After two and a half years of planning, researching, and one failed attempt, we finally made it to Canada's highest primary confluence (3,080m) on August 14, 2008. And what a view!
Since our failed attempt last year Chris had been obsessing compulsively about finding a way up the seemingly invincible Mt Amery. Shortly after last year's attempt he had a stroke of luck, stumbling upon an article in the 1995 version of the Canadian Alpine Journal (page 97) which actually described a new route up to the summit of the mountain. (The old route having been climbed by the mountain's namesake Leopold Amery back in 1929. We've still been unable to determine how Mr. Amery climbed the mountain and what the “old route” actually was. We did learn that Leopold Amery wasn't just any old politician, we was a noted outdoorsman and even served as the president of UK's alpine club from 1943-1945) This new route was promised by the author, Jason Thompson, as “an easy, enjoyable ascent, as long as you don't mind river wading, bushwhacking, and boulder stumbling!” Easy it wasn't, but he was definitely accurate on the other fronts.
We once again asked Seth to join us on the trip, but unfortunately due to the fact that he was employed, he was unable to come. (Score one for the unemployed bums.) Mitch Dion, a confluence enthusiast who had been first to several confluences in Japan was also keen to come, but unfortunately he too has a job. We had been hoping to wait for a weekend so all could come, but the weather forecast was just too good to pass up. 0% chance of rain, and highs in the 20's. This is extremely important, as this confluence is located on an icefield, with an ascent that requires dry conditions. We had been up the valley approaching the confluence on a reconnaissance mission the week before, and got drenched on the way down. (This despite only a 20% chance of rain, evidencing the volatile weather of the Canadian Rockies.) So Brendan and Chris made the tough decision to go mid-week without our enthusiastic confluence hunting friends.
So we started off from Calgary at 6am on Wednesday, August 13th. As usual, Brendan drove as he still does not trust Chris's car after it left them stranded on the highway 8 years ago after a day of ice climbing. After a quick stop at the Lake Louise visitor's centre to pick up our backcountry permits, and fill out our safety registration, we parked the car at the Mt Saskatchewan/Mt Amery look-out, and started inflating our dinghy, much to the bewilderment of passing tourists. We also noted that Parks Canada had incorrectly labelled both Mt Amery and Arctomys Creek on the tourist information sign board of the viewpoint, which our trusty Gemtrek map informed us of. We left the car at 10:48am, loaded our packs into the dinghy, and waded through the waist deep, bone chilling, nut numbing water of the North Saskatchewan. In retrospect, the dinghy was not really necessary, although it was nice to have on the other side in case water levels rose while we were away. It also made it safer and easier as we did not have to stumble across with 50 pound packs on our backs, and it guaranteed our packs and boots would stay dry.
We then crossed what are known as the Graveyard Flats, which consist of about 4 smaller channels and met up with the (unnamed) creek draining the south slopes of Mt Amery at 52.05520°N 116.90050°W. We essentially followed the creek, working our way as high as possible on the south side, trying in vain to find an easy route through the bush, always keeping the creek within earshot. We will warn you now that there is no easy route through this bush. You will never want to see another tree, bush, shrub or even a piece of grass once you have carried a 50 pound pack up this valley.
We arrived at the beautiful, yet unnamed lake which marks the half-way point at about 2:48pm. This lake is less than 3 kilometres from the road which meant our progress through the bush was far less than 1 km per hour. The second half of the trip to the campsite is slightly less grueling, and involves slightly more boulder stumbling than bushwhacking, and we finally arrived at the lone tree campsite described in Thompson's 1995 account at about 5pm. This campsite is wonderful, with a tree to hang your food in, two creeks producing delicious glacier fresh water which we drank directly from the stream, and a massive 20 metre high terminal moraine to block the wind. It also contains the world's largest population of mosquitoes. We set up camp, and headed up over the moraine to see the rest of the valley and scout out our route for the following day. Luckily we had the foresight to bring Thompson's 1995 article with us, which included a great picture of the start of the route. We easily spotted this from the top of the long lateral moraine that extends to the head of the valley, and then sat there and just enjoyed the impressive yet menacing scenery all around us. Similar to the valley we went up last year, this valley is surrounded on all sides by vertical walls hundreds of metres high, topped by thick hanging glaciers. The only crack in Amery's armour being one small, but continuous gully that leads to scree slopes above on the south face. We returned before we required a blood transfusion due to the mosquitoes, built a fire, ate dinner and went to bed, only to be kept awake by a cute yet persistent pika, who for some reason had an interest in Chris's pack.
