Summit Elevation (m): 3425
Trip Date: April 10 2016
Elevation Gain (m): 3100
Round Trip Time (hr): 28
Total Trip Distance (km): 65
Difficulty Notes: This trip involves a lot of height gain and distance from the parking lot. Travel through a broken Robson Glacier involves crossing snow bridges and exposure to several ice falls and avalanche slopes. Potentially severe avalanche exposure on the summit slopes in winter conditions.
Technical Rating: MN8; YDS (Alpine II)
Map: Google Maps
As I lay in my truck at the Kinney Lake parking lot I could hear the Robson River gurgling cheerfully behind me. I could see a million stars starting to come out high above me and there were even some birds chirping their final evening songs just outside my window. My trip had already started out on a good note. On the long drive from Calgary I was cruising past the North Saskatchewan River flats near Mount Amery, when I noticed some movement in the far distance across the Athabasca River. It looked like a large cat! I stopped the truck and took out the longest telephoto lens I had with me – only 300mm unfortunately. (I left the 600mm at home which is the last time I do that.) I spent the next 5 minutes playing stare-off with a very large (almost certainly a male) Canadian Lynx! It’s the first and only time I’ve seen one in the wild. What a beautiful and graceful creature! Seeing that large cat stalking along the river like it owned the place felt like a very good omen for my upcoming trip. I had no idea Lynx could get that large. Without the tell tale tufts on the ears I would have thought it was a bobcat or cougar by its size. Eventually the cat disappeared into the forest and I continued my drive north.
This wasn’t my first time planning a trip to the Berg Lake area. In the fall of 2013 I did a wonderful solo trip there. I scrambled two peaks, Titkana and Mumm Peak and hiked a few popular trails including Snowbird Pass, Mumm Basin and Toboggan Falls. Because it was late fall I pretty much had the area to myself, which made it a very top quality trip – probably a top 10 for me. I have a large photo of Mount Robson with the Milky Way hanging on my wall and the view of it never gets old. This time would be a bit different. Instead of going in the late off-season, we were going in the early off-season. And instead of hikes and scrambles we were planning a fairly serious ski mountaineering objective – the 3426m summit of Mount Resplendent. Resplendent has been on my radar for years already. I knew it could be a ski objective in the right conditions and considering who it’s neighbor is, I also knew it would have incredible views of the mighty Mount Robson – the highest peak in the Rockies, looming over 500 meters higher than Resplendent at 3954m!
Interesting Facts on Resplendent Mountain
Named by Arthur P. Coleman A.O. Wheeler wrote, “On the east side it is clad from top to bottom in pure white snow, and presents with the sun shining upon it a spectacle of such wonderful brilliance that the aptness of the name became immediately apparent. Official name. First ascended in 1911 by B. Harmon, guided by Conrad Kain.
Of course, several things had to line up in order for this trip to be successful. Ben had just attempted the peak with a few friends and was turned around in low visibility just under the Resplendent / Robson (RR) col. The area around Robson is notorious for rapidly changing weather and precipitation due to the prominence of the Robson massif. The approach to Kinney Lake even has inland species of cedars and hemlock due to the moisture in the area. So we needed good visibility – something not guaranteed by a long shot! The long term weather forecast was calling for a clear Sunday and almost too-warm temperatures for the weekend. We also needed a third person on our rope for safer travel on the heavily crevassed Robson Glacier. Mike Mitchell agreed to join. The final thing we needed was snow. We knew there was tons of snow high up in the Berg Lake area, but the approach for the Robson area starts annoyingly low at around 2800 feet – and there wasn’t much snow down here! The thought of carrying my skis on an already heavy winter mountaineering pack was not making my sore back and worn knees very excited – I can assure you! But I’m used to 11000ers by now. They will hurt you. They will test your true desire to stand on their summit. They will try to break you. The trick is to ignore all the suffering that the mountain throws your way and simply learn to accept it as an integral part of the experience. It’s gonna hurt real good! Deal with it. 😉
The Approach to Hargreaves Shelter
Our trip was planned for Fri Apr 8 to Mon Apr 11. With one day on either end for approach and egress, this would hopefully give us two days for Resplendent if needed. As a further risk mitigation, we were planning a winter camp under Extinguisher Tower to move our base of attack about 500m higher and over 7km closer to Resplendent. We were also planning on attempting Rearguard Peak if we got the chance – since we were in the area anyway. Darn peak baggers… 😉 Eventually Ben and Mike drove in beside me and we all hunkered down for a few hours of restless sleep in our vehicles. It didn’t help that some small creature decided to use my truck roof as a race track all night! Even banging on the roof didn’t help. I seem to attract rodents while bivying. What’s up with that? We forgot to communicate which time zone we were using on this trip, so Ben was up at 05:30 AB time while my phone switched to BC time on me. We ended up rising at 06:30 AB time. Oh well. We ‘only’ had to go the 18km and around 1100m vertical to the Hargreaves Shelter at Berg Lake and we had tons of daylight to do it in.
