Cataract Arête, Mt Colonel Foster

I should have written this all down years ago. Now it’s thirty years to the day and my memory I fear is not going to do the story justice.

Clouds, that is the first thing that comes to mind, clouds in the sky and a deep, dark fog of the mind obscuring the beginning and ultimately, if paradoxically, clarifying the culmination.

I got out of the tent to pee. It was the middle of the day but we had been sleeping all the way through it. A cold damp mist shrouded the east face of Mt Colonel Foster. In many ways a relief. I didn’t really want to see that imposing rock face. Youthful ambition had brought us here, well it was what drove me to encourage Sarah, I really am not sure what she made of it. I do know her father George Homer, if he knew, would not approve. She told me he had warned her to stay away from Mt Colonel Foster. Yet here we were camped right below it, waiting, in theory planning to climb it, in practice probably both anxious about what that might entail.

As it swirled, lifted and sank, the clouds began to outline a striking arête, a knife-edge, not so much rearing up, as angled against the face, slashing a diagonal course of imposing length. It looked unbelievably elegant. The sort of feature a climber wants to climb. I called to Sarah to come out and look. We stood there together peering across the chill of the glacial lake as this apparition appeared and disappeared with the dancing mists. We followed the arête with our eyes, tracing it downward from the high-point where it butt into the summit glacier in a left-leaning line to where it ended abruptly at a short, steep wall hanging above a cascading waterfall pouring off the mountain face the remaining 400m to the snowfield below. Yet the diagonal continued. Farther left yet a pair of gullies continued at the same angle all the way down to the base of the face creating a seductive line of weakness. We had come to Mt Colonel Foster to tackle the unclimbed buttress below the Northeast Peak but within minutes that plan was forgotten, this was the feature we were going to climb.

Only a few days before, Sarah Homer and I had been at the exact same place in very different circumstances. The sun was beating down and we were leading a group of young summer campers from Strathcona Park Lodge on an overnight hike along the Elk River Trail. We had three days along the trail enjoying the cool of the old-growth, the tangy taste of late-summer berries and the constant chatter of ten enthusiastic 10-12 year olds on a proper camping adventure. From our base camp back down the trail we made a day trip up to Landslide Lake, around the bushy shore and up to the snow at the edge of Foster Lake nestled at the base of Mt Colonel Foster’s towering east face. While the kids played with snowballs and splashed about at the lake edge Sarah and I craned our necks and fantasized reverently about climbing this huge chunk of rock. We talked mostly about the buttress dropping in one plumb-line sweep off the Northeast Peak. The buttress below the main summit had been climbed in 1972 by Dick Culbert, Paul Starr and Fred Douglas, the next feature to the right is in many ways its twin . Somewhere there we made a pact, we had days off coming up on the weekend, we’d come back and climb a new route on Mt Colonel Foster.

As we led our charges back down the trail to our camp we browsed on the ripening blueberries lining the trail. Out of nowhere was suddenly two hairy behemoths. Bears amongst the berry bushes? Nope, looked more like climbers, heavily laden with ropes, helmets and all manner of equipment. My heart sank. The line we had been gazing at just minutes ago was going to be snatched. What else would anyone be coming all this way to climb other than that incredible line? But no, Chris Barner and Paul Rydeen were on their way farther up the Elk valley to Rambler Peak. A wave of relief. Our prize was safe.

The next few days couldn’t go by fast enough. The camp wrapped up, the kids left with their parents and we had a chance to unwind, party and go and climb. Sarah expressed some reservations about leaving without seeing her boyfriend Derek Boekweit who was out with another group from the Lodge and wouldn’t be back for a couple more days. I convinced her that climbing was climbing and we needed to seize the stoke and go. Apparently the argument worked and after a night of rock music and a sink full of Carling Black Label we put some serious hangovers to the test and headed back to the Elk River Trail. Neither of us owned a vehicle so we hitch-hiked to the trailhead.

