The idea of reaching this confluence was first proposed over a year ago, in May 2006. Brendan and I exchanged emails over the proposition while he was still in Japan teaching English, where all the land confluences have been found. Out of pure coincidence, I found Brendan's dad on a confluence report near Calgary. Small world.
Brendan and I took a mountaineering course a few year ago and have bagged a few mountaineering peaks. We also enjoy backcountry camping so we figured we had the basic skillset to attempt this confluence. We started researching to form a plan of attack for this trip.
Google Earth tells me that this confluence is located along a glaciated ridge between Mount Amery and Monchy Mountain. The confluence has an elevation over 3000m! Amazingly, it appears to be right at the highest point on the ridge. It couldn't be at a much more inaccessible point, but the views from this confluence will probably be the most spectacular of any confluence on earth!
I composited a topographic map from the National Resources of Canada Toporama, since the confluence lays just off all available high resolution Gemtrek maps (the standard Canadian hiker's companion).
We discussed the topographic map for a route. The map nicely showed us that there was a most convenient mountain bike path along the Alexandra River valley. We could bike up it to set a camp only 8 km from the confluence. My first impression was to go up Alexandra River to the Ridges creek (the creek further west of Amery creek), and head up the west side of Monchy Mountain to gain the glacier. Brendan figured the best route would be to go up the Amery Creek and then follow the stream directly towards the summit of Mount Amery to gain the glacier. We ended up taking that approach.
We had high hopes that this route would be at least doable, if not easily doable, since it was taken by Leopold Amery for the first accent in 1929, when he was 56 years old! This "old guy", ascended it in a snowstorm no less! Surely we could do it. The Amery creek route was also used for the first ascent of Mount Hooge, in 1948. Mount Hooge is not an official mountain, but is clearly visible (and only visible it is visible at all along the highway) from Saskatchewan Crossing.
I also tried finding photos of Mount Amery to get an idea of its features from the Amery creek basin. As far as I could tell, there were no photos of that area anywhere on the internet. Later, I would decide the reason for this is because the Amery Creek route is a trap with 200 meter vertical walls imprisoning you. Months later, I noticed a familiar tower on BBC's Planet Earth DVD. On the first DVD, the section on Mountains, when the narrator begins to describe the Rockies Mountains as "running from Patagonia to Alaska", confluence 52N 117W makes a cameo appearance behind lighthouse tower, and Mount Saskatchewan.
Brendan seemed to realize this early on, and tried to convince me that we should think of this trip as an exploration of the area, and consider not even bring mountaineering gear.
A month before we left, we got Seth on board, who enjoys taking on gigantic mountaineering challenges. He's also one of the best climbers I've ever met, so his presence on this trip boosted my confidence.
We started out by taking the Friday afternoon off work and renting mountaineering boots, crampons, ice axes and a bike rack from the University of Calgary Outdoor Program Centre. We drove to the Lake Louise visitors' centre to pick up our backcountry permits. Random camping is conveniently permitted in the area west of highway 93 around Mount Amery. We then drove to a small parking lot on the west side of the highway 93 just north of Mount Amery (52.12094N 116.98206W). We assembled our bikes, packed up our gear and headed across the bridge marking the start of the bike trail. The trail was fairly flat although the forest growth necessitated long sleeves and pants for protection.
After about an hour and a half of biking, we got our first look up Amery Creek valley. It was our first indication of the potential road block that awaited us at the end of the valley. We biked another 20 minutes, stashed our bikes at the edge of the forest and carried our gear across a swamp to the rocky shore of the Alexandre river to set up camp.
On Saturday August 25, 2007, we woke up bright and early, but spent an hour searching for the best way to cross the Alexander River. We donned our sandals (or my climbing shoes since I wanted to minimize the number of footwear I brought, which also made me bike in mountaineering boots) to cross the river. To cross the Alexandra river once, we crossed a total of four channels, the largest one being nearly waist deep and ten meters across. Our crossing was located at 52.06946N 117.01059W. Once to the other side, we warmed up our feet which had been frozen into solid blocks of ice, and wandered up through the bush to find Amery creek, since we were a few hundred metres to its west.