We started from the parking lot with our skis strapped to our packs. It is always interesting when you start a ski trip with the snow sticks on the pack and ski boots on the feet! After almost 2km we finally switched to ‘skiing’. Make no mistake. This was spring approach skiing at its finest. It included the ‘low snow’ classics such as bushwhacking with skis, skinning through mud puddles and my personal favorite – skinning across tens of meters of scree, gravel and muddy ice between far flung snow patches that kept beckoning us on with their siren calls that promised solid snow just ahead. Mike was a bit shocked at the abuse Ben and I were dishing our gear and I’m pretty sure he started questioning our sanity on stretches of bare road where we just kept tramping on stubbornly refusing to take the skis off!
When we got to Kinney Lake the snow situation deteriorated even further. The lake ice was way too sketchy to ski across so we had to hike the annoying summer trail up and around it. But there was NO snow here! Not even a patch or two to tempt us. The skis went back on the packs for the trudge around Kinney Lake and well beyond the lake up the Whitehorn Hill towards the Whitehorn campground. The hill is south facing and was completely melted bare. At least the views kept us entertained – especially trying to scope out the various approach options for Whitehorn Mountain, another 11000er in the area that we’re interested in.
Across the cable bridge near the Whitehorn campground and ranger station, we finally attached the skis back onto our feet where they belonged and started skinning towards the Emperor Hill below the Valley of a Thousand Falls. Sorry to rant here for a second but it has to be said that I was a wee bit disappointed my first time through here. Sure – the scenery is mind blowing and there’s some gorgeous waterfall action but a THOUSAND falls? Not even close. It should be called the “Valley of Four Falls and 15 Trickles of Water” or something like that. Talk about false advertising. 😉 That reminds me of another ridiculous name – the Canadian Mount Everest Trail near the Kananaskis Lakes area. Everest? Really? As we skinned towards the Emperor hill, Mike commented that it was looking pretty darn dry. Sure enough! We managed to skin up about a third of the hill before I was skinning on dry scree and the other guys were carrying their skis again! Eventually even I gave up and gave my poor skins a break. After White Falls when the trail took a sharp turn into thicker trees again we finally put our skis back on and left them on the rest of the approach. As we skinned up the interesting and scenic ridge beside Emperor Falls, Mike asked where the Emperor Falls were! He was expecting much more than the half frozen wimpy cascade that we were seeing I guess. I have to say – it’s much more impressive in the summer at full flow.
The slog from the Emperor Falls view point turn off to Berg Lake was just as usual – much longer than you’d think. Thankfully the snow was pretty good and held our weight thanks to the skis. Snowshoes or boots would have sucked big time along this final stretch, as the snow pack was collapsing in the strong spring sun. We stopped for a break at the Emperor campground beneath the enormous and scary Emperor Ridge on Mount Robson. The sight of the ridge in winter conditions was enough to render me speechless. I’m not going to lie – anyone who looks at that route and thinks that it looks doable is far more of a climber than I’ll ever be. Far more. Respect. Because of the ridiculously warm weather we didn’t trust Berg Lake enough to risk skiing across it. We reluctantly went left and skirted the lake on the regular summer trail. Not a huge deal, but not nearly as flat as the lake would have been either… The sight of the shelter was welcome and after 8.5 hours we could finally dry our gear and make a comfortable camp. We even managed to scrounge for dead fall and make a cheery, warm fire in the Hargreaves Shelter. A delightful way to spend the evening!
