“two hours in that gully suddenly became completely worth it”
Date: March 30, 2013
If there was ever a trip to save for a perfect weather, perfect avalanche condition day, White Pyramid would be it. The approach via Epaulette Lake feels endless, the ascent to the White Pyramid / Epaulette col takes forever, and then the climb from the col to Pyramid's ridge is steep as hell, but once you gain that ridge, none of that will matter. Your reward for that effort is a non-stop parade of spectacular views all the way to the top. Not only is Whyte Pyramid itself full of fantastic details to marvel at, but the views to the south, southwest, and west are so amazing that if your helmet strap isn't done up tightly, your jaw won't just drop, it will complete the descent without you!
White Pyramid is a winter mountaineering objective, and preferably a ski mountaineering objective, that requires an alpine start, a supportive snowpack, and favourable avalanche conditions. These requirements likely create a limited window between mid-February and the end of April to ascend this mountain. Steven, Will and I did the trip in March on snowshoes (don't ask) under Low/Low/Moderate (below treeline, treeline, alpine) avalanche conditions, which are about as good as you're going to get in the Canadian Rockies.
The trailhead for accessing the Epaulette Creek approach towards White Pyramid is incredibly easy to miss as it's just a culvert beside a bit of a gap through a heavy forest. Begin your quest to find it by first locating the parking area which is at a large pull-out on the eastern side of the Icefields Parkway near Bison Creek, approximately 11.6km south of Saskatchewan River Crossing or 28.7km north of the turn off to the Num-ti-jah Lodge at Bow Lake.
Having the “Bow Lake and Saskatchewan Crossing” map from Gem Trek handy will help contextualize the next few steps of this route, which begin by walking 600m south along the highway looking for a culvert and a break through the trees to your right (west). On the Gem Trek map you'll see this as the second creek south of the parking area. If there hasn't been a substantial dumping of snow lately, you should be lucky enough to have tracks to follow all the way to Epaulette Lake.
However, if you're not so lucky, you'll be breaking trail first on a southwesterly (but mostly westerly) course that will cross the Mistaya River twice before reaching the outlet of Epaulette Creek. Once at the creek, simply follow it up towards its source at Epaulette Lake. This section is fairly viewless except for a ridge to the climber's left that the creek navigates around.
With a broken trail to follow it took us about 45 minutes to get from the highway to Epaulette Lake, from which we had our first views of the long ascent gully between White Pyramid and Epaulette Mountain, which was still another 3km away. We traveled directly across the solidly frozen lake and continued along the upper section of Epaulette Creek towards the base of our mountain destination.
From the end of the valley you'll need to surpass a pair of steep slopes (one straight ahead and then the next sharply to the climber's right) to gain a lower shoulder of Epaulette Mountain. From here you'll really begin to appreciate why favourable avalanche conditions are a necessity, as the entire gully ascent before you is a classic terrain trap between two large mountains. From my vantage point in photo #62, those large rock formations at the White Pyramid / Epaulette col are a staggering 706m above, and 2.8km away! Hope you enjoy foreshortened views!
Thankfully this gully is not glaciated, so we did not have to rope up for the ascent or contend with a bergschrund. We took a fairly direct route up the centre of the gully to have as much of a buffer as we could from the cliffs on either side, particularly with snow regularly sloughing off the east face of Epaulette. It seemed to take forever (2 hours at least) before we reached the col and the very steep climb to the summit ridge.
The climb from the col to the ridge was perhaps the only place where our snowshoes provided an advantage over skis, as we were able to switchback carefully all the way without having to switch to crampons. Skiers would need to bootpack here for sure. The slope's the equivalent to an expert ski run, and of the 5 skiers which followed us on this trip, none of them made it more than a turn or two at the top before giving way to some epic side-sliding.
Spending two hours in that gully will suddenly become completely worth it once you crest the ridge and are confronted by the stupefying sights of Howse Peak, Howse Pass, and the countless number of visible peaks and glaciers in British Columbia from this vantage point. We took a good break at this point and put on our crampons for a narrow traverse which was directly ahead of us on the ridge.
The narrow traverse itself isn't particularly difficult from a technical standpoint, but it's rather exposed to the climber's left (see photo #14), and an un-arrested slide would hurtle you back down to the ascent gully at a high rate of speed. On the plus side though, the alignment of this traverse, the tower behind it, and the Freshfields beyond make for a great spot to take epic mountaineering shots of your friends.
For the rest of the route you'll be sticking to the ridge crest as much as possible, which will allow you to completely avoid White Pyramid's glacier. I recall there being two distinct false summits before you finally reach a substantial notch, and the final ascent to the summit.
Depending on the snow conditions this notch could easily be the crux of the trip. When we reached it there was two sets of tracks for us to follow: some to the climber's right which looked like they'd plunge somewhat scarily down 20-30m to the base of the notch and some to the climber's left, which looked like they'd follow a more moderate path down. Steven led the way and to the left and then made a swift retreat when that path led him to within a few metres of a bergschrund almost immediately (yikes!). Thankfully the other descent route which looked a little intimidating at first had a ton of snow on it and turned out to be easier to ascend/descend than expected (see photos #24-25 and #47-48).
From the notch onwards is pretty straight forward, but you do need to be careful about some substantial cornicing on the north side of the ridge (see photo #20). Even though we had tracks to follow we still probed every few metres to make sure that we were still above solid rock. Soon we were on the summit where we exchanged high-fives and took as many photos as we could until the cold forced us to move on to the descent.
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We simply retraced our route on the descent, with the only difference being plunge-stepping down from the ridge to the col with our crampons on before switching back to our snowshoes in the gully. It was sad not to have skis for the remaining descent to the valley far below, but alas, such a minor complaint for what was otherwise a perfect day in the mountains! One of, if not, my best of 2013!
It's also possible to make a winter ascent of White Pyramid from the White Pyramid / Chephren col via the Chephren glacier and lake. Although faster and much shorter I don't recommend this route, not because it involves glacier travel and an ascent (from the col) with exposure described as “sphincter-tightening”, but because you'll miss out on the spectacularly scenic ridge approach.