THE COMMANDER GROUP – Tagging some 11,000ers
Sometimes the passage of time makes past suffering seem like no big deal. Other times it seems to magnify it. I had made an attempt on Commander via Farnham Creek sometime way back in the late Pleistocene (stormed off before we left camp), and I remembered a long and tedious approach with unpleasant bush and a nasty creek crossing. Intellectually I knew it really wasn’t that bad, but I never seemed to find the will go back and do it again for a few high snow bumps. It had to be done though, it was just a question of when. Marvin, a friend from Golden, is the quintessential social butterfly. Being a curmudgeon before my time, I hope strangers I meet on the trail will be satisfied with a simple “G’day” or “Is the Cappuccino Bar still open?”. Marv, however, can’t help stopping to hear how their mother’s health is holding up, and getting a report on little Bobbie’s fourth birthday party (yes, they are strangers to him too).
This August, he was doing the butterfly thing at Applebee camp, and learned of a new road up Farnham Creek. Rumour had it that it was constructed in cooperation with the Canadian Olympic Association and that RK Heliski had insisted that the road be gated. And soon. A new road to dramatically reduce the suffering required to gain the Commander Glacier? That will soon be closed to the people who own the land (you and me)? Other plans were hastily cast aside and a trip to Commander was on. Cindy Walker had only been climbing 19 days in the last 21, and was keen to get out and do something for a change, so she joined Sandra, Kumo, and me on August 18 for the long drive around to Radium where we would meet Marv the next day. We met Marv in Radium as planned and packed the five of us and our gear into the faithful Nissan.
We drove the Horsethief Creek road to km 41.6; significant upgrading of the last 15 km of the road indicated that Canfor must have big plans for the valley. We ignored the “restricted access” sign and started up the new Farnham Creek road. A very solid ATV/snowmobile bridge crosses Farnham Creek at km 5.5, so one has to wonder about a gate on this new road that will only keep out us self-powered types. We parked the truck at km 10.5, one of the very few spots where Farnham Creek is visible from the new road.
Here we loaded all our stuff on the dog and headed off on the ATV track beside the creek. The piston-heads had found some good spots to do some “mudding”; as always it was a treat to walk through the resulting mud bog. We soon reached the derelict cabin at the end of the old road bed. On we went, along the surprisingly good trail, crossing the east fork of Farnham creek on a fallen log 100 m upstream of its confluence with the main (west) fork.
After maybe an hour of walking we left the ATV tracks behind and started up the old moraine on the east side of the west fork of Farnham creek. The moraine is eroding at a ferocious pace on the west side, so the climbers trail is constantly moving east and is quite bushy in places. Two hours and thirty minutes after leaving the truck we arrived at the usual camping spot at around 6900′.
Early in the season, it is possible to head west and gain the west tongue of the Commander Glacier and make your way up the broken glacier to the Commander-Guardsmen col, but with the summer melt well progressed, this route did not look fun.
Our selected route climbed up the northeast ridge of The Cleaver until it was easy to gain the east tongue of the glacier. Stopping here would have required a ungodly wakeup time the next day, so after some deliberation, we saddled up again and continued on. Initially the fading trail climbed steeply through the open larch forest of the ridge, but soon the ridge laid back. Above timberline, the ridge affords easy travel excepting one treadmill scree section. Since we left the 6900′ camp, the ridge had been completely dry, but we eventually found water beside the glacier at around 8400′ at the end of a flat section of the ridge – 1:45 from the 6900′ camp. While we could have found some flat tent sites that didn’t require excavation, we were determined to avoid a camp site subject to the inevitable katabatic winds from the large glacier immediately above. We settled on a sheltered hollow with a prefab kitchen that required a half hour of digging to create a couple of small tent platforms.
