|Northwest Ridge of Mt. Sir Donald|
Why fly to Seattle to climb in Glacier National Park, Canada? I mean, Calgary is the place to fly, right? Except the Loobster lives in Portland and he wanted to drive. And didn’t want to drive for 3 hours past the climb, after driving 11 hours to get there, only to pick me up and turn around and drive back 3 hours. And then repeat it after the climb. It didn’t make any sense. With the new plan we originally hoped to check out Slesse as well, but the weather report had us abandoning that and concentrating on the main goal.
Ah Seattle…what a traffic nightmare this place is. Every time I visit, it’s horrible. In the middle of the day on a Saturday. I’m spoiled in Colorado. At least once I stopped skiing on the weekends (I-70 on a Sunday evening is traffic of mythic proportions). We were in stop-go traffic for 90 minutes when things started to open up. The Loobster pointed at his map display, “Lookie there. No red in sight. Smooth sailing now.” “Don’t get your hopes up, Loobster. Stay pessimistic.” I mean, why not always be that way?
I started climbing in the fall of 1980 when I matriculated to the University of Colorado in Boulder. A couple of years later I discovered the book “50 Classic Climbs of North America” and for the next decade and a half it was the primary force directing my climbing. Why? Because I like lists and here was an excuse to travel around and face a great variety of challenges. But perhaps most motivating was a line in the introduction that said, “Up to now, no single person has even climbed half of these routes.” Or something to that effect. Some of the routes were incredibly difficult and dangerous (Hummingbird Ridge) so I had no aspiration of doing them all, but I immediately set my goal to climb at least half of them.
My first 50CC was Stettner’s Ledges on Crestone Needle, a 5.7 alpine route on a Colorado 14er. Back then I topped out at 5.9, but this route was mostly easier than 5.7. I did it with two friends, both weaker climbers, and while we didn’t epic on it, we were close. Since that one I’ve now done more than thirty of them. While the goal has been achieved, I’m still interested in getting a few more. I make a list of goals each year and getting a 50CC is one this year. Tops of my list of 50CC’s to get are:
- Northwest Ridge of Mt. Sir Donald
- Northwest Buttress of Mt. Slesse
- Price Glacier on Shuksan
- Lotus Flower Tower
I figure I can safely get to forty of the 50CCs and will probably keep climbing one as an annual goal.
Passing into Canada was easy. There were three lanes open and we had to wait maybe ten minutes. The border guard was all business though. He glared at us like we were part of Trump’s trade negotiating team. Per Loobster’s custom, he got rattled under the intense interrogation and when asked what we planned to do in Canada, responded, “We’re here to climb Sir Daniel.” No, it’s Sir Donald. The Loobster has a long history of telling mistruths to the Canadian border guards. He’s been at the wheel on a few border crossing with me and has lied about carrying alcohol, fruit, gifts, etc. He immediately feels guilty and corrects himself, which makes it all the more hilarious and makes the guard suspicious. Good times, good times…
On the other side of the border, though, we passed a single lane of cars, all stopped, more than a mile long. Apparently Canada has become so socialist that it is now like Cuba where they’ll let anyone in, but getting out is tricky. We wondered if, on our return trip, we’d have to abandon Loobster’s prized Subaru WRX, and make our way over the mountains to cross back into the land of the free and the home of the deeply divided.
Canada is awesome. Such great mountains and hardly any people, of which almost all of them live within a hundred miles of the US border. I’ve been to Canada to climb four times previously and I’ve yet to share a route with another party. That alone is a huge draw. Colorado has ten times the climbers and Europe has 100 times the climbers. I’d twice been to Glacier National Park (in Alberta) to climb Sir Donald and sat in the rain for a day or two before abandoning it for other, drier peaks. But, the rule of the mountains is that “Third Time’s the Charm,” so I was guaranteed good weather right? I mean, these friendly Canadians aren’t about to go breaking the rules, right?
We hit highway 1 and turned east. Soon we could see two amazing peaks to our east. It wasn’t long before Loobster recognized one as Shuksan and that prompted me to identify the other as Slesse. Both are extraordinary peaks and look to have fiercely guarded summits. Slesse looks like the Ogre along the Baltoro Glacier. They cry out to all below, “I challenge you to stand atop me.” Challenged accepted. I’ll be back.
