Mount Sir Donald is a classic rock climb in Glacier National Park, BC, Canada.
Mount Sir Donald bears the name of the Canadian Pacific Railway Director, Sir Donald A. Smith, who drove the last spike in the rail line that linked Canada from coast to coast for the first time in 1885. The ceremony took place at Craigellachie, British Columbia, Canada.
The Mount Sir Donald trail is 4.3 KM (2¾ miles) one way and gains 915 meters (3,002 ft) of net elevation. The trail was originally constructed by the railway as a recreational access route for mountain climbers who chose to tackle this classic climb.
The hike to the Vaux Glacier begins from the Illecillewaet Campground parking area on a cool morning, at a brisk pace, in a T-shirt layer. The first kilometer of trail (⅝ mile) is relatively flat alongside the Illecillewaet River.
Excellent trail at the beginning travels through moss and fern with borders old and new growth. The forest surrounds ancient, giant dead-fall, and huge glacier-deposited boulders. The trail gradually deteriorates to narrower but good trail over distance. Some of the mossy boulders are the size of small houses.
A newly created section of stone slab trail, similar to sections of the Hermit and Balu Pass trails, has been constructed through a large area of rock fall which opens impressive and expansive valley views sooner than the original forest trail. The trail revision also adds a bit of distance and gross elevation to the hike.
Across the valley to the south is an outstanding view of Abbott Ridge. The trail gradually turns north and, around 2.5 kilometers (1⅝ miles), crosses Vaux Creek on an aluminum plank bridge. The single-side guide wire provides minimal assistance to stay on the bridge, (i.e. out of the fast running creek), and provides assistance with steep rock steps on the other side where the trail continues onward and upward.
A few mild switchbacks gain elevation more rapidly and, at 3.3 kilometers (2⅛ miles), a junction provides the choice of Perley Rock to the right, or Mount Sir Donald to the left.
The left fork trail climbs quickly up a boulder strewn slope. The majority of the elevation is achieved in the final kilometer. The summit of Mount Sir Donald has been visible since crossing Vaux Creek and remains dead center above as the significant aerobic workout continues.
Trail quality decreases as ascent continues. When the tree line breaks, the hike clearly proceeds on a large lateral moraine with Vaux Creek below to the left and a snow-draped rock wall on the right. As the trail begins to level near the top, the quality degrades to loose gravel over variable-pitch rock slab and becomes treacherous. Footing is tenuous and unreliable.
Thirty meters (98 ft) to the right is a perfectly civilized rock fall at the base of the rock wall so the off trail ascent continues on this rugged but more stable surface. There are streams running in multiple channels and Vaux Creek creates a beautiful waterfall. The scramble up the rust rocks, made smooth by glacial erosion, enters the bowl below Vaux Glacier where time is taken to sit in the sun beside the rushing water of Vaux Creek with a straight-on view of the shallow bowl and Vaux Glacier a short distance away on the other side of the easily-crossed creek. This is a very good experience.
The summit of Mount Sir Donald looms above, and behind is an incredible view of The Illecillewaet River Valley, the Asulkan Valley, glacier fields and a view of the Bonney Glacier below Mount Bonney beyond the far side of Abbott Ridge. This visual experience is absolutely breathtaking.
There is an option to hike around and below the waterfalls onto a lateral moraine which leads to a ridge hike for the beginning of the technical climb to the summit of Mount Sir Donald peaking nearly 1,000 meters (3,281 ft) above. The chosen alternative is the shorter off-trail hike across the bowl to the toe of Vaux Glacier.
The massive ice deposit occupies a crevice in the mountain which merges into a large ice shelf above. On the approach to the glacier there is a cool breeze buffering the warmth of the sun. In spite of its size at close range, it is a mere shadow of its former self and each year dwindling in size.
There is time to rest and bask in the sun before the descent begins via the same route. The steep descent requires cautious steps on steep and slippery slope. Hiking poles are extremely helpful in maintaining balance and position on the very steep trail. The Mount Sir Donald and Vaux Glacier trail is a full body workout.
The day has warmed up substantially, Distant mountains are lightly shrouded in smoke from British Columbia forest fires and the odor is subtle but unmistakable.
Past the Perley Rock / Mount Sir Donald trail junction, and immediately following the crossing of the bridge over Vaux Creek, there is an impressive multi-stream waterfall worthy of afternoon light, photographic endeavor. Continuing down through the valley, the image and sound of multiple waterfalls and streams feeding the Illecillewaet River is overwhelming.
The power of the water flow is impressive and overwhelms the senses as sound reverberates throughout the expansive and incredibly beautiful Illecillewaet Valley. The spectacular and physical day ends with the reward of an excellent dinner in the Glacier Park Lodge dining room.
Update: October 2012 – Glacier Park Lodge at Rogers Pass is permanently closed.