Mount Andromeda (via Skyladder) – June 25, 2006

Mountain height:  3450 m
Elevation gain:     1576 m
Ascent time:        12:25
Descent time:      16:20

Mountaineering with Mark, Kevin, and Trevor.

Hard to know where to begin with this one. A quick look at our ascent and descents times reveals that perhaps the trip didn’t go as smoothly as we would have liked. There were definitely a few tense moments along the way, but fortunately, the wondrous moments out-numbered the former by a wide margin, making for an extremely satisfying trip (not that any of us were saying that at the 20 hour mark of the day, still a long way from the car, with the sun quickly setting).

When Kevin invited Mark and me to join him and his buddies Steve and Trevor on this route, Mark and I were both pretty excited. Though I had completed two steep snow ascents with Kevin (Mount Harrison and Mount Prince Albert), the popular Skyladder route to the southwest summit of Mount Andromeda was a considerably more serious undertaking, requiring expertise and experience on steep snow and ice – Kevin was willing to graciously (and perhaps bravely) drag four relatively green alpinists up the route. Steve and Trevor were both accomplished trad climbers, but relatively new to alpine ascents. 

We all anticipated that the route might take a little longer than the suggested 12 hour return time indicated in the guidebook, so we left the parking at 3:15 am, Sunday morning (you know something’s amiss when you have to specify the day you left!). Unfortunately, Steve was fighting a serious cold and flu and when we reached the glacier, he opted out of the trip and promised to have beers and a hot meal waiting for us when we returned.

Starting up the glacier

We reached the first major obstacle shortly after – an icefall guarding the glacier below the start of the route. Getting through the fall was a serious bit of mountaineering, which Kevin expertly led. Mark and I had just purchased one ice tool each, specifically for this ascent, and we wouldn’t have even made it past the icefall without them. After that, a plod across the glacier took us to the beginning of the route. Another party (of two) had caught up with us here and we were quite content to let them go ahead and show us the way.

Kevin leads us through the icefall


Negotiating one of the more complex and dangerous sections of the fall


Mark belays me up and out of the fall


Kevin, with the Skyladder behind


Crevasse jumping ( it's not exactly the behemoth of crevasses)


Approaching the start of the route, which ascends the right side of the slope


Taking a break, with the route behind

Armed with 5 snow pickets, a few ice screws, and two ice tools, Kevin started up the 45-50 degree slope. Initially we took a slightly different route than the party ahead, but it quickly became obvious that following their tracks would be the best way to go. Mark and I were immediately struck by the steepness of the slope. The snow was quite hard and which made for decent step-kicking, but again the ice tool made a world of difference. For this slope, I would have preferred two ice tools, as the mountaineering axe Mark and I had in the other hand was not half as effective.

The weather was perfect and the contrast of the blue sky and white snow thoroughly enjoyable. The second aspect of the ascent that struck me was how long and foreshortened the slope was. It just kept going and going. Pulling up the rear, occasionally I would look behind me to see what we had ascended and it was quite chilling. An unarrested fall here would send you clean off the mountain. Again, I was immensely relieved to have someone with Kevin’s expertise to lead the ascent.

Kevin leads us towards the bergschrund, which was thankfully filled in; the other party is ahead of us


The other party; the slope here is about 50 degrees and far steeper than it appears in the photos


Kevin and Trevor ahead of us


Looking down the route


Same as above, with the Athabasca Glacier and Mount Wilcox behind


Kevin and Trevor again leading the way

After several hours and grueling step-kicking and axe swinging, Kevin found a rocky plateau to our right and we all bailed onto it, finally able to breathe easy for a little while. This is where Mark, Trevor, and I got our first good look at the Columbia Icefield and what a magnificent sight it was. Mount Columbia was even more striking and impressive than I had imagined it would be and far in distance we could see North Twin and the awesome-looking Twins Tower.

Traversing over to the plateau; Nigel Peak behind


Our first look at the Columbia Icefield; Mount Columbia to the left


A closer look at Mount Columbia

From the plateau, the southwest summit seemed only a short distance away and on less steep terrain. It was a little less steep (though not by much), but very foreshortened. About a third of the way up Kevin asked me if I wanted to lead so I could get some experience placing snow pickets and so I took the front position. It was a very positive experience, but at times the snow felt quite unstable and slabby and in the heat of the day, we all became concerned about avalanches. Although we could have followed the tracks of the party ahead, I wanted to get off this slope as soon as possible, so I chose the shortest and most direct route possible. This route did get quite steep at the top, but only for a short period. Dragging myself up onto the ridge was a great feeling, especially when I got to look around at the breath-taking panorama. Everyone followed and we took another quick break to take in the stunning views. We had predicted that slope to take about 30 minutes – in fact in ended up taking 1 hour, 40 minutes. 

