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Mt Bryce NE Ridge
by Joe “Wotan” Catellani
Exploration is still the epic journey " to dream, to prepare yourself, to assemble your team, to go forth and be tested mentally and physically by the gods. to pass the test, to be given truth, and then come back and share the wisdom" So here's my Mt Bryce NE Ridge trip report.
Long anticipated; finally realized! Garth had the foresight to bring the
"lucky pig", used to assure fun hog conditions, usually good powder for
skiing. And it worked! Amazingly, the 11km Rice Brook road was ungated and
driveable in the subaru(just barely) for 9+km to 5500'. The road has been
"decommissioned " so this drivablity won't last long. The time is now for
an easy approach. The climb probably hasn't gotten much easier, its very trad up there(circa 1902).
Tuesday, Aug 15, 2000: the approach to the 9200' col was casual and pleasant,
great to be climbing in the Rockies after skipping a year. Rain and snow
showers for a couple hours, about 2cm new snow at 9200'. We saw party of 3
rapping over schrund in direct descent from W side of col, but out of
There is a nice bivy site at the east end of the col complete with tarn and views of the Columbia
Icefield, and more as showers cleared. We hiked up "little resplendant"(a knob
to NW) for a better view of Bryce, although it was mostly wrapped in a thin veil of cloud,
but very sexy.
Wow, this is a BIG mountain! I had only seen it from the
distance(Mt. Athabasca and Parkers Ridge)before. Who's this over the hill, middle
aged fool kidding? Better to burn out that to turn to rust!? I should
have been more careful reading "Sandbags in the Canadian Rockies" when it says "Bryce is a huge, isolated mountain....the jewel of
the mountain is the NE ridge traverse...magnificent...long" guess I
focused on the "magnificent" and the enticing pic and not enough on the "long"
Wednesday (Odin, or Wotan's Day!) Aug 16. We’re awake at 5:10 , and
cramponing up and over the 100 meter tower dividing the col at 6:15 in predawn light. But we’re not moving that well, and I suspect inadequate
acclimatization since we just came from the coast. The first 100m of NE ridge
is a roughly triangular face. Conditions here are rather nasty, scree/mud is
frozen from recent precipitation requiring crampons which heighten the insecurity
on the often debris covered 3rd & 4th class rock, with the occasional spot of verglas. An
attempt at a real belay would be futile because the risk due to lack of suitable cracks and rope induced rockfall would exceed those of climbing unroped. We spot occasional rappel stations
as we wind around our way up but never realize until the descent that they are sequenced. I’m really concerned with slow progress and possibility
of a fall. At this point I would rather have been reading "Pushing the
Limits" by Chic Scott than pushing my tolerance for risk.
Finally, after a long hour of doubt, conditions improve tremendously and there is
fun scrambling or cramponing on the ridge crest, with Mt Columbia and the
broad icefield softly glowing in the early morning light. Unfortunately I
have enough residual anxiety about the recent experience, concern about
time, and anticipation of descending this first section that I cannot fully
appreciate the magnificent setting. Now we begin to move at a decent pace
but still slower that normal, and I again suspect lack of full
acclimatization. The gray band is reached, complete with 2 pin belay and
quickly dispatched, using the variation to the left to avoid possible rockfall
on belayer. There was essentially no pro to 4 pin rap anchor on top, but this seems
insignificant compared to the nasty start as the rock is sound and dry.(on
descent we noticed the straight up original route has a pin at mid height.) In an
attempt to lighten my pack and heeding Yvon Chouinard’s advice on bivys (if you bring bivy gear, you will bivy) I clip my down
sweater to the rap anchor as well as our so far useless small rack of
tricams and TCUs. I wish I had heeded Conan the Barbarian’s advice “the only thing you can trust is steel” and brought a few pins.
Progress up the ridge is good until we're forced to deal with a dihedral
with significant verglas. Rope on again, decent block for a belay, to rap station at its
top. Now the ridge really backs off and is quite pleasureable, crampons on and
off as terrain alternates between rock and ice, and some cornice moat climbing, one
side on rock, other on ice, great variety and fun. A classic “pile of loose bricks” band is actually fun because of its moderate angle and favorable bedding.
