Sunday, May 8, 2016

May Day on the A-Strain

Tiles of black and yellow limestone shimmered in the late-afternoon sun as we pounded down the faint trail below the Athabasca-Andromeda glacier. A dashed line on the dirty surface of a snow patch showed where our boots had barely dented its frozen surface less than twelve hours earlier. Now we waded through isothermal slush, plunging down to scree with every step. It was only the first day of May, but the warm air had the soft, wistful touch of summer.

I felt both old and young. How many times have I walked down these moraines since an August day a quarter of a century ago, after my father had led my brother and me to the top of Athabasca? There've been so many afternoons like the one today, running down the trail worn into limestone rubble, feeling a familiar mixture of fatigue and happiness. I tried to see Andromeda, Snow Dome, Kitchener, all the big peaks clustered around the grey tongue of the Columbia Icefield below, as a wide-eyed twenty-something might've seen them. I tried and failed. The chimneys and gullies slicing through the layered cakes of the mountains were old friends now, not the strangers they'd once been. The twenty-something wasn't the same person as the sunburnt, grizzled man who'd replaced him. What hadn't changed was the need that'd driven the younger me, and that seemed to drive me still. 

The northeast face of Mt. Andromeda on a crisp May morning, with the obvious shadowed gash of the Andromeda Strain.

Juan Henriquez kicks steps up neve blasted hard by spindrift in the lower couloir of the route.

Alik Berg shuffles across a steep ledge of snow-covered choss halfway up the route.

The oldest member of the party starts up the rock pitch above the ledge. Photo: Juan Henriquez.

Alik Berg makes the last few moves up the rock before it backs off into the upper couloir.

Unfortunately these days you need to tiptoe up another half a ropelength of low-angled mixed ground before you reach thick ice.

The upper couloir resembles nothing so much as a giant luge run.Photo: Juan Henriquez.

Alik Berg strikes a classic pose on the traverse to the exit ice pitch.

Leaving an ankle-wrenching belay on sixty-degree ice, Juan Henriquez steps onto the legendary traverse.

Alik Berg contemplates where the cornice guarding the summit might be the smallest.

From the summit, the entire Columbia Icefield lies spread out in the afternoon sun.

The same route, a different millenium: a wide-eyed twenty-something experiences the Andromeda Strain for the first time. Photo: Pete Takeda.

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