Higher than Three Half Domes: Mount Sir Donald

On Mount Sir Donald’s Northwest Ridge (5.4), I accomplished my first car-car summit, my first ~7,000 ft day and set a new record for my longest ever rock climb (2,400 ft). I barely stopped moving except to wait for my turn to rappel over the course of the entire 18 hour day. The views were astonishing, the exposure and grade sustained and the legs very, very tired.

First You Must Tackle the Approach

For this climb, I joined up with other climbing nomads Leo and Yelli who were kind enough to have me along while Sadie had to be a teacher mentor and stuff ;P. We stealth camped in their van at trailhead before we started up the 4,000 ft approach at 4am.

Luckily, the approach was on-trail most of the way. After two hours, we were out of the forest and standing atop a river looking up at the source: a bare glacier creeping down the rock. From here, we progressed past upper bivy and were blessed with a pronounced ridge-moraine created by that receded glacier.

View of Sir Donald (middle) and galcier (right)
The fun moraine-ridge

A long traverse over scree and a couple of snow patches, we reached the Northwest Ridge base. I was shocked to find a bear-proof garbage container and even a toilet up here!

Now Climb More Elevation than Half Dome

Setting up for a 3-person simul before starting up the ridge

For the next five hours while ascending the ridge we were consistently moving, stopping only a few times to re-rack. With Leo leading, Yelli butterflied in the middle and me on the rear we would reach the top after seven, long simul-pitches. This meant a pitch could be as long as 400 ft (120 m)!

The climbing was pretty straightforward, but exhausting moving that fast for that long. It was clear why I read that climbers must move fast and efficiently to safely complete this route. It was unrelenting and descending this ridge would take just as long. There was no fast rappel route down the face.

After the first steeper section, we saw a view of the true summit far in the distance, hazed by the fire smoke in the air. As the hours ticked on we rose above nearby peaks, seeing into their exposed glaciers that eventually gained snow and became snow fields.  Higher still we could turn our heads to witness an unfathomable number of summits.

Having a snack to re-rack after climbing for three hours
2/3 way through the climb
The near-constant exposure

The rock climbing which previously provided short, high-quality cracks degraded as we climbed with increasingly larger chunks of rock becoming movable. On one section I stepped on a fireplace sized boulder that unexpectedly rotated and then when I stepped off pinned my foot’s toes! Ow!

We reached the summit at 1pm and signed the register. I ate my summit rewards of yogurt pretzels while I took in the view. Gazing around, I felt the ever-present exposure of the climb with thousands of feet below me off the ridge at any point in the climb. Perspective and depth consistently enunciated by every lower peak and glacier.

Looking down from the ridge. The closest peak was thousands of feet below us when we started the climb.
Summit smiles!

To give you a frame of reference of what 7000 ft looks like in a day. Picture the face of half dome, its sheer face rising from its base to meet the top of the dome. Two half dome’s of height is the total elevation for our approach. Then put El Capitan in your mind. After those two half domes we climbed almost the same elevation as El Capitan to reach the summit.

Dramatization of 7000 ft using CC Half Dome and El Capitan photos

The descent is one of the more technical of any peak I’ve climbed. Not a walk off, not a straight rappel, but a significant portion of it needed to be down climbed. It is this no-fall-or-you-die down climbing that probably gives the ridge its ‘X’ rating on mountain project.

Downclimbing from summit
Example of what the downclimbing was like

We rappelled 7 sling anchors on the way down the ridge either because the climbing was steeper or to rappel off the side of the ridge to descend faster. Finally, we reached the 12 stations bolted and documented by Canadian Parks. This is the only time I’ve ever seen a parks entity involved in climbing. In the U.S. no park wants the liability for maintaining such safety equipment.

This was the park’s response to a women rappelled off the end of her rope after going the wrong way from one of the anchors in 2005. In fact, just four days before our climb a man fell to his death off the route after slipping. There was serious risk on such a long, committing route with lack of retreat that encourages a significant amount of unroped climbing/down climbing to reach the summit.

My brain moving back to the descent. The bolted anchors were moved quickly, but not quickly enough for my feet. Leo was chip, but Yelli and I were tired. At the base of the first 10 rappels I switched into approach shoes after the last downclimbing bit and my spirits lifted as my painful achy toes were given more space to spread after the last eight hours of climbing shoes.

Starting the 10 established raps down
Yay! Approach shoes for the last two raps!

Two more rappels, a little scree and we hit the auto-pilot button walking down trail in 2.5 hours to the trail head. We tried to keep up a conversation or calling out ‘hey bear!’ the whole way (there was a bear warning on the approach trail). Seven thousand of elevation gain in one day.

Descending our ridge-moraine. The golden light broken by the numerous peaks to the right.

Reaching the trailhead at last light I was sorer than I’ve been in a while and incredibly tired as I began re-hydrating and refueling myself. I ran out of water and food for several hours now. Mount Sir Donald is a serious alpine objective, way bigger than I had expected. It offers great, sustained exposure and beautiful views. It is no wonder it is listed as one of the 50 classics.


On the descent, we did 7 sling rappels and 12 bolted rappels

  • We simul-climbed the whole route in 5 hours, a two woman party behind us solo’d in four hours and a party that started from lower bivy turned around before summit.
  • Approach: 4 hours
  • Climb: 5 hours
  • Down climb / Rap: 7 hours
  • Descent: 3 hours