Mount King George trip report
Mount King George (left) seen on approach from meadows to southeast.
In September of 1998, 5 of us had undertaken a 3-day mountaineering trip to climb Mount King George in the southern B.C. Rockies. It is one of the Rockies 11,000-ers, but less frequently climbed than many others. That summer had been one of the best (driest) for many years and we had been optimistic about our chances, but to our surprise, the upper glacier on the southwest side was so badly crevassed that we were unable to get across and had reluctantly turned back about 1500-2000 feet below the summit. The following is a detailed report of a successful trip in early August, 2000.
Leaving Calgary on a Friday night, we drove towards Radium B.C. and turned off at Settlers Road from Highway 93 at a point 20 km north of Radium B.C., and car-camped by the steel bridge over Kootenay River. This spot is popular with paddlers who run the Kootenay River. Next morn we followed the gravel roads that led up Palliser River. This proper road is signed as it also leads to Joffre Creek and Height of the Rockies Provincial Park. We were anxious to see how high Palliser River would be at this time of year as you must ford it as soon as you leave the car. I worried all night about that river crossing.
River crossings, for me, are the crux of any trip I do. I am not a swimmer and even have nightmares about falling in large puddles so in preparation, I had earlier shopped at Canadian Tire for accessories. Though still somewhat mentally unprepared, at least I was physically prepared with 300 ft of nylon rope, a life jacket, a winch and at least one companion much heavier than me (in case a mid-stream anchor was needed!). If all that didn't work, I had been told by friend Nancy of a log, a single solitary wet log spanning the river at km 59.7, at a narrow, scary point. Some parties had walked across on it. Did I mention that I don't walk logs but tend to wobble and fall off them?
By about 9:30 a.m. we arrived at km 60 (mileages are posted) on Palliser River road and parked in a small sunny meadow on the left side of the road. Our river fording spot was perhaps 100 metres upstream across from a huge boulder jutting out of the hillside on the road, on which some wit had painted "Pet Rock". We walked down over the bank and decided the river looked fordable, whereupon Andy, heaviest of we three, boldly marched into the current.
Andy casually pauses for photo in the river.
Lightweights Gary and I watched Andy cross with great interest. The water turned out to be crotch deep, cold and moving quickly. It was a treat to reach the opposite shore, remove runners and allow the feeling to return to numb feet. What a cold start to a morning trip. From there, we opted to follow our same access route to King George as on our previous attempt in 1998.
While there is apparently a trail up alongside Fynn Creek to the Royal Group for a good part of the way, I have heard conflicting reports about it. I think it largely disappears in an avalanche area. Orvel Miskiw describes it clearly at the online site www.bivouac.com under Trip reports for Banff area, south Rockies. Our route however, used animal trails that travel through forest far above and to the east of Fynn Creek and was passed on to us by Pat Michael. From the river crossing, follow the Palliser River trail downstream for about twenty minutes, whereupon a fork diverges right and heads uphill, aiming for Fynn Creek. Fynn Creek here can be heard but not seen. This path is the start of an outfitters (read:Hunters) trail up Fynn Creek. In about ten minutes further, after going over a small rise and down again, a game trail diverges right heading uphill, although the first bit had small lodgepole pines across it and would be easy to miss. We flagged this trail profusely here with orange tape. It gains much elevation at the start, then travels some 400-450 metres above Palliser River at a more gentle angle for quite a while. It is totally enclosed in forest---nice on a hot day.
In many places along the trail we were able to find our flagging of 1998. In a few hours we came out onto treed east-facing avalanche slopes at the edge of a ridge at about GR173028. The trail crosses this short slope, then goes back into forest heading west, contours around and soon emerges on open, south-facing avalanche slopes at about GR170029. By now we had gained as much elevation as was required, and found an animal trail to follow across the slope towards the headwaters of Fynn Creek and Mount Princess Mary. Our objective was to set up camp near or above the waterfall at the south end of that peak and access King George via the open valley around the southwest side of Princess Mary. This is the easiest way.
Unfortunately, the landscape is not quite as flat here as the map contours show, there being a few small rockbands between the avalanche slopes and the moraines. We scrambled down a couple short rockbands losing maybe 200 vertical feet in order to tramp more directly across the undulating valley. On our previous try, we'd camped by a lovely pond at the toe of the glacier east of Princess Mary at about GR148045 and climbed the left-hand chimney below the King George-Princess Mary col for access (described in the guidebook Rocky Mountains of Canada South by Boles, Putnam et al). This time, we'd decided to skip the grotty, wet chimney.
Upon reaching the right-hand outflow stream from the glacier, we drank heartily. Our forest route had passed no streams. We HAD carried 2+ litres each though. This outflow area between the lateral moraines of King George has camp spots also, but they all seemed to be on gravel. Meadows up-valley before the glacial lake mentioned earlier are better, but may lack water and are better suited for the chimney access/Southeast Ridge or East Face routes on King George. So, from the moraines, we traversed west through larch forest towards the right side of the waterfall draining the west side of Princess Mary at GR144032 and aimed for the belt of trees between the right side of the falls and a steep cliffband.
Looking southwest across Fynn Creek valley to our campsite above waterfalls.
