2015 Saskatchewan Section Mountaineering Camp
Stanley Mitchell Hut, Yoho National Park, British Columbia
July 19 25, 2015
Written by: Brandon Tendeck
Since I was young, I always had a profound fascination and love the mountains. Their beauty, size and remoteness captivated me. Driving through the Rockies as kid and seeing the hanging glaciers and spin drift coming off the snowy peaks made me wonder what it would be like to be standing up there. The idea of going to a place where few people have been was an interesting and oddly romantic idea.
I joined the Saskatchewan section of Alpine Club of Canada in late 2013. I met a lot of amazing people and new friends. Who would have thought Saskatchewan had such a large group of passionate people who climbed and played in the mountains? In the summer 2015, I had my first opportunity to go on a week long mountaineering section trip. This would be my first time doing any sort of general mountaineering. I was so excited for this
opportunity I signed up immediately when registration opened months before the trip would happen in late July. I didn’t care if I couldn’t get time off work, this was happening.
Day 1. The morning of July 19 in the parking lot of Takakkaw Falls in Yoho National Park was cool and clear. A group of roughly 20 people from different parts of Saskatchewan (and a few from Alberta) were checking over their packs and prepping for the 8km hike to the Stanley Mitchell hut nestled in Little Yoho Valley. Some of us knew each other from previous trips while others were complete strangers. Our trip leaders got everyone together for one
final check over and briefed us on what the week would entail. Then we were off. Into the wilderness with backpacks full of gear and food to last a week to a place with no text messages, work emails, or social media. Perfect.
The pleasant 3 hour hike to the Stanley Mitchell hut takes you on well maintained trail that gradually climbs 520m through the pines forest, passing the odd waterfall and up to the hut at 2,060m above sea level. The hut is a cozy two storey log cabin that sits at the foot of Whaleback Mountain and in the shadows of the President range. The hut has a fully stocked kitchen, wood stove, propane lighting, a separate bedroom and a loft upstairs. The hut sleeps 20 to 26 people, depending on the season. This would be a great place to come back to after a day of climbing.
The hut gave us access to an array of mountains that surrounded the valley. The President (3,138m) was our group’s main objective with a possible go at the Vice President (3,066m) if conditions were favorable. Previous attempts of the President by our section years prior had been thwarted by poor conditions and a stubborn cornice that hung between the col of the two peaks. Other objectives we had access to and were within our groups skill level included
Mt. Kerr, Mt. Pollinger, Mt. McArthur, Isolated Peak, and Whaleback Mountain.
Day 2 was a training day. The group headed up to Kiwetinok Pass where a large snow drift acted as our classroom. We were taught technical skills like setting up a Tslot belay and how to perform a crevasse rescue. Unsuspecting backpacks were tied to the end ropes and thrown over the edge of the snow drift and our job was to create a 6to1 pulley system and rescue the bags from their demise. About an hour into the training, the weather began to
turn sour and our group had to retreat to the trees. This is where we had learned the nickname of the notorious Mt. Kerr; Mt. Curse. Every time someone in our section sets foot near Kerr, bad weather seemed to appear out of nowhere. Throughout the week, whenever bad weather rolled in, we all suspected some climber was attempting Kerr. That evening everyone was divided into two teams. The team I was a part of would be attempting The
President tomorrow and the other team, who dubbed themselves “Team Awesome”, would attempt Isolated Peak.
3:30am. The team climbing The President were up and prepping for their climb. The team set out in the dark of night and hiked to the toe of the glacier that lies between The President and The Vice President.
At the toe of the glacier, the sun started to poke out behind the distant mountains revealing the bluebird sky. We strapped on our crampons, took out our ice axes, tied into our rope teams and began to switchback up the steep ice. For many in our group, this was a new and exciting experience. To be walking a river of ice while surrounded by massive cracks that could swallow a bus was like nothing I had ever experienced before. As the sun rose higher
into the sky, the ice began to settle making haunting creaking sounds. Out on the glacier surrounded by huge mountains and below a massive sky you start to get a sense of how small and insignificant you are. This place is the definition of awe.
