Tony had found my website goggling for beta in the Canadian Rockies earlier this year. He had purchased a “round the world” ticket from Australia for mountaineering purposes. When he arrived in Canmore, Alberta during the wettest June in recorded history, I broke the news that all of our Alpine climbs were out of shape. I seemed to be the only bloke going out and that basically involved getting to tops of scrambles to get my own assessment of the good alpine routes. What I had to report was not what he wanted to hear.
So off we went to do some tougher scrambles which meant full on alpine climbs in these conditions, axes and crampons in tow. I even considered dragging my skis out of the closet on occasion. After showing Tony summits in Kananaskis, Banff and Lake Louise, I took him to the Dolomite Peaks in the Columbia Icefields.
The climbing was interesting to say the least. Once we approached 8000’, we were forced with a traverse through waist deep snow to position ourselves under Peaks 4 and 5, our objectives for the day.
Deciding which snow-ice gully to ascend brought on debate. I wanted vertical rock, free of snow and ice, and Tony opted for snow, finally we agreed on an ice-rock-snow combination. We had alpine axes and one tool a piece and opted to leave the rope and pro at home. I led us through a maze of rock, deep snow and ice to the upper ledges, just stuffed full of fresh snow, the waist deep variety.
We hurried our way across objectionable avalanche hazard to a corner of the summit mass of Peak 3. There awaited a steep and narrow snow gully that precariously led to firm rock on the backside.
On descent, downclimbing one specific rock step, Tony pulled off a perfect looking piece of limestone. It welcomed him to the Canadian Rockies version of good rock. After descending back down to the base of the summit mass, I was up for more, but Tony had enough (smart man). While he waited for me lower down the slope, I proceeded to ascend Peak 5, the most esthetic of the Dolomite Peaks. I wanted a much closer view of the “finger” gendarme.
This route was a much wider snow filled gully over rock and ice than what we had just ascended. It meant a “blue collar” type of climb through arm pit deep snow. I worried about its stability, but also knew I could move much faster solo up this slope which gave me more confidence, thus, I was willing to take more chances. Once up the initial wide gully, there came a squeeze through a much narrower section. I put it in high gear with tool and alpine ax and swung out to the right on a short ridge to get out of harms way as soon as possible.
Then on to the first prize, a small col on the right hand summit ridge that exposed the “back door” of the Dolomite Peaks out east. The view was exceptional. This col was chocked full of a large section of ice. I then proceeded left up to the gendarme for the finish. I squeezed through a key hole in the piece to stay as far off of the exposed (2500’ drop) east side as possible.
The southern exposed face of the final summit block of Peak 5 was clear of snow and ice and gave up an excellent solid corner crack to the summit.
This corner was the crux in terms of technical climbing and exposure, but was the most comfortable situation, in these conditions, of the entire ascent. I spent zero time enjoying the summit, realizing I would not rest well until back through the deep snow and out the gullies that awaited my descent.
As I made my way back through the narrow gully, I noticed that all the snow lower than this section was gone!!! I can only imagine the look on my face. It had slid while I was finishing off the summit. What was left was rock and ice that I had not ascended, so all of a sudden my descent route and ascent routes were extremely different. What caused me more concern was what Tony must be thinking down below. I knew he was safely perched on a broad section of the ridge below Peak 5, but he could have only assumed I caused the avalanche on descent. In reality, it was a point avalanche that started well above my tracks by circumstance.
I hurried through new downclimbing problems, using my tool as a hooker and breathed a huge one once I landed at the summit base and moved to the south corner. The avalanche debris had descended another 1500’ below where I stood, up and over several rock gullies and formations. Tony had in fact descended this ground to the left to access the avalanche and look for any sign of me. As I followed his tracks in a hurry, I finally heard his whistle and knew he could now hear me and we put each other at ease. The slope continued to move as we stood there and thanked all powerful Mother Nature for letting me off the hook, one more time. Dolomites, Canadian Style!