Category Archives: Canada

Canadian workout peaks

I usually go for a leg stretch on days off, and try to use these shorter outings to reach a summit of some kind. Sometimes I bring a camera, and sometimes I try to run them for time. In any case, some people might be interested in these shorter, easier outings, so here are some from this summer’s travels through Canada.

Whistlers Mountain (Jasper)

Just outside Jasper, Whistlers (i.e. marmots, though I heard none) Mountain has a tram most of the way to the summit, which costs an absurd $45 CAD. However, there is also a trail that costs only 3700 vertical feet and 4.6 miles. I did this Strava style, so there are no photos, but there are great views on a clear day, and the smoke was mild enough that I could just make out a ghostly Robson, impossibly tall and white 50 miles away. I was surprised to nab the fastest time on Strava while still somewhat fried from Fryatt the day before, since I know there are numerous Canadians who can crush me.

Utopia Mountain (Jasper)

Probably not recommended. Bridge construction made this mountain an even longer drive east of Jasper than distance suggests, and at least the way I did it, the climb is a hideous scree-slog. From Miette Hot Springs, follow the tourist trail just past the bridge over Sulfur Creek, then head right up its south fork on a mostly unmarked but well-trodden use trail in and left of the streambed. Eventually the trail fades at a slide path that looks like an old cut-block. Head up the left side here, either along the slide path or through the woods to its left, and you will soon find a clear path in the scree. I slogged up this, but it might be better to traverse to the ridge to its left on the way up. From the top of the scree-field, an indistinct trail leads to a survey marker on a false summit, then to the true summit beyond.

I had hoped that heading east would avoid the worst of the smoke and thunderstorms. While there was no sign of a thunderstorm, the smoke remained unhealthily thick.

Valemount area

Valemount is the closest town to Mount Robson Provincial Park and, being off the normal tourist route, is blessedly calm in the summer. It is also outdoorsy, with a network of downhill mountain bike trails east of town, as well as numerous trails up nearby peaks. The visitor center in town has an up-to-date map. Since this was supposed to be a rest day, I chose a peak with a high start, and hiked up either McKirdy Mountain or a false summit with a big cairn. I wish I had had an excuse to spend more time in the area, as there are many impressive peaks in the Cariboo Range to the west, and far fewer tourists than in the Jasper-Banff corridor.

Paget (Lake Louise)

The south shoulder of this mountain near Lake Louise is home to an unused but still intact fire lookout. From the lookout, a well-defined but steep and loose use trail leads to the summit, with views of the Lake O’Hara peaks to the south, and the Waputik mountains to the north. I did it as a way to kill time on a smoky day, and was surprised to have my only on-trail bear encounter in the Rockies. Less than a mile from the trailhead, I came across an oblivious black bear cub standing on the trail. After a good 10-15 seconds of one-sided conversation, he made his way downhill off the trail to climb a tree. Continuing carefully, I saw at least one more cub up a different tree, with mom standing nearby watching me pass. Fortunately, unlike grouse, black bears are not mindless rage-monsters, so our encounter was calm and brief.

Lawrence Grassi (Canmore)

Located just above Canmore, this is a slightly more challenging and far less crowded alternative to Ha Ling Peak, with a bit under 4000 feet of elevation gain, mostly on a good use trail. Starting at the Goat Creek parking lot, cross the canal then, instead of climbing along the Ha Ling trail, head south down the east side of the canal until you find a well-used trail marked with a cairn and flagging. Follow the trail to Grassi’s southwest ridge, which is mostly easy slabs and scree with a final, slightly steeper and more exposed finish on pebble-covered slabs.

Little Beehive (Lake Louise)

This is the former site of a fire lookout above Lake Louise, reached via a spur trail off the Lake Agnes trail. The summit has a good view of the local peaks, and a sign naming the peaks on the skyline across the Bow Valley. I ran these popular trails because I was bored on a rest day. I noticed what was probably a use trail up Mount Saint Piran on the left on the way up, which would be another good, easy objective for someone with more time and/or energy.

Sir Donald (NW ridge, III 5.4, 2h24m45 up, 4h38 RT)

Sir Donald from near Abbott Hut


Mount Sir Donald is the jewel of Rogers Pass, a quartzite wedge whose northwest ridge rises 2300 feet from the saddle with Mount Uto. I had first climbed it in 2014, approaching via the long traverse from Avalanche Mountain, and it remains one of the best routes I have climbed anywhere. It would be a shame not to climb it while I was in the area, and I figured I might as well try for speed.

I drove up to the trailhead early, packed my pack — two packs of pop-tarts, 1 liter of water, windbreaker, bear spray — then waited for it to warm up a bit before starting around 7:45. The Sir Donald trail is not optimal for gaining elevation, starting out flat along the Illecillewaet River before climbing nearly straight up toward the Uto-Sir Donald saddle, and I was still feeling a bit sore, so I only managed about 3200 ft/hr on the climb to the saddle. A better runner could probably get closer to 4000 ft/hr.

I was slowed a bit by a tricky crossing of the Vaux Glacier’s outflow stream on slick rocks, then got a bit off-route between the camping area and the ridge. There are multiple, confusing use trails of various quality here; the fastest route probably starts heading up just before the green outhouse. I passed an off-route couple on their way to Uto, scrabbled up some moraine, and rejoined a clearer trail where it crosses a ledge below the saddle.

