The Lyells

We’ve been talking about this for years, climbing in the Lyells.  Not an easy place to get into, and a committing thing to do for people with jobs and children (not me).  This fall, Chad will move to Whitehorse, so we decided to blow it out and take a helicopter up there.

Showing up on Saturday morning, our ambitions were tampered by the rain.  We sat around all day while the helicopter and pilot were out rescuing some climbers in the bugs.  Apparently, two American climbers hit the eject button on the summit of Howser Spire.  Kudos boys, respect to see you swallowed your courage and didn’t do anything stupid.  Most of you probably don’t know what I’m talking about.  This is Howser Spire:

howser-spire-canada-nature-wallpaper-3754FYI – this is not the place we went.  Just for scale to appreciate the skill a pilot has to pull someone off of something like this in bad weather.

We ended up spending the night in Golden, and came back to the airport the next day.  The pilot informed us that flying in would be a gamble, and if we had $1500 to gamble, we could try and fly in.  Given the 20 minute length of the flight, it would be awfully shitty to fly all the way in simply to turn back.  Fortunately for us, there were two climbers from Colorado there with a guide who were more than happy to make that gamble.  They were able to fly up to the Lyell hut, and we were called back for a second flight.  Likely the only time I will ever say this in my life; “God bless rich Americans.”

The flight in was an experience.  First time in my life the pilot has asked “so, where would you like me to drop you off?”  That is the definition of doing it live.  Put us up above those waterfalls.  That looks like a nice place.


Setting down in the pissing rain, we waited it out for a day until the weather cleared and we could bust out of the high high camp and get out on the glacier.  Monday afternoon, we got a break in the weather and moved up the glacier to establish our high camp.  I did it proper, with a heavy pack made heavier with a copy of Barry Blanchard’s – The Calling and 2 kilo’s of chili.  Mental and physical sustenance.  I learned that sex was safe and climbing was dangerous in the 70’s.

Our high camp was wonderful.  A beautiful view of Mt. Forbes and our objectives, the five Lyells.

The high camp gives us a good view of our objectives.
The high camp gives us a good view of our objectives.

Waking at 2am, we managed to faf (fuck around factor) minimally, and bounce by 3.30am.  The climb up the col between the first and second peaks was easy peasy.  We found tracks the rich Americans had put down the day before, and it was easy to avoid the slots they found.  We reached the first summit of Rudolph (peak 1) by 6.30am.  Early morning summits are my personal favorite, giving one the ethereal high that only four hours of sleep and 11,500ft elevation can.  It’s like being drunk.  And cold.  And extremely happy with your best mates in that desolate and cold place early in the morning.  Must be a Canadian thing.

Sunrise on Lyell 1, Rudolph peak.
Sunrise on Lyell 1, Rudolph peak.

From that point on, there was little faffing.  The weather closed in and the wind picked up as we got to the second summit.  Easy climbing to the second peak.

Edward peak in the foreground, and Ernest peaking over Edwards shoulder.
Edward peak in the foreground, and Ernest peaking over Edwards shoulder.

The weather really closed in at this point.  Leading the group down from the second peak, I had a hard time perceiving depth, and identifying crevasses.  On our way up to the third summit, I managed to knock off a small slab.  Despite the fact it’s July, it’s easy to forget that small slabs can accumulate easily and expedite a climber into a crevasse or off a cliff easily.  Ernest (peak 3) was frosty, but we still managed a gun smooch.  Warming one’s ego at > 11,000′ is a great way to keep the spirit warm.  No shame.

Ernest (Peak 3) Summit!
Ernest (Peak 3) Summit!

The crux (the hard part) was meant to be peak 4, Walter.  Walter White is badass.  Seems apt for this place.  The climb starts with a snow fin up to the face, where there is theoretically an anchor.  We switched leads, giving Chad the lead up the fin to the anchor.  Finding it, he secured himself, and Jens followed him up while I clung on to a scary piece of rock with some webbing.  If I’d found the nerve to take a photo of the exposure and the rocky mountain winds cooling my loin cloths, I would have.  Alas, I like the living thing that I do most days (except Monday).  I didn’t snap a photo.  Jens managed to secure himself and snap this alpinist worthy gem.  That’s Chad below, and I’m somewhere out of the frame fearing rocky mountain exfoliation.

Shit's getting technical.
Shit’s getting technical.

On a serious note, the crux of the fourth peak is a 5.4.  Or at least it would be a 5.4 if we weren’t doing it in crampons and full on winter conditions.  Big kudo’s to Jens for leading us up to the anchor.  I thought that was going to be it, and we’d be simply walking on a nice easy ridge up to the summit.  Not so.  The ridge was spicy, with lots of “towers”.  There was no hesitation from anyone in the group, and we managed it like a circus; with a tight rope.

Walter (Peak 4) ridge walk - exposure!
Walter (Peak 4) ridge walk – exposure!

