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Michener, Mount (Phoebe’s Tit)

Summit Elevation (m): 2545
Elevation Gain (m): 1200
Round Trip Time (hr): 8
Total Trip Distance (km): 11.5
Quick ‘n Dirty Rating: Class 3 – you fall, you sprain or break something
Difficulty Notes: There are two main cruxes. The first is crossing Abraham Lake safely and the second is a moderate / difficult crux which can be very icy and has some exposure.
GPS Track DownloadDownload GPX File
Technical Rating: SC6; YDS (3rd)
MapGoogle Maps


On Sunday, February 7 2016 I finally managed to get out to Abraham Lake along Hwy 11 in David Thompson Country for an attempt of Mount Michener – something I’ve been planning to do for a few years now. Originally Doug Lutz and I were planning to take Friday off for this venture, but thanks to 100+ km/h forecast winds, we canceled our plans and worked instead. Saturday I was looking at the “high” avalanche ratings for the alpine, thinking that my weekend just went bust when Doug messaged me that winds were forecast to be in the 20-40 km/h range for Sunday and that he was game to give it a shot. I was immediately on board with that plan. One issue with the Abraham Lake area is the drive. It’s not very close to Calgary – but then again, neither is the Wapta or Columbia Icefields areas and I’ve done plenty of day trips there over the years. Doug and I agreed to meet in Rocky Mountain House around 05:30 which meant an early wake-up time of 03:00 for me.

The night sky over highway 766 was pretty darn impressive.

The roads were bare and traffic was obviously non-existent once I was off the Hwy 2 corridor between Calgary and Edmonton. While I was bombing down highway 54 past Innisfail I noticed a strange cloud pattern to the north. Soon I realized that these were probably northern lights and started debating whether I should stop and take some photos. I didn’t want to be late to meet Doug, but I know the value of stopping even when it’s inconvenient and after turning north onto hwy 766 and looking directly at the dancing lights in the sky for about 5 minutes I gave up resisting and stopped alongside the highway. I shut off the truck and found myself standing in the middle of the highway with my tripod, gazing up at a million stars and the dancing green ghosts in the sky in silence – the ticking of the cooling truck engine and the howl of distant coyotes being the only noises I could hear. I set up the camera and fired off a few shots before tearing myself away from the scene and continuing on my drive.

Mount Michener Route Map

I met up with Doug along Hwy 11 in Rocky Mountain House and we continued to the trailhead in his car. This is the first time we’ve met and the first scramble we’d be doing together. We parked on Hwy 11 after the Windy Point Lookout where the road dips almost to lake level and directly across from our objective. It was still very dark at 07:00 so we took our time getting ready. By around 07:30 we were roped up and ready to cross Abraham Lake. I grew up on a farm in southern Manitoba and am very used to driving, fishing and walking across frozen water, so crossing the lake wasn’t a huge deal for me. It was a bit weird to see some open water near the shorelines but the ice was at least 1-2 feet thick in most places so I had no concerns. That being said, Abraham Lake is Alberta’s largest man made lake and is dam controlled (Bighorn Dam) which means it can lower dramatically in winter, destabilizing the ice. There are also two rivers flowing through the reservoir (Cline and Saskatchewan) which further destabilize sections of ice and cause currents that can whisk you away, under the ice, should you fall in. Given these factors, Doug and I chose to rope up and bring some rescue gear (ice screws, crevasse rescue setup) in case one of us got wet.

Crossing Abraham Lake at sunrise was quite special. We were about 10 minutes too quick, on hindsight, but due to the lack of clouds it didn’t matter too much. We had perfect conditions – no snow on the ice and thick ice. A couple of times the ice settled, which was unnerving, but due to the thickness there were no concerns. We got some cool shots of the methane bubbles in the clear blue ice, the phenomenon that make the lake famous with landscape photographers, before clambering up the shore near the northwest ascent ridge of Michener. After leaving the rope and screws on the rocky shore line we started the short bushwhack up the lower NW ridge, following old prints in the snow from a group that ascended a few weeks before us.

