Mount Athabasca looms over one of the most popular attractions on the famed Icefields Parkway, but only a few get to see the view from the top. To reach the summit requires a long hike to a technical glacier crossing and then up an exposed face or couloir. The views are breathtaking in more ways than one. From the top, you can spot countless glaciers, icefields, and many of Alberta’s highest peaks.
The peak is one of many in the Canadian Rockies famous for reaching an altitude of 11,000 feet. Many climbers in the Rockies have the lifetime goal of summiting all 54 (58) of the peaks, and they are considered classic mountaineering objectives. At 11,453 feet in elevation with a massive glacier and convenient location, Athabasca proves to be a tremendous first “11,000er.” With no experience we needed some trusted guide to reach the peak, Yamnuska Mountain Adventures was there to get us to the top.
Mountaineering Course: Snow & Ice Long Weekend
Everyone has to start somewhere, and we are not from the mountains and have no prior experience until moving to Canmore. With any sport, especially a sport such as mountaineering with high risks requires training and experience. We turned to the experienced guides of Yamnuska Mountain Adventures who have been guiding clients in the Canadian Mountains for 40 years to learn more about travel in the mountains.
The Snow and Ice Long Weekend is short intro course meant to lay the foundation to the sport of mountaineering. It takes place along the Icefield’s Parkway around the popular Athabasca Glacier. On the final day, you make a summit attempt on one of the nearby 11,000 foot mountains, most common is the classic Mount Athabasca. It’s one of the most famous mountains in Banff National Park and photographed by thousands of tourist every day.
What Mountaineering Skills Do You Learn?
The course takes place over three days, and it is by no means meant to teach you everything about mountaineering. Its purpose is to set a foundation we arrived with no prior experience other than hiking. While we were not in the best shape of our lives, we are young and fit. That being said, the course would be appropriate for a wide range of people, one of our group members was 58, and he summited Mount Athabasca. Altogether, the curriculum felt well rounded and provided an excellent introduction to the sport without getting lost in too many details.
You go over a basic overview of mountaineering equipment used in the course. Ropes, harnesses, ice axe, crampons, helmet, cordelettes, and carabiners.
With no prior climbing experience, we were able to learn several critical knots and life-saving knots. Knots we learned are the prusik hitch, figure eight, overhand, and an alpine coil. Figure eight is a classic mountaineering and rock climbing knot known for its strong hold and reliability. Then the prusik hitch is extraordinarily useful knowledge to have outside of glacier travel.
Movement on Snow
Walking up a hill seems straight forward, but when it’s covered in snow and the hill is over a thousand meters it requires some skill. The course covers different footwork, techniques used to conserve energy, and travel in a group.
Ice Axe Use
A new tool to us and one that is important for mountain travel in the Canadian Rockies. We learned proper handhold techniques, when to use the ice axe, and how to properly use the ice axe. Long story short I went out and bought an ice axe after the course.
This could be a lifesaver, literally. While we learned there should be very rare circumstances in which you need to self-arrest. The skill is very important to learn and practice. Above all, it’s fun as you sling yourself down a snow-covered hill and practice coming to a stop from various angles. (It’s not done one handed like in the movies…)
One of my personal favorites from the course is learning how to make a snow anchor. It’s a great skill to have, especially as I could see great use should we ever have a problem when snowboarding in the mountains.
We learned how to properly walk in crampons and practiced various walking techniques on hard ice of varying degrees of steepness.
Almost every person has seen the iconic image of climbers roped together as they walk across a snowy plain. In the course, we covered the basics of glacier travel and how to operate as a team traversing glaciers with the potential for crevasses.
Should there be an emergency on ice you’ll need to be able to rescue your partner or off an icy face. We learned how to properly place an ice screw and how to set a v anchor in the ice.
The most difficult skill we covered, but learning how to operate as a team when a party member falls into a glacier is a life-saving skill. The move involves teamwork, knots, ice anchors, rope work, and smart movement to safely rescue from a glacier.
This is a skill we touched on and discussed, but route planning takes much more time to learn and accomplish. Our guide explained the reasons for our route selection which was the AA Couloir route up Mount Athabasca.