I don’t remember much about that approach. Sometimes in those days we’d hike in to Colonel Foster super fast, sometimes slower, this time I suspect is simply unmemorable from the pain of excess. However it went, we pitched our tent at the shore of Foster Lake sometime during the afternoon of August 4th and passed out. We both slept undisturbed for over 24 hours, not rising until the middle of the afternoon the next day. Not exactly the stuff of supreme alpine success but I did mention it was a serious hangover.

So there we were, resting, recovering and now with a new objective. That evening before supper we took our ice axes and walked around the circumference of Foster Lake and up the steep snow to the base of the face where the lower of the two angled gullies reached the snow. In case of more low cloud the next morning obscuring our view of the face, we built a small cairn to mark the start of the climb, returned to camp, packed and… went back to sleep.

Now rested, the early morning light roused us before sunrise. Unzipping the tent door we were greeted by the perfect morning. The east face of Mt Colonel Foster rose above us into the clear cobalt sky, the last early morning stars still twinkling around its awesome silhouette. We ate breakfast and retraced our steps back around the lake and up the snowfield toward our little cairn. We crossed the moat onto the low-angled rock apron at the base of this part of the face and began making our way up. The sun broke above the ridge crest of Elkhorn Mountain to our east, bathing the face in warm golden light. Up we scrambled on fairly easy 3rd and 4th class terrain, clean rock with loose gravel littering the ledges, walking, semi-climbing. Then a voice shouted faintly from far below! Looking into the low morning sun it was hard to see but there was someone at our camp, now moving around the lake calling out to us, Derek! We stopped and waited while he made his way up the snowfield. Sarah and I conferred. “He doesn’t want me to go. My Dad told him not to take me anywhere near Mt Colonel Foster” she said. Sarah’s father George knew Mt Colonel Foster by reputation from his longtime friend Rob Wood. “But he’s not taking you” I replied stating the obvious in a weak, yet ultimately successful counter. “I’ve got to go and talk to him”. She left her pack and down climbed the 200 metres or so we had made up the face.

On returning to the Lodge the previous evening Derek had discovered Sarah and I were on our way up to Mt Colonel Foster. He left the lodge and hiked up the trail through the night, running into several bears until one spooked him enough that he found a place to bivvy and stayed put for the rest of the night until there was enough light to move safely again.

I sat and waited while they talked. The minutes ticked by, the sun rose a little higher. Up and down the conversation went, Sarah and Derek talked, I tried to chime in. Eventually it was time to fish or cut bait. “We’re all set, we’re packed, we’re rested, we’re here to climb” I yelled down “Derek, go down to our camp and get some food and wait for us, you can watch us and we’ll be back when we’re done.”
“He wants to go to Squamish tomorrow” Sarah relayed. “Sure” I said, “Let’s go, first we climb this then we go to Squamish”. I’m sure it was reluctantly but Derek eventually agreed to go down to our camp and Sarah rejoined me at our packs. We refocused and began climbing again.

The easy lower rock apron gradually steepened and led us into the base of the two parallel gullies we had identified the day before. We started up the lower, righthand of the two. There was some heather and small bushes, as I was learning, pretty much de rigeur for the Island alpine. The higher we climbed though the thinner the vegetation became and overall the rock was clean, solid and we made good progress soloing. After scrambling about 300m up the gully the terrain opened up onto a sloping bench of reddish moraine gravel. In front of us was a steep drop-off into the deep, chasm where the water draining the upper glacier raced through before spilling over the lip of the canyon and free-falling down the mountain face below us. This gully separated us from the arête we were aiming for, now tantalizingly close. The moment of truth was on us, would we find our way across this ravine?

I left Sarah with the packs and began to scout around. The roar of the torrent below left no question as to which direction we had to go but the complex of ledges and the precarious footing on the scree made movement tricky and a little unnerving. Working my way down toward the drop I scrambled onto a lower ledge and eventually found a tiny, exposed nook with a block of detached rock that formed a crack that looked like it would provide the last possible anchor before the terrain dropped away. With a little creativity I fashioned an anchor with a small wire-stopper wedged into a thin crack on one of the blocks and a sling girthed around a shoebox-sized rock that fit behind the gap by the block. Not exactly bombproof but it looked good enough.

