After a successful and enjoyable weekend in Waterton the week before, Keith Bott and I decided for a repeat mini-trip, this time in Kananaskis and Banff. On this particular trip we would attempt (and successfully summit) Commonwealth Peak on Friday evening in Kananaskis Country and then Mount Aylmer in Banff the following day, on Saturday.
After setting up camp at the Spray Lakes campground we headed off to the Burstall Pass trailhead. Our original plan had been to climb Mount Burstall since we wanted a more difficult peak, but as we drove higher and closer to Burstall Pass the weather started looking downright unpleasant. Since we were expecting a clearing sky it was a bit disappointing to see snow falling along the larger mountains on the divide and thick clouds coming right at us in the parking lot. It was also very chilly with a rather stiff wind.
We immediately decided to change our objective to the 'moderate' rated Commonwealth and in the back of my head I started wondering if this would be the second time I was turned back on this peak. (The first attempt in 2008 was thwarted by a thunderstorm.) After assembling the bikes we were off at around 16:45. Time was going to be a bit of a factor since most trip reports indicated about 5-6 hours for Commonwealth compared to 3-4 hours for Burstall! Since the tent was already set up we weren't too worried about eating supper in the dark.
The bike ride went smoothly and soon we were tramping across the wetlands with some snow flakes falling on us! Yep - June 16 and we had light snow! The wind was also pretty strong and things weren't looking so good. Then, as often happens in the mountains, the sky started to clear and before we were even across the swamp we were looking at a mainly sunny sky and even the wind seemed to be dying down a bit. We even glanced back at a fairly dry Mount Burstall but since our feet were already wet (and bloody cold!) we decided to stick with our current objective.
[Off the bikes and crossing the swamp towards Commonwealth.]
[Looking across the marsh at Birdwood, Pig's Tail and Commonwealth (L to R).]
Keith led the way up faint animal trails to the left of the outlet stream that Kane mentions. A lot sooner than I expected, we broke out of the trees and went climber's right onto the shale slopes below the col / peak. The view from this point is somewhat foreshortened. I remember when I was there with Raf, we kind of thought we were getting close to the col but now I realize we were a long ways from the col and the summit and it's a really good thing we turned around!
[Starting up on climber's left of the outlet stream. The more left you go, the easier the bushwhacking.]
[Approaching tree line as we head for the Pig's Tail / Commonwealth col.]
Here's where some lingering snow saved the day (or evening I guess)! Keith led the way up snowy gullies all the way to the col. The tiny bits of scree that we had to deal with (we had to traverse climber's right from one snow gully to another) were brutal and we started to realize why this is not a popular peak and how lucky we were to have snow on this slope.
[Using thin lines of snow helped us immensely on the lower part of the scramble.]
[Stunning views looking back over the marshlands towards the Haig / Robertson ice fields. Peaks from L to R include Murray, French, Robertson and Sir Douglas.]
[One of my favorite shots from this trip, looking up the Robertson Glacier with Robertson on the left and Sir Douglas on the right.]
[Keith kicks steps up to the Pig's Tail / Commonwealth col.]
At the col we thought we were pretty close to the summit but I think you have at least 300 vertical meters to go from here and this is the interesting part of the scramble so enjoy it. If you can bring yourself to enjoy endless treadmill scree that is... ;-) Our luck ran out for the next hour as we tramped and slid and muttered our way up nasty scree slopes. We were tempted to take Dow William's difficult variation on the way up but not knowing if it was icy or not forced our hands and feet into more scree and slabby terrain.
[More stunning views from the col. ++]
[Looking up the lower scree ramp. We went up here a little ways and then turned climber's left to gain the high col just below the summit ridge.]
[The view back over Pig's Tail / Commonwealth col includes Smuts (L) Smutwood and Assiniboine in the distance.]
[Some exposure and loose scree before turning climber's left up a steep scree gully.]
When we rounded the 'rib' that Dow mentions we were looking up at some more snow, but not of the good variety. The runout was too serious to risk this slope so we groveled up slabs and more scree on climber's left. Once we topped out on this steep gully we were glad to see some fun hands-on rock! The next section was moderate scrambling to a narrow summit ridge which we followed to the small summit.
[Looking back along the col towards Pig's Tail.]
[More exposure off the scramble, looking over Burstall Pass Peak at far center right.]
[Another glance back over Smutwood towards Assiniboine.]
[Keith grovels up the steep scree gully before the crux.]
[The only real scrambling is a moderate series of loose scree on ledges.]
[A few more steps to the gorgeous summit view on Commonwealth.]
Our views on the whole trip had already been very impressive and the summit view also didn't disappoint. Mount Smuts looked particularly impressive from Commonwealth, as did the Robertson Glacier and it's environs.
[Keith takes the final few steps to the summit - incredible views!]
[Looking west with Smuts at foreground right, over Smutwood and Byng with Eon, Aye and Assiniboine in the background.]
[The very impressive Sir Douglas massif which I would climb 6 years later via it's west ridge.]
[Keith takes in a wonderful summit panorama looking across the Spray Valley including (L to R), The Tower, Galatea, Gusty, Fortress, Chester, James Walker, Inflexible, Kent, CEGFNS, Murray, French and others. ++]
[Looking along the summit ridge and south towards CEGFNS, Murray, Burstall, Smith Dorrien, French, Robertson, Sir Douglas. ++]
[Original Alan Kane register!]
Even though the skies were mostly clear, the wind was cold so soon we were heading back down the mountain. We negotiated the moderate section no problem and other than the slabby bit where we wanted to avoid the snow there were no more difficulties to the col. From there it was an extremely fun and FAST trip down the snow slope. I donned my Gore-tex pants from some glissading fun while Keith was content to do some quality boot skiing. After a quick tramp down through the forest we re-crossed the marsh and had a blast on the short 3.5km bike ride back to the car.
[Re-crossing the marsh with evening views towards the Chester Lake group.]
[Looking towards Burstall Pass with Snow Peak rising in the distance.]
[A bear in the ditch on return to our camp site. Not too close, thankfully!]
Our round trip time of 3:45 really surprised both of us! The snow gullies helped immensely on both the ascent and the descent and made the overall impression of this scramble quite favorable for both of us. I would highly recommend AVOIDING this scramble if there's no snow to tramp up to the col on. This is a tricky thing to measure though, because too much snow would make the high terrain much more hazardous. You want just enough snow to the first col that there isn't too much snow to the ridge.