Cataract Arete Trip Report - A Journey up Mount Colonel Foster

Cataract Arete Trip Report - A Journey up Mount Colonel Foster

Page Type Page Type: Trip Report
Date Date Climbed/Hiked: Aug 5, 2017
Activities Activities: Mountaineering, Trad Climbing
Seasons Season: Summer

I had been familiarized with the idea of Mount Colonel Foster the first day I moved to Nanaimo in September of 2016. Two guys who I had never met sat on the upstairs couch of my brand new home I was renting. I went to shake one’s hand, and he sat there apologetically while saying, “I would get up to shake your hand, but we just got back from a trip with Colonel Foster.”

“What’s that?” I replied, thinking they had a confrontation with an ex-military hard-ass.

He simply picked up the guidebook Island Alpine and turned the front cover towards me. My mouth dropped as I looked upon this beautifully barren, steep, complex, wide, kilometer high face. I had never seen anything like it.

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Fast forward to August 4th, 2017, and the trunk of my Highlander is loaded with all of the supplies needed to ascend straight up the East face of the beast itself. There’s 4 of us crammed into the vehicle. Peer has just gotten back from tree planting, and is strong and confident. Kurt and me have been talking about this trip for months; Kurt brought the idea of the Cataract Arete up to me, a 5.8 adventure up a knife-edge ridgeline, gaining 1350 meters of elevation on pure rock. It sounded intense and exciting, so I readily agreed. Dave has only heard about this trip a week prior, and after expelling much doubt, he seems to have the enthusiasm to climb Vancouver Island’s most prominent alpine feature.

We cruise north down the Inland Highway, and it’s strangely apocalyptic-feeling. Smoke has blanketed the landscape from large forest fires on the interior alongside small fires near Courtenay. Green hues are now grey, and typical sunset oranges are now a deep burgundy. No matter, we make it to the Elk River trailhead an hour after dark. I recognize a friend in the parking lot, and we hang out awhile with a few beers and guitar melodies guiding us off into sleep.   

Morning dawns, and hikers/climbers come and go down the trailhead, ready to start their August long weekend wilderness excursions. We continue to sleep. Today, Saturday, August 5th, will be short; we’re just hiking to base camp at Foster/Glacier Lake. Hopefully the hiking portion will only take 4 to 5 hours.

We make breakfast beside the vehicle - eggs, toast with peanut butter, blueberries, oats, and cherries. We’re ready to go. It’s my third time down the Elk River trail this summer, and I have gotten a better understanding of distance; kilometers don’t mean much here. Only time. Somehow, and I don’t know how, distance feels twice as long on the trail. It must be something to do with the monotony of the scenery, and lack of prominent landmarks.

We’re making pretty damn good time, and 2.5 hours into our hike, we cross the bridge over the Elk River, signalling an approximate distance of 10 kilometers (which I still don’t believe). Another 20 minutes and we’re at Landslide Lake. It’s seriously hot in the alpine; I wouldn’t be surprised if the temperature is over 28 degrees on the shore of the lake. Before I know it, me and Dave are jumping off of logs into alarmingly cold water. A guy sitting on some rocks asks us about our plans, and after learning we are doing an East Face route, he proceeds to warn us that we need at least 27 slings if we want to retreat down the mountain. I believe his words, but they seem to bear a lack a confidence in our party’s ability. I get even more apprehensive when he proceeds to mention a “5.8 unprotectable chimney that turns 90% of parties around on the Cataract Arete”. After this encounter I still have faith, and a renewed competitive drive to prove any outside doubt wrong.

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The extended lunch and swim at Landslide Lake lasts for well over an hour (if not two), and we complete the last couple kilometers up to Foster/Glacier Lake. The trail is a bit more rugged through trees and rocks, but it’s not too bad. Before I know it, we’re here - at base camp, trying to look at our route. The sun is at the worst spot imaginable - shining directly behind the mountain. On top of this, the air is still choked with smoke, and it’s near impossible to draw out features in the black expanse of rock. Regardless, it's horribly intimidating. We do our best, and after the sun sets behind the summit ridgeline, we are quite sure we have sighted most of the Cataract Arete. Tents are set up by the outlet to Foster Lake (which turns out to be about 5 degrees colder than our surroundings because of the moving water). Floating chunks of ice sit seemingly still in the baby blue water of Foster Lake.

