Mt. Edith Cavell, East Ridge
By: Gary Clark | Climbers: Gary & Lynn Clark |Trip Dates: Aug 12, 1999
Photo: Gary Clark
We came to check on the North Face again, but this time we had a back-up plan. Several people had strongly recommended climbing the East Ridge, and Doughtery calls it "one of the classic routes of the Rockies" in his guidebook. If the North Face were not in condition (as is usually the case), we would try the East Ridge instead.
August 13: We started up the familiar road well before dawn. We are used to disappointments on this mountain, but we were presented with a completely new one as we neared the parking lot. A warming light lit up on the dashboard, and I looked in amazement at an oil pressure reading of zero! This is not a warning to be taken lightly, but the light went out, the oil pressure came back up, and I continued, hoping we could make the parking lot. The cycle repeated 4 or 5 times, and I came to my senses. The climb wasn't worth ruining a new engine over. We did a quick U-turn, shut off the engine, and began coasting back to town - about a 10km trip that was fortunately almost entirely downhill, but was almost as much adventure as the climb. Without the engine running, we had neither power brakes nor steering. By the time we reached the main road via the famous switchbacks, I felt I had gotten my exercise in for the day. We turned on the engine for very short periods to get over humps in the road, and arrived at the only real repair shop in town well before the town had woken up.
August 14: Next morning, repeat drill with a freshly patched oil pan. We had high-centered on a rock early in the drive to Canada while seeking out a campsite off the beaten path. Our oil had been slowly leaking out for more than a week. We had been extremely lucky to get it fixed in the midst of tourist season at the only garage in town. As we pulled into the parking lot, we noted that the weather was anything but perfect - the summit was ensconced in its usual cloud blanket, fog and mist swirled about, and everything was wet from recent rain. We'd not have attempted the North Face on a day like this, but from what we had heard, the East Ridge should still be quite climbable.
Crampons and ice axe were essential on the final snow slope up to the saddle at the base of the ridge. We reached it shortly after dawn, although it was hard to tell in the dense fog. The ridge looked inviting as far as we could see, so we just started up and had faith that views would open as we went. Initially the climbing was on low-angle blocky quartzite. The blocks were about stair-step size, so we felt like we were climbing stadium steps. It began to steepen, and we started taking route-finding more seriously. It would have been nice to be able to see more than 10m! Occasionally we'd do an exposed move of the 3rd-or 4th class variety, but usually just because it was easier to climb straight up than to traverse in search of easier terrain.
The rock alternated regularly with snow-filled couloirs. The snow was welcome because without it, we'd have been on loose rubble. The route is very popular, so there were always steps to follow. This allowed us to do most of the snow slopes without crampons. Since the day was so warm and humid, the snow was barely supportive, so an ice axe was very welcome when the occasional step broke under our weight. The terrain was steep enough to keep our attention, but not so steep as to motivate breaking out a rope.
We arrived at the big shoulder, and were out of the clouds for a while. We enjoyed periods of sunshine and views that broke open in all directions, only to seal again. The shoulder was surprisingly long, and we had plenty of time to contemplate the final steep ridge, where we knew the quality climbing was to be found. It looked rather formidable from a straight-on perspective, which was enhanced by the swirling mists. This kind of situation is where having solid information on the route makes such a difference. We knew the climb was moderate, so we didn't worry about it. Instead, we just looked forward to the difficulties. A first ascent party at the same place would have felt completely different.
I could see that the 5th class began almost immediately at the base of the final ridge. We roped up and I led up a shallow chimney. It was steep but had holds so big that I dropped in only two pieces of protection, mostly because I had carried them up there. I anchored and belayed as soon as the difficulties abated to bring Lynn up. We did one more belayed pitch, much longer at about 30m than the first. From that point to the summit we simul-climbed on a doubled 60m rope, occasionally dropping in a chock or cam when it looked like it might get difficult ahead. The climbing remained interesting and the rock highly aesthetic, but we were both left wishing for a bit more as we pulled up onto the final summit snow field. It was unquestionably classic, but we'd have been happier if we'd have been pushed to anchor and belay for the majority of the upper part instead of just scrambling roped. Even though there were some fairly long stretches of steep rock, due to the layering geology of the quartzite the holds were typically perfect little horizontal ledges rarely under an inch wide. Our mountain boots were perfect for this - neither of us even thought about rock shoes.
We assumed we were on the summit as we took the traditional ice-axe-over-the-head photos, but as we continued toward the descent, a slightly higher bump appeared out of the fog. This is the true summit, so we detoured to tag it, aware that there were probably still cornices overhanging the north face. The summit ridge snow was a climber's nightmare. We'd go for 3 or 4 steps on top, then plunge through to our crotches. It was easier to try to plunge on every step than be surprised and have to climb back on the surface each time. Now for the descent . . .
The description in Doughtery is quite adequate, even when operating in the clouds. We watched closely for the exit ramp from the South Ridge. A traverse under a triangular face of shale takes you to the West Ridge. This traverse turned out to be the technical crux of the day. A thin layer of snow lay over steep ice, which in the warm temperatures was slicker than anything we had encountered on the climb. We didn't put crampons on, because the patches were short, but these passages made for some tense moments. Finally we reached the West Ridge, and thought we were on easy street. We expected to a typical climbers' trail through the talus; instead we got a very long miserable stretch of terrible unstable talus, with route-finding constantly necessary to avoid short cliffs. We finally concluded this was going to take some time, and stopped for a welcome lunch. It was around 2:00pm, so we knew we had plenty of time to get back to the car before dark.
At 6:30pm we drug into the parking lot in steady rain; tired, footsore, and of course wet. The descent had taken as long as the climb! Later we compared notes with others who had done the climb. There were many adjectives applied to the descent, but none were flattering. The only redeeming features are that it provides a complete traverse of a very fine mountain, and the views of the Verdant Creek basin and the Tonquin Valley are superb.