Summer Ascents of Columbia, North Twin and Farbus

Publication Year: 1938.

Summer Ascents of Columbia, North Twin and Farbus

Sterling B. Hendricks

IN the 200 miles between Mt. Robson, of the Northern Canadian Rockies, and Mt. Assiniboine to the S., the Continental Divide passes over two of the seven highest summits, and to within 10 miles of the remaining five. These five, in order of height, are Columbia, North Twin, Clemenceau, Forbes and Alberta, and all lie within 30 miles of Mt. Columbia, which is squarely on the Divide, only 6 miles west of the hydrographic apex of the continent at the head of tributaries of the Columbia, At habaska and Saskatchewan Rivers. Glaciation of the Rockies is heaviest in this region and an almost continuous passage could be made on ice from the tongue of the Saskatchewan Glacier to that of the Clemenceau 35 miles to the N. W. From the top of Columbia, however, the eye is attracted as much by the deep valleys as by the high mountains and great icefields; the vertical extremes differing by more than 8000 ft. within 7 miles.

Accessibility of this region from the Banff-Jasper highway, which passes to within a few hundred yards of the tongue of the Athabaska Glacier, was responsible for our selecting it for a mountaineering vacation. On the late afternoon of July 4th Rex Gibson’s faithful car, after being pushed and pulled, reached the end of the road at Camp 23 out of Jasper. We four—Kenneth and Hugh Boucher being our companions—piled out and mustering all our courage attacked the pile of baggage in the trailer. The plan was to place a camp on the icefield and to climb from that as a base, using skis for the approach.

Camp was established next day at 9000 ft. just beneath the Snow Dome, whose summit is the hydrographic apex, and above the upper icefall of the Athabaska Glacier. In the evening Gibson and I skied to the crest of the icefield, about 1000 ft. above camp, and saw for the first time the immense panorama that had been in our minds for so long. Mt. Forbes stood out as a symmetrical white pyramid far to the S., and Bryce and Columbia filled the S. W. horizon. The snow was in perfect condition for the run back to camp, and even my inexperienced soul was transported with joy between the occasional tumbles.

Equipment was none too good for sleeping on the snow, so it was with an air of relief that we left camp the next morning and headed for Columbia. Lowering clouds were disregarded for the ecstasy of the swinging skis over the crusted snow. Two and a half hours from camp we had descended to the head of the basin above the Columbia Glacier, and there, with a mistaken idea of distances, we decided to leave the skis and continue on foot. Some god of the storms forewarned us to exercise the precaution of taking compass bearings. The base of Columbia was reached by 10 o’clock, but then the clouds settled, and shortly afterward wind came up and snow began to fall. Hope died slowly, and when retreat started all tracks had been obliterated. It was my lot to walk into the white void while Gibson tried to keep the compass on the line and call the changing bearings. Visibility was usually down to about 100 yards, and the return trip, which had more than one moment of suspense, took eight hours.

The storm continued throughout the night, and it was not until July 8th that another sortie was made. On that day we casually climbed up into the fog and hunted around for the top of the Snow Dome, which was found at 1.15. The first ski-ascent of Snow Dome was made by Russell Bennett, Clifford White and Joe Weiss in March, 1930, traversing the 16 miles from old Camp Parker. Low clouds lifted, and unmindful of previous blind travelling we ran down the N. slopes of the Dome and headed over the undulating icefield toward North Twin. Skis were left about a mile below the base of the mountain and crampons used over the icy slopes above the gorge of the Columbia Glacier. The summit, 12,085 ft., was reached at 7 P.M., after the usual experience with the crevasses on the top. Even though the hour was late and camp was fully 8 miles away, the view could not be denied. A storm passing to the north accentuated the wildness of the scene, dominated by the black mass of Alberta, easily the most worthy of those seven high mountains. Intricate patterns of the Athabaska River in its flat spruce-covered valley 7000 ft. below seemed to be hardly a stone’s throw distance. Camp was regained at 11 ?.?., after an exciting descent of the final slope in the dark.

