Sir Douglas traverse

Sir Douglas from the north


Many Canadian peaks are named for dead Brits. In the area of the Rockies southwest of Canmore, the names honor sunken warships (e.g. Smuts, Birdwood) and World War I leaders. I have long suspected that the latter were responsible for quite a few dead Canadians, and Commander Sir Douglas Haig is one of the worst, in the most stereotypically British way. Fifty years after the American Civil War showed the disastrous consequences of using mass charges against entrenched troops with accurate guns, Haig was a believer in bayonets, horses, and ├ęsprit de corps, skeptical of new-fangled contraptions like machine guns and even rifles. His disastrous plan for the Battle of the Somme was to harmlessly bombard dug-in German troops for days, then give them time to crawl back up to their machine guns and mow down the Allies, who were ordered to walk in rows through no-man’s land carrying enormous backpacks.

Lower glacier

Anyways, Mount Sir Douglas is a beautiful mountain toward the eastern side of the range, between the Spray and Kananaskis Lakes. It is the highpoint of a long anticline (or syncline?) near Burstall Pass, the layers tilted at an angle that exposes smooth slabs to the northwest. The north side of its long summit shelters two moderate-sized glaciers, leading to the two most popular routes. I had started toward Sir Douglas when I was last in Canada in 2017, only to be turned around by miserable postholing below Burstall Pass. The dry year would eliminate that problem, but also close off the most pleasant route, a couloir on the northwest face, and potentially make the approach tricky for the standard west ridge. However dealing with post-glacial terrain — unstable moraines, gritty slabs, rotten couloirs, etc. — is a necessary part of mountaineering in the era of global warming.

Birdwood

This time I had a bike, so I was able to ride the first two miles of the approach, leaving my bike locked up at the helpful bike rack next to the “no bikes” sign. I would not have wanted to ride much further in any case, as the trail crossed a series of log bridges over a bog, then dissipated in a willow flat to cross a braided creek. With some leaping and balancing, I was just able to keep my feet dry on the way out, when the glacial outflow was at its lowest. On the other side, the trail climbed steeply to a flat valley, then climbed again toward Burstall Pass. Before the pass, I left it to follow a clear use trail headed southwest up a valley toward Sir Douglas, crossing bare limestone slabs and dodging some deep holes.

East ridge from Zeke’s

The approach eventually reaches the edge of a deep valley descending to the right, forcing one to hug the line of peaks extending from Sir Douglas to Birdwood before climbing a limestone rib to its other side. Beyond, there is another descent, larger and much more discouraging, into the talus morass below the peak’s northwest face. I looked at that, and at the bare right-hand glacier with its steep, icy tongue, and decided I had a better idea. In rereading Corbett’s description of Sir Douglas the night before, I had noticed his brief mention of the 5.6 east ridge, and that its first ascent party complained of difficult and unprotected climbing lower down, but barely mentioned the rest of the ridge. Based on the rock layers’ slope, this looked like a better route, and “alpine 5.6” is usually easier than 5.6. I liked my chances, and wanted to skip the soul-crushing descent and slog to the normal route, so at the last minute I continued up the slope to the ridge before “Zeke’s Peak.”

Looking back to Zeke’s

The first part of the ridge was fun and easy, either walking along the crest or traversing the sticky slabs on the right. Ahead and to the right lay Sir Douglas, with the substantial glacier between it and neighboring Robertson to the left. The fun ended with the descent to the saddle, where the rock layers were no longer favorable relative to the ridge, and I had to downclimb some crumbly garbage with a couple of steep steps. A final notch with a choss tower required a bit more trickiness, and then I was at the base of the east ridge.

