The Sickle & NE Face Double: A Wildly Successful Failure on Mt. Victoria

Dedicated to Trevor Sexsmith. Friend, mentor and Rockies steep skiing pioneer who passed away while skiing on the Sickle in September 2016.

I’m a big fan of skyline traverses. You know: routes that connect the terrain you see silhouetted against the sky when you’re standing in the valley. I also like classic steep skiing lines, so it only makes sense to combine the two when it’s possible.

Standing on the shore of Lake Louise, the Mt. Victoria skyline dominates. Everything about it calls to me. The jagged ridge, the slow crawl of the glacier, peeling over the cliffs into spectacular seracs and the three mega classic ski lines – the Sickle, the NE Face and North Face. I’ve wanted to link those three lines in a day for years, in an linkup I like to call the Victoria’s Crown Traverse. Spoiler alert, I still haven’t. But here’s the story of my best effort yet.

To get the full enchainment, conditions have to be perfect. The north face has to be in, and that doesn’t happen every year. Then there’s the weather – the first three quarters of the route are all pretty solar, with the Victoria Collier col being completely south facing. That means you’re racing the heat up, down and across 2200+ vertical meters of technical, exposed terrain just to get to the base of the col, so you’d better get your timing right. Things get pretty committing pretty fast once you move onto the face. It’s not the sort of place you want to get caught out, by unfavourable temperatures or bad weather.

My first real attempt at the traverse was nearly a bail from the car. Joel, Chris and I dropped a vehicle at the Lake O’Hara lot, where we saw stars and below zero temperatures. Great. Back to Lake Louse we went, where it was… +1 and looked like it might rain. Not ideal, but there we were. With nothing better to do, the team walked up the valley to the toe of the Victoria Glacier, where it felt substantially warmer. It started to rain and we fell through the crust a few times. This clearly wasn’t it. It seemed that a single, miserable pocket of cloud had gotten stuck on the east side of the great divide, so not only had we been skunked, but a number of other parties had found great conditions within spitting distance of our failure. Oof.

A few days later, another window appeared. Wary of further skunking, we set out even earlier. The crew had grown by one, with aerobic monster Kylee bringing some serious bootpack crushing chops to the party. This time the 1:30 AM darkness was splitter – not even a wisp of cloud. There was a far better freeze in the moraines and things were looking very promising indeed as we rounded the corner into the Deathtrap – the first difficulty of many on the day.

As I mentioned in my report from Mt. Lefroy, the Deathtrap is perhaps a bit melodramatic a name for the place, but there’s no doubt that the serac hazard in this icy canyon is very, very real.

Once through there, we began to traverse back across the reasonably steep snow slopes above those same seracs, quickly turning overhead hazard into massive exposure as we moved to the base of the Sickle. Everyone handles places like this differently. Kylee and I chatted idly as I led out across the traverse, while Joel and Chris fell quiet. All four of us were supremely focused on our feet and the nuances of the snowpack we were trusting our lives to, but we each had a slightly different way of getting there which I thought was interesting. I mentioned that to the crew, but, of course, only got one response.

We all joined team silent partway across the slope, when a massive crash echoed up from the rock walls below. Serac fall. It didn’t have any effect on us where we were, but it’s always sobering when the mountain flexes its destructive power a little.

The four of us finished the traverse as the alpenglow hit the face and started swapping leads up to the bergschrund. I went up to inspect the bridging, and found it to be so poor that I was able to brush it away with my hand and stick my head in the schrund to find someplace where it looked thicker. After some end running, we located a spot where it looked like a chunk of snow or ice had become wedged and gingerly crawled across that on belay.

A quick assessment on top of the Sickle had us feeling pretty good about our progress so far. It had taken just over five hours from the Chateau to the top of the line, and the sun hadn’t even been up for an hour. The snow was still plenty cold and we saw no reason to bail, so down the line we went, holding left to traverse out into the gnar. The skiing off the top was variable, but the guts of the line were outstanding. Fast, flowing turns at a steep, but reasonable pitch. Not to mention the amazing position. I can see why at least a few Rockies steep skiing legends rate the Sickle as one of their favourite lines.

We traversed across the glacial bench that is the backdrop to so many postcards and selfie stick photos and started ascending at the point where our momentum would carry us no further. In hindsight this may have been a mistake. It did keep bergschrund crossings to a minimum though, which was probably valuable. Again, the ropes came out for a delicate crawl across the thinly covered void before we sluggishly ground our way up towards the summit ridge. The sun was hot and we were all feeling the effort of the day so far.

Whoever was in the lead at any given time just took the path of least resistance upwards, which did not pay off at the ridge. We quickly realized that we had a ways to traverse to get to the summit and NE face ski line, and that the ridge ahead was no gimme.

Thin, corniced, alternately firm and faceted, not to mention coated in a warm layer of fresh snow that was perfect for balling up crampons; it put up a good fight. Joel hacked away at it for a while, then Chris before I finished up. As quickly as possible but still not quickly enough for my liking. Fatigue, both mental and physical had me feeling perfectly sloth-like as I methodically cleared each crampon before kicking it back into the ridge.

By the summit, the snowballs we were dropping onto the face were entraining hot snow into sloughs of legitimately hazardous size. The sun had gone nuclear – it was far hotter than any forecast had called for. Further, the ones that had predicted high cloud around mid day had clearly been wrong.

All four of us simultaneously abandoned the desire to roll the dice on the climb to Victoria Collier col. We weren’t even 100% sure that the north face would go cleanly. It looked thin but doable from the valley, but what if we were wrong? Even if we got up there, the sun was cooking away our main avenue of retreat.

No, the right move, the obvious move, was to call it a day. One by one we skied the warming northeast face down to the relative safety of the flat glacier below. Ski quality wasn’t amazing, but it wasn’t bad either. Too warm, but once the surface snow sloughed away it left a perfectly serviceable soft crust behind. Sure powder would have been great, but just to be making turns on such a steep, aesthetic face is memorable in and of itself.

What a pair of lines the Sickle and NE face are. Just incredible. After hours of constant exposure, we were elated to have enchained them both, and there was no disappointment with the early end to the project.

By this time the valley was alive with avalanche activity from extreme solar terrain. We wasted little time getting out. Fine corn skiing took us down past the teahouse and out to Lake Louise, where we passed a great many confused tourists on the trail – as is tradition.

Back at the cars, we were feeling pretty satisfied with our day. The Sickle and NE Face linkup has only been done once before as far as I know, by Ali Haeri, Chris Brazeau and Ian Jackson, but in the other direction. Still, the full objective is stuck in my head, and the heads of the others too, I think. For now, this one remains unfinished.

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