October: the golden month for alpine climbing

By Eric Dumerac

October is likely the most undervalued month of the year when it comes to alpine climbing and mountaineering. The days are definitely shorter and colder, but not necessarily wetter. In fact, October in the Canadian Rockies (and often in the Coast Range as well) will often see a spell of high pressure, up to 14 days in a row of those sought-after sun icons on the weather forecast.

Cold and sunny conditions are the most suitable for alpine climbing, especially in the event of a stable high pressure system. You can usually find this by looking at extended forecasts and looking for consecutive sunny days, with little winds and low Probability of Precipitation (P.O.P.) Another method is to view a current 500 millibar contour map (the type used by weather broadcasters on TV) and look for a strong ridge of high pressure with good spacing between the contour lines. Also look out for weak or low pressure systems in the surrounding areas. If you are traveling beyond regional forecast ranges, it’s worth taking a Mountain Weather course on how to recognize certain weather systems and adapt travel plans accordingly.

By October, most or all of the past winter’s snow below the firn line has melted (firn line is the delineation where the past winters snow has become compacted into neve over the summer and does not melt). Any crevasses, snow plugs and bergschrunds should also be readily visible. October also means that the alpine freezes at night, building even more stability for walking on the glacier. If it does rain or snow, this will likely melt and dry off during the high pressure weather systems, changing to ice in runnels on alpine northern aspects, which is usually a good thing.

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Eric Dumerac leads up Infinite Patience on Mt.Robson’s Emperor Face. Photo by Barry Blanchard

What this all translates to is perfect conditions for attempting alpine climbing missions. Rock climbing routes are typically dry with good ice where you want it. There is little rock fall as everything is locked in place, but you’ll want to make sure you are safely down and away from exposed slopes prone to rock fall or avalanches due to solar heating in the afternoon.
In my climbing career I have accomplished some of my finest ascents (first ascents no less!) during the month of October. For example, one year I joined fellow mountain guides Barry Blanchard and Philippe Pellet for a new route on Mt. Robson’s redoubtable Emperor Face – Infinite Patience. It was also on a cold October day that I completed the first ascent of Right of Passage on the North Face of Mt. Kitchener, to this day it is still one of the hardest ice routes in the world that is not bolted (WI 8).

Some tips for October alpine climbing:

  • Be aware of snow in the high alpine as it can accumulate (especially with wind loading) to create little isolated slabs. If it gets warm, sunny aspects may have some rock fall or sloughs in the afternoon. As well snow may accumulate on glaciers and mask small crevasses. Make sure you are honed up on glacier travel skills by taking a crevasse rescue course
  • Be ready for shorter days. That means having a good quality headlamp and spare batteries. I usually plan to bivi at a trailhead or even the base of a route and then begin climbing at night. I would have some emergency bivi equipment like a tarp, food and layers in case you can’t accomplish the route in a day.
  • Be ready for colder temperatures. Bring spare gloves (as they will likely get wet) and lots of layers. Keep hydrated and fed, the cold saps your energy.
    Specialty gear. On any mixed terrain I would definitely bring some pitons (medium and long knife blades) as well as stubby ice screws and some slings or webbing you can use for rappelling stations in case you need to bail and come down.
  • Strategy. You have to move quickly and have a sense of urgency in your climbing, but not to a point where you are exposing yourself to additional hazards. Try to be as light as possible with your pack, while still having the essentials. Start early and really have the route well-researched, if you’re not yet confident of navigating a complex route consider taking a Mountain Navigation course. Also, consider climbing as a group of three on longer objectives, this leave the leader with a small pack and the climbing can go much faster.

So get out there, enjoy October’s high-pressure spell of great weather and send something in the alpine.

Interested in learning more? Check out our mountaineering courses in the Rockies and Whistler/Squamish.

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