Andrew Sunter spent the weekend hiking, scrambling and climbing in one of the most beautiful places in the Canadian Rockies.
The area around Lake O’Hara in Yoho National Park, British Columbia is probably one of the best places to hike in the world. The hikes in this area are endless. Climbing is excellent as well, with a mixture of rock and alpine routes. Aside from being absolutely beautiful, access to this area is restricted which means you feel like you have it almost to yourself. Private vehicles are not allowed in the area, and in fact you get in by bus.
Needless to say, it is very popular but difficult to get into the Lake O’Hara area. Parks Canada operates a small backcountry campground, which is where most people stay but it is not easy getting a reservation. Then there is the historic Elizabeth Parker Hut, which accommodates 24 people, but availability is based on a lottery system. There is the Lake O’Hara Lodge, but again the space is very limited and it’s quite pricy. The only place where we could stay in the area on short notice was the Abbot Pass Hut, which is operated by the Alpine Club of Canada.
The Lake O’Hara approach is the most popular way to get to Abbot Pass Hut. It is the safest route and goes through absolutely beautiful and unspoiled hiking terrain. It is a three to six hour hike from Lake O’Hara and the last section of the approach involves scrambling up scree slopes (we did it in about three hours, and weren’t rushing). You gain about 900 metres (3,000 feet) of elevation from where you get off the bus until you reach the hut. About the first two-thirds of the hike is on a well maintained hiking trail. The last one-third is in a scree gully to Abott Pass and that’s what takes the time.
I was there with two other climbers. We wanted to climb Mt. Victoria but there was still too much snow to climb it safely and quickly. So on Saturday we climbed Mt. Lefroy, which is probably one of the most straightforward mountaineering routes in the Rockies. It required an alpine start (it is essentially a snow slope that turns to avalanche-prone mush in the heat of the day), leaving the hut at about 4:30am and returning at 10:30am. It was a fairly easy climb but we were roped in the entire time as you wouldn’t want to fall. Many climbers are guided up and there are a number of good guiding companies (the largest being Yamnuska Mountain Adventures). We had crampons and used pitons for a traverse at the top and each brought two ice axes.
Once we were done the climb we just hung out at the hut for the rest of the day and this is a great place to spend some time.
On Sunday we climbed Mt. Huber, but had to go all the way back to Lake O’Hara to do it. So it was a three to four hour hike before we even started to climb. We left at 2:45am and didn’t get to the summit until 9:00am and the sun was already on it. I wouldn’t have wanted to do it any later than that. It was gorgeous though.
The weekend was just perfect. You couldn’t ask for more. It was physically challenging. We had blue skies the whole time and it was not too warm. There was a good mix of terrain: easy rock climbing and scrambling, glacier travel and then a classic snow climb. We didn’t run into another person—just had the mountains to ourselves.
Abbot Pass Hut has a special place in mountaineering history. It was above Abbot Pass that Phillip Stanley Abbot fell to his death while attempting the first ascent of Mt. Lefroy in 1896. It was a huge scandal at the time. A guide from Switzerland came to Canada and led a group up Mt. Lefroy and Mt. Victoria, demonstrating the need for trained guides. The hut was actually constructed by Swiss guides and officially opened in 1923.
Inside the hut is warm and cozy. Outside you are in this circle of mountains and you almost have the whole area to yourself. We booked everything through the Alpine Club: back country pass, bus ride in, hut accommodation. This cost a total of about $80 each for two nights. The hut is well equipped with propane, blankets, and firewood. You melt snow for drinking water as there is snow around the hut even in the summer. The hut sleeps around 30 people in an open room on the second floor.
Despite its mountaineering history and classic mountaineering objectives, these days many more hikers visit the Abbot Pass Hut than climbers. When I was there at least three quarters of the people staying at the hut were hikers. The trek up to the Abbot Pass Hut is for the advanced hiker. You should have a helmet (the most important piece of gear, as there is a lot of loose rock and at least one person has died from rock fall), ski poles (I didn’t have any and regretted it) or an ice axe. Don’t walk below other hikers and use your common sense. Most of the people who go there are probably with a guided hiking group but this is certainly not necessary.
For the hiker, a weekend at Abbot Pass Hut is an over-the-top experience. You’re just right there on the edge of a glacier with Mt. Victoria and Mt. Lefroy in front of you. There are not many places in the world more awesome than that.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Photo credits: Andrew Sunter
© Riding the buses 2011