A day after ascending close to 1800 vertical meters and biking / hiking and scrambling almost 30km up and down Mount Coulthard and McLaren in the Crowsnest Pass area, I was back at it with Phil Richards. We were planning a very full day of biking, hiking and peakbagging in the South Rockies within the newly formed Castle Wildland Provincial Park, near the Castle Mountain Ski Resort and just outside the other newly formed park, Castle Provincial Park. Our original plan was to spend a few days in the Middlepass Lakes area but with a deteriorating weather forecast for the Thursday, we decided to make it a long day trip instead and travel with lighter packs.
I spent the night in Blairmore and met Phil near the Castle Mountain Ski Resort just after 08:15 near the start of the West Castle River road. Our plans were slightly changed right off the bat, since Nugara's suggested approach doesn't work anymore with the closing of the road (Range Road 40a) to large vehicles right near the resort where it first crosses the river. It took me a while to figure out that there was no way the small bridge was meant for vehicles when I first arrived - I must have been tired or something because it took me way too long to come to that conclusion! I scouted around, desperately looking for a better crossing before realizing that the road was now permanently closed to vehicle traffic but still accessible for small OHV's and obviously bikes. Oh well. It's really no big deal if you're bringing a bike and you should definitely bring a bike for this approach. We saddled up and started down the easy road by around 08:30 - much smoother and easier than my approach up a muddy OHV track to Coulthard the day previous.
[The initial road up the West Castle River is very easy, wide and fast riding.]
Already within 15 minutes of leaving the parking area we were arriving at Nugara's clearing, where he recommends parking. At the south end of the large clearing we crossed a bridge and continued along a fairly wide and flat road for another 10 minutes of easy riding before things got more interesting. By "interesting", I mean the road narrowed, got rougher and started gaining serious height. In a repeat of the day before, we ended up pushing our bikes up some fairly loose, rocky and very steep OHV tracks. At a small clearing with signs of previous camps we noted that the trail got even narrower and steeper - this is where Phil assumed we'd be leaving the bikes. We also noted some tents off in the distance in a large meadow and wondered who was camping out here and why they chose that location. As we grunted and pushed our bikes further up towards Middle Kootenay Pass we got our answer re: the tents. Three very geared up and professional looking hunters greeted us and looked at our bikes with a combination of envy and amusement. They commented that we were in for a "fun" ride back down and looked a bit dubious that Phil would survive such a descent as his bike is slightly older and underwhelming from a downhill riding perspective (it doesn't have shocks and weights about 50lbs).
[Our entire Rainy Traverse route. ++]
[The clearing where Nugara recommends parking your vehicle - no longer possible thanks to the road closure.]
[Still easy riding towards the pass at this point. An outlier of Rainy Ridge rising in the distance.]
[The riding becomes "pushing"...]
[Many hundreds of vertical meters of this. And remember, you have to ride back down it. (In our case, in pitch darkness but we didn't know that yet at this point!)]
[In theory OHV's aren't supposed to ride further than this gate, but they obviously have found a way around it in the past. In theory OHV's are no longer allowed to even ride these trails now that this is part of a Provincial Park.]
[It's a bit confusing because it doesn't even show Castle Wildland Provincial Park but the implications and text (see next photo) imply that OHV's are banned anywhere south of the Carbondale River. ++]
[The text from Alberta Parks.]
[Fall colors are brilliant today! Here you can see the OHV bypass to the gate, coming down from upper right.]
[A nice stream crossing with part of Lys Ridge in the background.]
The uphill section was tougher and longer than I expected, and especially after the previous days efforts, pushing my bike uphill another 500 vertical meters was challenging to say the least! Finally we arrived near the pass and rode our bikes for the last few hundred meters to the official pass and our first glimpses down Middlepass Creek into British Columbia on the west side of the pass. It took us about 1.5 hours to bike and push our way up the first 8km of the approach but would prove more than worth it on return.
[Nearing the pass with part of Middle Kootenay Mountain looming above.]
[Finally the trail "levels" enough to ride again. The pass is obvious just ahead of us here. The west shoulder of Rainy Ridge at left. Nugara has a route that starts straight up this shoulder from the pass but we wanted to visit the lakes first.]
[One more uphill section to the AB/BC border at the pass.]
[Middle Kootenay Pass with Three Lakes Ridge at left. Middle Kootenay Mountain is accessed by going uphill to the right at this point.]
The weather was gorgeous as we abandoned the bikes and started our trek around the west shoulder of Rainy Ridge towards the Middlepass Lakes on a good trail that we found just under the pass on the BC side. Even though Nugara suggests taking the west shoulder and ridge to the summit, we knew we weren't descending to the lakes after Rainy Ridge (we were traversing to Three Lakes and beyond) and wanted to explore them. The fall colors were absolutely brilliant and we lamented that this was likely to be our only remaining nice September outing, and resolved to take full advantage of it. The trail was recently maintained, making it very pleasurable to hike and before long we were at the first lake and working our way around it to the much smaller middle one. I was getting excited as we started finally passing larches - my first official larch trees of the 2018 Fall season! I have to admit there were less trees than I expected around the lakes, but it was still very pretty and the camp area at the third and largest lake was very respectable. There was a very new storage container for camping near the third lake in a grassy meadow near the camp - I'm assuming that the BC government must be making this camp more formal soon?