I reached the saddle in 1h22, where a short boulder-hop leads to the base of the day’s technical climbing. Though there were no tents at the campground, I passed three parties on the ridge, one simul-climbing lower down, and two just below the summit. The climbing was as I remembered, with positive holds and clean rock along the crest, and chossier ground to the left. The best route stays close to the ridge, deviating left or (surprisingly) right to get around a few vertical steps. I reached the summit in 2h24m45 from the trailhead, having taken about 1h02 for the ridge, a substantial improvement over the 1h20 or 1h30 it had taken me in 2014.

I had mixed feelings about the round-trip FKT, partly because the view from Sir Donald’s summit is worth savoring, and partly because speed-downclimbing the northwest ridge feels risky. I spent about 10 minutes on top, eating my last pop-tarts and flipping through the register, then started back down at a steady pace. There is some sort of bypass near the top, but I just reversed the ridge. I remembered losing time on the chossy ground to either side of the ridge last time, and deliberately stayed near the crest, resisting the temptation to take easier-looking ledges to either side.

Back at the saddle, I was surprised to see that I had taken only about 1h10 descending, and was inspired to put in some effort on the run down. The trail is also sub-optimal for descending, with quite a bit of tricky running over boulders and hard-packed dirt. I scared a ranger and a couple of backpackers, then motored through the flatter section in the woods, making some noise to give the bears a few seconds’ warning as I came around the blind turns. I had expected to take about 5 hours round-trip, so I was pleased to return to the Wheeler Hut in only 4h38. This time could definitely be improved with better fitness, less enjoying the summit, and slightly better route-finding. However, I don’t think carrying a light cord to rap the ridge would be faster overall.

Swanzy, Clarke, Bonney

Bonney from Swanzy


Mount Bonney is a striking sight from Asulkan Ridge, its sheer north face rising above and between lobes of the heavily-crevassed Bonney Glacier. After the MacDonald experience, I was looking for something a bit more moderate, and Bonney is one of a few less-visited peaks that does not require crossing the Illecillewaet Névé. While it looks fairly flat and tame, and there are some very interesting looking routes on the other side (e.g. north and east ridges on Mount Fox), it looks like 4-5 miles each way across the Névé, with an uncertain dismount across the glacial tongues on its other side.

Running along Abbott Ridge

I got an early-ish start around 5:30, hiking the familiar Abbott Ridge trail and talking to myself occasionally to warn the bears. As the trees began to thin, I looked back and was startled to see someone slowly catching me. I wasn’t in full race mode, but I am not used to being caught on climbs. The person turned out to be a fast local, out with a friend for a quick morning run across Asulkan Ridge. He assumed that I was doing likewise, and was a bit surprised when I told him I was headed for Bonney. He had skied it in the winter, but never scrambled it in the summer. The three of us talked as we scrambled up a shortcut to Abbott Ridge, discussing local scrambles and speculating about a reasonable FKT for Sir Donald. We parted ways at the saddle before Abbott Peak, where I descended to fill up my water at the tarn before beginning the traverse around Asulkan Ridge.

Lily Col, Swanzy, Clarke, Bonney

There may be a good line around to the Lily Glacier, but I didn’t find it. After gaining Afton’s northwest ridge, I generally stayed between 7300′ and 7500′, I performed a long, laborious side-hill on a mixture of slick heather, hard-packed dirt, krummholtz, and a bit of lose talus. I more or less kept pace with my companions on the ridge, who appeared occasionally silhouetted against the eastern sky. I finally reached Lily Col around the same time they reached the nearby summit of Dome, making me wonder if it would have been faster to follow Asulkan Ridge over the Rampart.

Across east face to Fox and Deville

From the col, I climbed a mixture of snow and talus until I could make my way left to Swanzy’s slabby upper east face. This was the best climbing of the day, a moderate slab with cracks and positive rails. Below the overhanging summit knob, I traversed left until I could ascend a chimney to the summit plateau. I tagged the cairn on the rock highpoint to the right, then, after failing to traverse around the edge of a weird little summit glacier, walked carefully along its crest, which is higher than the rock summit.

Nice anchor…

Next up was Clarke Peak, which is basically a false summit on the way to Bonney. I descended a mixture of snow and rock to the head of the Clarke Glacier. Near the head of the Tuzo Couloir, I found a uniquely sketchy anchor: accessory cord tied around a foot-long flake of rock, which had presumably been wedged between some other boulders, with the other end of the cord extending over the lip of the partly-melted ice gully. Christian Bohren had guided Heniretta Tuzo up this couloir in September 1904, probably cutting steps, back when the glaciers were larger and the snow deeper.

Transition to bad rock near Clarke

I climbed a mixture of snow and off-white quartzite along Clarke’s ridge, staying warily away from the corniced edge. Unfortunately the well-behaved rock ended at the summit, replaced by chossy, clinking dinner-plate shale. I also had to cross a small extension of the Clarke Glacier that reached the crest. I did not quite need my crampons, but it reminded me why I have been carrying them around — without them, it only takes a short stretch of low-angle ice to ruin your day.

