mount sir donald attempt - may 2017
Working up in Edmonton the past ~8 months now has given me the chance to explore a bit of the Canadian Rockies and eastern BC. I was able to do more ice climbing this past winter than normal, and while the transition to summer alpine climbing season has felt incredibly slow, my gf Elaine and a friend from Vancouver (Dorian) joined me for a hard earned attempt of Mount Sir Donald over the Victoria Day weekend (a long holiday weekend in Canada). We spent 3 days on our attempt, and got about 125 meters from the summit before we were forced to turn back due to getting timed out, as I didn't want to descend the ridge in the dark.
After making the now usual feeling two hour drive from Edmonton to Calgary to meet Elaine, we drove most of the way to Golden BC where we crashed for the rest of the night. Dorian was taking an overnight bus from Vancouver to Golden and we were picking him up at 6am. Our original plan was to try and head into the Bugaboos for the long weekend but decided Rogers Pass would offer better approaches, so we thought we could get up and down Sir Donald in a couple days, then do a second climb for the next two days, filling the 4 day weekend we had. Needless to say, such is common in springtime, that isn't exactly how it happened.
The trip started out mostly as planned, apart from the short spur road leading to the Sir Donald Campground being completely covered with 5-10 feet of snow, ice, trees, rocks etc from a humongous avalanche over the winter. We were forced to park at a rest area right on the Trans Canada a few hundred meters down from the turnoff and walk the half mile up the covered road. The amount of work needed to clear that road (and rebuild much of it) will take most of the summer I would guess.
Once we got all packed up, and decided exactly what gear to bring, we started walking over all the debris. An hour or so later we reached the trailhead, and started up the snow covered trail. It didn't take long until we couldn't follow it anymore so we simply followed the creek bed for a while, navigating a boulderfield, then aiming left for the slope leading right to Sir Donald. We could see the mountain towering nearly 6000 feet above us, and the NW ridge looked mighty snowy but our hopes were still high. Once we reached the base of the open slope we put snowshoes on and took turns plowing up deep, but consolidated snow. Snowshoes were definitely a life saver though especially as we increased elevation. There was just enough cloud cover to make us not overheat too much, and by about 4pm we reached a small moraine with just enough bare rock to provide a nice dry place to sit and relax. We made a kickass pair of tent pads on the snow right next to the rocks to set up camp, and enjoyed the rest of the afternoon stretching out the legs, studying the route (looked decent from camp!), and cooking dinner. We also got some sick photos of our camp with the surrounding peaks and was able to watch the sunset.
So we set the alarms for 6am and planned to start up by 7. After a quick breakfast we stuck to that plan, and made the 700 foot ascent up moderate snow slopes to the NW ridge, which we gained a bit above the low saddle. We all initially were able to solo scramble up a bit until we hit the first steep rise in the ridge which we broke out the rope and I led up and around the left of and regained the ridge at the bivy site. There was already a lot of snow to contend with climbing here, and I was digging my hands into the snow at times for holds! Dorian continued up the next bit and we simul-climbed the entire way from this point on. He would go until he ran out of gear then make an anchor for us to climb to him, then I would lead doing the same thing and so forth. Since this was Elaine's first climb of this magnitude she stayed in the middle. Many times Dorian and I had to excavate through snow to find both hand and foot holds, and everything was wet and slick, covered in lichen that made the climbing even scarier. I led a pitch that took us up some beautiful flakes, and across a mellower south facing slab (which was the top of the rappel route we noticed when I spotted bolts). This part of the climb was drier and warm in the sun, but the next pitch that Dorian led was definitely the crux, as we had to climb left of the large overhang in the shade, with steeper terrain covered with more snow. He completely ran out of gear just as he managed to get to a nice ledge on the ridge once again in the sun.
