Mt Colonel Foster - Junk Mail (Male) from the Edge
Mt Colonel Foster from high on Elkhorn in the 1980s


Mt. Colonel Foster – West Buttress (Central) July 3-6, 1991

Island Bushwhacker 19:4                                    Fall 1991

By Sandy Briggs

The west side of Mt. Colonel Foster is not seen to advantage from any frequently climbed peaks, unless Mt. Matchlee or Mt. Donner falls into that category.  There must be some truth in the old saying “What the eye doesn’t see the heart doesn’t grieve” – nor long for, it seems.

In 1957 Ferris and Hugh Neave and Karl Ricker climbed a rotten western gully to the southwest peak (the one just south of the great gendarme).  (CAJ 1958, p35; CAJ 1971, p56)   It appears that various parties, including Doug Scott, Rob Wood, and Greg Child; Mike Walsh – Dick Culbert, Paul Starr and Fred Douglas – and maybe Joe Bajan, have descended some of the western gullies (i.e. other than the great NW snow couloir which now serves as the voie normale), leaving no words of praise for same.  This, as far as I know, is the history of west side activity up to1991.

John Put’s sketch on the front page of the winter 1985 Bushwhacker (13:4) was in fact tantalizing and my own telephoto shot from Mt. Matchlee later set ideas running through my head.  It is perhaps worth mentioning a couple of small corrections to John’s Mt. Colonel Foster – (Western Profile) sketch in the fall 1990 Bushwhacker (18:4, p27).  South of the main summit just past the 20 metre rappel there is reference to a 5th Class traverse on the east side.  In 1990 we went on the west side and it was okay.

Secondly, the large gendarme labeled “Corporal” is really the great gendarme (see 13:4) and the Corporal is a smaller gendarme nearby.

As the first week of July rolled around the weather began to hold some promise.  With talk of a new route I was able to lure my friend, Ignaz Fluri, visiting from Switzerland, to the Colonel.  We hiked in on the Wednesday and set up camp beside the stream at the outflow of the glacier – more of a glacier lake actually.  Thursday we set off a little after 5:00 a.m. with hardware and bivy gear.  It was necessary to scratch the crampons on some rock to bypass a couple of openings in the “hourglass” snow gully.  We reached the south col at 7:00 a.m.  After descending 50 metres on the west side we found the crampons again necessary for traversing steep hard snow slopes (and some scree) in a descending line (further 50-80 metre loss) to a flat snow-covered meadow on the prominent ridge which sweeps down from the SW summit.  This flat meadow is no doubt the one visited by Doug Scott, Rob Wood, and Greg Child after their 1985 winter ascent of the grand central couloir on the east face.  We scrambled up this ridge, eventually traversing into the snow couloir, to its left (marked ‘west couloir’ on John Put’s sketch) just before the face proper.

Colonel Foster from the west

Our reccy of the proposed route, with binoculars, led us to favour omission of the lower part because it looked steep and intimidating.  We, therefore, climbed the west couloir about 50 metres and did a rising leftward traverse on rock to the crest of our intended buttress, or at least the crest of its south flank.  Some Class 4+ scrambling soon led to the bottom of the first roped pitch.

This began in a left-facing alcove of reddish rock, which I set off to climb wearing mountain boots and a 15 kg pack.  I soon had to leave the pack tied off, to be hauled later.  Climbing to the right and around a corner I entered a large right-facing dihedral, visible from afar as a large vertical white scar.  There were some stacked poised flakes in this groove, but the crux was above them.  A dubious nut backed up by a half-driven lost arrow gave me confidence for the move.  I completed the pitch feeling pretty good – almost a full rope length of good climbing up to about 5.8.  Ignaz climbed up to my tied-off pack and then changed into rock shoes.  I hauled up the two packs separately, wondering what in hell we had with us that was so heavy.

A couple of rope lengths later, mainly 3rd and 4th class, we came to the base of a six metre wall above which was a pile of blocks and a left-facing corner leading to a ledge.  It looked okay, but then so does American beer.  I managed to get up the wall, again with pack and boots, and climbed over the stack of blocks to put in a second runner, a thread on a natural chockstone.  I knew that one of the blocks was loose as I had stood on it briefly, but I knew that if it fell it would go to one side, and Ignaz was not threatened.  Perhaps I will have occasion to describe all this in more detail elsewhere.  Suffice to say that I reached up over the ledge for a jug hold which turned out not to be there.  I fell, my arms having flamed out and my pack having pulled me inexorably backward.  I fell about 10 metres, but merely bruised my elbow and scratched my wrists.  The flight insurance worked as advertised.  (Yes, we were wearing helmets.)

I had a second or so to contemplate, with something like relief, that I was not seriously injured, when the big loose block, perhaps 60 centimetres or more in diameter, came crashing down about 2 metres to my right.  I’m sure this rock did not hit the rope, but when my second adrenalin rush subsided, I looked up to see that the rope (an 11 mm) had had its sheath severed all the way around, and that one of the core strands had also been cut.  The guilty rock edge nearby was sporting an unnatural purple fluff, while the climber staring at it was coping with a triple dose of fear.

I regained a safe stance and secured myself.  Ignaz went up with rock shoes and no pack but still managed a two or three metre fall from the same spot.  After a short tension traverse to a chimney he got up to the ledge, and we were once again in the tedious business of sack-hauling, this time on non-vertical terrain.  He then belayed me up over my nemesis moves (about 5.8).

We had been out for over ten hours and were getting a bit tired.  We cut the rope at the “fray” and, after a snack, continued.  About three rope lengths of easier terrain led to the top of the buttress and to ground familiar to me from last year’s traverse.

We scoped the steep pitch onto the main summit and decided that it might be worth a look sometime, but really our appetite for adventure had been pretty much sated.  We decided to exit, the next morning, over the two south summits, then flattened a couple of spots among the rocks and settled in for a comfortable night.

Photo from Canadian Alpine Journal (1972) from an article by Mike Walsh in which he defines the summits as shown:

1 South East  2 South West  3 Main  4 North East  5 North West  6 North


Friday dawned fine.  The descent to the upper snowfield went well unroped. We traversed the east side of the Corporal and the great gendarme on snow and climbed the loose pitch (and three others) to easier ground on the SW summit, a little tricky with the packs.

My memory of an ascent of this peak from the south about ten years ago is that we avoided rappelling by scrambling down on the west side and traversing around the corner to an easy ledge.  In the current instance, however, we were faced with an awkward-looking down-climb on steep slabby rock.  Not liking the look of this we returned to the summit and made the rappel into the notch, the shortened rope being just the right length.  Then it was up the awkward chimney to the SE summit and more sack-hauling.

Descent from here in favourable conditions is possible without the rope, and that’s how we did it, but not without some “interesting” scrambling.  Ignaz claimed that this was the worst part of the trip.  We lounged around camp for the rest of the afternoon and hiked out on Saturday.

Our route on the west buttress (central) of Mt. Colonel Foster will never be a classic.  I wondered about whether to supply a name for it, and eventually decided that with all the shifting rock and hauling of packs, and since the route itself is a bit of an irony, it might reasonably be referred to as Shunt’s Utopia (see Monty Python’s Big Red Book, Arts Page).  “The illusion is complete; it is reality, the reality is illusion and the ambiguity is the only truth….The point is taken, the elk is dead…I’m having treatment.”

Mt Colonel Foster in winter