Tsar Mountain trip report by Alan Kane
Four of us left Calgary early on a Saturday morn, August 13, '94. Good weather had been forecast for the upcoming few days, and we were keen to make a 3-day trip up Sullivan River near Golden, B.C. to try and bag Tsar, a seldom-climbed Rockies 11,000-er. Since with the 7 hr drive from Calgary, we knew we'd be arriving too late to start the hike in, we set a more leisurely schedule the first day.
From Golden, we drove west to Donald, and turned onto a gravel road called "Old Big Bend Highway". This is the remains what used to be the Trans-Canada highway before Rogers Pass was completed in the 1960's. The road led us for many miles past Blackwater Lakes, a local fishing hotspot, and up past Bush Harbour. Here, rafts of logs waited in the water to be loaded onto logging trucks and hauled to Golden sawmill. An exciting stretch of road awaits past Bush Harbour, at least on weekdays when trucks are hauling. For a couple of km's, the road has been blasted into rock cliffs hundreds of feet above the big lake, and here it winds and is seldom wide enough for 2 normal vehicles to pass. You have to watch carefully here in case you see a tell-tale plume of dust rising ahead that warns of an oncoming logging truck! Then, pull over ASAP!
At about km 90, we turned left and followed the bridge over Bush Arm ( a wide section of Bush River since filling of the Kinbasket or McNaughton lake reservoir) and continued along the northeast side of the lake, past Sullivan Bay forestry campsite at km 148, then up Sullivan River proper. This latter part of the drive was fascinating, and we stopped at times to marvel at soaring roadside rock walls that would be a climber's Mecca, were they not so far from a city! A one point, we could glimpse the lower snout of Apex Icefield, unique in that it extends well below tree-line, which few glaciers in the Rockies do anymore.
Further up, the road crosses the spectacular Sullivan Gorge, a 150' deep dark canyon of damp walls and a thundering, silty river pounding below. Truly awesome! Rumour has it that the "timber cruisers" with the logging company found a log across and walked it to get across when first scouting the area! At km186 we had reached the end of the road in a logged clearcut. It was a hot day, mid-afternoon and since we found no water here, it made no sense to either start hiking or camp here. Instead we drove back down the road several miles to the flat valley bottom and camped on gravel flats by the road. Andy and I had inadvertently set up the tent on a mouse-hole, only realizing it next day. That explained why something kept chewing away under our heads, despite our pounding fists on the floor to stop it! The beast made 2 holes in my floor.
Next morn we drove back up to the clearcut, the most northerly one there (at GR503722), and began angling uphill northwest under heavy packs. We elected to do a rising traverse through forest, often on sidehill, to get around to the northwest side of Tsar. I had some idea of what the terrain was like as I had scouted this out four years earlier just as the road was being built. I remembered there was glacier and cliffs above and a fairly deep trench with a stream in it to the north, which we should stay well above. Travelling through the forest wasn't too bad, although we did often have to go around or over large trees that had blown down. The forest floor tended to be very mossy; many of the trees were impressively big cedars...obviously a wet area.
By 11:30 we had reached a small lake at GR476740 on a bench N.E. of Tsar where we lunched, then contoured around towards the glacier.We ascended rock shelves above the trench where once had been glacier, then descended onto dry glacier itself. No snow covered the 2 icefalls that we ascended on the way to the north side of the peak and crevasses were easy to see, so we four travelled unroped along the ribs and plateaus of ice to the pass.
The Pass on the north side of Tsar at GR440745 between Somervell, Ellis and Tsar was a mix of stagnant glacial ice and rubble. Mt Ellis was named for a helicopter pilot from Golden BC whose small Bell Chopper had crashed and killed him in the 70's. Alpine Club of Canada climbers (Glen Boles et al, if you must know) on a mountaineering camp named this peak for him after making the first ascent; In Golden, I had gone to school with Tony Ellis, his son, years before. Anyway, enough trivia: We set up camp by a small pond in a lovely little meadow with fabulous views west across Kinbasket River to Mounts Shackleton and Livingstone. We had not pushed our pace going in and it had taken us 8 hours from the van.
