MT. ATHABASCA        11452 ft. / 3491 m
Location:  Alberta, Canada    
52.1816 N   117.208 W
Sections
Mt. Athabasca - An Icon of the Canadian Rockies
Mt. Athabasca Exploration and History
The Mt. Athabasca Trailhead
Approaching Mt. Athabasca's North Climbing Routes
Climbing Season on Mt. Athabasca
Climbing Routes on Mt. Athabasca
Conditions and Weather in the Columbia Icefield
Red Tape, Fees and Legalese in Jasper National Park
Camping and Backpacking in Jasper National Park
Hazard Warning and Mountaineering Accidents
Columbia Icefield Centre
Topographic Maps
Photo Gallery
Mt. Athabasca Acknowledgements and Photo Credits
page one
Mt. Athabasca - An Icon of the Canadian Rockies

Mt. Athabasca is probably the most well-known and often-visited peak in the Canadian Rockies, with the possible exception of Mt. Robson. Many mountaineers have made their first big alpine ascents on the icy slopes of this Columbia Icefield mountain, and its awesome North Face was one of the first major "big wall" ice routes to be climbed when steep alpine ice climbing was coming of age. It is the most often-climbed major alpine mountain in the Canadian Rockies, and combined with the Athabasca Glacier and the surrounding peaks such as Mt. Andromeda, Snow Dome, Mt. Kitchener, Mt. Wilcox and Nigel Peak, forms the crown jewel of the Icefield Parkway, one of the most scenic and beautiful drives in the world.

Climbers, sightseers and tourists alike come from all over the world to view, climb, photograph and experience its pristine snowfields, icefalls, glaciers and ridges. Large Snocoaches, customized overland buses with flotation tires, regularly take tourists and photographers out onto the huge Athabasca Glacier, where they are treated to a closer, more awe-inspiring view of the terrain than possible from the highway, and often have a chance to watch intrepid climbers working their way up routes on the flanks of Mt. Athabasca, Mt. Andromeda and Snow Dome, which surround the one-kilometer-wide by six-kilometer-long glacier.

Photo by Dow Williams
Mt. Athabasca Exploration and History

Discovery
The first known explorers to discover this peak were Walter Wilcox, Robert Barrett, and two guides who accompanied them. This was in the year 1896, and the purpose of their expedition had primarily been to find the Athabasca River by way of Bow Pass and the North Saskatchewan River. They made an attempt to climb the peak but were unsuccessful.

First Ascent
The first climbers to ascend this major peak were J. Norman Collie and Herman Woolley, in 1898. Their route was the North Ridge, and by reaching the summit they became the first men to discover the giant Columbia Icefield. They were able to see not only the first magnificent view of the largest icefield in the Canadian Rockies, but seven of the major peaks located in the icefield as well. They named them North and South Twin, Columbia , Bryce, Andromeda, Kitchener and Snow Dome. Collie would ultimately name thirty-one peaks in the northern Rockies and Columbia Icefield. They made their descent by the now-standard North Glacier route. Their first ascent of the mountain was the result of nineteen days of travel and searching on horseback and on foot, starting from Lake Louise. The only mountain higher than Mt. Athabasca which had been climbed at that time was Mt. Temple, overlooking Lake Louise. Mt. Athabasca was one of the first major peaks to be climbed in almost two hundred years of Columbia Icefield exploration history and travels in the northern Canadian Rockies, which began in 1807. In 1903 Collie and a member of his 1898 and 1900 expeditions to the Canadian Rockies north of Lake Louise, Hugh Stutfield, collaborated and co-authored the classic chronicle of Canadian mountaineering, Climbs and Exploration in the Canadian Rockies.

Collie realized the importance of the discovery he had made, and later wrote after the first ascent that "The view that lay before us in the evening light was one that does not often fall to the lot of modern mountaineers. A new world was spread at our feet; to the westward stretched a vast ice-field probably never before seen by human eye, and surrounded by entirely unknown, un-named, and unclimbed peaks. From its vast expanse of snows, the Saskatchewan Glacier takes its rise, and it also supplies the headwaters of the Athabasca; while far away to the west, bending over in those unknown valleys glowing with evening light, the level snows stretched, to finally melt and flow down more than one channel into the Columbia River, and thence to the Pacific Ocean."

Right photo by Adam's Gallery
  Three seasonal views of the huge Athabasca Glacier at the foot of the Mt. Athabasca - Mt. Andromeda massif
The Columbia Icefield
A gigantic field of ancient ice and rock, the Columbia Icefield covers 325 sq km (125 sq mi) and reaches depths estimated at 365 m (1299 ft). The Columbia Icefield is composed of a massive plateau of ice, includes six major glaciers and several smaller ones. Straddling the Continental Divide, the icefield drains into three North American river systems: the Columbia River to the southwest, the Athabasca River to the north, and the North Saskatchewan River to the southeast. These meltwaters from the icefield flow to three different oceans (the Pacific, Arctic and Atlantic, via Hudson's Bay). This is a hydrological apex of North America, one of only two points on the continent from which rivers drain into three oceans the Arctic, the Atlantic and the Pacific. The other such apex in North America is Triple Divide Peak in Glacier National Park, Montana. Another such hydrological apex of this magnitude in the world is in Siberia. The actual "summit" of the Columbia Icefield is Snow Dome, located across the Athabasca Glacier from the Mt. Athabasca / Mt. Andromeda massif.