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We get up at 5:30am on Sunday, August 6th, and make a quick breakfast as the sun starts to rise. We ditch any gear that we don’t need to bring on the climb; we still are taking our sleeping bags and thermarests for the night we will spend on top of the route.

The approach to the first set of gullies begins with a traverse across the glacier. We choose to go below a rock band, and then up a small finger of snow until we are able to transition onto the rock at a decent angle. It seems like a pain, but I’m realizing that it is almost worth putting crampons on for this small part, just for assurance. We do it in boots, and the snow is alright, but still feels prone to slipping. We definitely appreciate the ice axe at least.

We head up the first set of slabs/gullies. From base camp, this is the green wavy line that is seen weaving its way up and right to an obvious small patch of snow. It’s straightforward when we first start climbing where the weakness is, and we meander our way through slabs and ledges. It’s all 3rd to 4th class. We actually overshoot the patch of snow by going too high, so we downclimb a bit and traverse over to the snow patch. 

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Basically, the climbing after this is taking narrow gullies for awhile. The gullies are alright, but they’re still pretty exposed, and we have to pull some committing moves on chockstones that feel like low 5th to all of us. It’s not vertical, but the relenting steep ~60 degree angle means that if any of us fall, we probably will keep falling. There’s a bit of route finding, but we choose the most obvious gully line, and it ends up being fine. The rock is pretty good in this lower section for the most part, but we just have to be mindful of what we grab because there are some hollow and loose blocks.

Finally, we arrive at a knoll in the ridge. We’re perched on this bump like ants in a human city of rock. Ahead of us, the entire Cataract Arete pierces the sky, lit by the morning sun. Saying it looked intimidating would be a huge understatement. There’s a massive gully lurking between us and the Cataract Arete. This is the infamous rappel that is required to transition from the lower climbing to the main climbing on the arete. It’s 55 meters long, and freehanging for most of it.

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Gully where the snow was breaking off. Looking further left from following picture
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The Cataract Arete. Looking further right from last picture

A minute after we arrive on this sandy overlook, a resounding thunder snaps our attention above us. A massive house-sized block of snow calves from a precariously perched snowpatch in the gully. We all watch in horror as it explodes into ten car-sized blocks of snow, which continue cascading down the gully before disappearing from sight and earshot. This event happened in the gully only a few hundred meters up from where we are going to be rappelling. There’s a silence between all of us. “Yeah, that block would mess you up.” Dave states, matter-of-fact. We think about observing the snow for 15 minutes before we realize that we just need to suck it up and rappel into the depths of despair.

We had read about another party who had spent “longer than they care to admit” looking for the rappel slings. They provided great beta for subsequent parties, and we find the slings very quickly. (You simply need to to go down from the knoll about 7 to 10 meters off to skiiers right, and then traverse skiiers left underneath the knoll until you find a couple slings on a chockstone.) It’s a pretty small ledge, about 3 feet wide, but with good hand holds. I grimace as Peer disappears from sight on the first rappel. I shoot a quick glance at the snow above us, and pray that it stays put for the next half hour. Kurt is next to rappel, and after a wave, he too, is out of sight. I traverse out onto the ledge with Dave. I look down past my feet, and see Foster Lake, already an eternity below us. Yikes. Dave sets up his ATC and Prusik and looks over the edge. He turns his head back to me, with his mouth in an O shape. “It’s freehanging.”


“Oh yeah. That is….. fucking scary. That is….. Fucking awesome.”

I smile. That’s the spirit.

Dave disappears.

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Looking up to the top of the rappel
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Looking straight down from rappel station. My party below me.

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I examine the chockstone.. Hm. Looks solid enough to me. I start rappelling. About 10 meters down, my feet are in pure air, and they don’t touch anything for another 30 meters. The weight of the heavy bag is pulling me backwards, trying to turn my upside down, and I fight with my core muscles to right myself. My feet touch rock for the last 15 meters, and that’s it; now I’m down in a precarious, wet, tomb, being greeted by 3 other faces. There’s a massive car-sized chockstone and narrow slot above us in the gully, and my fear of being taken out by snow is dulled somewhat by this potential protection. It’s cold down here, and the water rushing down through the gully makes it tough to hear each other.

“Uhhh… Kris, we’re having some difficulty here.”