Swanzy and Clarke from Bonney

Bonney has two equally-high summits, and I found a register canister on the second. Along with the lid of a mackerel can from 1974, I found a nice book left by a party in 1988, celebrating the centennial of the first climb. The first ascenscionists were two Anglican clergy, Reverends Green and Swanzy, and Reverend Northcott of Revelstoke had been inspired to repeat the climb. For extra style points, the centennial party had used the original route, a savage bushwhack up Loop Creek to Bonney-Green col. Somehow the register was dry and in excellent shape, despite being protected by only a non-waterproof metal canister and a produce bag. I guess not many people climb Bonney in the summer, because no one had signed it since the 1988 party. I added my name, then sat back and relaxed in the perfect weather.

Sir Donald from near Abbott Hut

I had contemplated continuing the traverse to Bonney-Green Col, where I could get around the bergschrund and crevassed glacier, but the rest of the ridge didn’t look interesting, and I would have to traverse a lot of moraine and polished slabs on the long return below the Bonney and Lily Glaciers. Instead, I retraced my path, mistakenly taking a slightly lower and worse line below Asulkan Ridge. I rinsed my face at the tarn, where I met a young New Zealander on a year abroad. I encouraged him to visit the Tetons when I heard he was headed down to the Yellowstone area, then left him to scramble down the shortcut and jog the trail. At a bit over 10.5 hours crossing some rough country, this outing wouldn’t appeal to everyone, but I enjoyed tagging a seldom-visited summit with a bit of interesting, moderate scrambling.

MacDonald (N face sketch-fest)

MacDonald from Hermit Meadows


Mount MacDonald’s north face rises sheer and intimidating for nearly 5000 feet from the road just north of Rogers Pass. Looking at it and reading about it, I hoped it would be something like Johannesburg Mountain: essentially no approach, and a big, relentless, varied face, climbed via its 5.4 central rib. Unfortunately this is not what I found. I know I was off-route at the top, but deliberately so, since by then I was just trying to end the misery. Lower down, I think I was on the correct rib (there are several), but instead of the promised “solid, blocky quartzite with incut holds,” I found fifth class moss. I made it up and down, but it was a tough 6 miles.

Looking up approach

After taking advantage of Rogers Pass’s excellent trails for a couple of days, it was time to experience something more like the primeval Selkirks. I parked near the second avalanche shed, bashed down to the creek, and found a couple bits of flagging on a jumbled mess of fresher and older logs, the “official” crossing of Connaught Creek. From there, a closely-spaced line of flags marked a basically nonexistent trail through open forest, headed up and left to a slide path that was a mixture of grass and alders. The flags seemed to give out a short distance from the central stream and dirt-chute leading from the north face.

Looking down approach

There was still a fair amount of old slide snow in the chute, covered with enough debris that I could climb it with no crampons and my axe for security. However, I was somewhat wary of the snow, as there was running water below, and I saw a 50-foot section spontaneously collapse with a loud “whump.” Near the split, where I was supposed to follow the left branch, the terrain was a mixture of questionable snow, stream, polished rock, krummholtz, and steep dirt. Rather than fight snow and water in the gully, I climbed along its right-hand side, which started out reasonable and gradually turned less pleasant as it merged with the face.

Sucky dirt

Traversing under the toe of the central rib, I found myself farther above the gully than I probably should have been. There is a strange patch of rotten, light-colored rock here, which decomposes to deposit evil, outward-sloping dirt on the ledges below. I climbed left and up, trying to escape the choss either into the gully or above, but found myself doing a lot of unpleasant, slow, defensive climbing. It was probably no worse than fourth or low fifth class, but it was mentally exhausting.

Steep moss

I finally passed the choss, and angled back up and right to the buttress, finding the fourth class moss mentioned by the guidebook. Unfortunately things did not seem to improve much on the buttress, where I found wide cracks, awkwardly-angled ledges, and more moss. I tried climbing right on the crest, and just to either side, but did not find an enjoyable line. Maybe I was just mentally worn down from the choss below, or maybe I was off-route, but at this point I just wanted it to end.

Route from above

Improvising, I traversed left at a ledge, climbing a broad bowl scoured mostly free of moss, which was mostly fourth class with a bit of fifth here and there for spice. Near the top of the face, a broad, rubbly ledge crosses below a final headwall. The route description says to head slightly right from the rib to surmount the headwall on blocky 5.4 ground, but I thought I saw a break to the left, so I just used that. I stemmed into a moat, made a couple steep moves, then followed easier ground to finally emerge on the east ridge. Sunlight, easy ground, and impressive views of the Avalanche Glacier and Sir Donald to the south.

Sir Donald and friends

The summit register was in a PVC tube, so it was a wet mess, but it was still legible enough to make out a few names, including Colin Haley back in 2014. I knew the descent would be non-trivial, so I did not hang out for long before making my way down the southwest ridge looking for the Herdman Couloir. The ridge required a fair amount of route-finding to get around ribs and steps, with a final, extended bit of 4th class to reach a talus saddle where it flattens. I found a few slings where others had apparently given up and rapped.

Wrong (l) and right (r) couloirs

As I later realized, I should have continued past a small bump to reach a broad couloir before the larger, unnamed peak where the ridge turns northwest, but there were a bunch of slings at the top of a narrow, steep dirt-chute. This ended up requiring more sketchy, careful climbing, sometimes kicking steps in snow, sometimes stemming in the moat with a hand and foot on the rock, and an axe and foot on the snow. I passed another rap station made of two fix and equalized nuts, then finally emerged in a broad, steep heather bowl with a clear view down to the highway. Looking back, it seemed like even rapping the chute I had descended was a mistake, as pulling the rope would unleash a rain of debris.

