Location: Icefields Parkway (Mount Athabasca)
Elevation Gain: 1500m from parking lot
Distance: 16km from parking lot
Total Time: 12.00 Hours (Avoiding another party can take up a fair bit of time)
Difficulty: 5.7, 50 Degree snow or ice depending on season.
Cell reception: None
Rating: 4/5. There aren’t many places where you can climb solid alpine ice in August. This route would have 5 stars if the rock wasn’t so terrible at the crux.
Notes: Try to go earlier than we did (August 1), as hopefully the rock will be held together a bit more, and you’ll have snow to slog up instead of front pointing ice the whole way.
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The approach to most of the routes on Athabasca is fairly straight forward. Park at the bus gate (just off the highway, opposite the Icefield Center), and start hiking up the road. At the bus station at the end of the paved road you’ll see a river on the left side of the road. Right where the river goes underground at the edge of the large bus paring lot you’ll see a trail and cairn, this is the start of the climber’s trail for Athabasca. Follow the trail up and right on the crest of the moraine, and continue along until you come to a messy headwall with a few gullies breaking it up. Suffer through one of the loose gullies or try and find the trail that goes up climber’s right of the steep gullies, this can be hard in the dark. From here follow the trail until you eventually gain the glacier.
Once on the glacier aim for the start of the Silverhorn route, then continue past it and into the large bowl below the North Face. Eye the bergschrund from the bowl and pick where you’ll cross, we chose to cross on the far left.
All popular routes on Mount Athabasca are seen here:
Routes seen in photo:
Athabasca North Face 5.7 III
Depending on the season you’ll either be front pointing up alpine ice (late season) or kicking steps in snow (early season).
We moved from climber’s left to right across the face stopping at the rock outcrops to rest our calves. We climbed fairly close to the other party on the route, careful not to send ice down on them, but close enough that we could communicate and yell at each other when rocks started flying past as the sun came out…
Once we got up to the upper head wall, we set up a solid belay and waited as we let the other party go first as they were climbing a bit faster than us. We watched as they went up and noted how terribly loose the rock was, but the climbing didn’t look too challenging.
We ended up waiting for a long time, as once the party ahead completed the rock portion, they started sending down dinner plates of ice from the gully above, right into where we would be climbing. When the ice stopped flying by I left the belay and started up the crux.
There are plenty of pins to protect you when it gets steeper for the last few meters, I believe I counted a total of 7 pins for the one 20m pitch. We brought 5 mid size cams, a set of nuts, and a few pins only to end up placing one of each. I believe you could get away with no rock gear if you are confident, but bringing a few pieces is probably a good idea, especially a few pins since the rock is pretty bad and I struggled to find cam placements lower down on the rock section. Some smaller cams would also be ideal.
Honestly this route was a ton of fun and I’m stoked to have ticked off my first north face route, but it was very humbling for me. I’d like to blame the loose rock but I think I just need more experience. If I come back I think it will definitely be earlier in the season when the rock is maybe a little more held together.
From the summit follow the ridge down and then back up to the top of Silverhorn, we descended the North Glacier/Ramp route. From here descend and aim for the large bowl to skiers right of the ridge. Once in the bowl swing out to skiers left to avoid crevasses and then drop down to the north glacier. Hopefully there will be a faint track here as it is a popular route, but if not cut back across the slope towards Silverhorn, aiming slightly down until you are back below Silverhorn and where you started.