Sure enough, as Andy suspected, we found an animal trail at the base of the cliff that led steeply up through woods to fabulous camp sites at the last bit of forest above the waterfall (GR141034). Flat and meadowy, adjacent to delicate larches, a view of Mount Joffre and a stream nearby --- truly paradise. Best of all, wind blew steadily off the glacier up valley and discouraged any bugs. We had taken about 5.5-6 hours to here leaving us plenty of time to set up camp, which we soon did.
Evening in our idyllic camp.
Andy is not a "morning" person, but nonetheless (since he would have been outvoted had he protested anyway!), we were all up at 4 a.m. preparing for our ascent. By 5:15 we were off by headlamp, but soon stashed them under a big obvious boulder when it got light enough. Travel up the valley was pleasant considering the debris glaciers thoughtlessly deposit once they leave. We traipsed straight up valley towards our objective over snow and ancient gray ice and in a short time were treated to the imposing sight of King George's hanging southwest glacier at its head. It should be noted that the topo map 82 J/11 Kananaskis Lakes is in serious error concerning the placement of this glacier. Little remains in the lower valley, but higher, it extends almost right to the summit . The open crevasse that had stopped us two years previous was well bridged this time, which was reassuring. We did not want to fail again.
Snow patches and rubble led to the King George-Princess Mary col, then the same tedious scree took us up to broken, black cliffs on the southwest side. These can be ascended by a number of different lines by scrambling up gullies. Then we traversed along the side of King George, parallelling the southeast ridge, heading north to the last island of rock surrounded by snow and glacier. At this point we three donned crampons and roped up. There are a couple of gullies in the mountain's flanks along here that dump serious rockfall down on a hot day (as we found 2 years before in a near-miss!) but all was quiet today.
The angle of the glacier was surprisingly steep as we ascended the 35 degree slopes towards the summit, visible directly above. Though the night hadn't been particularly cold (it almost never is cold in early August in the Rockies) the snow was in good firm condition. At the top of the slope the angle eased and a broad notch in the ridge allowed us a beautiful morning view east to familiar Kananaskis Peaks. Mount Blane in particular was obvious. The top of the glacier here finished in a snow arete, with a small crevasse just evident at the base of the final summit.
Along the ridge.
Zigzagging up a snow slope in a wide gully got us onto the summit ridge, a curving mass of snow which continued north. After pausing for pictures (one of many such stops!) and verifying whether the cornice overhung the east face (it did), we tramped up the final snow staying well left of the cornice
In the final gully to the summit rdge.
. A short bit of rock ridge followed and finally, at 10:30 a.m. we shook hands on the summit. Had we been pro-sports jocks, we would have given high fives, (or maybe we'd have simply stayed home to watch The BIG GAME) but since many mountaineers (including me) detest pro sports, we didn't stoop to that level. Sticking to tradition, we solemnly shook hands, doffed our felt hats, then coiled our hemp rope. (ha ha)
Congratulations on the summit.
The view of our fabulous Canadian Rockies northwest of Mt King George.
While the western sky was hazy blue from raging Montana forest fires, the view north towards Mount Queen Mary was stupendous. We relished our 45 minutes on top under a clear sky, identifying peaks like Assiniboine before returning the same way. The snow slopes were not so steep that we couldn't face outward on descent, but were glad that a cloud had kept these slopes in shadow so they were still consistently firm.
By 2:30 p.m. we were off the mountain and laying like large slovenly marmots on a huge boulder in the sun, watching the progress of an Alpine Club of Canada party going up. After a suitably long siesta, like a bad omen a sudden gusty wind sprang up and chased us back to camp. It took some looking to find our headlamps under the "obvious boulder" as it was a huge boulderfield in daylight, but we did find them. Shortly after, a vicious thunderstorm struck and we dove into our tents, smugly satisfied at our success both in summitting and staying dry. The ACC party was, however, caught in the rain on descent and it was a soggy crew that sloshed by our site that evening.
Next day dawned fair again. We packed our wet tents and left, meeting the ACC party of four near the moraines in the valley below. We expounded upon our route in as a better way out for them. Although they were not convinced that their Fynn Creek route in had been a very good route, it was at least familiar to them and they chose that. Better the devil you know than the devil you don't know I suppose.
We followed our same route back, although we seemed to be at a different elevation on the open avalanche slope and did have to do a little extra route-finding to find flagging from the first trip. Nonetheless, a competent party able to make good use of topo maps and use "bush sense" should find this route quite acceptable. A GPS would be useful too, perhaps. It is likely though, that those unfamiliar with map interpretation, animal trails and forest route-finding will learn much in the process of visiting the Royal Group, regardless of which approach is chosen. It is not a cut-and-dried walk in.
Our pace out was steady, and we debated whether the rains of the previous evening would have sufficiently raised the Palliser River to prevent our wading it. Fortunately, it hadn't risen much at all. The crossing went well and we were back to the van at the relaxing hour of 1:30 p.m., eating the last of our food in the hot summer sun. By suppertime we were back in Calgary, happy with our 3 days in the Royal Group and even happier that we wouldn't have to go back to tryMount King George again.
Mount King George (at right) seen from the Palliser River road.
For anyone wanting more detail about the road access, buy the Backroads of the Kootenays mapbook at most local outdoor stores or possibly Hikes around Invermere and Columbia Valley mentioned on the guidebook page. Mountain Equipment Co-op also has these books and probably The Hostel Shop in Calgary too.
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photos copyright by author 2001.