American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

North America, Canada, Interior Ranges, Selkirk Mountains, Mount Sir Donald, North Face

  • Climbs And Expeditions
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 1962

Mount Sir Donald, North Face, Selkirks. Almost since the time I began climbing I had heard about the appeal of the unclimbed north face of Sir Donald. This summer was the first time I had an opportunity to visit the beautiful Selkirk Range, and as the train slowly curved its way along the hillside about an hour from Golden, the north and east faces of this Selkirk Matterhorn towered beautifully into view. Yvon Chouinard and I planned an early start from the Glacier campground, but two days of rain held us back. Finally on August 1, we awoke to find clear skies and hastened in about three hours to the high Uto-Sir Donald col. Anyone who has climbed Uto or done the famed northwest ridge of Sir Donald is familiar with the north face of the latter. It is a classic, high-angle, alpine face, rising in one swoop for about 2500 vertical feet from the Uto Glacier. On its lower sections it has several very steep ice slopes, and occasionally the upper face has an ice patch nestled in a couloir. It reminded us of pictures of the north face of the Matterhorn. Obviously, it was a climb that would require great care, perseverance, and route-finding skill. Because of its length and possible rockfall danger, we did many of the pitches unroped. Since the rock was all horizontally banded quartzite, holds were good, though generally small. On the most exposed and difficult sections we roped and used pitons for safety. We took one ice axe and minimum bivouac equipment as we descended the upper slope of the Uto Glacier, and then crossed the ice to the edge of the north face. The bergschrund turned out to be no problem, and soon we were climbing on high-angle, cold, but well jointed quartzite. A traverse to the left gave us the first "exposure nerves,” and it was not until we had climbed a quarter of the face that we began to feel more relaxed. Possibly this was in part because we anticipated some rockfall; fortunately this never came. The route followed a very slight rib on the right side of the main ice slope above the glacier, then veered left on an angling chimney for hundreds of feet to a point directly beneath the summit. At this point we were above the ice slope and perhaps 1000 feet over the glacier. The chimney here continued into a vertical wall that appeared wet, and so we climbed right for several pitches. A short overhang with frighteningly loose blocks gave us an uneasy lead, but once beyond this point the entire angle of the wall tilted back a few degrees, and we were able to climb more continuously on a course of weaving up short couloirs and little ribs. Here and there we passed an ice patch in a gully, and during the last 400 feet traces of white from an earlier snowstorm still adorned the ledges. As we pulled ourselves over the ridge crest about 200 feet west of the summit, we relaxed for the first time. The sun was warm and as we ate lunch, we looked down the awesome face again. As it dropped away, with snow on the upper section, it did look like the north face of the Matterhorn. In retrospect, the wall was not as technically difficult as we first had feared, since it had taken us only about five hours. Yet at a normal pace and with as much protection as one would use for a comparable, but much shorter face, it seemed doubtful that one could complete the climb in one day. We made the descent to the col via the enjoyable northwest ridge, and arrived at Glacier still in time to enjoy the afternoon sunlight. With the completion of the trans-Canada highway through the Selkirks, this region, and Sir Donald, should gain renewed popularity in climbing circles.

Fred Beckey

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