In those days 50m ropes were the standard length. We were using 55m ropes and looking over the edge I hoped they were going to be long enough. The rock below us was undercut I couldn’t see the end of the ropes. The only way to see was to weight the anchor and rappel. I went first and with my heart in my throat began the descent. After 10 metres or so I reached the point where the rock began to pull away from my feet and overhang. I could see the ends of the rope far below me, hanging just above a tiny ledge alongside the creek. Reasoning that the rope stretch would increase as I descended I committed to the rope and dropped into space. The heavy backpack loaded with overnight gear pulled at me making breathing heavy work. My heart was pounding with every metre as I could see that escaping out of this canyon would be an epic undertaking if we couldn’t climb out the other side onto our proposed route. Reaching the knotted end of the ropes I just managed to touch my feet onto the narrow ledge. Only a metre or two below the rushing water raced through a sluiceway much deeper than it was wide and angled in such a way that it was almost underneath the ledge I was standing on. Only a few metres away the sides of the canyon walls framed the opening where the creek spilled over the face. This was intense.

Luckily the sides of the chasm allowed our voices to echo and communicating with Sarah that it was all okay and she should rappel down and join me was easy enough. In a few minutes I saw her silhouette emerge above me and pretty soon we were grinning at each other nervously, together on our precarious perch. Looking across the creek the rock was shiny from water polish but mercifully dry. The deep and narrow slot that the water ran through made it look like crossing to the other side would be surprisingly easy. But I really didn’t like the look of the first bit of climbing that awaited us. The centuries of water erosion had worn the rock smooth and the wall opposite us bulged out in an intimidating shape. But it looked doable so we decided to follow through and pulled the ropes.

For the first time we moved into pitched climbing. Sarah belayed me as I made my way delicately down to the edge of the water and stepped across. Moving carefully up the polished rock I headed for a sort of a flake-crack that looked like the best line of weakness. The rock bulged out but the holds were great, the solid nature of the rock countered the smooth texture and the climbing went surprisingly easily at about 5.7. We climbed three full pitches of 5.6-7 up this steep wall and reached a large ledge with a clump of trees. For the first time in a couple of hours we were able to breath a little easier. We had made it down and across the chasm and now from the comfort of warm heather we could see the full length of the awesome arête rising up above us.

The next seven pitches were fairly modest. We swung leads up 4th class to low 5th class. The face we were on was the left facet of the arête, a wide sweep of rock, we could have climbed anywhere but gradually our upward course brought us onto a band of light grey rock right on the crest of the arête. We scrambled along the arête for a couple of more pitches before being forced back onto the left face and a huge, intimidatingly rotten looking flake. It took two full rope lengths to delicately negotiate the flake and return us onto the crest again.

The climbing was great. Mostly the rock was sound and fun to climb. The feature is massive but the pursuit of efficiency kept us to an obvious, direct line. Along the crest the the exposure was breathtaking over the righthand side down the east face. We kept to the knife-edge for a hundred metres and then a steep headwall blocked the crest forcing us onto the left side again. A steep corner splitting the headwall went at 5.8, eventually proving to be the technical crux of the route and returning us to the crest of the arête. Sarah had been packing a small, compact Olympus camera that we had passed back and forth taking photos of each other. Somewhere along the way I was passing the camera back to her and she expressed frustration about where to keep it so it was handy. I showed her how I had been keeping it between my T-shirt and long sleeve – as was the inimitable fashion of the day! She took the camera and dropped it down her collar. With a single bounce it hit the rock at her feet and disappeared into oblivion. I hadn’t noticed that where I had my shirt tucked under my harness preventing the camera from falling out, Sarah did not and that was that. No record of our climb.

As the afternoon had worn on the sun had left the east face giving us relief from the sun but bringing convective clouds that built up, gradually socking us in under a dense fog. The exertion of the day was starting to tell, we were slowing down and a light drizzle started to settle on us. With the visibility stolen we couldn’t tell how close we were to the upper glacier and what the final part of the arête looked like. The arête levelled out at a dramatic pinnacle leading in toward the summit ridge and the glacier. This was one of the highlights of the climb, shuffling along the ridiculously exposed knife-edge. We arrived at the base of a small tower. It was enough to convince us to stop and we scratched out a nasty little bivvy spot amongst the gravel.

