I've been dreaming of the Matterhorn of the Rockies since I first laid eyes on her while on a hiking trip to the area in 2008. I never actually thought I'd be climbing its NE ridge but it was fun to imagine! Towering over everything in its vicinity and visible from almost every prominent peak in south Banff and Kananaskis , Mount Assiniboine is a big, beautiful mountain that has inspired climbers from all over the world to test her charms.
Many have succeeded but many have also failed - a number of climbers have even lost their life on the steep unforgiving slopes over the years. I've heard stories of people losing their way and rapping down the north face in white-outs. I've talked to people who attempted Assiniboine as their first peak and then watched others die from serious injury after slipping on descent - exhausted and inexperienced.
Falling at just under 12000 feet high, the weather and climbing conditions are extremely unpredictable on Assiniboine and this contributes to its charms and it's bite. Experienced climbers call the ridge a 'glorified scramble' when dry and have soloed it in 5 hours hut-to-hut (including raps), but I have other friends who have taken 9 hours just to reach the top. After recently climbing Fryatt with Kevin Barton, we made some plans on that long drive home to attempt another 11000er if the weather held into late September. Against all odds, the weather DID hold and by the week of September 16th we were planning either an ascent of King Edward or Mount Assiniboine and Lunette Peak. Kev strongly preferred the 'Big A' and I wasn't arguing so that was that.
Given the unbelievable warm and dry weather in Sept 2012, I was caught a bit off guard when the reservation staff for the Hind (climbers) hut stressed repeatedly to me on the phone that big 'A' was plastered in snow and ice. She also gave me a tone that implied we were nutso for even thinking of climbing it this late in the season. When I phoned the lodge on Wednesday to confirm the hut was still open I got the same vibe - the mountain is out of shape for the year but "good luck"! Apparently no one had even tried the peak for three weeks - that the lodge knew of.
Hmmm. I even went on a scouting mission with a hike up Tent Ridge with the family to scope conditions on the mountain and it looked pretty dry to me from a distance but if the staff at the lodge were saying the route was icy and snowy how could I argue? It sits right outside their window after all. Kev and I weren't scared of some snow and ice (Victoria / Huber was another two 11000er peak day we did in bad conditions) so we simply geared up for the possibility and made plans anyway. The forecast was so good for the whole weekend that we didn't fully trust it. A huge omega block was stabilizing the weather for weeks of sunshine and dead air all over the Rockies - conditions local climbers pray for but only get once or twice a year - at MOST. (The block is still here as I'm typing this trip report while sitting on a rock near Drywood Creek after climbing Pincher Ridge on September 24 under warm and dead calm conditions. It's ALWAYS windy in the Castle area.)
One thing making our climb a bit unique was that we were planning to bag both the big 'A' and Lunette in one push. This meant we had to exit via the huge SW face of Assiniboine and Lunette Lake and also had to lug our full packs with all our bivy gear etc up the north ridge of Assiniboine since we weren't coming back to the hut on our traverse. It also meant descending the SW face to Lunette Lake with heavy packs - possibly partly in the dark...
I picked Kev up at 0745 and we headed for Settlers Road in Kootenay National Park. The gravel mining road was in superb condition and I flew down it pretty quick in my xTerra. There were a few tight stretches where I'm glad we didn't meet mining trucks but in the end we only ran past two of them in 38km so there aren't that many on the road - they do drive very fast though. As we turned onto the much rougher and narrower Aurora Creek road for the last 4 km we started to realize how beautiful this area really is. We stopped the truck to take photos of Aye and Eon - both of them rising spectacularly above the valley beneath. With their fall coats and the brilliant blue sky they looked very inviting but also remote and a little intimidating.
[Aye on the left and Eon on the right as we approach the Aurora Creek parking lot on the rougher 4km approach road.]
We parked at the trailhead (any vehicle should be able to make the drive but no guarantees about crossing the manky bridges...) and wrapped the truck tightly with available chicken wire. We used a lot of the material that was laying around because we were the only ones there. We loaded up our packs and headed up the trail - a hot sun beating overhead in a clear fall sky.
[The truck is surrounded by so much wire there's no way we're getting in it either. Good think Kev left his wallet on the dashboard... :)]
Almost immediately we ran into a registration box for people going in to do Assiniboine. We noticed that a party had completed the climb a week previous - there goes the theory that nobody climbed it in three weeks anyway. This was a good sign. The trail to Assiniboine Lake is excellent. It climbs steeply at first and then more gradually, crossing a few streams (one log bridge with cable) before splitting at the Lunette Lake turnoff. I looked up that trail as we passed it, thinking that possibly we'd be coming out on it the very next day with a successful climb! It seemed impossibly far off at this point though! When we got our first glimpse of the SW face of the big 'A' I almost gave up - it looked ridiculously huge and steep from this angle! It looked awesome too though... ;)
[The trail up Assiniboine Creek is awesome, especially with the fall colors at their peak.]
[This log was interesting to cross about 34 hours later in the dark... ;-) Thank goodness for the wire though - it certainly makes it easier.]
[More awesome approach views and colors. The trail was in really good shape.]