Hugh had lost a ski the night before, so only three of us set out toward Columbia at the comfortable hour of 9.15. The day was crystal clear, but the snow was alternately crusted and soft. This time the skis were used all the way to the base of Columbia, which was reached at 2.30. Steep snows of the rounded E. side were softened by the hot sun and steps had to be planted in the ice 2 ft. down. Some central rocks were finally gained and these led up to about 50 ft. of steep ice. Gentler slopes of hard windblown snow brought us to the summit, 12,294 ft., at 5 o’clock. This was more than a usual summit for Gibson and myself, since it completed for us the list of 12,000-ft. peaks, Robson and Clemenceau having been climbed the year before. All of them are ice and snow climbs over not too steep slopes, and in general the will to climb them should be enough for success, but vagaries of wind and weather warn for caution on all.

Descent was by way of the S. ridge, the steep step of which forced us out on the sliding snow curtain to the E. This, incidentally, was the first traverse of the mountain and the first time that it had been climbed in moderate comfort, other parties having started from the distant base of Castleguard Valley. The run back to camp required only three hours, control being a limiting factor on the crusted snow.

Our next plan was to reprovision and then head south; Gibson and I hoped to reach the A. C. C. camp in the little Yoho Valley by a high glacier route. The junction of the Castleguard with the Alexandra River was reached on July 12th, and here Ken and Hugh turned back, their vacations being limited. After rafting the Castle guard and bridging the Alexandra at its box canyon, we set out through wet bush for our next adventures.

The selected route was to follow the N. E. Lyell Glacier, cross to the S. E. glacier, and was then to gain the Lyell icefield by a steep icefall down to the S. E. glacier. Three stormy days were spent on this venture and we came back hopelessly beaten. The icefall was too active for safety with heavy packs, the cliffs topped with ice were impossible, and an attempt to descend to Arctomys Creek ran afoul of the worst jumble of ice and cliffs that we had ever met. Since our plans did not reckon with failure, it was necessary to forego the pleasure of a possible try at Forbes, number five in height, and turn back to the North. Consolation was sought by climbing from the head of the Alexandra River, Mt. Oppy being especially attractive. This is a wonderful scenic region, but unfortunately it is on the steep cirque side of the mountains and wide detours must be made to reach nearby peaks; even Outram and Kaufmann found the trip to Mt. Alexandra an extremely long one.

On July 17th we made the first ascent of Mt. Farbus (10,550 ft.), a peak on the Continental Divide between Mt. Alexandra and the Lyells. Crampons were used straight up the center of the four icefalls of the east Alexandra Glacier. The upper part of this glacier is narrow and is exposed to active avalanching ice cliffs of the N. Lyell Glacier and of the summit ice mass on Farbus. During our passage an avalanche of Himalayan dimensions came off the wall of the N. Lyell Glacier, and several new tracks had to be crossed. The col between Farbus and peak three of Lyell was reached at solar noon ; a compass being the only functioning timepiece.

It was an easy matter to follow the flat quartzite ridge to the top of Farbus, but there a disappointment awaited us. Mt. Oppy was cut off by a 500-ft. cliff that made any prospective route unduly hazardous. However, the view was an adequate reward for our labors. Again, valleys were more fascinating than were mountains; the Alexandra being visible to its junction with the North Saskatchewan on the east, while Lyell Creek and the Bush River led the eye down deep V-shaped valleys to the Columbia River, 10,000 ft. beneath us in the west. The view to the south was blanketed by the Lyells, but Bush Mtn. and the Selkirks beyond it stood out to the southwest.

I have often wanted to try the mathematical trick of dropping a perpendicular and sliding down it, but am afraid that it must wait for more celestial mountains. Lacking this, there was no alternative but to return to camp by the way of ascent. Something close to a record was established in recrossing the avalanche tracks.

The next day was one of storm, during which we explored the main Alexandra Glacier in the faint hope of finding a direct way to Mt. Oppy. Deciding in the end that the region was a snare and a delusion, we packed up everything except the dried corn and started through the bush up the west bank of the Castleguard. A convenient box canyon was bridged in lieu of a potential ducking or endless bushwhacking. Final good luck provided us with supper and royal transportation at Sunwapta Pass, where the trail met the road, and we made Jasper on the night of the second day from the Alexandra. Storm and ghosts of many a packtrain pursued us to the end.