Columbia Icefields Pie-Fecta

May 7-11 2017

Five days, three summits, one dense chocolate pie, lots of sunshine and clouds on the largest icefield in the Canadian Rockies. The “BC Pie Team” was able to enjoy a slice of pie on the highest point in Alberta, along with slices on the summit of Castleguard Mountain and Snow Dome. The weather window was brief, and we exited on the 5th morning to go mountain biking in Revelstoke for a few more days instead. This was my first trip up to the Columbia Icefields, definitely a place I want to revisit with a solid weather window. My only other time in the area was in July 1994, on a family vacation where the Athabasca glacier was one of the highlights.

My first visit to the Icefield Parkway back in July 1994 on a bus tour of the Canadian Rockies with my family. It’s taken me a long time to plan another trip up here!
Up on the Athabasca Glacier, I’m the middle child.

The adventure for the this trip began with the logistics of getting out to the Rockies, with me coming from Vancouver and Meghan leaving from Revelstoke. In an ideal world, I would meet her in Revy, then drive together to to Banff and then up Hwy 93N to the Icefield parkways centre. However, on the day before departure, Parks Canada set up a massive controlled avalanche on Mount Hector, much larger than expected, which blocked the highway north from Lake Louise for an unknown period of time. To make things worse, there was also a rockslide west of Jasper, effectively blocking out access to the Icefields.

On Saturday, I left Vancouver at 8am, hoping that at least one of these blockades would clear up. To compound things, heavy rain and warm temperatures led to widespread flooding in the southern interior, leading to washed out roads. I stopped in Hope due to uncertainty with road closures, and almost turned around when we realized Meghan would be effectively Revel-stuck. In the end, I drove to Kamloops, where I waited at a friend’s place until the roads west of Revelstoke were clear, allowing Meghan to meet me there. She was going to take the long way around. While I was enjoying apple crumble in Kamloops, Meghan was rushing her way west once the roads up. We drove north to Valemount, making it to the Canada Best Value hotel at midnight, which came with a free beer outside in the parking lot.

After not much sleep, we drove to Jasper, road open again, and dealt with the minor paperwork required in Jasper, ie. getting a backcountry camping permit. Our friends Ben, Meredith, Piotr and Krista were also there. They were planning a simliar trip, but we split up at the Icefield Parkways when we decided to go with the shorter, but higher objective hazard approach via the Athabasca Glacier, compared to the longer, flatter Saskatchewan Glacier route.

A really tough Rockie-style approach via the Athabasca Glacier. You just have to drive across the province to start at 2000m. Not easy when there’s flooding, rockslides, mudslides, and avalanches blocking all the highways on the same day you try to get out there. 
Meghan leading the way up the Icefall, which was very filled in this year.
Heavy loads, full of tasty food

I was intimidated by the route up, the scale is different compared to the Coast, plus the continental snowpack compared to a fat coastal snowpack. The plus side of the Columbia Icefields being a tourist spot is that you can get tons of photos of it from Instagram to get the live conditions. Watching the webcam and scrolling through Instagram selfies, it looked like the glacier coverage on the ramp was filled in enough. It had been a wintery spring, and conditions were just being to transition. My main concern on the whole trip was managing the crevasse hazards with just two people. The risks are definitely higher when travelling roped up with just a party of two, with reduced ability to self-arrest a fall.

I’m glad there was a big spring snowpack in the Rockies, and the approach was well filled in, straightforward through the two icefalls. Much more straightforward than I expected compared to what I read in trip reports from leaner years. We crested onto the Columbia Icefield and set up camp southwest of Snowdome with clear views of Mount Columbia, one of our objectives for the trip. This was a lazy trip. Meghan has done some spectacular ski traverse, packing up, moving, and setting up camp everyday for a month. This time, we were grounded in the same spot, as the weather conditons were not favourable enough to venture too far.

Base camp with my MSR Remote 2 Tent. A luxurious base camp for four nights southwest of Snow Dome. We had a full moon for the trip, although it was often cloudy at night. 