Once we reached this point, the climbing eased up, and we were able to stay on the sunny side much more, but there was still enough snow and wet rock to warrant staying roped, and since Dorian expended a lot of effort leading the last pitch I led the remainder of the climbing we did. Staying mostly of the right side of the ridge avoiding the snow to the left (thinking it was always a huge cornice), we made slow but steady progress up class 4-low 5th terrain until we finally reached the final summit pyramid. There was a few times I literally tunneled my way through the snow, digging relentlessly for any rock to grab or place a piece, neither of which I was able to find. I wish i had known that the snow a few feet to my left was safe to simply kick steps into, which would have saved boatloads of energy, but I couldn't tell for sure if it was a cornice or not so I played it safe and stayed on the rock. We took one look at the remainder of the route and it was both steeper and more snowy than anything else we had done, so we decided to try the west face bypass. We traversed across the deep snow on the upper west face looking for the so called "easier" route up, but by the time we managed to sludge across the snow, we were all totally spent, and it was already 5pm. We decided it was wise to forgo the final 400 feet, take a nice break to enjoy the views, and begin the descent so we wouldn't get caught up there in the dark.
We had one last bit of discussion but determined we needed to start down, so we traversed back across the snow slope, as small sloughs of snow passed by us sliding down the mountain, and as I led us down the upper ridge, I could now see the snow going down the north side of the ridge and noticed they were not in fact unsupported cornices, but were in fact huge accumulations of snow supported by about 400-500 feet worth of rock leading down the north slopes. This made the descent much easier as we could easily kick steps down the snow, all the way until the first slung rappel anchor. We made two single rope rappels off slings already placed, and we then spotted the first pair of bolts. I was so thankful to find them since we didn't see much of any bolts on our route of ascent. I was worried we would have to leave tons of slings, as we only had one 60 meter rope.
We were able to find every bolted anchor amazingly and made 4 single rope rappels down the ridge, the 4th being a really scary traversing rappel down the large overhang back to the sunny slab at the base of our crux pitch. From there we made the final 6 rappels down the slab (bypassing the lower difficulties of the ridge itself), until we reached the snow covered slopes. As we made the final few raps down the slab, the sun was setting and we enjoyed a gorgeous sunset with a glowing orange and red on all the surrounding mountains. By the time we got to easier terrain plunging down the snow slopes it got dark, and by about 11:30pm we stumbled our way back to our camp!
We had initially hoped to summit and hike back down the same day, but I really underestimated the amount of time it would take to climb this ridge when covered in snow. Had it been dry I would have felt comfortable soloing the vast majority of the route, and could have done it in a few hours, but with the snow we had to deviate from the ridge many times climbing both harder rock sections, and wet on top of that. We were climbing 10.5 hours before we decided to turn back and it took us an additional 5 to get back to camp. It was a very long day to not reach the summit, but now I am even more excited to return in the summer and see what the route looks like when it's dry.
We immediately went to sleep, as we were all exhausted and I had to convince all of us that we do not in fact suck at climbing, but the route really was twice as hard as usual and no one typically does this route in mid May...however I still couldn't fully convince us that there are probably people who would easily solo the route in the same conditions we had in a few hours. Maybe I do suck at climbing who knows lol. One thing for sure though is I was very certain we would make the summit on this trip, so not making it was an eye opener.
The next morning we slept in, and emerged when the sun reached our tents (we couldn't have asked for better weather), and set our gear out to dry. We slowly packed up camp and didn't start hiking out until around noon. We pretty much wore the snowshoes the entire way down, which definitely involved quite a bit of snowshoe skiing! A few hours of trudging later we reached the campground again and finished the walk back to the rest area where we were parked. We actually saw other humans hiking the road, which were the first we saw in 3 days. Once back at the car we dried our gear, and eventually made our way back to Golden where we grabbed pizza, beer, and drove to a camp spot up a dirt road to sleep more. We also saw a grizzly mother with two cubs right on the highway! We sat on a hill above Golden to enjoy the afternoon with beers overlooking Golden and the surrounding mountains. Summer is definitely here in the lowlands.
For the final day of our long weekend, we decided to head to Spillmacheen for some sport climbing, rather than try another alpine route on Rogers Pass. We really wanted to climb something on Tupper, but that will have to wait until later this summer.