On Saturday, August 25 2007 a group of us decided to ignore the potentially dismal weather forecast and scamper up a peak around Banff or Lake Louise.
Our first objective was Temple Mountain which I still haven't summitted. A lot of people find that hard to believe but every year I wait till around September before even thinking about Temple because I want to summit with an awesome view. I don't want forest fire smoke, or too many clouds and I want the fall colors to be out. Because I've been so fussy with this peak I still haven't gotten around to it!
And that wouldn't change for this trip either. Saturday's weather forecast was a bit 'iffy'. There looked to be a really good chance of clouds most of the day with rain coming in later on. We decided to change our objective to something else. Since we were originally planning on a fairly big outing (~1600 meters height gain) we thought Isabelle Peak sounded like a good alternative. We would leave early and hopefully be off the peak before the weather socked in. Isabelle has a long approach and quite a bit of height gain but with a well-graded trail and clear route finding it still seemed like a good alternative.
We arrived at the Floe Lake trail head at around 7:45. There were quite a few cars in the parking lot - obviously this is a popular weekend camping destination. The approach trail to the start of the scramble didn't disappoint. It was long! :-) It was also well graded and fairly interesting. The forest fires of 2003 have actually improved this hike quite a bit I think. First of all, you can now see your objective almost right away! It's the peak that's straight in front of you, far off in the distance. Some people probably won't like that but I like to know what I'm in for! Secondly, the burnt trees haven't started falling over yet so the trail is very clear and you don't feel the forest closing in on you for the two hour approach. You can clearly see into the forest and there is a beautiful carpet of flowers and green undergrowth busy trying to cover up the burn area with life. I thought the hike was very cool (at least on the way in...).
We transitioned into the non-burn area and proceeded through sweet-smelling forest for about 20-30 minutes before arriving at the cairned turnoff for the scramble route. This was also a nice variation and crossing the open avalanche slopes beneath sheer cliffs and with views back down the valley and Hawk Creek was a pleasant diversion too. Once at the bottom of the scramble route the way up was obvious. We tramped up the gully, skirting around the lower cliff band to climbers right. Then it was a bit of a slog to the ridge. We went straight up the gully and then traversed climbers left towards a cairn on the left skyline. You could also continue straight up the gully wall as it gets steeper and looser or even trend to climbers right to gain the ridge but we saw the cairn and wanted to gain the ridge quicker so that's where we went.
The cairn was actually on the ledge that Kane mentions so we knew we were on route. This is a good spot to stop for a breather or even lunch if you're into stopping on the way up. We looked around a bit and continued around the nose of the ridge on the ledge to climbers left. There are two options here. You can either gain the ridge for some fun, moderate / easy scrambling on decent rock or you can slog up a loose, steep scree slope. Jeff and I took the first option and Wietse took the second one! I'm not sure which way Ed and Dave took. In order to gain the ridge quickly, you have to ascent the first loose gully you encounter to your left as you leave the plateau area. If you stick to climbers left in this gully it's actually fun scrambling but if you stay in the gully you will be raining rocks on the area beneath you - and most likely be using language that isn't suitable for church! :-)
Once at the top of this small gully we spotted cairns marking our route up the ridge and even the summit came into view. (Up to this point we hadn't seen the summit yet, but I knew that we had about 250-300 vertical meters left because of my trusty Suunto.) The ridge and last 300 vertical meters on Isabelle is probably the highlight of the scramble. It's not too difficult but consists quite good rock (by Rockies standards) and the views are really good. If you are NOT on the ridge you will experience very loose terrain and will not be enjoying yourself nearly as much. We stuck to the ridge and found ourselves down climbing into a notch just before the final push to the summit (crux). We had a terrific drop to our right and had to be a bit careful in spots. Once in the notch we scrambled up the ridge again and then followed cairns to the bottom of the crux gully.
Or at least I did.
For some unknown reason (ok - I may have told him to try it...), Jeff decided to try an easier-looking gully before the crux. This particular gully was full of loose scree but it really looked like it may be the one that Linda and Andrew took on their descent of Isabelle. I still think it was their descent gully, but Jeff climbed up it and ended up backing down near the top. Later he said that it was similar to the Kane gully but he wasn't familiar with difficult scrambles and thought that the terrain looked "too much like climbing", so he backed down. There is a cairn at the top (not bottom) of this gully, so obviously someone has done it, and liked it enough to mark it for the return trip but we didn't take it so I don't know what it's like.
While Jeff fooled around on his little side mission on the 'wrong' gully, I quickly ascended the crux gully. The first few moves are the difficult ones, and once you're over these you will be wondering how easily they are descended! Since you're over them though, you might as well ascend to the summit before worrying too much. ;-) If wet or snowy or icy this gully would not be a very fun place to be. There is a fine layer of dust / mud on top of the rocks here and I could see it becoming treacherously slick very quickly in rain or snow conditions. On hindsight we were very lucky we didn't get any rain on our trip - you should pick this ascent for a nice sunny / dry day or you might find yourself repeating a very long approach to the crux!
Once over the crux it's a pleasantly quick scramble up to the summit for an eye catching view of big peaks including the Goodsirs, Assiniboine and, of course, Mount Ball. The summit register was from 2001 and isn't filling very quickly! We were the fourth party of the year to record our summit of Isabelle Peak.
I waited about 20 minutes for Wietse and Jeff to come up. Just as I was getting a wee bit concerned about Jeff and his little detour, I spotted them on top of the crux gully. 5 minutes later they were on the summit. I could also spot Ed and Dave backing off back down the ridge near the notch that we descended to on the way up. They were getting very tired and once they saw the difficulty of the upper terrain they both decided that they'd had enough of Isabelle's charms and turned around. They both still enjoyed the scramble. After signing the register and a few pictures we hurried back down the crux, giving glances at the dark clouds as we went! (We never did get rained on but it looked pretty dreary for a good part of the day.)
The hardest move on descent was right at the bottom of the crux gully. There is two options, one on skiers left and the other on skiers right. I first went over to skiers left because that's where I came up. It looked a bit tricky, with down-sloping slab, so I went over to where Jeff was busy descending a 6ft wall on skiers right. This wall is vertical but has fairly solid holds. I backed down it fairly quickly but was glad I was 6ft tall! Wietse followed us down and soon we were heading down the ridge. We deviated off the ridge, looking for friendly scree, but this wasn't smart. I would recommend sticking to the ridge as much as possible on both ascent and descent.
The walk back to the car was long but I tried to improve on the monotony by taking lots of flower pictures! Isabelle is a great scramble, but don't underestimate the distance or elevation gain - it's a long trudge no matter how you put it! Too bad bikes aren't allowed on the approach or I would recommend biking at least to the bridge.