After hours of mistakes and unpleasantness, things finally went my way for the rest of the descent. I guessed correctly that the route followed the left-hand side of the stream to avoid brush, finding a bit of a boot-pack in places where the stream-bed was too steep. I lost the route again near the valley bottom, but the bushwhack was tame by North Cascades standards, with only a bit of devil’s club. With a bit of fishing, I found another flagged mess of trees to cross Connaught Creek, then walked the highway back to my car. There are plenty of fun things to climb in the Rogers Pass area, so I see no reason to subject yourself to this.

Asulkan Ridge

Asulkan Ridge panorama


Asulkan Ridge is a line of lesser peaks between the Bonney and Sir Donald groups. Though it is long with a 5.4 crux, much of it is easy class 2 “exposed sidewalk.” Combined with easy access via the Abbott and Asulkan Hut Trails, this makes it a popular route, and an enjoyable moderate day. Though it is rated the same as Sir Donald’s northwest ridge, it is a good, easier alternative in the Rogers Pass area.

Abbott Ridge and tarn

The sun rises late in the deep, narrow valley of Rogers Pass, so I got a bit of a late start up the trail to Abbott Ridge. The trail passes underwhelming Marion Lake, then continues past the Abbott Hut before officially ending just short of Mount Abbott. There are two trail above the lake, amusingly labeled the “shorter way” and “longer way,” as if any sane person would choose the latter. Beyond the end, a clear use trail leads along the sometimes-exposed ridge to Abbott’s summit, reached by a bit of scrambling. On the climb, I had seen two people summiting Afton, and from the summit, I saw them making their way along the long, gentle ridge to the Rampart.

Afton’s east ridge

Afton’s east ridge looks steep, but the rock is solid with lots of positive holds. I mostly stayed on the ridge, occasionally straying left, and with a few low 5th class moves in a chimney, I emerged on the summit. Establishing a pattern that would mostly hold for the rest of the ridge, the descent was much easier than the climb, a boulder-hop down to a snowfield. It was warm, and I had a lot of ridge to go, so I preemptively supplemented my water with some slush.

Ridge-walking to Rampart

The ridge was mostly “exposed sidewalk” or easy walking on the west side, mixed with bits of scrambling to regain the crest or surmount steps. Just before the summit, I passed a young Asian couple with lots of gear — including mountain boots! — moving slowly and roped up. They caught back up as I had a sandwich on the summit, and we talked for a few minutes. They seemed impressed that I was soloing the ridge, and I encouraged them to lighten their loads on future outings.

Crux climb up Dome

I passed a couple of taciturn Canadians on the boulder-hop toward the Dome, which contains the ridge’s crux. There are a couple large steps before the Dome, bypassed to the right, and I found the ridge’s only rotten rock on one of them. The guidebook mentions climbing a 5.4 crack left of the ridge. I climbed a chimney that looked about right, only to find a tat-nest above another chimney 10 feet farther left. Whatever — either way looks pretty tame. With a bit more scrambling and easy ridge-walking, I was on the summit.

Crux move on knife-edge

The Dome has a bit more fun in store on its south ridge, a long knife-edge that can be done as a hand traverse or a cheval. It can also be bypassed on easier ground to the right, but where is the fun in that? I met two guys contemplating the bypass, and encouraged them to take the sporting way. Beyond, the ridge becomes a boulder-hop down to the small Sapphire Col hut, where I topped up my water at a small ice lake on the edge of the Asulkan Glacier.

Sapphire Col

From the col, Mount Jupiter’s three summits, the high point of the traverse, are all easy boulder-hopping. Beyond, I scrambled down some talus, crossed a snowfield, then fought a bit of unpleasant morainal garbage, looking for a low-angle and low-crevasse way down the Asulkan Glacier to the hut and trail. I crossed a bit of glacier then, instead of going over an unnamed bump along the ridge to Asulkan Pass, descended a chossy ridge splitting two lobes of the upper glacier. The final transition to the flat lower glacier proved to be the day’s crux, with a bit of desperate, careful scrabbling down a steep dirt-slope. There is probably a better way to do this.

Long slide on Asulkan Glacier

I crossed the lower glacier, then hiked up polished slabs to the locked hut, which may only be open in the winter. I wrung out my socks in front of some tourists, then passed a bunch more on the steep descent along the crest of an old lateral moraine. I probably should have run the lower trail, but I was in no hurry, so I just fast-walked down the gentle trail, passing the ruins of Glacier House on my way to the car. I rinsed off, then settled in to peruse the guidebook for what to do next. I’m not sure what caught my attention, but I looked in the rear view mirror to see a juvenile grizzly wandering through the parking lot no more than 10-20 yards away. Not at all interested in the cars or the large campground nearby, he moseyed off into the woods on the other side. I think I’ll continue carrying my bear spray up here in the Great White North…

Hermit-Rogers traverse

Swiss Glacier and peaks


There were still a couple of peaks on my to-do list in the Rockies, but Vaux and the Goodsirs sounded like epic choss battles, so I decided instead to leave on a high note. I recently picked up David Jones’ Rogers Pass Alpine Guide, which details a number of low-5th-class routes in this most accessible part of the Selkirks. Other than the popular Uto and Sir Donald, there is not a lot of information online about the area. I chose this traverse somewhat at random, partly because it uses an approach with which I was not familiar. The rock was more broken than I expected, which was disappointing, but the boulders were mostly stable, and there were some sections of enjoyable climbing on the Swiss Peaks. The guide describes going Rogers to Hermit, but I thought it made more sense to go the other way, ending on the highest peak. Having now done it, I think my direction is best, at least psychologically.

