August, 2003 Gain- 4700'+/- Summit- 11,452'+/- 8 Hours+/- Alpine II
Lat 52; 10; 52 Lon 117; 12; 17 - CLICK FOR TOPO MAP Mount Athabasca is one of the most popular objectives in the Canadian Rockies. Its quick access via the Columbia Icefield Parkway lends to its popularity no doubt. It is sandwiched between the Athabasca and Saskatchewan Glaciers on the border of Banff and Jasper National Parks. These are two of the four adjoining national parks that make up the central Canadian Rockies. Athabasca is the Cree Indian name for “where there are needs” and originally was referring to Lake Athabasca. It was named and first ascended by Norman Collie and Hermann Woolley in 1898.
Mount Athabasca, in its entirety, is above tree line. The main ascent for Mount Athabasca’s five routes is the Little A Glacier to the north (aka North Glacier). You can follow this glacier all the way to the summit (Alpine II) or climb an ice bulge closer to the summit known as the Silverhorn route (Alpine II) or head to the base of the north face which contains three Alpine III routes, Regular, Hourglass and North Ridge.
The Columbia Icefield is the largest in the Canadian Rockies and Mount Athabasca is only one of ten high Canadian peaks that encircle it (Stutfield Peak, North Twin Peak, South Twin Peak, Mount King Edward, Mount Columbia, Mount Bryce, Mount Andromeda, Snow Dome and Mount Kitchener). It covers over three hundred square kilometers and its depth varies from 100 to 365 meters.
Getting There The Trans-Canada Highway dissects Banff National Park east to west as you come in from Calgary. Continue past the Banff and Sunshine Ski Resort exits to Lake Louise. Exit onto the Icefields Parkway. Drive 130 kms+/- northwest to the Columbia Icefield Center. Turn left onto the shuttle road and continue to a small parking area and trail head on your left.
There is a park kiosk as you enter the Icefields Parkway which serves as a forced stop to check park driving permits which you should already have. The Icefields Parkway is probably the most “wildlife viewed” road in all of North America. I have witnessed moose and bear crossing the road in this area. I advise following the speed limit for that reason. We encountered a black bear crossing the parkway at Mosquito Creek in 2005.
Red Tape You will be required to purchase a national park pass as you enter the parks via Banff, Jasper or Rocky Mountain House. This pass is good for all four national parks. If you plan many visits to Canadian National Parks within one year, you should purchase an annual pass. There are no permit requirements to climb in the National Parks, but all camping is regulated. There is also a backcountry permit required if you plan on spending a night in the backcountry versus the town campsites. This can be obtained via the parks website which is included in the camping section below. Park headquarters are located in Banff and Jasper and you will drive through the manned kiosks as you enter the parks from any direction.
When To Climb As with most climbs in the Canadian Rockies, the driest time is from June through September. I climbed Mount Athabasca in August and it was in relatively dry condition. Most of the existing crevases at lower elevations were in plain view. There are no published backcountry ski routes up Mount Athabasca.
Camping The closest camping is located back east a kilometer at the Columbia Icefield Campground located on the north side off of the Columbia Icefields Parkway. You can go on line at Jasper National Park to pick your camp site and obtain your camping permit. You will also be required to obtain your backcountry permit, if you are going to use a backcountry site, which is separate, but can be obtained simultaneously.
Mountain Conditions The National Park website has weather, wildlife reports, trail closures, etc. Outside of the parks web site, Canadian Avalanche Association is also useful, particularly for winter travel. Canadian Alpine Accident Reports is also extremely relevant. There are 21 accident reports relating specifically to climbing Mount Athabasca, therefore, caution is advised.
Route-Silverhorn This is a 4700'+/- ascent day. We took off on the trailhead at 5:00 AM and used lamps for about 2000' up rocky moraine to an entry point on the glacier (there was a bivy site at this location). No sooner had we roped up on the glacier than we got pelted with a hard rain. Zero visibility lay ahead on the summit. However, we made the decision to proceed and within 30 minutes, things lightened up.
Little A glacier was in good shape. Crevasses presented themselves in the open and the snow bridges appeared solid. There are less objectionable hazards dealing with the more strenuous 900'+/- of ice on Silverhorn than the North Glacier hump below the ice seracs. You clear the col right below Silverhorn and then proceed straight up the main rib to the right. Once on the Silverhorn summit, it is just a ridge walk to the main summit. We did descend the North Glacier route, but moved quickly. There was one fresh ice fall on the route. It does not take long to cross though. The main glacier route itself is straight forward as long as you have decent visibility. It took us less than 5 hours to summit, and 2.5 hours to descend. You have great views of Mount Kitchener, Snow Dome, Nigel Peak (which I climbed one week prior) and Mount Saskatchewan.
Crux- Advise taking 2 axes or tools for this route and of course move quickly whenever under the seracs. Don't underestimate how cold it can be on this summit. It is exposed.
CLICK TO ENLARGE PHOTOS 1. Mount Athabasca: North Face Routes to the Left, Silverhorn in the center and North Glacier to the right of Silverhorn. 2. Looking back to the Columbia Icefield Pkwy 3. The summit ridge above Silverhorn 4. Zoom view from Tangle Ridge 5. From the summit of Tangle Ridge, Wilcox in the foreground, Athabasca and Andromeda 6. Silverhorn Route on Approach 7. View from the summit of Nigel Peak