Mount Castleguard

The forecast for the following day was increasing clouds and high winds in the afternoon, so we played it safe and headed down the icefield towards Castleguard, a half-day trip from our high camp. We were both tired from a month of too much work and not enough skiing. We enjoyed a beautiful sunrise ski down the glacier, 5km of gradual well supported crust that you could effortlessly ski down, enjoying the splendour of the vast and spectacular Rockies.

Skiing down towards Castleguard. Just a casual 5km descent. Ultra cruisy.
Sunrise on the Columbia Icefields
Map time

We climbed around the east side of the peak, picking what looked like the easiest slope to gain the ridge. Skis were left behind, due to breakable crust. We bootpacked up to the summit along a short narrow ridge. Up here, I surprised Meghan with my chocolate tart, the South Coast Pie and Beer Club finally leaves the home base and ventures afar. However, I neglected the 12th essential, beer, due to worries about weak cans exploding beers at 3000m, on top of six days worth of food.

Heading up towards Castleguard Mountain

The east face was breakable crust, but great snow was found back down to the flats. We slogged back up to camp under increasing clouds. Mount Columbia waffled in and out of the clouds, we were content with our decision. We could see a few groups heading up and down the summit. We spent the afternoon building up our snow walls and enjoying a much needed nap. Further down the glacier, we could see Piotr and team heading up our tracks to Castleguard. They would later turn around near the summit due to lack of visibility. 

Surprise! We have chocolate pie for the next couple days!
The first of three pie meetings on the icefields. The clouds were rolling in that afternoon, so we hustled to make it back to camp before a full whiteout. It was pretty windy up there.
Lots of time to chill out in the spacious tent.
Moonrise and Mount Columbia

Mount Columbia

On the third day, we woke up at 4am to climb Mount Columbia. At first it was a whiteout, so we slept in for another hour, but then it cleared up and we knew we had to go. Just as we left, we could see Tim, Chance and Majo heading in the same direction, fit and fast alpinist/skimo guys from Calgary. They started a few hours earlier from the car, working up the icefall in a foggy darkness. They kept skins on, while we ripped and skied down to the trench.

On the 3rd day, we left camp at 7am to climb/ski Mount Columbia, the highest point in Alberta. We were actually hoping to leave earlier, but it was looking foggy when we first woke up. Hence the lazy alpine start.

Mount Columbia, clearing up.
The southeast ridge goes up the broad ridge/face right of the crevasses and left of the rocks. We attempted to ski it, but the conditions were not ideal for skiing. Meghan leading the way down into the trench. The distances are big on the icefield, but gentle grades make the travel quick on skis and daypacks. 
It’s a pretty big place out here. The small dots are Tim, Majo and Chance who started at 2am from the parking lot and joined us for the pie meeting.

We all headed up from the trench together, trading turns leading towards the south ridge of Mount Columbia. Meghan and I bootpacked up, while the trio displayed impressive technique, and persistence in using ski crampons, skinning all the way to the top. It was not a pleasant ascent, Meghan was a trailbreaking machine, with little views around due to the fog. We crested onto the summit, where it was remarkably less windy and the views opened up in time for the highest pie party in Alberta that day.

I wasn’t sure if I would ski down all the way. The snow on the upper part was ok and less steep. But the center part, a definitely no-fall area, was hardpacked, with frozen corn that never softened in the clouds and winds. I nearly sideslipped the entire middle face, going one direction. to the right. As the angle eased, my confidence came back, made some snappy jump turns, and then it was a seamless transition into skiing perfect corn all the way back to the Trench, what a run. I would love to come back to try to ski this southeast face in better conditions.

