American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

The North Face of Mount Kitchener

  • Feature Article
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 1972

The North Face of Mount Kitchener

CHRISTOPHER A. G. JONES

“IT looks bad … it’s a steep mother”. “Yeah, you won’t catch this baby up there”.

Chouinard, Faint and I scratched ourselves, shook our heads knowingly, got back in the old Chevy and headed up to the Columbia Icefields.

“What peak is it anyway?”

“I think it’s the Snow Dome, but I’m not sure”.

In 1970, three years later, I was in Canada again. Once more we stopped at the Tangle Creek turn-out and gazed at the gruesome wall. It still looked bad, but now we knew its name: Mount Kitchener. I was definitely interested in a closer look, but had other climbing plans for that year. On my return to the States I heard that George Lowe and his cousin Jeff had been on the face but were turned back by rockfall. The face was becoming known; we had to move soon.

In 1971 Gray Thompson and I made another trip to Canada and now Kitchener stood out as our obvious first choice. Not only was it, perhaps, the last of the major unclimbed faces along the Banff-Jasper highway, it was quite possibly the finest of them all: “the greatest of the roadside crags” as we dubbed it.

During early July the rain and snow fell pitilessly, but an optimistic weather report soon had us camped on the moraine beneath Kitchener. The face was so plastered in snow that we decided to allow a day for the worst of it to slough off. In the early afternoon an avalanche swept the center of our route, which, we reasoned, now made it safe. The route appeared to have three sections — a lower-angled area to the top schrund, a long ice slope, and the fearful ice gully at the top. By going very light and without bivouac gear and by relying on front pointing, we hoped to climb the face in a day and bivouac on the descent. Due to the rockfall problem we chose the left of the two ice couloirs and set the alarm for midnight.

For me there is an almost magical atmosphere in early alpine starts. I cannot help feeling a common bond between all the other climbers who are also setting out in the cold morning with us. Perhaps in Peru, Alaska, the Tetons or the Sierra Nevada. We are all part of this strange mystique, just as surely as it is part of us.

The early sun reached us as we began climbing in earnest. We realised later that we had crossed the top schrund too far to the left and were having to climb steep ice instead of the lower-angled central part of the face. On the rock powder snow had to be cleared off all the holds and the protection was less than bad. Finally we reached the main ice slope and found incredibly hard black ice. Swinging the ice axe from one hand and an ice hammer from the other we clawed our way up. This was so mentally and physically exhausting that we edged towards the rock buttress splitting the two ice slopes. Our proposed ice gully gave no signs of leaning back, but rather looked worse and worse and, to add to its horrors, the most significant rockfalls came spitting and whirring out of its icy guts. In contrast we were now at the foot of the rock buttress, which would at least be safe from rockfall from above. We had noticed snow on the buttress, and so decided that it was fairly low-angled; little did we know. Route-finding by the “lesser of two evils” approach, we chose the buttress and were immediately slowed down as we struggled with a mixture of steep rock, ice, rotten rock covered by snow, snow mushrooms, general difficulty and poor protection. I believe they call it “mixed climbing”. Time dissolved and a bivouac was inevitable. All the ledges were piled with spring snow, but here Gray had a master stroke — instead of clearing a ledge we would dig a snow hole. This not only kept us busy-until 11 o’clock, it also conserved much of our meagre heat supply. We shivered a large part of the night, rubbed each other’s feet the rest. It was pretty grim, yet without our hole it would have been a lot grimmer. A night to remember!

Ahead I kept believing the next step would see us over the worst, but it never did. The buttress consisted of vertical pillars interspersed with ledges, the whole often loose and plastered with snow and ice. Some rock pillars had no cracks, forcing us to traverse, while the ice was often too thin to take pitons. This was some of the most demanding climbing we had ever come up against. To add to our problems our original supply of rock pins had dwindled to half and now stood at three. In the mid-afternoon I led up an ice chimney, continued on steep ice and finally placed my last rock pin in shattered rock, leading thirty feet to a smooth, crackless wall. My plan was to use a snow cornice that lay against the wall and chimney up between wall and cornice. Happily the total lack of protection and shaky nature of the enterprise caused me to go back, belay, and wait for Gray and the other two pitons. Gray climbed to my high point, tried the moves, and then gave me a resigned look, “Chris, there’s no way we can make this lead — it just won‘’t go”.

We were beaten by sheer difficulty. It was impossible to go on. Well, let us say impossible for us. Now Cesar would probably have hung in there, would have gaind strength with each successive bolt and piton. But not old Gray and I — we were just two likely lads with a handful of pitons, two candy bars and an ice axe. Old timers. Alpine Club types. It was home for us: if we could make it.

