September climbing trip into the Purcell Mountains.
The labour day weekend tends to be the weekend where more people get out for that last summer adventure before settling into the fall routing of school and work. I am no different and with the promise of nice weather my brother, Lukas and I planned a trip into the Welsh lakes area of the Purcell Mountains in south east British Columbia.
Welsh lakes is a popular area located west of Radium Hot Springs. It is just north of the jumbo glacier and south of the famous Bugaboos, and area known for spectacular peaks. The goal was to head in for three nights and explore the area while gaining some summits along the way. After reading numerous other trip reports the area has a lot to offer and the excitement level was high.
We started in Saturday morning with heavy packs and great late summer weather. There are a series of three lakes with a good trail leading to the first two. In a little less than two hours we were at lower Welsh Lake and decided to stop and have a bite to eat. I was dragging my ass after a particulrily lazy few weeks leading up to this trip. We continued to the second lake and were informed of the “trail” by some dude who had gone to the upper lake earlier in the day.
At this point I should mention that we are all very experienced in the backcountry however we have a tendency to attract the “type 2” way of getting to our destination. In keeping with that tradition we carried on into a talus field we soon started calling Block-o-Land.
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I stopped being fun about 20 minutes after we entered it. We finally decided that maybe we should check the track and realized we were off track and started to make a direct line for the upper welsh lake, arriving at our camping spot about 45 minutes later. It was time for a well deserved meal and an early bedtime in anticipation of the early start on Sunday.
Alpine Start for Mt Alpha Centauri
When the alarm goes off while it is still dark it can be tough to drag yourself from a warm mummy bag but after a few moments to get the cob webs from your eyes the excitement of the day soon takes over. I was out of the tent and grabbed my camera to capture an image of the star filled sky and the mountains illuminated by a waining gibbous moon.
After a couple minuted to get this photo it was onto the tasks at a hand, coffee and breakfast. A few last minute discussions of what gear we would need and a quick stuffing of the pack and we were out of camp before the sun.
We made good time towards Alpha Centauri and within an hour were were looking up at the Centaurus Glacier. A quick class three section of rock and we stopped to put crampons on. The glacier snow was firm and we traveled up with ease to a point where most people make the climb to the ridge. This was the crux of the entire day. we started up a steep bit of snow that was about 40 degrees before deciding to take the rock on climbers right.
Transitioning back to boots it was about 20 minutes of moderate class four scrambling before gaining the ridge. All reports we read said to gain the ridge and follow it on the south west side and we did the same, bypassing the false summit and gaining the summit about 45 minutes later.
On the summit
We lingered on the summit for close to an hour, having lunch and taking in the amazing views all around us. One of my favorite things about the Purcell Mountains is the 360 degree view. We could see over to Jumbo Glacier to the south, north to Howser Spire in the Bugaboos. Further north, way in the distance Sir Donald stood with its distinct shape. Out to the east Mt Assiniboin towered above its surrounding peaks.
We were particularly interested in the North Star Glacier, North Star Peak and further to the west, Gwendolin Mountain as that whole ares was on out radar for the following day. Since we were able to get a solid cell signal from the summit we did a weather check. The forecast, which had been calling for a long stretch of clear dry weather, had changed and we were surprised there was snow in the forecast for that night above 2200m. We were camped at 2400m
The way down was a simple reversal of the way up. A bunch of talus walking to get back to the notch where we gained the ridge, dropping back to the south east side and then a down climb back through the crux to were we could get on the snow and glacade back onto the Centaurus Glacier.
We opted to leave the crampons on and walk out the toe of the glacier rather then retracing through the rocky class three, easier on the body. The bergshrund was easily bypassed and it was a non eventful descent back to out camp.
After the standard bowl of itchiban upon returning to camp the conversation quickly turned to the weather. Having multiple plans allows the group to make efficient use of time. Plan A, if the weather is good, go up over the Alpha Centauri/Carmathen col and explore the North Star Glacier area. Plan B, if it snowed, hike out a day early and hit a front country site in the valley and cook a huge steak on the fire.
During the night I was woke up by precip hammering the tent. About 4:15am there was an enormous flash followed almost immediately by a loud thunder clap. I wondered how close my ice ax and picket were to my head in case there was more lightning. At 6:45 am I stuck my phone out of the tent and snapped this shot.
Plan B it was
After rolling around in the mummy bag for a little bit we emerged to find the seasons had changed with the flash of a single bolt of lightning. We took our time with breakfast, made a second coffee and begin the stuffing of gear into packs.
We learned from our trip in that there was a preferred trail to get down from upper Welsh Lake and followed a series of ribbon and cairns down to e first lake. A quick snack and we continued back down into summer weather and within an hour were at the truck in tee shirt weather.
We drove to Golden and found a forest rec site near Donald where we gorged ourselves on a delicious meal over the open fire. A few minutes of star gazing down by the river before passing out.
Welsh Lakes and Alpha Centauri did not disappoint Even though we were shut down a day early the stunning views of the Purcell Mountains under a blanket of snow were a consolation prize we didn’t mind receiving.