Summit Elevation (m): ~3300
Trip Date: Monday, July 27 2020
Elevation Gain from Bivy (m): 1000
Total Time from Bivy (hr): 6
Total Distance from Bivy (km): 9.5
Reference Trip: Upper Martin Creek
Quick ‘n Dirty Rating: Class 3 – you fall, you break something.
Difficulty Notes: Mount Augusta is likely a bit more than a simple scramble unless you get really dry conditions. For us it was an easy snow climb (II) with some very loose moderate terrain to the summit.
Technical Rating: SC7, MN6; RE5
GPS Track: Download
Map: Google Maps
If it felt good to stand on Mount Harris earlier in the day, it felt positively GREAT to stand on the summit of Mount Augusta only around 6 hours later! Mount Augusta has been at the top of my wish list ever since seeing its gorgeous north glacier from Recondite Peak in 2013 and captured in the headline image above. But I’m getting way ahead of myself here – talking about summits when we haven’t left the bivy yet… 😉 When we got back to the bivy I had mixed emotions about our next objective. I’d been nervous about two things on Augusta ever since seeing it from Kentigern the day before. There was obviously snow near the summit and after getting a closer look at the col I realized there was also some huge cornices overhanging our route to the tilted scree bench that led up to the summit. I had been mentioning this to Phil for the past day or so already – that I wasn’t sure Augusta would be safe to climb. But we had the gear and we had the time and conditions so it had to be tried at least. We set off from camp at high noon under a cloudless, hot summer sky.
Phil had a direct route planned from our bivy up and across the valley that snuck in under Augusta’s south outlier and stayed under its SW flank until the bottom of the route to the col above. Mentioning “the col” is a bit misleading for two reasons. Firstly, the “Augusta col” that everyone else talks about is actually just west and above the col I’m talking about. This col leads down towards the Recondite valley and is used by climbing parties avoiding the long trudge down Dolomite Creek. The second reason I shouldn’t really use the term “col” is that we didn’t actually climb to it but only ascended under it before contouring up scree slabs towards the summit. Whatever the case may be, Phil’s planned route worked out perfectly.
As we hiked on firm snow towards the base of our ascent I continued to be nervous about the cornices hanging over our route. Phil had dismissed them as “quite small” from afar, but I knew better. They were massive – just being visible from kms away ensured that! I knew they were tons of snow and ice and could easily do some serious damage on us if they came down while we were ascending underneath them. I’ve heard stories of climbers getting massive bruises from falling chunks of snow and ice no bigger than a baseball and these were the size of small cars! Now you’re probably wondering why the heck I decided to take such a risk, why not simply turn back and enjoy a warm sunny afternoon at camp?
Turning back would have been the safest choice. (Well, not leaving my living room couch would have been the absolute safest choice but…) This is where alpine climbing takes over hiking and scrambling. I noticed on the traverse to the steep snow slope that Paul and Adam also climbed to their col under severe cornice exposure from even higher up, including recent evidence of rockfall and snow slides. This is the way it is when it comes to alpine climbing. I’ve been in numerous situations where I’ve been severely exposed to objective hazards that could easily result in injury or death. Every time up the Columbia Icefields via the Athabasca Glacier. On many snow climbs including South Twin, Collie, Ayesha and many others. On loose climbs such as Puzzle, Assiniboine, Sir Douglas and many, many others. I don’t expect non-climbers to understand the math, but there are scenarios where I think it’s worth the risk to push the envelope of absolute safety a bit harder than I normally would back in the city or while hiking with my family. This was one of those times.
Trips like this aren’t easy and don’t come around all the time. It had taken Phil and I years to finally pull this one off after first mentioning it and we wouldn’t be back any time soon. This factors into deciding whether or not to take a risk, whether we like to admit it or not. If we could simply come back the following week when the cornices were all collapsed the decision would have likely been quite different. But we weren’t coming back. As always, there were precautions we took to maximize safety even in this ‘situation’. The mitigation to the cornice risk was twofold. Firstly, we moved quickly up under a protective cliff below them. If the cornices collapsed while we were directly under the cliffs, most of the debris would pass right over us. Secondly, we moved even quicker up and around the cliffs on snow and up scree (keeping the crampons on for speed) until we were out of the line of direct fire. Phil did a masterful job here, burning what little energy reserves he had left to kick steps. Thanks bud. After 10 minutes of full-on exposure to the cornices we were out of the way and starting up a huge pile of some of the worse choss we’ve encountered since Cataract Peak 3 years ago on a very similar line.