Trailwork below campsites

The Trans-Canada Highway is being widened to four lanes, and this summer work is taking place on Rogers Pass, making it congested and noisy. Fortunately the Illecillewaet trailhead is far enough from the highway to be somewhat quiet, so I got a decent night’s sleep there before heading back across the pass to the Hermit Meadows trailhead. The well-maintained trail climbs steeply to the alpine, where it ends at some bear boxes and wooden tent platforms. There is also a sign saying “end of trail,” perhaps to help whiny kids convince their parents to turn around.

Tupper, Macdonald, Sir Donald

The trail, of course, continues past the sign, crossing a couple of braided streams before fading and disappearing in glacier-scoured slabs. I made my way up the slabs, then put on crampons to cross the low-angle ice plain of the Swiss and Tupper Glaciers to the base of Hermit’s southeast ridge. Unfortunately it is not a solid fin like Sir Donald’s northwest ridge, but more of a giant talus maze with occasional steps. Still, it was fun enough, and mostly straightforward until the summit towers, where there was some route-finding required to pass gaps in the ridge.

Truda from Hermit

The descent was mostly straightforward class 2-3 left of the ridge, with a final bit of 4th class getting to the saddle with Truda. Truda, Swiss, and Fleming look distinct from below, but along the ridge, they feel more like small false summits on a single, broad massif. The best path generally stays on the ridge crest, though, so they are hard to miss by accident. Starting up from the col, I went left, then up a chimney/dihedral to regain the crest. Along the crest, I found a mixture of face climbing with positive rails, and big talus. There were some 5th class moves here and there, but nothing sustained. There was also a snow crest, which I crossed kicking steps and plunging my axe.

Rogers from the east

As I neared Rogers, the glacier northeast of Rogers comes into view. Unlike the Swiss and Hermit, which are flat and tame, it is steep and viciously crevassed, falling into some pathless valley. I stayed mostly on rock, then finally booted up the low-angle part of Rogers’ snow crest. I found the only register of the day, with a couple of familiar names, but no pencil to add my own.

Swiss Glacier descent

I could have continued down Rogers’ west ridge, but that looked long and chossy, so I instead retraced my steps to descend the broad couloir from the Rogers-Grant col. This proved more annoying than it looked, but still probably better than the ridge. There had been fresh snow in the last week, adding a bit more depth to the layer of slush over the underlying ice. The slope was not especially steep, but the snow was awkward and it ended in a bergschrund, so I ended up descending in crampons facing inward. The otherwise-tame glacier even gave me a nip, as I sunk a foot into a small crevasse I would have seen if I hadn’t been facing in and staring at my feet.

Once past the ‘schrund, things got much easier, and I took off my crampons to walk and slide back to where I had stepped onto the glacier in the morning. From there, it was mostly easy travel down the slabs to the trail. There was no one camped on the platforms as I passed, but I met several dayhikers, and a few people headed up to camp. A guy by himself looked like he might be up to do some scrambling, so I stopped to share some beta. As we talked, a solo girl walked by barefoot in booty shorts; I wasn’t sure where to direct the male gaze. Excitement done for the day, I hike-jogged the rest of the switchbacks to the sound of road construction, reaching the car mid-afternoon. I threw away my collected tat, washed up a bit, and headed to the visitor center to sit and write.

Temple (E ridge, IV 5.7, 3h40 up, 4h55 RT)

Summit glacier


I had other plans, but Mount Temple’s east ridge demanded my attention as I drove west along the Trans-Canada Highway in an evening rainstorm. I had previously dismissed it as too difficult, but looking at it, I was compelled to at least go up and take a look. I had already climbed Temple via the southwest ridge trail, but I had no view on the summit, and that route is hardly “classic.” I’m glad I stopped: this is an amazing route on solid rock, and it turned out to be just within my comfortable climbing ability. I mostly enjoyed myself on the way up, taking 3h40 to summit, then ran down to reach the parking lot in just under 5 hours.

Slide path on approach

It was raining as I went to sleep, so I did not drive up toward Moraine Lake and start until a bit after 7:00. I easily found the correct slide path, and headed up in trail runners, carrying an ice axe and crampons. I found what I thought was a faint boot-pack on the steep slope, and a sling above a step where the route turns right confirmed that I was in the right place.

Mount Little and Fay

Though the route is on a ridge, that ridge is so broad and complicated that it mostly feels like a face, with the best path wandering between ramps and gullies. The rock is solid and blocky, with many positive holds, and I had a great time romping up the steep class 3-5 lower ridge, following the occasional cairn or piece of tat. This was some of the best climbing I had done in awhile, and I burst into spontaneous laughter occasionally as I gained elevation.

