Looking Through the Alpine Hourglass

Mountain Climbing in the Rockies


Story & photos by Ben Ferrel
As you climb from Kicking Horse Pass, up through the lower reaches of Cataract Brook, you occasionally catch a glimpse through the canopy of Engleman spruce, subalpine fir, and the occasional pine tree. The sight of the north summit of Mount Victoria causes your heart to flutter, the dramatic glaciers on its north face look like they could come crashing down at any instant.



Cathedral Mountain sits across the valley, its long south ridge parallel to your course along the creek. The dramatic rocky towers, from which Cathedral Mountain draws it’s name, look different from every perspective, making it difficult to judge your progress along its flank. You continue to plod along, peaking through the gaps in the forest, when suddenly all new landmarks emerge. The jagged peaks of Wiwaxy, Schaeffer and Park Mountain all appear above the road ahead, their similarly sharp ridges outlined against the sky by snow lingering from the winter. You know that in the small space between Wiwaxy and Schaeffer Peaks lies your destination, Lake O’Hara. Your blood rushes as the blue sky brings the prospect of stable weather and the mountains expose their storied climbing routes all around you.


As you round one of the last corners leading to the lake, you can’t help but feel your feet landing in the rather sizable footprints of those who have walked these trails before you. Since the start of the 20th century, Lake O’Hara has been a major center for mountaineering in Canada. The first of several huts was built in an alpine meadow near the lake in 1912. In 1922, the awe-inspiring Abbott Pass hut was built at the top of the pass between Mount Victoria and Mount Lefroy, named in honor of Philip Abbot who died in 1896 trying to climb Mount Lefroy via it’s west face. This was the first fatality in North American mountaineering and prompted the CPR to enlist the help of Swiss Guides in the growing mountain tourism industry.


In early July, I found myself standing high on the west face of Mount Lefroy, resting on the front-points of my crampons. The weight of the air behind and below me was making my calves burn and my heart race. I called ahead to my climbing partner and asked for the rope. The perfect snow conditions lower on the face had been replaced by the bullet-proof, frozen bed surface of an old avalanche. Leaving the snow, we traversed a narrow rock rib into a gully just below the summit. This is where Phillip Abbot fell, as others have since. The focus one feels while moving through serious terrain such as this is unique and exhilarating. For a mountaineer, this is it. This is why Mount Lefroy has become a classic route.


Several careful steps later and we arrived at the west summit. The east summit is four meters higher, but faced with fifty very exposed meters along a narrow spur ridge most people find the west summit to be enough of an accomplishment. The summit is so small that there is barely room for two people without being precariously close to the cornices that obscure to true ridge crest. Relief this extreme is difficult for the mind to grasp, and things tend to spin a little before they come into focus. Our celebration was postponed until we stepped onto the flat ground back at Abbot Pass. We enjoyed the rare experience of having the hut entirely to ourselves, and then headed down from the pass in time to get a coffee at the lodge.


Built by the CPR in 1926, Lake O’Hara lodge sits on a small peninsula jutting out into the glacial blue waters of Lake O’Hara. Amongst its second story photo gallery, there is a panoramic photograph taken from the summit of Schaeffer Mountain circa 1912. Comparing the scenery in the photo to the present landscape one can truly grasp the extent to which the alpine landscape has changed in the past 100 years. When first climbed, the aptly named Glacier Peak was the just a small rocky point poking through a thick blanket of ice. Thinner winter snow-packs and sunnier summers since then have changed the nature of the mountain, and within 10 years visitors may wonder to what the name refers.


As the remaining winter snow began to melt away, I headed out to climb Cathedral Mountain. This is one of the easier summits to climb in the area, and yet has all the flavour of a large, alpine objective. The Cathedral Glacier must be crossed, and has several gaping crevasses hidden beneath snow until late summer. The glacier sits in a basin cradled by several rocky towers, known as the Cathedral Crags.


