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The Freshfield Icefield On Foot (With Ramblings Up Mount Barlow, Mount Low, Mount Lambe, Mount Whiteaves, Nanga Parbat Mountain, Mount Barnard, Gilgit Mountain, and Mount Freshfield)

Ski Mountaineering (Glacier Travel, Steep Snow, Extensive Routefinding)
Elevation [m]: 
Round Trip Distance [km]: 
Net Elevation Gain [m]: 
Total Elevation Gain [m]: 
YDS Difficulty: 
Fierce In Patches On The Blaeberry Otherwise Allright
Friday, April 22, 2016

There had been talk of a big ski trip with Liam and Jake to end the season.  After throwing around some different objectives including big icefields on the coast we settled on a plan closer to home, filling in part of the Great Divide Traverse route that we wernt able to complete previously.  This plan was to traverse the Freshfield Icefield starting at Saskatchewan Crossing and coming out somewhere around Peyto Lake.  Our route would take 10 days aiming for around 4 days spent on the icefield to bag some peaks.

Leaving the trailhead at the Glacier Lake pullout we were anticipating a soggy first day given the forecast.  Thankfully after a few initial sprinkles things cleared up for a long while.  Being a ski trip we were all decked out in ski boots and with skis strapped to out (already heavy) 10 day mountaineering packs.  Slogging the 10 km in to Glacier Lake was a good (if tiring) warmup.  One funny (or concerning) note at the turnoff to the Howse River was a day hiker walking by and saying the Liam's car's door was wide open at the parking lot (a bit of inreach messaging sorted that out).  Walking along the flats went fairly quickly but a few bushwhacky sections really slowed us down.  After about 13 km from the road rain started coming down and we hastily set up the tent on the shore of the river.


Leaving the Glacier Lake parking lot, quite heavy packs.


View from the first lookout (with the big red chairs).


Liam after the turnoff to the Howse River.


Looking ahead to our path up the Howse River.


Jake and Liam crossing one of the shallow parts.


Nice travel conditions early season on the river flats.


Setting up camp and cooking dinner in the middle of a rainstorm.

The next morning we were faced with a choice, bushwhacking along the shore or get out boots soaked and go through the river.  We took the plunge and walked through the Howse crossing at least 10 times but at least then we're not concerned about boot soggyness through the marshy sections, they were already super saturated!  Eventually we crossed Freshfield Creek and ate lunch in the sun.  From here we could toss our skis on for a while to reach the sun-drenched flats before Freshfield Lake.  Skiing was rough in places and downright horrible for the last km before the flats.  The flats themselves were very dry and we carried our skis across doing one last ford to get on the northwest side of the lake.  With such a warm spring there was not enough ice on the lake,we would be taking the long way around.  Setting up camp we managed to have a nice fire to dry some gear off and try to stave off trench foot!

The next morning it wasn't raining but still quite cloudy.


The first of many fords.


Your boots can't get more soaked once they are supersaturated :)


Rounding the bend with Mount David above on the left.


The boys taking a break from pack weight, taking the packs on and off was more tiring than resting like this.


One of the deeper fords crossing Freshfield Creek.


A bit of skiing coming up, just have to stash our skis above this ledge.


Moving forwards on skis is quite novel.


Upper Freshfield Creek, we had to head back into the bush for a bit after this.


The last bit of deadfall and rubble before Freshfield Lake.


Not a bad place for a camp beside Freshfield Lake.


Looking back across the valley towards Mount David and Mount Outram.


Mount Freshfield itself is the star attraction of the lake area.


Another look towards Freshfield in the pond before the lake.


A bit of clearing overnight, far from enough to freeze the lake!

On the morning of Day 3, amidst a light drizzle we broke camp and carried out skis across the west side of the lake.  It turned out the upper valley was also really melted and lots of ups and downs on scree covered ice was needed to get closer to the glacier.  After hitting a moraine around 2000 m we opted to stick to a rocky ascent to gain the main icefield rather that following the dry and broken Freshfield Glacier.  Travel was tedious and dicey in places but eventually we reached the edge of the icefield as a monsoon started.  Everybody was thoroughly soaked but a dry wind and bit of sun on the icefield did a remarkable job of getting back to normal.  On the icefield we ascended in and out of a whiteout until passing Mount Lambe and set up what would be our base camp for the next few days.  I was getting really dehydrated on the last stretch to camp, not my finest pace at all!

Packing up camp to cross the lake.


