June 14th, 2008 found me wanting to bag a peak pretty badly! The spring of 2008 has not been a very friendly one for scramblers and hikers. It's been wet, and cold and nasty.
After much deliberation, Wietse and I decided that we would head down to Waterton for the day, attempting the Lost / Anderson / Bauerman summit triplicate. I got up at 4:45 and arrived in Okotoks a bit early. After getting a coffee I picked Wietse up at 06:00 and we barreled down highway #2 towards Waterton. Once we got around Pincher Creek we started to rethink our Waterton plans. First of all, the mountains to the west didn't look too bad for conditions, especially compared to the Kananaskis peaks we'd been staring at from Calgary. We both decided that we really just wanted to bag something and if we decided that Gravenstafel and Haig looked too snowy we would console ourselves with an easy / short day up Table mountain.
As we drove towards the Castle area I was amazed at the wonderful scenery unfolding in front of us. I'd never been there before and to put it plainly, I think I've found a new favorite area to climb in! There are tumbling waterfalls and streams everywhere. Towering cliffs and mountains are connected by easy ridges that reveal a panorama of brightly colored rock - truly a very special area of the Rockies.
We arrived at the Castle Mountain Resort around 08:30 to a beautiful and very quiet morning. On the drive up to the resort we noted how only ONE of the hundreds of wind powered generators was actually turning - very strange to see in an area that's almost always very windy. I had a bright idea on the way into the resort area. Why not climb Gravenstafel Ridge first and then, depending on conditions, go for Haig? This is the reverse of Andrew's suggested route but looking at the surrounding peaks we knew we could get to the top of the ridge, but weren't so confident about Mount Haig - there was still a substantial amount of snow on all the surrounding terrain.
As we were getting our gear ready for the scramble, a resident of the resort ambled toward us with a cheerful greeting. He wondered whether we were planning to go hiking in the area and when we confirmed his question he pointed out that there was a sow grizzly with two cubs "somewhere up there on the ski hill". After some deliberation and asking him how aggressive she was we decided that if we went right up the middle of the ski runs and made lots of noise there wouldn't be any (good) reason for the bear to bother with us and we would continue as planned, our only assumption being that the bear was a reasonable one. :-)
Shortly after the first fellow left, another one approached and also mentioned the bears. He affirmed that the mother wasn't overly aggressive, she was near his house one morning that week and didn't do any damage to anyone. Since this was a resort, obviously she was used to humans working and walking around her territory so we didn't feel too unsafe. It's amazing how my attitude towards these creatures has changed over the past few years! I know for a fact that two or three years ago I wouldn't have gone anywhere near where I knew a sow grizzly was living with two cubs and now I was calmly hiking right up through an area where a confirmed bear was living.
(I should point out that Wietse had his bear spray ready and we had a strategy worked out where he would stand in one spot calmly spraying the bear in the face while I ran screaming hysterically towards the chair lift and clambered up the ladder on the pole to wait for rescue in one of the chairs. Only when I was safe would Wietse turn around and outrun the enraged and now spiced up, female grizzly. I should also point out that Wietse didn't know all the details about this plan, only that he had the responsibility of standing his ground and spicing the bear with pepper...)
Our progress up the ski run was admirable. I'm not sure if it was the threat of a local family of bears or the fact that it was a beautiful morning but either way, we gained height quickly under the chair lift. It was a profitable day too. I found a credit card and Wietse found 10 cents! I bet that the first person to hike up that chair at the end of the first big melt finds a lot of cool gear. I may just make it a habit to find hikes that go under chair lifts and do them early season from now on.
[Wietse is ready to dual with Momma Grizzly as we start up the lower ski hill at the Castle Mountain Ski resort.]
[We walked straight up this run - the Grizzlies are up here somewhere but we scared them off. Or they were still sleeping...]
[Patches of snow make things a bit easier - it's a gorgeous morning.]
[Wietse kicks steps to the top of the first lift. Gravenstafel is still high above us here.]
After gaining about 500 meters of height we were at the top of the first chair lift. My pack was feeling ridiculously heavy and my knees didn't have much 'juice' either. I was carrying way too much camera gear, and knew it, but stubbornly wanted to "try something". I'm a dummy sometimes. Whatever made me think I had to lug my 70-200 f/4 L IS canon lens up 1600 meters of vertical height gain and two summits was dumb. There were a few other photography items that should have remained in the car. When I tested Wietse's pack against mine, to see how heavy mine really was, I couldn't believe how light his pack was. I think mine was at least 2x heavier, if not 3x. Oops. Good thing the snow was fairly consolidated and we started gamely up the second chair lift, kicking steps in snow, up the steep hill.
[Wietse comes up a steep snow drift. The upper chair lift station can be seen on his right. We are about 50 vertical meters from the summit of Gravenstafel at this point.]
We continued to gain height quickly and after 850 vertical meters of gain we were at the top of the second chair. Gravenstafel's summit is behind this top lift, so up we went. Another 100 meters of height gain had us on our first summit of the day within 2 hours of leaving the parking lot. The panorama at the top was very impressive - much more than I was expecting. For some reason I always thought that the Castle area peaks were unimpressive, but I could not have been more wrong on this assumption.
[Some easy scrambling on rock to the summit.]
[Gorgeous views of Mount Haig with its distinctive tarn.]
[Incredible summit view from Gravenstafel includes, Haig, Tombstone, Packhorse, St. Eloi and Syncline (L to R). ++]
Our spirits were also boosted when we looked towards Mount Haig and the traverse between it and us. There was snow, but the route would go. So off we went, down Gravenstafel's south ridge towards Mount Haig.
[Descending to Haig, looking back at the summit of Gravenstafel.]
[Looking down at the col and the impressive Mount Haig.]
[Looking back up Gravenstafel and over at St. Eloi and Syncline to the left.]
[Near the col now, looking back up Gravenstafel Ridge.]
[Interesting rock texture.]
[The uniform slopes of Gravenstafel are very unique and interesting.]