Mt. Colonel Foster Winter Ascent- Direttissima
With clear skies forecasted for the Pacific North-West, an unusually low snow pack, and cold temps for 5 days straight, the conditions and timing for a Winter attempt on Colonel Foster couldn't have been better. Initially our thoughts were on a new route on the West side of the mountain, or a complete summit traverse. However, upon reaching Landslide and Foster lakes, and seeing the condition of the Colonel's classic east face direct line: Direttissima, our climbing plans were set.
Here's Mike at Landslide lake, eyeing up the ice on Colonel Foster's (1000 meter) East face, Feb 6, 2014.
A closer look at the East face, as seen from Foster lake- some mighty fine funk to be climbed here!
With the reality of what we were about to tackle looming over us, we set up camp at Foster lake, brewed some warm fluids up and promptly turned in early. The first part of the route was a moderate snow field, we pulled one rope out and sailed on up it till we reached the first crux section- the book has this as "600' of 80 degree ice climbing leading to easier angled climbing." Here's Mike just before we stated to pitch out the first section:
Here's Mike on the second pitch:
I took the first lead, and after 3 full pitches we found ourselves staring down easier terrain once again. A look down the route from the top of the 3'rd pitch:
Upon reaching milder terrain, mid-rotue, we opted to simul-climb. The climbing conditions were great when on snow, ice axes went in firmly and cramponing was a dream. The low-angled ice sections at times were decent, though most times were a little doggy, with good pro few and far between. Fortunately when things did steepen up the ice available was much more accepting of screws...we both had some healthy run outs and bottomed out a lot of placements along the way.
Here's Mike on lead higher up on the route:
Our plan was: to climb the route in one day, find a bivy spot on the summit ridge, summit the following day and return to camp. Unfortunately our alarm, my watch, decided it didn't like the cold and shut down. This delay leaving Foster lake cost us valuable day light. We left camp @7AM, instead of the planned 5:30 departure. Even with a timely departure we would have been climbing in the dark for an extended period of time that first day. As things go, we climbed well into the night. Both Mike and I were haggared, dehydrated to the point of dry-heaving, tired to the point of nearly sleeping when belaying and desperate for comforts of a bivy; our 18 hour climb came to an end a mere 15 meters from the summit ridge @ 1 in the morning. With relief we crammed our tired souls inside a tiny, and I mean tiny cave, for a brew and rest.
We both agreed that we could have simul-climbed a lot more terrain high on the route, however, due to our haggared state and that fact that we were climbing at night the decision to pitch things out was the wise one. Here's a view of the upper part of the route, and the Elk valley, as seen from outside our bivy cave, morning of Feb 8, 2014.
It was fortunate that we did stop when we did, as the crux of the climb was above us! I'm glad Mike lead this, (it's nice having a 5.12 rock climber on the other end of the rope) as it would have taken me a while to figure this part out!
Once atop the summit ridge and in good spirits, we were our way to the main summit. Climbing Colonel Foster is a serious endeavour- even in the middle of Summer the main summit has no easy line to it. With the exception of Walsh's Forray, all routes to the summit come in at 5.8 or higher. Known attempts to climb the Colonel in Winter are few and far between. The last successful recorded Winter ascent was in 1989-since then two valiant attempts, one in March of 1998 the other in Dec 2013 have come up short due to suspect conditions- the Colonel's summit hadn't seen a Winter visitor in nearly 25 years.
After simul-climbing some 4'th and low 5'th class terrain we were presented with a stunning view from atop Colonel Foster:
There are legions of stories of un planned bivoauc's when climbing Colonel Foster- summiting Foster is optional, getting down is mandatory and tricky. After eyeing up Direttissima I knew Mike and I could climb it, I was more uneasy about the decent. Fortunately we only had a little head scratching when rappelling off the main summit and making our way to the upper glacier. Here's Mike walking to the Great Gendarme on the upper glacier.
With my nerves at rest, we tidied up our rack and ropes, took one last look at the Elk Valley and made our way down the West Gully:
Though off the upper part of the mountain, and in the clear, Colonel Foster's trickery had one more card to play- we, in the wee hours of the morning, confused ourselves into believing we had walked past the South Col, and opted to back track a bit and climb up high to get a good view of the scene. Upon reaching a vista high up some mountain side, we soon realized that we were on Colonel Foster's South-East peak! With a direct descent down one of the South Gully's we finally found ourselves at the South col and on our way to Foster lake.
All in all, this was a great trip! I'm glad Mike's youth and confidence convinced me to tackle this stellar line with him! We will both remember this climb!
Good weather is a must if one aspires to climb the Colonel in Winter. The route down from the South Col is one big avy slope, and there's a classic terrain trap about mid descent. We had some point release slabs break off in parts, this was all wind loading as the snow pack to date on the island has consolidated really well. Both the other attempts in 2013 and 1998 had to turn back due to poor snow conditions. On our climb the snow was great- temps ranged from -5 thru -13 when we were on the mountain- the colder the better!
As far as grading goes, it felt like most of the climb was either WI2/WI3 with short sections of WI3+/WI4...both the documented crux sections of the climb had some funk to deal with, but no extended vertical sections (thankfully). There were other options for us high up on the route- that tricky rock section can be avoided if a party so desired. If I climb this route again, I'll shoot out right and avoid it, it'll burn unnecessary time and energy climbing it.
Two 60 meter half ropes
12 screws: 1-10cm, 5-13cm, 5-16cm, 1-22cm
Cams from .2 thru #2
Half set of walnuts
One Picket...we should have had two
5 pins, assortment of blades, angles ect...
2 screamers, 8 alpine draws, 2 quickdraws
Approach via the Elk Valley Trail, as described in Phil Stones Island Alpine. We took roughly 5.5 hours to reach Foster lake- this may turn into a full day approach if there's more snow on the trail. One day on the approach (Feb 6), one day to climb the route (Feb 7), one day to summit and return to camp (Feb 8) and one day out (Feb 9).