Exposure to an epic landscape
September 09, 2012 / minute read( words)
While I've managed to get out and scramble a lot of mountains, I hope that I never become so jaded from these experiences that I begin to view great scrambling destinations like Mt. Wilcox as being “not worth the drive”, or “not worth doing on its own” — as a pair of acquaintances have characterized this mountain.
Mt. Wilcox combines an excellent approach trail with an enjoyable ridgewalk up the first two/thirds of its southern flank, and then, for those comfortable with a little exposure, an engaging scrambling section to spice things up a bit on the way to the summit. Of course, with its prime location near the toe of the Athabasca Glacier in the heart of the Columbia Icefields region, the views are exceptional from the moment you emerge above the treeline, a mere 20 minutes into your journey. Giants such as Mt. Athabasca, Snowdome and Mt. Kitchener are always in view, while other lofty peaks such at Mt. Bryce, North Twin, Twin's Tower, and Mt. Alberta begin to show themselves as you ascend further up the mountain.
A rather quick scramble, a trip up Mt. Wilcox should leave you with plenty of time to explore the adjacent Wilcox Pass, a lovely plateau full of colourful mosses, wildflowers, mountain sheep and shallow ponds. This is one place where one can easily become awestruck by the scale of the landscape around them.
I met Geoff and Greg from the Calgary Scrambling & Mountaineering Club near the trailhead and, after realizing we were headed for the same destination, joined up for the ascent. We had a great day, even with the highly variable weather, and I became a member of the club a few weeks later.
Mt. Wilcox is easily accessed from the southern leg of the Wilcox Pass Trail, which can be found at the entrance of the Wilcox Creek Campground. You'll find the signed entrance for the campground on the east side of the Icefields Parkway (Hwy 93), 3km east of the Icefields Exploration Centre or about 47km northwest of Saskatchewan River Crossing. Once you've made that turn, you'll find the trailhead, a large interpretive sign, and a parking area for Wilcox Pass seconds away on your left.
Wilcox Pass is a popular tourist destination with a well-maintained trail. After ascending through a dense forest area at the beginning for about 20 minutes, the trail soon reaches an open ridge that offers great views of the Athabasca Glacier and its surrounding 11,000ft. peaks for the remainder of the 2km approach to the pass.
The mosses and alpine plants which carpet much of Wilcox Pass are delicate and, although you could take a direct line towards Mt. Wilcox's southern ridge, it's best to stick to the existing trails that snake through the area to reduce the ecological damage inflicted by your passing. You should be able to cover most, if not all of the distance without needing to improvise a route.
Once at the ridge, you'll have a choice between two different routes: you can follow the ridge crest to enjoy the best views; or, you can follow a well-defined trail that parallels the ridge on the eastern side offering protection from the strong, cold winds that are often blowing off the icefields nearby. There's no difference in difficulty between the two routes, and they eventually do meet further up the mountain towards the end of the ridge-walking section of the climb. On this trip, we went up the east side and then came down along the crest.
The easy ridgewalking section of Mt. Wilcox comes to a sudden end a few hundred metres from the summit when you reach the crux: a pair of chimneys that must be climbed, followed by an exposed traverse on downsloping rock. From here on, the rest of the ascent should be considered as a moderately difficult scramble and approached with care.
It's also from here on that Mt. Wilcox begins to earn its reputation as an exposed climb. Thankfully, the scrambling route (a visible trail) sticks mostly to the eastern face of Mt. Wilcox, where the grade (an average of roughly 34°) is far less severe than that the western face (which is closer to an average of 45°). A big mistake on the east side could result in a violent, but survivable tumble; a similar mistake to the west would start with a 40-100m freefall, followed by several hundred metres more of momentum-driven tumbling. You'll only be exposed to the western face briefly, just before the summit, while performing a straightforward traverse on flatter terrain. Admittedly, I did have the option to navigate around the rock I was holding onto in this photo on its eastern side.
Back to the crux... as seen from both below (first / second) and above (first / second), the two chimneys (which are linked by a short platform) are steep but offer decent holds. These look worse than they are and, in dry conditions, they didn't present much of an issue to us once we made our first moves into them.
The more challenging part is the traverse which follows, where you need to cross a trio of open, downsloping rock channels that are about as exposed as the eastern side of the mountain gets. Thankfully the rock in these channels is textured and offer decent footholds in dry conditions. Wet conditions in this spot would require a careful risk assessment, while the presence of snow or ice would require the use of protection — assuming you can find reasonable anchors nearby.
Once you're past the crux, the rest of the scrambling is straightforward to the summit aside from those sobering moments where you'll flirt with the western face of the mountain. Once you've enjoyed your time at the summit, carefully retrace your steps back to the ridge walking potion of the mountain, and then enjoy the very scenic hike back out to the trailhead.
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Both Mt. Wilcox and Wilcox Pass are very exposed to inclement weather and are not a place where you'll want to experience a thunderstorm. There is no way to quickly lose elevation from Wilcox's summit, at least without a squirrel suit, and the broad, mildly undulating landscape of the Pass offers no place of safety. During the mid-summer period (around July) where afternoon thunderstorms can be a regular occurrence in the Rockies, you'll want to make an early start for this trip.
The ascent of Mt. Wilcox is also described, including an alternative ascent route beginning from the Icefields Centre, in Alan Kane's Scrambles in the Canadian Rockies (pg.309).