Meanwhile with their later start in the day, Team Awesome was beginning to climb the McArthur glacier across the valley. The McArthur glacier surrounds almost all sides of Isolated Peak. The less physically demanding but longer and more technical way to reach the summit is to climb the glacier, do a big loop around Isolated Peak while navigate the maze of cravasses, and do an easy scramble to the summit. There is a scrambling route up Isolated Peak to bypass the glacier but it was ruled out to be too dangerous with a large group of climbers. At one point on the traverse of the glacier you stand higher than the summit of Isolated Peak and look down on the peak you’re going to top out on.
“They look like little black specs tied together from here” someone on my rope team pointed out. We were at the top of the glacier about to cross the ice bridge over the bergschrund. A bergschrund is a crack created as the moving ice of the glacier moves away from stationary ice fixed to the side of the mountain creating a massive hole. Luckily, a cornice collapsed off the col earlier in the season filling part of the bergschrund creating a crossable ice bridge
which got us all safely onto the col. On the col, we had a rest and began to prep for our final push to the summit.
After about a half hour scramble we reached the false summit. The true summit was a snowy patch to the left of us on the false summit and about 10m above us. Going straight from the false summit to the true summit was too risky this day due to some icy patches and a dangerous run out. To reach the summit we had to climb down a few metres, traverse a ridge below the summit and approach the summit from the other side. We made it. 3,138 m above sea level. The bright blue sky and the thin air surrounds us making for some spectacular views. A hand full of distant giants towered above the surround peaks: Mt. Temple and Hector to the east, Mt. Goodsir to the south, and Mt. Forbes to the North. After several photos and sips of high quality scotch we began our descent back to the col, down
the now slushy glacier and back to the hut all before lunch.
Around the time that we reached the summit of The President, the other group had successfully reached the summit of Isolated Peak. Both groups arrived back at the hut nearly the same time. Stories and laughs were shared for the rest of the day. Tomorrow it was Team Awesome’s turn to attempt The President and our turn to climb Isolated Peak.
Our group left the hut at around 6am. The morning in the valley was partially cloudy but calm. Team Awesome left to climb The President a couple hours earlier. By now, they would be near the toe of the glacier about to start their ascent up the glacier. Our day began with a pleasant hike through an alpine meadow to the toe of the McArthur glacier.
An hour of hiking had passed and we arrived at the toe of the McArthur glacier. We had a look to see the progress of the team on The President and saw they had just made it to the col. “They’re making really good time”, someone mentioned.
To the west, dark low clouds began to loom into valley. The peaks to the west of The President began to disappear into the clouds. This wasn’t looking good for Team Awesome’s push for the summit. Our group began to gear up to head out onto the McArthur glacier when a dark cloud came over the ridge to the west of us bringing a bitter cold wind. As the temperature dropped rapidly, it began to snow. In the distance we could hear a low rumble of thunder. This was that last place you’d want to be during a thunderstorm. As the sky darkened around the valley, the leaders in our group radioed Team Awesome with updates about weather that would have been hidden from their point of view. The thunder got louder and more frequent. All of a sudden right above where Team Awesome was standing on the col was a flash of lightning followed by an instantaneous crack of thunder. With that our leaders pulled the plug on reaching the summit of Isolated Peak and we began to retreat to the safety of the tree line. The team on The President did the same. Their retreat was a much longer decent and involved crossing the bergschrund and descending a glacier while the thunderstorm was above their heads. As we descended, we could see their rope teams
quickly moving down the glacier to the safety of the trees as thunder boomed around the valley. Team Awesome had earned their name.
Both teams arrived safely back at the hut in the pouring rain about an hour apart. We shared stories of the storm around the fire over hot drinks. This is the first time I had ever experienced a thunder-snow storm. In the middle of July nevertheless. That was a hard lesson on how volatile mountain weather is. Once the weather cleared up later that afternoon, a small group of restless scramblers decided to go take on Mt. Curse Kerr. Feeling full of life, I joined this group. I didn’t know it at the time but Kerr would give me a hard lesson of my own.
