Other names One of five peaks on Mount Lyell. First ascended in 1926 by Alfred J. Ostheimer, M.M. Strumia, J. Monroe Thorington, guided by Edward Feuz jr.. Journal reference CAJ 16-144.
I knew almost as soon as we kicked our way towards the glacier on the northwest side of the Lyell Hut that Lyell IV probably wasn’t going to happen this day. Ben and I were not “feeling it“. I was tired from the day before – more mentally than physically – and the snow had not frozen over night and was a bit slushy already in the morning shade. We started up the west glacier, contouring around the west ridge of Christian before heading towards the west face of Walter Peak for a look at the proposed route. Instantly I saw some issues in the form of objective hazards. There were two gaping ‘schrunds which were dumping ice over our intended traverse and many huge holes with sagging bridges lower down in the bowl and on the moderate ascent slopes to the Christian col above. With a solid freeze and cooler temperatures this route would probably go, but in our conditions both Ben and I felt strongly that this was a risky proposition at best. Adding to our apprehension was the fact that if the upper route didn’t go (and there was a good chance it wouldn’t), we would have to come back down this bowl and expose ourselves to the objective hazards TWICE – and in much warmer temps on return! I know Steven was quite disappointed but he agreed with our logic and we decided to ascend Christian Peak first and see if the traverse via the south ridge would work for Walter.
We trudged up and around the west side of Christian’s south ridge and along to the regular southeast face route. Even this wasn’t the “walk in the park” that many people probably expect. Again, I think rising temperatures may be putting the Lyell Peaks out of shape earlier in the season, or perhaps making them a wee bit tougher to climb thanks to open crevasses and gaping bergschrunds.
Christian Peak had a pretty serious ‘schrund splitting across its entire south face. Steven found a bridge that held us, but due to its aspect and the warm temps, we didn’t love it! As I crossed the bridge I looked into the darkness below and knew I didn’t want to linger here long. The steep slope above the ‘schrund was also not in the best condition. It felt like we were climbing up a giant slushy pile of snow that would slide completely off the mountain and into the ‘schrund at any time. We didn’t linger on this slope either. So far our decision not to mess with the heavily crevassed west face of Walter was looking like a good one. The final ridge to the highest point on Christian Peak offered some pretty incredible views and soon we were standing on our fourth 11,000er in 12 hours or so.
The summit views were stunning. We took a boatload of photos and then started the descent towards Walter Peak down the north ridge of Christian. We didn’t get very far. With hours of daylight and good energy / focus and cooler temperatures I think we could have gone much further than we did, but we didn’t have those things. Sometimes you have to know when to turn back and this was one of those rare occasions for us. Bagging another Lyell peak, just for the sake of bagging it didn’t appeal when weighed with the risks and the conditions we had and the way Ben and I were feeling. Walter Peak is the hardest of the Lyells to climb, but also the least spectacular. It isn’t the highest. It isn’t the sexiest. It doesn’t have the best views. All of these factors combined with a sagging snow bridge still baking and weakening in the morning sun on Christian’s southeast face, combined to turn our group around and call it a day. Walter Peak will be climbed by us some day, on a cool, crisp morning when we’re all feeling it. I’m pretty sure it’ll be there for a while, just waiting for us.
The descent down the south face of Christian Peak went quickly and soon we found ourselves near our traverse tracks from the previous day with many hours of day light left and nothing else to do.
Ben wanted to go back to the hut and spend the afternoon reading, catching up on sleep and enjoying the beautiful weather. Steven kind of wanted the same thing, but knew he’d be bored after 3 or 4 hours. I also wanted to relax for a bit, but also knew I’d be bored after an entire afternoon of just sitting around. It was a hot day, but the sky was clear and the views were great. Steven pointed to a tiny brown bump, lower than our current position on the icefield and asked, “what about Arctomys Peak?”.