Mount Kitchener and Snow Dome are two of the coveted 54 11,000’+ peaks in the Canadian Rockies. Both are typically and most easily ascended during the winter months via skis (Mount Kitchener via its southwest slopes). However Mount Kitchener has quite a few other options, including the route I chose for a solo ascent, the East Ridge, II, 5.2, which crosses over a subsidiary peak named K2. I am not sure when the first ascent of the entire East Ridge was made, but did locate a summit log with one entry on top of K2 made in 1998. A partial recorded ascent of the east ridge was made via Dome Glacier (the scree descent) in 1955.
What prompted me to climb the East Ridge versus easily skiing the mountain in winter were Bill Corbett’s comments: “A much more aesthetic line is the East Ridge, rising almost directly from the highway and offering fine views over the Sunwapta Valley.” Although the views were exceptional as just about any ridge route in the Columbia Icefield region would offer up, the route itself was less than stellar. A 700’ loss from K2 to the Mount Kitchener col was one disappointment. The isothermal snow conditions on the small glacier (southeast facing 1000’+/-, not a snow field as Corbett alludes to) ascent just below the summit notch on the ridge was yet another. Then along came the worst rock I have ever had to solo 5th class on: up and down one of the most exposed notches in the Canadian Rockies. A quote from the first ascent party to navigate the East Ridge in 1955: “poor joke on the part of the mountain. The cleft was of distinctly inferior design, with both sides composed of loose, vertical shale and the bottom, 75’ below, a steep ice chute covered by an unstable cornice.” This was the same condition I found the notch in 2011. Next up: a bone jarring descent down the firm scree towards and following out the moraine of the Dome Glacier. To cap it off: a death defying warm afternoon Sunwapta River crossing. I had crossed the Sunwapta many times, but never this close to its origin (Athabasca and Dome Glaciers) that late in the day. In the end, the views made up for it, I guess, since I am safe at home.
Park approximately one mile north of the Columbia Icefield Centre. I used a designated parking area on the right side of the road that was a bit further north than I needed to be, but was an appropriate spot for the vehicle. Cross the Sunwapta River. Whatever it feels like in the morning, keep in mind with a sunny day, it will be much more difficult in the afternoon/evening on the return. This crossing is much closer to the origin of the Sunwapta River, the Athabasca and Dome Glaciers, and thus will be much more difficult than any crossing you might have made further downstream, i.e. Mount Alberta’s approach.
Route Description (s)Aim for the ridge that runs along the right side (north) of the Dome Glacier drainage and its moraine. For the most part you can completely avoid the trees and bush. Continue angling up and right at tree line through pleasant ground and eventually onto shale scree. Scramble up the first bump in the ridge (subsidiary peak of K2). Lose a short amount of elevation down to the col between this point and K2’s summit. A short bit of down climbing is involved and I advise staying true to the ridge for the easiest descent. Scramble up to K2’s summit (approximately 10,300’) by climbing a few short 5th class rock ledges up the left side. There was a summit cairn and log book on K2 in 2011. I was the second entry, the first being 1998. It took me over 2 hours to reach this summit and approximately 3800’ elevation gain from the river.
After a short down climb, lose 700’ down the broad scree slopes of K2 to the col (9,600’+/-) between K2 and Mount Kitchener. Continue up the broad scree and snow slopes above to the base of a small glacier on the east ridge of Mount Kitchener. Several holes and crevasses litter this glacier including one in 2011 that ran the width of the slope over to the loose rock on the left. It is not a snow slope as mentioned in the Bill Corbett’s guide book. Stay left of the glacier on the scree and/or snow and ascend to the lower left corner. From there about a 1000’ gain up the glacier to the apex above will land you right at the notch in the summit ridge which is the crux of the route. Watch for point release avalanches (photo), rock fall on the left side, holes on the right and the before mentioned crevasse about 2/3rds of the way up. This slope is 40-50 degrees near the top and I used crampons and an alpine axe to ascend it. Being southeast facing, the snow can be quite isothermal on a warm summer day.
Once you top out onto the summit ridge, the views of Snow Dome and its incredibly active ice fall directly to the west will impress. A few meters up the summit ridge brings you to the notch. This notch, being carved by recent glaciers and ice, is home to some of the worse rock any climber should ever have to rely on. I went solo, sans rope and harness and regretted it. I definitely advise rapping both sides. Despite the FAer’s of this route mentioning 75’, I believe a 30m glacier rope would be adequate for the raps. The far side rap is the longer one and there were two obvious fixed raps on it with one quite a bit lower on decent pitons, perhaps placed by someone with a 30m rope. In any regard, in mid-August there remained a small unstable cornice you had to cross at the bottom. The far side is by far the worst to climb and/or down climb, mostly just comprised of 5th class mud and loose shale. Once through the notch, I donned crampons and finished the last several 100’ along the heavily corniced ridge to the summit.
Return the same. There was tat left at the top of the 1000’ glacier snow slope. I removed it from the mountain, but one rap from the very top of this slope might be a good idea if you have a rope. This top section is 40-50 degrees plus and the heat of the rocks make the snow shallow and unstable. Once back to the K2-Mount Kitchener col, descend the southern scree slope/drainage all the way to the moraine/drainage field of Dome Glacier. Follow this rough moraine back out to the river crossing. Stay on the left side and avoid steep exposed ice slopes towards the end. It eventually turns into a fast moving rapid. Follow this back to the Sunwapta River. Be smart about where to cross the river. I believe the best spot might be a heavily braided area where the Dome Glacier melt rapid runs into the Athabasca Glacier melt which forms the start of the river itself. There is an option of crossing over the Dome Glacier moraine field before it turns into a rapid and climbing up and over a ridge to gain the Athabasca Glacier if in fact you want to avoid the Sunwapta River Crossing. However, I can’t confirm what obstacles you might find doing that and it would involve a lot more energy. I crossed the river right across from the small parking spot referenced in the approach and can’t recommend that crossing on return.
External Links100’s of Canmore and Banff National Park multi-pitch rock climbs, ice climbs, alpine climbs and scrambles, just scroll down to routes
Banff National Park, Parks Canada
Best Eats in Canmore: Iron Goat, tons of organic/free range fare, my favorite is the game meat loaf. As good as prices as anywhere really and the staff is made up of a few aspiring climbers. The main man works his heart out making everything run smooth, not a given in Canmore. Best dining views (and sunny outdoor seating) in town bar none, from Mount Lougheed to Mount Rundle traverses, two of my trademark beta contributions near the town of Canmore. True best of the best mountain local dining experience.
Best Eats in Banff: The Bison, all organic/free range fare, with a detailed description of their suppliers. Recently expanded (2010), I recommend sticking with the downstairs. Better menu, prices and social ambience. Maybe retire to the bar upstairs for sunset or late night. Bison chili is amazing!
Best Coffee in Canmore: Beamers, the locals favorite, super wholesome lunch stuff, local guys, no attitude on service
Best Climbers Hangout: Summit Café, most likely place to find me or my brethren shooting the bull about beta. Best breakfast place in town, good coffee as well, serve Mennonite meats from Valbella, which is the best place to buy free range products anywhere in the world, right here in Canmore.
Climbing Gear: All way too expensive in the Bow Valley, but if you must, Mountain Magic in Banff is far superior to service and actual knowledge about climbing than the two in Canmore.