I had wanted to climb Athabasca for more than a decade. For one reason or another potential climbing partners became fewer and fewer, either having given up climbing mountains or had already been up this one. This year I wanted to make a big effort, not knowing if I could still climb a `biggy` after three years of abstinence from the high mountains. The only safe option was to hire a guide.
As I staggered up the final few feet of rock, wet with melting snow, onto the summit ridge of Athabasca I had a smile on my face! I had done it! Eleven hours earlier at 0315am, my guide Tim Auger had started us off on the ‘SnoCat’ road up to the Athabasca glacier. We had not eaten nor drunk more than a drop or two of liquid during this marathon ascent. Well I must confess I did manage to take a bite or two from a Power Bar, which I had surreptitiously stored in my anorak pocket, whilst Tim was tying us into some bomb-proof protection on the climb!
Tim had called me at the hotel in Banff a day or two before we set off to tell me that he wanted to try a route he had not done before. Although he had climbed the mountain many times by various routes, this route was supposed to be more interesting. As he outlined the route, saying it would be a round trip of about 12 hrs (just within the guidelines of a typical ascent between 9 & 12 hours according to the Yamnuska descriptions), I replied that I had not done much ice climbing in some years. No problem for him! He said it would involve front-pointing but that he would bring along all of the required equipment. I was only armed with an ice axe, some slings, a cam or two and nuts.
We camped at the Columbia Icefields Campground the night before the climb, not putting on the fly sheet but then it did sling it down with a heavy shower during the evening, when I was obliged to crawl out of the sleeping bag and put it on. We rose at the unearthly hour of 0145 hrs to a starry night, ate some cereal with a cup of tea and off we went.
At the parking lot, we met another party of climbers, one of whom was a fellow Yamnuska guide, intent on doing the ‘Silverhorn route’. Tim mused that our combined ages were more than triple the combined ages of the three young climbers. Yes, quite.
Rose-fingered dawn (Homer!), arrived three hours later after trudging with headlights across the moraines to the glacier and reaching the junction for the Silverhorn route and the north face routes. Our superior number of years, supposedly slowing us down, had not slowed us behind the young’uns. We said cheerio and continued beneath the overhanging seracs of the north face and crossed the ice avalanche path as erringly as possible to reach the foot at the lower edge and start of the north ridge. Our route lay on the ice and snow face adjacent, thus avoiding the saw- teeth rocks of the ridge. Out came the protection with the loan of a pterodactyl ice-axe for me to accompany my worthy, yet light-weight, ice-axe.
Up climbed Tim front-pointing to lead out on well over a hundred and twenty feet of rope with ice-screws judiciously placed after scraping away several inches of soft snow. It was light enough from a sunny blue sky, yet we were still in the shadow on the west side of the ridge, with the summit above, seemingly close. Dark clouds lay brooding to the north with a haze from forest fires in B.C. obscuring the views; to the south higher billowing clouds were lingering, not quite as threatening. It seemed the gods were with us that day as the summit, always tantalisingly close, remained in the sun throughout our climb. But the dark clouds always threatened on the horizon.I was quite mesmerised by the silhouettes, of the three climbers who were rapidly approaching the summit in the sunlight a couple of kilometres or so away, on the Silverhorn route. Tim and I were moving slowly but methodically, pitch by pitch, mostly on the face and switching between rocks jutting out from the face. A few pitches later the ice/snow slope led us up to the ridge proper. Now we were able to look over the ridge and to the east, just as to the north and south; clouds and heat haze everywhere. As we edged up, Tim patiently ensuring our safety, I was able to relax at the belay stations, aware of the steep slope below us and watch other parties move up the Silverhorn.
Tim said to me once I was safely anchored on belay, that he now needed to seek out a traverse onto the north face. We correctly found the traverse, protected by at least two pins, in-situ, and were able to follow up the so-called couloir for a few dozen feet of+60° ice/snow, to climb back out onto the ridge. As for the couloir, well I have climbed much longer ones on Ben Nevis, Scotland, so I am not convinced that the variant is as useful as some say, to avoid some of the ridge.
Ahead lay a steep but stepped wall of rock, running in water from the melting snow of the ridge above. Once on top it was a few minutes of short roping and we were on the final snow slope and the corniced summit ridge of Athabasca. Our feet sunk into the soft snow making for slow movement. No rest for the wicked as they say, as we crossed it and down to the notch between the true summit and the Silverhorn summit where we were able to finally rest, eat and drink.As we rested, snow flakes fell, and the sun disappeared. But the threat of a shower did not last long, not until we were well on our drive back to Banff.
A half hour later we began a rapid descent lasting just over two hours via the AA col, to arrive at the car completely knackered, a round trip of 14 hours. The muscles of the thighs and legs were quite aching.
I remarked to Tim that I thought that despite our ages we were not such a slow party; he demurred on that one but as I pointed out not many parties would descend that much faster.
For my part, at nearly 70 years of age I was most satisfied with climbing such a challenging route. And I had made a good choice to climb with Tim Auger. But whether or not I have the stamina or the will to make an elevation gain of 5000 ft or more or to climb for more than 12hours at one go, I need to think about it again. I know I can do it but the years take their toll!
I later learned that our climb turned out to be a variant of the north ridge, first climbed in 1898, now rated as 5.5 in S. Dougherty’s guide book, being the first ascent of the mountain.