Climbers: David Fenoulhet, Doug Hollinger, Brent Cullen and Mark Howell
Location: Alberta (On the border, some parts in British Columbia)
“You want to do Mt Sir Douglas?” Mark asked, more to Doug than to myself. Mark and Doug were the experts of the trip and we entrusted a lot to their judgement. I was (and still am) a novice who grabs hold of those better than I am. Brent Cullen on the other hand, an excellent rock climber, was completely new to the scale of mountain climbing but eager to tackle the challenge.
We were deliberating our objective for the next day over some scotch at the small wooden table in Doug’s friend’s house in Banff, Alberta. “Sir Douglas sounds good to me” Doug replied. “Yeah sure, sounds like fun,” I smiled, “I’m up for anything you two are up for.” Not fully knowing what I was agreeing to but being a headstrong twenty-something thinking I truly was up for anything.
The climb, described in the guidebooks we thumbed through, was an alpine grade of III on a mountain draped by glaciers on all sides. My climbing experience up to that point had been glacier travel and some long days but nothing technical. This would be my first taste of a bit of actual climbing during such an outing to a summit. I took another sip of Mark’s scotch, mulling over my response, as we organized our plan of attack for the next two days…
The summit of Sir Douglas actually straddles three provincial parks Banff National Park, Peter Lougheed Provincial Park and Height of the Rockies Provincial Park in both Alberta and British Columbia. Most of the mountains in this range are named after WWI battleships and commanders, this one in particular after Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, with the Haig glacier on its eastern flank also bearing his name. A British general, he commanded the expeditionary force and led the offensives at both the Somme and Passchendaele during World War I for any interested in history out there. The mountain itself is a gorgeous, shark-finned explosion of rock that only reveals itself after a mostly-trailed hike into the Burstall Pass.
Easing our bodies into the expedition, we left after a solid breakfast of eggs, bacon and an alpine worthy amount of caffeine. The afternoon stroll to our bivy site was relaxed and accompanied by some beautiful blue bird skies. The higher we reached, the more and more we found ourselves kicking steps into the snow to reach the pass and the body of water we would set our tents beside. As flat rock for a mattress, we made ourselves comfortable and marveled at the setting sun over the ridge line we hoped to reach that next day. Once camp was made, most of us decided to make use of our sleeping arrangements as soon as the light started to fade and waited for the rude sound of our alarms at 4am.
The next day was stunning, weather-wise, as we made our way onto the glacier, smiles wide across our faces. The day before I had foolishly left my sunglasses on top of my head as we hiked our way in. Needless to say they were not there on our arrival to the bivy site. Squinting against the reflective snow, the sun immediately punished me for my mistake. By the end of the trip I would have crow’s feet burned into my face and more red than I would have liked in the whites of my eyes.
This mild discomfort was soon forgotten though as I gazed back off the glacier at the mountain ranges behind us. A gorgeous day, in a gorgeous range, I was energized and excited for the long steep climb ahead of us.
The climb was quite moderate on the glacier and, to the experienced alpinist, so was the rest of route. For me, however, I was testing my nerves to exposure and a bit of angle as we began to reach the true base of the mountain.
Making our way over some scree (loose rock) bands that fell like ribbons over the base of the climb, gravity became a more difficult opponent. Chop, chop. Kick, kick. I got into my rhythm while Doug followed behind, checking my comfort levels along the way. “I’m fine thanks,” I replied. Not mentioning the degree to which I was kicking and punching into the snowy mountain side. I was enjoying myself and the views and the challenge…but I cannot lie and say I was completely at ease. Visualizing the techniques for a self-arrest, in case these skills came in handy, I worked my way higher still under the fine route finding skills of Mark who lay ahead.
Once some of the more hard slogging was done, the summit came up rather suddenly to me. Probably to do with the fact my head was hanging down as I robotically repeated the necessary tasks to get me to the top. Oh what a view it was though when that blast of blue sky contrasted the bright white my eyes had become accustomed to. A happy surprise, I was over the top of the ridge line of snow and steps from the summit.
What goes up…
We now tried to find the belay stations promised to us in the guidebooks, looking down the West ridge for any glint of metal. And then we looked some more. Nothing caught the naked eye and, not too keen on digging around this cornice covered area, we began constructing some snow anchors for the descent. These would give me some peace of mind on the way down and, though I’m sure Doug and Mark did not need them, they were both gracious enough to show me the key aspects so that I could add them to my budding repertoire of skills.
We worked our way down at a decent clip. Snow turned to rock and we were then scrambling, happy to be out of the ever more slick, sun-drenched snow. Brent had just recently (the week before I believe) found an interesting eBay auction for some old climbing gear. This included pitons being sold by the widow of a former avid climber. Now I’m not saying this was divine intervention or anything, but they definitely came in handy! With the end of mountaineering ax, Doug hammered the piton into a tiny fissure in the rock, slipped some cordage through its opening and gave it a tug. Satisfied it would hold for rappel, one-by-one we made our way down the rock band, careful not to jar the piton by taking any sudden falls. Boots hit a small, level platform and we found some easier terrain to navigate the rest of the way down and back to the glacier.
Heading back down, we decided to not go over (what we thought) would be an arduous high rock feature to our right. So we made our way through the valley on our left hand side to cut out some of the leg work. This plan did not work out the way we had hoped. After hours of hiking and route finding, we finally made it back to our tents…at around 9 pm. We had not packed anything for dinner, the last of our snacks had been eaten sometime ago and we now still faced a four hour hike back to the cars. Best to get on with it then.
I would be lying if I said there wasn’t some cursing involved and my fatigue definitely caused me to stub my left big toe, over and over again, from not lifting it high enough to avoid the roots in our path. I would later discover that this toenail would rebel against my maltreatment of it and leave my toe for good, later that next day. We persevered though and got back to the car, smiling, enjoying the masochistic pleasure of completing a demanding challenge to its end.
By 130 am I believe, we found the one restaurant open in Banff at this time. I took a giant bite of a MacDonald’s burger and inhaled some fries as we talked heroics. It was definitely one of the harder climbs I have ever done and incredibly rewarding – the views, the company and the challenge. A climb I won’t soon forget.