What to expect?
The course takes place over three days and is out of the Icefields Campground. We drove up the first morning then camped two nights in the campground during the course. On the first day, we spent the morning getting acquainted with our gear and learning the basics of ropes and knots. After lunch, we went up to a snow covered bank to practice movement in snow, travel as a group, and how to self-arrest.
After some well-deserved rest in the campground, we spent the second day on a glacier. Our instructor Tak went over proper movement on ice with crampons and how to use our ice axe.
As the day progressed, we practiced more glacier travel skills. Then moved on how to set ice screws and v anchors in the glacier. For the final lesson, we practiced how to rescue a downed climber in a crevasse properly. With an early afternoon finished we set off back to the campground to catch some rest and plan our route up to our objective. With perfect weather on the horizon, the group decided as whole to go for Mount Athabasca.
Summiting Mount Athabasca
Mount Athabasca Approach
The night before we had a meeting to discuss the big objective which was Mount Athabasca. Our course instructor Tak To summit, Athabasca requires early morning alpine start. So the day of our summit push involved a start time of 3:00 a.m. With the amount of anticipation, we had it’s hard to say we slept much the night before. The approach on Athabasca takes place from the parking lot adjacent to the Icefields Discovery Center. The start follows along the road for the massive glacier tourist trucks before turning off and up the lateral moraine.
In the dark, we crisscrossed along the loose scree of the moraine following small cairns and the lead of our guides. It’s more of a loose trail and general direction that continues to change each year as the moraine continues to collapse from melting permafrost. The hike along the road and moraine is a long one and climbs about 500m in elevation before finally reaching the headwall where the glacier and snow begins. The headwall has several scramble moves to reach the top with some loose rock, but nothing too technical (our guide, Gene, really made it easy).
AA Glacier – Mount Athabasca
Once over the rock headwall, we came to the AA glacier. The glacier lies in a valley between Mount Andromeda to the West and Mount Athabasca to the East. At the base of the glacier, we took a small break to put on crampons and rope up for travel. As walked across the rock hard glacier the sun came up over the mountains and cast Mount Andromeda in a gorgeous alpenglow. It was the first time either of us had witnessed a sunrise like that on the mountain and it was breathtaking. Travel across the glacier was very straight forward and easy early in the morning with firm conditions and a slight incline.
AA Couloir – Mount Athabasca
The glacier eventually leads up the AA Couloir and a massive slope. At first glance, the slope does not look that challenging, but with every step, that assessment begins to change. It’s a steep slope prime for avalanches and rockfalls. The slope starts out fairly straight forward with a 30-degree grade slope, steep but manageable.
However, as you move further up the slope it becomes increasingly steep and over 45 degrees. To climb up the couloir was extraordinarily challenging and with high-risk terrain unnerving. Climbing up the couloir was extraordinarily challenging.
At the top of the couloir and on the stable ground we were finally able to breathe a sigh of relief after an hour on the slope. The smile on Natasha’s face was priceless, total relief.
Silverhorn & Mount Athabasca Summit
From the top of the couloir, the ascent up the famed Silverhorn peak was straight forward. It moved across several bands of rock and snow and took some work, but with little exposure. It felt like we were still ages away from the peak as we made our way up to Silverhorn and the idea that we may not summit had begun to set. There was a slight feeling of defeat, but once at the top of Silverhorn we saw the short distance left to the true peak.
The last section of the climb along the ridge of Silverhorn was the most enjoyable. It’s a narrow ridge covered in snow a few meter wide with massive views in either direction. I could see far across the mountains to distant peaks and glaciers. In all my moments spent in the mountains thus far in life it was by far my favorite.
At the peak, we were all ecstatic. In a small group of four, three clients to one guide, we sat down in the warm sunlight. There was low wind with perfect conditions, and we sat on the peak for a well-deserved lunch.
The descent was easy for the most part until reaching the couloir. To descend, we used a straight forward approach. As the strongest in our group, I took the lead down the couloir. Facing outward from the slope is an experience that feels a bit like walking down a cliff (not that extreme).