There was a surprising lack of snow, thankfully, and soon we were popping out onto the ridge proper, on great rock and sideways to a very nippy west wind. The views back down to Abraham Lake were, of course, stunning and we took many photographs behind us as we climbed the ridge. Thanks to a very restricted diet for the last 5 weeks, I could certainly feel my energy levels waning a lot quicker than I’m used to, but the interesting and new scenery helped, as did the desire to keep moving to avoid frost bite. 😉

The lake looks a lot closer than it is here!
Here’s where we had a choice to either go directly up the ridge on the left or contour climber’s right around the ridge on scree before ascending it from the south side. We chose the traverse and ascend option which on hindsight wasn’t the right one.

It seemed to take a while, but eventually we found ourselves looking up at the final ascent ridge before the crux and the summit block. On hindsight we should have followed Mike / Steven’s advice and stuck to the ridge, but the terrain looked challenging enough from below that we followed easier looking scree slopes around climber’s right of the lower part of the ridge. After traversing scree we had to gain the ridge from the west, which was the least amount of fun we had all day. The scree on this slope is horribly loose and I welcomed every snow gully I could use to make some progress back to the ridge! Doug’s right knee started giving him issues on this horrible treadmill scree and I started to get a bit ahead of him. We’re both experienced scramblers so I wasn’t too concerned and kept going in order to keep warm.

Oh! This is going to be a blast! 😉 Looking back at Doug as we start the scree traverse.
Great panorama from back on the ridge, just under the crux, now includes the far eastern arm of the lake and the Bighorn Dam at the far end on the right.

I’m not going to lie, as I stared up at the crux gully in the cold wind, with snow blowing down over cold rock, I wondered if it was really only ‘moderate’. As I started up (without crampons at this point), I found the first part to be much easier than it appeared. The crux itself was tricky without the crampons – I regretted not having them on almost immediately. I was getting cold in the -17 wind chill and spin drift blowing down the chute from above, so I bullied my way through the crux before forcing myself to stop and don my crampons for the rest of the scramble to the summit and of course for descent. I could see Doug behind me, so I knew he’d be coming up and I started breaking trail through snow drifts to the summit. 

Doug comes up after the crux – I was heading down but decided to back up to the summit with Doug.

The summit views did not disappoint! Even though some clouds had moved in, the views of Abraham Lake along with prominent ridges and peaks such as Abraham, Elliot, Corral and Vision Quest were stunning. Mount Cline and Resolute looked pretty big and there were brief glimpses of large mountains to the west including Stewart and others. The clouds did obscure some of the larger peaks, but I was just happy to finally be on the summit of Michener after quite a few years of pondering it. NOTE: After posting this trip report to the scrambling Facebook page, a discussion arose between myself and Eric Coulthard about whether or not the summit everyone claims as ‘Michener’ really is the true summit. Looking at the first photo below, I personally don’t see a higher summit, but apparently some maps hint that there might be. Whether or not the claimed summit is the absolute high point is sort of a moot point, since it’s definitely the peak known as ‘Phoebe’s Tit’ and therefore is an official summit regardless. But now you know.

Amazing views over Abraham Lake from Mumford and Elliot on the left to Abraham and Windy Point on the right.
A Labeled Panorama from the descent ridge of Mount Michener

The views of unfamiliar peaks such as Windy Point Ridge and Kista Peak were also neat. I was getting fairly cold hands from operating my camera (huge disadvantage of using the iPhone touch screen for photos BTW…) and so I started back down to get a break from the wind. Doug was just coming up the ridge when the sun started coming out, so I turned back up and bagged the summit a second time with him. After a few more summit shots with Doug, I started down. Down climbing the crux in steel crampons was much easier than I was expecting, but it is exposed and very slick thanks to the snow that blows over it constantly, and I think in winter conditions it’s as hard as some of the easier ‘Kane difficult’ scrambles that I’ve done over the years so I would have no problems labeling it as an easy-difficult or hard-moderate in winter. I got some good photos of Doug descending the crux before we continued down our route in the stiff west winds that were now about 40-50 kph – still quite light for this area, but chilly on this particular day.

It seemed to take a long time to get back onto Abraham Lake, but we took our time and enjoyed the crossing, stopping to photograph the interesting lines and bubbles in the ice. I really enjoyed this unique winter scramble. The crossing of Abraham Lake combined with winter views and dry rock scrambling in February makes Michener one of those unique Rockies peaks that every peakbagger should have on their mountain to-do list. Doug and I got along great and I can see us doing more adventures together.

 
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