I had been keeping my eye on a storm to north of us that had been staying out of our neighborhood up until now. As we began chopping a flat platform out of the glacier for out tent, I noticed that nearby President Peak had been swallowed by the storm, and the closer Vice-President was disappearing rapidly. We had barely pulled the tent out of the stuff-sack when it began to hail. We put it up in record time, but not before being enveloped by a strong convective storm that seemed to have its energy focused directly on our campsite. Sitting exposed on a glacier at over 3000 metres, we were more than a little concerned with how the odds of us being struck by lightening were quickly become considerable. We jammed our ice-axes in place of tent-pegs, placed our packs inside the tent and headed down a small rib on the glacier to separate ourselves from our metal gear. The debate over the conductivity of aluminum tent poles and pack frames ended abruptly when a lightening bolt struck so close I could see the bolt diffuse into little balls and disappear. I half expected to be thrown by the force of the thunder, but only my ears felt the impact. Unsure of our best option, we moved further down the glacier, away from the rocky towers, and used the rib of snow as shelter.

For the next 15 minutes we huddled together and watched as bolts of lightening provided the only reference in the complete whiteout. We looked at each other’s steel crampons wearily, knowing it was too dangerous to remove them on the icy glacier. By the time the storm moved on past us, all of the rocky towers had been struck and years had been trimmed off of our lives. I couldn’t help but think of the people down at Lake O’Hara who knew we were on the mountain, which would have been completely enshrouded in an electric blanket for the previous 20 minutes. I wished I could reassure them of our safety. The sky cleared to a brilliant blue that evening and we were treated to a beautiful morning on the summit.


The weather remained so beautiful that afternoon, that after a brief rest back at the lake, I gathered my energy and a new climbing partner and made the three hour trek back up to Abbot Pass. We reached the hut as the mountains around us took on the breathtaking oranges and reds of the setting sun, a much-loved phenomenon known as Alpenglow. We went to sleep shortly after the sunset and woke by 4:00 a.m. to ensure that we were the first people heading up the classic south ridge of Mount Victoria. Fourth class scrambling with some tricky route finding takes you to the summit ridge, which is then traveled for several kilometers to reach the south summit at 3453m. The ridge itself is knife-edged for much of the way, with Lake Louise seemingly a stones throw to the east, and Lake O’Hara to the west. From the summit, it is possible to see Mount Assiniboine to the south, as well as the peaks of the Bugaboo Spires and Rogers Pass to the west. The wilderness to the north is truly stunning, with the spine of the Rockies running north all the way to Jasper, and including the immense Wapta, Freshfield, Clemenceau, and Columbia Icefields. One thing I couldn’t shake however was that the route I had climbed a little more than a month earlier on Mount Lefroy was now completely clear of snow. Where glaciers sprawled 100 years ago, only thin layers of ice in the shady gullies remain.



Over the four months I spent at Lake O’Hara last summer, it felt as though I gradually fell into the routine of the mountains. Waking early feeling crisp and fresh, climbing onto the ridges with the sun. I knew that with the warmth of the sun, the mountains would begin shedding their layers of loose rock just as I would begin shedding my extra layers of clothing. With the crash of the first few falling rocks of the day, I would begin to grow nervous until I was safely back in the valley, under the blanket of the forest, or soaking my legs in the icy alpine lakes. Although on several occasions falling rocks were a little close for comfort, I never felt as though the mountain was trying to shake me off. It is simply the nature of alpine landscapes, they fall apart until they are once again in equilibrium with the forces of gravity. Unfortunately, if you like the aesthetic affect of alpine glaciers, they do not appear to be in equilibrium. Of course, as a longtime mountain guide at Lake O’Hara put it, if we need 50 years of cold, wet summers to bring the glaciers back, I’m not sure I’m interested. I’d rather be climbing.


For further Information:

To contact Ben Ferrel: benferrel@gmail.com
Yoho National park: http://www.pc.gc.ca/eng/pn-np/bc/yoho/activ/activ15/a.aspx
Lake O'Hara Lodge: http://www.lakeohara.com
Accomodation & Camping: http://www.lakeohara.com/contact-us/