Mt Clemenceau Descent, full article / by kevin hjertaas

By Martin Lefebvre for the Canadian Alpine Journal 2013

It was around May 15, 2012 when I limped back into the snow safety office at Sunshine Village and had a chance to catch up with Kevin. After a quick hey hows it going, the next words out of my mouth were, “if you ever wanna go to Clemenceau, I'm in!” Without even blinking Kevin said “lets do it!” He immediately hopped on the computer and started looking at weather and flight costs. My jaw dropped and my knee started to swell up upon hearing his response. “Umm... I was thinking more about next year” But it was already too late to turn back. After hearing of the amazing solo descent of the North Face of Bryce we felt like there was a bit of mad rush for the classic un-skied faces of the Rockies. The North Face of Clemenceau had been on Kevin and Eric's wish list for a few years. It was a fat snowpack year in the Rockies, things were getting done and Kevin didn't want to get scooped on this one!

 The upper North Face of Mt. Clemenceau from the air.

The upper North Face of Mt. Clemenceau from the air.

The first ascent of the North Face was done in February 1989 by K. Wallator, T. Thomas and G. McCormicke. The Selected Alpine Climbs description goes as follows:”The FA was done over 16 days road to road, in winter with NO air support. A tremendous effort by this young team.” Indeed it was. It was already mid-May and a good weather window was coming our way in the next week. The only way we could get this done would be by going HEAVY on the air support.

Once we secured ourselves a flight in, the next step was getting our rag tag bunch together which would be no easy task in itself. Eric was in Italy at the time working with Dynafit but would be returning to Canada just in time to join us and was on board right away. Chris on the other hand took a bit more convincing. He had been gone surfing for the last month and was quite happy to be out of the ski boots for the season and not sure if his legs would up to the objective. After lots of e-mailing and peer pressure from Kevin, he caved. 

The quick planning had all come together, thanks to a lot of leg work by Kevin. We had three days to get this done and were going to meet at Saskatchewan crossing and hopefully flying in on May 25th from Nordegg. 

The trip was in less than a week and I was still wondering if my knee would be able to handle this type of ski ascent\descnt. I had had a bad twisting fall at work the day before I left for the Great Divide Traverse over a month ago. Over 22 days my friends Ali Hogg, Yuji Akiyama and myself had completed the first link of the Highline route described by Mark Klassen in the new edition of the Summits and Icefields book. It was a dream come true for me and my knee had survived it on a steady diet of jerky, whiskey and ibuprofen.  This descent was a chance of a lifetime and I wasn't going to miss out! So I stocked up on the same supplies and crossed my fingers.

 Mt Clemenceau North Face from the bench above the lower face.

Mt Clemenceau North Face from the bench above the lower face.

We meet up early on the 25th with Eric having come from Whistler and picked up Chris in Revelstoke. Kevin and myself with a quick drive from the Bow Valley. We made our way to the heliport excited and ready to go for it. But after a quick chat with Ralph our pilot, we soon realized this would be a classic heli day of hurry up and wait. And wait we did. The blue sky over our heads was teasing us and making us wonder why we were standing still. But a quick look to the west and we knew why. A thick blanket of cloud clinging to the mountain tops of the Columbia Icefields brought us back to reality. We couldn't go on such a long flight without perfect weather. Around 7pm, we had to accept we werent going anywhere that day. With day one down the drain some serious doubt and discussion followed with us wondering if we could get this done in two. The high pressure system was supposed to hit in the next 12 hours, so we decided to camp out near the heliport and see what the next morning would bring.

***

The cold frosty morning was a good sign. Looking west as soon as we got out of our tents was the confirmation we needed. No a cloud over our heads and blue skies over the icefields. It was a go!

