Birdwood, Smutwood

Birdwood above the bog

Mount Birdwood is a distinctive peak between Sir Douglas and Smuts, with a long northwest ridge that is an exposed and somewhat challenging scramble. It first came to my attention from Smuts in 2017, and had been on my to-do list ever since. As it is accessed from a trailhead only a few miles north of Burstall Pass, this seemed like my best opportunity to climb it. After returning from Sir Douglas, I hung out at the Burstall Pass trailhead for awhile, then drove up to the one for Smuts and Birdwood to sleep. Apparently you are not even allowed to start an overnight hike from this trailhead, but I did not get in trouble.

Clearwater valley from col

A group of four Asian girls pulled up at dawn, and after the expected excited chatter, headed off down the trail while I finished my breakfast. The first part of this trail is an old dirt road, and I thought about riding my bike, but it was already a short day, and I figured bikes were also on the list of “thou shalt nots.” The trail rapidly deteriorates where the road ends, turning rooty and muddy as it turns to follow Commonwealth Creek toward the Birdwood-Smuts saddle. I caught the girls as they were puddle hopping along the edge of a marsh, passing and continuing at a slightly faster pace.

Lower Birdwood

Beyond the marsh, the trail winds through a slide path, then climbs steeply to a meadow below the col. Some clouds were already forming, and there was a cold wind blowing through the pass — the forecast called for a chance of rain in the afternoon. Fortunately limestone is sticky when wet, so the climbing would not be much affected, but the cold and wind dampened my mood. I stopped to layer up below the saddle, then headed left up some fun class 3 ramps and slabs on the lower ridge. I could have kept going to the Smutwood saddle to avoid this part, but it was more direct, and some of day’s most enjoyable scrambling. From the junction with the easier Smutwood ridge, the ridge flattened and narrowed, and I walked along sometimes-exposed grass and rubble for awhile. Birdwood is made of the same layers as Sir Douglas, so the rock quality is generally not great.

Birdwood from notch

The difficulties start abruptly at a notch in the ridge, which is not particularly obvious from below. I descended a dirt-chute right of the ridge, then crossed back and traversed the outside of a sketchy-looking flake that looks ready to fall off, but feels stable. From the notch just below, I followed a chimney right of the ridge back to the crest. The layers tilt slightly left of vertical on most of the ridge, so while it is best when possible to stay on the crest, one must sometimes climb chimneys and steep slabs to the right, or traverse outward-sloping gravel-covered ledge to the left. The ridge is consistently narrow and exposed, and I found the climbing sustained but not particularly difficult on the way up, so I was enjoying myself despite the cold wind on the right side. I felt the crux was a few steep moves on some clean but downward-sloping slabs higher up, with a three-pin anchor above.

Sir Douglas from Birdwood

The summit was a long, narrow crest, traversed with no hands and some caution, as tripping on the choss would probably end badly. The views were somewhat limited by clouds and haze, with Sir Douglas’ summit blocked, but the dappled light highlighted Smuts’ features to the northwest. The wind had thankfully not intensified, and the clouds did not look serious, but I did not hang around too long before beginning the downclimb. The Rockies’ classic rubbly slabs are often trickier going down than up, and this was especially true on Birdwood. One part that I had barely noticed on the climb, just below another old piton, forced me to proceed with extreme caution on loose, exposed terrain east of the ridge. Another, lower down, had me briefly descending a narrow, rotten crest backward and à cheval; I did not even remember what I had done on the way up. Rappeling on the narrow, low-angle ridge would make no sense, though, so this bit of sketchiness is simply the price of climbing Birdwood.

Smutwood from Birdwood

I climbed straight along the ridge on the other side of the notch, and was soon back in easy-land. Still, my quads were tired, so my sloppy foot placement led me to stumble on the occasional loose rock. The weather was holding, so I decided to follow the ridge and tag Smutwood, as it would add only a couple of miles. I did not know it at the time, but apparently it has become an Instagram spot for its easy trail and striking view of Birdwood, explaining the busy trailhead. I met the four Asian girls on their way down, who had seen me on Birdwood and were impressed by my speed. I gave them my usual explanation — “well, I do a lot of this” — and continued up the trail, which kindly contoured around a bump on the ridge before turning braided on the final, steeper section to the summit.

Birdwood from Smutwood

With no other peaks reasonably accessible and the weather still fine, I took a bit longer to enjoy the view from Smutwood. Smuts is not particularly impressive from this angle, as it is broad and unfeatured, but Birdwood looks narrow and intimidating, and the ridge northwest of Smuts toward Shark has some cool layering. The air was too hazy, and the sun in the wrong position, for good photos of Birdwood, but it was still pleasing to the human eye. I met a few more people on the descent to the Smuts-Birdwood col, then a bunch more on the steep path down to the valley. One guy warned me that he had seen a brown bear, but I could not imagine the creature hanging around with the steady stream of people in the other direction. In the worst case, I could probably outrun at least one of them.

I met the four girls again, resting on a rock at the base of the descent. I was sorry to learn that they had not continued to the summit of Smutwood, dissuaded by the steep rock and wind. They were clearly new to hiking, and wondered what kind of shoes I was wearing to descend the slippery dirt trail so quickly. I showed them my nearly-dead old running shoes, and explained that in this case technique mattered more than gear: take small, quick steps, and the coefficient of static friction will hold you. I encouraged them to ditch their boots and get some decent trail runners, suggested a few more peaks, then continued on my way. I jogged the road part of the trail out of boredom, then hung out in the parking lot before driving on to the trailhead for my final short outing in Kananaskis Country.

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