Summit Elevation (m): 2965
Trip Date: Sunday, July 8, 2018
Elevation Gain (m): 2400
Round Trip Time (hr): 18
Total Trip Distance (km): 42
Quick ‘n Dirty Rating: Class 4 – you fall, you are almost dead
Difficulty Notes: A very long and tiring day including remote BC bushwhacking, routefinding, exposed ridges and steep snow with possible ice.
GPS Track Download: Download GPX File
Technical Rating: SC7; YDS (4th)
On July 8th, 2018, Phil Richards, Eric Coulthard and I spent one of the longer days I’ve had in the Rockies scrambling and route finding a very likely new route via the north and east ridges of Nestor Peak to its summit. After spending a pretty exhausting 15 hours the day before, approaching the Police Meadows and scrambling both Simpson Ridge and Peak, getting back to the cabin at 22:45, we were quite groggy when my alarm went off at around 04:50 on Sunday morning. There was nothing to do but roll out of my creaky bunk and stumble around in the dim morning light trying to make some coffee and choke down some breakfast. The absolute worst part of the entire day was struggling back into my SOAKING wet approach shoes. That was brutal. Brrrr!
We were all well aware of how difficult and long this day was going to be but we tried to stay positive and focus on the tasks right in front of us rather than the ones further out. Immediate tasks after breakfast were deciding on a route and a strategy for attack. Nestor Peak is not normally a very technical mountain. It’s fairly easily ascended from the south – Rick Collier even skied the peak in February, 1991. Due to forest fires and missing bridges, Rick’s approach via Surprise Creek and Rock Lake is pretty much no longer feasible, so we were left with our approach over Citadel Pass and Police Meadows to attempt the peak. Only having one day to climb the peak and exit all the way back over Citadel Pass and Sunshine Meadows (a 15-21km, 870m elevation gain on its own) limited our options even further. Option 1 would have us repeating our bushwhack from the previous day up valley from Police Meadows and extending it much further to the head of the valley before ascending either steep snow or the north glacier to the summit. The problem with this option was the horrible bushwhacking and unknown glacier (Google Earth showed some big holes) and the fact that we were in light footwear so cramponing up ice or very steep snow slopes wasn’t a very safe option. The day before, while on Simpson Ridge and Peak, we’d spotted a potential “option 2” route that would not only avoid the horrendous bushwhack, but would offer a spectacular ridge approach to Nestor that was also almost certainly a FKR (first known route). Why an FKR? Because nobody would normally do this route considering how far and complicated it was from the easy south side of the mountain!
As we drank our morning coffees and glanced sideways at the north end of the ridge we decided that this was going to be our option. We could clearly see that this ridge was not only very steep, but it was also very bushy to treeline with cliff bands sprinkled in just for kicks. Eric commented rather dryly that he’d spotted this ridge from our descent of Citadel Pass the day before and remembered thinking, “thank goodness we don’t go up there”! We finished packing our day packs and bid the guys in the cabin a good day. They’d be choppering out later and wished us “good luck” before rolling over in their bunks. I sort of wished I was them before pushing the door closed and tramping off after Phil and Eric across the swampy meadows towards the end of the ridge. I have to admit the morning atmosphere in the meadows was very nice. The level of noise coming from the local bird population was almost like a jungle and the soft light from the rising sun on the peaks surrounding us was sublime. Too bad this tranquil mood didn’t last long.
Right from the start our day proved more difficult than most. First of all there was getting 2-4 hours of restless sleep after a 31km, 1900m day before. Than there was the knee deep wade across the creek followed by a shin deep wade across the swamp to exit the meadows before the start of the ridge. And then there was the ridge itself. We knew there’d be bushwhacking and we knew the first hour or two of our day was going to suck, but I think we underestimated a just how much it would suck. We found ourselves once again in thick bush and alders, literally having to pull our tired bodies up steep mossy and rock covered slopes with slick wet dirt underneath it all. To make things even more fun, we kept running into impossibly steep cliff bands which necessitated guessing which way to try finding scramble routes around or through them. In a common theme for the trip, we seemed to make the right guesses very consistently. We encouraged each other more than once that soon enough we’d break treeline and life would be grand again but the trees just kept going and going and going!
Of course, eventually, we were right. We did finally break treeline. It started with a trickle of larch trees and soon we were in a small forest of them. That forest began to thin and we whooped aloud as we took in the views of the surrounding area from the north end of our approach ridge. The whooping was a bit contained, because it was only now that we realized we were in for a much longer day than we originally thought – there was no way we were going to be back at the cabin 8 hours after leaving it. We used our mental boost to propel ourselves upwards – aiming for a high point on the ridge above where I declared I’d, “take a break”.
