11,364 ft / 3,464 m
Banff National Park
Mt. Victoria is most famously known as the stunning backdrop to Lake Louise, located in the heart of Banff National Park. Despite having the distinction of one of the most photographed peaks in the world, very few have had the privilege of standing on her summit. From Lake Louise, Mt. Victoria appears to be a hulking massif but, in reality, the mountain more resembles a narrow spine. The route to the summit from Abbot Pass involves traversing a lengthy, narrow ridge with precipitous drops on either side.
Mt. Victoria is also on the list of 54 peaks in the Canadian Rockies over 11,000 feet. While Colorado may have higher mountains, 54 peaks over 14,000 feet, the Canadian Rockies are an order of magnitude more difficult due to their heavily glaciated terrain, steep and technical nature, and loose, dangerous rock. Mt. Victoria is harder than any Colorado 14er by far and Charlie likened it to a winter summit of Pyramid Peak.
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We arrived in Banff, Canada on 7/18/14 to a smoke engulfed park due to multiple non-contained forest fires. We spent Saturday weighing our options for what adventure we should tackle first, combing through guidebooks, websites, and even a trip to the Alpine Club of Canada. Mt. Victoria and Mt. Lefroy became an intriguing option for several reasons; first to be able to potentially summit two Canadian 11,000 footers from a central basecamp and secondly that basecamp being the Abbot Hut. Staying at the hut would allow us to leave the tents and cooking stuff (stove, pot, etc) behind thus saving us a few pounds since we already had ropes, climbing gear, crampons, and ice tools to haul up the mountain. We bought permits to stay in the Abbot Hut Sunday and Monday night giving us the option to hopefully summit both Mt. Victoria and Mt. Lefroy on consecutive days. With our objective finalized it was now a matter of packing and we spent hours agonizing over how we could save weight while still be prepared for rock, snow, and icy conditions.
The photo below shows our route to Abbot Hut and the summit of Mt. Victoria. The better route to Abbot Hut is marked in green, we came down this way and it was much, much better than our ascent route in red directly up from Oesa Lake.
We decided to hike to the Abott Hut from Lake O’Hara which meant having to ride a shuttle bus up to Lake O’Hara. We opted for the 3:30 p.m. bus on Sunday to give us plenty of time to pack and prepare. The downside of the late bus is you will likely be the last to arrive at the hut late in the day and if the hut is at full capacity (24 total people per night) space might be at a premium. The bus ride is 11 kilometers and climbs about 1500 vertical feet, definitely worth the $9/person.
The bus ride took about 30 minutes and after some last minute gear shuffling we got hiking around 4:30 p.m. Lake O’Hara is quite striking, a beautiful jade/turquoise color. The trail around the lake was very flat for the first kilometer or two but began climbing in earnest soon enough, we need to climb 3,000 vertical feet to reach Abbot Hut.
The steep trail to Lake Oesa was excellently constructed with rock stairs and pathways through several boulder fields. We passed by two nice waterfalls and the peaks towering over us were gorgeous.
We mistakenly missed the trail heading up the slopes to the north of Lake Oesa so we traversed the shore of the lake before beginning the climb up to Abbot Pass. The mosquitos near the lake were absolutely insane and had us running for our lives. You would inhale mosquitos as you breathed and I was constantly rubbing my arms to get them off of me. It looked like I applied a nice layer of mosquito sunblock to my arms by the time I got to the other side of the lake.
The map indicated there wasn’t really a trail from Lake Oesa to Abbot Pass so we just turned straight up the hillside past the lake. We literally were climbing a waterfall for the first several hundred vertical feet until the gully widened out a bit. The terrain is extremely loose rock and the goal through many sections was to move up the slope faster than it was carrying you back downhill. Our packs were heavy but at least the ground was sliding out from under our feet.
After battling the scree for over an hour we climbed high enough to get on snow and this was a very welcome relief. The snow was soft enough that we didn’t need crampons but we felt more secure trading our trekking poles for an ice ax.
The temperatures dropped a fair amount the higher we climbed and towards the top of the pass it began to lightly snow and graupel on us. After 3 hours of "hiking" we reached Abott Hut at 7:30 p.m., threw open the door, and quickly warmed up since the fire was nicely stoked inside. Situated at 9,598 feet Abbot Hut was built in 1922 by Swiss guides and remained Canada’s highest permanent structure for many, many years until it was edged out by the Neil Colgan Hut which is only 30 meters higher.
The Abott Hut is awesome, equipped with a wood-burning stove, gas lighting, propane burners for cooking, and all the pots/pans/dishes/silverware you need. The top floor consists of two rows of sleeping racks with 3 or 4 inch thick foam pads which were quite comfortable. After taking some photos of the spectacular sunset we ate dinner, organized our summit packs, and quickly went to bed since the alarm was set for a 4 a.m. wake-up call.
All too quickly the alarm was blaring. Get up, choke down a bagel and peanut butter, get dressed for battle and head out the door. As we passed by the bathroom Charlie noticed that its metal roof was buzzing from electricity in the air, definitely not a good sign. We reluctantly pressed on and after climbing up the steep ledges for only 15 minutes it began snowing on us. As we were deliberating about turning around a party higher on the ridge in front of us yelled down to us that they were retreating; they could see a major storm moving in from their higher position. That sealed the deal for us as well, back to the hut we go.
