Saturday, October 23, 2010

Mt. Cromwell

Thanksgiving weekend had whetted my appetite for alpine climbing, so Josh Lavigne and I made plans to get out again the following weekend (can you tell I am a weekend warrior?). I tried to think of something I had not done before, but that was not so far from the road that it would not fit into a regular weekend. In the end we came up with the Elzinga-Miller route on the north face of Mt. Cromwell.

The north face of Cromwell from the Icefields Parkway.

This would be my second trip up the north face. Ten years ago Jim Sevigny, my alpine mentor, and I walked up Woolley Creek in early September to attempt the Robinson-Arbic. The weather was far from splitter: a light drizzle fell as we waded across the Sunwapta River and low-lying cloud hid the face, so that we had to sit on our packs and wait for a couple of hours before we could even see the start of the route. The face looked to be in great shape, with white streaks coming down all over the place, but upon closer inspection the white stuff turned out to be slush. No matter, we could still drytool around the non-existent ice, but it took time. Sunset found us chopping into an exposed snow rib and setting up our bivy tent (you see, we had a notion that between a late start and iffy conditions we might end up bivying). I slept well, in spite of Jim next to me shivering and rubbing warmth into his limbs all night. The following day we topped out around noon and got back to the car just as the skies opened up. As Choc Quinn once famously said, alpine climbing is all about timing and hormones.

Jim discovering the white stuff is not ice.

Wakey wakey, hands off snakey!

This time around we planned to send the face in a day car-to-car. It sounded like a reasonable enough plan, especially since it meant we would sleep in a warm van and carry light packs. Josh took the fast-and-light philosophy one step further by forgetting his helmet, but he figured that between his hard head and soft toque he would be all right. The early-morning cold in the glacial cirque below the north face chilled our bodies, more used to shirtless sport climbing at The Lookout than to early winter in the high country. The waves of spindrift pouring down the route did not make things any more pleasant, either, but we had come to alpine climb and some suffering was to be expected. In deference to the spindrift and snowy ice we pitched out the first few ropelengths, before switching into simul-climbing mode on the snowfields in the middle of the face.

Starting up the Elzinga-Miller.

Josh engulfed in spindrift on the third pitch...

... and smiling again in the middle of the face.

Winter is coming to the Columbia Icefields.

In the past the summit serac sported overhanging ice that had some people aiding off of screws, but thanks to glacial recession we were able to bypass it on moderately-angled ice. A few ropelengths of glacial ice, an easy cornice, and we broke onto the summit ridge. The cornice just below the summit was a little more substantial, but after carving a tunnel through the wave of snow we popped out into the sunshine on top. Beautiful, beautiful mountains stretched to the horizon in every direction: Mt. Alberta just across the valley, Mt. Clemenceau in the middle distance, and far to the north, Mt. Robson. It was only midafternoon, so in spite of a brisk wind we lingered and took it all in. After all, how often do you get to sit on an island in the sky, surrounded by the most impressive peaks in the Rockies, having just climbed a north-face route, knowing you have plenty of daylight to get down?

Josh approaching the serac near the top of the face...

... and chillin' on the summit.

The mighty Mt. Alberta.

Waxing gibbous moon rising.

Here is a short video from our outing, courtesy of Josh. Enjoy!

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