We prepared for setting up a winter camp under Extinguisher Tower the following day and decided we should get up around 0300 in case Resplendent was in shape. Given our updated forecast which was calling for 80% cloud cover on Resplendent for Saturday, we weren’t very encouraged but you never know in the mountains. Just as we were falling asleep a group of snowshoers from Edmonton came stumbling into the hut! They assured us that they had destroyed the skin track (!!) and would try to be quiet. Yeah right… The next two hours were frustrating as I couldn’t fall asleep with the head lamps and noise. I don’t blame the group though – such are the joys of shared accommodation.
The Approach to Extinguisher Tower
After approaching the Hargreaves Shelter at Berg Lake the day before via a long slog involving carrying our skis and skinning on mud, gravel and scree we were pretty bagged. After a party of 5 joined us in the shelter (quite late) we managed a few hours of restless sleep but way too soon Ben was waking us up. We got ready and headed into the dark night with millions of stars and light clouds above us. With no moon it was pretty black. Ben led us up the creek bed towards the Robson Glacier next to the Snowbird Pass trail that I’d done in 2013. We crossed the lake at the toe of the glacier (without thinking about it too much – on the way back we avoided it as it looked a bit thin) and proceeded up on climbers left, following Ben’s group’s tracks from two weeks previous which were still visible. We stuck to the left hand side of the glacier to avoid the holes in the center. The right side was a major ice fall – no safe way through there.
Good thing we had Ben’s GPS track from two weeks previous because even the left side of the glacier wasn’t totally straight forward. Especially of note were a few steep avy slopes we traversed while avoiding two large ice caves on the edge of the ice that would be very nasty surprises in a whiteout! I can see why folks usually avoid the first part of the Robson Glacier by following the Snowbird Pass trail alongside it until cutting off to climbers right under the Extinguisher Tower. We continued to work our way up under Extinguisher Tower as daylight broke and we got some great shots of alpine glow on Robson. Right under the Tower we found an excellent camp site off the glacier but with enough snow to dig in a great little camp. After building our camp, it was obvious that Resplendent wasn’t a go for Saturday. Clouds were intermittently covering the upper slopes under the RR col.
We decided that with tons of time left we might as well work our way up Rearguard Mountain, so that’s exactly what we did! I have to say, Rearguard was more work than I thought it would be. It was still 880m height gain from our camp which made the total height gain around 1400 meters from the Hargreaves Shelter – the same amount as Resplendent from our Extinguisher camp!
We awoke early on Sunday, April 20 2016 to a clear sky and millions of stars overhead in our winter camp beneath the Extinguisher Tower just off the Robson Glacier. We were pumped to finally be ascending Resplendent on a perfect, clear spring day next to the mighty Mount Robson and the wild scenery all around us. The day before, we’d skied and scrambled up Rearguard Mountain and got some sublime views of Resplendent, which only wet our appetites to stand on her summit. The temperature was fairly warm already early in the morning and slightly before sunrise we were skinning our up the Robson Glacier. We could have started much earlier, of course, but considering the amount of crevasses and ice falls we had to negotiate around, over, under and beside, it didn’t seem very wise to head up the untracked glacier in the dark.
The glacier was frozen up hard and travel was quick and easy up to the steep ramp that Ben had scouted two weeks previous, heading up through crevassed avalanche terrain opposite the infamous “Mousetrap” – a steep section of the Robson Glacier under The Dome which avalanches ice and snow on a very regular basis and contains many crevasses large enough to swallow several city transit buses and the occasional small house! Speaking of ice avalanches, we witnessed a large serac collapse in the Robson Cirque beneath The Dome and The Helmet just as Mount Robson caught alpine glow high above all the action. Coverage on the glacier was great, and we only crossed one obvious snow bridge before turning climber’s left under the RR col to ascend Resplendent.