[The mighty "A" reveals her SW side as we round the trail towards Assiniboine Lake. Assiniboine on the left and Lunette on the right. This is the face we will descend and it's as big as it looks!]
At the turquoise waters of Assiniboine Lake we took our first break - Kev's feet needed some TLC. The trail ends just past the lake so we also took in some food for the climb ahead.
[Approaching Assiniboine Lake]
[Assiniboine Lake is gorgeous! We have to go around on climber's right and then up the large scree slope up to the right side of the photo on lighter scree. ++]
[Great colors around Assiniboine Lake]
The route from the lake to the Strom / Assiniboine col is pretty straight forward but a bit of work. We went up scree slopes at the far end of the lake and around an obvious buttress on climbers right. Soon after that we struggled up an old moraine and could see the Sturdee Glacier far off and to out right. We headed for the glacier and ascended scree slopes to our left. By staying left we avoided using our crampons and also didn't feel the need to pull out the rope and glacier gear. The glacier was mostly bare ice and we have experience on Rockies glaciers therefore you should not just assume you don't need a rope for this glacier - you may have very different conditions and experience than us so please act accordingly.
[Kev comes up behind me as we leave Assiniboine Lake]
[Looking ahead to a nice scree grunt! We go right of the buttress right of center on light colored scree.]
[A pretty big fossil - this one was the size of my fist]
[Another glance back at Assiniboine Lake from near the buttress]
[It's a heckuva grunt to get up this slope - especially with alpine packs!]
[Looking towards the Sturdee Glacier with the might "A" looking impressive rising on the right.]
[Looking back as we approach the glacier. We came from the lower left.]
[Kev jumps a small crevasse]
[Kev on the rather tame glacier - but still big enough holes to swallow you if snow covered. You can pretty much completely avoid the glacier on climber's left though.]
[The hulking mass of Assiniboine is hard to miss as we continue up the glacier.]
[Assiniboine on the left and Sturdee on the right. We access the Assiniboine / Strom col on the left.]
After crossing the glacier we had a horrible grunt on really ugly scree to the Strom / Assiniboine col. Our packs were starting to feel heavy at this point. As I glanced over at the enormous north face of big 'A' my pack felt even more weighty... The hut was nestled on a ledge beneath us and we both realized how awesome it was going to be to sleep on a nice mattress instead of a bivy. But there was something else calling my name first - Mount Strom was only about 500 feet above us on fairly benign terrain. I suggested we go bag it "while we're here anyway" and to my delight, Kev was all-in. I guess we are both peak baggers at heart...
[Grunting up the slope to the col]
[A hard way to gain height with a large pack]
[View from the Strom (left) and Assiniboine (right) col looking towards Lake Magog (center). The hut is just left of the lake, obviously much higher on the scree bench. ++]
20 minutes later and we were snapping photos from our impromptu summit and soon we were headed back down - we needed food and sleep! We reached the hut around supper time, a 5.5 hour approach not including the push for Strom. The hut was quiet and empty, we had the mighty Mount Assiniboine all to ourselves. This is not normal and is very rare - especially in the weather and conditions we were experiencing. The air was still and the north face was catching the warm afternoon sun and looked very snow and ice free. At this point I felt very confident of the climb and felt no nerves at all for the remainder of the night. I was excited but not at all nervous. I felt like I had a date with the mountain and was confident it would go very well.
[Looking over Lake Magog from near the Hind Hut. The Gmoser Highway route comes in from straight in front of me here - the opposite direction of our approach.]
[The Hind hut is an awesome way to spend the night before a climb - especially on the third weekend in September when it's completely empty!]
[The hut isn't huge but it worked rather well for the two of us...]
[Mount Assiniboine with the moon as the sun sets. Our route goes up the ridge trending to skyline left from bottom left.]
We woke at 05:00 and choked down some coffee and breakfast before heading out in the darkness with full packs and no idea where the approach trail was! ;) Once we were half way to the ridge I finally located the beaten trail (we were too far climbers left) and we followed that trail via headlamp to the ridge. What followed was the most delightful climb of my life. Under a brilliant rising sun and a clear, calm fall day we tackled the NE ridge head on. Up to the red band we found the route fairly benign - maybe moderate to difficult scrambling.
[Kev gets ready in the hut]
[Stumbling over boulders in the dark, trying to find the highway to the lower route, which we know has to be somewhere]
[Kev climbing via head lamp on the lower ridge]
[Looking up the northeast ridge - it looks steep!]
[Alpine glow over The Marshall, Mount Strom the Hind Hut and Wedgwood (L to R). ++]
[The sun starts to give us light]
[Early morning light on Lake Magog. ++]
[A beautiful morning dawns as we continue to climb. ++]
[Looking back as Kev climbs to the red band]
[You can start to see the red band now, on the upper part of this photo.]
[Kev and gorgeous morning lighting. ++]
[Still in shadow but the sun is rising on the Nub - far below at center.]