We woke up at 3:15am the next day, in the hopes of somehow getting to the confluence before our agreed upon turnaround time of 2pm. We noticed it was really warm, and was likely no colder than 10 degrees, despite our elevation of 1849m. We left camp shortly before 4am, and stumbled our way across moraines, and the creek toward the lower south slopes of Amery. The lower slopes are gentle scree, and caused no issues ascending in the dark. We arrived at the bottom of our gully at around 6am, although we had taken a few long breaks on the way in the hopes that it would get a little lighter as we needed to match up the gully to the picture on Thompson's write-up. We quickly ascended this gully, which is mostly just full of loose scree, with several small rock steps along the way, arriving at the top of the gully (52.02893°N 116.96095°W) at around 7am. Thompson's party had then traversed left across to a hanging valley, however, Brendan decided to explore up on the ridge to the right. After 10 minutes of climbing, it appeared this route lead continuously to where we needed to be, however, he chose to return and take the known route described by Thompson. It might be interesting for another party to explore this route more fully, as it would likely be quicker than the route we took.
We traversed across scree slopes until we reached the hanging valley, which is located between two large buttresses. This valley looks somewhat like a large staircase, with many steps about 2 or 3 metres high, some of which are unclimbable. To avoid the larger steps, we stuck to the right side of the valley, and climbed a rock chute that had been carved out by water. This provided solid climbing, although we were slightly worried about going down it. We eventually exited on to a ledge that led left which got us past most of the large steps in the valley and we were able to continue up without much trouble. We continued up a second scree slope, working our way from right to left, and eventually going over the shoulder above the large buttress. After going over the shoulder we were now able to see the summit of Amery. We continued to scramble up another steep scree gully bordered on the left by a small snow field several metres wide and about 20 metres in length, and finally reached the summit icefield around 10:15am.
At the icefield we pulled out our harness, crampons and rope and started on our way. We chose to head to the saddle which is directly south of Amery's summit. We actually decided to avoid the summit all together and hoped to bag it on the way back if we had time. Unfortunately it was so warm that the snow had not completely frozen and we started post-holing up to our thighs into the snow. Luckily after about 20 metres or so the snow hardened up so that we were only sinking ankle deep, and we were able to make it to the saddle without completely exhausting ourselves.
Upon arriving at the saddle we were VERY happy to see that the remaining trek to the confluence consisted of a seemingly easy stroll down along a rocky ridge, followed by a short jaunt across a reasonably flat ice field. We figured it would take another two hours to reach the confluence, which was now less than 5 km away, and was also below us as this was the trip's highest point. This would prove to be a pretty accurate estimate. We walked several kilometres along the rocky ridge, which gave us some great views down into the Amery Creek valley we had climbed the year before. We arrived at the icefield, strapped on our crampons a second time, and trekked the remaining 1.6 km to the confluence over softening, and sometimes thigh deep snow. Our turnaround time of 2PM was getting closer and closer, so we went all out across this last icefield since we did not want to come back a third time. We finally arrived at the confluence at 1:20PM, but were unable to exchange any high fives, as the confluence was conveniently located near a crevasse so we had to keep the rope tight while walking around. Chris spent 10 minutes trying to take a picture of his GPS in the glaring sun, while Brendan admired the incredible 360 degree views, which included the majestic Mt Forbes dominating the skyline to the south, the nearby Mt Hooge (which isn't really a mountain, but is only a 100 meters from the confluence), Monchy Mountain and Mt Willerval just a few kilometres along the ridge, Mt Saskatchewan and the Columbia icefields across the valley to the north, and countless others. The entire area is covered in massive glaciers, making this far and away one of the most impressive views we have ever seen. This has to be the most stunning confluence in Canada!
We spent several minutes enjoying the views, and also spent some time figuring out if it would be possible to approach this thing from any other route. We determined that this would be almost impossible, given the steep cliff bands topped by hanging glaciers on almost all sides other than our approach. After about 30 minutes we picked up our ice axes and headed back the way we came. The return along the ice fields was a lot faster as we could follow our footsteps, however, the climb back up to the saddle south of the summit of Amery was much longer, as we had descended a couple of hundred metres, and were now completely exhausted after hiking for 10 hours to the confluence. Upon arriving at the saddle the summit of Amery was literally 100 metres above us, and it felt like we could almost touch it, however, we were running short on time and energy, and as it was only a secondary goal we made the smart decision and continued down. It would have been nice to sign our names on the register left by Thompson, and see who else had been up there, but maybe another time. (Although not any time soon...) On the way back along the Amery icefield we noticed that several small avalanches had occurred on steeper slopes during the afternoon. It was now probably 25 degrees even at our elevation of 3,000 metres, and the snow was melting fast. This was probably one of the most dangerous aspects of the trip, but luckily we were not traveling on steep slopes. However, we were traveling on top of a 50 meter thick hanging glacier, and more than once we fell through the snow up to our thigh. When we stepped out and looked back down where our leg had been there was a dark hole going down much further than the light allowed us to see. We were walking over some deep, yet narrow crevasses on the glacier. Chris asked Brendan at one point if he wanted to take a picture of one of the holes, to which Brendan politely declined, saying he would prefer to take pictures when he was not standing on a crevasse leading to the abyss.
