The 'Schrund"When you're in the mountains, you're faced with situations, and
you must make quick decisions. And live with the decisions that you
I recalled Joe Simpson's words somewhat along these lines from
"Touching the Void". I was not facing a rappel into a dark crevasse
while hanging on my last ice screw on the rope that was cut by my
partner, while my leg was broken. Still, a quick decision that I made
earlier had put me in a situation where I had to make another quick
one. The bergschrund in front of me spanned all the way from the exit
to the Hourglass on the North Face on my left, to almost the base of
the upper part of Silverhorn, way to my right. The only place that had
a snow bridge across, and hence the only way through the schrund for
me, had a steep, overhanging, but not so long, bulge on the other
side. I had to go for it and climb through the bulge, or had to walk a
long way off to the top of Silverhorn to access the summit ridge.
I stopped there to collect my thoughts. The events of the whole day
ran through my mind in a flash.
The ClimbI had met Courtney for the first time the previous afternoon at the Snowcoach
road. He seemed like a chill, take-it-easy guy, and I immediately felt that
I'll have fun with him on the climb. I had the weekend to kill in between
shenanigans at Calgary, and had hooked up with Courtney to try the
Silverhorn on Athabasca. Courtney chanced up on a couple of Park Wardens
in the Icefields Center, who said it has been so warm that nobody has been
going up ANY of the North side routes, and the AA-col is what they'd recommend.
We decided that we'll stick with our plans, and if things looked bad, we
could always turn back.
We were not sure what the conditions will be on the route, so we took
all possible gear that we could think of - several screws, three
pickets, and a pair of double ropes. After catching some sleep, we
drove up the Snowcoach Road in the wee hours of Saturday morning.
While I was still getting my pack ready, Courtney said he'll start to
hike just to get "the blood flowing". I started behind him, and soon
realized that I forgot my camera. I went back to my car to get it, and
started my trudge back up the trail. It was 3:50 am.
Courtney is fast on the trail, and very soon I could see his headlamp
flashing way high up on the trail. I put my head down and maintained a
steady pace. Somewhere along the way, the trail to the glacier forks
right, while a well-trodden trail continues along the stream to the
left. I missed this turn-off, and didn't even realize it for a while.
Going further a bit, I stooped down to gulp some ice-cold water from
the stream. When I looked up, Courtney was above me, but way to the
right of me. There should be a switchback in the trail soon. I walked
some more, and my trail disappeared in to scree. I found no
switchbacks. "Don't tell me you lost the trail you ass-clown!" I was
having some nice words to myself. "This is supposed to be one of the
easiest approaches you idiot!". I futzed around in the loose scree and
talus, searching for the lost trail, and the switchback. I move two
feet up, and thanks to my plastic boots, slid back three feet! Damn!!
Within a few minutes, I could see Courtney's headlamp straight above
me. Screw the switchback, I just went straight up the loose rocks and
scree. It was only 10-15 minutes, but it seemed like forever. After
some huff and puff, I finally chanced up on the trail higher up on the
rib of the moraine.
When I got to the start of the glacier, Courtney was already there for
a while, and was getting his feel duct-taped up for the plastic
boots. I felt relieved that I find my Koflachs quite comfortable.
While I grabbed a bite and a drink, Courtney flaked the rope and was
already tied in. Soon we were off traversing the lower part of the glacier.
The sun came up over the ridge on our left, and lighted up the North Face just
for a wee bit, and the Silverhorn.
I was walking on ice, and when I had to step on snow, it was still solid -
may be I was sinking till my ankle or shin at places. A team of two from
behind caught up with us soon, and we could see that there was a solo
person coming up as well. They were all going for the North Glacier route.
We were soon at the base of Silverhorn, and had to move up and left,
while the other team followed the boot path traversing way to the
right. The boot path up the North Glacier from there on looked pretty
straightforward, with no crevasses to weave around.
The Wardens had told Courtney that if we traversed well to the left of
the base of the Silverhorn, there will be an obvious ramp that leads
up it. While traversing left, I felt that may be we should start
climbing up right there, but in the end we decided that we'll take the
Wardens' words. As we traversed over, the North Face came into our
full view. Sure enough, there was a "ramp" leading up and right on the
Silverhorn, but I thought it was a bit steeper than the first ramp
that we passed. Still, it didn't look too bad, and we stopped at the
bergschrund that blocked the entrance to the ramp and racked up. Our
way up will pass next to the towering seracs on the left.
I had all the screws available, and took two of the three pickets with me. The
plan was to simul-climb, putting pro as I go up. I told Courtney that we can
always belay if things get more spicy.
I started attacking the entry. There was some snow filling up the
schrund at one point, and I stomped on it real good to make sure I
won't sink into the hole. At the same time, the snow on the lip above
was real soft. My tools got no purchase at all. I dug deep with both
my tools, tried to step up, only to find that my legs are both sinking
to my knees! With no purchase on my tools, I just fell backwards,
landing on soft snow. "Man! This snow is deep!" I muttered, before
starting up again. I started digging huge buckets up the vertical
step, only to fall on my back again. Finally, I made it up the soft
snow on my third try, and scrambled up to harder terrain, breathing
heavily. Right above the soft snow was some ice that gave good
sticks. I felt better, moved up a few steps, and stopped to wipe all
the loose snow off my glasses. Courtney was mutely watching my
struggle, and was muttering some expletives.