Jake and Mike with open water in the lake beside them.


Liam leading up the rubble on the shore of the lake.


The upper valley reveals a bonus lake!


No direct way to continue, up moraine we go.


Mike not wanting to take a dip in the silty water.


A tunnel through the glacier near the toe.


A bit more moraine to be climbed before getting on the icefield.


With the Freshfield Glacier itself in poor shape we ascended this rock to gain the icefield.


A magical chocolate waterfall flowing off the main icefield.


Looking back at the toe of the Freshfield Glacier.


On the icefield at last, in a rainstorm, but still on the icefield.

The next morning the benefits of a base camp started to pay dividends.  After a hearty breakfast we set off towards Mount Barlow amidst mixed skies (with most of the summits lost in the clouds).  The icefield around here has a lot more texture than the topo maps would suggest and a little veering was needed to keep us on a good line.  Before long we were huffing and puffing up steep snow to reach the ridgecrest  (which marks the provincial border).  After a quick snack we headed up the ridge in a local whiteout and anticlimacticly came to the summit.  There were two registers, one super soggy  (read an ice brick) and a PVC tube with an entry from a trip with Chic Scott.  We skied down back to where we stopped along the ridgecrest and Liam reckoned heading up Mount Lowe while in the area was worthwhile.  We carried our skies up a ways to reach a false summit 30 or so vertical meters from the summit.  There was a steep snow ridge to be tackled so axes and crampons came out (after getting out noses into the traverse it wasn't that bad with good snow for kicking steps).  Once across the snow a bit of boot work brought us to the (registerless) summit.  On descent views started to clear up and the full extent of the Freshfields started to become clear.  We also caught glimpses of what we thought was the second Lambe col (ick!) and the base camp of a group that helicoptered in to the upper icefield.  The run back to camp was quick and fun.  After going for a water run we spent the rest of the day drying off gear and gobbling grub (butterscotch shortbread pie oh my!).  Quite a nice day, base camps are great!

Camp in the morning, a wee bit frosty but things heated up quickly.


Excellent views of Gilgit Mountain (centre) and Mount Hemler (left of centre).


Not the greatest visibility near the summit of Mount Barlow.


Summit views from Mount Barlow.


Skiing down the ridge on our way to Mount Low.


Part way up Mount Low, you can just barely see our camp in the middle of the icefield.


A wee bit of easy scrambling to follow the ridge.


Looking south across the ridge towards the Mount Cairnes.


The boys crossing a steep slope to reach the summit of Mount Low.


Summit views from Mount Low.


Time for a solid ski run back to camp.


Certainly can't complain about the camp location for views.


Very warm and very bright back at camp.


Things cleared up a bit in the afternoon, lovely peaks.


You can see our ski tracks down from the Low/Barlow col when zoomed in.


No eveninglow tonight but still nice skies.


Neat glow from Clifford and Jiminy.

On Day 5, morning weather was supposed to be cloudy so we opted to stick to the lower icefield.  We aimed to head up Mount Lambe and Mount Whiteaves, going first to Lambe due to the steep avi slopes.  A good side benefit to these objectives was that we would be able to see the two cols that would allow us to descend down to valley bottom (that looked pretty fearsome from afar!).  Leaving camp we could follow our water run tracks to the base of Lambe and then kicked steps up snow and rock to reach the summit.  While ascending we were treated to much better visibility than expected and saw a helicopter heading onto the upper icefield.  Looking down on the first Lambe col from above it didn't actually look that bad (yay!).  No sign of a register up on Lambe either.  We descended swiftly to get off the snow before it warmed too much and were back at camp around high noon.  Mike opted to stick around camp (and upgraded our cooking area into a full on sun shelter kitchen pit) while Liam, Jake, and I would head over to Whiteaves.


Morning glow and setting moon.


Nice lighting with the setting moon in view too.


Mike and Jake ascending the lower slopes of Mount Lambe.


Mike near the summit of Mount Lambe.


Looking back at the Freshfields from the summit of Mount Lambe.


Solitaire Mountain (left) would be quite the peak to ramble up.


Zoomed in view of the Freshfields.


Looking down on the Lambe Glacier.


The boys on the summit of Mount Lambe.


