Faced with an overachieving spring melt that left mid-April looking a lot like mid-May and a powerful lack of motivation for bushwhacking, it felt like a good time to head for the biggest chunk of ice in the Rockies in celebration of my being finished work for the winter. Originally the plan was to spend a few days up on the Columbia Icefield, bag a few classic peaks and at least have a look at a couple of decidedly less popular bigger lines. As we got close to our planned departure date though, it became clear the our weather window was going to close sooner than we would have liked. Bummer. Monday’s weather was forecast to be perfect at least, so we decided just to try to day trip Mt. Columbia – arguably the most classic of the classics – and have a good look around while we were there.
I got home from work Sunday and tried to nap for a few hours before leaving Golden. The effort was completely unsuccessful, accomplishing nothing more than extreme boredom. I gave up and left at around 9 pm. Luke had been doing something similar in the climbers’ parking lot for the past few hours and was glad to get going. We met another skier who was headed up to North Twin solo and were floored when he told us that he had forgotten his skins, so he just planned to bootpack. His headlamp bobbed off into the darkness as we geared up, eventually leaving the car at quarter to one.
Essentially onsighting the route up the very broken Athabasca glacier in the dark, we wasted some time carefully navigating a scenic and pointless route through the flats at its toe. After getting it figured out, we headed upwards, moving as quickly as possible past the menacing Snow Dome seracs. You can almost feel them hanging over your head as you head up The Ramp onto the icefield. Spotting cross country ski tracks, we realized why the guy from the parking lot had been willing to come up without skins. We then proceeded to get turned around again, tacking a few extra kilometers and a few hundred meters onto our day. We ended up where we needed to be though, cruising through a few camps just as their occupants were getting out of bed. From there a skins on, heels free and roped together descent dropped us into the trench that separates Mt. Columbia from the rest of the icefield. It wasn’t as sketchy as it sounds and we skinned up the other side just in time to watch the sun come up onto the glacier, eat ‘breakfast’ and melt some snow to refill our water bottles.
Mt. Columbia is visible from nearly anywhere on the icefield, yet never seems to get any closer. It’s incredible, but demoralizing. Although we knew it would be further than it looked, it still took considerably longer to get to the bottom of the east face than either of us had guessed. The face featured an ugly, refrozen bootpack that we took turns improving. Chalk it up to a slightly higher altitude than usual, not sleeping, walking really far, whatever but I was feeling surprisingly crushed at this point. While Luke powered ahead, I had a drink and rested my head on my ice axe for a minute. In response, the wind stole my hat and whipped it off towards the Black Hole. I learned my lesson about resting and suffered up to the summit, arriving around 11:40.
Suddenly I had a lot more energy, with the booting finished and an absolutely incredible view to stare out at. From the summit a sea of peaks stretches away into the horizon, and all of them below. Except one, but Robson has the decency to stay in the background and let you have your fun. It’s hard to put the feeling of looking out at the world from above into words, but suffice it to say that this is a pile of rocks and ice worth standing on. A larger group summited just after we did without skis, which took a bit of the remote feeling out of the position, but it was a popular objective on a perfect day and it’s hard to complain about sharing.
We had looked at the south face on the way up and hoped to ski it, but the skiing was secondary to the summit on this day. That line was pure ice, and it wasn’t hard to let it be. All that was left was to take off down the east face and enjoy a wind sculpted mixture of alpine ice, sastrugi and breakable crust on tired legs. With some commitment good turns were possible, and it was a sweet descent all the way down to the bottom of the trench.
This was the part of the day which we had been dreading and it lived up to expectations. The sun beat down as we climbed out of the trench, then up and over a sisyphean series of broad rolls, each one coming into view only once the previous roll had been crested. Our conversation went something like this:
‘Ok, one more roll and we’re there’
‘This is the last one, I’m sure’
‘There can’t possibly be another’
‘I think we’re in hell’
‘Aahhhhhh! No! Why?’
We were exhausted and it was soul destroying. Finally we escaped and coasted down The Ramp back to the Athabasca. A little concerned about the hot sun weakening snow bridges, we watched the guy with the XC skis casually bootpack down it alone without vanishing into the ice, which was oddly reassuring. Skiing fast and thinking light thoughts, we coasted down to the edge of the glacier, where we found an ice cave and sat down to look into it for a while.
From there it was a slow, lazy walk through the dirt back to the parking lot, which was a very welcome sight. 16 hours car to car and we were more than ready to get the boots off. Both of us were exhausted, much more so than on other recent big days. Lots of factors in this one to make it hurt, but that just made doing what we set out to do that much more satisfying in the end. Popular or not, it’s a big mountain. I’m thrilled to have gotten the summit and even more so to have done it in a single push. Even at the beginning of this season I would never have thought I was strong enough. Now I’m a bit annoyed I had so little energy at the end of the day. I love the self discovery inspired by pushing hard in the mountains, though usually not until after I’m done.