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Summer Camp 2004

Mt. Alexandra

by Mark Lane
Photos by Bill Marriott



Between July 31 and August 7, 2004, 18 members of the Calgary Section of the Alpine Club of Canada camped at Mt. Alexandra for a week of mountaineering. This was Week 2 of three weeks of the annual Section Camp. It and the previous six Camps were organized by Bill Marriott, whose hard work and commitment have always paid off handsomely for me and many other ACC members. The following is a report of Week 2's activities.

The morning of Saturday July 31, 2004 in Golden, B.C. was warm with a promise of higher temperatures later in the day. This produced the classic mountaineer's dilemma: to be thankful for the good weather or to be concerned about the resulting snow melt. For the climbers gathering in a parking lot the solution was equally classic: enjoy the crevasses, the disappearing snow bridges and the newly exposed ice slopes and narrow ridges as only mountaineers can.

Eventually all 18 climbers arrived: Sandy, Carrie, Deborah, Gabrielle, Alan, Bill, Dale, Dar, Gordon, Mark, Mike, Peter, Scott, Stan, Stephen, Tim, Tom F., and Tom H. It was apparent that we would be a cohesive group in spite of an age range of over 45 years, diverse personalities, and varied experiences. This was good news for Sandy, our Camp Manager, who quickly gathered us into vehicles and led us up the logging road to the helicopter staging area.

The road was in excellent shape and passage was impeded only by dust, a moose, a black bear and my car muffler's untimely escape into the ditch. We were soon parked at our destination and began the "hurry up and wait" for the helicopter. This was broken as a Bell 407 helicopter thundered up the valley and landed mere meters from our cars, triggering the adrenaline rush that marks the real beginning of the camp. Don, our pilot from Alpine Helicopters, gave us a safety lecture then we loaded the helicopter and took off for camp. Five flights later our group and gear were all in camp. It was nestled in a cirque bordered on the north and east by a 400 meter high headwall complete with waterfalls, to the south by the glaciers and seracs of Whiterose Mountain, and to the west by gentle slopes of flowers, alpine meadows, and forest. This area clearly offered trips for everybody and every mood: wildflower photography hikes, knife-edge ridge climbs, glacier travel, ice climbing, and scrambling.

After we erected our tents and stowed our food and gear, Sandy introduced us to the "The Book," her compilation of everything we needed to know for the camp. It reflected her management style - prepared, precise, and comprehensive - and proved very effective even for mountaineers, a notoriously independent group. Excitement levels were high in anticipation of the next day's climbs and we went to bed soon after a crevasse rescue practice led by Dale.

The weather continued hot and clear over the next few days, prompting many to put up Alpine ascents of Mt. Alexandra, Rose-Petal and Mt. Spring Rice. The route descriptions given by the previous week's climbers were already outdated by the rapidly melting snow. Snow slopes had become ice climbs, easy snow walks had become mazes through crevasse fields, and hidden bergshrunds had become exposed holes with soft snow bridges.

Mt. Spring-Rice proved a major attraction on Monday with three teams making the ascent. A couple of leaders adopted a high-speed approach, hoping that the team would hold if they went into a crevasse. The third was more conservative, using an avalanche probe to avoid the crevasses and marveling at the holes the others had unknowingly walked over. A truly spectacular view from the summit included the Columbia Icefields, Mt. Bryce, and the Lyells.

Monday also saw a major improvement in the standard route east of camp. This required crossing a creek, usually via a log which straddled its banks. I waded the creek that morning and was rewarded with calls of support from other climbers. Apparently I wasn't the only one who disliked this log. As others lined up for their turn at the log, a call rang out, "Boots coming downstream!" A scramble ensued as everyone grabbed for a pair of mountaineering boots floating by. Gabrielle was the heroine, saving both the boots and the day. A climber had attempted to toss his boots across the stream in preparation of wading it, and came up short. Inspired by this near-tragedy, Deborah, Stan, and Peter flattened the top of the log with a mattock, greatly increasing the safety of those crossing it. Deborah also ran her first Yoga class on Monday. This either limbered-up or stiffened-up her students, depending on their flexibility. It and subsequent classes proved popular and were embraced by many over the next few days.

Throughout Tuesday the weather cooled and rain was forecast so a group went to the forest and returned with a pair of poles to transform Dale's tarp into a group rain shelter. Erecting the shelter proved a wise decision as it got extensive use later in the week. While this was underway a hummingbird flew into the cooking tent, looked around, then casually flew away. Meanwhile, Dar and Tom H. were making the group's first traverse of Mt. Whiterose. The easy snow walk of the previous week had become a narrow, exposed ice ridge and the rappel stations were plagued by loose rock and high winds. Dar summed it up for those planning the trip later in the week, "You'll need all your mountaineering skills." Other climbers focused on routes closer to camp. One group found a knife-edged rock ridge on Rose-Petal. Alan was thrilled, as only a rock hound can be, to be able to look down both sides of the ridge simultaneously.

Wednesday brought our first solid indication of the inclement weather to come, with an hour of heavy rain in the early afternoon. Peter, undaunted by this, lugged a twenty pound rock back to camp. He discovered it while on a photography hike and explained that it was a gift for his wife to use in their garden.

Although Thursday's weather forecast included afternoon thundershowers, two groups headed for the Whiterose traverse and one for the rock ridge of Queen's Peak. Others went after shorter routes such as Rose-Petal or the Osprey-Whirlwind Col, both of which offered a fantastic view into the valley west of camp. This held several small glaciers, each with a unique character: one appeared to have been frozen instantaneously from a foaming torrent while that next to it was smooth and placid.

All groups but that on Queen's Peak were either back in camp, or close to it when the bad weather hit. Tension rose in camp when Alan called on the radio for a weather report, then asked that the camp radio be left on. Although from camp we could see thunderstorms rapidly approaching, those on the mountain couldn't. They were high on the ridge with nowhere to go when the storm hit and huddled together in the rain and wind while lightning struck all around them. Meanwhile back at camp all we could see was fog, rain and lightning. It wasn't until several hours later that the tension was partially relieved by Alan's voice crackling over the radio, "We're okay. We're heading down." They did make it back safely, but not until about one o'clock in the morning, giving them a long 21-hour day.

The storm cleared overnight but rain and fog returned early Friday afternoon. Fortunately everyone was back in camp before the rain set in solidly, and it became a day for swapping stories and sorting gear. The fog and rain continued intermittently through Friday night and into Saturday, threatening our helicopter flight out. We bided our time with a marathon game of Trivial Pursuit while receiving occasional reports via satellite phone of the helicopter's lack of progress. About three hours after our scheduled flight time, Sandy was finally able to give Don a favourable weather report. He said he would attempt to reach us so we quickly struck and packed our soggy tents. Shortly afterwards we were relieved to hear the buzzing of Don's helicopter as it popped out of the fog and landed in camp.

After regrouping at the staging area, we drove to Golden for a farewell supper, then split up and headed for home. My final memory of the end of another successful Section Camp will be the roar of my un-muffled car heading home through the night.