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Mount Pétain

Mount Pétain (10,440 ft), Alberta, Canada

This is an account of an ascent of Mount Pétain during the period 31 July - 2 August 2001. The party comprised Rick Collier, John Holmes, Alistair Des Moulins, and myself (Alan Law). Rick, a very experienced mountaineer, had been up Mount Logan earlier that year.

We left the road-head and proceeded along the well maintained path on the south side of Lake Kananaskis, with the requisite hardware, camping equipment and food for 2 nights. After about an hour we headed south on a basic path in the direction of our destination. This took us past a small lake and up through the forest to a hanging valley at the top of the trees. We then trudged up a long slanting track which took us to the top of a loose rocky slope. It was a nice sunny day, with just a hint of dampness on one occasion from a passing shower. We reached the verdant delights of Lake Aster. Rick had done his research thoroughly, and there was some debate on what route we should attempt on Pétain. We agreed to proceed south in the direction of a glacier. This glacier flows in a northerly direction, and has Mount Pétain on its east side, and Mount Cordonnier and Mount Joffré to the west. This left us the option of heading to the col at the head of the glacier, which would take us on to Pétain's south west ridge, or heading direct up the west face of the mountain.

Some distance up the morraine-strewn valley, before reaching the glacier, we crossed the glacier stream with the aid of various rocks thrown in by John to provide somewhat insecure stepping stones. On the other side we cleared platforms and pitched the two tents. It was time for supper. A survey with some small binoculars gave the more optimistic members of the party some confidence that the west fact of Pétain was a reasonable prospect. From where we were it was impossible to form a view about the feasibility of the south west ridge route, and it was reasonable to assume that it might contain an obstacle that would defeat us.

After supper, Rick produced a container with a summit log which he intended to deposit the following day at the summit. Given his extensive experience, he was reasonably confident that the summit would be attained. In order to avoid the inconvenience of filling in the log at the top, he had already written a ball-pen entry with tomorrow's date which included the names of John and himself. As Alistair and I were latecomers to this trip, Rick asked us if we could add our own names at this stage, and he offered us a pencil. We dutifully did what we were asked, but I did suggest that the advantage of using pencil was that our names could be easily erased in the event of the two weaker members of the party failing to make it. There was some good banter. John made some reference to Drambuie and whisky, and produced a small bottle that was appreciated as it was passed around. This stuff was much too sweet to be whisky, and I was rather looking forward to the following evening when a bottle of the real thing would be presented. But I learned that I was to be disappointed. The bottle contained a mixture of the two, and it had to serve for both evenings.

We were up at a reasonable hour the following morning, and headed up on to the glacier, and proceeded to a point where it was deemed appropriate to turn left up the west face of our mountain. The route up the face was on loose rubbish that became progressively worse as we ascended. Until near the top it was in no sense technical, but one had to go gingerly. In places there was gravel on slabby surfaces, and considerable care was required. Slightly short of the summit we reached some buttresses, with a few chimneys as possible lines of weakness. The chimney straight ahead did not look too pleasant. It had a small amount of ice in it, and there was a lot of loose rock ready to come down. Alistair contoured round to the right to investigate possibilities there, while Rick went left to have a look in the other direction. I sort of dithered in the middle. There were reports from various directions. John went round to Rick's area of investigation, and reported that it looked good. He then departed up Rick's chimney. I waited for Alistair, who reported that what he had seen would probably go, but it appeared to be a less good option. We therefore followed the others and went up what proved to be an easy gully which took us on to the ridge some distance north of the summit. Traversing along the east side of the ridge was easy but exposed, until we reached a notch just before the summit. John kindly lowered a rope and we went up what was a relatively easy if exposed pitch, where there was a bit of loose rock.

We had plenty of time at the top. It was quite a nice day, albeit cool and windy. I carefully erased the pencil entries of Alistair and myself in the summit log, so that we could write our names properly in ink. Although records indicate various previous ascents, there was no cairn or any other physical legacy of these ascents. Rick and John considered the descent options, and concluded that it would be imprudent to climb down what we had just ascended, so various rappel possibilities were considered. It was decided that it would be feasible to abseil down to the notch, and then to abseil down the gully from that notch. The first abseil was quite short, but a little awkward, and one member of the party was struck by a loose rock. Fortunately the rock had not fallen far before it glanced off the side of his helmet. The second abseil was longer but easier. Then we were left with the task of tiptoeing down the detritus that we had earlier crawled up. As is often the case, going down was worse than going up. Quite near the top I was hit on the hand by a small stone that had fallen from somewhere above.

Next morning it was sunny but quite cool. Members of the party variously climbed Mount Cordonnier and Warrior Mountain. We then proceeded homewards. On the long diagonal rocky route going down to the trees we met a heavily laden party coming up. They were aiming for Mount Joffré and seemed to have an extraordinary amount of impedimenta, including plastic boots and wands. At that stage John was behind us. When he met them they apparently told him that they did not think that we could have climbed anything as we were not carrying enough kit.

But it was the end of the day that provided the greatest amusement. Shortly before reaching Lake Kananaskis, Alistair and I stopped to let the others catch up. John arrived saying that Rick had taken a short-cut at a place where they had seen a Japanese woman. John had decided to keep to the track, so he was proceeding at speed to catch up Rick. Alistair and I found this strange, as the path was indeed circuitous, but the prospects of a short-cut through the bush did not seem good. John continued in haste, while we continued at leisure. In due course we saw a young Japanese woman, presumably the person whom Rick and John had seen.

Later on, whilst on the track along the south side of Lake Kananaskis, we thought we heard a shout. We stopped, the Japanese woman arrived, and she indicated that she had also heard something. Shortly afterwards I thought I heard a call from the direction of the lake. The Japanese woman proceeded to the lakeside with considerable agility, but she could not see anything—there were various boats on the lake and what I heard doubtless came from one of them. So we continued on our way. And then we all heard the unmistakable sound of a whistle. We again stopped and Rick appeared, slightly dishevelled from his supposed short-cut through the bush.

We reached the road end, and the Japanese woman joined our group for a while. She was an engaging person. She had been out on her own for a long day in a fairly wild place, and she was obviously tough. Alistair started a muscle-stretching exercise, whereupon the Japanese woman started with her Japanese exercises. It may have caused us some disappointment that she did not teach us Japanese techniques for coping with tired muscles. The encounter between a group of semi-old men and this interesting and enterprising young woman had become mutually entertaining. Pétain was safely behind us and we could afford to laugh.

Alan Law

08 November 2003


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