Monday, 11 January 2016

Mount Gordon & St. Nicholas Peak - Banff National Park, AB    January 9-10, 2016

This trip was done with the ACC. It was a great group of people, very patient and supporting. We had two beautiful bluebird days with low avalanche conditions, which is something of a rarity on the Wapta Icefield. It was a quite cold but there was nothing else to complain about except some wind affected snow at the top of the ski slope. 

As we left the parking lot it was around -25 degrees. It was so cold the glue on one of our group members skis was not sticking to his skis and he ended up having to use electrical tape on them. The end of the canyon was not properly covered, and the track went up and around a very round about way to get to the final slope and out of it. Then was the treed side-sloping section and finally we were out in the open below the hut.

Out of the trees and into the flats before the final steep ascent to the Bow Hut. Above the hut in the sun is St. Nicholas Peak.

After getting to the hut we ended up spending far too long there trying to get into the kitchen. We thought that we had the wrong code when the lock wouldn't open so someone radioed through to Parks and got relayed to the ACC office. After about an hour attempting to find the right person, with a different code than the one we were given, someone on the other end finally suggested that the lock might be frozen and to use a lighter to heat it up. Sure enough as soon as someone put the lighter under the lock some drops of water dripped out, and the combination we were given worked again. After that we quickly got off despite the lateness of the day.

Onto the Wapta Icefield at last looking over at Mount Thompson and Portal Peak below it.

Heading up the initial slopes of the icefield. Roped up of course.

Looking back at down at the Bow Hut area and across to Crowfoot Mountain. 

Looking across the large expanse of the icefield to Mount Collie. 

Looking over at St. Nicholas Peak. Looking slightly less impressive already.

Finally getting a good look at Mount Gordon. It doesn't look like much from here, but its the highest of the peaks around the Bow Hut. 

Looking over at Mount Rhondda to the left and Thompson to the right across the icefield to the north.

Looking back again at our ski tracks. Its hard to tell from here but we went close to some large holes in the glacier on the way up. The icefield is immense and the peak is a lot farther away then it looks at first. Of course everyone who had completed it before, had already told us that and I was mentally mostly prepared for this.

Looking over at Mount Olive. To the far left is the Olive / St. Nicholas col, which we will ascend tomorrow on our way to St. Nicholas.

Selfie on the glacier. Its pretty cold up here. I'm wearing my merino baselayer, softshell, a puffy vest, then this new hardshell. All while skiing uphill, and I barely sweat on this day with all that on it was so cold. Can't beat the conditions though, the cold was worth it.

Looking at the icefield again.

Going around the wind scoop. You can see the other rope team ahead of us gaining the top of this slope.

Heading up along the wind scoop. I was very tired at this point. I was relieved to hear that my other rope-mate behind me was also very tired. But not as relieved as both of us were to hear that we were only 20 minutes away from the summit from some people skiing back down.

Looking west. That is Mont Des Poilus to the left of center. I went up that peak back in 2013.

After curving around the slope and wind scoop we gain the final summit ridge.

And quickly (thankfully) the summit comes into view.

Summit looking northwest.

Summit looking west. Mount Des Poilus in the center again.

Summit looking southwest. Yoho Valley below. The sun is just above the sea of peaks. It was about 4pm at this point. This time of year the sun sets around 5pm. So we were pushing daylight for sure. As we took off our skins and set up our skis for the downhill run we also put on our headlamps just in case.

Summit looking south at Mount Balfor, the king of the Wapta. 

Summit looking southeast with Mount Hector the highest point to the left.

Summit looking east.

Summit looking northeast. That rocky bump in the sun below us St. Nicholas Peak. Looking much less impressive now.

Summit looking north.

Most unfortunately my camera froze up at this point and refused to go back into picture mode but kept loading something or other and I couldn't get a summit photo. It was just too cold and late to wait for it to finish up whatever it thought it was doing.

The first rope team started down and skied down to the hut in about half an hour. It took me (and therefore my long suffering rope team) about an hour. We got to the hut just as the sun was completely setting and dark was setting in. It was a great day. The skiing was even quite good (not that I had the energy in my legs to appreciate it much) with just a few inches of powder on top of the snow-pack. There was some wind affected snow that was hard to ski on, at the top of the slope above the hut. Thankfully the crust was not breakable.

