A few years back, I remember wondering why I’d never heard of anyone skiing Mt. Kitchener’s East Ridge. It’s always described as a straightforward snow climb except for the notch some 150m below the summit, and its upper face looks fantastic from the Icefields Centre. Then, while driving home from a failed Robson attempt I noticed what seemed to be a skiable exit off the ridge via a hanging glacier on its north side. The seed was planted, and finally, this week Kieran and I teamed up to give it a go.
0200 came early, as it always does. We dragged ourselves out of our beds in the Icefields Centre parking lot and eventually set off under an impressive canopy of stars. First up was a wade across the utterly frigid Sunwapta River, which we completed with no enthusiasm whatsoever. Then, shoes now unpleasantly wet, we thrashed our way up and over/around the NW ridge of Mt. K2. Between the treadmill scree, unsupportive snow patches and annoying boulder hopping in the dark, we both agreed we wouldn’t take that approach again. Live and learn.
Once on the ridge, we sidehilled into the bowl below K2, enjoying spectacular sunrise views of Kitchener’s North Face, plus North Twin, Twins Tower, The Stutfields, Cromwell, Woolley and Diadem.
After seeing that our line on the North Glacier went cleanly, we abandoned our plan of climbing it in favour of skiing top down. The standard route onto the ridge was obviously going to be much quicker and a good bit safer – the hanging glacier is a pointlessly complex bit of terrain. Gaining the East Ridge the regular way, on the other hand, was as simple as it gets, just a quick section of easy snow that we barely even had to front point.
At that point, the view back towards the Icefields Centre became pretty spectacular, but now exposed to the sun’s full nuclear fury we didn’t linger for long. After scoping our entrance onto the hanging glacier, we took turns grinding up the East Ridge proper towards the notch.
When it came to that particular feature, we were expecting a gross, poorly protected gash with horrific rock quality and sickening exposure. In general, we were not disappointed, although we did find the quality of rock to be a bit better than advertised. Kieran rapped down into the cleft to have a look and quickly found it to be a pretty uncomfortable spot.
We paused for a talk to weigh out the risks and rewards of the situation. On one hand, the lure of the summit and an extra 100 or 150 meters of mellow skiing with some good position. On the other, loose, snowy alpine 5.6 in ski gear, lousy pro and a ticking clock as the sun cooked the snowpack on the fun part below. All for a tiny discontinuous addition to the line. I love to ski right off of the summit as much as the next guy, but this time it just didn’t make sense. The motto is ‘keep going until you have a really good reason to turn around’ and this kind of unnecessary risk taking seemed to meet the criteria, so we put away the climbing gear and transitioned to focus on what we came for.
The ridge itself rivals any of the classic Icefields descents. Much like the Silverhorn on Athabasca but less steep, it’s a beautiful, wide open pitch with incredible views and position. Kieran and I skied it together, ripping big GS turns into fantastic corn.
Then the money pitch, a steep ramp onto the hanging glacier that was still holding some preserved pow. This was the section that made the whole line for us. Good, steep, technical turns on a solid base; playing with a fast moving curtain of slough next to towering seracs. Just incredible.
Once we met back up, we got to work figuring out how to get off the thing. A traverse to our right around some longitudinal crevasses, then a quick check of the beta photos. Yep, still on track, so we skied a very cool pitch of firm refreeze next to the lower seracs en route to our somewhat creative exit.
It involved a rightward traverse into a ledge and gully system, which was much steeper than we had anticipated. Also, it was rock hard. Once in there, we made as many turns as we could while navigating some ugly runnels and a bit of dry skiing. Fun, in a weird kind of way. After a season of consciously working on it, that kind of technicality is starting to feel pretty conventional.
That said, we were still a little relieved it had all gone to plan as we cruised out the corned up fan a few minutes later.
Now, the bit we had been dreading. Our approach had, if nothing else, saved us some elevation on the way in, but we were now well below the bench we had used to gain the line. So, filled with the kind of regret only steep scree in ski boots can inspire, we dragged our tired bodies several hundred meters back up to the ridge.
At least the other side was fairly skiable, and we got back to our shoes in good time. The scree that had so infuriated us on the way up proved very runnable, and we happily thrashed our ski boots in it before completely soaking them by wading back across a now thigh deep Sunwapta.
It took 20km, over 1900m, an ungodly amount of sidehilling and enough expletives to make your grandmother cry, but what a great ski mission! The East Ridge of Kitchener deserves classic ski line status, even if descended via our much more straightforward ascent route. Then again, it would be hard to justify missing out on the hanging glacier. Hopefully it’ll get skied both ways in the future.
Now, with conditions as solid as they come and maybe a few freezes in the forecast, it’s time to figure out what to do next.