Summit Elevation (m): 3194
Trip Date: Sunday, August 09 2020
Elevation Gain (m): 1550
Round Trip Time (hr): 10
Total Trip Distance (km): 28
Quick ‘n Dirty Rating: Class 3/4 – you fall, you likely die or suffer severe injuries
Difficulty Notes: Rated alpine for my ascent due to a snow climb and objective hazard from rock fall off the ridge above. Exposed ridge to the summit from the top of the access ledge.
Technical Rating: SC7; RE3/4
GPS Track: Download
Map: Google Maps
There are many different feelings associated with successfully attaining a summit. There’s always a great feeling of accomplishment, especially after long-sought adventures such as I had on Mount King Edward where it took me 3 attempts and a lot of time and effort to finally stand on its apex. Usually there’s feelings of regret too – since I will so rarely repeat a peak, especially remote ones such as Cataract Peak, Mount Drummond and many others that I’ve done. Every once in a while there’s feelings of relief that I came off the peak unscathed and will never have to go back – and that’s how I feel after ascending Mount Foch this past Sunday. I haven’t felt this way often but Puzzle Peak, Recondite Peak and a few others have felt similar over the years. There are simply too many hazards and difficulties outside of my control to feel that peaks like Foch can be attained within my normal safety tolerances. I am no stranger to objective hazards – I just wrote about dealing with them in my Mount Augusta trip report a few weeks ago. Objective hazards include cornice failure, rockfall, loose terrain, seracs and many other mountain features, but usually the wise climber is only exposed to these for short periods of time. Simple logic says that the longer you expose yourself to uncontrollable factors that can injure or kill you, the more likely you will end up in those states. The mountains don’t care how much experience you have or how brave you are.
Long before Alan Kane added Mount Foch to his 3rd edition Scrambles guidebook, it was on my radar as a rarely done, interesting objective that likely had stunning summit views. After the new book came out and folks started paying attention to Foch, it dropped down my list – I prefer peaks that aren’t too popular. In 2018 Mike and Liz scrambled the mountain giving firsthand feedback to the scrambling community. This was both a good and a bad thing. It’s always good to have beta, but this beta was more of the scary kind than the enticing kind! Another friend, Doug Lutz soloed the peak via Kane’s route also in 2018 and confirmed what Mike and Liz had relayed previously. Mount Foch was quickly becoming a legend in the scrambling community for all the wrong reasons. It was obviously very loose, very exposed and somewhat dangerous. The question could be asked why it was added to a general “scrambles” guidebook. So, why did I do it? Simple. It’s always been on my radar – I was going to attempt this peak whether or not it was ever put in a book. (And that’s true for a great deal more peaks too, just FYI.)
After looking at Doug’s photos and my own from Mount Sarrail, I came up with an alternate ascent route from the valley between Sarrail and Foch that looked to avoid much of the dangerous downclimbs from the false summit. I drew up the plans and they sat in my Google Drive for a few years waiting for me to try them out. When I received my signed copy of David Jones’ Rockies South climber’s guide to the Rocky Mountains of Canada in April of this year, I looked at what he says regarding Mount Foch. Routes 53 and 54 mention the west-southwest ridge that I assume is the tail end of my route from where my ledge tops out. Route 53 mentions accessing the Foch glacier from the summit of Sarrail which is very misleading for anyone only wanting to climb Foch. Why bother with the summit of Sarrail at all? This was the original ascent party’s route in 1930 and the glacier is MUCH smaller now – almost nonexistent. I couldn’t see a promising route down southwest slopes from Sarrail to this glacier – see my route photos for the large red question marks on Sarrail’s SW slopes. The glacier is so small in 2020 that I don’t think the original route would work as it did 100 years ago. I think the alpine rating on both routes 53 and 54 of “PD-” which includes 4th and low 5th class rock and steep snow and is more than fair and likely a bit stiff for the route I took which is not more than difficult scrambling. Enough preamble and foreplay! Time to get into the trip report.
