I have a problem. Honestly, I think I need an intervention. Every week is the same; I come up with all these super awesome ideas for climbs but by the time the weekend rolls around I have no concrete plans and I'm left sitting at home wishing I wasn't such a chronic procrastinator. So it isn't surprising that by the end of a week in late september, I was stuck with no trips on the radar and no friends that wanted to go out on short notice. It had been a great summer in the Canadian Rockies but I was realizing that all good things will come to an end and that snow would soon blanket the hills. Inevitably, the idea soon formulated that I should go out by myself. For a lot of you this probably isn't a new concept but I'd never attempted anything in the mountains solo. With the seed planted, I flipped through the scrambling guidebook looking for the optimal objective.
Something I had never done before....Check
Moderately difficult scrambling....Check
Short Approach....Check (I've been doing a lot of sport climbing lately.)
Mt. Niblock fit the bill perfectly. Plus it was something I had wanted to do for a while.
So I packed up the night of the 29th of September (Pretty proactive, eh?) and tried to suppress the jitters for a decent night of sleep.
The next morning I got up early and drove out to Lake Louise. The radio provided company on the drive and I was at the trailhead by 8:30am. The approach to Niblock follows Lake Agnes Trail, which is one of the most popular trails in the Canadian Rockies. Admittedly, this was one of the reasons I choose to attempt Mt. Niblock. The crowded trail would help alleviate my anxiety about bear encounters. Irrationally, I was probably more stressed about being mauled by a bear than being injured by loose or falling rock. Anyhow after weaving my way around the tourists at the lake I managed to make it to the turnoff for Lake Agnes and start up. Surprisingly, there was nobody on the trail. I tried to make some noise and yell frequently but I still peered around every corner slowly half expecting to meet a large, angry omnivore. It was greatly reasuuring when after 15 minutes I passed a couple hikers on their way down and soon after a couple zipped past me at mach 1. I decidedly chalked it up to their light packs and trail runners but I think I was just going slow. (Always have to have a fresh supply of excuses on hand!) Any way, the rest of the hike to the teahouse was rather uneventful and boring.
From the teahouse I contoured around Lake Agnes passing through intermittent sections of trees and scree. Soon I reached the base of the first headwall leading to the Whyte-Niblock col. I retied my boots and happily swapped bear spray for my helmet, feeling much more comfortable about the scree ahead of me than the forest behind me.
The plod up the rubble to the first bit of scrambling didn't take long once I found a good rhythm. The terrain was ledgy with small streams, fuelled by the snow patches above, trickling down the rocks. With a bit of routefinding a relatively easy route was evident. Just before reaching the top of the headwall, the scree became thinner and was replaced by a steep slope of rock-hard dirt. I continued upwards, figuring I was close to the horizontal ground of the basin above. Teetering my way up blocks cemented into the dirt, I was quite relieved to make it to flatter ground. Not surprising there was an easy gully just around the corner. I cursed myself for my inattentivness and cited the gully for an easier return route. A quick traverse across snowfields in the basin led to the slope to the Whyte-Niblock col. The route up looked to be long and tedious (It was!).
The walk to the col was reminiscent of most scrambles in the Canadian Rockies; endless scree interspersed with the occasional rockband. Since both Mt. Niblock and Mt. Whyte share 85% of their scrambling routes I had already decided to at least check out Mt. Whyte. I wasn't certain if I wanted to be on 4th class terrain on my first solo trip however. The slope to the col is an ideal place to scope the route up Mt. Whyte but the view wasn't inspiring confidence. I was dismayed to see a light dusting of snow on the route and the rockfall rattling down the North Face was freaking me out.
Upon reaching the col I was still undecided but eventually I made the decision to take a look. If I failed I could just call it reconnaissance.
I rambled acros the col and soon reached the first step on the ridge. A lot of trip reports express difficulty at this section but I found it to be not bad at all. A simple traverse 15-20m right of the ridge crest reveals a ramp leading back left. If you follow this ramp nothing is more difficult than 3rd class and you are soon over the step. I was actually a bit surprised and thought I might have been off-route because the line seemed pretty obvious to me. Nevertheless, I continued up the ridge until I was forced to make a traverse left of the ridge to outflank a rockband. With any real amount of snow this section would prove treacherous but with only a dusting it was manageable and not too exposed. The scramble to the crest was relatively easy but I did heed Alan Kane's advice and avoided the gully as it ressembles a bowling alley.
Soon after regaining the crest I traversed right off of it again until I was standing beneath the first gully which happens to be the crux. Although it was steep and a bit of snow covered the ledges, there were great holds and the rock was solid allowing a reasonable passage.
After this step, I found myself once again on the crest of the ridge. The next few metres I found the most exposed of the climb, where the ridge narrows with a stunning drop down the north face. A final traverse right of the ridge and a scramble up blocky terrain spit me out near the summit pinnacles. I found this final section, climbing around and over the pinnacles, especially fun and I was soon on top.
Overall Mt. Whyte offered an excellent scramble up solid rock. The routefinding at times is tricky but the varied terrain makes it highly entertaining! After the usual summit photos and a quick phone call(funny thing to do on the summit of a mountain) I started down.
I am always surprised at how familarity with the terrain and time to adjust yourself to exposure can completely change your perception of difficulty. Sections that had seemed trying on the way up now seemed quite mellow. Before long, I was back at the col and happy to be done the most difficult part of the day.
I dropped my pack and grabbed my camera for a quick hike up Niblock. There was little in the way of difficulty and within 20 minutes I was on top. A quick rest and I started back down for a relaxing lunch break on the col.
Mt. St. Piran
I was quite tired but I assumed that the elevation gain was done for the day and all that was left was the trudge back to the car. The descent back to the basin was fast due to the loose scree. An enemy on the ascent beccame an ally on the way down. Upon entering the basin, I was surprised to hear a voice and saw a group of two on their way up. They inquired about the route on Niblock and Whyte. I responded as best I could and we parted ways. I was a little concerned as it was already 3pm and they had a fair chunk of hiking before reaching the top of either peak, never mind both. Hopefully they were fast and avoided an epic. As I started descending the first headwall my gaze shifted to St. Piran, a small mountain (hill?) connected to the East Ridge of Mt. Niblock. I was already tired but the summit seemed close. Also, I knew if I just ignored St.Piran and descended, I would regret it later.
So I traversed grassy slopes to the Niblock-St.Piran col after downclimbing the first headwall. Happily, the slope took only around 25 minutes of sidehilling to cross and the only resistance was a traverse across a deep gully.
A walk up talus slopes led to the summit and it only took minutes from the col. Apparently, people with a lot of time on their hands come up here and stack up rocks because there was all manner of interesting wind shelters and cairns. Nice to look at but I'm sure they were a pain to construct. Furthermore, it is difficult to tell where the true summit is with all the architecture.
After a picture, I started the descent down the east slopes. The well constructed path switchedbacked down the hill forever and by the end I was craving loose scree or soft snow to plunge step down. I finally intersected the trail going to Lake Agnes and set off back to Lake Louise. More hikers passed me on the way down but this time I didn't really care. I was quite glad upon reaching the parking lot to pull off my boots after 9 hours on the go. A pre-prepared pop (I don't procrastinate when it comes to beverages.) refreshed me and I sped off back to Calgary.
Well what started as one mountain turned into three. It was a very successful first solo trip and an extremely satisfying day. Looking at the Lake Louise webcam a few days later, snow blanketed Niblock and Whyte so this trip was just in time.