By now it was four o’clock and retreat to our ice cave too complex to consider. The only way down was to rappel into the right-hand ice slope and hope we had both enough pins to make it down and enough daylight to avoid a bivouac on the ice slope. Making full 150-foot rappels from rope loops, rock pins and all our ice pins it was touch and go all the way. I was ready to sacrifice Gray’s axe to the cause had we needed it, but, as in all the stories, we cleared the schrund with our final rappel. We staggered into camp about midnight.

Knowing that we had given midnight as our check-in time we left camp early the following morning. At the road-head we met an anxious Hans Fuhrer, Park Warden at the Columbia Icefields. Hans was dressed in climbing gear and ready with a rescue team to fly in and look for us. It was embarrassing to have caused so much trouble, yet it was really reassuring to know that Hans had been keeping a watchful eye on us.

After this effort I was about as beat up as my crampons — the front points had buckled under. Gray went back to work while I migrated to the Interior Ranges. As soon as possible we hoped to get back on Kitchener, it really appealed to us.

By good luck I now met up and climbed with Jeff Lowe, and on learning that Kitchener had been his principal objective for the summer, I suggested that he join Gray and me when conditions looked right. The Canadian summer was indecently warm, with negligible freezing at night. When we met at the Icefields in mid-August, the continual hot weather made us put off the climb once more; we did not want to be caught in a shooting gallery. By late August there was still no sign of a cooling trend. In desperation we decided to go and look at the wall. It was now or never for this year. We hiked in and next day sat under the face listening for stonefall. The mountain was reasonably quiet, and there was a cool wind — we were on our way for real.

Since our last attempt we were convinced that the less rock we climbed the better. We therefore chose the right of the two ice slopes, at the exit of which an ice ramp led to the top. This time we also carried a bivouac tent, sleeping bags and a stove — we wanted to cut down on the suffering if at all possible. Leaving the glacier at about two in the afternoon we soloed up the lower part of the wall, then established a supposedly protected bivouac platform in the top bergschrund.

At six in the morning we led over the schrund and onto the 2000-foot ice slope; we were back in the game. We rapidly crossed over to the side of the slope while the sun loosened all kinds of rocks from the top and tunneled them towards us. Fortunately the ice was not as hard as in July, but it was still a hammer-and-axe affair. The approach we adopted for a three-man party was to have the leader take four leads in a row, the second man to climb without removing any pins, and the third man to self-belay with a Jümar while removing both belay and protection pins. We were now climbing up where we had retreated in July but unhappily saw no sign of our $25 worth of pitons. Near the top of the ice slope the Jiimar proved worthless on the icy rope, so, after some hairy slips, we substituted a prusik knot. At mid-afternoon we reached the rock and again our progress was really slowed. The day was quickly disappearing as we shouted up to Jeff “What’s it look like?”. “Looks all right, maybe a bivouac in fifty feet” came the less than convincing reply. When I joined Jeff, I could see the point — our supposed ramp was steep ice butting up to a vertical headwall, with no possibility of a ledge in sight. Night fell as Gray joined us on our sorry bivouac — thin ice over steep rock. Fifty feet above was a small rock against the headwall, so Jeff, using a headlamp, worked his way to it. We flattened the rock and placed a bunch of poor belay pitons. Gray remained below and did what he could with the ice.

I had often read about those seemingly mythical bivouacs of Hermann Buhl where he stood all night keeping himself awake for fear of putting weight on the belays. I had never imagined how bad it could be in reality. After standing for thirty minutes, I collapsed into a precarious sitting position and alternately dozed and wondered. Another night to remember!

After a chilly breakfast we led up and across a particularly steep section, having to cut some of the few steps of the climb. From the belay we could look back on the awful buttress where we had been in July and on the evil walls to either side. Vertical ice gullies and overhanging rock gave this section of Kitchener a look of total impregnability, with our ice ramp the only apparent weakness. And as a weakness it was a failure, as not only was it steep but we had to continually work at a diagonal. It never seemed to let up. By mid-afternoon we were directly under the summit icecap on precarious rock, where the belays were so bad that they came apart in my hands. Ice pitch followed rock as the top edged within reach.

At six o’clock I heaved over the cornice and joined Jeff on top. Standing in the brisk wind, drinking hot tea, joking, feeling the tension ease, I was already planning other climbs in this great range. It’s heady stuff this climbing.

Summary of Statistics:

AREA: Columbia Icefields, Canadian Rockies.

NEW ROUTE: Mount Kitchener, North Face. August 27-29, 1971 (Christopher Jones, Jeff Lowe, Graham Thompson). NCCSV, F7.

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