I was in a pretty darn good mood as I left the Upper Kananaskis Lake parking lot at 07:31 on Sunday morning, August 09 2020. Why wouldn’t I be? The day was starting out brilliantly with a clear sky, cool temperatures and stunning views across the blue waters of the man made reservoir. I was giving myself a 50% shot at attaining the summit of Foch with a backup plan of repeating Mount Sarrail since I did it many years ago and wanted to repeat it for updated photos. Why only 50%? Two reasons. Firstly, I was attempting to solo a route that I’d devised a few years ago based on photos and gut feel so there was no guarantees it would go. Secondly, the first fresh snows of August had fallen the day previous and was clearly showing on several of the higher peaks. Fresh snow on Foch’s summit ridge was not ideal! Even better? I was in approach shoes with my light aluminium crampons and only one alpine ax. What could go wrong?! I’ve done the approach to Hidden and Aster Lakes twice before but still wasn’t 100% certain where the trail to Hidden Lake turned off the main lake trail I was on. Now I realize there’s two trails turning off – no wonder I was so confused! When coming from The Point campground there is a trail near the outlet stream from Hidden Lake. When hiking from the Upper Kananaskis Lake parking lot there is a “shortcut” trail just under 5km in, also marked with “HL” but slightly less traveled and maintained than the other one that I took when we climbed Mount Joffre. Due to its ups and downs and less maintenance, I’m not sure if it’s actually a “shortcut” or not but I didn’t mind it and took it both directions with no issues.
I was moving along at a good pace, even up and down the shortcut trail to Hidden Lake. The birds were chirping and the sun was trying to bust through the thick canopy of trees as I continued along an undulating trail beside an appropriately barely visible, Hidden Lake. I was hoping I could hike along the shoreline but the lake was very full – hinting at plenty of snow still in the alpine above. Not for the first time this day I wondered if I was choosing the appropriate conditions for Foch but I was here now, so I forged on. The trail continued steeply up forest to avalanche / boulder slopes above the lake and I continued glancing back as the views behind me improved with every step. As I ascended towards the distant headwall I could see snow clinging to its steepest steps and wondered if I’d be pulling the crampons on much earlier than expected.
As I approached the headwall section ending the steep grunt from Hidden Lake to the upper alpine meadows above, I could see that the patches of snow were largely melted back with a few tricky steps to get around or up them. As I passed by the first patch I poked at it with my hiking pole and was shocked how rock hard it was! Obviously the previous days rain and cold overnight temperatures had done their work on the snow pack and again I questioned my choice for the day. Would I wish I had my steel ‘pons instead of the light ones? I scrambled up the headwall, this section always feels stiffer than I remember it being. I would love to take Hanneke up to Aster Lake on a backpack trip someday but until they put chains on this section there’s no way I’ll even try bringing her up here. It’s moderate scrambling and with the snow and ice it was a few moves on stiff moderate terrain. With a large pack I’m sure more than one person is surprised at this point of the hike and wonders if they’re even on route. I knew this was easy stuff compared to the rest of my day and didn’t think on it too much.
Once above the headwall I continued up the lovely trail leading past the lower scramble route on Mount Sarrail that I’d done 14 years ago in 2006. Wildflowers were exploding in every direction and despite a cool wind, the sun was warm as I hiked to the Marlborough Pond / Aster Lake trail junction. There were a bunch of sticks laid over the trail leading to the warden cabin and Marlborough Pond but I defiantly stepped over them and continued hiking on a good trail above a mostly dry Foch Pond. I followed the trail as it grew fainter and fainter until it pretty much faded away, up a lovely creek coming out of the unseen pond above. My planned route was now well left of me so I exited the creek and wandered up alpine meadows filled with wildflowers, uncountable fossils and a few noisy marmots.
Finally I topped out to views of my planned ascent route looking much drier and simpler than I’d expected. I didn’t want to get my hopes up too high but from my vantage it looked like a go. I continued up the lovely alpine meadows towards the valley between Mount Sarrail and Foch, traversing below the false summit of Foch and happy I didn’t have to slog up there today! As I hiked into the valley and started scoping some snowy ascent lines I noticed a surprising amount of rockfall coming off the false summit down the north face beside me. I didn’t think much of it at the time, I thought maybe some goats were traversing high above me and were kicking stuff down – that’s how much stuff was falling. I got to the bottom of a large snow slope and decided it was time to put up or shut up. In the wise words of Rob Schnell, “less talk and more action”. I strapped on the ‘pons, took out the ax and started up very firm snow to the upper scree ledges.
