Mark Smiley: Oh The North Face, Aye

Words and Images: Mark Smiley, Sterling Team Athlete Sep 8th 2015
Mark Smiley on the North Face
  • Mark Smiley
  • Sterling Team Athlete

“Oh the North Face aye, that’s a pretty hard route, and it is not in good climbing condition now,” the gear shop employee said with a hint of who-are-you-and-do-you-have-the-search-and-rescue-number-on-speed-dail. It was 2010, our project’s first year. Janelle and I had just climbed Mt Rainier’s Liberty Ridge, Liberty Bell, Mt Shuksan, Mt Sir Donald, Mt Slesse and Mt Temple in about a month. We were hot with successful summits and it felt like we couldn’t be stopped. That is, until we drove up to the tourist lookout at the base of Mt Edith Cavell located 15 miles (25 km) south of Jasper, Alberta.

The 5000 foot (1524 m) North Face loomed over us. Its diagonal rock and ice bands, stacked one on top of the other all the way to its broad summit, at 11,033 ft (3,363 m), were scary looking. We were intimidated. The gear store employee’s remarks, and Internet trip reports did nothing to help our stoke level.

The Timetable:

4 hrs: Car to Angel Glacier bivy sites, route finding in the dark
12 hrs: Angel Glacier to the Summit
7.75 hrs: Summit to car, which includes 1 hour of non-productive descending

It’s difficult to find route beta that made us all excited to jump on it. Reports of avalanches, loose rock, unprotectable shale strata bands, bad weather, cold temps and constant rock fall where common place to others’ experiences. When combining these factors with the local’s look of hesitation, we got scared off. We chalked it up to “not being in good climbing condition” and headed south for lower hanging classic climbing fruit.

The next year, 2011, we were in the area, driving south from the Lotus Flower Tower. We pretty much just kept driving, as the mountain was again reported to be “not in good condition to climb”. The following year, 2012, we were able to successfully climb Mt Alberta and Mt Robson, both of which are in the neighborhood. Edith Cavell was next, but we were exhausted from those stressful climbs. We were therefore relieved to hear that a massive serac from the Angel Glacier had broken off, and crashed into the alpine lake at its base. This caused a tidal wave that took out both the parking lot and a couple pit toilets. Thankfully, no one was hurt as it happened in the middle of the night. But the access road was now closed. We drove south yet again, having not even touched the mountain.

It was easy to notice a trend…the North Face of Mt Edith Cavell is never in perfect climbing condition. If it’s dry, the rock fall hazard spikes. If it’s snowy, the avalanche hazard spikes. Heck, a tidal wave can hit you. And it’s always cold. I concluded that in order to climb this bad boy, we would simply have to go for it. We would rely on our skill, judgment, and past experience to navigate any hazards the mountain threw at us. This is a mindset known as alpine climbing.

Our strategy would be snatch and grab. Fly in, climb, fly out. So we started watching the weather online, and blocked off chunks of time we could make it happen. The first two blocks of time in May and September pasted with crappy forecasts. October 3-6 was our final block of time. On Friday October 2, I picked up Janelle from a weeklong retreat and training seminar. [She is training to be a personal development coach. You can hire her to help navigate life’s obstacles and make positive changes]. I greeted her with a big hug and kiss and said, “it looks good, so we should fly tomorrow.” That night we purchased tickets, and the following afternoon we were driving a rental car towards Jasper National Park. It was crazy. [Saturday afternoon is great time to fly, as we got non-stop round trip tickets from San Francisco to Edmonton for $409 each].

The forecast predicted two clear days, Sunday and Monday. On Sunday we hiked part of the semi-technical approach, and went to bed around 8PM. The alarm went off at oh-dark-thirty Monday morning, and we drove to the trailhead. Having come straight from climbing in Yosemite the previous week, we jokingly wondered how many people would be queued up at the base of the route. Ten minutes out of the parking lot we stopped to shed our jackets. Lights from behind me caught my eye. Was that glow from the lights of Jasper? No, it was Northern Lights! We watched in amazement as the greens, muted yellows, and even reds dances across the sky. It was surreal, especially as this was my first time seeing them.