The Columbia Icefield was created during the last Ice Age, and created a profound effect on the surrounding landscape. It is the largest and most accessible of seventeen glaciated areas along the scenic Icefield Parkway. The remnant of the last major glaciation that once covered Canada 20,000 years ago, it has survived due to its high elevation, cold weather and heavy snowfall. It once covered the area where the Icefield Parkway now runs through. Markers at the icefield and near the foot of Mt. Wilcox indicate the rate at which the toe of the Athabasca Glacier has receded this century. Sadly, the overall meltoff of the glacier has become more noticeable in recent years, due to warming trends and lower than average snowfall. At present time it recedes about two or three meters a year.
     Left:  Mt. Athabasca seen from Sunwapta Pass;  Right:  Morning sun hits the north side of the mountain
The Mt. Athabasca Trailhead

The trailhead is found just west of Highway 93, the Icefield Parkway. The small Snocoach Road leading to the trailhead is across the highway from the Columbia Icefield Centre, located 103 kilometers south of Jasper, Alberta, or 189 kilometers north of Banff, Alberta. If travelling from Banff, you must drive on Highway 1, the Trans-Canada Highway, to Lake Louise, then turn north on Highway 93, the Icefield Parkway, to reach the mountain.

Follow the Snocoach Road through the first set of metal gates. These gates will be open at night to allow access to climbers and backcountry users; but during the day they are closed, and you must stop in front of the gate to wait for the next passing Snocoach shuttle driver to open the gate for you. This is not a problem as a shuttle bus will pass through the gates every fifteen minutes or so; do not attempt to open the gate yourself. Follow this paved Snocoach road uphill to a second gate, which is always locked, (just past a small bridge) and pull into the left side, where there is a small gravel parking lot, and park. You will see a small metal registry box on a pedestal at the right side of the lot, in front of a well-worn trail leading up the moraine, to Mt. Athabasca. This is the trailhead for climbing routes on the north side of the mountain.

Note: To access climbs on the Mt. Athabasca/Andromeda Col (AA Col) or Mt. Andromeda, it is necessary to walk up this paved road further for a couple of miles, where the trailhead locations will become obvious.

Photos by Dow Williams
         Two shots of Mt. Athabasca in dry condition late in the season, with the glacier completely exposed
Approaching Mt. Athabasca's North Climbing Routes

From the trailhead begin hiking up an obvious packed scree trail which follows the crest of the moraines right to a small, flat, false glacier. Most parties rope up here. Access the real glacier slightly to the left of this spot. Hike up the glacier's sustained 30-35 degree slopes until you have almost reached a slightly steeper rise with a large crevasse near the bottom and a col at the top. Here you will notice a large rock formation to the left, and the bottom of the Silverhorn on your right. The Silverhorn is a subsidiary summit of the main Athabasca massif. Depending on your party's rate of travel, it could easily take a couple of hours or more to reach this spot, as it is fairly distant from the trailhead.

The routes begin here: turn right for the North Glacier route, or keep going straight for the Silverhorn, North Face, Hourglass and North Ridge routes.

Note: The North Ridge can also approached from a lower, more northern location on the glacier, if the intent is to climb the entire ridge beginning at the bottom section. This approach is detailed on the North Ridge route page.
                Typical scenes during a summit climb of Mt. Athabasca during the late summer months
Climbing Season on Mt. Athabasca

The mountains of the Columbia Icefield can be climbed year round, but the main climbing season runs from June until September. Very few ascents are made of Mt. Athabasca in winter due to brutally cold temperatures, frequent storms, heavy snowpack, and avalanches. It's a pretty lonely place in the winter, and as a result the rate of traffic on the highway slows to a trickle as well. The Columbia Icefield Centre is closed from October until May, resulting in even less human presence in this wild and beautiful area.

Even summer climbs can be subjected to storms and winter conditions, which have resulted in dumps of snow a foot deep on the highway in the valleys (during the month of July), heavier snowfalls at higher elevations, and even occasional frostbite injuries to climbers during the summer months. Winter conditions and spring avalanches often continue right into June. Often, a very cold wind will blow across the Athabasca Glacier, chilling the entire area, even in summer months.

Photos by Kai Larson
Left:    The north side of the mountain;  Center:  Climber low on the North Face;  Right:  High on the North Face
Climbing Routes on Mt. Athabasca

There are six established climbing routes on Mt. Athabasca. All but one are located on the north side of the mountain. The AA Col route is located on the west side of the mountain, and consists of an ascent up the steep col that joins Mt. Athabasca and Mt. Andromeda. The table below contains a brief description of the graded routes.

