Climbing Mount Athabasca with Cloud Nine Guides - Conditions Report for June 1st 2018.

 

 

Howdy!

 

Thanks for bumping over to check out the conditions report from our first Guided Ascent of the 2018 Season on Mount Athabasca. Looks like we might as well set up shop at the Icefields this summer, as this ascent has been one of the most booked trips for us this season - we'll do our best to keep you in the loop on conditions as the season progresses along with our ascents. We've included 3 parts to the post; 1) Current Conditions 2) Observing Others Ascents of the Peak 3) Trip Photos. The first, an objective account of the current climbing conditions from our ascent. The second, some light commentary on other ascents on the peak yesterday and some wild stuff, associated risk, communication and thoughts for safe ascents of your own. The following is passed on from IFMGA Mountain Guide Mike Trehearne and his observations during the climb. A big congratulations to Andre on his successful ascent yesterday - a beautiful day to be up high at the Icefields!
 

Current Conditions

 

The Forecast:

 

Prior to the ascent the forecast had freezing levels at ~2500m and temps as low as 2˚C at the parking lot at 5am. Partly cloudy skies and the previous days precipitation was meant to be tapering early in the evening prior to our climbing day. Looked like good potential for overnight recovery (a good freeze), and tapering precip - solid green light to give it a go. The weather models showed that temps would likely bring freezing levels up to 2900m by 1200 noon, important as it would likely dictate if we could cross The Ramp feature on descent, or default to the AA Col as an alternate.

 

Conditions:

 

Our intent was to take a run at the North Face Bypass, but gave it a miss on account of cloud cover and an inability see the condition of the iceface leading to the North Ridge. Along with consideration related to pace, timing and expected daytime warming, it wasn't in the card for us unfortunately. In the end we defered to an ascent of The Ramp Route; where conditions were excellent on ascent, but highly depandant on a good overnight freeze/recovery in the snowpack (if you've been considering an ascent with our Guides now would be an excellent time to book your trip). We arrived in the parking lot at 3am - which in hindsight felt late. Given the warming that materialized I would have prefered to have been there at 2am with an extra hour to work with on the peak at mid-day. The thermometer in the truck at 3am read 2˚C which seemed to coincide with the forecast and if anything was a little cooler than anticipated given we were expecting the colder hours of the day to come between 5-6am. Variable elevation cloud layers put us in and out of the fog between 3am and 8am. Thankfully, the cloud layers seemed to sink into the valley bottom as we rolled up to the junction between the Ramp and the Silverhorn routes. Snow travel was an option from the top of the lateral moraines that lead initially from the parking lot. Travel generally good, and carried body weight easily when frozen. 10-15cm's of new snow from the summit down to ~2850m, felt dry and unaffected by the wind on the ascent. The exception being the summit ridge, which held isolated pockets of very soft windslab that seemed for the most part to be unreactive. Windslab depth to ~50cm at most. We summited at 9:30am and were back at the top of the ramp by 11:00am. For us this presented a decision point - descend The Ramp or the more conservative option of the AA Col. The Ramp, holding 10cm of new snow overtop a well frozen crust, which supported our weight well on ascent. Potential loose dry avalanche activity as we crossed The Ramp was a concern, however at 3am there seemed to be limited inputs for natural triggering, and wasn't likely we were going to trigger anything ourselves. On the descent however, solar inputs were high and the temperature rising rapidly, there was a question as to whether the snow had moistened enough to change the avalanche problem/type to loose wet, and whether inputs were enough for natural triggering (from above us) as we descended. Temps on the upper elevation corner of the ramp right below the AA Col were -1˚C at 11:30am, with heavy solar input. Although it was a bit touch and go we felt if we didn't waste any time, we could hustle back down The Ramp before seeing any natual avalanche activity. In my estimation The Ramp was out by 12:00 noon. Regardless we did see another 5 climbers/skiers descend it, with a variety of missadventure on the way (see below). As we descended the glacier below The Ramp, we ran into moist snow at 2800m, and by the time we reached the base of the glacier we were pulling temps of +6˚C with very intense solar radiation and had lost carrying strength in the crust. Loose wet avalanches were now running consistently on E-SE aspects with a few triggered on The Ramp itself. If you're willing to start early enough and wait for solid freeze / overnight recovery - the peak is in great shape for ascents right now!

