A Week at the Neil Colgan Hut - 3 Summits via the West Ridge & Chouinard Route

Spent this last week running trips from the Neil Colgan Hut. I've always liked guiding up there as the trip is usually a first for most of our guests when it comes to technical climbing in the alpine, and it's cool to see people all jacked up on what they've been able to accomplish as they work through the technical difficulties of the approach and the peaks above.

 

The first trip was with two lads from Bonneyville, Alberta who I'd met last summer at the Icefields Campground in the midst of making dinner. Out with another local guiding operation, Brian unfortunately didn't have any luck on Athabasca on that attempt, and the guys wanting to stand on top together, very kindly hired us for round 2 later that summer. We went back and blew the doors off the North Face Bypass - the toughest route on the peak.

 

The brothers have some lofty goals for the not so distant future (7 Summits, European Peaks, The South Pole) and the goal has been to get them trained up in a variety of different terrain types to get prepped for the coming international trips. The Neil Colgan was an ideal place for a lot of firsts, so we planned to spend 3 days up at the hut climbing in the surrounding peaks. The first day, we approached via the Perren Route which in itself ended up being one of the biggest cruxes of the trip with the guys turning up the volume on the crux 5th class alpine rock pitches that access the glacier. The second day we were up early to the best freeze of the summer and cruised up and down the West Ridge of Mount Fay in great style. And on the third and last day we tagged the top of Mount Little with a sky full of black and looming cloud before booking it back down to the hut for 2nd breakfast.

 

Technical, pitched climbing and shortroping techniques as well as climbing on steep snow were something we'd only briefly touched on last summer and this trip let us iron out the systems for the guys which will no doubt be a big asset down the road. The learning had paid off, as on the morning of our last day Brian and I flew up the 4th class rock sections in only an hour to the summit, and Mark was pumped to get the chance to check out more alpine rock objectives.

 

Another great trip with the Fieger boys, and I'm super pumped for our next big mission in December... more to come on that soon.

 


 

Barret and Christian and I have done a fair bit together now, and despite the fact that Christian had already been up to the hut he'd never been up Mount Fay. After a bit of chit chat earlier in the week, we were able to get ourselves a reservation at the hut and got sorted to head up this past Friday... Both these guys have climbed a lot of steep ice in the winters past, Barret climbed his first WI5 pitch this past winter, and Christian... well I don't know where he get's his mojo, but Christian always seems to be fast and strong.

 

We approached much the same as I'd done the week prior, only this time we got rained on, on the crux pitch and climbed the traverse pitch above the chain soaking wet! Since my first trip to Mount Fay (about 10 years ago), the huge alpine ice feature, the Chouinard Route has always held my attention up there, and for most of the recent past it looked completely nuts to be thinking about climbing up underneath the severely overhanging serac. I remember numerous conversations about the feature that went along the lines of "if that thing ever comes off, I bet it'll hit Moraine Lake" ...or... "have you seen that cornice, it's a triple!" Needless to say, the time has never really felt right to give it a try - let alone think about guiding it!

 

This last trip with Brian and Mark, gave me the chance to really look hard at the features en route, and I started to look at it like it might be possible to do with the right guests and still maintain a reasonable margin of safety for the team. As we approached via the Perren, crossing the glacier to the hut, and as we climbed the west ridge the following day it gave me the views I needed to make the call, and I thought I'd offer it up as a suggestion for Barret and Christian for the following trip. 

 

Summit day, Christian and I were up early (Barret after a string of shitty sleeps that week decided to take the day off and sleep in at the hut), and after the usual breaky and caffination were crampons on moving across the glacier toward the base of the Chouinard for a look. The first crux I was sure we were going to have to deal with was the bergschrund. This monster crevasse sits at the base of the route and in itself could have shut us down with out a second thought. 99% of the schrund' was an overhanging wall of snow and ice about 6-8 meters tall. The time it would take to work over something like that wasn't reasonable given it put us in arguably the worst spot possible in terms of exposure to the serac ice and cornice above. The problem with longer exposure times means there's a greater chance you can be affected by the problematic features overhead. The only real way to safeguard yourself from the avalanche risk while in the bottom of this giant hole in the mountain, is to move like your possessed.

 

So as we approached the schrund' the mountain served us up a little gift. A small cone of loose, wet avalanche debris, rising up from the bottom of the giant crevasse formed a pint sized pedestal that came just short of the snow face above. Climbing to the top was easy, but the heart was pumping pulling on to the overhanging and completely unsupported snow on the other side. I belayed Christian across and we then hit the gas climbing the snow face above as fast as we possibly could.

 

When we finally hit the serac, the line with the least exposure seemed to climb near the right hand margin of the ice, so we climbed 6 pitches from here with ice up to 90˚, and a bit of easy mixed climbing before popping out on the snow slopes just below the summit plateau. I'd known the cornice was big, but big doesn't exactly qualify when your standing right beside that thing. If you put three of my houses side by each, you might get close to how big this thing was. I was really happy Christian was capable of climbing as fast as he did. The pressure was off and we took our time climbing the last few pitches to the top... with me very nearly falling into a giant crevasse on the last pitch. I popped over the top and built a quick T-Slot snow anchor and belayed Christian up into the sunshine on the top, both super pumped to have climbed the line we did. A leisurely break on the summit and descent down the West Ridge put us back at the hut about 8 hours after we'd started to catch up with Barret.

 

The following day Christian and I again saddled up and had a run at Mount Little... literally. We decided to pair down everything we could and basically ended up climbing the peak with only the rope and a couple carabiners between us. 25 minutes after leaving the hut we were standing on the summit. Back down to pick up Barret and for a quick snack at the hut and then reversed the Perren Route back to Moraine Lake (in 4.5hours) where we were putting drinks overhead and saluting another good trip in the hills.

 

 

Mike & C9G's