With skill, and some luck, we made it across the icefield unharmed. The ropes and crampons were put away one last time, and we started down the scree gullies. Realizing that we might have trouble finding our route down, we had left a series of cairns at important junctions on the way up. Thank goodness we did because it really helped. When descending a mountain it can look almost completely different than when going up, and it's very easy to lose your way. We had used the GPS to mark waypoints but its accuracy was only 30 metres due to the steep walls, which was not precise enough to mark the route. We went back the exact way we came, with the most difficult part being a bit of downclimbing in the hanging scree valley mentioned earlier. Thompson's party had actually avoided this downclimb by traversing scree slopes below the buttress, however, if you want to take this route please read his description in the alpine journal. We didn't take that route because from below the route looks treacherous as it follows a series of narrowing scree ledges above 200 metre vertical cliffs. It's probably not as bad as it looks from below, but the hanging valley just looks safer. We arrived back at camp at 9:15pm, exhausted but extremely satisfied, after 17 hours on the mountain. This was 15 minutes before sunset, which justified our decision not to climb to the summit of Amery. After a quick dinner we hit the sack, however, Brendan found it difficult to sleep because his legs were unbearably sore, while Chris barely slept at all due to watering eyes since he had forgotten his goggles at home. Chris also had to deal with a painful sunburn on his arms and face, where he had some pretty funny looking helmet strap tanlines. Brendan avoided these issues by using a magical substance known as sunblock which has been known to prevent sunburns in certain situations. He also didn't forget his sunglasses.
The next day we endured another round of bushwhacking, and after 5.5 hours arrived at our dinghy on the western shore of the North Saskatchewan. We expected the return trip to take 3 hours, but were so tired that we couldn't go any faster. Across the river were two rangers, who had just arrived to look for us since we were one hour past the return time on our safety registration card. We assured them we were still alive, and that we would not drown crossing the river as we had our seaworthy dinghy to depend on. We re-inflated our dinghy and waded our way across the river, receiving a round of applause from some tourists who had been taking pictures of us from the viewpoint. We packed up, drove to Lake Louise, and enjoyed the best hamburger of our lives at the Lake Louise Husky gas station restaurant. Due to being 4 hours overdue at home, Chris had to call his girlfriend Donna, and ask her to pack up his wedding clothes for a wedding he was to attend the next day in Golden. I'm sure those chin strap tan lines go great with a suit!
We have a couple of comments to make about this confluence:
You really need perfect weather. Getting lost on the icefield in a storm could turn deadly as it would be fairly easy to walk off the edge of the hanging glacier in the fog. The rock is also difficult enough to climb when dry and should not be done in the rain.
- The trip requires at least 3 days, with the main day requiring a very early start. It could probably be done in less than 17 hours by a very experienced team, although we were only about 1 hour behind Thompson's ascent time when we arrived at the icefield.
Anyone who does this confluence needs experience in both scrambling and alpine climbing. We have both done dozens of scrambles in the Rockies, and have done about half a dozen alpine climbs after taking an alpine climbing course through the University of Calgary, and going on several trips with our friend and mentor Justin Steele. We are also both avid rock climbers. We are by no means experts, however, we do have reasonably strong route finding abilities and came prepared with all the necessary gear. Preparation is the key to success on this trip.
- The views at this confluence are incredible, and the feeling of accomplishment is second to none. We would really encourage others who have the necessary skills and experience to make the trip and we hope this write-up will be of some help.
I want to dedicate this trip to my father, Jack Ross, who passed away in June of 2008. My dad was the first to visit 51°N 112°W with his confluence hunting friend John Carhart back in 2001.
Good luck everyone.
Brendan Ross & Chris Shannon
Coordinator's Note: This is the highest primary confluence in Canada. The highest confluence in Canada (second highest in North America) is the secondary confluence 61°N 140°W in the Yukon.