After enjoying almost two weeks of amazing weather in the Bugaboos, we're back in Invermere and try to decide what to do next. So many choices, so little time...
We wanted to climb the South Howser but really didn't feel like slogging up the same approach again (yeah, I know: us chicken!), so we called CMH to find out about helicopter drop-offs. Bad news: a drop-off from the CMH lodge is CDN$1000! They only have one chopper at the lodge and it's a big one (8 people capacity). They do not have enough traffic to realistically hope sharing a ride with others… forget that.
We also went to the airport in Invermere to check out the competition. One guy has a Long Ranger (a long-range version of the Jet Ranger) that he flies around. The cost is CDN$1400/hr, and he can take 4 people with substantial gear. For just 2, he would charge us CDN$1100/hr. The problem is -he says- the flight from Invermere to the Bugs takes a little over ˝ hour, so he would have to charge a full hour for a drop-off. Forget that too!
Another option would be to take a helicopter out of Golden, but Golden, is at least as far from the Bugs as Invermere... that's it for the Bugs then, at least on this trip. Instead, we decide to drive north and climb Mt. Sir Donald.
On August 6, I call the wardens at Glacier National Park to find out what the weather has been like in the past week or so. It hasn't snowed on the mountains so far, so the Northwest Ridge of Sir Donald may still be in good shape.
We spend the next couple of days watching the weather. The forecast is shifting by the day... it's just like before going up to the Bugs. There is a large high pressure system to the South-West, which should eventually reach us, but right now things are sort of stuck (in the rainy mode). Wait and see. We work on the website, and hang out in Invermere.
We leave Invermere for Glacier National Park late on August 8 after watching a precision landing contest for hang- and para-gliders at the lake. We stop in Golden for an hour or so (pretty bleak town) and continue to Glacier park and the Illecilewaet campground, which is full. We drive further west in search of the overflow camp but never find it… and end up on the side of Hwy 1, just across the highway from the park entrance sign. A bad, noisy night.
The next day is preparation day. We go to the visitor center to inquire about conditions and get the detailed info about the new rap route. Then we move the bus into the overflow campground, scope the route with binoculars (all dry!), and go explore the trailhead. We also take a look at the Whymper hut (but only from the outside… it is locked). Looks very nice and cozy! Must be a fun place to be in the winter for some backcountry skiing. We're back at the bus early to get ready for an alpine start the next day.
We get up very early (1:30AM), leave the bus an hour later and drive to the trailhead at the Illecilewaet campground. We finally leave the trailhead at 3AM. The hike is initially mellow as it follows the river. Then suddenly, it starts climbing steeply and relentlessly up the old glacier bed to a level area at 6800ft. We refill our water bottles along the way, around 6300ft, where the trail crosses a small stream.
Past the level area, the trail goes steeply up to the top of a classical moraine, then follows the narrow ridge to where it abuts onto the west face of Sir Donald. There, a long leftward ascending traverse on grassy slopes then scree fields leads to a ledge traverse to the col.
A few hundred meters before reaching the col, I notice another party of two ahead of us. They came up from a high camp in the meadows below. We decide to take a long break to give them plenty of space. The col is a neat place: pretty narrow, quite exposed, and overlooking a glacier on the back side. There is a bucket toilet here and a food storage box, as well as 4 or so decent bivy platforms. Could be a fun and reasonably comfortable night. But we're not here to sleep.
After about an hour of drinking, eating and getting ready, we start up the ridge. The other party is now many ropelengths ahead of us. They are short-roping the ridge, just like we are. They had initially seemed pretty slow but have now picked up speed and I don't think we'll catch up with them anymore. Soon, we are moving up the ridge as fast as we can. The initial section is class III and our speed is only limited by our aerobic capacity. Soon, we encounter a series of steeper steps, reaching well into fifth class.