I look over, and my worst fear is confirmed - the rope is stuck. Thankfully, the other end is still within reach, so I come over, and perform some rope magic by pulling the other end a bit, shaking it, trying to pull again. It gets stuck again. My throat is starting to close in nervousness. Five minutes go by. I pull one last time, and with a huge wave of relief, the knot comes over the edge. We all cheer. Of course, to add insult to injury, the rope gets stuck once more on the way down, and its pretty bad - a bite has gotten wedged around some horn or knob, out of sight. I desperately flail the rope, using all of the power in my shoulders to create huge waves. The rope stays put. I feel sick. Kurt climbs up about 5 meters to get a better view. 

“Just keep flicking it, man. It’s nearly there.”

I lightly fly it back and forth, and then wave it like I’m hitting the reins riding a horse towards a finish line. The rope comes down, landing at our feet.

It’s enough of a small success to justify a smile, but all four of us are staring at the next challenge - getting across the gully on wet, slippery slabs, and climbing up the other side on steep, loose looking rock.

While flaking the rope, a water bottle that had been set down on a rock is knocked over, and we watch with helplessness as it gains momentum, and disappears down the gully towards the massive waterfall. The mood is tense.

We start changing into rock shoes from our approach boots, and things quickly escalate to a new level of stress. We watch in horror as one of Peer’s boots does a few tumbles, takes a couple big bounces, and goes out of sight, almost definitely breaching the waterfall. It’s gone.

I can’t quite remember the dialogue that transpires afterwards, but it is of gloomy nature. We all know we have to keep going, and we know that shit happens on the mountain. But the hike out is going to suck for Peer - big time.

We downclimb quietly and tensely towards the bottom of the gully. (It’s noted here we could have rappelled one more time but we couldn’t find the other set of slings. They’re there, you just have to look a bit higher and climbers left). One very committing move over the water, and a short traverse lead us to a small ledge at the base of the first pitch. I dig out a root on a small bush and make a laughable anchor. I can’t wait to start going up, so I take the first lead.

The protection is garbage the first pitch. It’s very steep. I put a few nuts in, and while giving them a tug to set them, they start to pull free blocks of rock with them. I shake my head and keep climbing. Every crack is hugely flaring, and cams do nothing. I do manage to find a few decent pieces up higher, but the majority of the pitch is merely mentally protected. The first anchor actually ends up being a solid three-piece camalot nest, and it feels nice to be securely connected to the wall. Kurt leads up behind me, and soon we are belaying Peer and Dave up to meet us. The second pitch is less steep, with continued poor to mediocre protection, but Peer and Dave manage to find a horn to belay me and Kurt off of.

The third pitch almost has no protection, on grassy, less steep terrain. I stretch the rope to a full 60 meters, and after much searching, I am able to find a mediocre 3 piece anchor on rotten rock. 

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These three pitches complete the first crux of the Cataract Arete. From the moment we saw snow collapsing a few hours earlier, I’ve been in a very tenuous state of mind - focused and driven by an underlying fear. It’s time to relax now in the sun for a few minutes, enjoy a bite to eat, and start scrambling up easier terrain for awhile.

The ropes are put away, and we snake our way through 4th class and low 5th class weaknesses. Dave takes a slightly different line in one section, and is forced back on route by a weird gully. He yells in frustration. I feel bad - all of us are obviously on edge.

We are back in the shade, and the sun will be gone for the rest of the day. The position is incredible. We’re perched on climbers left of the arete, and behind us, looking down, the arete juts out into a sharp point overlooking Foster Lake. Looking up, there’s a rib we are following now, and the rock is excellent. Big jugs and big feet line this low-angled rib, and we make fast progress towards the next obvious steep section. 

The guidebook describes this steep section we arrive at now as ‘two pitches up the obvious flake on friable rock’. We stare at the chimney we’ve arrived at. It’s wide, and doesn’t look protectable. My fear is getting the best of me, and I’m hesitating about leading it. Peer steps up; “Fuck it, I’ll do it.” He racks up. Kurt and Peer place a two piece belay anchor while me and Dave sit on good ledges. Peer starts climbing by opting to head up the face about 5 meters right of the chimney. He keeps climbing. Kurt starts getting a bit nervous.

“Peer, if you can find a piece, try to get it in.”

“Uhh.. I would, but there’s honestly nothing here.” Peer responds from 10 meters above the belay.