 

The Light Commentary

 

Yesterday on the peak, it was challenging to feel good about our own program watching a variety of what I personally might consider to be poor decisions being made on the mountain. I don't offer the following to be a form of judgement of the actions of others. I remember what the learning curve for myself early on and I for certain made have made many if not all of the same mistakes in the past. The observations are provided to prod the reader's thought processes on what to be thinking about on ascents of the peak currently.

 

Warming + Avalanche Hazard

In yesterday's ascent you could describe the upper snowpack as 10-15cm's of fresh, dry, powder like snow, overlaying a very well frozen crust. That crust would present as a low fricton sliding or bed surface that would allow moving snow on top of it to gain speed quickly if triggered. There was no sign as we ascended that there had been any avalanche activity related to the new snow. The wind hadn't affected it, and with the exception of very isolated pockets of soft windslab in the immediate lee of ridgecrests at summit level, the hazard rating would have been what I considered to be low. Our focus on ascent was on a potential loose dry avalanche problem (if any at all) in the early and cold hours of the morning. Thoughts however were fast-forwarding to what the snow would be like on the descent. As temperatures rise and solar inputs increase, this new snow would start to settle and moisten. This would likely shift the avalanche problem from loose dry to loose wet and increase the probability of both natural and human triggering. Loose wet avalanches are better lubricated due to increased free water content, travel futher as they're better lubricated and have more mass generally making it harder to stand your ground if impacted. Loose type avalanches can be of lower concern, but given that The Ramp Route traverse takes a person directly over what is probably an 80m tall serac, it would likely be an unpleasant scenario if a roped up party were caught and flushed over the ice cliffs below.

 

We summited Athabasca at 9:45am and spent about 30mins on the summit taking photos and watching the valley clouds roll in an out around the peaks. Descending to The Ramp, we arrived at it's upper end at 11:20am passing a group of 4 skiers who had just arrived in the AA Col. A couple quick hello's and we carried on down. Andre and I had discussed there would be a decision point before we commited to descending the ramp. We hoped to have the option of coming down the North side of the mountain as it's a shorter trip, but we had meaningful concern about whether the snow has moistened and potential for natually triggered (never mind human triggered) has increased. In discussion, we considered the now strong solar inputs, and quickly rising air temp. Thermometer read 0˚C at the start of The Ramp descent just below the AA Col. The snow underfoot still felt dry, but knowing that would change as we lost elevation left the decision a bit fuzzy. Over a number of ascents spanning the last 10 years or so, I've used an adjacent slope as an indicator of the snow stability to The Ramp when having to manage warming and solar inputs. This indicator slope faces more directly into the sun and often begins to produce loose wet avalanches before the terrain on The Ramp does - if there's avalanches running on this feature, I've found that often The Ramp isn't far behind and I've found it really usefull in the decision to flirt with the The Ramp or not. See photos below.

 

Best guess was that we were right on the cusp a descent being reasonable. As we started down another party of three on skis turned the ramp on their way up. We menitoned the temperature being at 0˚C, and our observations of the warming to which they responded the snow was indeed moistening below confirming a likely change in avalanche character. They expressed their intent to continue upward to the summit, and to then ski a line directly over the shoulder of The Ramp below the Silverhorn as oppoesed to retracing The Ramp's ascent line. This would place them (potentially) right over another party on descent with both a bergschrund and seracts below. As we began to walk away I was second guessing my understanding of their plan and stopped to clarify - I wasn't sure I clearly understood what they were going to do, and if they elected to ski in right over top of us, had quite nervous we'd be wiped off the ramp. It was also mildly concerning that if they themsleves triggered anything, that they would have been carried down over the same bergschrund and then eventually down over the seracs below the ramp. Not an impossible line for strong skiers with good decision making ability, and ability to manage and ski around this type of avalanche problem, but definitley making a real healthy step out there with a lot of very high consequence, steep, open, planar terrain to manage given the conditions, as well as potentially coming in blind on top of another group.