As we crested the high point I immediately saw we likely had an issue. The day before already, while scouting the ridge, Phil and noticed a notch that could prove difficult. I thought the east side of the ridge would be fairly angled but I was proved wrong and Phil was proved right. We did have a problem at the notch – it was not scrambling terrain around it. This is part of what made Nestor Peak such an interesting and memorable day. There was no straightforward or obvious route – we were forced to make many decisions on the “fly” and hope to heck we weren’t wasting our day. Any one of half a dozen route choices could have easily ended our attempt at this peak, but each time we made a choice it worked out including this time. As Phil waited a bit nervously behind me on the ridge, I tiptoed out onto the very steep and exposed east face of the ridge, looking for a possible traverse around the notch. I was surprised and delighted to find a possible traverse line and yelled back to the Phil that I was going to keep going. I kept finding and following small scree ledges – terrifically exposed and definitely “no slip zones” – all the way to easier terrain well past the notch! So far so good. Nestor was behaving today.
I didn’t take a ton of photos of the east face traverse as I was too focused on always finding a way forward. I fully expected to run into impassable terrain but each time I thought our day was done, I’d look up or down and find another little ledge or gully. Before I knew it, I was on easier terrain and back on the ridge crest! Life was very good as we took in the wonderfully clear morning dawning around us in every direction. It was nice to have views for once, after several trips recently with a lot of clouds. We noted that time was passing much too quickly and after waiting for Eric to catch up, we motored on towards the east ridge of Nestor, wondering where the next crux would be.
Despite some tense moments of wondering what was ahead, the rest of the north ridge went fine. Spectacularly fine, actually! The positions on the ridge crest, the exposure, the cool morning breezes, the views in every direction – it all conspired to really keep the energy levels up and the explor8ion blood running through our veins. Phil and I both felt that our last month of long, remote and rarely traveled ascents had prepared us well for this adventure. Eric was doing his best to keep up to us, but was lagging behind at this point in the day already. He’d had a huge day, the day before already, considering he hadn’t been out since December 2017! To be perfectly honest, I was surprised he even got up for Nestor, much less made it this far! I knew that Eric was a tough hombre though and wasn’t seeing anything I hadn’t seen before from him. As we started the descent to the north / east ridge col, we were delighted to see more sparkling lakes in a hanging valley to the south of us. Mount Assiniboine was busy stealing the show again – as usual for this area. Something interesting happened to my mood as we descended the loose, blocky terrain towards the east ridge – I lost hope.
I’m not sure how it even happened, but suddenly I found myself doubting that the route would go and seeing nothing but impossible obstacles in front of us. It was strange – not something that happens often to me. I even told Phil to “go ahead” because I honestly just didn’t feel like dealing with the disappointment of being turned back this far into things. Thankfully the despair only lasted about 30 minutes, after which I realized I was an idiot and the terrain was much easier and much more fun than it appeared from a distance. We scrambled up and over rock ribs and through little terrain holes in the ridge – all while taking in the awesome views of familiar and new peaks in the Assiniboine area.
Finally we found ourselves nearing the last crux of the day – the notch and glacier just before the summit. Phil raced ahead and peered over the edge of the ridge. He wasn’t saying much, so I asked him what was wrong. He very tentatively said that it “might go” directly beneath where he was standing. I caught up to him and peered over the edge. GULP. I mean, yes, it could go, but it looked pretty darn desperate to me! There was very steep, loose downclimbing to a tricky looking transition to the glacier below. I didn’t love it. But I knew there was an easy way! I’m not sure how, but I very confidently told Phil to simply keep going to the end of the ridge and there’d be a good route directly into the notch. He was very doubtful – and let me know it – but he kept going. Sure enough! No issues. Easy scrambling down ledges and scree to the col below. YES! I also looked ahead at the glacier / snow slopes to the summit ridge and was pretty confident we’d make it with our axes and crampons. There was very little runout even if we did slip and the terrain looked pretty easy for a short snow climb. We cramponed up at the col and I led up and around a cliff in the ridge before regaining rock off the steep snow. I was very careful to probe the deep moat / crevasse between the snow and the rock, but thankfully found a reasonable spot to cross. The snow was short, fast and fun and now we were looking at easy terrain to the top, which we tackled rather enthusiastically. Nothing feels better than realizing 6 hours into a pretty long day that your unknown, unplanned and on-sight route is going to result in a successful summit!
Within minutes we were headed for the summit cairn – placed just under a rather permanent patch of snow at the summit. I instantly noticed a register but was very disappointed to open it and find it thoroughly soaked and pretty much unreadable. I could just make out that it was Rick’s February ascent in 1991 and there was about 2 pages with 10 other entries after that. Many more entries than I was expecting but this is a pretty easy objective from Ferro Pass with great views of Assiniboine so I guess being one of a dozen or so ascents in a popular area over 27 years isn’t so bad. The last entry was written in pen so I could see the “2012” date. We took some time on the summit, eating, hydrating and snapping too many photos. We also started planning our route back to the Police Meadows.
