A true remote wilderness experience
[img::aligncenter:small:]I had wanted to do some climbing in the beautiful mountains in the Banff area for some time. After posting for partners, Dave responded that he wanted to do Mount Forbes because he had made an usuccessful attempt a few years earlier. After seeing a few photos of this 11,000 footer I became enthralled. Forbes is the tallest mountain in the Banff area, and due to it's remoteness we would be assured of a real wilderness experience. I also had some other possible partners but one-by-one they dropped out over the coming months, and then barely a week before our adventure, Ferenc contacted us and was going to try and join us. I felt a bit better having a third for the rope team. Ferenc could not start with us but was going to climb through the night and meet us in time for the alpine start. We agreed to leave a headlamp in a tree as a signal to find us.
Dave and I left the parking lot at the trailhead and made good time over an easy trail leading to Glacier Lake where there is a very nice backcountry campground but we were pushing on to gain the bivy area just above the headwall to Forbes. There is little elevation gain through this area and we had beautiful weather so we made good time. After leaving the lake the trail started to deteriorate to the point that it is pretty much a bushwack. We had a good sense of where we needed to be and tried to keep the Glacier River to our left as we bushwacked through ever denser brush, multi-layered deadfall, and swampy areas. Occasionally we saw a bootprint here and there so knew we were probably heading in the right direction. We had to crawl, climb, and slog through this area that seemed to never end. Eventually it opened up and we crossed some smaller streams over natural deadfalls and followed the Glacier River seeking a crossing. The weather was warm, and the Mons drainage meltwater had raised the water level well above the bank so we hiked up and back a few times trying to find a good place to attempt a crossing.
Due to the rapid current and silt in the river it's impossible to see the bottom. We probed with some branches and Dave found an area that seemed like it would work. Dave changed into his fording flip flops and I put on sneakers. We uncinched our waist straps, and used our poles to steady ourselves through this murkey, very cold, fast moving water. Dave lead the way and when I saw him start to emerge safely on the other side it inspired me to keep moving. This was a sketchy crossing and I was nearly swept off my feet. Being washed for miles downstream in this freezing water was a scary thought. We made several other shallow crossings over this braided river area and warmed our feet and had a nice rest in the sun. We were at the area of our first real elevation gain. We pumped water and filled our bottles. As it turned out we later found a tiny trickle of water higher on the mountain and could get a liter every 30 minutes or so, but I recommend filling all your bottles at this point.
We put on our hiking boots and this is where the the contour lines get closer together. A few hundred feet into the bush and scrub the trail disappeared again. Some previous climbers had left orange tape to mark critical junctures, but the trail is really non-existant and I wouldn't count on the markers to be there. As long as you know your map and keep going up you will make decent progress.
Once at the top of this steep area we came to a large morraine and followed it toward the headwall. Still no view of our objective, Mount Forbes. Our original plan was to camp at the base of the Forbes Glacier. But due to the bushwacking, and time lost trying to find a fording area we decided to spend the night at the base of the headwall. There was beautiful waterfall coming out of the headwall from the Mons Glacier but the rocky area where we camped had no flowing water anywhere. We managed to find a small trickle of water comming from a crack but I wouldn't guaranty finding it again. After setting camp and a brief meal we settled down for a few hours sleep. Knowing what we had just come through in the daylight, we were both skeptical that Ferenc would be able to find his way and make the crossing. Even if he did it seemed impossible that he would find our tiny spot in all of this remote wilderness.
Sometime after 1am we heard a shout. Ferenc! I was impressed. There is no way I would have tried that crossing alone and in the dark. We geared up and started our scramble. Dave had scouted a route up the headwall while it was still light, but in the dark everything was uncertain. Another trip report mentioned a cairn to mark the trail but we never found it. Ferenc led the way through more brush, and we all pretty much went on instinct as there was no visible trail. We were fortunate to have good moonlight and we scrambled our way up through brush, crumbling rock and class 3 and 4 moves. The night was warm, just a slight breeze, good moonlight and we were all feeling excited. What a night! At the top of the headwall we got our first glimpse of MT Forbes. It looked very distant and almost untouchable in the moonlight.
