We could hear it coming miles away. The noise building in the valley below like the roar of an oncoming train. Bracing ourselves inside our sleeping bags, the huge wind gust finally hit, puffing out the sides of the tent then just as quickly collapsing the walls in on us. The wind was accompanied by cracks of lightning that filled the night sky, closely followed by booming thunder claps that reverberated off the walls of the entire Selkirk mountain range. I looked at my watch – 3:06. As our scheduled wake up time was a mere 24 minutes away, it quickly became obvious we were going to have to be flexible with our plans that day.
I was in the Rogers Pass area of British Columbia, Canada to climb Mount Sir Donald with friend and guide Sarah Hueniken. One of the 50 Classic Climbs of North America, the Northwest Arete (IV, 5.4) of 10,774 ft Sir Donald is arguably one of the best alpine ridge climbs in all of Western Canada, if not the world.
The previous afternoon, Sarah and I met up with Dani, a Golden, BC based guide who was training for his Assistant Alpine Exam the next week, and his girlfriend Kristin for the hike up to the bivouac site at the base of Sir Donald. Bear restrictions were in place, meaning we had to be a minimum party of 4 people to hike into camp.
Getting to the lower bivouac site is an adventure in itself, 3 miles and 3300 feet straight up with numerous river crossings and ankle busting scree slopes, all made more onerous thanks to the altitude and rising afternoon heat, not to mention the ever looming threat of a charging bear. Some people choose to climb Sir Donald in a single day, going fast and light, forgoing the bivouac with all its associated gear. This approach is definitely doable if you are relatively fit and plan to solo the ridge. But for me, soloing was not an option and with an iffy forecast and a few days leeway, why not set up basecamp and have some fun playing on rocks.
After the first night’s storm hampered our initial plans of climbing Sir Donald that day, we all pretty much rolled over and went back to sleep to wait out the rain. Finally at 6:00 am, Sarah came knocking on our tents asking if we would be up for climbing Uto that day instead. Of course we would.
Uto lies just to the south of Sir Donald, on the opposite side of the col shared by the two peaks. A big day out in its own right, the 400+ meter southwest ridge on Uto looks like a mere ant hill compared to the daunting Sir Donald towering over it.
There is no other way to describe the climbing on Uto other than an enormous rock playground for grown ups. As long as it is dry, quartzite is an absolute dream to climb, offering bomber holds, good protection, and excellent traction, even if it destroys your hands in the process. Pitch after pitch we continued up, following the weaknesses of the ridge that enabled us to move quickly and effortlessly through this alpine environment, all with a growing sense of joy. The ridge presents nothing overly technical, just a few challenging moves thrown in to keep you interested.
We reached the summit in around 2 hours, signed the summit register, then sat briefly to enjoy the views we had earned. The descent was pretty straightforward, down climbing the northwestern ridge, then precariously making our way down a scree filled gully, the equivalent of walking over ball bearings on a steeply angled metal floor. Knee, quad, and morale sapping terrain.
“Everyone must know the feeling of triumph and pride which a grand view from a height communicates to the mind.” -Charles Darwin
After an afternoon thunderstorm back at camp, the night sky was filled with stars, meaning our 3:30 alarm the next morning was met with better weather. We were on for Sir Donald. Quickly trying to shove down some oatmeal, coffee, and a piece of Sarah’s homemade banana bread, we grabbed our packs and headed back up the unrelenting boulder maze and scree field to the col, this time with only the light of our headlamps to guide the way.
Arriving at the col still under the cover of night, we geared up and immediately headed up the ridge. The Northwest Ridge of Sir Donald rises 874 meters or over 2800 feet from the col to the summit.
Although never technically too difficult, the exposure, adverse weather conditions, and the overall length of the route can make the peak feel much harder than its designated grade. From the first pitch, I found the exposure much greater than on Uto, constantly aware of the drop to the base of the mountain, thousands of feet below on either side of me. The actual climbing, however, was incredibly enjoyable, with numerous challenging moves such as chimney stems to be found, with the ridge offering up sustained 4th-5th class climbing pitch after pitch straight to the summit.