While picking our way up the 4th and 5th class approach we might of gotten a bit off route. It turned into 5.6 climbing pretty quickly on snowy rock. Climbing by headlamp, in mountaineering boots and a pack with verglass got my heart pumping a few times, but we eventually made it up to the Angel Glacier. The alpine glow was touching the top of the mountain and the walls of the amphitheater that circled the glacier. This is a special time for any alpine endeavor. Getting up so early is always hard, but being up for sights like this makes it worth it.

  • Angel Glacier
  • Mark Smiley

Crossing the Angel was straightforward, breaking trail through boot-top deep powder. That was about where the simple terrain ended and things got steep. Much of the lower third of the mountain had a slope angle of roughly 40°-50°ish, and four inches of powder on top of mostly supportable old snow. This made travel quick, so we simal-climbed. There were a few rock chokes where the snow covered the rock but was unfortunately not supportable. One ice tool would be hooking on a rock edge and the other would gain a positive ice placement. Same with the crampons, one on rock the other on thin ice. Janelle was out front and took us through the first two near vertical rock chokes. I took over and continued to sniff out the route up through the bands. We knew the snow band that crosses the entire face was a good waypoint to get into the more serious climbing out on the main central buttress. Up left, up right, or traverse right then up? Tough sayin’ not knowin’. I choose poorly and got to climb a bonus 170-foot (50m) pitch of 5.6 climbing covered in snow and ice. I do not know mixed climbing grades very well, but I would guess it was in the M1-M10 range. Climbers actually skilled at mixed climbing would make short work of this bush league level climbing. I on the other hand took my time.

Three factors kept me moving slow and deliberate. One, the pro was thin and the rock was broken. All the cracks were filled with snow and ice or simply not present. This required some unnerving runouts and it took FOR-EV-VER to build legit anchors. Two, I had not packed our proper ice climbing tools. Instead we had two CAMP aluminum axes (Corsa and Corsa) and two Petzl Sum’tec. These CAMP axes are great for ski mountaineering or glacier slogging, but not designed for the terrain we were on. The leader used one Sum’Tec and the Corsa, so at least they had two steal pick tips. I don’t know why I didn’t pack the CAMP X-Mountains and Cobras when I was loading the van for this extended road trip in back September. I underestimated the terrain we would be getting on I guess. And third, this was my first time mixed climbing since Mooses Tooth in May. Talk about getting the rust off. All that to say, these next three pitches were tedious.

Every pick placement was tested, every foot placement second-guessed, every useful edge excavated. Swing, pull, grimace, kick, kick again, place front point on quarter inch edge, move up, breath, excavate another snow patch, and look for a crack to fill with a cam or stopper. This was the routine. I had to pause a few times to shake out the screaming barfies. I hate the screaming barfies. It is definitely the worst part of any winter climbing adventure.

Janelle was not thrilled about the hazards, but hung in there. She was bummed that the icy conditions were outside of her self-preservation comfort bubble. Pulling up to the first belay she teared up a bit, saying, “sorry babe, but I’m not going to be able to swing leads on this part.”

“I know, I wouldn’t want you to. This is dicey. You want to keep going up?”

“Yep…I definitely don’t want to try to rap down from here.”

“Me neither…let’s keep moving.”

Unfortunately, the belays did not provide too much protection from the ice, snow, and rock I inevitably knocked down. So Janelle resorted to putting her pack over her head like a shield, Wonder Woman style. Now, come to think of it, I don’t know how she did that and gave me a proper belay? Thankfully, I did not fall and she did not get hit with anything too big.