Typical chossineering

I had hoped for a steeper version of the traverse over Zeke’s Peak, but was sadly disappointed. The climbing was never truly desperate, but required careful route-finding to manage the rotten rock. Where the crest was too steep or otherwise undesirable, the general idea was to climb up and left on steep ramps, then cut back right in dihedrals, which were sometimes more solid and offered opportunities for stemming. I stayed close to the crest as I made my methodical way, and while there was certainly fifth-class climbing, I found nothing I would call 5.6. I had been concerned about a steep step visible from the approach, but when I reached it, I found an easy gravel traverse to the left, then low fifth-class climbing on relatively good rock to regain the main ridge. Here I was finally high enough to see onto the large Haig glacier, with a few buildings near its toe that I believe belong to a heli-ski operation.

Top of NW face route

Once back on the ridge, I soon reached the top of the Northwest Face route, recommended by Corbett as a snow/ice alternative to the standard West Ridge, but now melted down to a corner of gritty slabs and evil dirt. Crossing its top on a horrible loose gravel arete, I found an easy stroll across low-angle ridge to the summit. The air was slightly hazy, but I could still identify a number of familiar peaks, including Joffre, King George, and Assiniboine. I lounged briefly and then, mindful of the unpleasantness that awaited on the West Ridge descent, started down.

Looking down west ridge

The ridge down to the saddle was as advertised: loose junk on outward-sloping slabs. I found myself crab-walking much of the way, or side-stepping with one hand on the rock above. Where possible, I followed the edges of slabs so I could use the higher rock as a handrail. The rock naturally pulled me left onto the southwest face, so I had to make periodic corrections to stay reasonably close to the ridge. Other than one such correction, nothing felt particularly difficult, but it was slow.

The first part I was worried about was the chute leading down to the glacier, which Corbett warned could be icy or have a challenging bergschrund. This being a dry year over a decade after his book was published, I found something slightly worse: the hard-packed dirt and rotten rock left behind by ice in a now-dry couloir. I carefully picked my way down the right-hand side, noting that when I kicked loose more than a few rocks, they would entrain dozens of others which funneled down to the dirty ice below. I downclimbed some sketchy rock right of the landing zone, then put on my crampons beneath the shelter of a small cliff before setting off down the glacier.

Glacier tongue

The second part that worried me was the glacier’s bare icy tongue, which looked steeper than I would enjoy downclimbing in running-shoe crampons. This proved to be the case, but fortunately there were bare slabs and rubble to the right, and I was able to traverse to those before things got too steep. I hugged the right wall to minimize the chance of getting hit by a rock, and while the mix of gritty slabs and gravel was wretched, it got me down. From the base of the ice, I descended farther on unstable talus, until I was able to get around an old lateral moraine and begin climbing back toward the ridge leading to Zeke’s Peak.

Second pyrocumulus

Finally having the mental space to look around, I glanced behind me to see a huge pyrocumulus somewhere behind and north of King George. It had not been there when I was on the summit, or descending the west ridge, so the fire had blown up quickly, probably within an hour. As I made my way along bits of climbers’ trail through the chossy wasteland, I watched the smoke obscure Mount Assiniboine to the north, spreading east but fortunately sparing my lungs. By the time I reached the plateau north of the face, the first plume had been smeared, and a second, larger pyrocumulus now loomed. I took a slightly better line on the return, staying east of a minor bump north of the first deep valley, and was soon back at the Burstall Pass trail.

Returning to Burstall Pass

I jogged quite a bit of this out of boredom, passing a surprising number of day-hikers, eventually reaching the willow flat. As expected, the streams were significantly higher in the afternoon, and after an initial attempt to keep my feet dry, I gave up and sloshed along the most direct line. I stopped to wring out my socks on the boardwalk, then hiked back to the bike rack, where I found a dozen other bikes leaned against trees and each other. Though only about two miles of the trail are rideable, it seems plenty of others agree that it is absolutely worth bringing a bike. Sir Douglas is probably better with more snow, but it is not a peak I would want to repeat.

2 responses to “Sir Douglas traverse

  1. Bob Argiropoulos says:

    Well done Sean! I’m glad you did the traverse! I will not be setting foot on that beast of a mountain.

  2. drdirtbag says:

    Wise choice — save your sketchiness budget for something more deserving… like Birdwood!

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