There are many ways to go and Eric is not trying very hard to find the easiest, favoring instead a line as close to the ridge proper as possible. He probably ends up making a few moves harder than necessary but the rock is solid, with sharp, often incut edges so it feels very secure. We are now simul-climbing on a doubled-over 9mm by 50 meter rope. Eric clips a point of protection every ropelength or so, mostly using fixed sling anchors. We keep going like this forever (this ridge is 2500 vertical feet!). With between zero and two pieces between us at any time, we are able to stretch it quite far before having to stop to exchange the gear. In all, we end up stopping 3 times for the entire ridge. Call it 4 long pitches (over 600 vertical feet each!). We finally make it to the summit in 3 and ˝ hours. Not a bad time. Not sure about this climb though: it's rather long and not too challenging. Even the exposure is not as threatening as we expected. More of an aerobic challenge... with ropes in the way. From the trailhead, it's been 6400ft of climbing! Ah, Ridge climbs…
Anyway, we're there. Sir Donald is our 23rd of the 50 most crowded climbs in North-America.
We spend easily an hour and a half at the top (the scenery is worth it) in perfect weather. Blue skies and not a speck of wind. Finally, we resolve to the inevitable and start the way down. We expect the worse... and get it.
After about 60 meters down the south ridge, we drop to skier's right, down a series of super-loose, narrow ledges and ramps to try and make our way around the summit cliffs. The going is slow as it is quite exposed and very insecure footing. We are still roped up, but there is no pro anyway. Eventually, we reach a small trail of sorts along the base of a white rock band. The going gets better here, except for a short section of extremely exposed, narrow ledge, with loose, wet rock. A dangerous place, we thought. Eventually we make it back to the ridge and start a fairly tedious section of simul- and sometimes belayed down-climbing, this time in our boots… After what seems like a long way, we finally make it to a first bolted anchor.
We're not sure at first whether this is anchor #1 in the description of the rap route, but soon confirm that it is. A bit more scrambling down a lower angle section of the ridge after the second rap leads to anchor #3 and the start of a long series of 25 meter raps (7 in all). Note that many of those raps stretch the rope to the limit, so tie knots at the end of the rope if you value your health.
Eventually, we find ourselves on steep scree covered ledges. We find a way down through this (not so bad for a while) until we get to the steep slabs at the bottom of the face. This is considerably trickier. Some have rapped in the corner (and the water that runs there) but after considering several options, we decide to belay down a crack in the slab and to the scree slopes below. Not too bad but there could really be another couple of rap anchors here. Then again, in more typical years, the entire slab is probably under snow, making for a much easier end to the descent. Five hours from the summit to this point! And not much fun either.
From here, it is just a long way back down the steep trail to the car. Our knees are begging for mercy. A long day!
We hope to get a meal at the restaurant at the pass after this but the food looks really awful (buffet of typical North American "family" fare…). Instead, we go back to the bus and cook a batch of tortellinis with tomato cream sauce. We're both hurting... and a bit sick of ridge climbs.
Sir Donald, NW Ridge
|The majestic Sir Donald.|
|Our camping spot at the overflow campground.|
|The NW ridge is the striking left skyline.|
|The ruins of an old hotel...|
|...and the Whymper Hut during a recon of the trailhead the day before the climb.|
|Approaching the base of the ridge just before sunrise.|
|Waiting for sunrise at the base of the route.|
|The route follows the knife-edge ridge.|
|Getting ready to go.|
|Eric starting up the ridge.|
|We short-roped and simul-climbed the hardest sections of the ridge.|
|Lucie somewhere on the lower part of the ridge.|
|An exposed section of the ridge, higher up.|
|Eric taking a break on the upper section...|
|...and higher up on a fun and a bit more technical section.|
|More great views.|
|The upper ridge is cleaner.|
|Lucie on the ridge, just below the summit.|
|Self-indulgence at the summit.|
|Views from the summit.|
|Reading the summit register.|
|More great views.|
|Eric enjoying the views.|
|Beginning the long descent.|
|The going gets worse and worse.|
|We find ourselves on a very loose and exposed section.|
|More downclimbing, but now on much better terrain on the ridge itself.|
|On the rap route.|
|Back on flat ground.|
|Eric on the approach (descent) trail with Sir Donald in the background.|
|Sir Donald from the approach trail.|
|Pretty stream with Sir Donald in the background.|
|In the lush valley below Sir Donald.|