The next morning we roped up to attempt our next peak. The entire time skiing up and across the icefield I was very tired and often wished I could turn around. I kept wondering how I would make it up the scary summit ridge of St. Nicholas Peak if I was so tired. Once we made it to the col and took off our skis to put on our crampons, I was ready to give it a try. It still looked terrifying though. When I had admitted my fear at the hut, the leader of the trip volunteered to short rope me up the ridge. So since I was so tired, and I knew if I got freaked out it would be terrible and I would be super slow, I accepted and we went up the ridge together. In theory if I slipped he would be able to catch me and arrest my fall. On the other hand there is a small chance we could both fall of the ridge if I slipped.  It helped my confidence on the tricky parts, kept me going at a good pace so I couldn't think too much and start to freak out, and was very nice of him.

The view from the St. Nicholas / Olive col along the ridge towards the summit. If it looks scary to you, well that is correct.

After going over the initial bump it is all going along the right hand side of the ridge. The slope below us gets steeper and steeper. On the left is the same rock cliff that was in the photo near the beginning. There were already tracks along the ridge when we got there so we more or less followed them. The snow was incredibly good. The steps created along the ridge were large and very stable. The ice axe placements for self belay were also generally very good.

Still going along the ridge. There were three places were we had to go below rocky sections. The first that we just crossed was the worst.

This is looking back at that section. It doesn't look too bad but you had to either take a very big step, or take a step on a rock to go along the path already carved out. All without much placement for the ice axe. We went slightly lower to stay on snow instead which was better. Going back you got to go up this section instead and we could go over the rock. Going up is always easier.

Selfie while waiting on the ridge to continue on. The group leader was helping someone else come down from above briefly, who had gone up there to avoid the same section.

Going along an easier part.

Looking back.

Looking down at the Bow Hut area. You can actually see it from up here but its hard to tell in the picture. Bow Lake, the start of the approach to the Bow Hut is to the far left.

Summit of St. Nicholas Peak. Mount Olive behind me. It was a bit crowded with all 8 people in our group up there. So glad we all made it. Such great conditions, and the temperature wasn't too bad on this day either up high. I'm only wearing my puffy just in case. I actually didn't need it. But we left our packs at the col, so we had to take the extra layer  just in case so we wouldn't get cold.

Summit looking northwest. Mount Thompson to the right, and Mount Rhondda to the left. 

Summit looking west towards Mount Collie. See all the open holes on the icefield? The other people who had been up here before told me they aren't normally this bad. The low snow last winter caused them to open up over the summer, and they still haven't filled in this year. 

Summit looking east towards Vulture Peak, then behind it Crowfoot Mountain, and further behind to the left is Mount Hector.

Summit looking south back along the ridge towards Mount Olive. The one problem with my better fear blocking abilities is that when I get to the summit I know I am only half-way done. So it is hard for me to turn the blocking off, and fully appreciate the view and the summit like I would on a much easier peak. I know I have to still get down so my mind is still in 'get this scary $#!& done with' mode. I have to work on that. Still it is a great view isn't it?

Summit looking southwest towards Mount Gordon from yesterday. In person you could see most of the skin track we used going up tot he col, and two people below us skiing down who had been up Mount Olive. It is hard to tell in this photo though. The two people are just tiny black dots.

Heading back down the crux just below the summit. Terrifying right? I was glad for excellent bucket steps in good snow, good ice axe placement, and short roping. The snow was so good I'm sure I could have done it alone though. It would have been much harder to block the fear though, and it would have been more likely for me to start a bit of a panic attack when I had to turn from facing in to back out. I always hate that transition. One day I will get even better though, and be mostly fine through terrain like this. I already am so much better.

Looking back after descent along the ridge as the sun now hits it. 

We then skied back down to the hut, quickly packed and re-hydrated, and then skied off down the approach to the hut. I always think that part is going to be so awful - and it isn't much fun - but its never as awful as I think. I almost enjoyed the luge run before the flats and the lake. The side-hill skiing is always much easier than I think, just got to ride those edges. I had to side step to get down into the canyon, but so did two other people so I didn't feel too bad. For the final part, I almost think I'm getting the hang of gliding along without skins on and heels not locked in.

What a great weekend. Nearly the whole time I thought I wouldn't make it up both peaks that were planned, but I did! I worked through my tiredness thanks to the excellent pace that was set. And I worked through my fear of heights thanks to the patience of our group leader, and the encouragement of everyone else. A very successful weekend. I hope I have improved my skills. I certainly am enjoying winter a lot more this year than I normally do. The Wapta Icefields is a great place, and I am glad I got to experience it on such a beautiful clear weekend. Such great views!

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