North Victoria – Kicking off 2019 Summer Mountaineering

In July 2016, I took an Intro to Mountaineering Course through Yamnuska Mountain Adventures as I was keen to develop some alpine skills so that I would be able to start climbing taller and more complex mountains. On that trip, I met a handful of awesome women who have since become dear friends and adventure buddies! I made it a personal goal to climb at least one 11,000+ ft mountain in the Canadian Rockies every year, and I’m happy to say that I have far exceed that goal since 2016! My 11,000er tick list has been steadily growing, but more importantly, my confidence and skills in the alpine and backcountry are improving as well. I’m hoping to eventually write a trip report for all my 2019 alpine trips, but I’ll kick things off with a trip report about North Victoria, which was my first mountaineering objective of 2019, which I did with Hannah.

Hannah and I on top of North Victoria! Spoiler Alert: we made it the whole way!

First, I want to talk briefly about why I am writing these trip reports. If you don’t care, feel free to skip on to the next section! I’m not a mountain guide, or a professional climber or skier. I don’t have any wilderness certifications other than basic first aid and CPR and avalanche safety (the bare minimum in my opinion for anyone who participates in alpine activities). Who am I then, a novice mountaineer, to be writing these kinds of trip reports? I came up with three main reasons;

  1. I want to be able to look back on my experiences and adventures in the future and have these memories to keep and share with friends and family and future children. Our minds are notoriously unreliable and recording memories in writing with photos ensures some semblance of accuracy. In this sense, this blog and these trip reports serve as a sort of personal journal, but a cool one with pictures, that I can share with those who are close to me and may be interested in what I’m up to.
  2. Obviously, a lot of readers or people who come across my blog don’t know me, so they won’t care about what I’m up to! For these people, I want to provide a different perspective on mountaineering/scrambling/the backcountry. When reading trip reports for planning my own adventures, I have found that most of these reports are written typically by men, with superhuman fitness levels (they write things like, “although guide books state the approach will take 5-6 hours, it only took us 3!”), and while informative or have clever storytelling, lack the “learners” perspective. I would like to write about my struggles and the lessons learned just as much as I talk about my successes and achievements.
  3. As I referenced in my first post on this blog, I want to work on and improve my writing. Fledgling writers are often given the advice to ‘write what you know”, so this gives me an outlet to practice and improve my skill in this arena. So as a note for those looking for a purely informational trip report – this may not be the place for you, as I tend to be a fan of long form, essay-style writing (this may change in the future).

Ok then, let’s get back on track!

Trip Stats

Round trip time and distance: 1.5 Days (or can be done in a single day push in around 12-16 hours) and 21 km round trip

Elevation Gain and Max Elevation: 2,300 m; 3,388 m

About North Victoria

Mount Victoria is probably the most photographed mountain in Canada, although most people don’t know they are even taking a picture of it! It is, of course, that iconic mountain with the long flat ridge and massive glacier that spans the backdrop behind Lake Louise. The long ridge connects the south summit to the north summit, and only around 1000 meters lies between them. While the south summit is higher, the north summit reaches 11,116 ft, and is a worthy mountaineering objective in its own right.

Approach to Bivvy Site

Almost every trip report describes doing North Victoria in a single day push, starting at the Lake Louise parking lot as early as 2 AM! This would inevitably be a very long 12-18 hour day, and since Hannah and I were wanted to set ourselves up for success given this would be our first alpine objective of the season we opted to do this as a two-day trip instead.

To do this, we had to call the Lake Louise Parks office and request a bivvy permit for the night, which costs around $10 per person. They granted the permit to us easily once we explained we were planning to attempt North Victoria.

We drove up to Lake Louise after finishing up work on Friday July 12 and started hiking to the Plain of Six Glaciers trail up to the teahouse by 6 pm. Upon reaching the teahouse, we took a little break to have some water before starting on the trail towards the lookout point. However, about 100-200m from the teahouse, there is a trail that branches off to the right, beside an obvious boulder field. We took this well-trodden trail, which is deceptively steep but the steady switchbacks got us above the treeline in less than an hour. Above the treeline, there were several cairns that guided us through the scree field and moraine to reach the right-hand side edge of the Victoria Glacier.

Hannah hiking up the switchbacks above the tea house. Mount Lefroy, my first 11000er is in the background.

I’m pretty sure 99% of the reason I even bother mountaineering is for the beautiful bivvy sites! It’s not very often that one has the incredible opportunity to sleep right on the edge of a majestic glacier and watch the setting sun cast its warm golden rays across the valleys below. Hannah and I were also the only people there for the night, and it felt like we were a million miles away from the rest of civilization as we ate our Pad Thai backpackers meal and looked up towards the summit of North Victoria, planning our ascent for the next day.

Hannah and I hanging out at our beautiful bivvy site!

To the Summit!

