American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

North America, Canada, Coast Mountains, Mt. Cheam, Northwest Face

  • Climbs And Expeditions
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 2003

Mt. Cheam, northwest face. Mt. Cheam, at the north end of the Cheam Range, rises 2,100m above the Fraser River. Its north face was first climbed in the 1970s as a summer route, and Cheam became semipopular for winter climbing in the 1980s. In 1987 Carlo Zozikyan and Bruce Kay climbed the northwest face. In the 1990s winter mountaineering in southwest British Columbia fell out of fashion, as ice climbing began to dominate winter activity. Only recently has winter climbing begun a Coastal renaissance.

January 2003 saw almost ideal alpine conditions in the mountains of southwest British Columbia. A Christmas snowfall was followed by two weeks of sunny weather, warm at first, then cooling steadily. Fred Touche and I decided to try the northwest face of Cheam, which was, to our knowledge, unrepeated since the first ascent. I had wanted to climb this face ever since moving to nearby Chilliwack, as I see it every day from my apartment.

We left the car at 6:00 a.m. The face begins as 1,000m of steep, forested slopes leading to a bowl. The headwall of the bowl is an 800m wall consisting of 500m of snow-covered rock and 300m of steep snow that end on the ridge crest. We began bushwhacking by headlamp, but when the sun rose, we were on route. At 11:30 a.m. we emerged into the bowl after a long session of jungle and steep bush-climbing. We donned crampons, and progress up the bowl on frozen avalanche debris went quickly. The headwall lacked obvious lines, but we thought we saw a potential route and began climbing. The climbing consisted of steep snow (50°-65°) mixed with short, bouldery rock steps overlain with verglas. About 400m up the headwall we reached a series of higher rock walls and roped up. Two 60m pitches, climbed 4th class due to a lack of opportunity for gear placement, got us through this crux section (M3). We dispatched the remaining snow slopes (to 50°), avoided remnant cornices, and topped out on the ridge at 3:30 p.m. The West Ridge is a popular hiking route that we had both climbed; we decided to forego the summit and began descending immediately. Fifteen km of postholing, hiking, and scrambling down the West Ridge and logging roads below got us back to the car at 9:30 p.m.

I subsequently questioned Bruce Kay about the route he and Carlo climbed in 1987. They began in a narrow 1,600m avalanche gully, bypassing our bushwack approach, then apparently climbed to the right of our line; their route was on steep snow save for one boulder-problem rockband. Thus, it seems that what Fred and I climbed was largely or entirely new terrain. We rate our climb D/D+ IV M3.

Drew Brayshaw, Canada

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