Finally, at around 15 to 20 meters through the pitch, Peer manages to sling a horn. This turns out to be his only piece of protection. He joins the flake/chimney near the top of it, and gains a vegetated ledge above to belay from. Since neither Dave nor I feel like leading this friable, frightening pitch, Kurt follows Peer up, and takes the second rope with him. Kurt belays me and Dave at the same time. We both finish the rock pitch without any problem, and arrive on top of the vegetation. We climb up some slippery heather and crest the top of a flat section. The Cataract Arete is so narrow here that the only viable option is to put one leg on either side of the arete, and cautiously crawl along it. This iconic method of traversing a knife-edge ridge has been dubbed an “au cheval”. It sure isn’t much wider than the back of a horse.

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Ahead of us is the supposed crux of the route - the 5.8 headwall. Visions of an overhanging unprotectable chimney are making me practically quake, so when I stare at the corner a little longer and notice what looks like bomber protection, I immediately breathe out a huge sigh of relief. Very precariously, I swap positions with Peer and Dave on the au cheval, and start leading up the headwall. It is short, and I am able to place 3 great cams. Even though the rock is a bit chossy and covered in lichen, I feel confident with this change of headspace. The pitch is super short, and by the time I know it, I’m poking my head around the top, sitting on heather.

“We’re going to make it, boys!” I shout down to the team.

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The other three guys join me safely up top. The light is getting slightly dimmer, and we check the time; it’s already around 7:30 pm. There’s a big ledge up here that would be good to bivy on, but we all remember the trip report we read that makes note of a better bivy a bit higher. The higher bivy also has running water, which is absolutely critical to us, seeing as we have nearly drank our entire supply. Dave is down a water bottle all together.

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One last step of 4th class scrambling, and we are at the bivy, directly below the glacier; exhausted, thirsty, and thankful to all be safe and sound.

The first order of business is to make sure we find a water source. Peer and Kurt hike around to the right of the glacier, and find a small section where the water is trickling down the rock. It’s a slow process, like filling an air mattress, but we eventually fill all of our water bottles, and are once again fully hydrated.

We eat a quick dinner of energy bars, powdered food, cheese buns and dried meats, and its time to roll out our thermarests, and sleeping bags. Dave perches his sleeping setup on the edge of a prow, and puts a rock on either side to make sure he doesn’t roll off the edge. Me and Kurt are in a small divet, with less sleep-rolling chance, and Peer is above us on an open piece of rock. We watch in awe as a full yellow moon rises over Rambler Peak. The atmosphere is quiet, and our relief of being on flat ground is echoed in pastel pinks and purples in the sky around us. Distant rumbles of rockslides and glacier collapses break the silence. It is a wild place. 

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Stars over the summit ridge lull me into sleep, and before I know it, a beeping alarm at 6:00 am has made me snap open my eyes. My mouth drops. All of the smoke from the day before has settled to around 1700 meters in elevation, and only the tops of the mountains around us are poking out. Nobody else has woken up yet, and it is absolutely silent. I can almost hear a ring in my ears. No wind - nothing. 

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The sunrise is painting vivid orange hues on the horizon, and in a triumphant flash, the sun crests the smoke. The alpine scenery is so mind-blowingly beautiful, I can hardly contain myself. I sit there in the orange light with a permanent smile on my face. 

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After some cold oats, we are putting on our crampons and taking our ice axes out to ascend a striking glacial arete just above the bivy spot. This continuation of the Cataract Arete feels like a wonderful conclusion to reach the summit ridge. Four white-tailed ptarmigans scurry across the snowy arete, and in a way, I feel comforted that we are not the only living beings up here.

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We rise on the snow, and more and more of the mountain unfolds below us. Before I know it, we are standing at the top of the Great West Couloir, which drops directly off the other side of the mountain. It will be our descent route. However, it’s not quite time to descend yet - we have our sights set on the summit, which involves a traverse along the summit ridge.

We climb the first pitch solo (low 5th), and we gain the ridgeline. We then are able to hike across the flat ridgetop for a good distance. We ditch almost all of our gear except for water and the climbing stuff. The ridge dips downwards sharply over 5.8 slab, and we’re forced to rappel once.  

 We drop down a bit, and at the bottom here, there is probably the most committing little section of the entire summit ridge. It’s a traverse around a steep small tower section on mediocre holds. If any of us fall here, we would not stop falling until we hit Foster Lake. We are all terrified at making this traverse, but we manage to get across the heart-stopping section.

This leads to another pitch of committing 5.8 climbing through a corner/chimney. One of my 0.3 cams gets stuck in the crack when it walks, and part of me is sad, but also accepting of the collateral that we must give to this ferocious beast. After we all complete this last hard pitch, we have a full view of the summit tower.