The snow intensified throughout the morning and made our decision to bail a no-brainer. With the weather not improving anytime soon we all went back to bed around 7 a.m. It continued to snow most of the morning and afternoon with several inches accumulating on the ground. How awesome to be warm and cozy nestled safely in the hut, being stuck in a tent all day would have been miserable. After a lengthy nap we passed the day chatting with 3 Canadian mountaineers, practicing our crevasse rescue skills, and having many heated rounds of President @sshole since the hut had a deck of cards. Late in the afternoon the weather broke and the sun began warming the surrounding peaks. We were hopeful a lot of the snow would melt off the loose, treacherous ledges since we planned on trying Mt. Victoria again in the morning.
We set the alarm for 3:30 a.m. this time to get going sooner and having rehearsed our summit day routine the day previous we were out the door of the hut by 4:30 a.m. We climbed by the light of our headlamps for the first hour or so making our way carefully up the snow covered ledges. We were able to follow cairns fairly well and stay on route up to the ridge.
Once gaining the ridge we quickly reached a very icy and slightly exposed step-around move. Thankfully there is a fixed piton here with some rope attached to assist climbers through this section. This was greatly appreciated as the section was very icy for us. After the step around move we climbed up some more ledgy terrain to get back on the ridge proper.
Somewhere around 5:30 a.m. or 6 a.m. the sun crested the backbone of the Canadian Rockies basking the slopes in stunning alpenglow.
We traversed along top of the snowy ridge until we hit the second rockband. From here we began to traverse to the right until we hit a large swath of mountain carried away by a rockslide we all heard from the hut last night.
The path of the rockslide can be seen below me in the photo below. We quickly wanted to get away from the edge of the rockslide since we figured the sides were weakened by large chunk of slope now missing from the face. We broke out the rope and Charlie led a quick pitch up some class 4/low class 5 terrain to get us to safer ground. Throughout the day and night, rock slides and avalanches were a constant both on Victoria and her neighbors.
Another pitch of rock brought us through the second rockband and back to the ridge crest again. From here we simul-climbed along the spine of the ridge with Charlie putting in some rock protection along the way. The scenery was stunning and it was shaping up to be a beautiful day. We felt like we were in the halls of the mountain king!
We had all read about the infamous Sickle and it is the U-shaped feature in front of me in the photo below. The old-time mountain guides would refer to this as "fancy walking", telling their clients who would straddle The Sickle like a horse to "stand up, you won’t hit your head."
On the top of The Sickle we put in some rock protection to belay Charlie as he downclimbed the steep snow. He also placed a couple pickets on his way down to protect Carolyn and I from a fall as we downclimbed behind him. The drops on both sides of The Sickle were quite exciting; you wouldn’t really want to fall in either direction. In theory if somebody did fall your teammates could jump off the other side of the spine to counterweight the rope but I’m very glad we didn’t have to put this scenario to the test.
After The Sickle we traversed some more snow slopes and after baking in the sun for several hours these slopes were getting quite soft. I was punching in to my waist and was very concerned about traversing these slopes even later in the day on the return trip. Once I reached the belay Charlie and I both agreed to avoid this avalanche-prone slope at all cost on the way back, it looked like we would be able to rappel down a small cliff along the ridge crest to avoid this slope.
It was a bit disheartening to see how far away the summit still was once we regained the ridge crest again. It began to feel like Mt. Victoria was playing a cruel game with us, retreating further away from us as we progressed along the ridge. In my mind I told myself climbing Mt. Victoria was like eating an elephant. How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time of course! The ridge became a bit rockier and there were many ups and downs along the way.
Fortunately a few of the steep snow spines could be bypassed on the right side which was fine by me, I was starting to get my fill of the "fancy walking" by this point.
Finally at around 11 a.m. we ran out of mountain to climb and we proudly stood on the summit of Mt. Victoria. We were all excited to be on the summit but we knew we couldn’t let our guard down, we had to run the gauntlet back across Victoria’s endless ridge while also avoiding potential avalanche-prone slopes this late in the day.
We only stayed on the summit 10 minutes not even bothering to sign the summit register before beginning the long ridge run back to the hut.
Fortunately we were able to avoid the soft, avalanche-prone slope I was concerned about by doing some climbing along the ridge crest and then rappelling down a short cliffband. Below Carolyn and Charlie climb the feature which might be known as the Limestone Pony.
We climbed back up The Sickle, traversed the ridge, and pretty quickly got back to the ledges above the hut. Most of the snow had completely melted throughout the day and we only had to contend with the loose, manky rock. We reached the hut at 3:00 p.m. taking us 10.5 hours to roundtrip the summit from the hut. Unfortunately we couldn’t relax, we had to pack up and get back down to Lake O’Hara to catch the 6:30 p.m. bus, the last bus of the day.
After a mad dash to pack up we were out the door by 3:30 p.m. and quickly plunge-stepped down the scree to Lake Oesa. We found the correct "trail" on the way out and this would have definitely made life a lot better on the way in. Oh well, we didn’t want things to be too easy anyway. With all the difficulties of the day finally behind us we could celebrate our successful summit and reminisce about the day’s events.
We made it back to Lake O’Hara with plenty of time to spare to catch the bus. Once back to our cars we went back to Lake Louise to find a campsite and celebrate with some buffalo burgers and a tasty Colorado microbrew. Mt. Victoria proved to be a humbling introduction to the Canadian Rockies, definitely a place where you need your big boy pants.