Big Step

Shortly after a vertical step with a bolt, the ridge levels off and narrows as it approaches the Big Step, the crux of the route. It is intimidatingly vertical, and I approached with some trepidation. However, the holds remained positive, and with some cautious climbing and a couple of minor backtracks, I found a route on and just left of the crest that felt like sustained 5.6, on which I was focused but not scared. Where the angle eased, I followed a chossy ledge around left to a steep gully with a couple of vertical steps. The first vertical step gave me some trouble. I tried the right side, backed off, contemplated the left, then returned to the right, using different feet to get around a bulge and onto the chossy ledge above.

Traverse below towers

Above the gully, the rock gradually degraded to more typical Rockies choss as I approached the base of the black towers. The route along and up the towers to the summit glacier is not obvious, but fortunately I could follow boot-packs from the weekend before across a few snowfields. Not only did they show the way, but the firm steps meant I didn’t need to waste time switching in and out of crampons. The final climb through a gap in the towers was chossy, but not difficult, and I soon found myself looking at Temple’s summit glacier to one side and the town of Lake Louise to the other.

Summit cornice

I started off up the bootpack to the summit without crampons, but soon thought better of that; the slope to the north was a bit steep, the snow was still very hard, and last night’s graupel partly filled the steps. With crampons, it was a straightforward snow-walk along the ridge, safely away from cornice territory, to the summit. The abrupt transition from “climber land” to “hiker land” on Temple is shocking: after climbing thousands of feet of steep rock and crossing a glacier, one step takes you to the end of a popular and snow-free hiking trail.

Emerging from the “wrong” side of the mountain, I startled two Canadians and two Europeans who had come up the trail. We talked for a bit as I put away my ice gear and ate a sandwich, then I left them to slide and run back to the trailhead. I started off going at a casual pace, passing a steady stream of hikers on their way up, and a crowd at Eiffel Pass. From there, the crowds became more dense, and I put in a bit more effort when I realized that I might reach the parking lot in under 5 hours total. I ran the switchbacks about as quickly as I could with an awkward pack, then walked back to the car in time for a late lunch.

Smuts, the Fist

The Fist


[Some photos, including those containing the author, by Bob. — ed.]

Mount Smuts is the hardest climb in Alan Kane’s popular Rockies guidebook, a sometimes-exposed scramble with a few low-5th-class crux sections near the south end of the Spray Lakes valley. The Fist is another somewhat-popular scramble to its east. Having become accustomed to climbing choss, I was reminded how pleasant it can be to climb solid, super-sticky rock on Smuts. The nearby Fist turned out to be a choss-pile, but still better than many of my recent peaks.

Commonwealth Creek

I had met Bob on my first trip to the Canadian Rockies, and he got back in touch when he saw that I would be in the area. Since he is based in Calgary and has a Real Life, he is not up for long suffer-fests in the far north, but gets out a lot in the Canmore region. After meeting up in town, we rattled down the miserable washboard of the Spray Lakes Road, inexplicably both unpaved and open year-round, then slept at the Smuts Lake trailhead (“day use only!”), where Bob learned that his manly new truck was too short in any direction to comfortably lie down.

Birdwood and avalanche debris

We got an early start by Canadian standards, along with two fishermen and a fast-looking runner guy, all of whom had bikes and soon left us behind on the initial rideable 3k. Beyond there, the trail becomes rooty as it turns to climb along Commonwealth Creek. Emerging in meadows below the north face of Mount Birdwood, it has been obliterated by two large avalanches over the past winter, buried under a layer of compacted snow and downed trees pointing in the same direction. I found the trail again after the first, then lost it at the second, cutting through woods toward the Birdwood-Smuts col hoping to find it. The thrashing became steadily steeper and denser, until I gave up and made a straight line to the edge of the woods, where I stumbled onto the trail, right where it would make sense for it to have been. Duh.

Start of Smuts route

The trail climbs steeply along the woods’ margin, emerging in alpine meadows below the pass. The route up Smuts’ south ridge starts in a gully to the north, above a large but fairly stable talus fan. Heading straight for the gully, we found bits of use trail, then transitioned onto solid slabs on its right-hand side. The rock bedding is more or less vertical on this part of Smuts, oriented to the north-northwest just across the ridge, so when it is clear of debris, it forms easy ramps with handrails. This allowed us to gain several hundred meters quickly, reaching a shoulder where the west side becomes sheer and we were forced onto the crest.

Chimney on Smuts

Where the crest steepens, we made an exposed step right into a sloping chimney. The rock is incredibly sticky, so I easily stemmed my way up, dislodging a rock in a failed attempt to kill my partner, who defended himself adeptly with his helmet. Above the chimney, the climbing continued in similar fashion over a couple more steps: move right to a chimney formed by an eroded layer, stem up back toward the ridge. With a final, exposed walk along the crest, we reached the summit in around 3.5 hours. The runner had signed the register earlier, speculating that sub-2-hours should be possible for someone going hard who knew the route (I agree).

Summit walk on Smuts

We had expansive views in all directions, cut off by a cloud deck a bit above 10,000′, so Sir Douglas and King George to the southwest, and conical Assiniboine to the north, were all truncated. Nearby Birdwood’s north ridge (5.5) looked long and enticing, but we still had to get off this thing. The standard descent head down the northwest ridge for a bit, then turns down a horrible garbage-chute of a gully to reach ledges and scree on the west face. We took turns down this gully, moving from one sheltered ledge to the next one at a time unleashing showers of debris. If I were to climb the peak again, I would downclimb the south ridge, and maybe try going up the northeast ridge, which looks like it should go.

