Oh yeah, it never ends! A week ago, I skied Forbes, my biggest Rocky yet at 3612m. Though I didn’t plan it like this, this is the final peak I’ve skied a line off this year in the Banff-Yoho-Kootenay big boys trifecta. Forbes, the biggest peak wholly within Banff Park, Goodsir S tower representing Yoho and Mt Ball, again, the largest peak fully within Kootenay Park. Mt Ball was an awful day of really bad bush, driving snow near the summit and legitimately hazardous runnels and crusts on the descent, finally culminating in fatigue-induced hallucinations on the escape, so I didn’t bother writing it up, but Forbes on the other hand, what a beaut of a ski mish!
I first tried for Forbes two weeks prior, with a different crew and a different approach. We went up the BC side around the rim of Icefall Canyon, the plan being to cross the divide, go down the Mons Icefield east toward its terminus, and then ascend part of the North Forbes Glacier, all in one day. Then bivy and ski the face and exit the next day. Oh, and in fresh powder. It was a big gamble, one that didn’t pay off. The approach was too ambitious, especially with the extra load of overnight gear, and fresh pow means weather, and in June, weather means a pretty good chance of lightning and locally heavy loading. We nixed the plan at the divide and skied partway up Mons Peak in seemingly good weather the next day, only for an ominous black cloud to form to the west. With tingling axes, we retreated all the way back to the truck.
That was then though, and this was now. Or a week ago anyways. Ian Holmes came along from Calgary, and due to work engagements, we left Golden at noon. There are numerous sources of beta around for the approach, this is a great one. Needless to say, the road is pretty gnarly, and the terrain tries its darndest to take the road back. On my first attempt, we arrived in time to watch a tractor clearing rubble off a particularly loose and steep embankment over the road, it would’ve been at least an hour’s work to clear it even for my capable, crappy truck let alone something you care about. It’s so active that even in early spring when I went for Arras with Ian Button, I had to roll some boulders to clear a sled width. After that, there’s the broken bridge, a steep walled creek crossing where Icefall Brook peels away from the Valenciennes River, a new deepwater crossing in a swamp (luckily the road underneath is still solid footing) and a few rocky washes of debris at seasonal meltwater ravines.
Then you start walking. There’s about a click of road marooned by a raging creek, before you start into the bush and gain elevation. Quite a bit, the trail rises 700m in its first 4km. You first head up a large slidepath coming off a west aspect of Mons Peak. If you’re lucky, you can pick up where the trail enters the trees on climbers left, close to where the main slidepath closes into a canyon. If you’re unlucky, you’ll carry an ungainly 50 pound pack through dense alder up a steep slidepath to climbers left of the main one. You’re guaranteed to hook up with the trail that way, as I reasoned on my first time up the trail. Once you do the initial steep gain, the rest of the trail is gorgeous, part of the equation when you’re traversing a scree slope with 300-600m of airy cliffs below you. Each time, I have lost the trail when it leaves the upper forest, but no matter, as the ground is decent enough. Ian H. and I used a chute that was still holding snow to make the ascent up to the Divide, as it is quite an easy way to pierce the final cliffs for equipment such as skiers carry. It will likely melt out soon though. After the four hour hike, we settled down in the Mons hut, an awesomely outfitted tin can, surrounded by some of the best ice in the Rockies.
After a good nights sleep (for me anyways), it was time to go for Forbes. It is debatable if the North Forbes Glacier route was a good way to go on my initial attempt, but with the extra two weeks of melt, it was undoubtedly a stupid idea now. It has a reputation for being a nightmare of crevasses, and with so little left over firn snow from last year, the relatively meager winter and the merely OK freeze, it was clear it would not be a good route. Instead, we went for the SW glacier route which gains the North Glacier just at the start of the north face of Forbes, detailed superbly here.
