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!
Well, 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".
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!
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, signalling 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! (I'm not sure what this cairn accomplishes though, because once you've made it this far you're as good as home free and you don't want to descend the ascent route...)
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. 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! The descent to the col was actually very straight forward.
The 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.
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.
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!
Yep! There's some degree of bushwhacking on the side hill traverse. We angled slowly up too.
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.
Getting closer to the snow patches (upper ones). We followed the obvious grassy slope where Bill is headed and then went left to the upper snow patches at the bottom of the smooth'ish wall. Then we went even further left from there. Going right is a bad idea at this point. You'll get cliffed out near the top.
Looking back at our ascent gully (it's fairly steep!) and Pilot and Brett across the valley. We thought maybe this gully could be accessed from the Redearth Fire Road but on hindsight the bushwhack and elevation losses / river crossing wouldn't be worth it.
Still not quite at the snow patches, but getting close! You can just see a patch of snow in the center of the photo. We thought we spotted a cairn up there but it was a false alarm. We had no signs of human trails anywhere until the summit ridge on this scramble!
Bill scopes out our traverse to the left from the snow patches / false cairn. It worked out OK but you wouldn't want to slip on the slabs.
See what I mean? A slip here would result in serious road rash. Or would that be mountain rash?
Bill comes up to the final bit before the summit ridge. This is where our gully topped out. The weather isn't getting any better either...
Looking east down Hwy #1 from near the summit ridge.
Looking back from topping out of our ascent gully.
Boom Lake with Mount Ball looming behind it from the summit ridge.
Mount Bell, Temple and other Lake Louise peaks.
Vern on the summit of Copper Mountain:
Storm Mountain with the alpine ascent route on skyline ridge from right to left over the obvious shoulder.
Panorama from the summit ridge (click to view full size):
Our descent gully is straight in front of us. Looks impossible from this angle! We were getting worried.
When we back tracked and peeked down to the col we breathed a sigh of relief!
It's still a fairly steep descent. Especially at first.
Looking down the descent gully.
A bit slabby in spots. Have to be careful here.
Carefully downclimbing the 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.
Off the snow and onto the scree! I would NOT go up this gully. The scree is very loose and there's lots of rock fall hazard - much more than the ascent even.
Cool rock formation in the creek. We're almost back at the Lost Horse Creek camp ground here. The little bit of avalanche slope you can see (green grass) leads left to our starting point.