Scree descent to Smuts Lakes

With plenty of daylight left, we decided to climb the nearby Fist as well. The direct route across Smuts’ north face is blocked by cliffs, so we had to go the long way around. We picked up a faint return trail descending across talus to the Smuts-Birdwood col, passing above the two fishermen we had met earlier, then descended the east side of the pass a bit to pick up a use trail around a buttress on Smuts’ east side.

Stone-tooling toward the Fist

Once past the toe of the buttress, we began a long, ascending, unpleasant sidehill toward the Fist. The face is a mixture of woods, turf, and scree, cut by several gullies. The gullies are worst when dry, when their sides are slippery hard-packed dirt. We crossed one in this condition, then a couple more still filled with snow, carefully stone-tooling our way across. Finally reaching the crest, it took my ankles a few steps to adjust to being on level ground.

Fist route on right

The route up the Fist is not elegant, but at least it is obvious: climb a chute right of the summit, then turn right up another chute with a short vertical step at its base. We went one at a time both up and down, as it is impossible not to unleash death on those below. On the summit, we watched the crowds hiking the popular Tent Ridge trail, waiting for a couple of climbers we had seen behind us to top out. It would go ill for them if we descended while they were climbing.

When they failed to appear, we downclimbed one at a time, to find them sheltering in place at the base of the chute. It would have been quickest to drop down scree to Commonwealth Creek, but I had noticed a faint trail toward Tent Ridge on the way up, so we followed that north instead, seeing some new terrain and meeting a few hikers on the way around and down the ridge. There are a few confusing trail junctions in the woods below, and many blowdowns, but fortunately Bob had a map on his phone, so we made the correct turns and emerged on the Shark road just above our trailhead.

Willingdon (W ridge, ~10.5 hours)

Willingdon from Clearwater Pass


Mount Willingdon is one of the lesser Rockies 11ers, barely over 11,000′ and lying on the dry side of the range, east of the Icefields Parkway just north of Lake Louise. It is also somewhat remote, lying on the far side of a broad alpine valley at the head of the Siffleur, Clearwater, and Pipestone Rivers, separated by a high ridge from the Bow River valley and the road. There are long horse trails up each river, but a more direct route that ascends Mosquito Creek, then crosses rugged Quartzite Col, makes Willingdon a reasonable dayhike.

Cliffs above Mosquito Creek

Despite a questionable forecast, I got my usual non-alpine start, hopping the guard rail to follow the Mosquito Creek trail. Thanks to a helpful trip report, I knew where to look for the climbers’ trail to Quartzite Col, and had no trouble finding and following a sometimes faint but well-flagged path up the west side of the north branch of Mosquito Creek. I eventually rock-hopped across some braided side-streams, then crossed at a convenient log, where the trail continued on the other side.

Quartzite Col

The trail and flagging disappear near a side-stream, and I continued cross-country up its north side on open ground, soon emerging in the alpine below Quartzite Col. Taking a direct line to what looked like the low point, I climbed turf and dirt, then crossed a field of large quartzite (?) boulders infested with talus-spiders. While I did not find a supposed plaque, I did find a cairn at the crest, as well as an old boot-pack on the other side’s snowfield. The snow looked unpleasantly steep to handle in running-shoe crampons, so I instead carefully descended some dirty ledges to the south, disturbing a mountain goat, before gaining the snowfield lower down.

Quartzite Col

Coming around a corner, I saw two men putting on crampons to climb to the col. I had to self-arrest once as I sketched down the snow in running shoes, but I don’t think they saw that bit of foolishness. They were returning from a 5-day backpack to tag Willingdon and nearby Recondite, and one seemed slightly disapproving of my solo-dayhike tactics. With a bit more talus-hopping, I finally reached the high grassy plain, with Willingdon still discouragingly far away to the east.

West ridge

The plain is probably boggy early in the season, but it was mostly dry, springy ground as I made my way over some ups and downs to eventually reach the Clearwater Pass trail, a well-beaten-in pack trench. I followed it to the first Devon Lake, then took off across grass and flowers toward Willingdon’s west ridge. The ridge is mostly well-behaved talus, with a faint boot-track most of the way. There is one short, tricky downclimb on some white rock where the ridge turns, then a final 6-foot step on outward-sloping and gravel-covered rock below the summit plateau. The step had a decent hand-line, making things much simpler.

Clearwater and glacier

I had been uneasily eyeing clouds and showers to the south and west for awhile, and I felt a few snowflakes on the summit, but it remained sunny, and looked like it was clearing. Still, I didn’t want to take the extra time to traverse Willingdon’s southern sub-summits. I flipped through the register, took in views of the steep east face and the impressively flat glacier sheltered by the Willingdon-Clearwater cirque, then retraced my route.

Headed back toward Quartzite Col

I was enjoying myself on the trip back across Clearwater Pass, in no particular hurry, when the weather abruptly turned. I tried to beat the showers to Quartzite Col, but the rain caught me near its base, punishing my late start. Fortunately, after a bit of thunder, things settled into a cold, steady drizzle. I cramponed up the snow this time, then tried to minimize boulder-hopping on the other side, since the wet lichen-encrusted quartzite was quite slick.

