Mt. Edith Cavell, North Face. Chouinard/Beckey/Doody Rte.

By: Guillermo Baron | Climbers: Guillermo Baron, Jon Popowich |Trip Dates: Aug 2-4, 1999

Photo: Chris Brislawn

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In retrospect, maybe it wasn't wisest to do the climb right off the couch.

One thing or another (injury, work, study, personal life) had kept Jon and me away from alpine routes for the last year or so. But we had a few decades of Rockies experience between us, and experience counts for something, doesn't it? And we were both eager to do something big before the end of summer.

Cavell had beckoned us both for years. I had run up the East Ridge in '82 and seen Chouinard's, Doody's, and Beckey's names in the summit register after they had made the first ascent. And - even more revealing - Robbins' comments following his solo first ascent: "The last six hundred feet scared the bejeezus out of me." Jon had always considered it one of the most desirable of the big Rockies routes.

But was the route in shape? The snowpack here in the Rockies has been hanging around much later than usual, and we weren't sure if that would be good or bad. I called the Jasper warden office, and Sylvia told us snow conditions had been sloppy the last week or so - knee-deep penetration. But she thought the clear nights and sunny days might have started a freeze thaw cycle that may have improved conditions.

So - we hoped - there would be lots of frozen snow that would let us scoot over much of the mixed, but the route would be dry enough that the hard pitches would in good nick. The weather forecast predicted five days of clear weather. The time was ripe.

Monday morning found us scoping the route from the Cavell parking lot. The face was indeed plastered with snow, but the hard pitches appeared dry. We packed the gear - a light rack, twin 60 m ropes, bivy sacs, duvets and a stove for a night out - and left the parking lot at 1:00 p.m.

The first obstacle is the 300 m headwall below the Angel Glacier. A one-day ascent requires that one climb this headwall in the dark, or at least in pre-dawn, and likely without a rope (if one wants to complete the route in a day.) But we found at least one pitch of 5.8, and were happy to gotten up this before tackling the face proper the next day. We trudged up talus to a good bivi site beside the Angel Glacier. About 6 hours to the bivi from the parking lot.

We were up at 4:30, and away by 5:30. By 6:30 we had rounded the Angel Glacier, and were ready to cross the bergschrund. A volley of rocks swept by us - a precursor of the rock fall we would hear all day long.

From the bergschrund, the face sweeps up 1100 meters to the summit. The bottom third is easy mixed climbing to a prominent snow ledge that runs across the entire face. Above this the rock is steeper for 150 m or so, followed by more mixed climbing, another steep buttress, and the summit snow/ice field. We headed tentatively up the rotten rock and sloppy snow above the bergschrund, still slightly unnerved by the difficulties above and the fear of rock fall.

By noon, we had reached the ledge, and Jon led up a wet 5.6 chimney with fixed pins at the bottom to a bowl left of the buttress. A thin traverse right led to a prominent pedestal on the ridge crest and the beginning of the good rock climbing pitches. We climbed 4 short pitches (all 5.7) on steep quartzite with adequate protection. The climbing was enjoyable and surprisingly athletic for an alpine route, and we counted ourselves lucky not to go off route. Above this we pitched out more mixed climbing and some snow pitches to the final buttress. We stopped at about 6 pm to brew tea and strategize about the rest of the climb. Now that we were above the crux we no longer had to contemplate retreating. But we weren't sure we were going to make it down the west ridge that night. We had a bit of food and fuel to see us through, but we also knew people would be out looking for us the next morning if we weren't back early enough.

At last we approached the final buttress. I crabbed across the snow left and right to see if we could turn it but no luck: both sides of the ridge crest were even steeper. So we broached a weakness in the middle of the buttress (some fixed gear) and two pitches of mixed led to a snow slope and a summit view. Ahead, five or six pitches of snow and ice weaving around bits of rock led to the heavily corniced ridge. We unroped and headed up. The snow was still wet, and ranged from 10 to 60 cm deep. A brief hailstorm punctuated the day's otherwise impeccable weather. We continued through it, grimly determined to get off the face that day no matter what.

By 10 pm the last bit of daylight had slipped away as the sun set over distant Mount Robson. We were tired enough to stop to clip on headlamps and pitch it out for the final few 55-degree pitches - 10 cm to 60 cm wet snow over ice. We turned the notorious shale bands to the left and angled back right under the summit cornice to tackle the ridge where it was less overhanging.

We had observed several major cornice collapses from the bivy on the Angel Glacier the night before and weren't keen on climbing anywhere beneath any cornices. But there was simply no other way off. By 1:20 am (yeah, really!) I had established a belay beneath the summit cornice. From here, Jon belayed me as I dug through the vertical rotten snow 10 metres to the right. Years before I had seen a photo of Hamish MacInnes grinning like an imp after tunnelling through a cornice somewhere on Ben Nevis, and it had stuck with me as an enormously cool thing to do. Now it just seemed to be tiring, wet work. After 40 minutes of digging I mantled onto the summit - cold, soaked, dehydrated, and exhausted to the point of nausea. By 2:30 Jon joined me. 20 hours on the face. We were both relieved to have the difficulties behind us, but too tired to be jubilant.

"Now what?" asked Jon.

"We're stopping right here." I replied, "No way am I going to wander down the ridge in the dark."

We dropped our climbing gear where we stood, pulled off our soaking boots, donned our duvets and crawled into our bivy sacs. It was a spectacular night - completely clear, a half moon rising in the east, the lights of Jasper below, and the northern lights sweeping across the sky above. But I was too miserably cold and sick to enjoy it and could barely stay awake long enough to drink the soup that Jon warmed up.

We shivered away the next few hours and were stumbling down the west ridge (lots of isothermal snow under a hard breakable crust) by 6:45 the next morning. The descent was no fun - lots of rubble on the peak, and lots of mosquitoes on the well worn trail home - but at least we didn't have to think too much about what to do. A warden met us on the trail (we had been overdue - not a rare thing on this peak - since 10 a.m.) and offered us a lift from the trailhead to the van.

So that's it. We're still thinking about what doing the route means, and whether or not we really were good enough, or simply lucky enough, to have done the route. In the end, I think sheer tenaciousness is what really got us up the hill.