We had come over the headwall at a height over where we needed to be so we descended to the Mons Glacier through a large field of talus and scree. The sky was just starting to lighten up as we got to the Mons Glacier. At first it didn't look to easy, but as we got onto it we were able to cross the dirty ice without crampons. There were some cracks but no cravasses, easy going. We soon found a safe place to leave the glacier and ascended several big piles of moraines for about an hour and reached the toe of the north glacier of Forbes as the sun was coming into full view.
We stopped to take photos looking back onto Mons Peak and the glacier with the sun perfectly lighting up the glacier and the deep blue sky behind it. It was breathtaking. We roped up here. The summit of Forbes is still out of sight but as we gained elevation we could see it about an hour later. We were fortunate that the snow was well consolidated. There were a few cravasses, but generally the bergschrund was well covered in snow. The lower section was soft so we were knee deep in snow for a while but as we got higher it was more supportive. About every 40 minutes the air reverberated with the sounds of an ice/rockfall somewhere in the distance. It took us about 6 hours to get to this point. As we gained elevation the approach became steeper. Ferenc measured the slope at 40 degrees just before we hit the west ridge, but after trudging through the deep snow, with my pounding chest, it felt much steeper.
Once on the west ridge we had 1000 ft to go and the day was getting short. There was a 50 degree slope and a sketchy looking cornice. At 61 years old I was feeling the strain and opted to not make the final push. I knew I would be slow and didn't want to hold anyone back. Dave and Ferenc headed for the top. I fell asleep for a short nap. When I awoke I felt energized, called myself a pussy and was preparing to go the rest of the way. But I had no idea if I had been napping for 5 minutes or an hour. If I left for the summit now and met Dave and Ferenc coming down, they would still have to wait for me. So I stayed put. This decision haunts me frequently. But, even from this elevation the clear skies made for fantastic views of the icefields and snow below. Looking back at our lonely tracks through what looked like an endless trail was inspiring. The Lyells in the distance absolutely glowed.
Dave and Fernec finally appeared in the distance. They reported that they traversed below the cornice. Their crampons barely made a dent in the hard snow and they had to cut some steps with their axes to get through this crux but once through it, the grade eased up and the made the summit around 1pm. So it took about 11 hours from the moraine area below the headwall to the summit.
After facing in for a section of the downclimb they rejoined me on the west ridge and we started the descent. Ferenc was pushing hard to get back on a deadline his wife had made so he went ahead solo. The return to our basecamp was unevenful except for a short glissade that was fun. But most fo the snow was too soft or the sections too steep for glissading. We got back to our camp just at dusk and looked foreword to a rest.
The next morning we packed up and the descent went well until we came to the Glacier River which was another foot higher than when we crossed the day before. Yikes. We went up and down for hours trying to find a crossing and ended up heading upstream where the river looked to be more braided. This is where the nightmare started.
We managed to find a deadfall to cross a section that lead us to a swampy area. We slogged though that area, came to other impassable streams, re-crossed, climbed over, under and through dense brush, and thorny deadfalls that seemed to reach out to catch every strap, piece of gear, our clothes and our exposed limbs. At one point I sliped on a root and my foot got stuck in a hole about 30 inches deep. I was rewarded with more cuts and a twisted knee, but fortunately it was not worse than that. We retraced our route, tried another approach. Would we ever get out of this mess? Eventually we made our way to the trail on the other side of the river. But then we came to another stream that we had crossed on a deadfall on the approach but it was either washed away or hidden under the murky, fast moving water that is now much higher than when we approached. Are you kidding me? More bushwacking along the river. More swamps. More deadfalls. More brush. Both of us have cuts, scrapes, and bruises on every limb. Did our misery have any bounds? Of course we eventually made our way out and had a tiring hike back to the car.
Ferenc also had problems getting across the river. He ended up taking several naps in the dark, but made it back to the trailhead 36 hours after he started- a truly epic climb and one I don't think anyone has ever done as fast.
You look for adventure when you head to the mountain and I can attest that you can find it in the Canadian Rockies!