We found a campground in Sicamous with a pizza place nearby. After checking in we found out they only had RV spots and the drive-through road at our site was the only flat spot around, so we threw up our tents on the road. The next morning, after a stop at McDonald’s (this trip was all about Donalds), we arrived at the Illecillewaet Campground and trailhead. The campground was full and the road was lined with cars. We’d found out a couple of days ago that Monday was a national holiday and hence this was a 3-day weekend
Canadians are very nice and very polite, but the Canadian Parks people are not the most efficient people you’ll meet. Nor do they have the most knowledge about the parks they work at. We’d learn later from the guides that they consider the Parks employees to be completely clueless. After a 30-minute wait with ONE person in front of us, we got an overnight permit for the “Lower Bivy”. We got the last permit for the day and said we’d be taking two one-man tents. The ranger said, “That won’t fit. This is a ‘bivy’.” He seemed to think that the world “bivy” indicated the dimensions of the camping site. I was confused but he just kept saying, “It’s a bivy. There is no room.” So, we just brought my tent, a Big Agnes 2UL that is technically a two-man tent.
We hiked the 3.7 miles and 3500 vertical feet into the bivy. The trail was generally quite good, though impressively steep for the last two thousand vertical feet. We saw just one woman coming down and nearly caught a pair of hikers before they turned off for the glacier trail. Ah, Canada. Even this “50 Crowded Climb” had almost no one on the trail.
We caught a pair of climbers, one as old as Loobster, about 30 minutes before the bivy. I was keen to get by them so that we’d have two choices for a bivy, but I needn’t have worried. This was a guide and Arthur, his client. Arthur looked and moved like you’d expect a 75-year-old to move. Loobster moves like a fit 50-year-old, an average 35-year-old. He’s an outlier. Arthur was not.
The bivy site was a sizable green area surrounded by a sea of rock and talus. A couple more sites existed just above as well. You could have erected some of those giant Everest basecamp cook tents up there. My visions of shoehorning our tiny tent between sharp boulders were completing dissipated. The camping in the green circle was Euro-style, with no set sites. When we arrived there were maybe six tents set up and we added our tent about ten feet away from an existing one.
Loobster knew that I wanted to go up and bag the Southwest Ridge on Mount Uto. This route was supposedly the younger brother to the northwest ridge on Sir Donald, being easier at 5.1 and half the length, but offering similar climbing. I wanted to bag a peak, of course, but also to sample the type of climbing we’d be doing. Ever gracious, the Loobster offered to set up camp so I could dash up for a quick scramble.
Within thirty minutes I was heading up talus toward the Uto-Sir Donald saddle, a thousand feet above. I climbed up blocky talus to a low-angle snowfield that was soft enough to cross in my scramblers before heading up a very loose talus/dirt slope where I had move very carefully and even use my hands in a couple places. A cool traverse led me directly to the col, where I found a duker with an incredible view of the glacier below to the east. Lightened, I moved up the well-featured ridge, closing on a team of three above.
The rock on these mountains is quartzite. It’s hard, mostly solid, and has numerous cracks for protection. I was soloing, so the protection possibilities weren’t relevant on this climb, but would come in handy the next day. The rock is notoriously slippery when wet, though, and it gets wet here. But the weather was holding and we had high hopes for the next day.
I caught and passed the three climbers above. They were soloing also, but had harnesses on and were prepared to rope up when necessary. They also planned to reverse the ridge and would probably rappel a couple of times. I was hoping to do a traverse and come down the northwest ridge, which was easier. They were friendly and I recognized them from the trailhead. They had walked by us that morning when the Loobster and I were packing up. It’s a pretty big day to get that baby from the trailhead, especially when starting at 10 a.m.
The scrambling here was excellent. I found a couple of places where the climbing seemed to be harder than 5.1, but never uncomfortable to solo. The exposure was large, but the atmosphere was completely overwhelmed by the huge, dark ridge behind me. Sir Donald’s Northwest Ridge, from this aspect, looks very intimidating. It was hard to imagine the ridge went at 5.4. I was excited to see that up close the next day.
I topped out and had great cell service so sent a photo to some friends and family and I tried to call my wife and my mom, as is my tradition. Neither were home — out doing their own adventures. I drank most of my water (just a liter) on the summit and had something to eat, but soon headed down the northwest ridge.