Sleep evaded me most of the night. Whistling winds and several passing rain showers pit-pattered and rattled our small two-person tent. When I finally felt my body drift into a semi-conscious dream state, my cell-phone alarm blasted me awake at 3:30 AM. In my zombie state I somehow managed to get dressed properly, which is more than I can say for Hannah who forgot to put on one of her gaiters!  Thank goodness, Hannah remembered to pack some caffeine pills (a trick we picked up the year before from a couple guys on our trip to Mount Woolley) which perked us right up as we roped together and started to ascend the lower part of Victoria glacier.

The temperature was surprisingly warm and stayed around 10 degrees Celsius overnight, which meant the snow on the glacier was quite soft and there was no need to use crampons. As we steadily ascended the glacier, the sky started to brighten as dawn arrived, and we were able to see some old tracks in the snow that hadn’t been completely erased by the rain. This was helpful in navigating our way up the glacier, which has many large crevasses that yawn open into a dark abyss if you stray too far to the right or left. We stayed left of a large rock outcropping and continued to the upper part of the glacier which quickly flattened out for easy and quick travelling.

 One large obstacle typically looms between the glacier and beginning one’s ascent up to the ridge between North Victoria and Collier Peak, which is a bergshrund that runs across the length of the glacier. A bergshrund is a crevasse that forms between the moving part of the glacier and stagnant ice or headwall rock on the other side. We were fortunate however, because recent avalanche debris filled in a section of the bergshrund, creating a large and supportive snow bridge that we crossed with ease.  

The next section was much more difficult however. Referred to as “the black band”, we had to scramble up the steep slope on a treacherous mix alternating steep snow sections and wet rock ledges covered in loose rock debris. Going up required a lot of hands-on scrambling but we moved quickly and confidently up to the snow-covered ridge.

The glow of the sunrise illuminates the snowy ridge to the North Victoria Summit. South Victoria is tucked just inside the clouds.

By the time we reached the ridge, the sun was rising above Collier Peak. Earlier I said that my favourite thing about mountaineering was the bivvy site – but reminiscing on this morning, I might have to reevaluate! There is nothing quite like a sunrise high in the alpine – the way the alpenglow enshrouds the mountain peaks with warm shades of blush pinks, violets and rust orange. The way the rays of the sun extend in ribbons of gold across the horizon. The warmth of the sun’s morning glow on your face after trudging up a glacier in the night. The entire world below you illuminates, and the wonders of the earth are finally revealed before you, as far as the eye can see.  

Sunrise! Collier Peak is behind me.

Crossing and ascending the ridge was by far the most scenic part of this trip. Once you start ascending the ridge, there are sections of easy rock scrambling, until you reach a pillar of rock with a 5.3 move on it. This can be bypassed on the right by ascending very steep snow slopes. Given the snow didn’t get a very good overnight freeze, we opted to solo up the 5.3 rock step which felt much, much harder than some 5.8’s I’ve done in sport climbing! It was a good reminder that climbing in heavy soled mountaineering boots, with a pack on your back, on wet cold rock, is not simple, easy or straightforward. Hannah had already climbed up and over the rock step – she has the uncanny ability to let adrenaline take over, and despite admitting to also being terrified, doesn’t freeze up but just marches on forward. I’m the opposite. I found myself temporarily paralyzed halfway up the rock step, my fingers frozen in a death grip on icy rock. I finally managed to step my feet up and pull myself over and on top of the final ledge, breathing a sigh of relief at the top.

Some scrambling along the summit ridge

Looking back on this section – there were a few things we could’ve done to make the rock step less terrifying. Hannah went first, but I was carrying the rope! Rookie mistake. If I had gotten stuck, there would’ve been no way for her to rappel back down. Or, even though the rock step was short, we had carried a rope this whole way, and could’ve easily belayed each other up this section, as there was a permanent bolt halfway up and a rappel station at the top.

We made it through however, and the rest of the ascent was a straightforward walk up snow to the summit. By the time we reached the top shortly after 7:30 AM, the summit was enshrouded in a cloud, so we didn’t get the best views, however the clouds were mostly clear lower down on the ridge so it’s not like we were missing out too much.

Just below the main summit, the clouds quickly started to thin out.

The Descent

As every mountaineer knows, reaching the summit is only half of the journey, and 75% of falls happen during the descent. Fortunately, bringing a rope served us well, since there were several makeshift rappel stations set up along the route. We were able to easily rappel down the 5.3 rock step, as well as the rock scrambling section below to the col.

Hannah rappelling down the 5.3 rock step – but not pictured is the crazy exposure all the way down to the glacier, just to the left!

Descending the “black band” however was significantly worse than ascending it. The snow sections at this point had become sugary and unsupportive. Each step into the snow gave way, and it felt as if we would slide all the way down to the glacier with just one misstep. We opted to scramble down just on rock instead, the first half was painstakingly slow as we were zig-zagging down the band, searching for ledges that had enough room to securely place our feet. About halfway down the black band, we reached another rappel station that we had found during our ascent, and rappelled the rest of the way down to the glacier. Although this probably didn’t save us much time, since setting up the rappel takes a while (we probably need to work on our rope management skills), and we had to descend one at a time, it felt much safer.