Heading up to the southwest summit (centre)


Trevor approaches the SW summit


Belaying the troops up to the SW summit; the true summit is just to the left of me


Mark rests at the SW summit; the peak to the right of Columbia is Mount King Edward


Another 11,000er - Mount Bryce


Taking in the gorgeous view

The hike to the true summit was easy, again highlighted by amazing views all around. We arrived there at 3:40 pm, 12 hours, 25 minutes after leaving the parking lot. The ascent had obviously taken far longer than we anticipated, but for the view alone, it was worth every minute of it. We spent a couple of minutes in pairs of two at the summit, due to its narrowness and then enjoyed a well-earned and thoroughly satisfying summit break.

Starting the hike to the true summit 


Mark, Trevor and Kevin coming up the ridge; barely visible are North Twin and Twins Tower to the left


The final section of the traverse to the summit


The steep north face of Andromeda


The final few hundred metres to the top


The equally steep south side of Andromeda


Here come the boys to complete the ascent


At the summit (obviously!)


Trevor and Kevin at the summit


The beautiful view to the north


Trevor and Kevin just below the summit


Trevor and Kevin take a well-deserved summit break

At 4:15, we started down the suggested descent route via the Andromeda/Athabasca col, thinking we would have plenty of time to get down to the AA glacier and then out to the Athabasca Glacier. We had heard a few horror stories about the descent, but Kevin had researched it well and routefinding throughout was not at all an issue. The first part of the decent, alongside the beautifully corniced ridge, was easy. Kevin led a mildly exposed ridge traverse and then Trevor scrambled down an easy slope to find the rappel stations. Two 60 m rappels both led by Trevor followed. Though the rappels were straightforward, they were also very time-consuming for four people. After the rappels we put the crampons back on and Kevin led us across to the AA col, where he found another rappel station.

Starting the descent


Looking back at the summit


Same as above


The beautiful form of Mount Athabasca


At the east ridge 


Looking back again


Kevin traverses the narrow east ridge


Trevor sets up the first 60 m rappel


Trevor starts the first rappel

All we had to do now was rappel or downclimb the 35-40 degree slope from the AA col, over the bergschrund and down to the (relative) safety of the AA glacier. Kevin rapped down first, around a corner and then out of sight. One by one we all followed to join him. I was not at all comforted when upon rounding the corner, I noticed that Kevin, Trevor and Mark were not at another rappel station, but right in the middle of the steep and very long slope. I joined them where it was announced that we would have to downclimb the remainder of the slope.

Rappelling down from the AA col


Mark downclimbs the steep slopes from the AA col; Kevin and Trevor above

With time becoming an issue, Kevin and Trevor simultaneously belayed Mark and me down 60 metres of the slope, off snow picket anchors. They joined us and then continued down to an outcrop of rock where Kevin found the final rappel station to get over the bergschrund. Again, this process was time consuming and soon the sun disappeared below the horizon. At this point, we were a little on edge about the dying daylight, and rapidly deteriorating snow conditions, due to the warm, sunny weather, but happy to be at the final serious obstacle of the day. A set of fresh tracks revealed that the party ahead of us had not rapped down the slope and over the ‘schrund, but had traversed steep slopes above the crevasse to an area where it was sufficiently bridged. This seemed to be a logical route for us to follow, but Kevin found out immediately that the warm weather had rendered the terrain a death-trap. The snow had softened to the point where it was unable to support our body weight. Any attempt to traverse the slope would have been suicidal since pickets and ice screws were also useless in the soft snow and therefore we could not protect the traverse. If one person had slipped he simply would have pulled everyone down and into the crevasse. Going unroped was a crap-shoot for each individual and again, if someone fell into the bergschrund and survived the fall, a rescue attempt in the dark would have been tantamount to a death-sentence for the rescue team.

