Climbing Jasper National Park: Mount Sarbach

Jasper National Park, Alberta
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Jasper National Park, Alberta

Mount Sarbach features a vertical escarpment that rises more than 5,000 feet above the Icefields Parkway in the Canadian Rockies. Icefields Parkway is a mountaineer's paradise and one of the most scenic mountain drives in the world. Everywhere craggy, towering peaks compete for camera time. Many peaks pose major difficulties for the average mountaineer--including me--but Mount Sarbach is an accessible, exciting day climb because of an old fire lookout trail. Long before you reach the summit, this rugged peak grants tantalizing views of many high, glaciated peaks forming the Continental Divide, and when you're eyeballing the surrounding sea of summits you'll be pinching yourself for a reality check. Near the top exposure and loose rock increase the challenge. In ideal conditions parties can make the summit without rope, ice-axe or crampons but you'll definitely boost your odds if you go prepared. Expect to be the only party on the peak.

The Route:

From the Mistaya River Canyon trailhead, follow the hiking trail and footbridge across spectacular, boiling Mistaya Canyon, turn right and tramp uphill to a junction. Continue along the left fork for Sarbach to the former site of the fire lookout some 3.5 miles (5.5 km) further. A faint trail continues directly uphill through brief forest until you escape treeline and gain Sarbach's north ridge. Immediately a stunning view of Glacier Lake and expansive Lyell Icefield dazzles you to the west, Mount Murchison stabs the skyline to the east. The first section of ridge has a couple of short, straightforward notches leading to a vast, open plateau and the continuation of the north ridge.

Cross the plateau and scramble up short cliffs along the ridge. Gullies to your right may look tempting but can be icy while the airy ridge is dry. Better to stay close to the crest, gazing down at glacier far below. Upon reaching the false summit you'll glimpse the true summit appearing knob-like off to the south. A large cairn suggests many folks stop here when they see what confronts them. The route crosses now large, loosely-stacked blocks requiring a degree of delicacy to cross safely. Oh, and by the way, a gut-wrenching drop looms on either side. Even when conditions are bone-dry many will appreciate the security of a length of rope for the final exhilarating 50 feet. On return don't be lured into easier-looking gullies angling down to the left. From treeline at the north end of the ridge, head for the small visible meadow to regain the hiking trail.

Access: From the Trans-Canada Highway just west of Lake Louise, drive north on Icefields Parkway (Highway 93) for some 46 miles (73 km) to Howse Pass/Mistaya River Canyon trailhead. The nearest major airport is in Calgary, a 2-hour drive east of Lake Louise.

Permits: Visitors require a National Parks permit, available at park entrances or at Parks Canada information centers in Banff, Jasper, and Lake Louise. A yearly individual pass is $35 CDN per (about $21 US). A group pass is $70 CDN Lake Louise has accommodation, groceries and most visitor services. Campgrounds and hostels are located along Icefields Parkway; gasoline and limited food is also available at Saskatchewan Crossing. Climbers may voluntarily register at Park Warden offices if desired.

Season: Late July through September for best weather and ascent conditions.

Guidebook:Scrambles in the Canadian Rockies, by Alan Kane. Rocky Mountain Books; 3rd edition (June 1999), $16.95

Contact: Jasper National Park, (780) 852-6176; www.worldweb.com/parkscanada-jasper/