We take a half hour break at another crampon change point, and have simultaneous
sensations of trepidation and joy at our isolation and magnificent position.
Soon the NE summit is reached, almost 5 hours after leaving camp.
Like beautiful ladies dressed in satin(only better) the main and center peaks
beckon. Hmmm, the speed, distance, difficulty, and available daylight
calculations run thru our brains, and Garth and I quickly reach the same
conclusion(and the same as Outram and C Kaufmann 98 yrs ago) - to skip the
center peak by dropping(slowly) to the south glacier. Crampons on, face-in
down climbing gets us down the south face of the NE peak in a somewhat tense
It's a relief to be on non technical ground for a change, admiring the great
beauty all around, and experience the simple rhythm (and rapid progress) of glacier walking/
snow climbing. At 1pm we take another break below the main summit to crampon
up and scope the schrund, final slope, and summit ridge . Faint traces of
previous steps are visible on the ridgecrest. Valhalla is near! Good step
kicking conditions(half boot) allowed rapid progress to ridge crest.
Cornices confined us to the south face most of the way and it was steep
enough to require face-in climbing. The last ropelength had little cornice
and allowed walking on the spectacular crest, viewing the sickening abyss to
the north. Woo hoo! The lucky pig pulled it off again! A fair amount of cumulus obscured the far view, but the near
view of the rest of the mountain was quite neat, except what was the NE
summit doing so far away!?
3pm. 9hrs up from camp. First ascent party downclimbed the gray band in the
dark, in July, when days are longer after a 3:40pm summit. Violating our usual rule of "never let judgement sway desire" we departed the summit in less
than 10 minutes. Perhaps our desire for a warm sleep outweighed savoring the summit.
Calculations didn't mean much at this point, only steady, rapid and safe
progress. A quick rub of the lucky pigs belly for insurance and we’re off. Snow conditions were better climbing back up the south face of NE
peak, up to 1/4 boot penetration. We made good progress and were enjoying our
final descent of the NE summit, as the lighting on Mt Columbia and the
icefields was sublime, and 3 rap stations nixed any hazard from technical
sections. Below the gray band glory rays broke thru the clouds, and just as
we reached the top of the nasty section the red ball of the sun shone below
The final test was about to begin. Our test was much easier than
Outram's and Kaufmann's "Darkness was gathering apace. The sun had set nearly an hour ago. A piercing wind from a world of glaciers was whistling by on its wild course, and the rising moon, shining feebly athwart a mist of clouds revealed two shivering human forms silhoetted upon the sky-line of a rocky ridge 10,000 feet above the sea." "Now an agonizing decision had to be made-whether to continue climbing and risk a fall in the dark, or to sit overnight and risk frozen feet, hypothermia and then be too weak to safely descend" Outram and Kaufman descended the gray band and everything below it in the dark, with no belays other than "secure stances"!
Fortunately for us modern day weenies a previously unseen rap station in an ugly slot(that required
belaying to reach) presented itself and was chosen over downclimbing the now less nasty face as
the scree/mud and verglas had thawed.
Others had apparently found this lowest 100m of the route nasty enough to
set a series of rap stations at 25m intervals(6 or 7?) although 2 stations had only
had 1 pin. (knifeblades or baby angles would fix this problem). For the first ascent
party to have descended this in the dark they probably had snow coverage in a nearby steep gully,
which seems likely in July 1902 .
We made it to the snow of the col and pulled out our headlamps , and humped
back to camp as a nearly full moon rose. Awesome day, a little too much in a way,
( kind of like eating the whole turkey at thanksgiving. Maybe that’s what fun hogs do when they’re not in the mountains).
But now, like Outram, I can look forward to retirement from big alpine
climbs and enjoy puttering around climbing and ski camps or armchair
mountaineering. Fat chance!
ps "lucky pigs " can be purchased for about a loonie at toy stores. look in the farm animal section. they make good hood ornaments , and this way fun hogs and powder pigs can meet each other more easily!