Gateway to the Icefields Parkway
Date: March 29, 2013
While most people passing through Lake Louise will have their heads titled to the giant mountains to the south, those who climb those mountains are certain to take note of another giant across the valley to the north. Guarding the gateway of the Icefields Parkway, Mt. Hector is one the 54 so-called “11,000 footers” in the Canadian Rockies and its prominence affords it spectacular views of the Lake Louise group, parts of Yoho National Park, the Wapta Icefields, and the isolated areas in northeastern Banff.
Summiting Mt. Hector was near the top of my list of objectives for 2013, and when I got the invite to join Steven, Ben and Grant for a late March attempt, I was all over it. We weren't sure how the weather was going to pan out when we departed the Parkway under a full moon at 4:30am, but the clear night showed promise, and we wouldn't leave the mountain disappointed.
Although this mountain can be ascended in the summer, it's far more popular during the winter where the gentle grade of the glacier can provide some excellent backcountry skiing. Due to the varying gear and skiing abilities of our group, we all went up on snowshoes which offers its own set of advantages (the ascent) and disadvantages (the descent).
Starting from Lake Louise, you'll find the “trailhead” for Mt. Hector (some tracks next to a creek) about 24km north of the park gates on the Icefield Parkway. I highly suggest making use of the street view in the Route Map pane below, as it will show you both the creek you're looking for on the east side and the pull-out where you can park your car on the west side (albeit in summer). The parking area is plowed in the winter.
From the highway the ascent route follows the south side of Hector Creek through a brief forest section as it gently ascends the valley. Soon after the forest the terrain steepens and will funnel you into steep, narrow gully known as the “waterfall”. This section between Mt. Andromache (climber's left) and Little Hector (climber's right) is a classic terrain trap, and should only be attempted under favourable conditions (they were moderate-low-low on this day, which is about as good as it gets). This section also has a reputation for being icy. Our snowshoes (with their built-in crampons) worked very well on this narrow, steep slope, but you should be prepared to break out your crampons and ice axe; especially if ascending on skis.
Once you get beyond the waterfall, the gully soon gives way to broad, open pass with considerably safer terrain. We followed a high line along the climber's right side of the pass aiming for a col between an unnamed highpoint (in the centre of the pass) and Little Hector (to the right). We stopped there for our first real break of the day just as the night began to give way to dawn.
From our break spot at the col, we traversed and soon gained a small ridge to the climber's right and then proceeded to contour around the base of Little Hector towards the base of the Hector Glacier, enjoying a brilliant sunrise along the way. We soon stopped, put on our harnesses, and then tied into our rope for the long ascent up the glacier to the col between Hector's east and west (main) summits; which were still 600m above us, and over 2 kilometres away.
I could attempt to describe our ascent route across the glacier in detail, but the reality is that glacier travel is inherently dangerous and any “safer” routes can change dramatically. The “general guideline” is to stick to the climber's right and then gradually make your way to the centre further up the glacier; which is basically what we did. We paralleled the ridge connecting Little Hector with Hector to the climber's right, while staying far enough away from that ridge to protect us from a potential cornice-triggered avalanche (for which there was some clear, recent and sobering evidence). Later, when we looked down at our route from above, we could clearly see that we had either passed between two large crevasses, or had crossed a very large crevasse on a (thankfully) very solid snow bridge (as seen here) . You need to take the necessary glacier travel precautions on Hector, during both the ascent and descent, as people do die here (see considerations).
I had read of the final assault on Hector's summit often being a true mountaineering effort, involving belaying, and using crampons and ice axes (and sometimes ice tools) to overcome the icy sections, but we lucked out on this day. We left our snowshoes and packs at the col and, aside from a few awkward moves to ascend a short chimney next to the col, the rest of the ascent was an easy scramble. We wore our crampons for this section, but they ended up being a precaution rather than a necessity.
Hector, as most 11,000 foot mountains tend to do, had captured a cloud near its summit which completely obscured our southerly view towards Pipestone Pass, Mt. Richardson and the Lake Louise Ski Resort area, but the other 270° of viewing was clear and spectacular to behold. Given that friends of mine had seen nothing here until their third ascent, I'm not about to complain.
An ascent of Hector's dramatic east summit was tempting, especially since a previous group had been so kind as to break a switchbacking trail to its summit, but we were cold, tired, and beginning to worry of the effect the sunny weather might have on the safety of our descent route. We put our snowshoes back on, re-attached ourselves to the rope, and began the long trek to the parkway under beautiful skies. Certainly a day to remember!
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Glacier travel, as mentioned earlier, can be quite dangerous. Within a few weeks of our trip on Mt. Hector an unroped skier drifted too far to the climber's left on the glacier and fell 35m into a hidden crevasse, and died. The accident report and the related analysis provided by Parks Canada rescue staff provide some key questions to consider before attempting this trip.
During the summer it may be possible to bypass the majority of the glacier by first summiting Little Hector (a moderately difficult scramble), and then following its southern ridge to Hector's shoulder. Although this would bypass many of the more perilous areas of the glacier, you should still rope up and carry the appropriate crevasse rescue gear.
You can read more about making a winter ascent of Mt. Hector in Chic Scott's Alpine Tours in the Canadian Rockies (page 85).