Rappelling down the “Black Band” onto the glaicer

Returning to our bivvy once reaching the glacier was straightforward, as we just retraced our steps all the way back to our tent. Upon arriving, we instantly kicked off our boots, and shovelled a bunch of cheese and meat to fill our rumbling bellies. Afterwards, we curled into our warm tent and had a very well-deserved nap before packing up camp and hiking back to the car at Lake Louise; overall, a very successful start to the mountaineering season with a wonderful friend.

Mount Chester Scramble

Trip Stats!

Round trip time and distance: Approximately 5-7 hours and 13 kms

Elevation Gain and Max Elevation: 1,196 m; 3,054 m

If you live in the Calgary or the surrounding area, it’s likely that you’ve hiked or snowshoed to the incredibly popular Chester Lake in Spray Valley Provincial Park in Kananaskis Country. It’s an incredibly popular trail for good reason too – it is relaxing stroll 4.6 km (one-way) and only 300m elevation gain along a well-maintained trail (maintained both in the summer and winter), to reach a small but pristine lake in a sprawling alpine meadow. Chester Lake is a wonderful lake to visit in every season; one can spend a relaxing afternoon fishing for trout or dolly varden in the summer, admiring golden larches in the autumn, or admire snow-covered peaks while cross-country skiing or snowshoeing in the winter.  

Chester Lake was my first backcountry ski experience! Pillowy snow and bluebird skies made for a fun day out.

I’ve been to Chester Lake on several different occasions in different seasons, but this time the goal was to scramble up Mount Chester which towers behind the lake at an impressive 3,054 meters. I went out for the day on August 3rd with two of my colleagues who also love the mountains but more importantly, don’t shy away from long and strenuous days in the mountains either. The three of us even endeavored to complete the entire Northover Ridge Trail in a single day – and succeeded (for context, this is a backpacking trip that people usually take 2 or 3 days to complete)! One of my colleague’s friends also decided to tag along for the trip, and I brought along Heidi, my adventure dog! Mount Chester would be her most “difficult” mountain to date, she has had longer days on the trail but not with the level of scrambling, loose rock, and steepness involved with Mount Chester.

Heidi enjoying the wildflowers on the trail up to Chester Lake

We drove to the Chester Lake trailhead parking lot along the Smith Dorian Trail and started hiking up the well-marked trail which follows a logging road for the first two kilometers. After zig-zagging through the trees and few small clearings (which were filled with beautiful alpine wildflowers!) we reached the expansive meadow that provides clear views of Mount Chester with its unique diagonal folds. Shortly before reaching the lakeshore, there is a path that veers to the right and crosses a creek over a small wooden bridge, which lead us straight to the base of the gully that leads up to the saddle. Although many groups opt to go straight up the middle of the gully, Neil, who had done this scramble before, suggested staying on the grassy left-hand slopes above the gully because the scrambling is more interesting and generally it seemed like it would be less of a slog up the black scree.

We ascended a combination of grassy slopes and rocky ledges that angled up and left of the saddle, and this proved to be relatively straightforward, although Heidi got a little nervous trying to navigate a couple steeper ledges. Little did she know; more treacherous ledges and rocky slabs would be up ahead (which she managed to scramble up with more ease and grace than all us human scramblers despite her earlier hesitations).

Coming up the grassy slopes above the main gully

We came out on the large summit face about a quarter of the way up between the saddle and the summit. From here, there were various faint trails and cairns dotting their way up the mountain, but we mostly picked our own path up alternating between rocky ribs, relatively low-angled slab (don’t trust the photos it is much easier than it looks), and little meandering scree paths. The summit face is like a choose your own adventure for scramblers and provides lot of options depending on your comfort level!

At times, the scrambling is pretty hands-on, but never too exposed and lots of fun!

We came to the right-most side of the ridge (it drops off in a near vertical cliff, so don’t venture too far right!!) near the top and followed the easy ridge to the summit. We had virtually no wind, and sunny skies at the top, and had amazing views in every direction! We could see Spray Lakes to the North, Mount Assiniboine to the West, and the Headwall Lakes to the East, amongst dozens of other peaks that I struggled to identify.

Me! On the summit ridge!

After a relaxing lunch and lounge (and photos of course), we picked our way back down the way we came. Although on our descent, we aimed straight towards the saddle, and then took the gully back to Chester Lake (because going down scree is always easier than going up it!).

Lunchtime hangs at the summit

Manny had left a beer and Mike’s Hard Lemonade in a cooler in the back of his vehicle, so we all passed the refreshing drinks around to celebrate another stellar day out in the mountains!