For our first climb in the Canadian Rockies we chose an easy route: the East Ridge of Mt. Nestor (II, 5.5) – a 9,744′ peak that lies off the Spray Lakes road south of Canmore. The guidebook referred to the route as “an enjoyable afternoon climb” so we felt good about sleeping in.
While packing up in the morning, I pulled off my helmet and pointed to the space blanket duct tapes inside in. “You might want to bring one of these,” I said to Dave.
Dave looked at me and laughed, and with a very dramatic gesture he ripped his space blanket out of his helmet, flung it inside the van and slammed the door. Our fate was sealed (and you can guess what happens next). We began hiking at the abysmally late hour of 9:30 am and by 10:30 am we were off the trail and 4th classing up to the base of the route.
The route is a 2,500′ with snow, ice and rock up to 5.5. The lower portion is mostly 4th class with bit of easy 5th class here and there. The middle of the route had a lot of snow on it and the top portion, the crux, has a roof traverse pitch that is rated 5.5 in difficulty.
Dave maybe 1/3 up the route.
We took a while getting to the base of the route and at 2:30 started roped climbing. We made quick progress up the lower 4th class sections. A little higher the route got slightly harder, easy 5th class climbing mixed with bit of snow climbing. The higher we climbed, the harder the climbing became. The rock was very brittle and loose and the snow varied from deep and sloppy to shallow and icy. Our progress slowed considerably; by 6pm I was getting worried about our progress.
By 7 pm it became increasingly obvious to me that we might spend the night on the ridge. “Dave, we may have to bivy.” I ventured at a belay consisting of one shaky piton and a cam.
“Nah” Dave answered and took the rack.
At 8 pm I had decided our fate but had not yet accepted it. “Dave, I think we may be forced to bivy.” I said at another belay (a buried ice axe and stopper). Dave looked at me and cursed under his breath. I lead off without another word.
At 9 pm I lead a snow ridge up to an overhanging decomposing roof that I pulled through using crumbing limestone as my hand and foot holds. Above the roof the protection disappeared and I had to creep 50′ up limestone runnels that had water pouring down them. At the top of the pitch I squeezed in a knifeblade, stuck my axe into an inch of ice and equalized the two questionable pieces. Dave followed me up and I announced, “Dave, we’re going to have to bivy.”
Dave took the rack mumbling expletives under his breath and lead out. The next two pitches were full rope lengths of 60 degree snow without protection. I was exhausted and Dave lead them without a word. It was his first time leading steep snow ever and he slammed his axes in all the way – burying his entire arm into the snow to act as an imaginary picket. He reached the top of the second pitch at 11pm and tied into two knifeblades and stomped out a small platform. I joined him and climbed past to check out the next pitch. Five pitches remained – including the crux pitch. I downclimbed back to the ledge. It was 12 am. “Dig in” I said.
We kicked out a platform: 10 inches wide and 6 feet long. To insulate it we laid down our packs and flaked out our ropes. I then ceremoniously pulled out my space blanket all the while looking at Dave who stared at the ground. Foolish pride makes for a long night and I tossed the blanket over us and we spooned head to feet for the night.
It was 1:30 am; 4 hours until dawn. We were exposed; directly below us was 400′ of 60 degree snow and below that 1,500′ of steep snow and rock. I felt like we were sleeping in the stars with the occasional meteor burning past us.
We fell asleep dreaming of hot oil furnaces.
I awoke after 2 1/2 hours to hypothermic shivering. Dave was curled in fetal position looking ill. If I hadn’t been so miserable I would have laughed at our fate. For a little more than an hour longer we shivered until finally at 5:15 the sun began to rise and bathed the surrounding peaks in sunlight.
Looking down the route at sunrise.
The joy of making it through a cold forced bivouac unscathed is unequal to just about anything I have ever experienced. Just the sight of the sun on the surrounding peaks warmed our spirits and made us giggle in delight. The second we were hit by direct sunlight I lead off – climbing up the dihedral above us and then up a long beautiful exposed ridge. Looking down the I could see the sun reflecting in Kananaskis lake below us – a surreal sight that made it look like the sun was rising underneath us. I belayed Dave up and then lead another pitch to a spot where I belayed beneath a cornice next to a huge roof which was the 5.5 crux of the route.
Dave following the pitch at sunrise. The sun below is actually reflecting off Upper Kananaskis Lake.
Dave had the only pair of rock shoes so he lead the crux pitch. I followed in mountain boots glad that I had a rope above me. The climbing was intricate traversing on slimy sloping hand holds. Luckily the protection was good and there were even a few fixed pitons to clip into.
After the roof we had 2 pitches of snow and rocky ridge to the summit. These pitches grew interesting as point releases started from every hand and foot placement we made. The snow was rotten and even at 9 am it was dangerously unstable; I cleared the last pitch by first tossing rocks in it to get it to slide and then quickly ascended praying that it would hold.
We finally reached the summit under beautiful clear blue skies. The descent was straight forward, moderate scree slopes and easy ridge walking down the south ridge. 32 hours later we stumbled back to the car; burnt, tired, hungry and glad to be on the terra firma.