Mount Assiniboine – South West Face

If you are using this information for your own trip, please read this disclaimer and description of my abilities. Additionally, for this particular entry, I don’t have many photos of the route itself and therefore cannot describe our route with a lot of accuracy.

from wikipedia.com

Somehow I went from writing about Sundance Canyon to writing about Mount Assiniboine (11,870 ft), the highest peak in Banff National Park (though at 11,850 ft, Mount Forbes, is the highest peak entirely in the park). Mount Assiniboine sits on the Great Divide (the Alberta/British Columbia border)  and can be accessed a number of ways. Fortunately for our party, we accessed the mountain via an 7-8 km trail located along Assiniboine Creek, which you can access by logging roads that march their way through Assiniboine Provincial Park (see GemTrek map “Banff & Mount Assiniboine”). Unfortunately, this meant that we never viewed Mount Assiniboine from its more iconic side that gave it the name, Matterhorn of the Canadian Rockies. Instead, we bivied at a small plateau located on its ‘uglier’ backside, also known as its South West Face. Otherwise, you can access the mountain via Bryant Creek (Spray Valley Provincial Park) or Sunshine Meadows (Banff National Park).

Headed up into the mist on Day 2.

Shortly after reaching our bivy site on July 22, the skies unleashed some hail and rain that never really relented until about 8 a.m. the following day. Our forecast seemed to be about 24 hours late – we were expecting a bluebird day on July 23, but woke up at 1am to the pitter-patter of rain hitting the tent and no sign of a break in the clouds. Our crew eventually woke up and started up the mountain for a day of reconnaissance and perhaps an ascent of the nearby Lunette Peak (also known as ‘Lost Peak’ thanks to James Outram’s accidental ascent).

Now, if I’ve ever heard anything about Assiniboine it is “go when it’s dry.” Trudging up the mountain in low clouds and snow made us second guess at times whether our sojourn into this part of the Rockies was worth our precious summer days. Surely the weather was better somewhere else…

Overall, the South West face was very snowy, which at times helped our ascent and at other times made us think about what it would be like to be scrambling on the loose rock underneath like those who had climbed the mountain before us (and whose beta and notes we were using). For the most part, we used the snow as a ramp and kick-stepped our way up so long as it wasn’t too soft. Thankfully, the more exposed scrambling wasn’t too snowy or icy and where we encountered some menacing verglas, we put faith in the old crampons. We stopped to rest at a particularly odd rock formation which we called The Bus Stop – a title that will forever stick amongst this group of friends and mountaineers.

The Bus Stop

So, on our reconnaissance day we managed to kick steps about half way up the peak and do some important route finding. When the ceiling showed no sign of lifting and the snow got steeper, however, we decided to turn back for the comforts of camp, aborting our attempt on Lunette Peak as well. Thankfully, the sun eventually came out and we were able to dry out our gear…and tent…and enjoy the bivy site.

Day 3, July 24, we woke up at 1 a.m. to a star-filled sky and high hopes. By 2 a.m. we had started up the peak under the most memorable sparkle of stars and retraced our steps very quickly to where we had left off. Within two hours we had reached our turn-around point and the sky started to get lighter. We travelled through mixed terrain, kick-stepping our way up a series of snow slopes and scrambling up rocky outcroppings and chimneys to arrive at ‘The Eyebrow,’ a horizontal outcropping of rock (or orange tinted block, as it is described in the books) that can be circumvented via its right-hand most side.

Night sky over Mounts Aye and Eon.

Eventually we met some steeper, more exposed areas, some angling about 50 degrees, and decided to belay our way across and up, sometimes pulling some surprise mix climbing moves as snow, ice and rock reunited under our feet. All you could do was go up and think about the scare factor later (which I did in the car on the way home….) Upon reaching the top of the ridge to the summit, we were quite the joyful bunch. The hardest climbing was behind us and now we just had to kick-step our way to the very top on crusty snow that had been hardened by wind and sun.

Upon reaching the summit, we learned that another group had been there only 10 minutes before us (otherwise we would have been the first party to reach the summit this season). And only a few minutes after we arrived, a guide and his client arrived to join us on the summit. Seems everyone decided to make their push for the summit on this bluebird day. While the views were spectacular, I must admit I didn’t take them in as much as I had hoped. A strong wind battered us on the summit and, fully aware that it was 9am and that was ‘late’ by alpine standards, we began our descent for fear of softening snow and avalanche conditions.

The snowy summit ridge.

Sure enough, our descent involved some rappels on less-than-ideal anchors and panicked downclimbing on softening snow underneath imposing gullies that loomed with heaps of snow just waiting to come down on this sunny day. Still, the descent went off without issue despite the potential danger. Dave kissed the rock at The Bus Stop upon arriving back there, thankful that nothing had gone wrong.  It is amazing how quickly conditions can turn from perfect, to reasonable, to deteriorating. More downclimbing and slushing our way through snow eventually brought us to familiar grassy ledges just above our bivy site. Upon arriving, we lay on the grass and stared up at the mighty peak. Backpackers Pantry has never tasted so good.

We concluded the trip by hiking back out to the car that very same day – fairly elated, and surprised, that we had just climbed Mount Assiniboine, a large peak that has been on the list for a number of years. For me, it wasn’t an item on a ‘To Climb’ list – it was an item on my Life List, and personally an amazing experience and accomplishment. Despite the warnings of climbing in snow, we proved that it can be done. You just have to go check it out for yourself.

I’ll try to post a topo soon.

Marvel Lake from the summit.

Downclimbing some of the trickier rock. Photo by http://www.zizka.ca.

© Meghan J. Ward, 2010.

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7 thoughts on “Mount Assiniboine – South West Face

  1. joel gray says:

    Meghan,

    You are indeed a brave soul! My teammate and i waited all summer and fall for the perfect opportunity. We debated whether to climb
    on that late july weekend, but we felt fairly confident a better day
    would come in August. As it turns out, we were wrong, and missed our chance!

    Would have been cool to have met your party on that south face, which i just scouted out, ironically, last weekend (dec.19th, 2010) as i had some free time, and since we missed 2010, wanted to know how passable the baymag mining road will be next summer. (turns out its in great shape–shouldnt be a prob for my little mazda!)

    While i’m a very cautious climber, your article has given me greater confidence to attempt it in colder conditions if no other option presents itself next summer. Crampons are not a problem, its more the route-finding that is my concern. (Had a lot of fun doing Smuts recently with very few details–was ok, but promised myself i’d prepare more next time). Would you have any HD pics of the south face and/or a depiction of the southern approach/route once past the lakes and the Lunette col?

    Many thanks and congrats!

    Joel G.

    • Meghan Ward - Writer says:

      Great Joel! Good luck! We just climbed Mt. Sir Donald and were starting at Assiniboine from there. I’d still expect some wintery conditions – perhaps consider an extra snow picket as an anchor. I know we had two and they came in very handy. We also wished we had extra cord for rappels. Let me know when you’re back!

      • Meghan Ward - Writer says:

        I meant Sir Douglas, silly me. I was just thinking about Assiniboine more and we saw really wintery conditions last year – this year will be even worse. Be sure to get a really early start (10-11pm) and try to get off the summit before the sun warms the snow too much.

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