I started moving up. It was icy enough to give me good sticks, too
hard for pickets, but not icy enough to put screws in! While I felt
secure myself, I was concerned that its going to be hard to put any
pro in. After moving up about 50 ft, I started digging and clearing
the snow to find good ice so that I can drive a screw in. It was
already past 8:00 am, and the sun was in full blast. Courtney shouted
from below - "How is it?". I said its icy, but not icy enough to get
good screws in. Courtney came up with a quick suggestion - "Well, I
think I'll just go back and do the North Glacier route. It looked
pretty straightforward from where we turned left (for Silvehorn), and
I'll feel comfortable soloing it. You can go up this route, and we'll
meet at the summit". I felt that was a good suggestion - with the
conditions like they were, I'll feel comfortable climbing this route,
but will find it hard to put any good pro in. Courtney felt the
conditions were a bit beyond his comfort level to solo. The plan was
I unroped and let the rope slide to him. That way, we each had one
half rope, in case we needed one. We agreed that the first person
reaching the summit will wait for the other one, and go looking for
him if he doesn't turn up in good time. Soon, I was alone facing the
icy slopes above me. I soon got into a nice rhythm - swing, chuck,
chuck; swing the other tool, chuck, chuck with the crampons! It all
felt secure and solid, and I was really enjoying it now.
I felt the slope was 40-45 degrees most of the way here.
I stopped at one point to take a drink, and spotted Courtney chugging along on the North Glacier.
Soon after that, the slope mellowed a bit, and merged with what I thought should have
been the actual Silverhorn route. The North Face presented itself in its full view:
I could see the actual route continuing straight up to the top of Silverhorn, but I
also noticed that I had another option. I could veer left here, get on
easier slopes, and go straight up to the bergschrund in between the
North Face proper and Silverhorn. It was getting warm as well, so I
decided that I'll take the shorter route. There were two issues though
- this bypass will have me traversing right under the seracs, and
crossing the schrund might be tricky. From where I was standing, it
looked like there might be a way through schrund at the far right,
close to the top of Silverhorn. My decision was made, and started
making a rising traverse towards my left. The snow was hard in the
beginning, but soon became knee-deep powder. I was starting to feel
the altitude a bit as well. Looking constantly at the seracs above me,
I moved as fast as I could, breaking trail, breathing hard. As I came
up to the schrund, I was dismayed to find that the "way" up to my
right was actually not filled in, and was faced with the tricky bridge
right in front of me with a bulge to work through!
Up and over, and home!I had to make a quick decision, and I decided to try climbing through
the bulge. I had a bite, some shot blocks, and water. The team of two,
and the solo guy, that did the North Glacier were already up at the
summit, and were looking at me over the summit ridge. May be one of
them snapped a picture, thinking "how then hell is this guy going to
climb through the schrund?!". I tip-toed up the snow bridge to the
base of the wall with the bulge. It was dripping wet, thanks to the
sun. I didn't have much horizontal room to pick an easy line - if I
fall, I'll go down deep into the schrund. Right where the bulge was,
at least the snow bridge might hold me if I fell. I swung my tools,
and after some digging in, they sunk into some decent ice. My feet
were still on soft, sugary, snow/ice glued together with the dripping
water. I went for it. The next couple of swings felt better, and just
as the snow under my left foot started sliding down, I managed to
stick my right foot higher into a more solid placement. Phew!! I
climbed up a few more steps, and the angle mellowed out. A few more
swings and steps pushed through, and I was on the other side of the
snow ridge. I stopped to catch my breath here. Andromeda was in full
view now, with Mt Columbia in the distance.
I started walking up the summit ridge. Soon, I looked back to see
Courtney approaching the ridge. Wow! What perfect timing!!
Soon, we were both walking towards the snow-capped summit. The solo guy was
lounging up there, brewing some hot drink, and enjoying the perfect
summit day. He said he slipped while trying to capture me climbing
through the schrund. I said I'm glad I didn't slip when I did it!
Courtney had switched to his trail shoes to move faster through the
scree and rock filled ridge from the AA-col. He first thought it'll be
faster for him to descend the AA-col all the way to the Snowcoach
road, but decided that he didn't like the look of the scree down
there. So we roped up again for the glacier, and found a much more
direct way down to safety through the crevasses, thus cutting our time
under the seracs. Luckily, nothing fell off the seracs till we were
off the glacier.
While Courtney gunned down the trail to the car, I stopped to admire
the cool bivy spots with near-perfectly tiled floors.
Further down, I stopped again at the fork where I had taken the wrong
turn in the morning. And I said, almost loudly, "How can you miss that
The approximate route I took (original photo by Dow Williams):