The only option now was to rappel down the slope and hope that the ‘schrund was filled in sufficiently for us to cross it safely. Unfortunately, it was dark enough that we had to take the headlamps out. Kevin rapped down in the soft snow to check out the situation. Trevor, Mark, and I all had our fingers crossed that this route would go, because that was the only option left to us. Of course, we couldn’t see a thing, as Kevin descended the slope, but were not encouraged when he stopped for a long stretch of time. The bad news came – the ‘schrund was wide open and there was no way we could get over it in the dark. It was a risky proposition even with full daylight and good snow conditions. No way were we going to do it in the present conditions.

Kevin climbed back up and we discussed options. There were two: 1. risk the traverse, with the possibility that one or all of us could slip down the unstable slope and into the bergschrund; 2. bivy here and hope the snow would harden enough during the night to make the traverse possible. If it didn’t we would have to wait for a helicopter rescue. Trevor immediately opted for the bivy and stated why. Kevin, Mark, and I all had a ton of excuses why we didn’t want to bivy and thought the traverse was the best option. Mine was that I had to be at work the next day to supervise a math exam. After further discussion and a good dose of sanity and reality from Trevor, we all decided that the bivy was the safest and therefore best decision. In retrospect, I don’t know what I could have been thinking – I wouldn’t have been much of an exam supervisor if I were lying dead at the bottom of a crevasse!

The proposition of spending the night here was most unsavoury, given that: 1. no one was prepared with bivy gear and we knew it was going to get much colder; 2. we had all run out of water; 3. Mark and I had no food left and Trevor and Kevin were both very low on food; 4. we were on a very steep snow slope, most likely with a gaping crevasse at the bottom. Luckily, after taking stock of our situation, we were able to find some bright spots too: 1. the air temperature was fairly warm and it wasn’t likely to get cold to the point where hypothermia or frostbite were a concern; 2. we could all clip into the rappel station, so falling into the bergschrund wasn’t likely; 3. Steve was waiting for us at the parking lot and would alert the wardens should we not return; 4. there was no wind; 5. as one of the longest days of the year, we only had about 4-5 hours to wait before it would be light enough to attempt a descent.

We carved a ledge out of the snow to sit on and then clipped into the station and huddled together on the ledge. Staying warm was the biggest concern. For the next 4 hours we just sat there, mostly in silence. Occasionally someone would fall asleep, but it would not be for more than ten or minutes. Mark and I were shivering intensely for most of those hours. The mood was a little somber, but in general everyone kept a positive attitude and Trevor was quick to crack the occasional joke to lighten the mood.

At 4:30 am (Monday morning), it was time to make a second attempt at traversing the slope above the bergschrund. Again, we all crossed our fingers as Kevin stepped down into the snow. Admittedly, I was pretty skeptical that the temperature had fallen enough to harden the snow enough to support our weight, but to my (and the rest of groups) more than pleasant surprise, it had, and the snow was actually in great condition. Kevin led us across the slope, placing several pickets for protection. Soon we were far enough along to be able to see the bergschrund below where we had bivied and it was huge! There was no way we would have been able to rappel over that thing. It would have required rappelling into and then climbing out of – completely impossible in the dark.

The following morning, looking to the AA col (AA) and our bivy site (B)

By 6 am we were onto safer terrain and all that remained was a trudge across the glacier and then down the moraine to the Snocoach Road. Though now in better spirits, we were all severely dehydrated and hungry. Surprisingly, we seemed to have a fair amount of energy (especially Trevor) considering what we had been through and made it back to the car in short order. On Snocoach Road we ran into Steve, who was with a couple of wardens. He had stayed there all night and then alerted the wardens at first light. They were on they way on see if they could spot us before sending out a search party. All four of us were extremely impressed and grateful to Steve for sticking it out and missing a day of work for us. 

A last look at the magnificent mountain

Overall, an absolutely awesome trip and one that I wouldn’t trade for anything - warts and all! The scenery was more than fantastic, the climb very satisfying, and the group dynamics were great, even in a few of the more desperate moments. Most importantly, however, the epic trip (falling just short of 30 hours, car to car), was a huge character builder and learning experience. I learned a great deal from Kevin, watching him lead the ascent and Trevor’s climbing experience and mountain awareness shone through on the descent and when we called to make some tough decisions. Two guys I would climb with any day and put my life in their hands without hesitation. Thanks Kevin, Trevor, and Mark for the experience of a lifetime!  

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