As evening set in we made supper and settled into our sleeping bags for the night. We had kept things minimal and slept in sleeping bags with our legs inside our packs. It was uncomfortable but adequate. We chatted about the next day. Sarah reminded me of my promise that we would make it to Squamish with Derek. Overnight the cloud lifted and we slept soundly and at ease under the stars.

The next day with the clear view ahead we made short work of the last hundred metres or so of 4th class, scrambling over large detached blocks to reach the edge of the glacier where we were met with the folly of our early finish the night before. Where we had stopped on a grotty, sloping scree pile, sleeping in our harnesses, anchored in to prevent us sliding off the mountain, a short scramble farther had brought us to one of the most idyllic bivouac ledges imaginable. A spacious, flat rock ledge with pretty patches of heather at the very top of the arête with a small creek of meltwater from the glacier tumbling off the rock face just a few metres away. Oh well – next time!

With the morning sun already softening the seasonal snow on the glacier above we swapped rock shoes for our high-top Hi-Techs and headed up the low-angle glacial arête that finished the route onto the summit ridge. It had been a gamble foregoing crampons to keep the loads light but there was no trouble. The glacier wasn’t very steep and ice axes were amble security to make the 150m up to flat terrain on the summit ridge crest. Now the question of whether or not to go to the main summit? We were very close but the best intel we had at the time was Mike Walsh’s Canadian Alpine Journal article describing his traverse with Bill Perry in 1972. Not knowing the lay of the land it was hard to interpret Walsh’s account. The best we could decipher, it had taken them the better part of a day to get from the main summit off the mountain. That promise to get to Squamish that day didn’t seem to leave enough time. It was around 6:30 am as we stood there at the base of the prominent gendarme at the head of the Great West Couloir. I suggested to Sarah that we head toward the summit and if we weren’t there by 9:30 we’d turn around and head down off the mountain via the South Peaks and the South Col. She agreed and we struck north along the summit ridge toward the top.

There’s a lot of exposed scrambling and a rappel to reach the main summit from the glacier and it all seemed to go fairly smoothly. The rappel turns into a 5.7 slab on the way back but it has a couple of key pieces of protection and that too went without a hitch. Back on the glacier where we had made our decision to allow ourselves three hours for the summit, it was only 8 o’clock. The climb off the glacier up onto the Southwest Peak is one of the nastiest parts of Mt Colonel Foster’s summit traverse. A dyke of shattered granite angles up, providing the obvious line of weakness but at the penalty of sketchy protection and crumbling blocks. In no time we were over the Southwest and Southeast peaks and making our way down the relatively easy snow slopes from the South Col.

Halfway down the snow the chute narrows into a gully. With good snow cover this goes without a hitch but gradually as the seasonal snow melts out dangerous moats form and it’s safer to take a series of rock ribs that parallel the gully. I knew this from a previous visit to the Southeast Peak earlier in the year. Now in August the seasonal snow was long gone and we needed to take the route down on the rock. As we glissaded the last part of the wider snow slope I was a little in front of Sarah when she lost her footing and began to slide out of control, picking up speed, being funnelled into the dangerous moat-riddled gully. It was one of those moments where time seemed to both race by at breakneck speed and slow down to a snail’s pace at the same time. I’m sure I yelled. I’m sure Sarah was in survival mode. With seconds to spare before falling into the chaotic maze of bergschrunds Sarah pulled herself back into control and self-arrested. She gathered herself and made her way back up the slope and joined me on the rock. The rest of the descent went without incident and by 10 we were safely back at camp where Sarah and Derek were reunited and we shared the story of our climb. Derek told us how he had watched us through the day until the cloud obscured the view.

We broke camp and as three headed out the Elk River Trail where Derek’s VW van awaited. Needless to say we made it to Squamish that night and enjoyed a few days letting Derek lead all the hard stuff!