 

We moved quickly downward despite our uptrack having been removed as the ski tourers had used it for their up track. What we'd hoped would be secure boot top steps, allowing for faster travel downward, were gone and the travel a more time consuming. We were down and off The Ramp in about 15 minutes - thankfully. Reaching the lower glacier the indicator slopes to the skiers left of The Ramp were now consistently shedding the new snow in loose wet avalanches to size 1.5 running as far as the terrain would allow them to.  As we neared the bottom of the glacier, looking back we saw the group of two now beginning a descent on The Ramp. As they worked over the steepest sections they began to trigger multiple loose wet avalanches as they progressed downwards. Debris flowing downward becomming airborn as it shot over the serac bands below. With each one triggered, the leader would fall into the snow and slide with the debris a few meters off the uptrack. Enter the next ski touring party, thankfully they elected not to ski in over the shoulder as they would have almost certainly been in a position to impact the two climbers below. None the less they skied in behind them to add another 3 to the mix in the middle of The Ramp. We waited another half an hour watching as the party of two finally managed to clear the ramp, having triggered 3 loose wet avalanches, up to size 1.5 along the way.  

 

Some thoughts based on our experiences:

  • If a team has gone to the effort of building an up-track on their ascent, perhaps consider whether they might intend or hope to use it on the descent. In the case of The Ramp, having secure footing built on the way up and available to use on the descent allows teams to maintain longer spacing on the rope, protecting more effectively against crevasse hazard. It also allows a faster pace going down which works to minimizing the exposure to the overhead hazard through faster pacing.
     
  • Consider the position of the other teams on the mountain. Endeavour to communicate your plan clearly to others and get a sense of the plan of the other groups around you. Don't descend on top of other groups if at all possible. It was uncertain whether this was going to happen yesterday, was expressed by one group as their intent, but mercifully didn't materialize. 
     
  • Start early. It was interesting to me as one of the party members we passed made mention of the fact that we were the "3am crowd", as they were casually rolling up The Ramp in the full heat of the morning. Try to maintain the discipline to get up and off the peak before it warms up, which means having a solid understanding of the hour by hour forecast for your day out, as well as the willingness if the warming comes sooner, to back off and run away.
     
  • Consider alternate descent options. On Athabasca, the AA Col serves as a good back up option if The Ramp is too far gone. Know how to get down it, and the specific issues it's likely to require be managed.
     
  • Carry your pack everywhere. In my experience, I've rarely needed the emergency equipment I carry to manage an emergency within my/our groups. Many times I've needed it to respond to incidents that have taken place around me and in other parties. Had I not had it, there are number of those incidents where the outcome would have been a fatality. 
     
  • If you're triggering avalanches - you're missing something. Spend some time considering what that might be, and consider how your decision making needs to adjust in the future. Better yet take an AST 1 or AST 2 Course from a liscensed provider. There's lot's of good options out there, us included.

Again, the thoughts above come from somebody who has definitely made every mistake outlined in this post. If the commentary seems direct, it comes for a very sincere hope that others can learn from this Guides mistakes and the observations from our ascent and those around us yesterday. Unfortunatley, there still exists to a certain extent a culture in of shaming others for their mistakes in the mountains in certain sub-groups of our community. As far as what we believe at Cloud Nine, we really strive to quash that and while perhaps we start the discussion, sincerely hope it stays productive and inclusive. Critical self-reflection out there likely will only help all of us make better choices down the road.

 

Feedback on this post or any of our others is always welcome - you can reach me at mike@cloudnineguides.com 

 

In the words of one of my favorite mentors...

 

"let's go out there and under-achieve"

 

All the best for a safe summer in the hills and hope to see you out there on a summit or two this season.

 

Mike Trehearne
IFMGA Mountain Guide - Director of Operations
Cloud Nine Guides Inc.