The going was generally easy and really fun scrambling in an incredible position. A couple of very steep steps with rappel anchors were bypassed to the west and I made my way down to the first col. I knew this wasn’t the gully I wanted to descend, but I couldn’t climb the vertical wall on the ridge. I reluctantly started down. A hundred feet below the col I spotted a cairn leading up a steep ramp back to the ridge and followed it. I got to the second col, the one between Uto and Eagle Peak and descended that. From camp this looked very steep and loose, and, while it was loose, wasn’t dangerously steep and the descent went smoothly. I was back in camp about three hours after leaving it, getting down around 6 p.m.
Loobster, being the basecamp manager, had the tent professionally erected. Shortly after I got down he inquired, “When will you be wanting dinner?” He then proceeded to make me a gourmet meal of Mountain House Macaroni and Cheese, served al fresco in a shiny aluminum pouch with a titanium spork. The only thing missing was a tablecloth. And the table.
Arthur and his guide were headed for Uto the next morning, as were a French-Canadian couple that arrived later that day (they had a permit for the upper bivy, but stopped here, as there was plenty of room). A few of the tents were leaving, carried out by the climbers done with their adventures, some successful, some not. One guy stormed into camp, way out in front of his three partners, and I asked how the climb went. “Not good. We didn’t make it. Just didn’t move fast enough.” They had done less than half the ridge before rappelling down the west-side, fixed-anchor slabs. When I said we were going for it the next day, he asked, “Are you going to solo it or simul-climb it?” I said probably some of both. He then said, “Well, you have to move fast and just go, go, go, if you want to make it.” Two other parties came down later, having succeeded. One person said they had covered just 4 kilometers in 15 hours. Distance on terrain like that isn’t a meaningful metric.
The only other climbers going for Sir Donald the next day was a group of four guys. I saw them descending Uto’s ridge, as I was going up. They had brought gear halfway up the route before leaving it behind to solo up and down the top part. We went to sleep that night with high hopes for success.
We were up the next morning at five. After the obligatory cup of coffee, some food, and a bathroom trip, we were moving up the now-familiar route to the saddle. It took us about an hour to get up there and we were closely followed by the group of four guys. We geared and moved up unroped for the time being. Once it got steep, I asked Loobster if he wanted to rope and he said, “I’m fine.” I tend to be protective of the Loobster because he can sometimes make me nervous and a mistake when unroped is your last mistake. When I saw the group climbing behind us, closing fast, climbing roped, I insisted we rope up as well.
We moved up a couple hundred feet or more before the first of the guys caught and passed me. We all continued simul-climbing, all six of us, with our ropes overlapping. I was using a couple of MicroTraxions to make our climbing safer. Though we had a 200-foot rope, half of it was still inside my pack. I’d brought five cams and six slings for protection and stopped after maybe three hundred feet to re-gear and to get us completely separated from the other four. As one passed by I noticed “Cascade Alpine Guide” stitched onto his pants and I asked his trailing partner if his leader was a guide. He told me all four were guides. No wonder these guys moved so fast. Faster even than the Loobster!
We’d picked Monday for our climb since the weather report was the best. We weren’t supposed to have any precipitation. Just clear, warm weather. While it didn’t rain on us, we had almost zero sun the entire day and strong, biting wind chilled us all day long. On the right side of the ridge it was quite cold and we climbed in our pile and our shells. Whenever I’d stop to re-group it would always be on the left, east side, as that was out of the wind and quite comfortable.
This is a remarkable climb. Two and half thousand feet of consistently steep, interesting climbing/scrambling, with massive exposure on both sides. I don’t know what to compare it to. It’s so consistent, so solid, so clean, and in such perfect position. All at a somewhat reasonable level to solo. Not surprisingly there are some incredibly fast times on this route. The roundtrip record from the road, is around 4.5 hours. That’s pretty mind boggling for 7000 feet of climbing, 2500 of it being no-fall, technical ground.
The difficulty of the climbing was no problem for the Loobster, but its continuous nature was taxing him a bit. Still, he knew we had to keep moving. The cold weather also urged us on and certainly detracted from the overall enjoyment. The sky above was gray and not a great cause of concern, but it was another reason to keep moving. There weren’t extended breaks. The only time we weren’t moving was when we re-grouped for a quick gear hand-off, but we did take time at one of them to eat something. The guides were long out of sight above us.