As we discussed our descent route we had two thoughts in mind. Firstly, taking our ascent route would certainly work, but it would take up to 5 or even 6 more hours. Descending the ridge wouldn’t be much quicker than the ascent had been, especially on the north end where the cliffs would be problematic. Being tired, we were also cautious about the very exposed “goat traverse” of the east face I’d found on ascent. There were about 4 or 5 “no slip” zones on that traverse and I mean no slip. Not even a slight shuffle or unplanned sneeze would be good on that exposed dirt / pebble / ledge terrain! Our other options were to take the tempting direct line down into the valley we’d used the day before – heading straight to the Police Meadows and cabin. As tempting as this option was, we knew it would be exhausting and horrible bushwhacking in the very heat of the day and we had another 21km hike with 870m of height gain after getting back to the cabin yet! (We knew we’d miss the Sunshine gondola ride and would have to walk the extra 5.5km road to the parking lot.) With that option off the table there was only one more left. We decided to descend the unknown east side of the north ridge where it becomes “Simpson Ridge” and try to find friendly terrain to the main trail running out of the core area through Golden Valley towards Citadel Pass or the Porcupine Campground / Simpson River.
Once again, we got very lucky with our chosen route. Snow was a huge asset as we broke through several cliff bands on the NE side of the ridge we’d used for ascent. Several times we couldn’t see over steep rolls ahead and were relieved to find snow slopes leading over slabs every time. Eventually we spotted what looked like a clear descent line on mostly open terrain (as indicated on my topo map) that would lead right into the heart of Golden Valley and the main trail. At this point Eric was seriously bagged. We felt sorry for him, as Phil and I were still charging along pretty quickly. We didn’t want to lose him, so we had a few long breaks which wasn’t a horrible thing of course.
Finally, in the heat of the day, we were back on the main trail running along our ascent ridge to the NE and back towards the turnoff to the Police Meadows. On hindsight I’m not sure we made the best choice of return routes. Sure, our route worked out in the end but it was HOT and LONG and the amount of elevation gains on return were definitely more than we were counting on. I think we focused too much on the fact that we’d be on easy trails, rather than the distance and elevations. Oh well, it worked and we did manage to push our tired bodies along a pretty good clip despite gaining elevation in the heat of the day. We’d agreed with Eric that he’d be staying at the Police Meadows cabin one more night. There was no way he could push his poor body any harder and it was getting a bit risky to try.
Phil and I left Eric at the main trail and started back to the cabin at our own pace – hoping to meet him once more as we came out from the cabin with all our gear on route to a long exit trek. As usual for us, we chatted to pass the time and grumbled every once in a while at the elevation gains, but generally we were pretty darn cheerful considering what was still ahead of us. I had no idea how the heck I was going to push my poor body another 21km and almost 900m of elevation gain! I tried not to think about it as we turned off the trail to Citadel Pass and took the less traveled one toward the Porcupine Campground. Once again we had a lot of elevation changes, but at least the terrain was new. This trail was surprisingly scenic but it was a bit depressing how long it took to finally arrive at the junction to the Police Meadows. I got grumpy again here as we were going all the way back to the cabin only to turn around and hike back out again! The cabin was silent and Greg and his friend had left us a bunch of food and even some fresh, cold Ginger Ale!! I’ve never tasted pop so refreshing and well timed! It was very nice of them to leave us the food, as Eric didn’t have any extra and needed supper and breakfast now that he was staying another night. Talk about good timing.
It was pretty tough to leave the cabin, especially with all the fresh food but after a cup of coffee and the refreshing pop it was time to go. We packed our overnight packs and set off across the meadows one last time, including the “delightful” knee deep stream and swamp crossings! Thankfully we met Eric on our way back down the trail and gave him the good news of fresh food awaiting his arrival. He perked up noticeably at that. As we made our way through the Porcupine Campground, a gentleman asked us where we’d come from and where we were going. We pointed disinterestedly behind us, “from there” and in front of us, “to there”. He grinned back, “I understand” and we kept marching on. The climb back up the steep trail to Citadel Pass went better than either of us thought it would. We simply slowed things down and focused on one foot in front of the other. Slowly we crept along and eventually we were looking back and realizing how high we were again.
The rest of our exit was a bit of a blur – each of us lost increasingly in our own thoughts as our bodies slowly went numb from exhaustion and exercise. The grunt up and over the Quartz Hill shoulder was pretty tiring but nothing compared to the unending sufferfest that was the Sunshine road to the parking lot! We were walking zombies at this point and walked into the parking lot right at midnight. My “Move Ring” on the iWatch spun around 5 times – a new record for me! Apparently I burned around 7,500 calories and did over 66,000 steps in this 18 hour marathon. That explains the slight stiffness in my left knee the next day anyway.
Overall, Nestor Peak and the entire weekend was a great experience in the Rockies for me. We pioneered at least one and probably two new routes to three peaks with stunning views in all directions. We hiked over 75km and 4400m of elevation gain in 2 marathon days, pushing ourselves mentally and physically in every way with bushwhacking and route finding. Sure – it was exhausting too. We certainly can’t do these types of trips every weekend without doing permanent damage to ourselves. But doing it this once proved that we are capable of even more and once again we got to realize our potential for suffering while also greatly enjoying the incredible backcountry of the Rockies.