We left camp the next morning at 6:45 and easily gained the blue ice of the glacier a short distance above camp. Soon we were on snow and tied into the rope … where we’d stay for the better part of the next 11 hours. The Commander Glacier is moderately broken over its entire length (hey, let’s put a ski resort here, and ski in summer!), so while we had no major dramas, we zigged and zagged our way to up under the north ridge of The Cleaver. The overnight freeze made travel good, and the recent snow was still powdery. At times we were side-hilling across moderate slopes, so crampons were mandatory. The constant weaving around cracks made travel slow, but after about two and a half hours we found ourselves at the base of the south ridge of Commander. With below freezing temperatures, and the wind was blowing strongly, it was quite cold despite the bright sun – I was soon shivering uncontrollably despite wearing every scrap of clothing I had brought.
After 20 minutes of class 3 scrambling we reached the top of our first 11,000er of the day. The cold weather and aspirations for Jumbo and Karnak prevented us from lingering long on top. On the way down however, we did make a food stop in a sheltered alcove on the east side of the ridge where it felt at least 20C warmer in the baking sun.
Next stop was Jumbo, so we roped up again and marched across the col through 10 cm of freshies to the NE ridge of Jumbo. It was a simple, but exposed, amble up the corniced ridge to the summit. There is a rather chossy rock summit on the west end of the Jumbo massif that I was relieved to see was lower so we didn’t have to grovel our way up. The rope had to stay on the glaciated summit, so we were forced to tempt fate and retreat from the top without the obligatory summit handshake.
After returning to the col, we set our sights on Karnak, which required more zigging and zagging (which was getting tiresome) and descending ~100 m with more side-hilling on moderately steep icy slopes. After the descent, it was a quick march, in the now very hot sun, to the base of the rocky summit pyramid of Karnak. The scramble to the top was a bit more sporting than anticipated, but felt worse than the class 3 it was due to the frightful quality of the rock.
A fresh rap anchor on top (which we didn’t use) suggests other parties didn’t think much of the rock either. Whining aside, we topped out on Karnak at 2:30, tagging our 3rd 11,000er of the day 7:45 after leaving camp. We indulged in a half hour on top and savoured a most amazing view: I counted ten 11,000-foot peaks not including Karnak (which we were on) or Temple and Assiniboine (which were currently blocked by Commander and Farnham).
After we had had our fill, we retraced our steps and trudged back to camp in 3:15, for a eleven and a half hour day. That’s the most roped glacial travel I’ve ever done in one day!
When studying the maps at home, we had considered trying Mount Maye the following day. A close look at the peak quickly convinced us that “dreadful rock” (Interior Ranges South) was an understatement. Best done when snow covered. We then considered Farnham, but the thought of 3000′ down and 6500′ up was too much for our aging knees.
So it was on the next day, a beautiful cloudless day with fall-like visibility, we walked back up the Commander Glacier and waddled to the top of The Cleaver (2:15 from camp). We lounged around on the broad summit for two and a half hours doing some some serious rubbernecking. It was then a quick one-hour trip back to camp (even with strained neck muscles).
We walked out to the truck the following day in two and a half hours – just as the weather was turning. Sometimes you just get lucky.
Driving directions: From the 4-way stop in Radium, turn west and drive the paved road to the mill; the Horsethief Creek Road starts here.
0.0. Signed start of road
1.5km Cross Columbia River
2.9km Go straight (spur to R)
3.9km Go straight (spur to L)
6.9km Go straight (spur to R)
7.7km Go straight (spur to L)
9.6km Stop sign, 4-way intersection with the West Side Road; go straight
13.3km Horsethief-Forster road to R
15.0km Major junction to R
22.8km Turn left, cross creek; private home (“Grotto”)
25.3 km Go straight Hamilton Creek road
27.6km Go left Gopher Creek road
32.1km Turn right signed “Lake of Hanging Glacier”, spur to L
35.6km Go left McDonald Creek road
41.6km Go left to Farnham Creek road, large sign “Restricted Access” with directions to older road on west side of Farnham Creek.
46.6km Go left
47.1km ATV bridge across Farnham Creek
52.1km Park at side of road where creek is visible.