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A Date with Deltaform: Ascents Above Moraine Lake

Alpine Climb
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Thursday, July 27, 2017

The Valley of the Ten Peaks is one of the most visited and photographed areas in the Canadian Rockies. There is a good reason for this, the peaks themselves are stunning, Moraine Lake has a resplendent color, and the access is by an easy (if exceptionally busy) road.  The only 11000er of the bunch is Deltaform Mountain (or saknowa if you want to use original naming system).  Deltaform is a striking peak that rises up impressively from the valley and can look quite impenetrable from most viewpoints.  Steven and I had been throwing around the idea of Deltaform for several years but were spooked by the talk of tricky climbing on perilously loose rock. With more rock routes under our belts and a guarantee of good conditions, we reckoned that the time was ripe and set out for a quick two day trip.

The first challenge was one of logistics. I had to be at work in Jasper until about 2130 the night before the trip, and with our plan of going up the peak and back to the bivy at the high col on Day 1 a dark and early start was needed.  Temporal-limitations meant then at most about two hours of sleep, not the greatest of rests before a long route!  We met up at the Moraine Lake parking lot around, 0230 and it turned out that with driving from the Coast, Steven too was running on about two hours of sleep. After some deliberating on the extent of our rock rack we left the parking lot a little after 0300 up the trail towards Wenkchemna Pass.


A few last minute gear changes in the warm dark of the parking lot.



The nice thing with Moraine Lake peaks is that you already start quite high and the trails are in very good shape. A little after three hours from the cars we were at Wenkchemna Pass and looking up the forboding slopes of Neptuak Mountain.  An ascent of Deltaform via the ridge route is really an ascent of two peaks. From the pass you first have to go up, and pass right over the summit of Neptuak Mountain. Other parties had warned us that Neptuak itself was actually harder than Deltaform!  Steven had been most of the way up Neptuak on a previous trip with Charlie but had turned around due to much fresh snow and generally very unfavorable conditions.  Thankfully this meant that Steven had a good head for where the route went and saved some second-guessing along the way.


Already a good way up the Wenkchemna Pass trail by the time things got brighter.


Looking back west near sunrise.


At Wenkchemna Pass with Neptuak Mountain on the right.


Steven working his way up towards Neptuak.


Looking over towards Opabin Pass and Mount Hungabee (right).


After traversing some rubble ledges we reached the fist pitch of technical rock at the base of Neptuak. Oddly enough this actually proved to be the hardest (or tied with the hardest) climbing of the trip.  We stashed a few items we reckoned we wouldn't need higher up in a rock nook that someone had hollowed out in ages past.  Someone else had left an old can of bear spray in the cache, and Steven was curious if the expired can would still be functional. One of the things I always warn people about when guiding is 'be sure you know which way the wind is blowing if you are using bear spray'.  A decent wind was gusting down from Steven and right towards where I was standing.  Thankfully I managed to turn away and close my eyes but still the next few minutes were filled with coughing and sneezing as the spray lingered (a side problem I was not expecting was that spray soaked into my shirt and after sweating later made for a very spicy-feeling lower back).  Looking back it was kind of a funny experience and makes for a good story!  A little bit later we started to head up the first pitch.  Steven lead a solid pitch of 5.6 with a few awkward moves to get up to a station where we could scramble upwards to reach easier terrain.  I had tried to give the pitch a go but wearing my turtle shell (105 'carry the group gear and whatever you feel like for a luxurious bivy experience') pack make the first big move a very odd squeeze and reckoned a top rope might be a better plan just in case ;)


There is a lot of elevation to be gained to get up Neptuak!


Looking up at the first technical pitch.

Above the first pitch we could scramble for a good while first on big black/green rubbly boulders then onto more tan colored loose scree.  Every footstep up the scree was a battle and I was at a few moments doubting the logic in some of the heavier extras I was carrying; bivy beers while great, are quite hefty...  The quality of rock on both Neptuak and Deltaform is directly related to its color.  Brown is quite trustworthy, tan can be quite solid, grey can have good cracks and slopers, while black is perilously loose.  After scrambling through a few different colors (including a not too nice black band of choss) we broke out the rope and pitched out several sections of steep low 5th then moving back to scrambling and eventually topping out on Neptuak itself.

Above the first pitch, lots of scree to come.


Looking back over towards Hungabee.


Quite a lot of broken terrain to weave up.


Some of the broken terrain is quite steep as well!


Me working my way up.  Photo by Steven.


One of the short pitches to get up Neptuak.  Photo by Steven.

Right near the summit we came across a group of two Italians (one currently living in Canmore) who were just on their way down from Deltaform.  They were saying that the route went very well for them, and we were glad to see another party having climbed the route right away to give a little extra confidence in the rap stations.  Descending down from Neptuak to reach the bivy site, at the Neptuak/Deltaform col was a mix of loose, exposed, treacherous scrambling, and one steep rap.  The benefit of the downclimbing was that we knew it would be easier when coming back up the next day and that with some weaving over scree we could get up without having to pitch anything out (there were enough raps already on the radar for the descent down Neptuak that saving more ropework would be key for an efficient way down).

Steven on the summit of Neptuak Mountain.


Almost at the bivy corral, Deltaform Mountain looms above.


One rap to get from the higher plateau down to the col itself.

After reaching the col, we walked far down until almost heading up the ridge of Deltaform itself before coming across the regular bivy corral.  The wall itself is actually quite large and Steven and I had no trouble setting up my tent beside his bivy setup, both taking advantage of the protection from the fierce wind that can blow through the col.  Taking a break to melt some snow for drinking water we chatted about the route ahead, by in large it looked like scrambling rather than technical climbing.  We were quite hopeful that the ridge would go quite quickly and we could make it down well before dark, things were looking up!


