Last Friday Jeff and I left Missoula for the Columbian Ice Field. It's an area about 1.5 hours North of Lake Louise that is surrounded by glaciated peaks. A kind of "roadside" alpine playground.
We had our eyes fixed on a route call Andromeda Strain. It's a classic Canada "5.9, A2" route which generally means its going to be difficult. Jeff grabbed the spotting scope and glassed the route. It appeared to be in great shape. With an excitement like little school kids, we started racking up.
We planned on staying in the cirque for about three days. A day to approach, a day to climb, and a day to hike out. Packs would be heavy, but we had plenty of time for a relatively short approach.
We drove up the snow coach road and bivied in the parking lot before our hike in. We spent the night with anticipation, drinking scotch and watching the Northern lights.
The hike turned out to be mellow. We took our time and enjoyed the scenery. Around 12:00 we reached a nice place to camp and called it quits there. The day wasn't over yet. We planned to scope out the approach and drop gear at the base of the route in order to make life easier the next morning. I was starting to feel the effects of the altitude and sun about this time and was beginning to hate life. I was nauseous and had a pounding headache, but we need to do this one last task. The walk was simple yet exhausting for me. We stashed the gear then started making our way back. As I was stepping over a crevasse, the snow bridge gave out and I punched through to my wast. My forward momentum caused me to tumble out of the hole where the rope came tight. Back to camp and to sleep.
The alarm started buzzing at 4:00am. I was feeling better, but was still slow to wake. We quickly ate and then started the approach. The glacier was almost frozen making travel safer and quicker. By 5:30am, Jeff and I were ascending the lower couloir by headlamp. We were traveling fast and making good time. By 10am we had topped out in the couloir and began the traversing pitches. We worked ourselves through one short rock band and began traversing back towards the crux pitched. The gear was sparse, but the climbing was easy. By noon I had reached the base of the upper couloir and the crux pitches. They didn't look good. I tried not to think about it and belayed Jeff over.
Jeff climbed past me and took a look up the gash. It was sparsely filled with rotten snow, ice, and rock. To make matters worse, what was there, was actively melting out. Our position wasn't good. Going up looked dangerous, but rappelling was going to be equally as bad. Jeff and I himmed and hawed about what to do. Eventually I grabbed the rack and gave it a go. I climbed up about 15 feet hooking loose rock and ice. The closer I looked at the pitch, the worse it appeared. It was too dangerous and that effort was good enough for me. I popped my gear and gently reversed my moves. Time to bail.
We spent about 40 minutes trying to build and anchor suitable for rappelling off. The ice was rotten and the rock horrible. Eventually we were able to equalize some rock and ice and rap off. We found ourselves building one more anchor before being able to link existing anchors from previous parties. The descent went smooth and we lucked out with no rockfall. It wasn't long before we were back at camp relaxing in the sun.