Climbing Andromeda Skyladder, a threatened Rockies classic

by Raymond Parker on September 17, 2012

in Adventure, Climate, Climbing

andromeda-skyladder

Andromeda Skyladder

(click to enlarge)

In 1980, I teamed up with Frank Wieler for the annual climbing pilgrimage to the Rockies. Our first objective was the great right-hand ice wall of Mount Andromeda known as the “Skyladder,” a route I’d had my eye on since my first visit to the Columbia Icefields with Tom Hocking, in 1978.

On the northeastern flank, we set up camp on August 13, hacking into firn snow to create a level tent platform. A rock bulwark guarded the upper glacier. We studied its crevices, lit by the setting sun, echoing Beethoven’s Pastorals, playing on a tape deck unwieldy even by ‘80s standards.

At 5am, unroped, we would rely on a single headlamp—Frank’s had expired—to pick out the weakness in the cliff above. Outside its orbit, darkness hid the exposure at our heels. In an ice-floored cavern, underneath a tottering serac, we strapped on our crampons and scraped our way onto the level glacier, traversing north under a yawning bergschrund, the next technical barrier to the route proper.

Conditions were ideal: “styrofoam” snow layered over a solid base. Roped, we “simulclimbed,” moving in unison, spidering up on the front-points of our crampons, pecking at the great white ladder with freshly-sharpened ice-axes and -hammers.

Without fixing a single running belay—ice screw or snow-stake—we reached the upper rock band, where we perched on separate pinnacles to quench our thirst and nibble some food as the sun crept up glaciers sprawling toward Sunwapta Pass. We dared not tarry; we must clear the route before the upper face warmed.

It soon became apparent that our pace, as fast as it was, would not spare us from the Skyladder shooting gallery, as the unmistakeable whirr of falling rock pierced the air, gaining volume as it neared our position, until it zoomed by and out of earshot. Vr-r-r-oom! Every few minutes, we plastered ourselves to the ice, hunching our shoulders to disappear into our fiberglass helmets, as if they would protect us from the projectiles that, luckily, rocketed by.

“Prepare ze counterattack!” I yelled. “Clear the trenches!”

The sun had reached us by the time Frank hacked an exit through the overhanging cornice, onto the northwest shoulder. It was 10:15. Now we had a long, enervating slog to the summit.

There we met a couple of Americans who had popped up from the north face. They came bearing smoked oysters, something I’ve never gone near since.

Whether from the altitude (3450 metres / 11,319 feet) or dehydration, I had developed a splitting headache. I’d discussed the descent route a week or two before with Calgary mountaineer Laurie Skreslet (another member of the ’82 Everest team, with Don Serl), who’d described it accurately as “a bag of shit.”

The east ridge drops precipitously to the “A-A Col” separating Andromeda from Mount Athabaska, a precarious jumble of boulders–from dinner-plate, to car-size to house-size–piled like monolithic Leggo, by a giant, ill-tempered child.

There was nothing for it but to unrope. Our life-line threatened pull down deadly detritus onto our heads.

Unfortunately, our American comrades, seventy-five-metres above, hadn’t come to the same conclusion. We were soon ducking for cover as a fusillade of rock came crashing down. A large piece, spinning like a frisbee, found its target on Frank’s klettersack, nearly dislodging him from the crevice he’d wedged into. I thought he was a goner for a moment.

“Take the rope off!” we yodeled in unison.

At the A-A Col we joined forces, rappelling from a rocky tower protruding from the ice, off a tangle of in situ nylon webbing. My headache had subsided, but the smoked oysters had just gotten started.

The abseil landed us on a crowded ice-bulge, 25 metres above a deep bergscrund. While we retrieved the doubled rope, Frank set to work engineering the next station to bridge the chasm separating the steep ice-face from the lower glacier. Unfortunately, the rope had become jammed above.

Perhaps seeing an opportunity to redeem their earlier misjudgement, one of the Americans volunteered to take on the dangerous task of climbing back up to free the snarled rope.

Two hours later we were among the crowds at the upper moraine parking lot, where we discovered the car keys were safely ensconced in our “advanced base camp,” 150-metres above. Before we could drive down to the cafeteria on the Icefields Parkway (now a hectic terminal for tour busses feeding the snowcat industry on the receding Athabaska Glacier), we’d have to break camp. We made like mountain runners.

By the time we returned, the cafeteria was closed. We squeezed into the borrowed car amidst an avalanche of hurriedly-stashed gear and drove north to Jasper, where we alternately gobbled and fell asleep in mountaineer-sized portions of spaghetti.

All that remained was a 4-kilometre sleepwalk to the free campsite, on the outskirts of town.

Afterword

Thirty-odd years later, Mount Andromeda still looms impressively above the Icefields Parkway and the much-enlarged tourist centre. Snowcats still haul tourists up the Athabaska Glacier, though the ice-sheet shrinks year-by-year. I was saddened on recent visits to see how significantly melting has affected the magnificent ice-face we call the Skyladder. (see last photo in the gallery above).

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