I’ve been really interested in skiing the remote Mt. Warren and Brazeau for a while, they’re gorgeous 11,000 foot peaks all by their lonesome in Jasper National Park. However, it didn’t quite sink in until this spring that they weren’t like regular 11,000’ers, for which the ideal time of year is usually spring. The only way to do it in spring is to slog up Poboktan Creek, from the west side of the peaks. A much more classy way is to come in from the north, via Maligne Lake. The trouble is it would still be frozen into June. So a late summer/early fall attempt seemed ideal. This summer has been quite snowy, and after a friend went up via Poboktan to climb the peaks in mid-August, I got really excited about how the snow was starting to tack onto the ice faces, so big shout-out to Raf for the impetus for this trip. With my eyes glued to the forecast and weather stations, it didn’t take long for ideal conditions to present themselves, and with the knowledge of a great transition layer of snow already stuck to the ice, it was game on.
I got off work all of a half hour early, and Ian and I were off, up the parkway to Maligne Lake. We loaded up and started paddling, and once we made it into the first big part of the lake, we got a nice tailwind starting. We decided to stick somewhere between the most direct route and the east shore, and before long the waves had built up enough we were crapping our pants all the way down the east shore. It wasn’t advisable to try to go across the wind in order to get to the much calmer west shore We were committed, so we just kept going. With only a little water in the canoe, we made it to the narrows on the far end, and out into the next big part which was much more agreeable. After four hours on the lake, we beached on the right side of the outflow of Warren Creek, left the heavy beer behind and started into the whiskey and bushwhacking.
|Waves are starting to get bigger,
|We forgot a bailing bucket,
luckily beer fixes all problems
At first, we made quick progress on the gravel flats of the lower creek, but as the creek climbed it turned into a small canyon, and we were forced into the trees above. Luckily, there was an old, very loamy trail. Unluckily, it was a climber’s trail, not brushed near wide or tall enough for silly skiers, so any progress was still fought for. Eventually, it opened up into the final gravel flat below the last headwall out of the trees and into the alpine. We lost the trail around here, and crushed our way up generally steep but nice mossy terrain between the two major flows off the Brazeau Icefield, threading between massive boulders. There is evidence all over of an absolutely massive rockslide into the area, but for the life of me, I couldn’t figure out where the material came from.
From there, we followed the climbers right drainage to the only tarn with clear water I could see from orbit. We had prepared to camp on the ice, but it was too late in the day to bother trying, and we were both tired of carrying the backbreaking pigs. Our camp was actually pretty great, it was nearly balmy there at light. On the way back out there was a heavier frost in the gravel flats hundred of meters below than at our camp, somehow it avoids the glacial winds. On the downside, Ian discovered little swimmers in the water after we had taken in liters of it already. There was little choice, with no in or outflow stream to pull from, any flow was under the rock of the massive glacial bed all around us.
The next morning we headed out the door and up toward the ice. We got skis on the lowest part of the ice that originates from the Brazeau-Warren (B-W) col and later crossed a medial moraine onto the most placid ice spilling off the high glacial plateau under Mt. Warren, the left-most of the NE facing tongues of that glacier. Unfortunately, there was a rain crust under the fresh pow that made skinning a fruitless activity, so we bootpacked up to where it flattens out at the start of the plateau. Then we were on skis and skins in bright, beautiful sun, probing our way through the crevasse area where the ice has to decide if it wants to go down the NE tongue and die an early death at higher elevation, or go SE to join the main Brazeau Icefield and cruise a bit further toward valley bottom. The ice’s indecision led to a fair bit of the same on our part, and the skintrack went up, down and around the crevasses in a random route.
At least the east ridge of Warren looked great, and snow was awesome. We skinned over a big fat zipper over the schrund, un-roped and climbed straight up the ridge. I was able to keep on skins despite the slope being pretty steep, the snow was just so damn good. Then we headed NW over the twin summits along the summit ridge. I had seen a very interesting line running directly off the NW summit, but from the plateau below was convinced it was far too bold of a line to possibly be good skiing. The snow on ascent changed my mind though, and reviewing the pictures I took, I was able to find a solution to the cruxes at the bottom of the line.
On the NW summit, Ian was interested in something close to the east ridge, so I told him I’d watch him ski that and make up my mind on the snow of this steep bugger. I used my time to adze off some hard snow from the summit cornice, and watching the hard chunks spray up clouds of pow all the way down, I was already convinced. After Ian was down, I eased my way in, the top was just really light pow ontop of a hard summer snow layer, which though not particularly pleasant, was much more skiable than ice would be. But the support-less pow built to a sufficient depth to pad my hop turns and it was already fun. Then after making a turn over a defined line across the face under the pow, the snow underneath started building in earnest, and before long, it was the absolute best of spring conditions, a big fat pack of increasing density with depth. I ripped a few fast turns once out on the big rib feature I intended to ski on, and once I’d had my fill, dug in deep and arrested to let the big sluff pass, the portion of it which wouldn’t get cleaved to either side of the rib. Then some more measured turns approaching the cliff band. I found the little couloir through the band perfectly, and it had some great snow on the side to stay out of the icy sluff runnel. Then I traversed out onto another rib feature over the bergschrund, and put a big heavy cut into the unsupported snow, to be sure before I got even closer to the schrund. Then a tiny huck off the rib feature into the sluff runnel which had already bridged the schrund completely, and down to Ian on the plateau.
