Trip Leader: Forest Dean
Participants: Fintan Maguire, Quentin Rhoades
One of the most striking peaks in all of the Canadian Rockies, Mt. Assiniboine (11,870’) sits on the border between BC and Alberta as well as the border of Banff National Park and Mt. Assiniboine Provincial Park. Very reminiscent of the Matterhorn in Europe, the peak is easily recognized from numerous directions in the southern Rockies. A unique wilderness lodge on the northern shores of a lake that sits right below the summit has further led to Assiniboine’s familiarity. I first became aware of this beautiful peak while watching a documentary on public television 15 years ago about the lodge. Its been on my mind to climb ever since!
This past winter I happened to be skiing Sunshine Village by Banff on a bluebird day. At the top of one of the lifts I gazed south, and for the first time in my life laid eyes on this peak. Immediately hooked, I went and bought a Canadian Rockies guidebook and began planning a trip. And what a great trip and climb it turned out to be!
On Thursday afternoon, Fintan and Quentin met me at my house (at 4:30pm) and we headed north…well, we tried, but ½ mile up Hwy 93 Quentin realized he forgot his glasses so back into Missoula we went (he is famous for this type of action!). So, at 5:30 we finally got moving. Our trip up north was uneventful and we made it to a nice private campground that Fintan had booked in Radium by 11:15pm.
We awoke at dawn on Friday, grabbed some breakfast and headed into Kootenay National Park. Our route was to approach the North Ridge of Assiniboine by means of a southern approach (known as the “BC” or “Southern” approach). To get to this trailhead we drove on good. Improved gravel roads for about 34km. Arriving at the trailhead, we wrapped my car in chicken wire (to prevent porcupines from chewing brake lines and tires) then started up the trail at 10:15am. The trail climbs steeply for a bit but then levels
out for a couple miles. We arrived at Assiniboine Lake in 2 hours and had a bit of lunch. The trail ends there as well as the easy travel. The next couple of hours we ascended scree and talus fields (no vegetation beyond the lake at all) until reaching the nose of the Sturdee Glacier. We chose not to rope up to cross this glacier, as it was solid ice with no snow cover. We were surprised by how large and dynamic it was, however. Numerous large crevasses, ice cliffs, etc. As we stepped on the glacier we got our first good look at the west and north sides of Mt. Assiniboine. Impressive, to say the least!
After making our way across the glacier we had to ascend a real steep slope of loose talus and scree which led to a col between Assiniboine and Mt. Strom. From there we descended about 400’ to the R.C. Hind Hut which sits perched on a large flat shelf area nearly 3000’ below the summit. Our unhurried approach day was complete (4500’ of gain, 6 miles, 6 hours). We were the only climbers there when we got there, but soon found out why. Fintan radioed the Assiniboine Lodge folks to let them know we had arrived (he had made us prior reservations- $25/person/night) and was told that all backcountry areas were being evacuated. We “should” hike out tomorrow, they said. They didn’t say it with much conviction though: we caught the “wink” without actually seeing it! We unpacked and began prepping for the climb in the morning. After an hour and a half, we heard voices outside and then were joined by two women who had also come via the BC approach. These two ladies (Erica from Canmore and Carla from Golden) were both mountain guides enjoying a weekend of not guiding. Being we were novices in the Canadian Alpine scene, it was fun to pick at their extensive knowledge and establish future climbing ideas. Ladies on top bunk, boys on bottom we were all in bed by 9:00ish.
Erica and Carla were out the door first the next morning and we watched them make their way across more loose scree/talus to the base of the North Ridge. We headed out the door at 7:00 just as the sun was coming over Mt. Magog to the east. The route starts by descending 300’- it was about then that Fintan said “who has the rope”? A good thing he did since nobody had grabbed it. I ran/scrambled back to the Hut to grab it, then was officially on my way at 7:15. The morning was quite breezy and cool but totally clear. Smoke wasn’t an issue (and wouldn’t be for the entire three days of our trip- even though major fires were burning not far to the NW). We soon arrived at the base of the true North Ridge (approx. 9500’) where the scrambling and climbing begins. From a distance the first wall above the scree approach looks challenging, but once to it, its just simple 3rdclass climbing. Above this the route sticks close to the ridge as it ascends steep but easy solid rock mixed with scree. About half way up the route really begins to steepen and soon approaches what is known as the “Red Band” (because…it is red!). By traversing a couple hundred feet west of the Ridge a 3rd or 4th class break can be found through the cliff. We climbed through this then angled our way back to the ridge.