Route

Grade

Overview

AA ColGrade IIAlso known as the Athabasca-Andromeda Col, this is probably the safest route on the peak, as it is often relatively free from avalanche danger when all of the routes on the north side of the mountain are experiencing lee-side windloading. However, it is steep, and rappelling can be required to descend this route in icy late-season conditions, particularly at the bergeschrund.
North Glacier Grade IIThe standard route, and a classic, if non-technical line consisting mainly of steep glacier travel in various conditions, depending on how late in the season it is being used. It is not unusual to see other parties on the route, or even at the summit, at the same time. Wind-loading and avalanche conditions, during spring months or after storms, can make this route unsafe.
SilverhornGrade II This route is mainly a snow climb early in the season, but gradually turns to ice towards the latter months of August and September. Treat this as an alpine ice climb during these months. There may be ice near the top of the route early in the season. Most climbers do not descend this route, but use the standard North Glacier route or the AA Col for their descent.
North FaceGrade III, 5.4This big alpine ice face features slopes of up to 55 degrees, a short rocky crux between the ice wall and the final steep snowfields, and is a very popular route, often having two or three parties working their way up it at the same time. Icefall can be serious as a result. This was one of the first big alpine ice routes to be climbed in Canada.
North RidgeGrade III, 5.5One of the less-visited routes on Mt. Athabasca, on a ridge well known for loose rock and sketchy snow and ice conditions. There have been several accidents on the North Ridge in recent years, due to objective hazards. It sees fewer ascents than any other route on Mt. Athabasca. Many climb the ice face of this ridge to its crest en route to the final summit ridge.
HourglassGrade III, 5.5This climb, considered by some to be a more technical variation of the regular North Face route, is found to the right of the North Face. The rock crux is longer and more difficult than the crux on the regular North Face route, and the Hourglass can be threatened by seracs on the east side of the Silverhorn. The crux of the route can sometimes be melted out early in the season.
Photo by Bruno Engler, found in "Selected Alpine Climbs in the Canadian Rockies"
The routes illustrated above in Sean Dougherty's book, "Selected Alpine Climbs in the Canadian Rockies" are, from left to right: North Ridge, North Face, Hourglass, Silverhorn and the North Glacier route. The Snocoach road and trailhead are seen near the bottom of the photo.
AA Col route illustration by Gregory Horne Photographics
This illustration of the AA Col route by Greg Horne shows the route (1), the AA Glacier (b), AA Icefall (c) and the Silverhorn (d) from the west. The photo was taken from the Athabasca Glacier.

Photos by Mack Muir
     Left:  The bottom of the Silverhorn;  Center:  Mt. Athabasca North Face;  Right:  Mt. Athabasca summit
Conditions and Weather in the Columbia Icefield

Climbing conditions
It should be noted that lighter than normal snowfall levels for the past few years, combined with warming trends have contributed to the overall deterioration of the routes on this mountain. This has resulted in an increase in rockfall, icefall and sluffing from the snowfields, seracs and rock bands of Mt. Athabasca. The steeper routes such as the North Face, the Hourglass and the North Ridge in particular have been adversely affected, resulting in more accidents, as well as more technical difficulty on the routes, especially when climbing through the crux areas on these routes. Ice has been forming earlier as snow disappears, and the North Glacier route and Silverhorn can be covered in ice much sooner than in years past.

Grade Higher on the North Face Crux?
As a result of the drier spells seen over the last few years, I asked Canadian climber and guide Barry Blanchard if he felt the meltoff of ice had changed the grade at all on the North Face. This was his response: "Yes, I think that ice has melted away from the footing of the crux pitch. Seemed to me like it was more like 5.7 mixed climbing last time that I did it in dry conditions. Some fixed gear around. I'll bet that it is probably a grade 2ish ice step right now given the amount of moisture we've had combined with recent cold. Twenty-four hours is a long time in the life of a mountain."

Apparently before this exchange on October 13, 2005, the area had endured a long wet spell followed by cold weather. Things can change fast on Mt. Athabasca. But dry conditions definitely crank up the grade at the crux on the face. The bare rock section has been reported to be over twenty feet in height, with a few fixed pins present.

Photos by Rob H. Laird
Rescue Dynamics offers current climbing conditions, as well as weather reports and a host of other mountaineering related services. Current climbing conditions can sometimes also be obtained by calling Park Wardens in Jasper National Park at (780) 852-6155 or (780) 852-6181 at the Sunwapta Station. Park Wardens climb often in this area during training, while performing rescue operations as well as for personal recreation, and they often have recent and accurate information with regards to climbing conditions in the Columbia Icefield area.

Various sources for weather reports, forecasts and warnings for Jasper
Simply click on the Weather Underground box to the left for an up-to-the-minute weather report, five day forecast, and much more. An automated telephone weather advisory and forecast for the Jasper National Park area is also available by calling (780) 852-3185. Weather conditions for the area can also be obtained unofficially by calling the Columbia Icefield Centre at (780) 852-6288 during the months between May to October. Weather, forecasts, meteorological links, satellite imagery and other neat stuff can be found on the Environment Canada website. Simply click on any of the links on the left hand side of the main page. Note: the Weather Office link in the middle of the page doesn't work, but all other links work on this useful site, and if you are heading out it is worth investigating.
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