The cold rain continued across the alpine and down to near the log crossing, and the brush-soaking continued until I reached the official trail, leaving me about as wet as I could be. I stripped off my “rain jacket,” which apparently needs a fresh DWR treatment, then clumsily put on my sort-of-dry hoodie with stiff hands before squelching down to the trailhead. After a slow, fumbling change into dry clothes, I blasted the heater on my drive back to town, and was mostly back to normal by the time I reached Lake Louise.

Kitchener (E ridge)

Kitchener from parking lot


While it looks big from the highway, Mount Kitchener is really just a high point on the undulating edge of the Columbia Icefield. With only one small glacier to cross, its east ridge is the only way to reach the ice with essentially no crevasse hazard. It is also fairly unpleasant, with thousands of feet of unstable talus punctuated by pucker-inducing climbing on short steps of crumbling Rockies choss, including a spiteful notch just below the icefield. With a close, high “trailhead” along the highway around 6300 feet, I thought this would be a relatively short outing — the guidebook even calls it a dayhike. While it ended up taking around 9 hours, I found it mentally taxing, made more so by the thick smoke blowing in from British Columbia.

Athabasca, Andromeda

I got a late-ish start, heading out in old running shoes with my boots and socks around my neck, as the first obstacle is crossing the Sunwapta river. The guidebook suggests doing this right across from the toe of the ridge, but I thought the crossing looked friendlier near the Athabasca Glacier parking lot, where the braided input streams to Sunwapta Lake were no more than calf-deep. They were still bitterly cold, though, with bits of slush floating downstream in the morning, and my feet ached after each significant crossing. With that out of the way, I set my poles and running shoes on a rock, laced up my boots, and headed for the ridge.

The downside of my crossing strategy is that I also had to cross the outflow from the Dome Glacier. I had hoped to find a dry crossing in the terminal boulder-field, but eventually gave up, taking off my boots to cross barefoot near the outflow of its terminal lake, again calf-deep and cold.

Lots of this

Boots on again, it was time to begin the talus-slog. I ascended the moraine to the north, bashed through a bit of krummholtz, then turned west on the broad, rubbly ridge toward “K2,” an intermediate summit. Most of the climb to this point was on various talus, ranging from dinner-plates to unstable rubble. The smoke was already thick, and I was slow and unmotivated as I climbed toward the cliff-bands on the sub-summit. These were not as difficult as they looked, but were highly unpleasant, outward-sloping, brittle, and littered with rubble.

K2 and Kitchener

Though there was more rubble to cross, the prospect of getting on the small glacier on Kitchener’s east ridge cheered me as I started down to the saddle. After a bit of nastiness getting across a southward fin — climbing down one crumbly chimney and up another — I found patches of decent scree-skiing to speed the descent. After regaining most of the lost elevation, I finally put on crampons for the glacier. There are two obvious cracks across the ridge, with a clear path around the left-hand side. Though it was late morning, the snow was still firm, perfect for kicking steps.

Snow-fin in gap

Above the glacier, I soon confronted the day’s crux, a narrow and crumbly gap with a small snow-fin at the bottom. The near side was slightly outward-sloping but more solid, while the far side was incut but horribly rotten. I carefully downclimbed, cut a step to cross the snow, then sketched my way up the other side, trusting a faded hand-line clipped to a rusty piton about as much as I trusted the rubble. The book calls this “5.2,” but that is like grading a gym wall: the holds are constantly changing. From the gap, there are still a few hundred feet to gain in a gradual climb along the edge of the icefield, easily crossed in boots once past the icy edge.

Columbia and the Twins

Even on a sunny, hazy day, the endless white feels a bit disorienting; it would be seriously unsettling in a whiteout. The smoke was bad: while the frequently-calving edge of Snow Dome was fairly clear, the Twins were indistinct, and Mount Columbia was a ghost. I should have stuck around to enjoy what will probably be my only time standing on the Columbia Icefield, but the sketchy notch and the long descent weighed on me. I soon headed back across the ice, with one comical slow-motion self-arrest when I slipped near the edge.

Dome Glacier icefalls

The climb down into the notch was as sketchy as expected, but the climb up the other side was much easier, and I was soon booting down the glacier. The descent route drops from the saddle with K2 to the rubble-covered Dome Glacier. This would have been wretched talus later in the season, but fortunately there were several snowfields with a perfect surface and angle for boot-skiing. I wish the light had been better, because the Dome Glacier is magnificent, with two large branches falling from the icefield above to feed a long tongue in the valley.

Lower Dome Glacier

I hiked endless, unstable rubble on its surface, then crossed its toe to reach the north side of the terminal lake. The outflow stream was noticeably larger than when I had crossed it in the morning, boding ill for my return ford. I could have avoided that by going up to the toe of the Athabasca Glacier, but I had the shoes and poles in place, and walking outside the rope line would probably anger a ranger. Gritting my teeth, I made my way back across the channels — knee-deep this time — then put my boots on to warm my feet on the short walk back to the car. Along with the usual assortment of tourists in rented RVs, I was surprised to see a car with the New Mexico vanity plate “PKFREAK.” I should know this person.