It was both super bright and super hot skiing over to the peak and Liam blazed a trail while Jake and I finished gathering our stuff from camp.  Eventually we looked ahead and saw Liam taking off his skis, this is never a good sign and meant the top of the slope to gain the Lowe/Whiteaves col was both very hard snow and very steep.  Sure enough the last 50 m of vertical to the col sucked.  From the col we ascended the rest of the route on soft sun - warmed snow which Jake did a fabulous job kicking steps up.  Traversing from the summit ridge to the summit held some moderate scrambling moves which were fun if a little less graceful given ski boots.  Summit views from Mount Whiteaves were great with all the Freshfields visible as well as peaks across the valley and all the way back to Survey Peak and near Saskatchewan Crossing.  No sign of a register up here either.  Also very good to see was that the second Lambe col (and Lambe glacier) looked quite nice for descending.  After a bunch of pictures we downclimbed and glissaded back to the skis and did the run back to camp.


Jake (and distant Liam) setting off for Mount Whiteaves.


View from the Whiteaves/Low col.


Jake on the summit ridge of Mount Whiteaves.


Liam and Jake avoiding the summit cornice.


A pair of luminous sundogs visible back at camp.


Mike had souped up the kitchen into a fortress.


Quite a few stars above.


On day 6 we woke up a little bit earlier with a plan to beat the heat down low and head up around the heli group's camp on the upper icefield.  Leaving camp we accessed the upper icefield via the Gilgit/Helmer col and quickly came across some ski tracks heading down towards the Blaeberry.  Already at this point the sun was oppresively hot (skiing up pretty much just in base layers).  Our line plopped us onto the upper icefield at the Nanga Parbat/Gilgit col, quite close to each peak.  We reckoned that Nanga Parbat was worth ascending for the name alone (not to mention it is also a lovely peak) and Jake broke trail up to a nice serac ledge where we could transition to 'pons and axes.  Liam and I rock paper scizzored for point and I kicked upwards to the summit.  Snow was decent and fairly steep in places with a much larger than expected summit for snapping pictures from.


Very clear skies this morning for glow!


Glow on Gilgit Mountain and Nanga Parbat Mountain.


Jake setting course for the moon, or at least the slope below it.


On the other side of "Gilgit's shoulder" on our way to the upper icefield.


Nanga Parbat Mountain doesn't look too far away.


Skiing up to near the 'shrund on Nanga Parbat Mountain.


The boys on the upper mountain.


Just one steep snow slope between us and the summit.


Summit views from Nanga Parbat Mountain.


Liam enjoying some turns below Nanga Parbat Mountain.


After descending we skied down to where the heli group was holding their base camp and were briefly cooled down by the run.  Things heated up again though as Liam followed tracks upwards to the Barnard/Walker/Bulyea area (with for some reason agreeing that 'barn-yard' was the proper pronounciation of Barnard) while we were still unsure on what our second objective of the day would be.  Knowing the Barnard was spicy at the end there was some discussion of rolling otherwards but eventually we set off to give it a go.  The heli group had left tracks up to the Barnard/Bulyea col which despite flat light were nice to follow.  From the col we headed upwards kicking steps before reaching the steep final slope.  Jake took point and quickly reported a bench 'big enough to set up our tent' on the climbers left of the cornice.  Sure enough this snow scoop was quite deep and after everyone was in place we set up a deadman to belay people up one at a time to the summit (the rope wouldn't reach to the tippy top, but it was a soft cornice anyhows so no one complained).  I measured the elevation as 3339 m, so not an 11000er but close!  We descended unroped and skied back down to the heli camp before skinning back towards the Nanga/Gilgit col.  At this point even with cloud cover things were quite warm, thankfully a short snow dusting chilled us down.  At the col we reckoned we might as well tag Gilgit too and Mike set trail to the summit.  Descent back to camp was kind of tricky with a grippy crust that caused a few falls.  Back at camp it was falafel and KD for dinner, tasty stuff.  An odd day for weather but an excellent day in the hills!


The upper icefield is a gold-mine for ski mountaineering objectives.


On the upper-upper icefield.  Mount Barnard (left) is our objective.


Ascending Mount Barnard.


Looking west towards the Campbell Icefield from the ridge of Mount Barnard.


We took turns belaying everyone up the summit cornice.


Lots of cornice to go around.


Looking back at the upper icefield from Mount Barnard.


Liam descending Mount Barnard.


Quite the mix of weather between the east and west.


A while later things cleared up on the summit of Gilgit Mountain.


Descending back to camp, I didnt' notice the extra-Mike due to pano-stitching until now. :)


Almost back at camp.