The exposure continued all the way up to the summit of Walter White (peak 4).  We still did gun smooches, to keep our egos warm.  The view was fantastic!

Walter (Peak 4) Summit!
Walter (Peak 4) Summit!

The ridge down from Walter White was just as spicy as the ridge up.  The col between 4&5 started out to be tame, but even it had some spicy sections.  The weather became even thicker, wet and cold.  But heck yes, we made it up.  Five summits.  Five 11,000′ summits.

Christian (Peak 5) Summit!
Christian (Peak 5) Summit!

I feel accomplished at a summit, but still tense.  That vague feeling that the descent could be more than what was bargained for.  The descent of the final Lyell was just that; we came down the steep slotted east face of the peak in a complete white out, with not more than ten feet of visibility.  Meandering amongst the large holes, we ambled along the glacier with no visibility for two hours.  At one point, both Jens and Chad discovered slots with their appendages (feet – get your mind out of the gutter), and we decided to take a break.  We sat for thirty minutes hoping for visibility of more than 10 feet, and we got nothing.  It’s been a while since we’ve had this experience and it’s humbling.  There are no photos that can do justice to the loss of depth perception, horizon, and scale when faced with an impenetrable wall of white.  Kudos (again) to Jens for being the crevasse poodle with his probe, and guiding us in the right direction.  Fortunately, my GPS hadn’t yet died, and we were able to ascertain the correct direction of our high camp.  Serendipity opened the sky for us at the right moment, and we were able to find our high camp.  That’s the closest we’ve all ever come to pulling out the emergency bivvy because we’d lost our high camp.

Screen Shot 2015-08-06 at 12.26.19 PMStrava Log

Packing up our high camp, we came back down to our main camp.  I’d like to say it was uneventful, but it wasn’t.  I fell down the glacier, not once, but twice.  In twenty minutes.  I’m a professional….. failure :)  The first time, I caught my crampon in some webbing on my harness.  The second time, I was just clumsy over a crevasse.  The second slide was a bit terrifying, as I went for a slide face first for 25 feet down the ice.  It was like falling on an easy climb in Squamish.  A cheese grader.  Thankfully, we’d placed some protection (ice screws) as we’d come down, so my climbing partners played their part in arresting my fall.  Chad did slice his thumb open rescuing me.

When you fall down a glacier
When you fall down a glacier

That’s the cost of adventure.  At least there was beer 🙂


The rest of the week was a touch less eventful.  We took a rest day and decided to climb up neighbouring Mons peak.  An easier climb, but subjectively far away.  It involved a lot of moraine faffing from our high camp to get to the glacier.  But there were flowers.  We even saw a hummingbird at 1900M.  Thought it was a bug.  Yes, we were sober and did not try to swat it.

Nothing but flowers
Nothing but flowers


Mons was an easy and fun summit.  We tried to gain the west ridge from the rock outcrop mid-glacier, but the bergshrund denied us.  Just a small pretty detour.

A big hanging glacier.  We'd hoped to get on that, but it was not going to happen.
A big hanging glacier. We’d hoped to get on that, but it was not going to happen.

From the summit of Mons, we got a great view of what we could not see on the summits of the Lyells.

The Lyells wrap their cold finger around the divide.
The Lyells wrap their cold finger around the divide.

What a place.  A place I could come back to and climb Mt. Forbes.  It looked a lot less scary from the summit of Mons.  It is, very much like the Skyladder.  My heart pumps possibility into my veins…

Mt Forbes - A better view, the view looks better from this side, where it doesn't look as steep.  It looks reasonably comparable to the skyladder.
Mt Forbes – A better view, the view looks better from this side, where it doesn’t look as steep. It looks reasonably comparable to the skyladder.


Our way down from Mons was mostly uneventful, save a couple large crevasses we discovered.  I found some neat frosty stalagmites in this one Chad found.  It’s scary to see how big and just how deep it is.  That’s about 4 feet wide… and 200 deep.  Neat.

This is the crevasse Chad discovered, with his body.  Scary how wide and deep it was.
This is the crevasse Chad discovered, with his body. Scary how wide and deep it was.


There were several points in this trip when we were in a white out, lost on the glacier, and wet from the sleet that I thought we could have used this money and gone to Mexico.  Heck, we could have flown just about anywhere in the western hemisphere.  Fuck it, this is our beach.


We got a lift out the day after we’d done Mons.  I was apprehensive that our lift was going to show up, seen as we didn’t have a radio and no communication at all with the outside world. Right on time!

They came! - Right on time.
They came! – Right on time.

That’s a wrap.  Thank you Chad and Jens for being great climbing partners, and making this the trip of a lifetime.  Goodbye Christian, Walter White, Ernest, Edward, and Rudolph.  It’s been a slice.

Goodbye Lyells - the dangers of sticking your cellphone outside the helicopter.
Goodbye Lyells – the dangers of sticking your cellphone outside the helicopter.

Here are the rest of our photos.  Enjoy.