To sum up, there are three routes from the SW glacier to the North; Rosita couloir, a long and steep ascent up Rosita ridge, with a similar feature on the other side. It was near to melting out near the crux, and simply too much work to commit to. The second is over the low col connecting the Mons Icefield and the Forbes SW Glacier, then over another col between Rosita Peak and Mount Forbes onto the Forbes North Glacier. This is the route I took, as it is less steep than Rosita Couloir and less elevation gain and loss to the face. There is a third way though, which the previous beta advises against. Right at the head of the Mons Icefield, there a most inviting looking draw up to another col, slightly higher than the other one off the Mons. It deceivingly looks to head straight onto the North Glacier in one shot, but is estranged by a quite difficult looking cliff. You must instead descend to the SW Glacier and up the Forbes-Rosita col, just as the route up the other col. It looks to be a nice ski run though, a steep and wide chunk of ice with a small avoidable schrund on it.
As inviting as that sounds though, I took the low col. Crossing the Mons Icefield and climbing to the top was smooth sailing. Ian hadn’t slept well, and wasn’t certain the forecasted sun would show itself; the whole morning the clouds promised poor weather, and the summit of Forbes itself perpetually wreathed in cloud. I was upbeat though, a mixture of faith in the weather and an unwillingness to turn back on Forbes again. Good sleep helps too. At the head of the Mons, Ian decided he was content to wait on the col and snap pictures with his big glass while I soloed the remainder. I headed down to the SW glacier on a ledge of snowpatches and scree. I traversed to a flat spot below the next climb, so flat I just skated to the base of the chute leading to the Forbes-Rosita col and the North Glacier.
Then climb, and climb and climb. After climbing to the North Glacier, I traversed and climbed below a bergshrund to the middle of the north face. Then after climbing up and around another schrund, I found myself climbing the snowy mid face to an ice climb through the cruxes of rock, which led to the final climb up the lower angle upper face. On the lower part I was stoked as the day finally showed just how fine it would be. Above the ice I started getting puckered, even though it wasn’t particularly steep and holds were great. Just out of that head space a bit too long I guess. The upper face was technically and mentally easy, I was just exhausted and starting to ration the remains of my water. The summit was incredible, the lines in the Freshfields to the south simply awesome. The Lyells and its huge ice sheet to the north were likewise jaw dropping. But there was no reason to delay, so I got the skis on and pointed them downhill.
The skiing on the upper face was pretty shoddy, a breakable crust with sticky snow underneath was difficult to figure out how to ski. Same story through the rock crux. Once I got to the ice, the exposed patch looked to be short enough, and with a smooth enough tranny to just let the speed build and deal with it later on down the face. Seems preferable to making another v-thread. Super fun. Below the ice, I went skiers left of my ascent, to grab the nice steep turns above the upper schrund. Snow was great, and I was feeling good so I sent the schrund into a perfect tranny the likes of which I’m not sure I’ve experienced before. The rest was fun, easy turns to the flats. After a bit of walking to regain the Forbes-Rosita col, I found the chute to have great, consistent corn. After that though, I had to regain the head of the Mons Icefield on the ledge.
The ledge was much scarier on the way back up. The sun had turned the upper layer of snow into a certain mush that needed to be tamped down with a ski before it would actually support me. Otherwise it would sluff down, taking me with it. The worst bit was actually on dry ground, I was walking a short section of scree when it started avalanching, one rock would give in to gravity, which was the only thing holding another rock in, and so on. A series of calmly quick, or quickly calm steps led me out of the disaster threatening to wash my boots onto the SW Glacier below.
After that, we headed back to the hut, where there was ample whiskey awaiting after the twelve hour day. I felt before I came that I wanted to ski Mons Peak, as it is covered with perfect pitch ski slopes, but Ian wanted to get back to Calgary sooner than later, and with my hunger for lines satiated, I didn’t feel it was worth skiing the somewhat robust refrozen snow before it came into condition. The return to the truck took three hours, it could be done in close to two with better transitioning and less pack rearrangement on my part, but hey, what’s the rush?