Mt. Postern, Northwest Buttress
Canada, Canadian Rockies, Ramparts
“Sometimes you just gotta go out there,” said Gloria, answering our query about the ugly weather. Having no time to sit around Jasper waiting for the weather to improve, Gloria took our bags to the horses for the approach to Mt. Postern.
Fifteen months earlier Mark Hesse and I had gotten our first, brief glimpse of Mt. Postern, plastered in snow and wetter than a slippery slide. As rain began we turned around and left, but what we saw was a potentially awesome 3,000' arête of unclimbed quartzite that was, Mark assured me from his experience on nearby Mt. Geikie*, good rock.
Snow fell within 30 minutes of our return in September 2001, and by morning a couple of inches smothered the stunning Rampart Range. Not far from Amethyst Lake, but above the bogs, we stashed food and gear at a bivy with a view of the Tonquin Valley. The next day’s weather didn’t inspire us to carry large loads 1,500' up and over Drawbridge Pass, then 2,500' down to the river that spews from the mouth of the Bennington Glacier, but we got on with it. By late afternoon we’d established ABC and hoisted a food bag out of the reach of griz. We knew the 11-mile bushwhack around the Ramparts would put us back at our base camp bivy around midnight, but we wanted another perspective of Postern’s northwest buttress before dusk. Later, the starry sky made the trudge oddly delightful, though fresh bear tracks along Tonquin Creek had me glancing over my shoulder.
By dusk of day four, we sat at ABC with enough supplies, it seemed, to wait out winter. Exhaustion kept us horizontal until midmorning the following day, but by supper we’d fixed the first pitch in a chilly damp wind. Visions of Indian summer shimmered in our heads as we debated which route to follow: the directissima or the path of least resistance (PLR). Considering time constraints and our desire to summit, we opted for the PLR.
The climb appeared to be a series of five buttresses separated by terraces, and the next day we climbed eight pitches to the top of the first buttress. The climbing was not hard (5.5-5.8) since we avoided the steeper part of the first buttress, but hauling and carrying our loads for eight pitches on a low-angle ridge was a royal pain in the neck. Our strategy was to climb the old-fashioned way, slow and heavy, and we had a Bibler tent, lots of gear, and enough food to propagate several generations more of the nocturnal wall rats that chewed through anything left within their grasp.
A light rain settled in and stayed through the next day. No worries, though: we had foodand shelter on a mossy terrace, a steady drip of water for liquid, and a view north to Robson National Park. A down day after six days on the move was welcome.
Crack-o-nine and I was sipping my second cup of java, revving up for the second buttress. Three leads and swap, that was our tactic. The second guy would clean and carry a load, while the leader hauled. My leads were fun, moderate 5.7 to 5.9. We scrambled over another terrace to the third buttress, where Mark tied into the sharp end. His leads were even finer: three steep 5.9 pitches up sparkling quartzite cracks and corners. The climb weaved through some large roofs, like a classic Gunks route. We settled into another five-star bivy, inhaled a bowl or two of wall food and watched the sun set.
Again we awoke to perfect weather. No wind. No clouds. No cold. We were shooting for the summit and left the bivy gear. We carried slings, hardware, and light boots. We also carried crampons and an ice tool, since a snowfield of undermined nature separated the fourth and fifth buttresses. Getting to it proved to be simply seven rhythmic pitches of moderate climbing interspersed with rocky ledges. Three more ropelengths of easy mixed put us on the sunny ridge below the final buttress. This was obviously going to be the crux. The steepest cracks and corners yet, for 500'. Mark led the next three pitches—5.10b, 5.10c, and 5.10d. The 23rd and last pitch was as it should be—the hardest. I belayed nervously, watching the sun approach the horizon, but by 6 p.m. we were standing on the summit with a view that I will never forget.
Postern is somewhat like an overgrown desert spire—no easy way off. Retreat would not be straightforward, as snagging a rope was a real threat. We had placed a cairn at one point to help us find our way back. After a dozen rappels and several rope snags, we happily crawled back into our tent at 1 a.m. At the end of the following day, our tenth, we dropped wearily into ABC after only one close call. A rope pull on the 16th rap dislodged a helmet-size bomb, badly scraping Marks left shoulder. He sucked it up and continued down.
We’d missed our rendezvous with the horse packers, so two days and 30 miles later we arrived back at the trailhead in a blowing drizzle, barely able to walk. But the elation of finishing our quest numbed the pain somewhat, until we learned what had happened six days earlier, on September 11. Then we went completely numb.
– John Catto
*Previously unreported: In August 1994 Mark Hesse and Brad Shilling established a new route (VI 5.10 A2) on Mt. Geikie’s 1,500m north face. Hesse writes: “Ascends prominent buttress directly below the summit as viewed from Tonquin Valley and Moat Lake. The route is well left of the Lowe-Hannibal route and left still from the Robbins-Hudson route. The route is primarily 5.8-5.9 until the rock steepens on the upper part of the wall, where the difficult climbing begins (crux was wide cracks that were wet). The descent is not trivial! It’s a great route.” The descent: “From the summit we walked west a few hundred yards, then descended a major gully (rappels) on the south side of the peak (first rap slings visible from below the summit ridge, but hard to see). From the gully we traversed west to a saddle, then dropped back into Tonquin Valley.” – Editor.