I found and clipped three of the 2-bolt rappel anchors we’d use on the way down, but there was supposed to be six of them. There were a number of other rappel anchors along the ridge, all slings wrapped around blocks, some with a rappel ring, some without. High on the ridge the angle eases to 3rd class. We stayed roped, though, as it didn’t last all that long and wasn’t a problem. This section was where the West Face Bypass descent would intersect the ascent route.
We still had the final steep section to go and I stopped to regroup a few times here, as I sensed that the Loobster could use a few rests while I ran out a hundred feet of rope. We made the summit 5h40m after leaving the bivy. The clouds really moved in at this time, making our summit photos pretty disappointing. We signed the register and I got out a bit more food, but the Loobster was ready to descend immediately after the photos. It was cold, windy, and we had a long, stressful descent to go.
We’d seen the guides taking the West Face Bypass far below us, when we were finishing up the last steep section, so we opted for that descent as well. We started off roped together, as it was quite steep starting down the South Ridge, but we soon coiled the rope and put it away. The descending wasn’t too difficult, but it was loose and over big air below and the route finding wasn’t obvious. Further down we picked up some cairns and then could follow a clear trail. One section was the site of some rockfall and I knew about this ahead of time. It wasn’t too significant, though and we passed it in less than a minute.
It took us an hour of careful moving to regain the Northwest Ridge at the bottom of the low-angle section. We then downclimbed until one of the steep sections that I thought was 5.6 on the way up and used a rappel anchor to descend. We did lots more climbing, moving unroped down the terrain we had earlier climbed up roped together. It was a bit stressful but the Loobster was solid. We eventually got to the first of the two-bolt rappel anchors. We rapped and then had to downclimb quite a bit more to find the next anchor. Each rappel required me to wrestle with my 7.8mm rope, which even in calm weather has a tendency to snarl, but in whipping wind it had a serious case of tangle-philia.
On the last rappel on the ridge, I went too far to the west and was caught dangling in space. Loobster would point out later that the guidebook warned against this situation and later still we’d find out a woman died here when she rappelled off the end of her rope. I hadn’t been knotting the ends of my rope since it was already so difficult to get the ropes to go where I wanted them to go. Dangling over 1500 feet of mountain focused my mind immediately. My grip on the thin cord clenched markedly. I saw the anchors off to my left (climber’s left) but dangling in space, I couldn’t do anything but go down. Thankfully my rope reached the rock slab below. I had to rappel to within ten feet of the end of my rope before I hit the rock. Then, grabbing the rope tightly in one hand, I climbed up and left to the anchors and clipped in, lowering my heart rate considerably.
The rappels down to the west went smoothly. We did some more hiking down loose slopes before doing two optional rappels, more walking and then two final rappels before we could finally put away the ropes for good and strip off the harness. The talus slope back down to the bivy is amongst the nastiest I’ve descended. It consisted of a thin layer of talus over a rock hard dirt slope. I was able to do a bit of scree surfing in spots but most of it was just miserably loose and tedious. The Loobster fell numerous times and though they were simple falls onto his backside, this is a guy without a lot of padding there and I wondered how old you have to be before bones don’t like falling onto rocks.
We got back to camp around 6 p.m. and immediately started breaking it down. We ate and drank some while we packed and were hiking out by 6:30 p.m. Coming down an additional 3500 feet on top of the 3500 feet we’d already done was tough on our knees and toes, but we persevered. We made it back to the trailhead at 9 p.m., just barely avoiding the use of our headlamps. How hard can a climb be if you don’t even use your headlamp? Still, it was 16 hours from when we woke up and we were beat. Satisfied, but beat.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again and I’ll keep on saying it: the Loobster is amazing. Rarely do I even notice that I’m not climbing with one of my other partners, half Loobster’s age. When I do detect this, I don’t get frustrated, for it only takes a moment to remind myself that I’m climbing with one of the fittest, most capable 75-year-olds in the entire country. Who am I, an exceedingly average middle-aged climber, to be fretting about an exceptional 75-year-old. The Loobster is slower than any of my other climbing partners, but I’m slower than any of my other climbing partners. One of Loobster’s maxims is “I don’t need to be the fastest in the group, but I don’t want to be the slowest.” He climbs with people half his age and he’s still one of the faster ones. When he mentioned this on the approach, I thought, hmmm…I’m frequently the slowest when I go out on adventures these days. It is tough to be the slowest, but that just means I have fit friends who are nice enough to take me along. At this point in my life I’m much prouder about the quality of my friends and partners than the speed at which I travel. And I always should have been.