Mount Indefatigable is a popular hike in Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada.
Mount Indefatigable trail-head at Upper Kananaskis Lake in Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada
Some hikes are a pleasant, leisurely experience and others offer a greater degree of challenge. Some are a struggle; a few are a battle. This specific mission is a take no prisoners, show no mercy, praise the Lord and pass the ammunition, full-blown, hand-to-hand combat, war. Not for the inexperienced or the faint of heart. Conditions on this particular mission are unique. Normally, the Mount Indefatigable hike is a very pleasant and scenic day.
The objective is to hike up the south ridge, scramble to the North summit of Mount Indefatigable, and then scramble one kilometer across a narrow ridge to the South summit for an easier and much shorter descent back to the trail-head. Total distance is 9 KM.
- Max elevation: 8,760 ft (2,670 m)
- Gross vertical elevation 3,510 ft (1,070 m)
- Sunrise 08:24 Sunset 18:15
- Estimated round trip time: 9 hours plus a 1½ hour drive time on each end.
The youngest team member is 21; the oldest 64. The team is experienced and this will become very important. The youngest woman, age 26, is a well-equipped and experienced mountaineer who exhibits an impressive knowledge-base and skill-set.
At 9 AM the hike begins to the North summit of Mount Indefatigable under cool conditions and an overcast sky with sun struggling to penetrate. The initial few kilometers are through predominantly larch forest on a narrow, rustic trail with occasional ridge views of the Kananaskis Lakes and surrounding mountains.
The access hike is heart-thumping steep which allows warming up rapidly as the temperature dips. Elevation is gained rapidly. A light dusting of corn snow continues for a couple of hours. There is evidence of surrounding heavy weather which warrants attention. At the end of the established trail there are spectacular views over the Upper and Lower Kananaskis Lakes.
Off-trial progress to traverse the steep mountain side is arduous in snow. Following the short trek through forest, the route progresses above the tree line into an open area where the North summit looms large ahead. On 2 feet (70 CM) of crisp, weight-supporting snow the approach continues to the face of the North summit. This approach to the circuit is chosen to eliminate higher potential risk in down-climbing the North Face.
Approaching the climb on the North summit of Mount Indefatigable
Following a short hike along the valley, the climb begins through snow to the base and traverse to the route chosen for the final assault on the summit. The face is snow-covered and very steep, sometimes close to vertical, with occasional outcroppings of loose and ice encrusted rock. This arduous ascent begins with the lead kicking steps into the surface of the snow.
Making the ascent to the North Summit of Mount Indefatigable
Remaining team members follow in the footsteps, using soft steps and great care to avoid damaging the steps for those following. The climb is performed by ascending the steps with feet and driving the handle of the ice axe deep into the snow as a third anchor point. All members are in full battle gear including rock helmets. A zigzag approach is utilized to reduce the real possibility of triggering an avalanche or the possibility that steps may collapse, sending anyone into a steep, uncontrolled slide.
Even though climbers are staggered and several meters apart, anyone losing their attachment to the face could easily fall into someone below and dislodge them. On this steep slope it may be difficult to arrest a slide. There is no good recovery for the first several hundred feet.
More than an hour is consumed to do the final heart pounding, Adrenalin pumping and exhausting 330 M (1,000 ft) climb to the cairn at the summit. Lunch is consumed rapidly at the summit which is unpredictably cold at -6 degrees C in a 40 KM/Hr breeze which brings wind chill near -25 C. By the time layering up is completed, it is necessary to ask a team member to buckle the rock helmet since hands are too cold to be functional.
By 2 PM, the brief meal is completed and the team sets up for the traverse across the ridge. Within 50 meters there is collective agreement this is a treacherous endeavor. The summit of the kilometer-long ridge hosts a heavy snow cornice. It is very difficult to determine where each cornice has rock underneath and which can potentially drop into space, even with extensive probing of the surface.
The other factor is time. There is not enough time to traverse the ridge and get back down in daylight. If we do not make it across to the South summit before dark, the day mission will be seriously compromised. The main factor is always safety. The vertical drops on either side of this narrow, loose rock and snow laden ridge are unforgiving. The possibility of all team members reaching the South summit without injury seems low.
The attempt is abandoned leaving us with the single and unattractive option of descending the North face. Any scramble route is always substantially more difficult to descend than ascend. The steps created on the up-climb are too badly damaged to reliably support 8 team members on the way down, so a new route must be created down a 1,500 ft (492 m) parabolic snow chute from the top to the valley below. As we inch our way down behind leaders, there is a dubious degree of confidence this may turn out well.
The team performs magnificently. Communication is very high. Focus on the task is intense. There are no unfortunate incidents beyond a few steps collapsing.
Following a very careful, 600 ft (190 m) near-vertical descent on very steep snow, the slope begins to taper off. Turning around and punching steps in a walk down becomes possible. For the final half kilometer, progress is a swift glissade down the snow chute on our butts, using the ice axes for steering and speed control. Once, it is necessary to stop and do a short traverse to avoid sliding over a small rock ledge.
The return hike is straightforward. The retreat is a retrace of the off-trail portion through forest. There is evidence of fresh cougar tracks but no concern due to the size of the group. At the top of the trail, group photos are taken.
The hike off-trail down the scenic ridge is spectacular with low sun creating dramatic contrasts across the lakes, surrounding forest and mountains. It is good to get back to the trail-head. Legs are very tired.
This is living closer to the edge. It is always a humbling and rewarding experience.