The Palisade

On 15 February 2020, Shaun Luong, Zosia Zgolak and I skied up The Palisade in Alberta’s Jasper National Park.  As noted by Steven Song, this officially-named landmark overlooking Athabasca River valley to the north of Jasper townsite makes for a fairly safe winter climbing objective with an easy but mundane approach on the usually groomed Pyramid Mountain Fire Road.  I first attempted to ski The Palisade solo many years ago using light touring skis without climbing skins, but having to break trail on my own higher up, I ultimately ran out of time and energy.  I returned in 2018 with Zosia and others again using light touring skis, and while we progressed further beyond where I had previously turned around, bitterly cold temperatures and white-out conditions forced us to abandon our attempt.  This time with Shaun and Zosia, we used AT ski gear, and with a promising weather forecast, I hoped that my third time would be the charm to finally get up The Palisade.

Starting from the trailhead at the end of Pyramid Lake Road (6.5 kilometres north of the junction with Bonhomme Street in Jasper townsite), we skied past a gate and followed the continuation of the road along the shore of Pyramid Lake.  Crossing a bridge at the east end of the lake about one kilometre from the trailhead, we soon settled into a long but easy plod up the groomed road for the next 6.5 kilometres until we reached a junction with a spur road leading to The Palisade.  This is also usually where the grooming ends.  Both Shaun and Zosia did a great job of breaking trail up the spur road which is quite lengthy and occasionally bushy.

The spur road eventually peters out at a plateau of sorts, and we briefly dropped into a depression before climbing onto an obvious ridge rising to the north.  Upon gaining the ridge, we more or less followed its undulating crest all the way to the high point of The Palisade.  This, of course, was easier said than done!  The narrow, forested ridge is, in a few places, more precipitous than what topographic maps suggest, and we often had to squeeze through thickets to avoid venturing onto dangerous snow cornices.  Not far from the summit, I actually punched through a cornice that had developed on top of some hidden boulders lying over a flatter part of the ridge.  There was no exposure here, but I had a lot of difficulty extricating myself from the resulting hole due to one of my skis being deeply buried.

Upon reaching the high point of The Palisade, we were beset by a snow squall which obscured views and made it rather unpleasant to linger there.  I wandered a few metres further north to ensure that we had indeed tagged the high point before rejoining the others for a few photographs and a very brief celebration.  We then retreated partway down the ridge to get out of the bone-chilling wind before stopping for a longer break.

Returning along the undulating ridge, we had a few awkward spills while maneuvering through some of the annoying thickets, but we eventually made it back to the spur road without too much grief.  We finally removed our climbing skins here and enjoyed the best skiing of the day descending the spur road and part of Pyramid Mountain Fire Road.  Unfortunately, the lower reaches of the fire road are generally flat and proved to be very wearisome to ski with AT gear.  One long uphill stretch prompted Shaun to re-attach his climbing skins while Zosia opted to just pick up her skis and walk.  Throughout our descent, I had trouble with my glide due to some residual skin glue sticking to the base of my skis.  This allowed me to walk the uphill section without missing a beat, but the rest of the ski out along the fire road was painfully slow for me.  It was dark by the time we all made it back to the trailhead, but thankfully, we only had a short drive to get back to our accommodations in Jasper townsite.

Given the boring road approach and the bushy upper ridge, I can understand why The Palisade is not a popular ski tour despite the dearth of backcountry ski options here due to seasonal closures by Parks Canada.  If I had to do it again, I would use light touring skis for the approach along Pyramid Mountain Fire Road followed by the addition of climbing skins for the spur road.  I would then ditch the skis and switch to snowshoes for the ridge walk.  Above all, I would wait for a ironclad bluebird day.  For all our efforts and the amount of time we spent in mostly viewless forest, I was deeply disappointed that we were not rewarded with far-reaching views from the high point.  Perhaps that might be enough incentive for me to return for another ascent in the future.
The start of a very long day... Shaun skis past a gate at the trailhead.
Using AT gear on this road sucks! In winter, Pyramid Mountain Fire Road is usually groomed for cross-country skiers as far as the junction to The Palisade.
This is roughly the halfway point of the ascent! Shaun and Zosia pause for a break at the junction with a spur road leading to The Palisade.
The road not taken... Zosia and Shaun break trail up the spur road.
Mogul skiing on the return! Some parts of the spur road have huge snow drifts.

Photo courtesy of Zosia Zgolak

Or just follow my GPS track! The route is not so obvious near the end of the spur road, but the idea is to head through this break in the trees and then descend slightly left to reach a clearing.
That would be our ascent route! Shaun and Sonny reach a clearing and find a ridge rising to the north.

Photo courtesy of Zosia Zgolak

Zosia is breaking trail well ahead of us! Shaun climbs up the ridge crest.
Not good skiing here! Frequent detours into thickets are necessary to avoid dangerous cornices on the ridge crest.
Of course it's a false summit--nothing is ever easy for a ski ascent! Shaun and Zosia approach a false summit along the ridge.
A very tough grind here! Zosia follows Shaun as he cuts a trail up a steep section of the ridge.
There's no turning back now! With the true high point of The Palisade in sight, Sonny presses forward along the ridge crest.

Photo courtesy of Zosia Zgolak

Help! Sonny gets stuck in a hole after a cornice collapse above some hidden boulders.

Photo courtesy of Zosia Zgolak

I was too lazy to set up my camera for a self-timed shot, and my selfie pics were too blurry to publish! Zosia and Shaun reach the high point of The Palisade (2157 metres).
Yep, let's get the hell outta here! In the midst of a snow squall, Zosia and Shaun retreat back along the ridge.
Tree skiing...quite literally! Zosia has an adventure getting through yet another thicket on the ridge.
I can hardly remember climbing Cinquefoil Mountain so many years ago! A break in the trees grants this view to the northeast of Athabasca River valley with Morro Peak at centre and Cinquefoil Mountain just behind to the right.

Possible future scrambles?

The clouds to the north clear off to reveal Gargoyle Mountain (left) and Roche de Smet (right).


But he's skiing with his skins on still! Shaun gets in a solitary ski turn on a short but steep slope near the end of the ridge.
Best skiing of the day right here...but it sucks lower down! Zosia and Shaun cruise down Pyramid Mountain Fire Road.
Not destined to be a classic! Total Distance:  25.7 kilometres
Round-Trip Time:  10 hours 22 minutes
Total Elevation Gain:  1183 metres

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