From there it was a long slog back to the car park. Total time round trip was around 11 hours, we were by no means a fast moving group, and the average is closer to nine to ten hours. After reaching our car we set off for our home in Canmore. We were exhausted and only made it to Saskatchewan River Crossing before needing a nap and an overpriced coffee.
Thoughts on Our Mountaineering Course
We could not have picked a better first for mountaineering. The course was well structured and we feel ready to tackle our next mountain adventure. The next mountaineering objective is best done with another guide, we still have a need for a lot more experience until we feel comfortable tackling objectives on our own. However, Mount Athabasca was a great first objective it was challenging without anything too far over our heads.
Our group was six people and for the first two days it was the perfect number to get individualized training in a group environment. On summit day a second guide arrived so that they maintained a ratio of one guide to three guests and this was reassuring on such a big mountain.
What We Wore Mountaineering?
The most basic principle of what to wear in the mountains is layering. Anyone that has spent time in wilderness or mountains can speak to the fact your temperature can fluctuate a lot on a hike.
So the goal of clothing is to help regulate your body temperature, element protection, and moisture management. Temperature management is best done through a layering system. If you want to learn more about what to pack for a day hike or what to wear on a hike you can see ours.
Our Outfits On Athabasca
We’ve tried a few different brands, but recently settled on Kora as our favorite pair of thermals. It may be best for us as we need something technical when we snowboard or climb mountains to wick away moisture from our bodies. Kora makes high-performance technical clothing out of quality Yak Wool from the Himalayas — warning they are high priced. However, their technical abilities have far outpassed traditional wool or synthetic materials we’ve used.
Fjallraven’s Keb Pant
Both Cameron and I have Fjallraven’s well known Keb pants. Fjallraven’s Keb pants are a mountaineering staple, but they are heavyweight and not excellent for quick dry properties yet extremely durable. They kept us warm and dry throughout this climb and are windproof.
When I was too hot at the base of the mountain during ascent and descent, I was able to unzip the sides for airflow. These are, without a doubt, my favorite pants to hike in the Canadian Rockies. If you think it’s going to be a cold day you can easily wear long johns under these as well.
The super durable material was very forgiving for beginners there were multiple times where our inexperience hit the our inner calf with crampons. We expected to get home to find holes, but there wasn’t even a scratch. The built in ankle gaiters also kept our feet dry the entire time, granted snow was not too deep.
Outdoor Research Ascendant Hoody
The Outdoor Research Ascendant hoody is one of my favorite pieces of outdoor wear. The blended ripstop nylon and polyester outer shell allow for water to naturally bead off, protecting the fragile down inside. I’ve used Outdoor Research Products extensively in wet mountains and have never been let down. One of my go-to items for exposure is the Ascendant Hoodie. The Polartec lining does an exceptional job at retaining body heat, and it’s super comfy.
I ALWAYS have a down jacket with me on every single hike I go on. It’s a just in case jacket that I usually end up wearing when I reach the summit, and it gets cold.
Down jackets pack up light and small so there is no reason NOT to have one in your bag. Seriously it could save your life in a bad situation. We wrote a whole post on our favorites (hint – Arc’Teryx Cerium LT Hooded Jacket, Patagonia Down Sweater, REI Coop Down Jacket)
Gore Tex Shell
We’re building up a collection of shell jackets. For our climb on Athabasca, we had perfect weather and never pulled out our shell jackets. They are lightweight, durable, packable, waterproof, and windproof. We have a bunch of different shell jackets after several years, but my favorite right now is from Arc’teryx. Any jacket can do the job, but the top dollar ones will hold up and really help in inclement weather.
I bring a Buff on everytrip in case my ears get cold or I want to have one to cover my face (which I did on this trip). We have a collection of buff headbands and bring them everywhere. They’re great for a multitude of reasons such as sun/wind protection, a scarf, headband, or an ear warmer.
We always have one in our suitcase or backpack no matter the destination and consider it one top travel accessories. I imagine most people have one or two of these by now!
We each have a pair of Outdoor Research gloves in our packs at all times. They are great for when you are scrambling and I always end up using them. I never want to come back with bloody hands and they protect against that. Loved having them for hand warmth and gripping the ice axe.
