Once you start peak bagging in the Calgary area, it doesn�t take long to notice Mount Assiniboine. And once you notice it, you start thinking about ascending it too. At least I did� maybe just because I lived in Colorado before and many of the tallest mountains are quite accessible there. I knew it would be different in Canada, but it didn�t stop me from putting Assiniboine on my list in 2005.
As years passed by, I slowly realized Assiniboine is not going to happen. It�s almost impossible to do it in a day or to do it solo and I would never have 2 days, partners and good conditions to do it. I tried to sign up for an ACC trip in 2006, and could have gotten the 12th place on the waiting list but they were to fly in with a helicopter so I wasn�t even interested� I asked around for possible partners for years. Some already did it others just got out with different partners so I even stopped asking...
At first even the 5.5 normal route sounded prohibitive. Chances are, you won�t get on any trip as a seconder. However, during the years I became capable of leading it so the number of remaining problems was down to three: getting a 2-day pass from the family for selfish mountaineering, getting a partner who is willing and capable of belaying and getting good conditions. But the sad truth was that I just looked at Assiniboine from other summits and slowly gave up hope I will ever get to attempt it. Peaks actually get off your list, too.
All this was to change this summer in a matter of 48 hours. A fairly unusual high pressure system rolled into southern Alberta for a full week. Seeing the exceptionally good weather, Raff gave me a call Wednesday evening if I were interested in Lunette, one of his remaining 11,000ers. Of course, I would be, if I can also tag neighbouring Assiniboine. But chances are, I won�t be able to get out for 2 days. I didn�t want Raff to plan on my partnership for Lunette so I just said I had about 10% chance that Andie lets me go.
But seems like miracles do happen: I was granted a full weekend by Thursday noon! Unfortunately, by this time Raff came up with Plan B and he wouldn�t go for Lunette� So in a desperate attempt I contacted nearly all my previous Canadian partners if they knew someone interested. To my greatest surprise I received a positive answer a couple of hours later. Kerry e-mailed they wanted to attempt it with Blanka and they wouldn�t mind if I joined them. Could it really be true? Or am I dreaming? Could all the pieces of the puzzle fall into place this time? I was so excited I could hardly sleep two consecutive nights.
We drove to the Assiniboine Creek trailhead Saturday morning and hiked up to the bivy site way above Lunette Lake. At the trail register we noted two earlier entries for the southwest face route. That would qualify for crowded on this less popular route that was advertised as a scramble and/or snow climb depending on year and conditions� Heavy packs aside, the hike to Lunette Lake was very pleasant: strawberries next to the trail, perfect weather and casual pace made it all memorable. We had plenty of time to get to the bivy site, not my �everyday� peak bagging experience� Above Lunette Lake we lost the faint trail and got involved with some nasty bushwhacking. Once out of the bush, tedious scree slog followed until we completed the 1000 m gain to the bivy site. Hauling big packs through bush and then on slippery scree didn�t make any sense at all � until we reached the spot described in Bill Corbett�s book with excellent views, fresh water, and grassy flat areas for tents.
Just before we reached our bivy site we came across two scramblers heading down to their car. They told a somewhat unusual story. They started up that morning to do Assiniboine in two days and set up camp at the same spot where we camped minutes later. They continued on with the scramble but got off-route at some point and had a hard time reversing their steps. They got back down to their campsite but were so disappointed and tired they decided to break camp and go home. They also told us there was another party higher up who seemed to make better progress and they might have made it all the way to the summit.
Within 10 minutes we could speak with one of them, too. They were coming down just the same disappointed as the other party. They wanted to do Assiniboine in a day but at the larger snowfield high up they couldn�t figure out how to bypass the ice and decided to retreat around 3:30 p.m. They didn�t have crampons or rope and they were still about 400 m short of the summit. Fortunately, they also had some good news for us: they found cairns and pink ribbons on their way that helped them a lot in route finding. They just didn�t see any more of those above the snowfield.
It looked like not all attempts were successful even under perfect conditions. So in the evening we spent some time looking at the face above us, trying to identify possible routes. None of them looked good and we didn�t agree in all the details but at least we had a good idea where we would want to be on the face next day. We checked out all the route descriptions Kerry brought with him, most notably the one from Alan Kane�s web site. Just when I saw it from Kane did I start to believe the route can be done as a scramble � though it did not look like that at all. We would still pack a rope, crampons and axes, just in case we get off-route next day.
I had a very good night and probably slept 6 hours but Kerry and Blanka didn�t sleep too well so we only got started at 6:30 a.m. We picked the second big white scree cone from the right to get to a steep gully and scrambled our way up. I got tired of the loose scree in the gully after a while and once found a weakness escaped to the rib above on the right. Kerry and Blanka continued up in the gully which, surprisingly, turned into hard snow and ice after a while. They had to don crampons and higher up, once the snow ran out, remove them. In the meanwhile I scrambled the rib all the way up to easier ground on very enjoyable rock. So I waited for them on the top of the gully and asked a couple of times if they were OK. I still couldn�t see them in the snaking gully so yelled that I was heading up. And then added: for Lunette. They did not hear the latter.
