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Mount Wilson 3260 m

Banff National Park

Mount Wilson from Sarbach.jpg (28937 bytes)

Mount Wilson from Mount Sarbach, with summit at far left

click to enlarge images

Mount Wilson sits right alongside Icefields Parkway in the Canadian Rockies, but it sees very few ascents. More folks try to ascend it on skis in Spring, from Rampart Creek, further north. Unfortunately, weather doesn't always co-operate, and in a white-out, this ascent is hopeless.  There is also a considerable amount of bushwhacking on this approach. In the summer of 1999, my partner Sim Galloway and I made an ascent via the south side, shown here. Here is the full detailed story as printed in the Alpine Club of Canada, Calgary section newsletter The Chinook with pictures.


A summer ascent of Mount Wilson

At 3260 metres, Mount Wilson is a significant Rockies peak rising impressively behind Saskatchewan Crossing along Icefields Parkway. The many steep basins of this massive mountain provide sporting waterfall ice climbs in winter. Hopeful parties often attempt a ski ascent of the peak from the north via Rampart Creek, traditionally camping up valley below the broad glacier stretching east and north. Tales of miserable bushwhacking on this approach are near legendary, and apparently, this is not a route one would repeat willingly.

As you drive north up the Parkway towards Mount Wilson, those mighty south-facing ramparts do reveal one weakness. Behind The Crossing, one sees a deep V shaped notch above a long gully that meets an adjacent gully flowing with a cascade of white water. You can briefly see Wilson Glacier through this notch and in 1948, Georgia Englehard and Eaton Cromwell used this gully as their access route. Fit, fast and competent, their ascent time was a respectable 6 hours. While I had often wondered as to feasibility of this route today, I had never actually got around to investigating it.

In the intervening half century since Cromwell’s ascent the glacier has retreated, as glaciers are apt to do. According to the Rockies South guidebook, beyond The Notch, recession has left "a deep glaciated trough necessitating a loss of some 300 metres." By mid-August, feeling inspired by the first good weather in weeks, we planned our assault. With suggestions gleaned from Casey the bartender at The Crossing pub, my partner and I headed through the woods at 6 a.m. bound for The Notch. Years of deliberation over this route would finally be settled.

We wandered and bashed through forest towards the gully, fortuitously straying onto an animal trail. This cunningly skirted poplars and large cliffbands by staying left of the stream. Near some small cliffs we should have traversed to the right to enter the scree gully sooner than we did, but by 9:30 a.m. we reached the shadowy confines of The Notch, pleased with our progress. Far below, North Saskatchewan River gleamed like a ribbon of silver. Wilson’s glacier seemed deceivingly close and, between mouthfuls of gorp, we chose our route onto it.

From The Notch we actually lost only 160 metres elevation down to the trough. The glacier reposed some distance north. While the more direct 1948 Cromwell route is no longer practical, it is still easy enough to gain the ice simply by heading north. We had eyeballed this aspect from David Thompson Highway to the east the previous day and decided that careful route selection could avoid most crevasses, always a prudent choice for a party of two.

On Wilson Glacier.jpg (28568 bytes)Among the crevasses on Wilson Glacier

The ice turned out to be farther away than expected. Glacial retreat in the Rockies is well documented, and has become even more rapid lately. As we plodded over tilted bedrock and past a small lake, I wondered if perhaps this glacier could be retreating quicker than we were approaching. In due time though, we were donning crampons, roping up and boldly surmounting the beast. Route finding among the crevasses was minimal and fortunately, all snow bridges held. Our line headed more or less west towards and up a gentle trough to the flatter upper glacier east of the summit.

Viewingsummit.jpg (23274 bytes)Viewing the summit of Mount Wilson.

Directly below the summit were great rubble slopes which clearly called out to me, but I resisted. Instead, we ascended a gentle snow ridge to the right and enjoyed fantastic views down to the road, 1700 metres below. A small crevasse near the top necessitated a short detour, whereupon step kicking through calf-deep wet snow led to a final rubble ridge and the almost pristine summit. Were it not for the repeater tower, helicopter platform and shiny metal building this summit really would be pristine. The windbreak, however, was welcome during the brief lunch stop. Eight pleasant hours had elapsed from our beginning. It is likely that the Cromwells’ shorter time of 6 hours was partly due to their more direct line up the glacier. Plus, they were faster.

Nearwilsonsummit.jpg (24328 bytes) Almost on top, with Mount Cline behind in the shady (left) distance.

In a summer remembered mostly for wet weather, on this day we revelled in sunshine, relishing the stupendous panorama. Seeing Mounts Cline, Forbes, Chephren and The Lyells brought back old memories of past trips, and of good times shared with friends. If only we could have stayed there longer!

Though the cairn was large, it lacked a register, so we left a most beautifully handcrafted (if I do say so myself) container. I half-expected a possible bivy, but neither of us actually fancied the thought of shivering under a cold, starry sky. Twice, years ago, was more than enough for me, but that is another story.

Rubble slopes below the summit quickly dumped us onto the glacier and in just over an hour we were off the ice entirely. Unrope, cross the bedrock, pass the pond, descend to the trough, and so it went. The trudge back up to the notch was short and tedious, enlivened briefly by scary bursts of rockfall along each side.

From the notch we followed the dry scree gully down to the cascading stream, which by now had risen substantially. Fast rushing water unnerves me, so we bushwhacked around onto the hillside back to the same sheep trail we had followed up and rapidly descended.

Just before the parking area, we bumped into two friends, Orvel and Art, camped in a blur of mosquitoes and saving a few dollars to boot. Two hours after leaving The Notch we were back at our car with an hour of daylight to spare. It had been a satisfying 14.5-hour day; my question had been answered. I say, forget bushwhacking, forget whiteouts and forget winter camping; go up this way in summer. As a club trip, this would be a worthwhile objective with a bit of everything one should expect in the mountains: Animal trails, route-finding, rubble-bashing, glacier travel, fine views, a repeater tower and even a pub at the end of the day. While the ascent is not difficult, it does require a steady pace to avoid benightment, but I’d say this beats carrying a heavy pack and bushwhacking on skis any day, especially in summer!

Alan Kane

On Mt Wilson.jpg (57263 bytes)

View from the top of Mt Wilson

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all photos copyright by the author 2000