Canadian Rockies

Mount Louis; Gmoser Route (Perren variation) (See Sean Dougherty, Selected Alpine Climbs in the Canadian Rockies, pp. 66-67)

Mount Athabasca; North Face (See Sean Dougherty, Selected Alpine Climbs in the Canadian Rockies, pp. 186-87)

September 2-8, 2000

Home page for Paul Valiulis, my guide on this trip: I would recommend him highly to anyone who needs a climbing guide in the Banff/Jasper area.

My trip to Canada was a bit of a last minute affair. I didn't have the time for a trip to the Alps, but I wanted to get in a big climb after a Summer of little activity. In August, I decided that a trip to the Canadian Rockies was my best option, and planned the trip for the first week in September. Calgary is only a two and a half hour plane ride from Denver, so I could spend my time climbing instead of traveling. I was going to climb with Paul Valiulis, a mountain guide, and the brother of a friend of mine. We had plans to climb Mount Robson's North face, but as the date of the trip approached, the weather continued cloudy and wet throughout the Banff/Jasper area, and it looked less and less likely that we would have the necessary weather window for an attempt on that route.

I arrived in Calgary in the middle of a rain storm, with the forecast of more rain for the next several days. I rented a car and drove to Canmore, and met Paul the next morning. It was cloudy and raining, but it cleared a little by late morning, so we headed out to do a bit of cragging. We climbed six pitches at a place called Mount Cory. The rock was good, compact limestone and was a lot of fun to climb. The next day, the weather was cool and wet again, and we did more cragging, this time on the quartzite cliffs at the back of Lake Louise. The weatherman said we were likely to have a spell of good weather the following day, so we got up early (3:30 a.m.) and headed for Mount Louis to climb the Gmoser route, a long 5.8 alpine rock climb. Dougherty's guidebook describes the climb as "one of the best moderate alpine rock routes in the Banff area . . . Go do it, a very enjoyable day out."

After a two hour hike in a light drizzling rain, we finally reached the route, and began climbing just a little after sunrise. The climbing was on limestone, and the rock was very good on most of the route. Generally, the rock was excellent on all the steep pitches, and only got crumbly on the scrambling sections. The climbing started on some big slabs, then alternated between corners, cracks, and scrambling up big troughs. The friction of the limestone was terrific, as the rock was covered with numerous tiny "spurs" of sharp stone which gripped the soles of my rock shoes extremely well, and made for fantastic smearing and stemming. About two thirds up the route, we had to do a long traverse to the left to join up with the upper portion of the Kain route. There was one rather scary part of this traverse, where my feet skated a bit, and I thought I might be taking a nasty pendulum fall, but with the help of some adrenaline and expletives, I managed to work my way over to the Kain route. The upper section of the climb after getting established on the Kain route was pretty casual, until we got to the last couple of pitches. The final headwall was steep and fun, and we climbed it via the "Perren crack" which parallels the regular route on the right. Two pitches on the Perren variation led to some easy scrambling to the summit, which was marked by a metal cross.

The weather was turning nasty again, so we hurried down, rappelling down in the rain. The rappel was uneventful, as was the hike back to the car. We reached the car at 8:00 p.m., approximately 16 hours after we had left the car to begin our hike. I was pretty tired.

Mount Louis. Gmoser Route goes up the center of this face (Click on pictures for larger versions.)

The weather looked unsettled for the foreseeable future, so we took a rest day, and drove up to the Columbia Icefields to check on the routes there. The weather was clear that evening, and I was treated to beautiful views of Athabasca and Andromeda, from the balcony of the hotel at the Icefields Center, where we were staying.

Athabasca North Face from the Icefields Center (Click on picture for larger versions.)

The next morning was another alpine start, and we were on the trail by 3:45 a.m. We climbed steadily up the trail by the light of our headlamps. The approach was pretty long, and it seemed like forever before we got to the glacier. As we were crossing the glacier, the sun came up, and we had a beautiful view of the mountains in the early morning light. Less pleasant was the view of the big hanging seracs on our right. I couldn't help thinking about what would happen if they happened to cut loose.

The higher we got on the mountain, the more the weather deteriorated. The sky was soon obscured with clouds and high winds were whipping newly fallen snow in our faces. We put on our crampons and began climbing up the North Face. The winds were moving large amounts of snow off the other side of the mountain and funneling large sluffs of snow down the North Face onto our heads. It was very distracting, as the snow wasn't coming down in light spindrift, but rather in big waves of heavy snow. Climbing upward, I was constantly pummeled with big waves of snow that completely covered me, filling my eye-sockets, piling up on my pack and shoulders, and generally making life unpleasant. I was really wishing for my gore-tex one-piece suit and some goggles. I reached Paul at a belay, and it was clear that he was just as uncomfortable as me, perhaps more so, as he was leading and the snow was coming down hard enough to make front-pointing a bit precarious. The weather and wind seemed to be getting worse rather than better, so we decided to go down. We rapped off of v-threads, and were soon headed down the familiar trail we had recently ascended.

Sunrise on the mountains, and spindrift on the hike out.(Click on pictures for larger versions.)

On the way down, we saw several other parties. The first was a guy and his girlfriend who were heading up the Silverhorn. In spite of our warnings about conditions, and the increasingly high winds, they headed on up. We met a couple of other climbers, just back from an attempt on the Kain Face of Robson that had been thwarted by bad weather. They were also headed for the Silverhorn, but turned around not long after we met them on the trail. The other party was a rope of 4 climbers who were retreating off of the normal route.

As we descended, we kept an eye on the two climbers who had decided to press on with their attempt on the Silverhorn. They moved steadily higher, until they finally stopped moving on the shoulder of the Silverhorn. We kept hiking down, and they seemed rooted to the same spot. After about an hour, as we watched the two tiny dots on the mountain amidst the swirling snow and clouds, it was apparent that they still hadn't moved at all. The winds and weather were worse than when we were on the face, and we could well imagine the conditions they were encountering. As we descended, we kept looking for them in breaks in the clouds, and they seemed stuck, unable or unwilling to go either up or down. When we finally reached the car and were able to drive back to the Icefield center, we looked for them using the powerful telescope mounted on the balcony. We found them, and they had finally managed to move from their previous spot and were headed slowly down the mountain. Paul and I wondered how their nerves and relationship were faring.

The weather report was calling for more snow and rain, so I decided to call an end to this particular trip. Paul and I said goodbye, and he headed home to Jasper, while I headed back to Calgary and from there back home to Colorado. I told Paul to keep my phone number handy and give me a call next Summer if a nice high pressure system decided to park itself over the Canadian Rockies. I really wanted a second shot at Robson, or perhaps even the Beckey/Chouinard route in the Bugaboos.