OverviewThe North Face of Edith Cavell is an imposing sight, rising just over 1,000m above the Angel Glacier, and 1,600m from the parking lot. First climbed in July 1961 by Yvon Chouinard, Fred Beckey, and Dan Doody, it was an impressive accomplishment.
Although much of the route is exposed class four rock, snow, and ice, there is plenty of challenging climbing. The crux is a pillar that offers around 4 pitches of steep, and sometimes horribly loose, rock climbing. I found this to be considerably more difficult than the advertised 5.7. Keep in mind that you will be climbing in mountaineering boots, and will probably carry a pack. A second crux might be the exit above the summit ice slope. Poor snow conditions, a nasty summmit cornice, and rotten rock offering little in the way of protection can conspire to make the final pitches quite memorable.
The North Face will give you the opportunity to exercise all of your alpine climbing skills: scrambling, technical rock, snow, ice, and cornice burrowing. Although rock anchors are usually easy to find, there are times when some creativity and careful belay selection is needed. Rockfall can be a problem (as it was for the first ascent party), and selecting belays that are protected from above can be the key to a safe ascent.
If you plan to complete the route in a day (the first ascent party bivied 1,000 below the summit--not an uncommon experience, apparently) be prepared to do a lot of simulclimbing and/or soloing on easier terrain. While not technically difficult, an unroped fall would likely have disastrous consequences. Once above the crux pillar retreat becomes challenging.
ApproachThe approach to the Angel Glacier beneath the North Face is threatened by seracs. Although a third class route can be found, the Angel Glacier calves regularly, and the more protected route described here is strongly recommended. Unfortunately, there is some fifth class climbing involved, and many parties will want to rope up.
From the parking lot at the end of Edith Cavell Road, cross the stream to the west and gain the obvious climbers trail that follows the crest of a moraine. When the moraine merges with the cliff bands, contour along ledges until you reach a small waterfall. The start of the route is about 10m to the left. A #1 and #2 Camalot provides a good anchor here if you are belaying. One pitch of mostly fourth class climbing leads to a broad sandy bench, where a large block can be slung for a belay.
Follow a use trail left (south) for a few 10s of meters, then head right and up slabs and scree. Be on the lookout for cairns marking a traverse to the right (north). Follow the traversing line about 50 m to the base of a right-leaning chimney/gully. From here 3 pitches of mostly easy fifth class climbing up (or near) a wide chimney leads to a sandy ledge. If you were climbing roped, pack it away, as it won't be needed on the rest of the approach.
The route is convoluted from here. There are numerous cairns marking the way, but they aren't always obvious, or where you might need them. It is tempting to head straight up in several places, but this will lead you into the firing line of the seracs hidden above. There is much traversing involved. When in doubt, head right. If at one point you find yourself in a long traverse up through stunted fir and heather, you are on the right track. If not, you are probably too far left. Higher up there is a large snow-filled gully. It is feasible to climb straight up it, but the established "trail" heads around to the right, winding around towers and up chutes to top out above and to the right of the top of the gully.
There is no point in staying left on the approach, even once you can see you are clear of the seracs. Although you will indeed gain the glacier sooner, you will be obliged to trudge up bare glacier ice and through steep, loose moraine for a fair distance before you reach the flat upper part of the glacier. The path described here will top out even with this area, and an easy walk over level terrain will lead to bivy sites and the glacier.
There are at least two decent bivy sites constructed in the moraine. You will encounter the first soon after topping out. It will be down and to the left near the ice. Unfortunately, the moraine is horribly loose in this area; a better spot will be found further up and to the right. You might have to search for it, but if you're keen to camp on dry ground, it's worth it. Camping on the north margin of the glacier is also an option. Running water can usually be found on the margin of the glacier.
Since there is a reasonable chance that you will find yourself needing to reverse the approach, it is wise to note the location where you topped out. In 2010 there was a rap anchor at the top of the last fifth class pitch. One long rappel with 60m double ropes will get you to a slung flake, and another rap will get you to third class terrain. It is certainly possible to rappel from the top of the first fifth class pitch, but a better option is to head north across ledges and down steps to a large tree with slings. A ~35m rap from here will land you near the moraine. Walk down the use trail from here.