We took off around 9am and embarked on an unforgettable flight through the heart of the Rockies. The air had warmed up fast with no wind. Ralph was hugging the steep North face of twins pillar trying to get more lift. As we flew further north along side the beautiful fin of Mt Alberta in the distance, I couldn't help but thinkand smile about how I was flying over the central part of the Great Divide Traverse. Something that had taken me a week to travel on foot was over in 15 minutes.

 Great camp spot below the lower face/play zone.

Great camp spot below the lower face/play zone.

We chatted throughout the flight on all the other objectives we could see around us. The chatting was cut short when the face came into view and someone asked “is that it?” All of a sudden reality set in. “It's big!” was the next thing I heard. I swallowed the lump in my throat and focused again. We needed to do a quick fly by to see if the line was even skiable. No blue ice in the guts. “Looks like it goes” we all agreed. We picked a camp site on a small shoulder feature at the bottom of the lower face. Ralph quickly descended and dropped us off right where we wanted. Our taxi ride was over and we watched the heli fly off. 

The north face is split into two tiers. The lower tier being around 700m and the upper more heavily glaciated section 800m with a massive bench in between the two. It was 930am and we decided to set up camp later to go climb the lower face to get a feel for snow conditions as well as putting in the steps for the big push the next morning. 

We manage to skin for about 200m up the face. Eric charged up the bootpack where he then got the nickname “stairmaster”. Kevin and Chris were right behind him moving at a strong steady pace, and myself way down the track struggling up with my knee already stiff and sore.  Looking at the speed Chris climbed I couldn't help but wonder why he was doubting his fitness level. I eventually meet up with the the crew on top of the bench at 2800m, glad to have made it up just to there. It was our first real look at the crux of the objective. The ascent route is the obvious beautiful snow/ice ramp that goes right up the middle of the face. The only unknown was how and by which way were we going to top out.

 A serac avalanche dusting the traverse.

A serac avalanche dusting the traverse.

After taking photos looking through bino's and debating our options there was no decisive conclusion to our dilema. The only thing we knew is that we were going to seehow far we could get up the face. We all skied a great run down the lower face with no real stability issues except for loose sluffing in the steep sections. We were back at camp around 2pm, and decided we would go for the full climb 12 hours later. We spent the afternoon reading the guide book looking through the bino's still trying to work out the summit crux with no clear answer.

After a restless sleep I woke up to a beautiful starry night with no wind. A quick breakfast and few ibuprofen's later we were off. We climbed the lower face in two hours and topped out on the first bench at 5am with a beautiful orange and pink sunrise. Had a quick break and brewed up some hot water. We knew as soon as we leftthe security of the plateau there would be no real stopping till we were back at this spot. We skinned and contoured under massive seracs as quickly as possible trying to get to the snow ramp listening to chunks already pealing off the hanging glacier behind us. We reached the first bergshrund at 6am and set ourselves up for the next crux. Chris took over the lead and found a nice ramp over the bottom berg and continued to kick steps up the face. We were moving at a good pace and the travel was good. My knee felt strong as though it had warmed up. I had full range of motion again and I was able to climb with confidence. Chris and Eric swapped leads and the stairmaster took over doing his thing out front and plowing through the terrain. 

 Martin Lefebvre, Chris Rubens, Eric Hjorleifson climb Mt Clemenceau North Face

Martin Lefebvre, Chris Rubens, Eric Hjorleifson climb Mt Clemenceau North Face

We came to the second shrund up on the face around 3300m. We were at our crux decision. The route in the guide book angles to the right traversing under massive seracs and cornices. We would be exposed for far too long and although it looked liked we could find a way through the corniced ridge none of us felt to comfortable with that option. 

 Eric Hjorlefison halfway up Mt Clemenceau's North Face.

Eric Hjorlefison halfway up Mt Clemenceau's North Face.

