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Whitehorn Mountain (North Face/West Ridge Variation)

Ski Mountaineering (Glacier Travel, Steep Snow, Alpine Rock and Ice)
Elevation [m]: 
Round Trip Distance [km]: 
Net Elevation Gain [m]: 
Total Elevation Gain [m]: 
YDS Difficulty: 
None, Yay For Trails!
Friday, May 13, 2016

Of all the peaks in Mount Robson Provincial Park there are few (possibly just Robson itself) that are more impressive than Whitehorn Mountain. From whatever angle you look at it the snowy spire rises upwards both inspiring and intimidating at the same time. As it is such an impressive peak (and an 11000er to boot) it is no surpise that there are several routes up the beastie. Most of the lines (the regular south ridge or west ridge) are more amendable to later season rock ascents. Josh and I had our eye on a more early season route up the north face veering onto the west ridge just below the summit block. Joking about the route in broken Spanish to tease Raquell we called our planned route 'El Horno Blanco' Josh claiming that 'horno' is "totally how you say 'horn' in Spanish, for sure" :)

Setting off from the Berg Lake trailhead I was once again in ski boots and carrying skis (as for the trip up Resplendent Mountain and Rearguard Mountain with Vern and Mike a few weeks prior) only this time there was not even a memory of snow on the trail. The first bit to the Whitehorn Warden Cabin went fairly quickly and marked the end of the on trail part of the approach. There are a few different ways to get up to the glaciated benches used to access the north face of Whitehorn, we opted to head right up Philips Creek. The creek is pretty foreshortened and there is a solid 800 m of elevation and 4 km of distance from the flats near the Whitehorn campground! Getting up the creek was pretty straightforward with a few hops back and forth, with big packs though it was quite wearysome. After around 6 hours from the car we topped out on the headwaters of Philips Creek and could toss on the skis, huzzah!

Setting off once again from the Berg Lake Trail with skis.


Looking up at Whitehorn Mountain from near Kinney Lake.


There really is no reason to take the upper trail most of the time.


Up beside the Whitehorn Campground the river is flowing a lot more swiftly than last time I was up here.


Josh heading up towards Philips Creek.


There are certainly some interesting bits with sticking in the creek.


Tons of waterfalls around here, I guess it is 'the valley of 1000 falls'.


Looking back down towards the campground from near the top of Philips Creek.

We reckoned with how toasty it was, and late in the day, ascending the benches wouldn't be a good call so opted for a lower bivy in the middle of two moraines on a patch of delightfully soft snow - free ground. The bivy had some pretty fabulous head on views of the Emporer Face on Robson. We set the alarm for 130 and planned on a long day, not knowing just how long of a day was ahead of us!

The flats above Philips Creek. Whitehorn Mountain, Mount Philips, and Ranger Peak (from left to right).


Josh heading up towards skiiable snow with Robson in the background.


Josh surverying the accessing benches, looks pretty decent.


One last look from the moraine near our bivy, great evening views.

Neat views of Whitehorn's shadow moving over Robson.
The next morning we left camp and set off up the glacier. As nice as our bivy was it did mean we had to ascend a moraine as the first thing in the day, which is kind of fierce, especially by dim headlamp. Wandering up snow slopes the clear skies had done a fabulous job locking down the snowpack into bulletproof quality. The downside of this is that my skins didn't have enough grip to get up some of the steeper parts, lots of stepping and walking in places. We could stick climbers left for a while avoiding the broken parts on the benches but had to wander in a couple times when meltout made for roadblocks. Getting up the bench took a long time and we ended up reaching the col (700 m above our camp) in about 4 hours.

Looking towards Robson from partway up the upper bench.


Josh with the Robson Group in the background, mighty fine views.


Up at the col, the north face of Whitehorn Mountain now in full view!

The next order of business was getting from the col to the glaciated north face which requires dropping a bunch of elevation and then kicking up a steep snow gully (complete with a couple moats to keep us on our toes!). There is some super neat terrain on the other side of the col with both Longstaff and Philips looking like super cool peaks (as well as a neat lake likely rarely visited). Getting up onto the glacier we were finally done with 'the approach' part of things and actually on the route. Weaving upwards to avoid the big holes worked out well but lots of new powder made for slower going. Eventually we made it to the base of the face itself and started wallowing upwards towards the shrund. Crossing the shrund was a process. It was open and soft on both sides. Josh cleaned it up as much as possible and got across in what he described as "kind of like doing the splits but more messed up". Above the shrund the snow hardened up and progress was much quicker. The last 50m or so from the ridge things got more interesting with steep 45+ degree ice and then thin snow covered mixed terrain. Topping out on the ridge we were right where we planned just below the summit block.

Looking down the other side of the col towards Longstaff Mountain.


Lots of potential routes on the west side of the col!


Lower down looking towards the steep access gully just visible in the bottom left.


It doesn't look like too much trouble to head up Longstaff and Mount Philips from this side.


A while later at the base of the north face of Whitehorn Mountain.

The info I had for the west ridge route said there was some 5.4ish sections to be ascended at this part but picking a decent line was hard with all the snow and ice coverage. In the end we decided on a gully system two to the climbers right of the ridgecrest and made our way up snow then ice and mixed ice glazed ledges. Josh lead a heroic pitch to get past the steepest part of the gully on 5.5/5.6 ice covered rock with a few patches of proper ice thrown in for good measure. Pro was hard to come by but I bashed in a good two pin belay after simul-climbing part way up the first 'pitch' so at least that it something. Josh's mixed cragging this winter payed off as seconding that pitch I had no idea how he had lead it, damned greasy stuff (though when dry and without a big pack it is probably much more reasonable). After that pitch we swung leads for a few pitches of snow, 4th,(and maybe a low 5th move or two) class ice covered rock before I head a victory yelp from Josh who had just topped out on the summit! I had my camera put away for the technical stuff so no pictures from that part sadly (would have been prime helmet-cam terrain)..