Clouds cleared briefly, and the pie came out.
Pie Transitions
Enjoying the highest pie in Alberta. Chocolately pie goodness.
One feels very small out here
Cruisy corn turns on the lower slopes heading back towards the trench
Warm sunshine back to camp. It wasn’t the best ski off the summit, with a lot of sideslipping as the snow didn’t soften enough, but once the angle eased off, the warm sunshine softened the snow into one fantastic long descent for kilometres all the way back to the trench

We thought about moving camp further north, to attempt the Twins the next day. But in the hot afternoon sun and uncertain weather for the next days, we were content with lounging at camp enjoying Meghan’s freshly made popcorn. We both agreed this was the laziest ski mountaineering trip either of us have had. The decision was largely influenced by the deteriorating forecast.

Enjoying some popcorn looking back at our view of Mount Columbia. What a cool day. Ski off a big summit, and get back to camp in the afternoon for some warm popcorn. Thanks Meghan!

Snow Dome

It was a total whiteout on the fourth day. Warm, north shore blower snow fell down, transporting us back to a typical winter day on Mount Seymour. The question now, was whether to quit early and just ski out in the whiteout back to the car. I didn’t see the rush and was optimistic the weather would clear in the afternoon. Once in a while, my optimism fails spectacularly, like the time I skied into a full blizzard based on a forecast for a full afternoon clearing. It never happened, it just got windier.

On the 4th day, it was a whiteout for the entire morning. We waited until 3pm before leaving camp, for a short ski up to Snow Dome, where my pie crumbs would likely end up in all three oceans.

By 3pm, the skies cleared up and there was just a big enough sucker hole to draw us in. This already after one false start. When you sit inside a tent in a whiteout, every moment the sun breaks out of the clouds, you think it’s brighter outside than it actually is. We left the tent, crossed  a set of tracks, which would be our friends who skied right past us in the whiteout, retreating from the north end of the icefields. They pushed to the north while we were on Columbia, and ended up turning around with the same weather forecast.

We actually lounged around all morning, waiting for the weather to clear. I made a mostly random guess based on a low quality Inreach forecast that there was a brief afternoon window. Well it cleared at first.

It was a whiteout the whole time as we climbed up to the hydrogeological apex of North America. Once again, it was cold and cloudy on the summit. I told Meghan we should wait 30 minutes. We dug out a shelter for another important South Coast Pie and (no) Beer Club meeting. Amazingly, I was correct and the skies cleared up and we pointed our skis straight down for a twenty minute ski back to camp. We traded Inreach messages with Piotr’s group, finding out they were 1.75km down the glacier, too far down for us to socialize. 

But then we ended up in a whiteout on the summit. With nothing to do, except finish off the rest of the pie and wait. This is why pie is an essential item, especially when patiently waiting for weather to clear.
Snow Dome is one of two hydrological apexes of North America. In theory, water from the summit may flow into the Pacific Ocean, the Arctic Ocean, and Hudson Bay.
After waiting for 30 minutes on the summit, it cleared up magically. And just like that, we clicked into our skis, and made the quick descent back to camp. Perfect turns.
Stoked! A short afternoon ski, but still great to get up onto a summit with views.

There was no chance of the weather improving for the 5th and 6th day of the trip. While we had food for two more days, there was no reason to wait up there with a forecast that called for warming temperatures, rain, and a chance of thunderstorms. We finished it off with another early start on the fifth and final day. We had a short skin over to the icefall, capped with another amazing sunrise. With three summits for my first visit to the Columbia Icefields, I was content to ski out. The entire headwall was still icy, but skied reasonably well despite tired legs and chattering skis. We darted quickly across the seracs hanging below Snowdome. I remember reading Nick M’s trip report years ago, when he streaked down the Athabasca Glacier butt-naked in front of all the tourist. We laughed about that as we cruised down the glacier.

Forecast was for warm rain and chance of thunderstorm on the 5th day, so we ended the trip early (with plenty of peaks to ski for next time). 
A beautiful sunrise as we skinned over to the Athabasca glacier.
Meghan cruising down the firm snow above the icefall ramp.
Firm, fast, fun?
Cruising down the lower slopes, now safe from overhead hazards off Snow Dome on the right
Two hours after leaving camp, and I was drinking a breakfast beer. We found this random bottle of Corona sitting outside the motel in Valemount. What a great trip.

More photos over on Flickr

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