photo: Lake Louise Ski Resort / Chris Moseley
May is prime time for skiing steep lines in the Rockies.
So, to get everyone in the mood, here’s a local tale from Fresh athlete Eric Hjorleifson about his descent of Mt. Victoria back in May 2012. It’s a fun glimpse into the young skier’s mind as he takes on big mountains and contemplates the risk and the awe-inspiring power of the big peaks.
Mt. Victoria is the stunning white wall that looms over the water of Lake Louise. The steep face looks equal parts alluring and terrifying from the ski area across the valley.
I have been looking at the North-East Face of Mt Victoria for a few years. It really got me interested when Andrew Sheppard brought me up the Sickle (a similar line further East on the ridge) in 2004. On that climb/ski Andrew and I discussed the line on the North-East face and questioned how it could be done and what some of the potential hazards were. The next spring, conditions never really shaped up to climb/ski big lines, unfortunately.
Eric's line of ascent and descent on Victoria
This winter I spent a majority of the season in Whistler, and as the springtime (big lines window) approached, I was updated by my friend Kevin Hjertaas in Banff on conditions. This spring seemed to come late, but in early May, the temps warmed up, and the Rockies went through the crucial melt-freeze cycle required for attempting big lines. As a bonus, it snowed, and then the weather was predicted to be clear and cold. I made the drive to Banff while Kevin planned the trip for us, booking a night at Abbot Hut (one of the oldest ACC huts, located at the top of Abbot Pass).
We started hiking from the Chateau Lake Louise at about 5:00 am on May 13th, a beautiful cold and clear morning. We reached Abbot Hut in about 3.5 hours. It’s not a long approach, but the last hour and half of the trip was spent skinning up the Death Trap: a narrow glacial tongue with many crevasses that is wedged deep between the massive cliffs of Mt. Lefroy on the East and Mt. Victoria on the West.
Approaching Mt. Victoria and the Death Trap.
Kevin and I were both very happy to get through the Trap quickly and early enough that the sun’s warming effects had not yet reached the giant seracs of the Upper Victoria Glacier precariously sitting on top of the massive cliffs.
Sunset at Abbot Pass
The next morning, we left the hut around 5:15 am and, with our skis on, started traversing above the Death Trap on the west side. We left all our extra gear at this point and continued to traverse above the Trap on bullet-proof ice until we were directly under the Sickle. Carefully we took our skis off and proceeded to start climbing the Sickle with crampons and ices axes. The snow was frozen solid and made for great climbing; however, we were concerned about our descent. Would the snow on the face be as icy as the snow on the Sickle? We had climbed about a quarter of the way up the Sickle when the sun began to light up the face with bright pink morning glow. The visuals were amazing: below us, still in the icy dark, was the massive drop into the Trap, above glowed the spectacular face of the Sickle, and to our right the Upper Victoria Glacier and our chosen path of ascent up the face. We put our skis back on and cautiously started to traverse below the towering seracs that divide the Sickle from the Northeast face of Victoria. This traverse was very intimidating, with a huge amount of double exposure from the ice above us and the hanging seracs below.
We reached the bench of the glacier and started assessing the best location to cross the bergschrund that cut across the bottom of the face. Kevin cautiously probed for a suitable snow bridge to cross. Once he found a solid bridge, he didn’t hesitate to cross and lead the way up the face. To our surprise, the snow on the face was quite different than the snow we had experienced earlier. We had about 10-15 cm of soft winter snow with nice crisp and firm snow underneath. Conditions made for good climbing, and we anticipated perfect snow for the ski descent.
As we climbed, so did the sun, providing nice morning light to enjoy the amassing view of the hanging glacier that dropped off into the Death Trap and the Chateau Lake Louise sitting on the lake almost 6000ft below.
Kevin climbing Mt. Victoria
About halfway up the face, as we took a short rest, we were hit by an enormous shock wave that rocked the entire face. We could only speculate at the size of the serac that fell into the Death Trap to cause such a tremendous amount of vibration. A great sense of vulnerability overcame us as we continued.
We reached the summit ridge at 8:15 am and began preparing for the descent. There was a slight haze in the sky and a nice cool breeze keeping temperatures low and the snow on the face in prime condition. There was a small well-supported cornice just to the climbers left of us, so we decided to cut it off. With some effort, we got it to break and watched it bounce down the face and eventually break up, causing a minimal amount of slough.
Time to ski! I made an initial ski cut and positioned myself on a good vantage point to spot Kevin as he made the first consecutive turns. The snow was perfect, nice and grippy with 10-15cm of penetration and minimal slough. Kevin cut to the left under a rock outcropping about a 3rd of the way down and it was now my turn. I skied just to the right of Kevin’s tracks and continued past where he had stopped until I was at about the midpoint of the slope. Kevin then leapfrogged me and skied past. Once he was in the clear I decided to ski the rest of the face, cross the schrund and stop on the glacier.
Hoji skis Mt. Victoria
Once we had both cleared the schrund, we took a brief moment to celebrate and then continued. Our descent was far from over. We still had almost 4000ft of vertical skiing that included the double-exposed traverse back over the Trap, crossing under the seracs, the bottom portion of the Sickle and, of course, skiing out through the Death Trap.
Things went smoothly, and we cleared the exposed traverse quickly. To our advantage, the snow on the lower portion of the Sickle had softened slightly, making the ski to the edge of the trap enjoyable instead of nerve-racking.
Just over half an hour after we had dropped in, we arrived safely through the Death Trap with a perfect view of Mt. Victoria. We could finally relax and take a true moment to comprehend what had just taken place. As soon as we felt totally safe, we heard a loud crack, and we witnessed a serac fall from the southeast facing wall above the Death Trap. We watched in amazement as a massive amount of ice crashed down the cliff and finally came to rest in a cloud of snow about a thousand feet below where it had once sat. We were once again hit by a shock wave that truly made us feel insignificant.
Hoji happy at the bottom.