The summit block is much higher and spicier than it looks from here. We ascended the second gully system from the left.


On the final snow to the summit, time to get the camera back out!


Summit views looking towards Mount Robson.

Views from the summit were as awesome as you might expect, Whitehorn is certainly in an excellent neighborhood! With snow conditions and the technical pitches taking a while we were way behind schedule but at least the snow slopes would start cooling down to lessen avi hazards (always a bright side eh!). I had really hoped we would come across some tat from previous parties rapping the west ridge but there was nothing to be found (with the exception of a short piece of ancient cord a couple raps down that was probably the remnants of a vthread back in icyer times). Our 60m rope would prove to be just too short to make our lives stress free as boulders and horns to rap off were few and far between (getting off belay with one hand while starting to downclimb with the other is always interesting). A 70m rope would be fantastic to have (or just plan to extend your rap anchors slightly). Suffice to say with three raps and a bit of downclimbing we made it back to where we topped out on the ridge. From here we started kicking steps down snow to get lower down the ridge to reach the glacier without getting on the very steep slopes of the north face which had been blasted with heat over the afternoon (lower down also avoided the open shrund and the gnarly thin ice/mixed stuff near the ridgecrest). The snow ran out at one point and a last rap (with our rope also being just too short of clearing an ice gully) was needed. Below that, the going got easier and we could walk, albeit slowly, back to our tracks and start the way down moving by moonlight and auroral-glow.

Looking down further inot BC from the summit.


Three raps later back down to where we gained the ridge, quite warm snow!


Descending the west ridge as the sun sinks lower.


At the bottom of our last rap right around sunset.


Still a ways to go from this point.


Aurora above Mount Philips as we descend the glacier.

Descending the access slope we agreed that stopping to break out the stove and melt some water was well worth the time and while doing so my watch alarm went off (forgetting to turn it off from the previous morning), we had officially been awake for 24 hours! Ascending back to the col went faster with some water in us and we tossed on our skis for downhill just as the faint start of day glow could be seen on the eastern horizon. Getting down the bench was kind of rough. With very low light for seeing our tracks and hard snow making for side slipping. After some looking around to find our way up the sky brightened up enough that the way was clearish (each of us kind of passed out for a bit after sitting down on some debris while looking for tracks) but far from a straightforward ski down. Eventually we got off the glacier and trudged up the moraine to camp as Whitehorn had begun to blaze with alpenglow. A quick brew for some water and it was off to bed for 4-5 hours before starting the trek out (I was tired enough I forgot take my helmet off before getting into my sleeping bag :) ).

Back at the col, a dark and blurry picture matches our level of conciousness!

Waking up four hours later it did oddly feel like a different day. We cooked up breakfast/lunch whatever it would be and got a lot of water in us before starting to pack things up and start down. Leaving camp around 1 we were debating either descending back down Philips Creek or striking off to intersect the Berg Lake Trail above the Emporer Hill (somewhere around Falls of the Pool). Eventually not wanting to put skins on made the choice for us and back down the creek we went. It was much easier to pick a good line on the way down and we stayed high and skiers left which actually worked out fairly well. This was good as a couple days of blue sky had really amped up the water flow down Philips Creek. Lower down Josh crossed the creek while I stayed on the skiers left (traversing some interesting rock bands perched perilously above the raging creek) not trusting my ski boots on the slippery rock at his crossing point (having soaked my camera once this year I was not eager to do it again!). Lower down on the flats I crossed back over and we made out way back to the warden cabin; back on essentially paved trail the trip was almost in the bag! Just as we were packing up for the last stretch to the car there was a very blonde grizzly bear across the valley heading for the Whitehorn shelter, quite the majestic beastie!


Our bivy nestled between two moraines.


Looking back up at Whitehorn from upper Philips Creek.


Ranger Peak and Horsefly Ridge would be fun to ski some time.


Back down Philips Creek we go, lots of runoff.


Waterfalls everywhere you look.


Josh elected to cross over midway down the creek, I stuck on the skiers left until the flats.


Back down on the flats by the Whitehorn Campground.


The rest of the way back to then car went about how one would expect after an over 26 hour day, wearing ski boots, and with multi-day packs but we were still very upbeat (there were even a few folks biking up/down the trail to dodge to keep things interesting). At the stroke of 930ish we made it back to the car plotting our next trek, an epic quest for pizza and beers back in Jasper!


Not too far to go now, almost at Kinney Lake.


A last look up towards Whitehorn from the east side of Kinney Lake.


Quite a neat route!


Looking back on this trip it has all the hallmark signs of 'an epic': being a little behind schedule, difficult conditions, and un-planned delays. It did however lack one crucial component; we never really felt worried. Sure things took longer and we were doing a lot lot of return in the dark but even after 24 hours on the move we still managed to crack jokes and keep things groovy (Josh is a great for always having something to say to lighten the mood!). Super glad that this trip worked out, this should be the last time I'll carry skis up the Berg Lake Trail until next winter (for real this time).

Average: 5 (1 vote)


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