Quite a nice place for a bivy.


Steven heading up towards Deltaform Mountain.


The infamous summit notch, not far to the summit, but we need a 10m rap down first.


Hanging out on the false summit.  Photo by Steven.


Leaving camp after having ditched anything heavy and non-essential out of our packs we made quick progress up the ridge.  With careful routefinding we manged to minimize the amount of tricky terrain and kept a majority of the route in the realm of moderate to difficult scrambling with a few pitches involving low 5'th thrown in for variety.  Much as for Neptuak and color of the rock bands required different types of climbing maneuvers and route decisions had to take the particular quirks of each type of strata into account.  Making good time upwards we eventually did a traverse climbers right to access a broad gully leading up to the false summit (adorned with a very well-used rap station into the infamous notch).  The notch is a rather interesting, if annoying,  feature of about a 10m drop separating the false and true summits.  From the false summit you can look up and see the summit cairn but there are a few tricky moves between you and it!


Views from the false summit.


Steven was eager to get going and swapped out his boots for rock shoes and took off up the slope.  We both left our packs anchored to the boulder at the bottom of the notch to speed up the ascent.  While very steep, the pitch (about 5.6) has holds right where you need them, and both hand and feet can be moved upwards with good confidence.  After Steven had topped out I rambled up and even in the ol Evo Nepals the pitch felt quite comfortable.  Views from the summit were actually pretty great.  After scribbling in the register and seeing some concerning clouds in the distance we started a hasty descent back down to camp.
If not the hardest climbing of the trip, certainly the most awkward was reascending the lower side of the summit notch to get back to the rope we left fixed.  An odd mix of squishing up an off-width crack to get on top of a boulder and then balancy moves on blank feet (very not Evo Nepal-friendly...) eventually got up, but certainly not in a confident fashion!  After getting back on the false summit we started a chain of raps to get back to camp.  Some raps were long, some were short, but we got into a very good cycle of rap, coil, find station, rap etc. and were quite efficient with moving down the ridge.  That being said there were some sections of downclimbing that broke up the raps and a bit of rambling too and fro to find the next station.  

The dynamic duo on the true summit.  Photo by Steven.


A lot of unfriendly weather around this evening.


Looking back up at the summit block after rapping down.


While we were descending some weather had been moving in from the west.  The first storm managed to pass right by us, heading north and besieging The Wapta.  The second storm took us head on and the roar of thunder and a smattering of rain made us redouble our efforts at getting back down off technical terrain swiftly.    After the second storm had passed, we only had one quick rap to go before getting back down to the bivy col.  An amazing sight lay in store to the east as a double-rainbow had formed between Mount Temple and Moraine Lake!  Still wary of more weather rolling in we didn't stop for that long but a few pictures were certainly in order!  After finishing the last rap (and doing a bit of interesting downclimbing to get onto flat terrain) we were back at camp and feeling much more relaxed!  There was still a long time to get water ready and cook dinner, but having already climbed the peak the next day way shaping up to be actually quite carefree (apart from re-ascending Neptuak, lots of raps to get down, and some interesting downclimbing..).


This thunderstorm missed us, the next one, not so much..


After the storm passed we were rewarded with cool views to the east.


Mount Temple looks pretty snazzy in this lighting.


Looking back up towards Deltaform Mountain, almost back at the bivy!


Back at the bivy, very nice sunset views.


You can just barely see my tent hiding in the left of the image.


Steven looking out to the west.


The Goodsirs and The Rockwall make for a pretty good backdrop.


Moon-above and bivy beer within, not a bad place for a tent.


The next morning we were greeted by a lovely sunrise.  The plan had been to wake up a little bit later and catch up on sleep but as soon as the sun was up, so were we, so might as well snap some pictures while the light is nice.  After lazily taking down camp we made our way back up Neptuak. Sticking climbers left led to less aggressive (though more sloggy) terrain and we bashed our way up scree to reach the ridge and walked back to the summit (for the second time that trip).  Descending down Neptuak was nicer than heading up due to the many rap stations though there are still many sections that require steep, and often exposed, downclimbing.

A blazing sunrise is a very effective alarm clock.


Hard to go wrong with pictures from this bivy.


Steven working back up towards Neptuak Mountain.


Looking over towards Opabin Pass, lots of snow for melting at the bivy for Hungabee.


The view back towards Deltaform.


Starting the way back down from Neptuak.


Downclimbing some interesting terrain.  Yay for stiff mountain-boots?  Photo by Steven.


A few nervous moves and tricky patches of footwork later we were back at the long scree band and descending back to the initial (and actually crux) rock band of the trip. A series of two quick raps (the upper being fully overhanging) and we were back down in scrambling territory and almost back at the trail.  All that was left at this point was descending back to Moraine Lake amidst sweltering heat and a fair bit of trail traffic.  The parking lot down at Moraine Lake was a total gong show.  Busy, busy, busy.


Finished with the upper raps, a bit of scree and then time to rap the crux.


Steven hanging out above the last pair of raps.


Back down on the trail below Wenkchemna Pass, quite easy travel.


Eiffel Lake below and Deltaform Above.


A much more enjoyable route than expected!


Deltaform is a pretty special mountain. There are certainly annoying (and downright dangerous) sections, but by in large it is a classic route for a reason. It is also hard to beat the views from the bivy. I'd be tempted to head back up to the col for views alone!
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