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. The Mount Sir Donald trail is 4.3 kilometres (2.7 miles) one way and gains 915 metres (3,002 ft) of net elevation. It was originally built by the railway as an access route for mountain climbers who chose to tackle this classic climb.
I begin my hike to the Vaux Glacier on a cool morning, at a brisk pace, in a T-shirt layer. The first kilometre of trail is relatively flat alongside the Illecillewaet River. Excellent trail at the beginning, through moss and fern, borders old and new growth. The forest surrounds ancient, giant deadfall, 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 opened 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 and opens valley views sooner than the original forest trail. It also adds a bit of distance and gross elevation to the hike. Across the valley to the south, on my right, is an outstanding view of the entirety of Abbott Ridge. The trail gradually turns north and, around 2.5 kilometres (1.6 miles), crosses Vaux Creek on an aluminum plank bridge. A single-side guide wire keeps you on the bridge, (i.e. out of the fast running creek), and provides assistance with steep steps on the other side where the trail continues onward and upward. A few mild switchbacks gain elevation more rapidly and, at 3.3 kilometres (2.1 miles), a junction provides the choice of Perley Rock to the right or Mount Sir Donald to the left.
I take the left fork and quickly the trail steeply climbs a boulder slope. The majority of the elevation is achieved in the final kilometre. The summit of Mount Sir Donald has been visible since crossing Vaux Creek and remains dead centre above me as I continue a significant aerobic workout. The higher I get, the poorer the quality of the trail becomes, and as I break the tree line I am clearly on a lateral moraine with Vaux Creek below me to my left and a snow-draped rock wall on my 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 metres to my right is a perfectly civilized rock fall at the base of the rock wall so I off trail and complete the climb on this more stable surface. There are streams running in multiple channels and Vaux Creek creates a beautiful waterfall. I scramble up the smooth rust rocks to enter the bowl below Vaux Glacier and sit beside Vaux Creek in the sun with water rushing beside me and a straight on view of the shallow bowl and Vaux Glacier on the other side. The summit of Mount Sir Donald looms above me 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 on the other side of Abbott Ridge. The visual experience is absolutely breathtaking.
There is an option to hike around and below the waterfalls onto a lateral moraine which will lead me on a ridge hike to the beginning of the technical climb to the summit of Mount Sir Donald which peaks nearly 1,000 metres (3,281 ft) above me. Instead I choose to hike off-trail across the bowl to the toe of Vaux Glacier.
The massive ice deposit ‘flows’ up a crevice in the mountain into a large ice shelf above. As I approach 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. I am very fortunate to be here to see what currently remains. A video link follows.
There is time to rest and bask in the sun before I begin the down climb on the same route. The steep descent requires cautious steps. Hiking poles are mandatory, in my humble opinion, to maintain balance and position on the very steep trail. It is a full body workout. The day has warmed up substantially and distant mountains are lightly shrouded in smoke from British Columbia forest fires. The odour is subtle but unmistakable. I am surprised the smoke from over 250 massive forest fires burning in Central British Columbia has not shown up sooner.
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 photographing. As I continue down through the valley the image and sound of multiple waterfalls and streams feeding the Illecillewaet River is overwhelming. In the hot day, the power of the water flow is impressive and overwhelms the senses.
It is a spectacular and physical day rewarded with an excellent dinner in the Glacier Park Lodge dining room.
Update: October 2012 – Glacier Park Lodge at Rogers Pass is permanently closed.