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Mount Colonel Foster:
First Ascent of the Southwest Summit July 1957

From the Canadian Alpine Journal Volume 41, 1958.
By Ferris Neave

The First Ascent of Mt. Colonel Foster

The larger mountains of Vancouver Island are seldom visited. Nevertheless the three highest peaks - Golden Hinde, Elkhorn, Victoria - were first climbed many years ago. They have been assigned elevations over 7,000 feet. Whether a fourth summit can claim this latter distinction seems not to have been officially proclaimed, but the odds appear favourable. The aspirant, Mt. Colonel Foster, resembles its three peers in the degree to which it stands hidden and remote from land and sea travel lanes, although within a few minutes' flying time from busy coastal towns. Certainly it is second to none of the trinity in the savage profusion of cliff and tower which garnishes its upper structure.

The first real climbing effort on Colonel Foster seems to have been by topographic survey party, A.G. Slocomb and a companion in 1936. They reached one of the two or three culminations which are a little lower than the highest summit.

In August 1954 a party from the Victoria Section of the Alpine Club of Canada camped at the lake on the east side of the mountain. After a number of exploratory sorties a party comprising A.W. [Bill] Lash, M. Lash, Syd Watts and Pat Guilbride reached a high point which stands a short distance south of the true summit, from which it is separated by a col.

In 1955 the Bitterlich [Ulf and Adolf] Brothers attempted to reach the summit by following a diagonal rake on the East Face. They were turned back by the difficulties of the route.

Thus at the pre-season planning time of 1957 the highest point remained unreached and challenging. My brother Hugh and I, who meet rarely and correspond with the utmost reluctance, managed somehow to convey to each other the idea of a joint attempt. Karl Ricker brought to the plans the gusto of a younger generation and the advantage of a previous trip to the mountain.

Originally scheduled for June, the expedition eventually took to the road on July 28th. The delay enabled us to note (but not to exhaust) the long succession of wet weeks which constituted the so-called summer of 1957. Earlier in the month, however, during the brief break in the cloud cover, I circled Mt. Colonel Foster in a plane generously made available by Mr. Jack Beban of Nanaimo. I came back with a remembrance of a tarn at 4,000 feet on the west side of the mountain, a heather-clad ridge leading up to the base of the great rock walls, and a long couloir slashing the southwest face and reaching the skyline close to the highest summit.

Reaching Drum Lakes over the private logging road on the morning of the 28th, we left the car, hoisted the inevitable loads and started up the Elk River valley before noon. The depressing factors of heavy packs, alert mosquitoes and (at least in my own case) the weight of inactive years, were balanced to some extent by the favourable traveling conditions afforded by this part of the route. The rise of the valley is gentle, the underbrush is not really obstructive and the local elk herd has had some success in trail-making. Furthermore the rain which had attended most of the journey from Nanaimo had given place to an uncertain mixture of cloud and sun.

Previous expeditions had followed the main Elk River valley past Elkhorn and had camped on the east side of Colonel Foster. The approach to which for better or worse our party was committed required a journey to the head of Butterwort Creek, which enters the Elk River from the southwest. Reaching the mount of this tributary in the afternoon, we deferred further action until the morrow.

Butterwort Creek gave us rough treatment. Its lower course descends sharply in plunging waterfalls flanked by steep-faced bluffs. It took us four hours to master these and to push our way along the steep, brushy side of a narrow ravine above them. (On the return trip a somewhat easier line was discovered by keeping a little farther to the north of the stream.) After this the valley flattened out and the timber was interspersed with open marshy spots. Farther still, a vast area of bare rocks showed where a great slide from a face of Colonel Foster had engulfed stream and forest. The final test of the day was an exhausting 600-foot climb, characterized by steep pitches and obstructive undergrowth, to reach the bowl which was our selected campsite. We saw no sign of previous human visitors at the tarn, nor indeed at any point in the upper part of Butterwort valley. The weather remained variable, with the summit of our peak usually wrapped in cloud.

Next morning (July 30th) we climbed the ridge above our tarn and, traversing along the base of the southwest buttresses, located and entered the couloir which we judged to be our most promising route toward the summit. The altitude here was probably about 5,500 feet. The lower part of the gully was filled with a steep core of snow. At the top of this section the couloir contracted into a chimney furnished with an overhead chockstone. Ambition faltered at this point under the influence of heavy cloud and squalls of snow.

After a showery night the morning of the 31st brought a mixture of heavy, low-lying cloud banks and brighter intervals. The weather issue was still unresolved when at 1030 hr. we decided against further inaction. By 1300 hr. we were back in the couloir. It gave us good hard climbing for the next thousand feet or more of altitude gained. At several places the walls of our route closed in to form narrow vertical chimneys of challenging difficulty. Although the underlying rock was sound enough, loose debris cluttered all ledges and Hugh, our leader, had to deal circumspectly with numerous booby traps. The rock faces on either side offered no hope of alternative routes. However, our steep straight couloir eventually brought us to a notch in the dipping ridge which links the highest point of the mountain with a subsidiary summit to the south. The latter is the point reached by Lash's party in 1954.

In the direction of our goal, a few yards of knife-edged ridge led us to the base of a formidable rock face. Although not more than thirty feet high this pitch was sensationally exposed, offering unrestricted plunges on either side of our sharp ridge. Karl and I waited on good ledges while Hugh carefully worked his way up on small holds. Once above the critical obstacle, a few feet of easy climbing took us to the summit. The latter could be accounted a museum piece, since it actually took the form of a tiny sharp-pointed pinnacle. The time of our arrival was 1645 hr.

Throughout the climb we had been surrounded by cloud of varying intensity which had sprinkled us occasionally with rain or snow. Now the snow struck sharply during our half-hour stay at the summit. We turned to descend over rocks becoming unpleasantly wet. A rope sling placed at the top of the bad pitch gave Hugh some protection in his role of last man. Rain and snow continued as we worried our way down. The couloir gathered the trickling water into a rivulet and the chimneys became waterfalls. Pitches which had demanded hard climbing on the ascent were now desperately slippery and repulsive. Holds were hard to find and keep as fingers grew numb.

We emerged soddenly from the gully as night fell. From a belatedly clear sky a quarter-moon helped to show the way for a time. Then it withdrew and we were left with flashlight and groping touch to probe the dark declivities that unrolled endlessly before us.

Hugh sums up the opinions which we took home. "For the information of other aspirants to the Colonel's rigged citadel we would suggest that the eastern approach requires mush less effort. There is easy packing all the way up the Elk valley to good camping at the small lake beneath the eastern face, with a relatively easy route to the subsidiary Lash summit. There is a distinct possibility of finding a reasonable route down the short broken ridge to join with our route at the notch. For a fine day with a strong rock climbing party the western couloir offers a magnificent direct approach to the summit, but under less propitious conditions the slippery chimney pitches, where there is no chance of evading the occasional missile, might dampen the joy of all but the confirmed Welsh gully addict."

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