We started about 6a.m. next morn. The once glacier-clad north side of Tsar has melted back to expose much rock now and looks quite different than the '70's era photo in "Selected Alpine Climbs". From camp, we went off to the right up a bit of a gully and slope to gain a ridge above that cuts back to the left (east), across the north side of Tsar and then joins the NNW ridge leading towards the summit. Pictures from the '70's show ice where this lower rock ridge now exists, and once we were on it, noticed the glacier far below us on the uphill side of this ridge now. This ridge was of no difficulty and it was the right route to follow. Good thing we hadn't followed my initial suggestion, which was to descend the uphill side of the ridge and gain glacier much sooner! We'd have missed out some great photo-ops on the ridge too.
The NNW ridge was largely a grand, wide affair. Rick Collier called it the "Boardwalk", and I do not believe we had to use a rope here. The summit was obvious ahead and we aimed to find an easy place to descend from our rock ridge and get on this upper glacier. This was easy. We roped together and angled up across the glacier to the right (west ) side near a west ridge (the obvious choice) as steep ice slopes guard the peak directly above the NNW ridge. There were no crevasses to worry about and the angle of the snow steepened only briefly just below the small summit. The ascent took 6.5 - 7 leisurely hours on this beautiful, balmy day and we thoroughly relished the spectacle around us of big glaciated peaks, including 12,0001' Mt Clemenceau. while we enjoyed our sausage and cheese fare, Andy poked around in the cairn and surprisingly, found the original 1927 register in a tin can! I left a plastic ABS register in its place: Will it last as long? Probably not.
As we descended, it became apparent that a disturbance was slowly brewing to our northwest so we did not dally. Thankfully, it and the black ominous clouds fizzled out before long. We arrived in camp by suppertime, having spent 4 hours on descent, 11 hours roundtrip. Seems like kind of a lengthy time, considering we were right at the foot of the thing, but we enjoyed it fully and took our time. It's nice to do that once in a while! By comparison, a friend (Nancy, by name), led a club trip there a few years later, and, sensing bad weather in the offing, went for and got the peak the same day she hiked in! The weaker sex, my ass.
Our final day dawned beautiful again. Rather than sidehill back around the way we'd arrived, we opted to traverse around on the east side of the peak, following dry glacier, then see if we could get down to our car more directly. We also realized that if we ran into unforeseen problems we would not have sufficient time to retrace our original route that same day.
The walk around on dry glacier was mellow and as we got further around, began periodically venturing east to peer over the edge. Scree and meadows awaited below, but to my surprise, a 100 ft high cliffband separated us! We walked on this glacial bench southeast until it pinched off where a steeper tongue of glacier hung down at about our level (about GR471733). Here we carefully scouted out our options. I removed my pack and scrambled down (and back up) a chimney for maybe 40 or so ft to a scree gully, and saw that that route would go. Andy did not like the look of my chimney much, but we agreed that Gert had found a gully that would be fine to rappel. In fact, when we got closer, a previous party had even left 2 pins in the bedrock! How thoughtful.
Down we went, a short rappel of maybe 40 feet, then a scree gully. I do believe that if someone were going in to Tsar, it would be worthwhile heading more directly up from the parking area and climbing up one of these breaks in the rockband. Even if you had to haul packs, it might be worthwhile. Once you were up, it would be a gentle cruise around on flat glacier to the camp spot, and if the cliff proved too difficult, you could simply traverse around below the cliffs at about tree-line to reach the same route that we followed in.
The downhill bushwhack to the van was aided by having gravity work in our favour and I kept a bearing on a brown, pointy peak on the other side of the valley as a reference for where to aim to locate our clearcut. A GPS would've been handy, if they existed back then. It all worked out well, and we reached the van at about 3:30 p.m. Huckleberries were in prime season, and it took some doing to pry a purple-tongued John from the abundant patch nearby. My body felt pretty tired, but I think we were all well satisfied with our adventure. The A& W on the highway in Golden beckoned, where we pigged out on burgers for supper before continuing back to Calgary and home by about 10:30 p.m.
One note of mention: When we went up the logging road, we noted a vehicle sitting on the shoulder. When we came back, we saw a small critter---a porcupine---under that same car, probably chewing brakelines and rad hoses. It was funny at the time, but I'd hate for that to happen to MY vehicle, way up there. The towing charges to Golden would be horrendous! I think chicken wire wrapped around the vehicle(s) is a definitely a good idea on these backwoods roads in the mountains.
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