As with slabs, snow slopes usually look a bit easier than they are when you’re half way up them. As I climbed the slope it got bigger and more exposed behind me but I was feeling great and was moving quickly so I didn’t worry about it. Climbing rock hard snow in light crampons in approach shoes with one ax does start to feel spicy at some point. I had to keep knocking the ‘pons back onto my feet properly as approach shoes don’t have stiff enough shanks to keep them on when ascending steep terrain – they kept threatening to slide off my toes. I had them cinched very tightly so they weren’t going anywhere but if they slipped off I would have to stop and redo them which would be a PITA on the snow slope. I was about half way to my chosen ledge when I first heard a low humming noise nearby that lasted only seconds. I thought the noise was somewhat familiar and likely not a great thing but I was in the zone and kept climbing. Then I heard it again. Something was not right.
As I neared the lower part of my target scree / snow ledge to the summit ridge I realized what the humming / throbbing noise was. Rocks were coming off the steep north face above me and picking up ferocious speed on the steep snow slope above before hurtling past me close enough to hear them ripping through the air! Holy Shit Balls!! I haven’t had the privilege of this kind of objective hazard very often in my career, but it’s a sound you don’t soon forget. My feelings that something wasn’t right was bad memories from previous situations where rocks came so close to hitting me. At this point I knew I had two choices and neither were perfect. I could ascend as quickly as possible to get out of the hang fire from above or I could turn around and tuck tail, still subjected to rockfall that I now noticed were coming down all over my ascent slope. I quickly calculated that my odds of getting hit by something large was still fairly small and upped my pace to the ledge above. I was hoping cliffs above the ledge would project any rocks outward, giving them less chance of smashing into me. If you haven’t experienced this threat before – trust me, when you’re in it you feel extremely vulnerable. Rocks the size of baseballs going terminal velocity can definitely do a lot of damage to a human body, including breaking bones, smashing your face or knocking you off a steep, rock hard snow slope to rocky slopes far below where you’ll suffer even more damage. Rockfall sounds minor until you’re in it. Than it’s scary AF. (I should point out that the rock fall was especially bad this particular day due to recent snowfall and subsequent melting and expanding of the ice. On a normal day I’m sure it’s much less scary here.)
Once on my chosen ledge I realized that the scree was mostly frozen rock hard which wasn’t great. Another thing I noticed was that rocks were also falling directly onto the ledge, the threat from above was obviously going to continue all the way to the upper SW ridge. There wasn’t much to do at this point but keep the crampons on despite the rock and continue up, so that’s what I did. I was thankful to be in pretty good shape from a summer of scrambling ascending from the valley to the upper SW ridge in only around an hour – still a long time to be subjected to the rockfall hazard but quick considering it was most of my height gain up Foch! I took a few minutes to take off the crampons once on the ridge and noticed the left one was busted. Yes! Now I could descend with a busted crampon on top of everything else. Good times. This was a future Vern problem so I decided to stress about it later and looked to the ridge ahead instead. It didn’t look too horrible but I knew I couldn’t see the summit yet. Looking back up to the false summit I could definitely see some of the nasty downclimbs my route had avoided and was very glad my route worked so well, despite some of the hazard it entails.
After eating half a PB&J and some much needed water I proceeded up the SW ridge towards the summit. Views were stunning in every direction despite much more cloud cover than expected. I was very happy with the clouds as the rockfall would have been even worse without them. Speaking of worse, the one thing I’d underestimated in all my planning was how difficult the SW ridge to the summit would be. Available trip reports didn’t mention this section for the simple reason that it’s not as tough as some of the preceding downclimbs, but it still holds plenty of SC7, difficult scrambling terrain. I did at least two tricky down climbs that involved steep, exposed and terribly loose and friable rock. A fall on either of them would injure or kill so care was required here and this section should not be underestimated! I enjoyed the scrambling though, and it was solid where necessary.
The infamous “sidewalk” feature looked very severe from a distance but as everyone says, it was basically a walk up on slabs with scree. From the top of this feature I had to do a double take as the terrain to the summit looked pretty intense compared to what I was expecting. Apparently Foch was going to throw some interesting terrain at me despite my shortcut, fancy ledge route to the ridge. Again, I feel that the final section of ridge to the summit is slightly undersold by previous parties due to the severe downclimbs earlier on the ridge but it deserves the SC7 rating all on its own. I haven’t straddled a knife edge very often in the mountains but I was riding the dragon back au cheval style on this occasion! It was easily as narrow and exposed as the guillotine on Mount French – although shorter. Thank goodness the rock on this section is fairly solid or I likely would have turned back here. Again, I really enjoyed this section but for people that merrily walk over it – this is pretty cavalier for such an exposed and loose feature!
