A few of us in the Golden area have thought about this ski line for a long time. It’s the glacier you look up at as you drive the TransCanada East of Field.
I had a good long look at the North Glacier when I was skiing out of Stanley Mitchell Hut the other day. I took some photos and zoomed in on the computer, piecing the line together. I had taken a closer look on April 13th, skiing up towards Cathedral while I was skiing (I believe) a first descent on the West aspect of Cathedral: The Pearl Necklace, a fantastic run in itself. (See attached photo of Cathedral.)
The following day, Braz and I made plans to ski something since conditions had set up so perfectly in the Rockies. We approached Stephen’s North Glacier via the main gut from the tracks, just east of Field. The lower slopes had a perfect ski crampon start.
We easily negotiated through the guts to the entrance of the face. Braz and I left the ski crampons behind and frontpointed our way through the narrow, water-warn canyon. That’s where we encountered the first real crux, a vertical, polished 15-metre mix pitch on solid quartzite rock.
I would give it an M5/6(ish) grade. This pitch proved to be pretty damn difficult. First a # 3 Camalot was used at the belay to keep the Braz and I secured to the mountain. I scratched and sniffed my way up finding a pretty good #1 Camalot.
I climbed above it and realized I needed the initial #3 to continue up the pitch. Braz hooked the Cam on my ice tool and I placed it in the slight flair crack, which I thought looked really good. After a short self-coaxing session, I continued above the #3 and scratched out onto the slab aiming for the miracle ice blob (see photo). I missed the blob on the first attempt and ended up ripping the #3 out and softly planting on the snow cone below, right beside The Braz.
“Good thing for your cat-like reflexes, Simms,” he says to me.
It was such a soft catch (or landing), whatever you want to call it.
I says to him: “Well Braz, there’s no time like the present.”
And back up I went.
I reset the #3 again in a slightly different spot. It looked good and I continued past it, actually holding onto it with my left hand, left ice tool placed on my shoulder. I could just barely tack my right tool onto the Miracle Ice Blob.
Crampons skating around, I managed to commit to the Blob and mantel it out. That miraculous blob at the top of the pitch gave us a “Rite of Passage” into the rest of the line. I suppose this mixed pitch may ice up on a bigger/wetter snow year providing easier access to the upper glacier.
It took about 45 minutes to establish a pin belay to bring the Braz up. For any parties that may attempt this line in the future, the pin belay is up on the right wall. We hung the rock gear there, knowing we wouldn’t need it higher up.
Continuing up the water-worn couloir, the angle backs off quite substantially at the toe of the upper glacier. We could then skin, rope on, to the first of a series of glacier cruxes.
We put the crampons back on for those sections, and a short 5-meter blue ice section was negotiated with dual tools. And next a series of 3 different cruxes on the right side presented themselves. Luckily, we knew what was coming from having checked out the zoomed-in photos the night before.
Through this section, we continued as a rope team, negotiating the sluffed in ‘shrunds/crevasses and wild glacier features wherever and however it made sense. Once we pieced this section together, we felt it was in the bag.
Skins back on to the base of the final 800 foot, 45-50 degree headwall to the ridge, which we bootpacked with crampons and a tool.
It was a beautiful evening on top. Our ascent ended on the top of Stephen via the south side.
Descending the North Glacier, we retraced our line of ascent. Any other style of attempting to ski this line would not be a good choice due to the maze of potential hazards.
The upper face skied fantastic: boot top pow, lots of jump-turning and sluff management, all while looking 6000 feet straight down to the Trans Canada highway!
We continued the descent through the ice cruxes. And we kept referencing the boot pack, making sure not to make a wrong turn.
We took to carving, buttering and straight-lining the ice features and chokes depending on what the situation called for. This section was really cool.
“Keep your speed over the ‘shrund sags!”
The water-worn canyon was probably the ski crux of the route. With constricting sections only 1 metre wide, it would be much easier on a short snowboard. We had to do a bunch of small straight lines with speed dumps to the mandatory rappel.
Good times nonetheless.
We gathered our rock gear, rapped the mixed section and continued down with more narrow canyoneering until we came out at the entrance to the Canyon.
This was a truly special day. I feel very grateful to have had this experience. Thanks to the Rockies for being calm for a change, Mount Stephen for being there and to the Braz for being my favourite partner in the mountains, along with JR of course.
But he moved to Calgary…
And here’s a list of the gear they used:
1 technical tool
1 Mountain work tool (56cm)
Camalots .5-#3. Single set
Pitons. Lost arrow, knife blade for rap station
7.7mm 60 m dry rope
Glacier travel kit