We then followed Amery creek sometimes having to bushwhack into the forest when the creek became impassable. Amery creek was too fast and deep to casually cross. It also had steep, waterfall sections that we tried to avoid by scrambling up the steep valley walls into the forest. Roughly three hours after finishing the Alexandra River crossing we finally got above treeline and onto the scree slopes above Amery creek.
This gave us the first full view of our route up as well as an unimpeded view of our path ahead. The was no escaping it, the confluence lay beyond a 200 meter vertical wall topped by a 50 meter thick hanging glacier.
Undeterred, Chris continue on just to make sure it was impossible. Seth and Chris had brought their climbing shoes, and we all brought our mountaineering crampons, but unfortunately no one brought traditional climbing gear (none of us has any trad climbing experience anyway).
We continued along the valley walking a top a large moraine until our turn around time of 3:00. We took numerous photographs from this closest point to the confluence, some of which I stitched into a panorama. Shortly after turning back, the light drizzle turned to full fledged rain (and snow at higher elevations). Chris's $1 purple poncho purchased in Vietnam, was not up to the task of keeping him dry. Brendan's $350 goretex jacket faired no better. (Point for Chris!)
Instead of descended the way we came (which was up the creek bed once into the basin) we descended primarily through the bush (staying as high as possible on the east side of Amery creek). For the most part, the spongy moss made the descent fair easy like walking on the moon, except in the avalanche paths where the undergrowth was very dense.
We recrossed Alexandra river foregoing removing our mountaineering boots since they were already saturated with rain water. We changed into dry warm clothes, had a nice camp fire and warm dinner and were in generally good spirits despite the failed mission. We had gained a lot of information that was previously unknown, and decided to reclassify our trip as Brendan originally intended as a reconnaissance mission.
The next day, we tracked down our bikes, which had marked with the GPS, and followed the bike trail back to our car. The bike back took about 3/4 of the time to bike there due to the slight elevation gradient.
Once home, we did a detailed postmortem analysis on this confluence attempt. We originally chose the Amery creek route because the mountain biking trail allowed easy access to the Amery creek valley (only 1 hour of biking). The Amery creek valley itself appeared much shorter than other valleys, although in retrospect we should have realized that the narrowness of the valley meant the walls would be steep and impassable. Having said that, it was a lot of fun scrambling up a route that very few people have explored. The remoteness and the impassable steep walls and hanging glaciers were awe-inspiring, and at worst, this trip turned out to be a fun filled camping adventure. We hope that this trip report will prepare others exploring this area for what awaits them.
We are already planning our next attempt scheduled for the spring or summer of 2008. We are planning on taking the route by Jason Thompson et al. which is described in the 1995 Canadian Alpine Journal (page 97). While their route involves fording the North Saskatchewan river and heading directly into the heart of the Amery massif (between the Alexandra and Arctomys creeks). Their route aims to meet the summit of Mount Amery, but it seems slightly easier to veer south to take a glacier to the summit icefield and easily arrive at the confluence.
I analyzed the mountain terrain using the SRTM digital elevation model data freely available from NASA, and plugging it into GRASS GIS. In the GRASS software, I created contour lines with r.contour and a slope layer using r.slope.aspect. The slope colours then used for finding the best route by using the threshold tool in the gimp.
It should be noted that analysing the elevation data shows that the "easiest" route, is up the Valley of Lakes, following Arctomys creek, as explored by David Wasserman and Mike O'Toole in 2001 and 2002. That route has a maximum slope encountered of 20 degrees but requires a minimum of 11 km of bushwhacking each way! We decided it's safest to followed the known successful route to the summit of Mount Amery, described by Jason Thompson as "an easy, enjoyable ascent (as long as you don't mind river wading, bushwhacking, and boulder stumbling!)", and simply look at the "easy" route from the confluence.
We enjoyed the challenge presented by this confluence and hope that the information in this report will help lead to its eventual visit.