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Mount Colonel Foster:
First Ascent of the Main Summit July 1968

From the Timberline Tales newsletter of the Island Mountain Ramblers.
By Mike Walsh

First Ascent of Mt. Colonel Foster - 7000'

Mt. Colonel Foster is comprised of six major peaks, four of which exceed 6900' and one of them 7000'. This makes it the fourth highest mountain on Vancouver Island.

The fact that until July 1968, only two of these peaks had been climbed, speaks well for the difficulty of the remaining four peaks.

The two peaks which had been climbed were the ones at the southern extremity of the massif (both exceed 6900'). The most westerly of these was considered to be the culminating point of the mountain by a 1957 party which fought their way to this peak, climbed it and reported in the 1958 Canadian Alpine Journal that they had done the first ascent of the Colonel.

Many of us believe that the true summit of the mountain lies further to the north

In 1966, a Rambler party reached the peak that was climbed in 1957 and from its summit they saw what appeared to be a higher point to the north.

With this in mind the party (consisting of Ralph Hutchinson, Ron Facer and Mike Hanry) attempted a route across the east face to the higher peak, but were repulsed.

Armed with this information and some that I gleaned from research at Mapping and Survey Branch plus what I had learned from speaking to people who knew this area in question, I set out in July 1968 on a reconnaissance trip to the north shoulder of Colonel Foster, hoping to find a route of attack for the following week when Ralph Hutchinson and I had planned an attack. This was to be a pleasant and restful week in the alpine country of Strathcona Provincial Park.

After a sodden slog up the Elk Valley in pouring rain, and a not-too-strenuous ascent of Butterwort Creek, I began an ascending traverse toward Colonel Foster's most northerly peak as soon as it came into sight from the valley.

I set up camp at 5000', just below the col immediately under the imposing north rampart of the north peak.

Still the rain continued, and so it did the next day until 4.p.m. At this time I departed on a reconnaissance of the north peak (6500'), climbing to the névé on its west, and into a fairly steep snow couloir separating this peak from the one to its south. This couloir was followed to the bergshrund at which point I took to the rocks on the left and followed a system of ledges (covered with loose rubble) and chimneys to the summit with no particular difficulty other than an awkward corner, and an ice-filled chimney. This peak is spectacular when seen from any angle, but the climbing is only class 3 at the most. I was back at the tent at 8 p.m.

The next morning I awoke early and left camp at 7 a.m. in a foray to find a route up one of the three remaining unclimbed peaks.

My route followed the previous afternoon's as far as the bergshrund. From there I climbed a small snow couloir in the wall to the right and followed ledges across the west face, occasionally being forced to climb severe pitches of 10-15 feet to the next band. The clouds hovered at about the level of the summit and every now and then a wisp would descend and obliterate everything from sight.

Scrambling upward, I reached the summit ridge and followed it to the south over large slabs and splinters of rock, finally arriving on the summit at 10 a.m. The clouds obscured all views to the south for about 15 minutes, but when it finally broke, I was confronted with a spectacular view of a peak at least 200' feet higher than the one I occupied and separated from me by an extremely abrupt descent to a col fully 500' below my stance. Above this col the next peak loomed 700' of very steep rock.

I committed myself to the descent to the col, and crossing its 10 foot expanse, started up the wall, which was vertical in places, and had a small overhanging bulge about 50' above the col. Beyond this the climbing was easier on a spur which I descended to the southeast, scrambling along its steep, shattered crest. This crest led to a rounded summit ridge broken by narrow cols and covered with enormous blocks of rock, in turn covered with rubble. I rounded several of the higher points of the ridge, keeping to the west and arrived on the highest point of this peak just shortly before noon. A few minutes after my arrival, the clouds lifted and allowed me a view of the next peak, the last remaining unclimbed peak of Colonel Foster.

The route to it appeared quite straightforward, down to a col, across it, and up the other side. In actual fact there are only a few difficult spots. I arrived on the summit ridge and followed it, looking for the highest point. I finally spotted what appeared to be the true summit, separated from me by a sharp, but shallow col. The descent to the col was touchy because of a loose flake which had to be traversed delicately. One tricky step around an exposed corner and a short scramble and the mountain was won - no it wasn't! I had passed a higher peak and had to recross the col and tip-toe past the loose flake back to the apex of the mountain. From this stance, the two peaks to the south appeared lower than the one on which I stood. I made an excursion to the south in an effort to reach the two south peaks, but got only as far as the large gendarme before the skies opened up and rained down on me. It was 3 p.m. and I had to get down from there. My descent followed closely my line of ascent as far as the deep col, where I decided to descend the steep snow couloir to the west.

The upper gully went well, but about half way down I was stopped by a vast break in the snow, the continuation of which was fully 50 feet below the chock stone on which I stood. Some tricky climbing over the edge and back under the boulder and into the back of the chimney beneath it required over an hour, but it put me back onto the snow.

A few long glissades, interrupted by minor chock stone breaks and more chimney climbing and sorties onto one or the other of the walls took me out onto the avalanche cone at the bottom of the west flank on the mountain.

A tedious and thoroughly wet traverse to the north across the scrub cedar and alder-covered flank took me back to the névé from which I had started. A short hike through the eternal downpour took me back to my tent at 9 p.m., just before dusk.

The reconnaissance had been too successful, and even though I did the ascent alone and without rope or pitons, I do not recommend these tactics to any future aspirants to Colonel Foster's northern peaks. It was a foolhardy foray.

The climbing proved to be mostly class three with many short pitches of class four, and I can think of several places where a piton would have found good use; if not for physical support, definitely for moral support, as the exposure was severe in many places. The rock, for all that I had heard of its being rotten, was surprisingly sound, although broken up on the summit ridges.

A better approach to the mountain could be made by hiking up the Elk River as far as the lake at the base of Colonel Foster and ascending to the col to the north of the most northerly peak. This route would eliminate the bushwhacking found in Butterwort Creek, but would alleviate any of the climbing on the peaks.

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