I was very happy to take the last few steps to the summit of Mount Foch despite fresh snow underfoot. The views were every bit as good as I suspected they might be and the register was fairly sparse considering the peak is now part of a scrambler’s checklist. I agree wholeheartedly with the wise words of Dave Jones entry;
What a pile of crap! Thank you Alan.
I spent 20 minutes in a cool wind taking photos and preparing myself for the descent. I wasn’t sure at this point if I should retrace my ascent route and subject myself to the hazards of rockfall or climb up the difficult downclimbs to the false summit and subject myself to the hazards of climbing on crumbling rock with severe exposure.
I butt-scooted my way back over the narrow dragon back just under the summit and proceeded down the ridge, climbing up all the downclimbs I’d done on my way up. I still wasn’t sure what I was going to do for the rest of my descent. Should I climb up all the gnarly sections ahead? The way back was certainly feeling much easier thanks to the terrain – going up the difficulties instead of down them. But I hadn’t come down the ridge from the false summit and I knew for a fact that my approach route would be very quick in reverse thanks to scree and softening snow slopes. As I continued my debate on top of the ledge route I could see rocks falling over my tracks down below and knew that the objective hazards were not going to be less than they were earlier. I decided that speed was key and prepared for the snow descent. My left crampon was snapped along the side of the heel piece thanks to my ascent on frozen scree but I strapped it so tightly to my shoe that it couldn’t budge and hoped for the best. I would rather deal with random rocks than the friable crap I’d already experienced to the summit. Also I was more protected on descent since my back was facing the north face – rocks would likely hit my pack or my helmet instead of my chest or face. I kept my summit layers on for extra protection and put both my hoods over my helmet to help protect my neck. It was go time!
The descent went much better than I could have hoped for given the hazards and my busted crampon. I stumbled my way back down the half-frozen scree bench on a mix of scree and snow before getting onto the large snow slope. Thankfully the snow had softened a bit and I simply plunge-stepped my way down it as fast as possible while the occasional rock zipped past me at incredible velocity. I breathed a huge sigh of relief once I was off the bottom of the slope and out of any immediate danger from above. Rocks continued to fall constantly down the north face and over my route as I sat over a peaceful Sarrail Pond and enjoyed the last half of my PB&J and contemplated some of my life choices for a few minutes. The hike back down the valley to Foch Creek was very tranquil and welcome. Hiking back down a very narrow Foch Creek was fun and dumped me out at the dried up Foch Pond by a sign pointing the way to the warden cabin, which I apparently had already passed but hadn’t seen somehow.
From Foch Pond I enjoyed the hike back to the top of the headwall with another nice break along the way on some soft ground with sublime views and warm sunshine. Reluctantly I dragged myself up after 15 minutes and proceeded to the headwall where I met a few more folks coming up. From here it was a quick drop to Hidden Lake and a very enjoyable walk back along the Upper Kananaskis Lake trail to the trailhead.
There’s not much else for me to say about Mount Foch other than I enjoyed planning and executing the route I took. I’m still not sure it’s worth being as popular as it’s become this year for some reason (at least 2 or 3 other ascents besides mine). There’s many other difficult, fun, somewhat safe mountains to be climbed in the Rockies. If you do chose to ascend, please go with a very small group and make an informed decision on which route to take – neither of the routes I know about are much safer than the other, all things considered. There are two things going for the route I took – speed and comparative simple terrain. My round trip time of 10 hours shaves at least a couple hours off the Kane route simply due to less distance and less time on slow, exposed, tricky downclimbing. I am happy that I found a quicker route and delighted with the amazing summit views from Mount Foch but I am conflicted about how many coins I used from my luck jar with the conditions I had. There’s only so many of those and I like to keep it as full as possible.
Awesome post with beautiful photos. Really enjoyed what you had to say about assessing risk and your honest thoughts on this scramble. While not something I’d ever do (don’t have the skills or the guts) it was great seeing it through your eyes!