A very long day
Rich (SP member grampahawk) flew in from Boston and Dave from New Jersey on Saturday, July 24, 2010 and the two of them left Glacier Lake trailhead at 8:12 a.m. on Sunday. When I checked their SPOT location in the afternoon from Calgary, they were half done with the approach in distance but the majority of the gain and the Glacier River crossing had yet to be done…
For family reasons, I couldn’t join them in the morning so I left the trailhead at 7:16 p.m. without overnight gear. My plan was to do the approach at night, catch up with them at the standard bivy site just below the toe of Mt. Forbes’s North Glacier, join the rope team for the summit bid, and get back to my car before night falls next day. I did similar trips in the past and my only concern was route finding on the headwall at night which sounded like Class 3 or 4.
The trail after the Glacier Lake backcountry campground started to deteriorate and after the lake it forked into two. I took the lower trail that soon disappeared in Glacier River. Maybe it’s time to cross the river already, as the guidebook recommended? The river didn’t look crossable at all: fast flowing, very wide and probably quite deep… I hiked back more towards the lake and crossed it there. I used my pole to figure out the depth in front of me in the murky water. Took me several attempts to finally cross it and even the successful attempt was very sketchy. The 3-4 ft deep, fast water almost swept me off my feet.
Easy travel followed on the south side of the river for a while but then miserable bushwhacking took over with headlamp on already. First, the river seemed to end my climb prematurely, second, the multilayered deadfall and thick bush. An additional creek crossing in the bush over natural logs, and finally out on open terrain again. There I had to cross yet another creek.
In complete darkness, I reached again a big creek which appeared to be the drainage of the Mons Glacier. I knew upfront I had to cross that as well. I switched to fording shoes and forded it—almost ended in uncontrolled swim again, but survived. Back to boots and hiking happily I soon realized I was on an island in the middle of Glacier River. Oh, no! I changed to shoes, did the frightening crossing back again. No way I’ll make the base camp in time at this rate…
This detour wasn’t for nothing, there was a small but steep rockwall blocking further progress so I actually kept my shoes on and kept fording Glacier River next to its shore. A few minutes later I finally forded the Mons Glacier drainage which consisted of at least 15 branches of various sizes and depths but was still a piece of cake compared to the life-threatening power of Glacier River. All this fording done, I was ready to build a bridge on my way back just to avoid doing this all over again.
It was between 11 and midnight and I gained no useful elevation yet. I was at about trailhead elevation (5,200’) after covering about 11 miles and now had to cross dozens of contour lines in short order. There was supposed to be a climber’s trail from here and I found a cairn but that was it for the night. For the rest, I didn’t have much of a clue where the trail could be. But I knew the map, roughly had an idea of the route and didn’t get cliffed out so I made good progress.
Around 1:30 a.m. I noticed a headlamp about a hundred yards away, a bit off my route. I yelled but got no answer. I cut through light bush and a hillside to get closer to it. By the time I got there Rich and Dave were out of their tents after hearing my repeated yells. As we agreed before, they hung a lamp outside to make it easy for me to find them at night. They were still impressed I got there in the middle of the night by following that barely existent trail.
Obviously, they couldn’t make the high bivy site in 12 hours, and they had to camp below the headwall. At least they got a good 3-hour sleep… By the time we got started again another hour went by. Dave took a good look at the headwall before sunset and he had a good idea where to scramble up but at night everything was too uncertain and I ended up leading the way up by instinct and with the help of some moonlight, around the headwall, through bush and falling rock. Class 3 moves in the middle of the night, a rare treat – sure kept us wide awake and excited. While sweating in the still warm night we also had our first glimpse of the very snowy Mt. Forbes here: looked like a whole different world, untouchable, still far away and above us.
While we avoided the headwall we also gained some unnecessary elevation and now had to descend on to Mons Glacier. Although it didn’t look too easy, we could cross it in boots. Dirty ice and no crevasses. Then we ascended big piles of moraines for about an hour to reach the toe of the North Glacier of Forbes.
The sun rose in the meanwhile and we took numerous pictures of beautifully pointy Mons Peak and its glacier. The true summit of Mount Forbes was still out of sight but as we gained its North Glacier it gradually came into view. (One cool thing about Mt. Forbes is that it has a North Glacier, a West Glacier, a South Glacier and an East Glacier.) The mountain was clearly in shape, snow all the way to the summit, no ice showing, and the bergschrund still nicely covered. As we were running late (8:30 a.m.) the snow was soft on the lower section of the glacier but higher up it became supportive. Plus, we had nice steps kicked for us from previous parties as we gradually transitioned into steeper snowclimb. I measured 40 degrees at a steeper spot before reaching the west ridge.
