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Weekend Militant

So, after a few weekends of long approaches and big packs and bushwhacks, I decided to take it a bit easier this time round and hit up some of the road lines that were still on my list. The first of these was Mt Victoria North Peak’s north face. The face is one of the harder lines to actually inspect prior to going, especially considering the close proximity to the highway and other peaks around. Because of this, I decided against coming up from the Lake Louise side and dropping it off the top into BC, as doing so would allow an inspection of only one of the three steep ice sections.

Anyways, off work at 11pm, up at 1:30 and heading toward the face by 3am. I wanted to be past the fall line of the most dangerous unstable-looking serac before it got light at 7am. So, I headed up the 5km up the O’hara road to the bottom of Vic’s drainage ravine, and then straight up it. For not having an actual trail, it was a great approach, steep enough you aren’t wasting any time just travelling horizontally, and the ground is a mass of rounded river stones washed presumably from an old moraine. The rock works wonderfully to choke out most of the alder and organics that would normally plug up a watercourse.

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Once I got high enough to see around the corner to the face, things were of course not looking quite great. The face is made of three icefalls, the bottom two becoming increasingly broken as years pass and the top mostly stationary alpine ice. The bottom two, from my vantage, were not in condition for skiing, there was more blue ice than bits of white and the white bits did not connect in an inviting way. There were two sneak-bys of the icefalls on the left side, where the ice meets the rock; they were my fall-back and they were looking OK enough. Skiing the guts of the line through the icefalls though, that would be an incredible line. So I climbed up the bare smooth ice of the glacial tongue, toward the first sneak which was too narrow to ski. After that I was able to start skinning, up toward the second which was wider and nicely-filled. That brought me ontop of the large broad crevasses and bergshrunds of the second icefall to a short plateau below the consistently steep pitch of the upper face. I probed the location of the last schrund before switching to plates to make the final climb to the summit.

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There are four possible ways through the upper icefall, but the only two that were looking in condition were on the right side of the face, quite a distance in a traverse from the summit. So I took the closer of the two options, with just one short bit that looked like it was probably quite thin snow on the ice. However, before I got to the crux, my axe started punching into a weaker layer. After searching around enough to determine the weak layer was not isolated to a small area, I dug a pit and found a 10cm or so basal layer, substantially weaker than those above, with a crust on the top of it, and producing easy-moderate results once isolated. It is certainly well-bridged, and it would take a lot to trigger it, but if it did, there would be quite a massive avalanche resulting. I decided, especially given that I would soon be coming to thinner snow near the crux, to not poke the sleeping dog, and turned around a mere hundred meters from the summit.

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The weather was slowly becoming more cloudy and snowy as I climbed- an asset given the multitude of overhead hazards- and a cloud got impaled on the summit as I was climbing the upper face and led to getting a foggy soup for descent. Snow conditions on the upper face were great though, many short turns were had in great snow. After getting over the scrund to the plateau, visibility was good and there was more good snow to shred. At the lower of the two sneaky chutes, a rock came off a west aspect of Collier and reminded me that this wasn’t just another fun ski run, but one of the more exposed lines around. I got serious and transitioned to crampons quickly to downclimb the short narrow couloir, and changed back to skis under cover of a cliff. Then I quickly skied out until I was no longer in the crosshairs of the lower serac before I relented to thoughts of what a fun run that was, in a magnificent wild place.

After getting back to the truck, I drove up to the Columbia Icefields to meet up with Trevor and Shaun for tomorrow’s objective of Mt. Andromeda north face. Unfortunately, Trevor had some issues with his sleeping setup and come morning, felt he had to bail. So Shaun and I headed up, I on my bike. The moraines on the way up sure make for needlessly slow going with all the transitions, but they also make a new skyline seemingly every 5 minutes, making for great pictures. There were plenty of tracks to follow, and only once we turned away from Skyladder did we need to start making our own decisions on the glacier. We were going to skin up past the scrund, but with all the death cookies from avalanche debris of days previous, we had to start bootpacking earlier. I found a nice zipper for the scrund, and then we were going up the north face.

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I was surprised how easy it was, the slope held around 45* forever and ever. Then we got to the top of the face, where things are a bit steeper, but more importantly, the snow does not really stick to the ice anymore. I was stoked to be swinging the axes and climbing something interesting, but Shaun wasn’t feeling it and decided to wait for me. After a bit of trying, I realized that what I would consider the most “true” line on the north face, that squeaks by the serac at the top was not in shape to ski, I could perhaps climb it but I would have to rappel most of it coming down as the ice under the snow was mostly smooth and hard alpine ice. I went to the next option climbers left, where there is a short couloir leading to the ridge. It is probably similar to the “true face” in summer, but the slight concavity must make the sluffs running through the guts of it stick to the ice. In any case, the snow was pretty poor quality for skiing, but under the snow was at worst rotten ice or firn snow or something, which I could get an edge into at least. I set up a v-thread rappel to use on the way down where the couloir meets the face, as there was more alpine ice in the way with a required turn I wasn’t willing to make on skis alone.

After climbing to the ridge, the summit was wreathed in clouds, and I decided against making the short jaunt to it. There was no point in a summit a mere 20m higher than I was, just to look at cloud, plus I was concerned the weather could get worse. The skies had already put down 2cm of fresh snow through our climb. So I skied back down. The couloir was pretty straightforward, just make sure every turn went well and there was no problem. I grabbed my rope and rappelled down, then at the end of a rope fired in a screw and tied in to wrap up the rope. Shaun had decided to ski down before me, and had left a screw for his own rap below me, so I decided instead of taking the time to throw things in the pack, to just sideslip down to his screw and then do it all at once. With my hands full of rope and screws, I made a sideslip that got a bit fast for my liking, but when I stopped again, I was at the screw. I am perhaps too good of a guy, should’ve just left the damn protection there and skied down, as the footing was poor, hence why Shaun rappelled it. But for some reason, I decided to plant my edges and pull two bloody screws out, which had started to freeze in place since Shaun sunk em in. Then I made a quick turn skiers right over ice and crap to the concave part of the chute, where I knew I’d have poor snow quality, but good edge grip below, to finally square away my harness and pack for skiing down. The rest of the ski down was pretty mundane, as I expected from climbing it. A quick crossing at the scrund, then a bunch of fast powdery and corny turns down the glacier and moraines to the bike. Then a screamin’ fast bike back to the truck.

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