The steep grunt up to the base of the summit ridge was slow but steady and soon we were at the point where the views were becoming quite brilliant in every direction – especially towards Robson and west towards the Columbia Mountains in British Columbia (i.e. not the Rockies), including the only two 11000ers in the Cariboo Range, Sir Wilfred Laurier at 11,535′ and Sir John Abbott at 11,148′ high. We could also clearly see the entire Mousetrap, the RR col, Kain Face, upper route on Robson, The Roof, The Dome, The Helmet and many other familiar landscapes. One annoyance was peaks like Mumm and even The Dome which never seemed to get smaller, even though we knew we had to climb higher than them eventually.
We skied a short way up the west side of the north ridge before deciding that the slope was too icy and steep to ski safely or enjoyably and switched to axes and crampons for the remainder of the ascent to the summit. Resplendent it technically very easy – especially in the conditions we had with good coverage and just soft enough snow to kick steps where needed. That being said, I would still caution that the exposure down the west face is staggering in some spots. Ben was worried about getting off the summit slopes as soon as possible and I didn’t notice the exposure until descent when it stares you in the face. 🙂 You must have very solid avalanche conditions to ascend this peak in winter conditions! The upper slopes of Resplendent reminded me a lot of another ‘easy’ winter mountaineering objective that has some incredible westerly exposure on the summit ridge, namely Mount Wilson in Banff National Park.
Another interesting twist on Resplendent is that it’s further and higher than you expect from the RR col area to reach the summit. Every time we crested a bump we thought we must be “close” – but the first 4 times we weren’t. 🙂 When we finally did approach the true summit we had to give the huge winter cornice a very healthy respect at the risk of triggering a cornice collapse – something that does happen fairly often on this peak. I suspect we were still on the summit cornice, even with being cautious. As a consequence of the massive cornice we couldn’t see east, which was a tiny bummer. BUT the views in every other direction more than made up for the lack of views east. As I sat there on top of yet another Rockies 11000er, I was struck by how lucky we were to be up there with million dollar views, not a breath of wind and clear skies for many kilometers in all directions. After taking a zillion photos we reluctantly started our descent before the steep summit slopes could soften on us.
The descent really threw the exposure down the west face at us. It was both interesting and depressing to look down roughly 2.5 vertical kilometers to the Kinney Lake approach trail and realize how far we’d come and how far we had to go back! Soon we were back at the skis and it was time to cash in the turns that we’d definitely earned on this trip! A tiny bit of dust-on-crust made for a very quick and efficient ski all the way back to our camp. We were very careful to follow our up-track and skied down unroped – but this was a very personal decision that was agreed to by every member of the team (assuming that conditions were safe) before even starting the trip.
It felt very good to finally stand on top of Resplendent Mountain with incredible views of Robson and other peaks in the area including The Helmet. We basked in summit afterglow and extremely warm spring sunshine back at our camp for an hour, before slowly packing our gear. The ski down to the Hargreaves Shelter got hotter and hotter the lower we went until we were literally sweating just by standing still and breathing. At the shelter we had a lazy late afternoon / early evening before sleeping our last night at Berg Lake.
Monday dawned clear and warm and we started down the horribly mangled trail – skiing as much as possible, which wasn’t much! By the time we were descending from near Emperor Falls, I gave up and simply strapped the skis to my pack and boot packed the rest of the way down. The deep snowshoe tracks combined with rock hard, icy snow and dirt patches were just too risky to bother ‘skiing’. At least descending was fairly quick. By the time we were on the final death march from Kinney Lake to the parking lot, various body parts were in full protest mode and I was busy ignoring every single one of them. My body loves it when I do that. It’s happening more and more as I get older too… 😉
Total stats for the trip (including an ascent of Rearguard Mountain) were roughly 71.5 kilometers distance with over 4100 meters of total height gain over 4 days. Not a bad Spring outing, I’d say. This trip is very highly recommended for fit parties who have a weird penchant for spring Rockies ‘skiing’ that may or may not involve actual snow but is guaranteed to provide lots of good times with friends and great views in clear weather.