Expect around 5 hours on the approach it you pitch it out carrying full packs and climb in mountaineering boots.
Route DescriptionThe route more or less follows a rib system directly below the main summit. Begin by crossing the Angel Glacier and heading up a snow slope to the left of the toe of the buttress. As the glacier approaches the icefall it become increasingly crevassed. To minimize the chance of dropping into a slot it's best to swing wide to the right and cross on the flats, then swing back left above the bulk of the crevasses.
Gain the rock on the left of the buttress and follow the path of least resistance. After several pitches you will cross the snow-covered "ledge" that traverses the entire face. Start up the central pillar from here on its left side. You will soon cross over to the center/right and stay there, climbing face, cracks, and corners to the top. The middle section is home to the worst rock on the route. Overhanging moves out of an alcove will have you grabbing at holds that turn out to be portable. There is some major exfoliation going on here. It might be wise to climb on the left side of the buttress to avoid the worst of it.
Once atop the crux pillar the technical difficulties are largely behind you, but alas, you are only half way up. Now is a good time to assess your situation: weather, remaining daylight, your energy level, and preparedness to bivy. Unless you are comfortable simulclimbing or soloing most of the rest of the face, you will probably need at least six hours to complete the climb.
A few more pitches of scrambling and easy fifth class climbing lead to a weakness in the cliff bands above. From here the rest of the climb is mostly snow and ice, with the occasional bit of rock. From the bottom of the summit snow/ice slope, head up and left around the final rock band. Three pitches up and left will put you in position to reach the summit in one short pitch. Exactly where you top out will vary from year to year, and month to month. A good strategy is for the leader to identify a weakness in the summit cornice (hopefully, just really steep snow), and position a belay below and to one side. Once on top, blocks may be used for an anchor, though a body weight counterbalance will do in a pinch.
DescentUnfortunately, there is no established route back down to the Angel Glacier. The headwall is big and rubble-strewn. At least one prominent guide has looked down from the top and changed his mind about descending this way.
That leaves you with two reasonable options: descend either the East Ridge or the West Ridge. The East Ridge has the advantage of being much shorter, and it will take you directly back to the parking lot. Its disadvantages include the need to do several raps, and lots of exposed downclimbing. There is no mystery to where the East Ridge descent goes: simply follow the crest of the ridge east until you reach a broad saddle across from Cavell Meadows, then descend a snow slope on the north to use trails leading to the parking area. If conditions (yours and the mountain's) allow, this is a more interesting way to descend, and it may save you time.
The West Ridge, though much longer, may not take much additional time, since you will be moving fast the whole way. It can be safely descended in the dark by headlamp. It's a good way to go if you're done with being on technical terrain. Head west along the summit ridge until progress is blocked by a steep drop-off. Follow a use trail and cairns south and west until it is possible to begin traversing north under a cliff band. Traverse all the way across the mountain until you are on the west ridge, with the chasm of the north face on your right. Follow this to a saddle with a couple of well-constructed bivy corrals, and then head south down loose rocks (at first) and ledges (near the bottom) to the valley bottom. Stay to the east (skier's left) of the central drainage to avoid being cliffed out.
It is important to follow the ridge all the way to the saddle as described. Heading down sooner seems appealing from above, but you will get cliffed out, and have to do a lot of work to get yourself back on track.
An obvious use trail can be seen in the meadow. Follow this west, then north for several kilometers until you reach the broad trail in the Astoria River valley. Turn right and walk several more kilometers until you reach the Edith Cavell road. Turn right and walk a couple kilometers up to the parking lot. If you're lucky one of your party can hitch a ride. Expect around 5 hours from summit to road. If you are planning on going this way it is advisable to bring a pair of sneakers along--you will be much more comfortable on the long walk out!