Quite a radiant sunset above Mount Freshfield.


Day 7 was one of the highlights of the trip, setting off to ascend Mount Freshfield (a very aesthetic peak and almost the highest on the Freshfields).  Given how early the upper slopes get sun we woke up at 3 am to be off the mountain (hopefully) before things get avalanchey.  Skiing down the glacier by starlight to the base of the icefall below Freshfield was fairly quick with a bit of up and down due to limited visibility.  Picking a line through the icefall was tricky by headlamp but Liam rocked a good line and after some boot work we were again skiing up towards the steep slopes.  To reach the upper saddle on Freshfield a long sustained slope must be tackled.  We first skinned but quickly switched to crampons and axes as the snow got hard quick.  Liam lead a solid rampage of step-kickery up to a rock outcrop then we swung leads up to the saddle.


Waking up dark and early.


Above the icefall on the way to Mount Freshfield.


Mount Pilkington (left) looks quite impressive.  Mount Freshfield is on the far right.


The moon poking through the ridge of Mount Walker.


Great views from part way up the face of Mount Freshfield


A bit more boot-work to get to the summit.


From the saddle we (excepting Mike) left our skis near some rocks and Jake kicked a whack of steps up to the summit ridge.  The views got better and better as we ascended.  Looking down on the Campbell Icefield was quite neat.  The final few meters to the summit were corniced and a few quick boot belays were in order.  Really great summit views!  On descent Mike unroped and got his skis ready while the rest of us kicked down to our skis.  Mike reported the skiing was rough but better than walking.  Skiing down the rest of the peak was rough for me.  Really grippy snow combined with a ton of skin glue stuck to my bases (note to self, re-glue skins soon!) made turning fierce.  After some un graceful skiing (during which a helicopter presumably from Campbell Lodge flew by) I regrouped with the boys and we made the rest of our way back down.  Skinning back to camp was toasty but at least there was a breeze!  With waking up early we all called it a day right around sunset.


The final slopes of Mount Freshfield.


Not much in the way to the west, great viewpoint.


The summit ridge of Mount Freshfield.


Zoomed in pano to the west.


Looking towards The Lyells and Mount Forbes.


The boys enjoying the summit with Mount Forbes in the background.


Not a bad viewpoint at all.


Looking back at Freshfield after skiing down.


Just able to see the tents poking above the snow.


Not a bad day.


On Day 8 it was time to leave The Freshfields and start out trek back towards my car which was stashed at Peyto Lake.  We opted to roughly follow the GDT route given in Chic Scott's book which starts off by leading over the two Lambe Cols before descending the Lambe Glacier to reach the Blaeberry River.  None of us had any good beta on the Lambe Glacier itself but after having ascended Lambe and Whiteaves a few days prior we had some pictures to tell where the most-fearsome holes were.  Packing up camp took a while, especially the snow anchors that managed to end up beneath 'sidewalks' around camp but eventually we followed our watering-hole tracks towards the first Lambe Col.  Liam and Mike opted for a direct line heading up scree/snow/scree towards the col while Jake and I took a more traversy line heading up snow for the elevation and then traversing over to the col.  Despite the different routes we all reached the col at roughly the same time and quickly started side-slipping down towards the next col before the flat light got any worse.  From the second col we stayed roughly skier's right and despite the mild whiteout managed to get down to the toe without exploring any crevasses (awesome leading by Liam).  The lower part of the Lambe Glacier had some interesting cliffs and creeks to head over before getting back down to treeline where the snow got punchy but still decent in places.  We opted to stick to a high line and traverse south as much as possible before heading down to the river and managed to shave off a few clicks before reaching an avi gully that lead down on snow all the way to river level.  Once on the river the 'trail' was pretty washed out and bushy in places but Liam ominously maintained that this was 'the good section' and the bush by Cairnes Creek was much, much worse.  While skiing along the river tragedy struck, one of the pins in Mike's tech bindings (the things that bite into the boots) broke off meaning that he had to stick locked in even on flats/uphill for the rest of the trip.  Mike powered through though and soon the skis were back on our packs for the rest of the slog towards the Cairnes Creek Recreation Area, our camp for the night.


Time to switch to crampons for ascending Lambe Col.


Quite the grunt with multi-day packs.


Looking across the face of Mount Lambe to Lambe Col.


Looking down from the second Lambe Col.


Jake and Mike descending the lower Lambe Glacier.


The lower section of the Lambe Glacier.


