White-Out at Neil Colgan Hut
Our particular route via the Schiesser Ledges to the Alpine Club of Canada's Neil Colgan Hut - Canada's highest, permanent habitable structure - had turned from a scramble into a low-grade climb. And I was a novice mountaineer quickly flying past my zone of comfort.
The rope pulled. My body steadied. My husband uttered a few calm words. Our guide, Barry, had secured the rope so I only actually swung slightly. Deep breath. Find another hold. Pull hard. Take a second breath. Heave up. Step over. Find a niche. Climb on.
Big snow flakes had transformed the mountainside into an adventure waterpark. My pack, weighing nearly half of my body weight, tugged downwards. Clouds, fog and snow hovered from behind. Ahead, rock taunted me with rough yet slippery shards. My husband, guide and I climbed along the jagged scar of the mountain face that seemed to slice through the duelling domains of cloud and crag.
Although a scramble on a dry day, our route had transformed into a low-grade climb with today's foul conditions.
White blankets filled the space around us. A cloak of mist obscured the golden larches that covered the lower valley. Peaks melded into thick clouds, swirling with a daunting grey tinge. From the west, a darkening gloom floated nearer.
We were a third of the way into what turned out to be more than a ten hour climb from the Moraine Lake parking lot to the Neil Colgan Hut in Banff National Park. Under normal conditions, this route should have taken about six hours. Winter's first snowfall proved temperamental, flaring its displeasure with gusty wind, sloppy snow, crystals of ice that flung at our faces and the odd flash of calm that shifted with each twist of the weather's mood. My husband and I were comforted that our guide had seen much worse. Barry Blanchard is rather a legend in the alpine world with multiple first ascents, feature films (Vertical Ascent, Cliffhanger and others) and an award-winning book. We were in capable hands.
Tentacles of misty white peeled over the surrounding peaks. Slushy snow had turned dull rock into a mélange of shiny splotches and fluffy patches. Winds cooled the air. Our layers of clothing muted the chill.
Seven hours had passed. An occasional rock exposed its blackened edge. Calf-deep snow covered most of the ground. At times, I sunk to my knees. The mountainside to my right tumbled into nothingness. Our poles poked in search of earth or rock, unseen from the white blanket that spilled around us. At times, pellets of snow sliced through the air. Later, the wind took over in its barrage. We continued higher. A moment of calm. Barry checked the GPS. The trail was buried beneath snow, our destination obscured by cloud.
After nine hours, we reached a field of white. The glacier merged into a sky of the same colour. We roped up and followed Barry through fresh, knee-deep snow as he systematically probed for concealed crevasses.
Halfway across the glacier, Barry pointed to the hut. I only saw white space. I imagined we must have looked like three specs on an frosted tarp. Then for a moment, a tiny box came into view high in the distance. Just as quickly, it disappeared behind a veil of cloud.
As we crossed the final col that led down to the Neil Colgan Hut, winds swung at us with icy claws stronger than anything we had felt further below. The blizzard had settled in and fought a good fight. It quarrelled throughout the night and battled the next day.
Besides regularly shovelling a pathway to the outhouse, we spent the following day hunkered inside, reading an out-of-date Economist left by some kindly climber and futilely urging blue skies to reveal themselves.
After two nights, we left our refuge. We roped up and cautiously stepped into thigh-deep snow, once again following our guide as he poled in search of newly-hidden crevasses. A vaguely visible ridge angled to my right. From the glacier, we followed the Perren Route. Its direct descent ushered us down 1,067 metres to Moraine Lake. Unexpectedly, repelling ten to twenty metre sections of vertical, icy rock was far more appealing than our initial climb. Just lean back. Trust the equipment. Feed rope into your belay device and glide down.
Ultimately, this trip was a success. Conditions were tough. My comfort zone was pushed more than I had anticipated. But, our guide was experienced. He found anchors hidden in snow, dodged crevasses concealed with fresh powder and ensured the ropes held us securely. Thank you Barry - I wish you endless cups of steaming coffee in the days to come.
Make Your Own Trip:
Yamnuska Mountain Adventures holds decades of experience in the Canadian Rockies.
The legendary Barry Blanchard taught us to climb glacier ice, belayed us up rocky ledges, repelled us down sheer cliffs and ultimately brought us safely home.
*Note: We have been on two other group programs with Yamnuska Adventures and all of their guides have been exceptional, namely Paul Chiddle and Cherring Sherpa.
Two days advancing our skills at the Columbia Icefield
Three days mountaineering around the Valley of the Ten Peaks, Banff National Park
HI Hilda Creek Wilderness Hostel near the Columbia Icefield
Alpine Club of Canada's Neil Colgan Hut, sitting at 2,955 metres on a col between Mount Little and Mount Bowlen
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