We discussed the night before that I was somewhat interested in Lunette after Assiniboine but they really had no interest in it. So I just thought why not do it before? If the detour doesn�t take too much time I would catch up with them higher up on Assiniboine. Lunette really doesn�t look like a separate peak and probably only listed for historic reasons as 11,000er, nevertheless, I was curious how much it rises from the col, and if it would qualify as a separate peak according to Colorado convention (300 ft rise needed from saddle).
Once I reached the Assiniboine-Lunette col I took in the views to the east and went for Kane�s route I just read last night. The traverse on ledges went well but I should have listened to my instincts more and go up straight once I saw a weakness. Instead, I made it further south to gain the ridge as Kane suggested and scrambled back north to the peak. But a cliff stood in my way and I had to get around it, back to where I was before, to find a better spot. Eventually, I committed to a chimney that would be sketchy for downclimbing on the way down but I convinced myself it shouldn�t be impossible. A large cairn greeted me at the summit 4:03 after leaving camp and I soon signed the register that was left there by Scrambles book cover boy Kris Thorsteinsson in 1990. About one party ascends it in a year which reinforced my impression that only lunatics climb Lunette. I measured it to be 80 m (+/-10 m) out of the col so it would not be a ranked peak in Colorado either...
Now I had to downclimb that chimney unless there was something easier around. And there it was, a scree ramp as if it was just placed there for scramblers! Later, the downclimbing to the ledges was also quite manageable. Still this 1:12 hour side trip was the most intense part of the climb thus far as there were no confidence-boosting cairns here as opposed to the lower sections on Assiniboine.
Back at the col I could hear rocks falling down on Assiniboine�s SW face so I yelled out, �Guys, can you see me?� without actually seeing them and Blanka replied. It was just then that I spotted them on the face. We were quite close to each other though the intervening route was not a cakewalk at all. From the col I took ledges toward the large snowfield and then veered toward my partners. I did a different variation around the snowfield than they did and was slowly catching up. Although it didn�t look like that, they confirmed we were on route, as they could still see cairns or pink ribbons sporadically. There was one really nasty traverse on a downsloping, rubble covered ledge that I really didn�t want to do but I had to�
This part above the snow looked the worst from below and it really was. More often than not, we retreated, tried another gully or wandered around on dangerous, exposed ledges to find a passage. Blanka and Kerry were still ahead of me but we could communicate well and I followed them where feasible, or took another way if there was rockfall from above. By the time we ascended this crux section I almost caught up with them but then I needed to take a break while they headed up enthusiastically all he way to the summit. They crossed the remaining icy snowcap for a few metres and were soon standing on the summit! I joined them a few minutes later (5:43 total from camp). Unforgettable moment! What moment, 45 full minutes we spent there at this bluebird noon hour, walking around, checking out views in all directions. It felt like the top of the world, everything else was below us. The few higher peaks were too far, hundreds of kilometres away, lost in haze. I must admit I didn�t expect such spectacular views, particularly down to crevassed glaciers and south to Eon Mountain.
We just took over the summit from another party that ascended the north ridge and after 45 minutes we passed it to another party that ascended from the same parking lot as us but through the North Ridge. They started 2 a.m. and made it to the summit around 12:50 p.m. Seemed like even on this busy weekend (about 15 parties since the good weather window started on Tuesday) everybody would do the more interesting North Ridge route. The only advantage of the SW face was really that you could bag Lunette the same day so I was very happy regardless�
It was not over yet, however. We had to climb back down. Just to confirm Kane�s statement we went around the snowfield on top. This way we could prove that it was a scramble indeed: one can avoid all the snow and go without a rope� quite incredible. Nevertheless, since we brought the rope we rapped the first steep section off the ridge as we found a station. Really just to make use of our gear. Then we put away the rope and never used it again, though there were several rappel stations we came across on our way up. Lots of tiptoeing on rubble covered downsloping ledges and downclimbing in steep gullies followed, spiced with an unhealthy amount of exposure. You really didn�t want to make a mistake on this face so we took our time to get down.
To my amazement, even below the Lunette col we faced several difficult scrambling sections that I didn�t recall from the morning. We reached our camp 10:51 after leaving it and had a well deserved 45 minute break and less deserved camp breaking� We hiked out in a dizzying pace first led by Kerry and then Blanka. I could not believe they had this much energy left, I had to jog after them. We were back at our car after 13:50 hours where we met a party of 4 that wanted to do the same route next day. They also had Kane�s trip report and got some good beta from us so hopefully they also made it.
Special thanks to my wife, Andie, partners Kerry and Blanka for making this happen. We climbed the tallest mountain in Banff NP!