Thankfully continuous snow kept going for a ways even below treeline.


The riverside bush-fest is allegadly a trail.


Jake crossing Cairnes Creek.


The bridge across the Blaeberry has seen better days.


Evening at the Cairnes Creek Recreation Site.


Day 9 would prove to be the last day of the trip, and possibly the most exhausting.  With camping at the recreation area (with a mighty elevation of 1280 m) we would have to ascend to Baker Col (around 2850 m) before starting the descent to Peyto Lake and back to the car.  The first matter of the day was to ford the Blaeberry River.  Back when Liam and Jake were here on their walk to Mexico they found a sketchy but cross-able bridge.  For us, the bridge had gone from sketchy, to death-trap and we opted to get our boots wet and cross at a fork a little bit south of the bridge-ruins.  After the river the route follows the old Blaeberry FSR road up to the Wildcat Creek valley eventually passing by Mistaya Lodge.  The trail up (and there is a maintained trail) is very very steep in places and is quite the grunt carrying skis in places is the snowpack is shallow.  Eventually the steepest part of the headwall was passed and the snow started to be littered with old skin and downhill tracks, the lodge was close!  We ended up crossing the bridge and reaching Mistaya Lodge just as the staff were burning some residual bush sprucing up the place for the coming summer season.  Dave Birnie (who we presumed correctly was the owner of the lodge) invited us to have lunch on the patio which we graciously accepted.  Mistaya Lodge is certainly in a special location, and would be pretty neat to stay at in summer or winter.  


Looking up river from the other side of the Blaeberry.


If anything the bridge looks worse from this side.


FSR Road to follow for a whiile.


Crossing Wildcat Creek.


Gaining the headwall up Wildcat Creek requires steeply climbing the face on the right.


One of the less steep parts of the ascent.


Much higher up the valley it is still more wintery.


Crossing the bridge to reach Mistaya Lodge.


The deck at Mistaya Lodge was a great place for a break.

Knowing that we still had another 700 meters of vertical from the patio to the col we couldn't stay too long so said our farewells and quested colwards.  Getting up to Baker col was quite tiring but didn't take too too long.  Hitting the col itself I was getting pretty drained and floated the idea of staying over at Peyto Hut rather than doing the whole deproach.  Both Mike and Liam had to be out to get to their new jobs on time though so we stuck to the plan and headed downwards.  Using my cursed skins all the way up had done a number on my skis (about 60% glue coverage this time...) which made skiing down the breakable crust damned difficult.  Eventually we made it own to the edge of the Peyto Glacier and transitioned to walking mode down to the lake.  Talk through most of the day was focused on "what is the lake going to be like", with the backup plans if it was too thin either bushwhacking around the shore or ascending to the Peyto Viewpoint Trail and then back down the road.  The closer we got the sketchier the ice looked so sure enough we slogged up the Peyto Viewpoint Trail on a mix of post-holing and skiing reaching paved road under a sea of starlight.  Liam and I ditched our packs (while Jake and Mike stayed behind to watch them) and set off down the highway at a brisk pace eventually flagging down a french speaking dude from Jasper who gave me a lift the last couple km to grab the car.  We ended up getting back to Liam's truck at the Glacier Lake lot just past midnight (technically day 10 I suppose).

Looking up towards Baker Col from Mistaya Lodge.


Still a lot of elevation to go.


Partway up the valley towards Baker Col.


Looking back down towards the Wildcat Valley.


Almost at the col.


Looking back at the Peyto Glacier after skiing down.


A little more walking to get back to the road.


The lake did not look favorable for crossing...


Ascending an avalanche path to gain the Peyto Lookout trial, bypassing Peyto Lake.


Quite the route!

All in all this trip was a lot of work.  On a rough estimate, we ended up carrying our skis for about 60 of the 144 km of distance, going through an exceedingly large number of river/creek fords, encountering fierce bush, unexpected bonus lakes, and dreary moraine-slogs.  That being said all of those challenges only made the trip more memorable (and made the base-camp on the Freshfields that much more lovely).  A great trip with a great crew, can't wait to see what we come up with next spring!


Average: 5 (1 vote)


Looks like a great trip and a lot of work. Thanks for the pictures and text. That was a lot of work too.

By Mary Packham

Wow what a trip... Mike bummer about your boots. Although I know you would rise to the challenge. Amazing trip, congratulations on the route finding... thanks for sharing. Liz

By Liz Baker

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