As the sun peeked over the horizon and headlamps were no longer needed, the clouds instantly began to build, as if out of nowhere. Sir Donald is known for creating its own weather and for the longest time, an ominous black cloud sat above the summit, an oppressive force looming over us every time we reached up for the next hand hold, making us continually question if this was to be our day. The absolute last place we wanted to be when a thunderstorm hit was on that ridge. If we were going to summit that day, we had to push. Hard.
Sarah and I quickly got into a rhythm of constant movement- efficient transitions where I would arrive at the belay station, tie in while Sarah grabbed gear off my harness, then she would immediately set off. As soon as the rope went tight, I started climbing, neither of us needing to communicate much, pushing ourselves to our lactic acid threshold on each pitch only to rest when the other was climbing. It was interval training. For hours.
Later that morning, we finally reached the summit, remaining only seconds to snap a picture or two, constantly aware of the building storms across the surrounding range. As quickly as we had arrived, we started down, knowing it would take just as long, if not longer than our climb to the top.
I was much more timid on this descent compared to Uto. A mixture of hiking over sketchy terrain through the bypass that had just yesterday seen large rockfall activity and downclimbing steep exposed ridge sections turned my usual height strong mind into one suddenly all too aware of the potential consequences of one bad slip. After a couple hours of down climbing, we finally reached the exit rappels that bypass the last ⅓ of the ridge and take you straight down the western face to the top of the screen slope at the base of the mountain.
Upon finishing what seemed like an endless amount of rappels (12+), we were happy to be free of the rope, only to realize we still had an entire scree slope of watermelon size rocks and huge boulder fields to navigate before arriving at the bivouac site we had left some 10 hours before. Feeling the full heat of the day and not wanting to injure myself, I took my time while Sarah blasted through like the pro she is.
Back at camp and after a short celebration of our successful summit, we all knew the day was far from over. We had yet to pack up all our gear and hike the 3300 vertical feet back down to the car at the llecillewaet campground, all while our quads and feet begged us to stop the pain. It was a big day but an incredibly fun and rewarding day. Driving off back towards Canmore, enjoying our well earned Double Double and donuts from Tim Hortons, Sarah and I were exhausted, stiff, and sore, but also very happy with all that we had accomplished the past few days.
One down, only 49 more to go.
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Arc’teryx Beta LT Jacket ($499): For climbing both Uto and Sir Donald, the lightweight GORE-TEX Pro jacket protected me from the constant cold wind and bouts of rain, while remaining breathable enough to the point where I never sweat, despite pushing myself to the max for hours on end. The infamous Arc’teryx trim fit means there is no extra material to flap around, while the lightweight construction ensures the jacket packs up small into your summit pack.
Adidas Terrex Swift Flex Pant ($90): These four way stretch pants are rugged, lightweight, and a dream to climb in, not to mention look great.
Five Ten Dome – Mid Approach Shoes ($155): These are the absolute perfect shoes for climbing Sir Donald and Uto. Stealth rubber enables you to complete the harder climbing moves while the burlier build protects your feet during the endless scree sections. Full review to follow.
Written by Steve Roper and Allen Steck, the Fifty Classic Climbs of North America quickly morphed into a challenge to climbers after it was first published in 1979, providing them with a tick list of iconic routes that span a wide section of western North America. As of yet, no one has completed all 50 of the climbs (Steck and Roper ascended or attempted most), but a few climbers are coming close in their quest, including Nancy Hansen of Canada and Mark and Janelle Smiley from the US.
To choose the list of climbs, Steck and Roper solicited opinions from a number of leading climbers of the era, judging more than 100 climbs according to three basic criteria: the peak or route must appear striking from afar, have a noteworthy climbing history, and offer climbing of excellent quality. With its Matterhorn like appearance, first ascent in 1890 by Huber, Sulzer, and Cooper, the most difficult peak climbed to date in Canada, not to mention its continuous, extremely exposed ridge of high-quality blocky quartzite, Mount Sir Donald definitely lives up to its classic designation.