Mount Sir Donald - Northwest Ridge, August 2004
Immediately following our foreshortened visit to The Bugaboos and the subsequent Yoho/Banff Park side-excursion, Eric and I found ourselves motoring west on the Trans-Canada highway. We headed to Rogers Pass located within Glacier National Park. Expecting to scale Mount Sir Donald's classic Northwest Ridge the following day, we hoped the climb would be the grand finale to our first Canadian Rockies trip. Rising abruptly about 6300 feet from the pass, Mount Sir Donald appears as a massive blade of rock thrust up into the sky. Evoking "we're climbing THAT?!" emotions, Sir Donald is probably the crowning glory of Glacier NP, BC's Selkirk Mountains and is also home to one of North America's "Fifty Classic Climbs".
When we arrived, the Rogers Pass Visitors Center, located next to the Best Western, was already closed (closes at 4pm). Nevertheless, the visitor's center is well worth a visit for those not familiar with the area. Aside from registering with the park service, obtaining alpine camping permits and route beta (particularly the newly bolted rappel route), one can browse the various exhibits that showcase the local flora and fauna, and also learn of the pass' colorful history. Not only was Rogers Pass Canada's first serious alpine climbing destination (pioneered by Swiss guides), but, by 1885 it was also the first (and only?) long-sought major rail route forged through the Selkirk Mountains. Competing directly with other east - west rail passages farther south in Washington and California, Rogers Pass was the critical lifeblood linking Canada's West Coast ports to the interior. Notorious for avalanches, grizzly bears, and rotten weather, Rogers Pass is still a very wild and remote place.
With our Parks Canada permit still good for a few days, we pulled into the Illecillewaet Campground just beyond the pass and parked near the information booth.The campground was apparently full, but wanting to fully embrace what The Alpine Club of Canada (ACC) has to offer, we decided to spend the night in another fabulous ACC hut - in this case, the Wheeler Hut. Set behind a stand of trees a short walk from where we were parked, the hut lacks the luxuries of the The Bugaboos' Kain Hut, but is nonetheless probably the second best ACC/BCMC hut either one of us have seen to date. Bargaining the host down to $40CAD total for the night (we would end up staying the next night for free) we then proceeded to haul gear up from the car. Claiming our spots in the upstairs bunk first, Eric and I then decided to give the freeze-dried-fart-dust dinner a rest and drove back up to the Best Western for some real food. A full spread consisting of everything from Caesar Salad to roast beef sliced on the spot, not to mention the dessert, ensured our easy choice for the buffet...even the waitresses were something to look at! Things were going well for us, that is, as long as we ignored the thick clouds choking the valley. Braving mixed feelings about what the morning would bring, we returned to the hut and tried to get a few hours of sleep before our 5am wakeup call.
As expected, morning brought more cloud and drizzle. We slept in a bit and by 6:30 decided to grab some breakfast at the Best Western and figure out what to do with ourselves. Lo and behold, as we reached the pass, promising patches of blue began to appear. The clouds were lifting! We ate a hurried breakfast and raced back to the hut for our packs. Moments later, we were charging up the Sir Donald trail. Initially flat and easy, the trail pitches up steeply as it climbs into the upper basin below Sir Donald's West Face. Leading to established camp sites, a newer trail traverses left beneath slabby waterfalls (look for cairns) and avoids the discouraged moraine trail which we took. Portions of the Northwest Ridge were now breaking out of the clouds, and we saw a party of two climbing up the lower third of the route. A party of three was also climbing Uto Peak. We reached the Uto - Sir Donald Col in about two hours and started up the ridge by 11:00am (a bit late in hindsight). In the interest of time, we decided to simulclimb the entire route.
It didn't take long for the terrain to go from 3rd class to wildly exposed 5th class rock. Not placing any protection, I was moving quickly, but, sensed some hesitation in Eric. Merely a fraction of the way up, we finally stopped to assess the situation. For whatever reason, Eric just wasn't feeling himself and had reservations about continuing. Further justifying the decision to call it off, the party of solo climbers ahead of us apparently retreated about 200 feet below the summit, citing dangerously slick lichen that oozed water when stepped on. Acknowledging Eric's concerns and recalling a blurb in the guide book that specifically warned against climbing the notoriously lichen infested Sir Donald quartzite when wet; I reluctantly agreed to retreat myself. A couple rappels and some down-climbing saw us back to the sunny col. Stopped there for lunch, we were both in a somber mood and did our best to ignore each other.
I briefly considered making another go, starting early the following day, but, neither of us much cared for the estimated 8+ hour drive back home the same day as having climbed the peak. Nope, it was just not meant to be this time. With tails between our legs, we began descending back to the campground. Spending another night in the Wheeler Hut followed by another Best Western breakfast the next morning, we then loaded the Kia one final time for the long drive back to Seattle. Entering the US at the Lynden border crossing harassment free this time, allowed us to reach Seattle after 10+ hours of driving in the blistering heat. But wait, there's more!
Burning time between jobs, Agata was easily convinced to join me on a climb of the Northwest Ridge. Two weeks passed and we were again on our way to Roger's Pass. With air-conditioned comfort, the drive from Seattle via Kamloops and Revelstoke is really quite pleasant and relatively direct; it only took us 8 hours 15 minutes to reach the pass. This time, we stopped by the Visitors Center and registered with the park service. We were pleased to discover that since my last visit, two additional sets of rappel bolts have been added to the rappel route that now totaled 12 rappels. Though rain was forecast for Saturday, I figured we were in good shape considering we'd be hiking up to camp that Thursday and making the climb and heading out on Friday.
By 4pm we started hiking the Sir Donald trail. We met three parties returning from the Northwest Ridge...all were successful. Interestingly, however, we would be the only party attempting the route the following day. We set up the tent at the established sites below the col and went about the usual camp activities (no running water in late August). After dark, we stargazed for a while and pondered what was causing the irregular but constant flashing seemingly emanating from behind a distant ridge (Paul and I had a similar encounter when we climbed Snowfield Peak in 2002). My guess - lightning, though there weren't any clouds around...for now.
We awoke to clear skies that next morning, but, an ominous blackness loomed to the west. Sure enough, just as we were preparing to hike up to the col (~7:00am), the first drops of rain began to fall. Literally, within minutes, the rain pounded violently. A mad scramble to break down the tent and pack our gear was followed by a character-building trudge back down the trail. Damn you Sir Donald, and damn that Rockies' weather!
Changing into dry clothes, we jumped in the car and raced down from the soggy pass, the striking visage of Sir Donald taunting us in the rear view mirror. With fond memories of previous house boating vacations on Shuswap Lake, we decided to salvage what was left of the long weekend by car-camping near the beach (Herald Provincial Park), drinking, wakeboarding and spending way too much money on a Malibu ski boat rental. The monsoon rain caught up with us again the following afternoon with only 30 minutes left on our 4-hour rental. The prospect of having to endure another drenching in what was surely already a thoroughly soaked tent, made Agata and I finally throw in the towel. Loaded up on caffeine we drove back to her mom's N. Van home, arriving there around 1am.
I think we're done with The Donald for the season. Round three will have to wait till next July sometime...
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