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We traverse right, across the bottom of the summit block, and then wrap around the back to access easy gullies to the top.

Part of me can’t believe that we’re here, on top of Mount Colonel Foster. It’s an outrageous notion to think what we just accomplished - and I’m proud of myself, and proud of my friends for our problem solving, mental stamina, physical strength, and technical knowledge.

We sign the summit register, and start the descent back down the summit ridge.

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It’s pretty easy to reverse what we just did, but it all takes a lot of time. The exposed traverse section is just as scary, if not scarier, the second time. When we arrive back at the top of the Great West Couloir, I’m very thankful that everything went smoothly up top.

We tie our two ropes together, and start the first rappel off of a small nut and a piton. The rockfall is pretty extreme, and the lightest touch of a foot can cause a fist sized block of rock to go flying down the gully. With a team of 4, I’m very nervous about how this rappelling is going to go.

Kurt drops down first, and finds the next sling anchor. He ducks down underneath the limited shelter it provides, but the couloir is still way too narrow for him to move out of the way of falling rock. Next it’s me, and then Peer, and then Dave. There’s a few rocks knocked down that are head-sized, and I duck under the cover of this chockstone anchor, praying that the rock flies over top of me. It does whiz over me, and I shudder.

We reach the snow, and the second rappel off the chockstone goes okay. Off to climbers left, at the end of a 60 - 70 m rope stretching rappel, I find a piton hammered into the side of the couloir. This is our third rappel. We rappel for a third time off of this piton, and after another 60-70 meters, I can’t find another piton at the end of it.

Kurt hammers in one of our own pitons we brought, and we tie a red sling to it. The fourth rappel is completed, and from here on out, we downclimb the snow, cautiously and nervously. It is still very very steep, and to be completely honest, I would have much prefered a fifth (if not 6th) rappel. 

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Regardless, the snow tapers out, and we downclimb 4th class rock until it turns into a dreadful scree field. We’re not sure if we can cut across an obvious weakness to skiiers left, so we continue down the scree field and wrap around the bottom of a ridgeline.

We’re all terribly dehydrated, and my legs are burning with every step at this point. But we are still far from done. We must navigate across the entire backside of the mountain to get back to Foster Lake, which means sidestepping our way over scree fields and bushwhacking through juniper and cedar covered boulderfields. It’s relentless, and I look down at Peer’s climbing shoe contraption he has made to substitute his lost boot. It involves putting two pairs of woolen socks on, taking the heel off the climbing shoe, and slinging the whole mess to his foot. It’s ridiculous, but it appears to be holding up. His mental fortitude defies all logic, and he hardly complains through this whole descent.

After what seems like ages, we make it to the South Col of Colonel Foster - a dip in the mountain, and the obvious easy way to descend. We take skiiers left of the glacier, and it’s super easy 3rd and 4th class slabs that take us all the way down to a river crossing with cairns marking it. Once we cross the river, we drop down the scree field and get back to Foster Lake. 

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It’s here that I release all of the tension I had on the mountain. I’m happy to be…. Here. And well. And that my friends are here and well too. We eat and drink until we are stuffed. We make coffee just for the hell of it. It’s getting dark, but we really don’t care - even though we are 14 km from the vehicle. It’s (just) a (flat) trail back now.

The forest is muggy and hot, and the trail back is impossibly long and difficult. Our legs are jello. Our minds are sloshing pools of water. I feel delusional. Somehow, after hours, and hours, and hours - we make it back to the parking lot. It’s pitch black, and it’s past midnight.

I can’t find the keys. I look everywhere - and end up emptying out the entire contents of my pack. Just as I’m 2 seconds from a mental breakdown, Dave finds the keys in his pack - where I left them to ditch weight for the climb.

It’s done. We start the vehicle, and drive back to Nanaimo in the small hours of the morning. Work tomorrow at 8 is going to suck, but I wouldn’t change it for the world. I feel a strong bond joining our four weathered faces, and I know this experience is something we will take with us for our whole lives. I am humbled and amazed at the mountain, and I am reminded of the fragile existence of humans, perched amongst the earth, amidst relenting sharp spires - giving way to flat ledges, here and there.

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MikeLJ - Mar 9, 2018 3:14 pm - Voted 10/10

Great report

Sounds like a fantastic route.

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