I tried to lead as much of this horrid section as possible – both of our energy reserves were very quickly vanishing in the afternoon heat. I don’t usually mind scree bashes – I’ve made most of my mountain career out of dealing with copious amounts of loose rock underfoot but this stuff was especially heinous. Go try it if you don’t believe me. Now we only had the remaining dubious summit block challenge to get us up this beast of a mountain. From Harris we thought we saw a line up the south ridge / east face to the summit but after finally struggling up the last section of looseness we realized that was not a line we were willing to consider. We descended slightly and I traversed up and along a moat between a snow slope and rock to the gully mentioned by Rick in his report on the mountain. As I rounded the corner and gazed up the gully I realized it would likely go! I yelled back to Phil that this was a go and proceeded quickly upward. The gully was loose and steep and turned up into a slightly steeper shallow gully to the summit near the top. No more than moderate scrambling, but very exposed to a huge undercut rock from the summit above – something I didn’t realize until later.
I whooped aloud as I took the final few steps to the cairn, Phil following close behind me. I was VERY happy to be standing on this elusive, remote and wild summit – more satisfying to me personally than either Kentigern or Harris since those were both so technically easy in comparison. Augusta demanded an extra level of commitment and sacrifice – somewhat worthy of that fierce first glimpse I’d had of it from Recondite in 2013. When I peered into the summit cairn I saw another register – we were now 3/3 on this trip for finding old summit registers! Sure enough! We were also 3/3 with signing every single one of them 2 decades or more after Rick Collier last signed.
Phil wasn’t 100% thrilled when I scrambled up to the extremely friable high point, first sending down tons of loose rocks and boulders that I wasn’t willing to put my weight on. He wasn’t 100% thrilled with the whole pile of choss we were on to be perfectly honest, but he was thrilled once again with the sublime views we had in every direction! We spent half an hour on the summit, hydrating, eating and naming obscure summits in every direction.
Just as on Cataract, the horrid ascent slopes made for some very quick egress ones. We carefully downclimbed the top gullies one at a time – I waited for Phil until he was completely clear of the lower one before starting down myself. It was only then that I noticed how horribly undercut the summit block was and that there was a real possibility of all, or a large part of it crashing down on me as I exited the gullies below! I very quickly slid and scrambled down the gullies and breathed a sigh of relief when I was through the moat and back on scree. We made a decision already on ascent that instead of retracing our steps under the cornices, we’d traverse straight to a large snow slope further west and descend quickly there – hopefully a bit less exposed to direct fire right next to the rock wall lining this route.
The large snow slope worked – sort of. There was still more exposure to the cornices than I would have preferred but the consequences of a fall or a slide were less severe with a long snow slope running out to the valley bottom below. I plunge-stepped the slope facing outward and Phil took a bit more time, not being quite as confident on the steep snow as me. Remember – we’re in approach shoes too, so not exactly the world’s best snow / ice climbing gear! As I exited the slope I was surprised to see Paul and Adam just walking out of the valley ahead of us. I yelled and waved and they waved back. It was so strange seeing two other people walking through such an off-grid landscape.
Once clear of cornice hang-fire we breathed a sigh of relief and enjoyed the moment. Our trip was essentially done! We’d come in over 2800m col, accessed a perfect bivy at the east end of the Upper Martin Creek valley and ascended all 3 of the planned peaks via our planned routes. Other than a short and easy visit to a spectacular waterfall, we’d accomplished everything we set out to do. It felt great. As we walked into camp only 6 hours after leaving it, I was feeling deeply satisfied with myself and with my summer of 2020. I’ve managed to do so many gorgeous trips and so many top-of-the list objectives that I think any other peaks from here until 2021 will be bonus material. And that’s a good feeling.