We reached Kiwetinok Pass, the same place we had our crevasse rescue lesson days earlier and began the ascent up Mt Kerr. The ascent is fairly straightforward. the majority of the climb is up scree and large dinner plate like rocks with a few spots where using your hands is beneficial. As usual, as soon as we touched the mountain the weather began to turn sour. It began to rain and a wind came up over the ridge. After a few minutes the rain turned into small ice pellets. I don’t know if you’ve ever held onto boulders while climbing the side of a mountain while it’s hailing sideways but the term “type II fun” comes to mind. The group as nearing the summit when all of a sudden my body decided it had enough. Physically and mentally I crashed. A combination of dehydration, spent glycogen reserves, and the mental stress caused by the weather finished my ascent. I waited on the false summit with a friend who wanted to stay back sipping water and sucking down an energy gel as the rest of the team went the last hundred metres to the true summit. About half hour later when the group returned I had the spring back in my step again and we began our descent in the rain. Back at the hut the stress of the day and dehydration caught up with me and I
crashed. The mountain had taught me lesson the hard way that I need to slow down and take care of myself before anything else.
Day 5 was a hut day for me. The two teams joined forces and headed out to cross the McArthur Glacier to climb Mt. McArthur. At the summit of McArthur the two groups would split. One group would come back down Mt. McArthur and return to the hut while the other group would continue from the summit of Mt. McArthur and traverse to Mt. Pollinger. The traverse between the peaks is relatively simple. The only crux is a climb up a short vertical wall. From the summit of Pollinger, the group would precariously descend large boulders to Kiwetinok Lake from the col between Mt. Pollinger and Mt. Kiwetinok. Once at the lake, the group would hike back to the hut from the lake.
Day 6 was redemption day. Those who were chased off The President and Isolated Peak by the thunder-snow could go make their second attempt. Another group would also be doing the scramble and traverse on Whaleback Mountain. I wanted to climb Isolated Peak. The group climbing The President, a smaller version of Team Awesome, woke up earlier than they did on their first attempt. Team Awesome was out of the hut by 3:00am. They had a
mission. They weren’t going to let a little snow and lightning stop them this time. My group was a little less intense; we left the hut at 6:00 am and hiked over to McArthur glacier. The McArthur glacier is relatively flat with a few steep sections that we had to climb to get to the base of Isolated Peak where we would scramble to the summit. Crossing metre wide ice bridges over massive black cracks in the transition zones on the glacier, the points where the glacier bends over cliffs and around mountains, made for some excitement. After about an hour on the glacier we made it to the base of Isolated Peak. We took off our crampons, had a quick snack and began our scramble up to the peak. The scramble was fairly easy and gave a nice mix of terrain. The majority was hiking up diner plate size scree with the odd spot with some hand over hand climbing was needed. Within a half hour we stood on the summit of Isolated Peak. We cracked open a small bottle of scotch and enjoyed the view. We had a spectacular view of Yoho Peak, Mont des Poilus, des Poilus glacier and the massive cirque it resides in. We all were watching the right place when massive serac fell off the toe of the des Poilus glacier into a tarn below creating a huge wave. The immense power of this dramatic display echoed through the valley. After signing the summit registry we began our descent down to the glacier and back down to the hut before noon.
Team Awesome also had success this day. They reached the summit of The President with no sign of Thunder-snow. The snow and rain from days prior about 6” of fresh snow on the col and summit. All groups made it to the summits of their objectives this day. This was a happy day for all.
That evening everyone reminisced about the week of adventure. This had been a truly amazing week for all. The next morning we packed all of gear into our backpacks, cleaned the hut and made our way down to the parking lot where the daily grind, traffic and deadlines await. The hike was oddly quiet and everyone had a look of humble satisfaction and fatigue on their faces. I reflected on what we all did this week. Our trip leaders kept everyone healthy and safe. They were the ones who had to make the difficult decisions to make sure everyone made it home for supper. It takes a strong individual with years of experience in the mountains to assess a situation and turn a whole group around when the risks become too great. For that, I am grateful. I can safely speak on everyone’s behalf by saying thank
you for making this trip possible and keeping us all safe. We made it back to the parking lot in no time. A case of beer was cracked open as everyone celebrated.
The finale came with a quote by the late Alex Lowe “The best climber in the world is the one who’s having the most fun”. With that we all staked into our cars with muddy gear and went their own separate ways. Each of us leaving in some way with a greater respect and understanding of ourselves, our new friends and the mountains.