On August 2nd, six Manitoba climbers began a mountaineering adventure, climbing from Moraine Lake to Canada's highest permanent habitable structure: Neil Colgan Hut (2,957m).
But, the story doesn't start there...
IN THE BEGINNING, THERE WAS LIGHT
In a strategic planning session in the fall of 2018, ACC MB's Past President Peter Muir shared some history about the club, and how climbing trips were once largely for developing and honing skills for technical alpine objectives. ("Alpine" being the "A" in ACC).
The following spring, on a trip back from climbing at Echo with Kasia Dyszy, I asked why we don't host technical alpine trips. The simple answer was that it needs someone with the energy and will. She was right, and it seemed like the perfect challenge to take on. But what would be the objective?
As part of planning for the ETM (Experience the Mountains) program, we were considering the Neil Colgan Hut for 2020, a climb technical enough to require ACMG guides. The light came on - I knew it was the perfect adventure with a few summit opportunities nearby.
The wheels were put in motion and four participants signed up for the trip. Interestingly, all were women, so it organically became a woman's trip. I engaged Erica Roles (ACMG Mountain Guide) to lead the trip and bring on a second female ACMG guide. Nothing would stop us now...except one thing - COVID.
We kept optimistic into June 2020, but ultimately had to make the difficult decision to cancel the trip. Given the fluidity of the early days of COVID, the requirement to self-isolate upon return to Manitoba, and some workplaces discouraging travel, there were too many challenges to overcome.
By the end of 2021, things were looking much better for travel outside Manitoba, and so in December, plans were once again set in motion. This time, there was more interest (men and women), and the team grew to six participants and three guides.
DAY 1 - THE CLIMB
Climbing to the hut is a series of challenges, navigating a boulder field, scree slope, rock ledges, multi-pitch rock climbing, scrambling, and glacier travel. All of this was with a 40-50 pound pack.
The rock climbing was easily the most challenging and exhilarating part of the day. Three pitches of the hardest
5.7 climbing any of us have ever done. While it may have had something to do with the heavy packs, it still seemed pretty stiff. Into the second pitch, we were hit with rain/sleet that would be supplemented by gale force winds once we got onto the glacier. I found myself counting steps - how far will 20 steps get me? Then, how far will 100 steps get me? Funny how great minds think alike, because it turns out everyone was counting their steps as they made their way along the glacier!
DAY 2 - WHERE THERE'S THUNDER, THERE'S LIGHTNING
The winds from the previous day brought in the clouds, and with them the thunder and lightning. Unlike down in the valley where the clouds hover well above, in the hut, they surround you, and you can almost feel the electricity. Some breaks emerged, and while not enough for a summit, there was time for some t-slot and crevasse rescue practice. (and a little recovery from the previous day's trek up).
DAY 3 - THE BIG "LITTLE" AND THE LITTLE "BOWLEN"
The original plan was to summit Mount Fay, but the conditions had deteriorated, and so it was no longer possible. So, we set our sites for Mount Little. The good news is that the approach to Mount Little was quite literally stepping off the porch of the Neil Colgan hut - you can't beat that!
There was an accumulation of snow/ice overnight, but crampons made the slippery scree and rock ascent very manageable. They also made for a quick transition onto ice and the three pitches of ice climbing. By the time we got back onto rock, the sun did its job and the rock was dry, so no more crampons. Continuing along the summit ridge, we finally topped out for a spectacular 360 view, which included Moraine Lake far below (where we started our adventure the day before). After adding our names to the summit register, the descent was fairly quick, giving us a turnaround time of around seven hours.
After a quick lunch break at the hut, it was onto Bowlen. A much less technical climb, we were on the summit in 45 minutes, time for pictures and a moment of reflection, before heading back down to the hut, making a door-to-door time just under two hours!
DAY 4 - DOWNHILL ALL THE WAY
The trek down was very enjoyable, thanks to the lighter packs, series of rappels, and gravity working in our favour. We were back at our starting point in eight hours, with memories that will last a lifetime!
With a range of experience on the team, everyone had their strengths, challenges, and firsts. With ACC Manitoba being a tight-knit community, it was easy for the team to support each other and generally gel, whether over a cup of soup, game of cribbage or chess.
Josée Lavoie: "The climb to the Neil Colgan hut was epic, starting with a river crossing on a log wearing crampons for stability, with 5 pitch of climbing culminating with a 5.7 in big boots, a 20k pack, in gale force wind and rain. Walking the glacier for the last hour before reaching the hut, I was bracing myself with my ice ax and pole through gusts of wind to avoid ending on my ass: epic class 1 fun!!!"
Mike Ducharme: “Colgan had everything you could want in a trip to the mountains. Big exposure, steep rock, alpine ice, hanging rappels. It was full on fun.”
Kasia Dyszy: "Full value trip! We had a stream crossing, trekking, scrambling, climbing, traversing, and glacier travel, and that was just to get to the hut!"
Erica Veenstra: "One of my favourite things was waking up in the morning, and looking past my feet through the windows. You could see the whole range of mountains in the sunrise. Conditions were unlike any I’ve experienced before. Blizzard, whiteout, thunder and lightning. All at the same time. Such an adventure!”
Jackie Hope: "Neil Colgan was an epic challenge and at times, I had to dig deep. But when we reached the hut through rain and sleet on the glacier, there are no words for that feeling. And a hot coffee has never tasted so good! Thanks to everyone on the trip for the forever memories."
The trip would not have been possible were it not for the guidance and support of our guides - they have our immense respect and gratitude.
APPRENTICE ALPINE GUIDE