Ski Mountaineering- Mount Hector
For someone who use to run in shorts and trail shoes to the summit of Mount Rose on a regular basis in the Tahoe region of my home state of Nevada, it never occurred to me that 11,000’ ever had any more significant meaning. The Canadian Rockies represent a broad stretch of Continental Divide landscape that encompasses the border between Alberta and British Columbia. When 11,000’ is discussed in this section of the world, one conjures up visions of glaciers, ice seracs, enormous north faces covered in ice, whiteouts, deadly cold temperatures, brutal winds, year around ski traverses, etc. In one way it offers a whole new climbing season for those of us willing to face these sometimes harsh environs. Climbing an 11,000’+ peak in the summer and then climbing it again in the winter, you might as well be climbing two different mountains.
A partner and I casually took on Mount Hector in late February. We had been ice climbing all week and wanted a long day out burning calories. Even though this was a 5300’+/- ascent covering glacier and avalanche terrain, we saw Mount Hector as nothing more than a long ski day. I believe we nonchalantly showed up at the trailhead at 9:30AM. We also chose to ignore a storm biased forecast. By the time we had eclipsed 3000’ of gain, visibility was nil and the wind chill cold biting. We bailed.
Whenever I get turned around on a mountain, it does not take me much time to be right back on it. This phenomenon is no doubt related to some obsessive and/or compulsive behavior. On March 17th a different partner (Peter Valchev) and I set out for a ski ascent of Mount Hector again. This time we arrived at the trailhead at 8:00AM prepared to give it a little more serious effort.
Chic Scott, (started his career working with Clint Eastwood on the Eiger Sanction as a climbing guide-stunt man) a local guide book author, calls Mount Hector “one of the great ski ascents in the Rockies.” Mount Hector can be seen from a number of vantage points, Dolomite Peaks, Cirque Peak, etc., but probably the best teaser is the view from the common Wapta Ski Traverse on the Vulture Glacier. This climb is rated an Alpine II in the summer and Alpine III in the winter. The main difference is simply weather and hidden terrain (crevasses).
One of the key advantages of Mount Hector is that the first several slopes you come to are also enjoyed by a few hard core powder enthusiasts. Many times the trail breaking for the first hour or two is already done. The approach is very esthetic boasting several water fall ice features on steep rock including a very unique and challenging waterfall climb high on the rock cliffs above that is not in a published guidebook and is rarely in shape to climb, but obvious just the same. One of these waterfalls you must actually cross at some point. Crossing ice on skis is kind of weird, but if it is covered with just the slightest amount of snow, it works.
Once we crossed the first crux and reached the large plateau above, the snow was deeper and views appealing and open. We continued to ascend, doglegging right as we approached Little Hector and pushed by its snow laden slopes quickly to the site of my turnaround point just weeks earlier. After taking a lunch and applying our harnesses, Peter and I dropped onto the glacier. It was then that he noticed for the first time that two other skiers were in fact behind us. The guidebook discusses staying glacier right, so we adhered to that. The other party appeared to be traveling glacier left which made for a more direct summit line. As we maneuvered around some significant but agreeably shaped crevasses, the summit would come in and out of view. However, it mostly eluded us via clouds and blowing snow. What we could see regularly was the right hand sky line of the lower portion of the summit block.
As we reached a snow bench below the steep slopes protecting Hector’s summit block, we took some time to evaluate our final ascent. Visibility was getting worse and neither of us had been to the summit of Hector previously, so we were not fully knowledgeable of the terrain aspects. There was a ridge to our left that was an extension of a very steep rock wall that hemmed in the Hector Glacier from the east. There was some assumption on our part that the ridge could in fact be corniced to a steep drop on the east side. We meandered in what became zero visibility conditions up the steep snow slopes staying just west of that ridge to our left. Although I had this deep desire to take the ridge, I could not see further than 1 meter ahead of me. As the terrain steepened and we were forced left, I finally broke out of the cloud bank onto the ridge and could see that the other climbing team had out flanked us on nice angled terrain to the east in relatively clear conditions. They had apparently planned their route to avoid the incoming weather. The ridge served to protect the eastern side of that slope. We immediately hooked up and the four of us headed for the col below the summit, less than 200’ from the summit itself.
Both parties short roped and finished the climb. The summit was icy and small and visibility was deteriorating rapidly again. As they rapped the summit, we applied our crampons and soloed our descent. Skins came flying off and we proceeded to make a quick ski descent through pea soup clouds and blowing snow. Eventually we popped out of the light storm and had a stellar run down in soft powder. The east side of the glacier felt like the longest blue run in the Rockies. It was the same grade for 2000’+. Once off of the glacier, it was one long 3000’ ski run, with a variety of features, back to the car. The icy wind packed lower slopes made us really appreciate the snow higher up.