It looked as though there could be a way on the NE ridge but the gargoyles and cornices seemed like an impassable barrier, plus we would have to loose elevation to get through. Above us were were two staggered house sized seracs that looked like they might have a way through. We decided to keep going straight up and get as high on the face as possible if there was no way through we would ski from our highest point. I took over the lead and still feeling strong and excited about the next section. There was still good snow for the next 200m and we were still moving at a good pace. As we got closer to the upper seracs the snow got thinner and the ice thicker. Our pace slowed down as we had to maneuver through the ice bulges and ramps. This 100m section was the only front pointing we would have to do on the face. We eventually found the way on top of the lower serac which was a huge platform just below the top of the NE ridge. We had a quick celebration as we (reached the first stance free of objective hazard since we left the lower face) felt we had gotten through the most exposed part of the climb and could catch our breath for a second. We were only 60m from the top and noticed a small ramp feature that would get us onto the summit ridge. Kevin took over the lead and made the tricky move onto the ridge and we all followed with a beautiful ridge walk all the way to the summit at 3658m. It was 930am, we had found a direct route up the North Face of the fourth highest peak in the Rockies and enjoyed a beautiful summit! But we still had to get down.

 Chris Rubens, Eric Hjorleifson, Martin Lefebvre nearing the top of the North Face.

Chris Rubens, Eric Hjorleifson, Martin Lefebvre nearing the top of the North Face.

Thankfully we are all more comfortable with skis and poles than crampons and ice axes. Once we clipped in we felt like we were in our element. We skied right off the summit with good snow and made the committing turn on the small ramp and onto the plateau. We decided to all ski onto the face and spot each other from a small “bench”. Eric decided to go first, I didn't mind. As Eric made the first few jump turns he would set loose 1.5 slides with every turn. So he had to ski the whole pitch, there was nowhere to regroup with ice on both sides of the snow ramp. Even after ten or so turns Eric was still doing jump turns. Chris, Eric and Kevin have been skiing together for over 15years. So when Chris and Kevin watched Eric ski, then looked at each other like they new something I didn't.  I inquired: “what's up?” “Well”, Chris said, “I've never seen Eric do jump turns before, it must be hard.”

 Kevin Hjertaas, Eric Hjorleifson, Chris Rubens topping out on Mt Clemenceau

Kevin Hjertaas, Eric Hjorleifson, Chris Rubens topping out on Mt Clemenceau

“Shit!” There's the lump in my throat again! If one of the best skier's in the world is finding this hard I'm in for a hell of a ride. 

It took Eric almost 15 minutes to ski 800m, but he was at the safe spot below the upper face. Chris was next, dropped in and there was still huge amounts of sluff. Kevin and I were watching him ski and we could tell the snow wasn't easy. Kevin and I started talking on who was going next. We had been clinging to the side of the face for almost a half hour, legs going numb and too much time to think. We both agreed that we would pick a lane stick to it so we wouldn't sluff the other out and go at the same time. Chris made it to the safe spot, and we pushed off. The top 5 or 10 turns around 55 degrees were the most steep and nerve wracking. The snow was chalky with full of runnels which meant you really had to push hard to get a good edge in. It eased steadily to 50' and 45' were we got into a good descent flow. Fighting the leg burn as we went down I kept trying so soak in this amazing place and the incredible joy of skiing such a line. After our 15 minute ski we crossed the bottom schrund and meet up with Chris and Eric on the bench. We exchanged hugs and high fives looking back at our tracks down this amazing face. I will never forget it!

 Eric Hjorleifson's first turns on the North Face

Eric Hjorleifson's first turns on the North Face

We were back at camp around noon and had a few hours to kill before our pick up. Eric had the great idea to bring back a chunk of glacier back down to camp. So we ate, soaked up the sun, packed up and enjoyed a few bevies cooled down with some Clemenceau ice while we waited for our ride back. 

*An edited version of this article first appeared in the Canadian Alpine Journal 2013*

 Eric Hjorleifson resting below the North Face of Mt. Clemenceau. 

Eric Hjorleifson resting below the North Face of Mt. Clemenceau.