Monday, October 18, 2010

A Long Weekend, Part III: Monday

The cool thing about the shoulder seasons of spring and fall in the Rockies is that, depending on mood and weather, one can pick and choose between sport climbing, alpine rock, ice (OK, maybe not just yet in early October) and alpine climbing proper. I felt like I had not been up into the snowy alpine for a while, probably because as a simple matter of fact I had not. The forecast was for a cool, clear day, and I felt the urge to experience it from the summit of a mountain.

 The mountain wilderness south of Mt. Sir Douglas.

Mt. Sir Douglas is the second-highest peak in Kananaskis Country. Unlike a lot of Rockies' peaks it does not have a walk-up route. True, none of the routes on Sir Douglas are extreme, but they all require climbing. Along with the glaciated approaches and location out of sight of a paved highway, it all adds up to make it a "real" mountain.

Afternoon light on the north-west face of Sir Douglas.

Josh Lavigne had never climbed Sir Douglas, while I had already visited its summit four times, but we both thought it would make a fine fitness outing. And so it was that 7 a.m. found us biking up the initial stretch of old logging road toward Burstall Pass. Two hours later we were having a snack on South Burstall Pass, reluctantly contemplating the obligatory elevation loss into the Palliser River valley. But it had to be done, so down we went, through alpine meadows torn up by a hungry grizzly looking for tasty pikas.

Morning light on Mt. Birdwood from South Burstall Pass.

A narrow gully directly below the upper couloir gave us our first taste of tool swinging of the season. Once onto the face above we put the rope away and soloed up on perfect neve, a rare treat in the Rockies. However, the narrow, corniced summit ridge had me asking for the rope again. Standing on small, exposed ledges just below the summit, we enjoyed the sun on the south face while we ate lunch and tried to identify peaks as far away as the Purcells. And then it was back to the north side again, downclimbing the snow ramp of the original North-West Face route. Kick, kick, plant, plant: the same movements repeated hundreds of times. It would be easy to get bored and sloppy, were it not for the big drop below one's feet to encourage good form.

Looking down the initial gully, with Mt. Assiniboine in the distance.

The impressive east face of Assiniboine.

Josh in the upper couloir of the Direct North-West Face.

The summit ridge with the Royal Group behind.

Josh downclimbing the snow ramp of the North-West Face.

As we crested South Burstall Pass for the second time in the day, the late afternoon sun swung around to pick out the ribs on the face we had just climbed and descended. One last look at Mt. Assiniboine, poking up on the western horizon, and we plunged down into the shadowed valley, toward bikes and dinner. Alpine climbing: good fitness and good fun. Well, sometimes.

Below is a short video from our climb that Josh put together. Enjoy.


  1. Great article and clip! loved it!
    Have been down that way many times,mostly over to the Commonwealth Valley side (Smuts, Birdwood, Fist, and co.) or around the Lake Leman area.
    Keep up the blog! ill start keepin an eye
    on it--esp. for pointers on colder weather climbing!! :)
    Joël Gray

  2. I really like those valleys west of the Smith-Dorrien Trail (French Creek, Burstall Pass, Commonwealth Creek...), and have been exploring them ever since I first started going into the mountains. Having said that, there is still much I have not experienced from close up - like the Lake Leman area and the Royal Group. I need to remedy that sometime.