Rich is 61 and he truly impressed me with what he had accomplished in two days. I wish I could consider a mountain like Forbes when I’m 61… However, upon reaching the west ridge, and learning there is still 300 m gain to go to the summit on not-so-good-looking terrain, he decided to call it a day. Dave was hesitating but as this was his second attempt I managed to convince him we can solo the rest with minimum gear. A cornice higher up was particularly alarming but in close-up it was OK, not overhanging and we could traverse below it on 50+ degree snow. This mountain can have a crux anywhere depending on season and conditions—for example a 15-m crevasse with a bridge on top half way up—but this day I think this remnant cornice was the crux. Crampons didn’t penetrate much in the hard snow and it was hard to punch through with a mountaineering axe. A slip here would have been disastrous. We took our time on this short traverse.
Then the terrain eased up again and we summitted at 1:05 p.m. What a moment! Clear skies, icefields and glaciers below us in all possible directions, some of them I have not even heard of before (Mons Icefield) others I have never been closer to (Lyell). But we could see the Columbia, Wapta and Brazeau Icefields as well. The Lyells never enticed me too much but this day they were absolutely magical in the perfect morning light and the snow shining bright way below them despite being late July. Also, an 18-hour push for a single summit – I don’t think I did this before. I “just” have to get back now to my car before sunset…
Speaking of which, I had to get moving. Downclimbing to Rich took longer than anticipated; we had to face in at several steeper sections. We parted here as I was in a hurry but I managed to leave my pole at the ridge and had to climb back up for it. I needed it for probing lower down and for the river crossing. I lost a precious half an hour with the retrieval. Further down, I hoped to put in some good glissades but the snow was either too steep or too soft and deep for glissading. After leaving the glaciers I decided to retrace our morning steps and not try to find the way down on the headwall. Maybe this was not the best choice, I ended up in a lengthy nerve-wrecking descent culminating in bush skiing and moraine skidding. I was decorated by scratches on all four limbs by the time I got back to camp to pick up my technical axe.
The travel got better after camp but this is where it really dawned on me how faint was the climber’s trail even at daylight. I was surprised to see my own boot prints from the previous night at numerous points with really no hint of trail. How could I possibly do that well at night?
It was about 8 p.m. by the time I crossed the Mons Glacier drainage again. Sleep deprivation started to take its toll. I made several bad decisions, continuously reversing them and lost too much time to further continue down the south side of Glacier River. I cried like a baby, dreading the upcoming Glacier River crossing, and now losing all my hopes to reach my car in any reasonable hour. I had to cross the murky waters before sunset, that was imperative. So I ended up crossing back the Mons Glacier outlet all the way 15 branches. And then the raging Glacier River... It was as bad as it gets; any worse and I would have been swept away by the river without control.
On the other side of the river I sighed that I survived, and, probably fuelled by the successful though freezing river crossing, I kept up a healthy pace. But then the trail really got out of whack: it ended in a deep creek. I had to negotiate a swamp, than often 3-level deadfall and very thick bush with no hint of trail. It was a nightmare half awake although I knew I wouldn’t last long on my second night. I just wanted to get out of this mess desperately, find something that would remind me to a trail and where I wouldn’t feel hopelessly lost. Once again, sleep deprivation didn’t help. I saw shadows jumping on me and couldn’t get rid of popular tunes echoing in my ears over and over again, very clearly and almost loudly.
My misery ended in a very unusual way. Still bushwhacking, I saw something dimly lit on the ground a few yards away. Maybe a firefly? Never seen one around. Maybe my hallucinations getting worse? The light was on and off periodically. I got closer and found Dave’s SPOT satellite messenger. He told me he had lost it on their way in. So I’m on the “trail”! That is surprising! I continued on the trail for another ten minutes, sent an OK signal to Dave’s and Rich’s contacts and to my own wife at 12:45 a.m., put on all my clothes, including my hat and gloves, and fell asleep on the trail.
One and half hours later I got up shivering despite of the low elevation and really warm night (50 F?). I had to get moving again. Hiked another hour and slept another 45 minutes. A truly miserable second night in the wilderness. After the second nap I made it all the way out to my car by 7:19 a.m., almost exactly 36 hours after leaving.
.... Adventure, your other name must be Canadian Rockies ....
Here are my photos.