The weather was bluebird and the air temp was manageable, even in the full shade of this Canadian North Face as we carried on. The alpine lake below got smaller and smaller. After three rope-stretcher pitches of crazy steep climbing the slope angle mellowed from vertical to only near vertical. Janelle got back on the sharp end through this terrain that was 90% steep snow and 10% near vertical rock. We were still a couple thousand feet from the top and the sun was well on its way to the horizon. The unrelenting technical slopes went on forever, but we kept pushing.

ice climber on the North Face

We transitioned back to simal-climbing for the final 1000 feet (300m) with Janelle out in front. Yvon Chouinard’s 1961 first ascent report warned about the scary shale strata band just below the summit. He had to paw through choss to gain the summit ridge lip with no protection for 80 feet (23m). With the snowy conditions we did not have to climb through choss, but did have to negotiate very steep snow. Janelle placed pieces in the rock outcroppings where possible, but they were few and far between. Two full rope lengths below the summit ridge I came to the last cam and unclipped it. From there on, with Janelle 200 feet (60 m) above me, nothing held the rope to the mountain other than our crampons and ice axes. The 5000 feet of exposure below felt even heavier. Right below the summit ridge the slope angle went from 60° to about 75°. All I could do was watch and pray as Janelle dug a vertical trough through the snow. As she dug in and stepped up her helmet knocked into the snow above her. It was steep. Thankfully, she was able to place a screw in marginal ice, the first and only of the climb. This, of course, gave us a slightly elevated sense of security. Ten minutes of trench digging and fighting this very difficult section allowed her to crest the ridge and move out of view. Looking out I scanned the entire Canadian Rocky Mountain range in beautiful evening light. My wife had just pushed through her fear boundaries on a serious north face…totally awesome. A minute later I felt the rope go snug, that comforting I-am-now-on-a-real-belay type of snug. I plunged up through her foot buckets and we were on top together. It was surreal. Just two days prior we were in California getting sun burnt, to now on the top of a classic Canadian 11,000er in October. But the celebration was brief on the true summit, as we needed to maximize the distance we could travel down the West Ridge before we had to get out the headlamps.

The descent was lame. So long down the West Ridge. It took about eight hours. Only 45 minutes of that were spent stationary. First, down the rocky ridge. Then down thousands of feet of loose scree and talus, and finally wrapping around Edith Cavell’s large sister peak to the road. The final 1.2 miles (2 km) back to the parking lot is along the paved access road. With no roots to trip over, we turned off the headlamps and walked by the sliver of moonlight. The steep North Face loomed over us again, the same as it had in 2010. Walking in the dark directly towards the face, looking at what we just climbed, it was like getting an alpine victory lap. Now the view came with a true sense of accomplishment. We had successfully scaled its steep bands safely even though it was far from being in, “good condition for climbing.”

It was 3AM when we got back to the car. Our feet were shot, we were exhausted, but the adventure wasn’t over. We still had to get back to Edmonton to jump on a plane by noon. We raced back to the airport using the thrill of success, and a healthy dose of caffeine, to keep us going. Fifty classic climb #46 is now complete.

4 hrs - car to Angel Glacier bivy sites, route finding in the dark.
12 hrs - Angel Glacier to the Summit
7.75 hrs - summit to car, which includes 1 hour of non-productive descending (resting and route finding) down the West Ridge, and a 2km walk back up the road. The East Ridge is the way to go in summer conditions. The West Ridge is not a simple mindless walk off, especially in the dark. East Ridge is reported to be technical, but I think totally worth avoiding the long long slog/scramble down the West.

2 x Sterling Photon 7.8mm 60m ropes (one single rope would be fine, but we thought we might have to bail, so brought two ropes), BD C3 000-2, BD C4 .3-#2, BD stoppers #4 - #8, and the 4 biggest BD micro offset nuts, 4 alpine draws, 4 quickdraws, 4 over the shoulder slings, steel crampons, technical tools, tethers, one 16cm ice screw (placed once), no pickets, MSR Windburner stove, MHG flat tarp, satellite phone, 40 oz of water each, eight 150 calorie snacks each, three pair of Arc’Teryx gloves, Gore-Tex layers, the best Arc’Teryx clothing in the world, helmet, headlamp, and courage.

Scout the approach to Angel Glacier in daylight, maybe leaving a fixed rope where it would help. Climbing the route with bivy gear would be lame. But if you decide to bivy on Angel Glacier, I would consider climbing back up after the climb to recover the gear…but that might be stupid.

Always more at Smiley's Project.