Black Diamond FLZ Poles
I can not recommend a quality pole enough. It was very useful when combined with an ice axe and they should be included in most mountaineering kits. Make sure you get a quality pole as you don’t want it to fail on you while boot packing up a couloir.
I personally use the Black Diamond FLZ Hiking Poles, but there are some other great poles out there produced by companies like REI and MSR. “Z” poles are fantastic as they’re lightweight and can be stashed inside a backpack should you not need them.
We’ve learned to love our feet with a good pair of merino wool hiking socks. You will want to keep your feet nice and dry while you walk around. Most importantly wool socks stay fresh for several days as they have natural antimicrobial properties.
We travel with a couple pairs of the Darn Tough Merino socks and our feet have never felt cold or wet. As a bonus, they’re produced in Vermont!
If you’re not on a long hike a large multiple day hiking backpack may not be necessary. Expect to still carry several pounds of gear on your pack so it’s important to have a backpack that sits well on your back with good suspension. However, you don’t need a 50L+ backpack instead opt for a size around 35L that should be enough to carry all of your necessities.
We have a large number of hiking backpacks and they range in sizes. If you have plans for other short treks that may or may not have a porter you can go with a 50L that will lend more versatility without being so large its unnecessarily cumbersome on the trail.
We personally like to use between a 30-40L pack for most objectives in the mountains as it allows for us to carry everything we could need. Major plus side is a large bag means we can bring things like a stove to make coffee or a hot meal for a nice rest. As far as our recommendation on smaller backpacks we love the Traverse from REI and the Exos/Tempest from Osprey.
While I like having a water bottle on my hikes I like having a bladder even more. A bladder keeps me drinking regularly since I never have to stop hiking and take out my bottle. It’s always readily available for when you need it.
You should consume at least two liters a water a day while hiking in the mountains, often this means you either carry two bottles of water. The better option for carrying that much water on your treks is to carry a water bladder. A water bladder additionally allows for you to carry extra water if needed.
Most hiking backpacks and even daypacks designed for hiking have a sleeve for carrying your extra water.
Make sure to protect your eyes from the sun since you’ll likely spend a lot of time hiking in the sun at elevation. There are a lot of options for sunglasses and everyone should own at least a pair. It’s best to make sure they do have UV protection for the health of your eyes. Sunglasses are particularly important if you plan to visit any glaciers or high alpine passes as sun reflection from the snow is damaging to your eyes.
We made our first investment in quality polarized sunglasses with a pair of SMITH Optics Lowdown 2. Truthfully, not everyone needs to invest $150 in a pair of sunglasses; however, we love ours and will never buy cheap ones again. Polarized glasses are great at enhancing vision in bright environments and removing glare from windshields and the water.
Other Overnight Hiking Essentials
MSR Hubba Hubba Tent
You’ll need a tent if you’re camping for this experience. There’s not much in the area, and most people who do the mountaineering course will camp as well. We had our MSR Hubba Hubba 2 backpacking person tent for comfort.
The Hubba Hubba is a top seller for MSR. It’s ultralight and has a super fast setup system. This tent is waterproof and ultra durable for any mountain adventure. It’s a great size for two people and there is even extra space to move around.
NeoAir Uber Lite
You’ll want a sleeping pad under you while you sleep. Not only is it more comfortable, but it provides insolation that you’ll need to stay warm. The ground gets very cold in the Canadian Rockies and without a sleeping pad under you, your body will take in all that cold.
We travel with the new NeoAir Uber Lite. It’s good for backpacking since it only weighs 8oz and you can blow it up in under two minutes.
A pillow is essential for a good night sleep in the mountains. Therm-A-Rest makes durable pillows from upcycled foam. These pillows are soft, and expand large enough for a comfortable rest.
Therm-A-Rest Sleeping Bag
Don’t go into the Canadian Rockies without a sleeping bag. Even in the summer, it gets cold at night and you’ll need a proper sleeping bag to provide you with the warmth you need. We personally have the new Vesper 20F/-6C Quilt. This is an awesome comfortable sleeping bag featuring 900-fill Nikwax Hydrophobic Down. It’s ultra light and good for overnight backpacking trips.
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