On Thursday, July 1 2010 I was joined by Bill Kerr to celebrate Canada's birthday with an ascent of Copper Mountain in Banff National Park.
Copper is one of those peaks that is very prominent and easy to access but doesn't seem to get a lot of attention. Various trip reports on the internet indicate some confusion regarding the ascent and descent routes with stories of people getting cliffed out and even jumping off small cliffs to get down! The source of all this confusion is a description in Alan Kane's Scrambles in the Canadian Rockies, which guides the scrambler to the "right of a large pinnacle" just past the Lost Creek back country campground cooking area. Most people go up too early and this gets them in trouble. To be fair to Kane, his route photo does show an arrow pointing to the correct route!
Bill and I had no compunction to join those with scary experiences on this particular mound of scree so we did some serious research and map gazing beforehand to mitigate any issues. It turns out that another scrambler already did most of the work for us, we just had to correlate his trip report with our knowledge of the area and a map. With our minds sharp, we left the Redearth Creek parking lot at 08:00 on our bikes.
The bike ride to the Lost Horse Creek camp site is either easy, tiring or a bit of both, depending on your fitness levels and your love of biking. Bill and I walked up most of the hills to conserve energy and because we were in no particular rush on this day. It turns out that walking your bike up the steep hills really conserves a lot of energy and before long we were at the camp ground, still feeling relatively fresh. We walked our bikes into the camp ground and were met by a very cold and hungry young couple who couldn't get their stove to work and obviously had not packed enough warm gear for the near-zero degree temperature! Bill suggested they warm the stove by putting it under their arms before we disappeared up the trail to the cooking area with our bikes. After stashing our bikes and preparing for the scramble we followed an obvious trail up a steep embankment out of the cooking area and onto a broad avalanche slope underneath the "large pinnacle".
[After going through the Lost Horse Creek cooking area you come up to an avalanche slope where the trail peters out almost immediately. This is the pinnacle Kane mentions. Your descent route comes down just to the left of this. The ascent route starts from about 40-45 minutes of side-hill bashing to the right. You are nowhere near the pinnacle when you start going up. It's not even visible anymore!]
[Bill starts the traverse from the camp site to the proper ascent gully.]
[Yep! There's some degree of bushwhacking on the side hill traverse. We angled slowly up to climber's left too.]
[Lots of low bushes and light - moderate bush whacking.]
Because of our research we knew that we had to traverse Copper's east slopes to the north for quite a ways before heading up the mountain. We knew that we would be going through bands of trees and avalanche slopes until we would arrive at a large slope with one main run-out almost at valley bottom and two smaller run-outs to each side of the main one.
It took us a good 40-50 minutes of side-hilling (slowly making some height gain - but not too much) before we arrived in the correct avalanche gully. From here we aimed for a snow patch high up in the gully. The avalanche gully got steeper and steeper the higher we went but the way up seemed clear so we kept going. The most amazing part of the trip so far was the complete lack of any human sign. There were no trails (other than sheep), no cairns, no litter or human detritus of any kind. For a prominent Banff peak this was very odd! Copper Mountain is probably one of the least ascended Kane peaks in Banff National Park despite easy access and only a 'moderate' rating. Unless everyone else takes different routes than we did!
[Starting up the correct avalanche slope now.]
[Finally done the traverse. Now we're heading up the main avalanche gully. We aimed for the cornice but ended up cutting over to the left once we got high up near the tiny snow patches you can barely see here.]
[As long as we avoided going too far climber's left the terrain stayed reasonable.]
[Looking down our ascent slope.]
Once we got near the snow patches we thought we had a cairn and aimed for it. When we got closer we realized that our 'cairn' was only a small rock pinnacle. We also realized that we needed to move to climber's left or take the risk of being cliffed out underneath the summit. We left a cairn here, signaling our route to climber's left and traversed some steep slabby terrain before ascending back towards the corniced summit ridge above. As we got higher I noticed that we could avoid the cornice by working back to the right and it was here that we finally spotted the first cairn of the day.
[We thought we were aiming for a cairn here - but it's just a pointy rock. :)]
[Traversing left to better terrain, but only slightly left.]
[The way ahead is clear!]
[Looking back from near the summit plateau at Pilot and Brett.]
[At the top of the gully, near the summit plateau.]
[Looking down our ascent gully and Bill coming up to the summit plateau.]
[Bill topping out of the gully with Pilot (L) and Brett (C) behind him.]
[Great summit pano despite the clouds showing Ball, Stanley and Storm on the left and Castle on the right. Shadow Lake in front of Ball. ++]
[Shadow Lake in front of the mighty Mount Ball with Isabelle to the left.]
[Looking across the Trans Canada Highway towards the Sawback Range including Cory, Cockscomb, Ishbel (R to L). ++]
The summit was cold and windy and we didn't linger. The views of Pilot, Brett, Assiniboine, Ball, Storm and Castle as well as many other Banff peaks make this summit well worth the effort of ascent. After some summit photos we quickly made for the alternate descent gully under threatening skies.
[For such a cloudy / grey day we did good for views! From L to R, Temple, Daly, Hector, Protection, Stuart Knob, Pulsatilla, Castle and Helena Ridge. ++]
[Wider shot of the Ball Range includes some of the Pharaoh Peaks on the left now. ++]
From above, on the summit plateau, the descent gully looked horribly difficult. There was no way it looked like a viable alternative to our ascent route. There was snow and ice guarding the route down to the col and from there it looked like it might go. We decided that we had to get closer before judging it a 'no-go' and good thing we did as the descent to the col was actually very straight forward and easy.
The recommended descent gully is fast but loose. A curious goat kicked some serious sized rocks down our path and some hard avalanche snow slowed us down considerably. Other than that this was a great alternate route and I would highly recommend taking it instead of the ascent route which would be challenging due to the slabby terrain.
[Standing above our descent gully looking towards the Ball Range.]
[Looking down at the start of our alternate descent gully.]
[Bill comes off the summit plateau to the mouth of the descent gully.]
[Doesn't look that easy from here - but the view to the south is nice enough...]
[Careful down climbing on the loose terrain.]
[Carefully down climbing hard avalanche debris. This was more like solid glacial ice with maybe 2-4" of slush on top! We really wanted to glissade it but it was just too risky that we'd lose control. It took us a good 45 minutes to get through this section.]
[Back on easy scree to the bottom of the gully.]
[Looking back up our escape route.]
[A cool rock feature in the water worn gully.]
[One more look back at our escape gully before we rejoined our ascent track and bikes.]
Once back at the bikes we had a fast and fun ride back to the parking lot. I liked this trip a lot. The ascent had some great hands-on scrambling and the alternate descent was fun too. I don't think very many people make it up this peak (less than Pilot and Brett across the valley) but there is no good reason (IMO) for this.