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My favorite “classic mountaineering route”

January 27, 2009

A couple of weeks ago, I was chatting with a wide-eyed novice mountaineer (wait a minute – I think I’m still one of those) who asked me what my favorite “classic mountaineering” route was. For criteria, he said: “something with a view, that’s in the alpine, with a bit of everything – snow, glaciers, and rock, but not too much really technical climbing, if any, casual enough to enjoy all the way through, something attainable for a novice but still interesting”. I thought about it for a minute, especially the bit about the view, then thought about last summer and a great couple of days I had out with Bryce Brown.

The traverse from the EP Hut - Mt. Huber on the left, Mt. Victoria in the middle (summit hidden) and Mt. Lefroy at the very back with the west face route visible.

The traverse from the EP Hut - Mt. Huber on the left, Mt. Victoria in the middle (summit hidden) and Mt. Lefroy at the very back with the west face route visible.

Drawing on my limited mountaineering resume to date, I’d have to pick the classic traverse at the back of Lake O’Hara in the Canadian Rockies – Mounts Huber, Victoria and Lefroy. It does have it all, and I think this justifiably very popular traverse represents the quintessential Rockies mountaineering experience – lots of mileage, great exposure and views, and some time in two of the best ACC huts to boot – the cozy Elizabeth Parker Hut and the historic and beautifully situated Abbot Pass Hut. Oh yeah – and it takes in 3 classic 11,oooers in a mellow 2-day outing.

Bryce close to the summit of Mt. Victoria.  You're in positions like this for most of this fun traverse.

Bryce close to the summit of Mt. Victoria. You're in positions like this for most of this fun traverse.

Bryce and I completed the traverse during a stellar couple of days during the ACC TB/MB Section’s mountaineering camp last summer. Leaving the EP hut (you can also camp nearby) far too early, about 3 am, we found ourselves at Wiwaxy Gap in darkness and decided a short snooze was in order until day break (even with a wrong turn on the trail below, and Bryce’s relatively poor fitness at the time :-), this bit only took an hour or two). As dawn began, we made our way up the classic route on Mt. Huber (southwest face/Huber Ledges/northeast face), scrambling a bit too high and missing the first glacier enroute to the Huber-Victoria Col. A quick jaunt (~45 min round trip) to Huber’s summit led to perhaps the best view of the entire Lake O’Hara area, then across the col and up Victoria’s southwest face, onto the awesome, exposed summit ridge and short-roping to the pointed summit. Some back-tracking and then a straightforward descent down Victoria’s awesome ridge (passed the spot where I got engaged a couple of summers ago, in much worse weather…) to the beautifully-situated Abbot Pass hut, where we met friends old and new and sipped some fine single malt in between afternoon snoozing. Then, a lazy 6 am start the next morning, with a straightforward, relaxed ascent of the classic West Face couloirs on Mt. Lefroy and still back to the Abbot Hut within 3 hours round trip, in time for a big breakfast. We actually climbed Lefroy again on a third day for good measure, leading some mountaineering camp participants to their first 11,ooo’ summit. Then, the classic scree-run down to Lake O’Hara for a dip and feast at the EP Hut.

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Leaving the historic Abbot hut.

This traverse is often done the opposite way, but I think I favour starting with Huber since it avoids the endless grind up the scree from Lake O’Hara to Abbot Pass, or the alternative Death Trap from Lake Louise. It’s also entertaining to realize that on a clear day you’ve probably had your photo taken several thousand times (literally) while on Victoria’s ridge by the throngs of tourists at Lake Louise. And, using the huts means you need bring minimal bivy gear – a light sleeping bag and your food, since the huts are fully equipped. This, and the minimal technical gear needed for these routes (when conditions are right) makes for light packs (and more room for that fine single-malt) and more fun all around.

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