[Getting steeper just under the red band]
At the red band things got a bit more serious. Still mostly difficult scrambling I could see how any ice or snow could quickly make things very spicy on this steep section. We made our way up the north face more than the ridge at first and in order to break through the red band and then traversed immediately climbers left, back onto the ridge where the climbing was exhilarating. The east face exposure on our left took my breath away as I climbed higher and higher - I felt so alive, the exposure making it necessary to concentrate on nothing other than my immediate environment - the cool breeze on my skin, the call of a bird circling beneath and the still warmth of the sun on my face... awesome.
[The slope gets steeper around the red band]
[Kev coming up to the red band on steeper - but firmer, terrain]
[Closer to action]
[Lots of rappel stations start showing up around the red band. People must be up here in some nasty conditions to be rapping some of these sections because for us they were moderate to difficult scrambling.]
[Right after the red band we traversed climber's left (trail / cairns) to tackle the NE ridge head-on. This led to the most fun and most exposed climbing of the day.]
[Looking out over the east face and Lake Gloria and Marvel Lake. ++]
[The spectacular east face of Assiniboine as seen from the NE ridge. Note the excellent, blocky climbing on the ridge.]
[Looking back at Kev clearing the red band]
[Spectacular views across the east face. Lakes Gloria and Marvel on the bottom left. Forest fire smoke from the USA lingers over the ocean of peaks in the distance. ++]
[Getting much higher than all the surrounding peaks now. ++]
The grey band came too quickly but I wasn't even 100% sure I was in it until I was above it and looking over at the summit above. I still had some seriously exposed terrain left but it looked solid and fun. I think I may have found a way around the grey band 5.5 crux by traversing a slight overhang on climbers right before climbing through a nice chimney with good holds. Kev was behind me and didn't immediately find my alternate route. He wanted a belay up the other route but I convinced him to try mine and he solo'd it no problem. Kev doesn't think we did anything harder than 5.4 so maybe we somehow avoided the 5.5 crux or our perfect conditions just made it seem easier. I don't care either way. It was one of the best mornings of my life climbing that ridge in those delightful conditions.
[Kev approaches the grey band - you can see the terrain is much steeper and more exposed here.]
[Another shot showing how steep and exposed the ridge is getting]
[One of my favorite pano's from all my climbs - looking across the east face / ridge of Assiniboine at a smoky morning sunrise. ++]
[Not messing around anymore!]
[I think the grey band crux is just above here where the ridge steepens considerably. I went right of that bulge and found a way around it up a narrow gully.]
[Can you spot Kev on the ridge?]
[Fantastic exposure down the east face with Lake Magog far below.]
[Looking over the Wonder Pass area, including Terrapin, The Towers, Wonder Peak and Mount Cautley.]
[Kev tops out on the ridge in this view from the false summit - barely visible though in the huge terrain.]
[Lots of space up here! View from the false summit looking north and east. ++]
[The final few steps to the summit of the "BIG A"!]
[A smoky morning haze to the south. Nothing higher than us. Sir Douglas on the left, Joffre at center and King George at right. ++]
[Looking over the four peaks of Og Mountain and the tiny gray bump in the foreground, which is Cave Mountain.]
[The false summit affords great views of Lake Magog - note the bright red roof of Assiniboine Lodge just right of center top?]
[Kev on the ridge with brightly colored larches underneath]
It took us just under 4 hours to climb Assiniboine - with our not-so-light alpine packs. We had perfect conditions. We spent almost an hour at the summit with absolutely no wind and no extra clothing - I climbed in a single layer merino long sleeve tee and was almost too warm. The views in all directions were mind blowing and we were enjoying it all by ourselves. No snow or ice impeded our efforts on the ascent - what little there was could be easily avoided. We were so incredibly lucky to enjoy such a grand summit on an amazing fall day late in the climbing season. I'll never forget it.
[Great views down Gloria and Marvel Lakes with Eon and Aye to the right. Lunette is at lower right. ++]
[Looking over The Marshall and our approach route at lower left. ++]
[Kev comes to the summit on the right, looking north towards Lake Louise here. ++]
[Tele pano looking west towards the Bugs and Adamant Ranges in BC. ++]
[The summit register is falling apart - but I never thought I'd even get the opportunity to see this, much less sign it.]
[Amazing summit view over Wonder Pass, Marvel and Gloria Lakes. ++]
[Looking over Sturdee (right at the bottom) and The Marshall]
[Looking east over Wonder Meadow]
[Intimidating views over Lunette Peak (looking much closer than it is!) with Eon and Aye towering next to it.]
[Looking down the SW face of Assiniboine towards Lunette Lake. It's a LOT further than it appears here!]
[Views west off the summit.]
[Looking far west into BC at the Adamant Range.]
[For some reason the smoke started to clear as we were on the summit.]
[Looking towards the Goodsirs]
[Vern on the summit of Mount Assiniboine!]
[The Lake Louise group comes into view.]
After snapping many photographs of familiar and unfamiliar peaks all around the "big A", we turned our attention to our next objective - Lunette Peak. This would prove to be a much harder and longer day than we were expecting at this point. As it turned out, climbing the northeast ridge of Assiniboine is much more straight-forward and even 'easy' in good conditions, than descending the SW face with a side trip up Lunette, especially if you are descending it 'blind' - i.e. not ascending it first.