I was pretty friggin amped on the line, I’ve never been able to ski a big steep white wall like that in that kind of condition. It was pretty awesome looking off to the side and seeing I was skiing something steep enough to support ice spines just off to the side where there was a crucial bit more wind loading of the winter’s snow. But there was an even bigger peak to bag still before the day was done, so Ian and I headed to the SE icefall off the Warren plateau. This link-up was brilliant, and never would’ve happened without Raf’s excellent pictures he shared with me of a mountaineering trip he took to the area a couple weeks prior. The crucial link was a way down beside the SE icefall, to the bowl under the B-W col, which would save us a ton of time when attempting both peaks in the same day.
Initially, the skiing was great, good corn on a nice planar sheet of ice. The route continued down and left after the ice ended over chossy crap which was fortunately covered in enough snow to ski. The SE icefall was looking above on the left, but stopping to grab some water from the exposed meltwater stream seemed prudent nonetheless. There was no evidence of serac fall in the couple-days-old canvas of snow on our route down for what that was worth. We rejoined the ice under the B-W col and started skinning up. The initial icefall looked like a pain in the ass, the ice was so thin near at the knuckle as the ice flowed from flat-ish terrain to near-vertical cliffs that the crevasses were nearly unavoidable. The only route was a traversing route under a big, active serac which was not conducive to climbing up, so we center-punched the icefall and to avoid climbing vertical ice out of a crevasse to get directly onto the ice beyond, walked along the rim of another crevasse which climbed as it went across the slope. From there, it was easy skinning up the high side of the ice near the ridgeline, which avoided the big crevasses we would have to go around.
Once we got to the base of the north face proper, we changed over to crampons and axes and got stoked for another big pow descent. Unfortunately, winds are seldom kind to NW aspects on tall, prominent pyramids, and as we climbed, the winds grew stronger and more energy-sapping, slowly worsening ski conditions. The snow I had noticed in Raf’s pictures had set up perfectly though, and was partway through its metamorphosis to becoming part of the alpine ice on the face. It was hard enough to not get pushed around by wind, but soft enough to easily accept an ice axe or ski edge. I went over to the south side to get out of the wind once at the top, and waited for Ian to make it up, thinking that maybe, possibly, might have been absolutely perfect snow in the morning.
Once Ian got up, I’d had enough of getting snowed on by the wind transport in the hot sun of the south side, and started heading down on skis. I stuck to the skiers left, close to the rock I thought might save some snow. But I was actually blown away by how fun the icy crap was to ski, I was really expecting it to be bad, but it wasn’t. Then halfway down I found a refuge from the wind, and skied some great creamy pow. After was the final pitch down across the schrund, where I had to go back right and into the worst of the wind stripped ice, but right across the schrund was perfect, deep pow. The rest of the north face was glorious, awesome snow in the early evening. We hooked up with the traverse under the big serac, a much more palatable option with the speed of skis. From there was just fast running down flat glacier, hugging the seracs above on the right until the big rockfall off the NE ridge of Brazeau told us we could make our turn toward the hiking boots while avoiding the big crevasse zones of the lower icefield.
Ian damn near ran down to the tent, and I plodded down to save the knees which I’d definitely want working well tomorrow with the big pack. Plus I was exhausted. I arrived near dark to dinner already boiling on the jetboil and we were thankful for the extra whiskey Ian brought up. The next morning, we broke camp and started down the same way we came up. On the headwall descending from the alpine we stuck closer to the climbers right, and came across a trail which seemed to traverse into the climbers right ravine hemming in the headwall. We decided the loose scree looked like an inviting way to go down and went in. I’m not sure it was any better than the steep moss, but it wasn’t any worse either. We rejoined the trail in the gravel flats below, and crushed the close-pressing trees to get to the canoe. Unlike on the way up though, weather was stellar and we soaked in the scenery.
The canoe back to civilization was much more civilized, with only a breath of wind, the boat waves were the only things to worry about. And they slowed down for us, very courteous. Despite lacking a tail wind, we needed to take fewer shore breaks as calming the nerves wasn’t an issue, and made it out in the same four hours it took to make the 22km the first time. Then drive back to Golden, unpack some of the gear and head into work for another night shift.