[We briefly dropped over the pass before taking a trail in the scree going left. The road continues down the Middlepass Creek Valley and is used to access Miles, Krowicki and Scarpe.]
[Looking towards the Middlepass Lakes area, note the trail starting in scree at lower right.]
[Brilliant fall colors as we start the traverse to the lakes. Rainy Ridge, Three Lakes Ridge, Red Argillite, Krowicki and Miles from L to R. ++]
[More brilliant fall foliage.]
[Looking back at Middle Kootenay Pass with Middle Kootenay Mountain rising above.]
[The trail was in excellent shape.]
[At this point we weren't sure yet how we were going to access Three Lakes Ridge from Rainy Ridge. Nugara doesn't make the traverse between the two sound very optimal.]
[Looking back down Middlepass Creek over the pass towards Mount Haig.]
[The first lake with Three Lakes Ridge rising above. ++]
[Another perspective from slightly above the first lake showing the recommended slab route on Three Lakes Ridge.]
[More larches around the second lake, which is pretty small and shallow. Rainy Ridge at center here. ++]
[A well-used random camp near the upper and largest lake. ++]
[The upper lake was low enough that it was split in two. This is looking over the smaller part of that split.]
[Looking back towards the random camp with the upper lake split into two parts thanks to the low water levels. ++]
After checking out the camp area at the largest lake we started uphill to the col between Rainy Ridge NW and the main summit on easy terrain. Looking up towards the summit, the terrain looked much more challenging than it was and soon we were tackling the last 100 vertical meters on a series of ledges and bits of crumbling ridge - classic Castle Wilderness scrambling terrain. Our views back down to the lakes was, as expected, sublime and as usual I took way too many photos of it all. The weather continued to improve and despite being stuck under a very stubborn cloud, we were enjoying the dry mountains and warm weather immensely. This was what September hiking and scrambling was supposed to feel like!
[Brilliant larches with Three Lakes Ridge in the background.]
[From part way up the slope to Rainy Ridge looking down on the three lakes.]
[From the ridge, looking up towards the summit looks more difficult than it is.]
[Any difficulties are avoided on stepped terrain to climber's right of the crest.]
[This is a very colorful area! Three Lakes Ridge at left with Miles, Krowicki and Middle Kootenay at center and Rainy Ridge NW at right. We ascended the easy slope at lower left from the upper lake.]
[A dusting of snow on north slopes. Jake Smith and Scarpe Mountain at distance here.]
[The terrain is steep enough to be tricky with ice or copious amounts of snow.]
[Incredible colors around the Middlepass Lakes.]
[Phil comes up another slightly exposed step to the summit.]
On our final few steps to the summit we were delighted and somewhat surprised to see a forest of larches and more lakes and tarns to the east and south. Within about 4 hours of leaving the parking lot we were on our first summit of the day with expansive views in every direction.
[Views from the summit up the West Castle River towards South Kootenay Pass include West Castle, Castle, Windsor, Lys Ridge, Barnaby Ridge, Jutland, La Coulotte, Jake Smith and Scarpe (L to R). ++]
[Brilliant Castle Wilderness colors on Mount Gladstone.]
[The "Whistler Loop" is a fun route that tags a number of unofficial summits near Table Mountain.]
[Southfork Mountain and Barnaby Ridge bring back really good memories of another solo fall trip I did in this area.]
[Looking far north over Willoughby Ridge to Crowsnest Mountain. Tornado at distant center rising over Gould Dome. Racehorse at left.]
[The Flathead Range in the distance to the north includes Ptolemy at left and Coulthard at right - I was on Coulthard just yesterday!]
[Mount Darrah is obvious at left.]
[Looking over Gravenstafel Ridge towards Syncline Mountain.]
[Mount Haig was one of my early Castle Wilderness scrambles, a decade ago.]
[Looking over West Castle towards Castle Peak, Victoria Peak and Windsor Mountain (L to R).]
[Great views over the rest of our day include Jake Smith Peak and Scarpe Mountain left of center with one of the Rainy Lakes beneath. "RA" at center and Three Lakes Ridge right of center connected to Rainy Ridge via an obvious ridge. Krowicki and Miles right of Three Lakes Ridge. ++]
[Many larches dot La Coulotte Peak to the south.]
[The upper Middlepass Lake.]
[Jake Smith Peak and Scarpe Mountain (R) loom over the smallest Rainy Lake.]
[Krowicki (L) and Miles (R) are a combined day trip that involves losing height over Middle Kootenay Pass.]
From the summit of Rainy Ridge I was originally planning to descend into the valley directly south to avoid tricky scrambling along the ridge direct route to Three Lakes Ridge. After looking along the connecting ridge, however, Phil and I decided to get our noses into it and see how hard it really was - it didn't look so bad. So off we went!