Now the fun climbing began. A few hundred feet above the “red band” we came to the “grey band” (you guessed it!). This is the crux of the route and seems to be rated 5.5 in most publications. We roped up for this section. I led with Quentin belaying, placed two pieces of pro and was soon up this 30’ obstacle. I belayed Fintan up, then Quentin and we continued up the ever steepening ridge. We now had views out across and down the East Face- the exposure was terrific! (The East Face is by far the hardest problem on this mountain). A short bit of climbing brought us to another short wall. This we also climbed roped as a fall would have likely meant death. The climb here was short and easy (we encountered Erica and Carla right below here on their way down- they had chose not to protect this spot)- placed one piece of pro and was quickly up. Above, the climbing was exposed 4th class on a narrow ridge so we stayed roped up with Quentin swapping the lead and heading up first. One final lead swap after this and we were on safer ground on the summit ridge.
A short 5-7 minute scramble along the crest brought us to the summit- arriving at 12:15. It was quite windy, but mostly clear so we slapped high fives, took pictures and enjoyed the scenery and accomplishment. Older reports mention a cornice that usually covers the summit, but there was barely anything left. We signed a register then about 12:45 began the descent.
BC Parks has recently (summer of 2015) installed 4 rappel chains along the route. They did this to remove the incredible amounts of webbing and cord that had been accumulating over the years. We used all four of these plus a fifth (cord) that was above the lower four. Going was slow as there were three of us rapping, but the scenery and day were so beautiful that sitting waiting for your turn was pure pleasure! The wind continued to intensify as the day went on and we watched the fire to the northwest begin to really blow up. The rap stations are positioned right on the ridge so it was a fairly direct descent- the last being through the “red band”. Below this we took a long time descending the steep, loose scree and talus occasionally trying to disfigure Fintan (who seemed to have the ability to charge down this crap) with a small boulder. On tired legs we eventually made it back to the base of the ridge and headed for the hut- arriving at 5:45pm (5 hours up, 5 hours down). It felt really good to be down and off the mountain as the lower portion had been tough on the body!
We were greeted by two new climbers who had also arrived from the BC side (again, knowing nothing about the closure order). Scott and Monica were a younger couple from Calgary. They also were quite experienced- mostly in rock and alpine rock. They radioed in and were informed they needed to hike out in the morning (the Lodge was unaware we were still up there- we had paid to stay the second night though). We encouraged them to give the route a go before they did (our plan was to rough up any snooping rangers if needed J ).
We enjoyed a bunch of food and relaxed in the Hut before sleep took our tired bodies. Scott and Monica were up at 4:00am and up to the grey band by 6:30 am. (That was the last time we saw them, so we assume they still fulfilled to request to “hike out in the morning”!). We arose, had breakfast, packed up and began the hike out at 8:00am. Other than the hike back up to the Assiniboine/Strom Col, the trek was all downhill. We arrived back at the vehicle about 12:30pm. We sat around for awhile, drained a couple luke warm beers, removed the chicken wire (no problems!) then drove back to Radium. Along the way we stopped at the developed Hot Springs and had a soak. Had dinner in town and spent the night at the same private campground once again.
The next morning we were on the road a little after 7:00 and had an uneventful (but very smoky) drive home. We realized how very lucky we were to sneak this climb in. The weather, smoke and closure situation provided us with the exact 3 day window we needed!
This was probably one of my top five favorite climbs I have done. There are parts of the route that really aren’t much fun (especially the lower descent), but those things are outweighed by the parts that are fun. I am have quickly become enthralled by the Canadian Rockies! Although the mountain itself never really changes, alpine climbing trips can be entirely different experiences for a whole variety of reasons: conditions, weather, time of year, etc. Fortunately we had the best of these. Most fortunate, however, was the makeup of our party. Thank you to my two partners for making this such an incredible trip, climb and experience!