On Sunday, July 24 2011 I was joined by So Nakagawa and Ali for a jaunt up Mount Ishbel in Banff National Park near Hillside Meadows. Over the years Ishbel has become a bit of an obsession for me simply because when you drive home from anywhere west of the Castle Mountain junction you get an amazing view of the long ridge of Ishbel rising up to an impressive summit. Also, over the past few years a number of friends have done the mountain and have come back with stories of a hands-on difficult scrambling experience and varying degrees of satisfaction with the ascent. The descent down the east face is almost always described as being much more involved - most parties rappel at least some portion of it.
Our goal on this trip was to make this a true scrambling experience - no alpine techniques. We brought a rope and some gear just in case things got testy but our resolute goal was to NOT use climbing gear. (Thanks to Ali for carrying the rope all day!) There were a few trip reports we used to prepare for our outing, including Dow Williams, Sonny Bou and Andrew Nugara. One thing about Ishbel that's also true for 95% of mountains in general, is that the amount of fun or fear you experience will depend entirely on your route choice. This mountain has plenty of 'fear' options but also has a high 'fun' factor for scramblers if you're careful about choosing your route.
We started our trip from the Hillside Meadows pullout, which is actually just east of the meadows. It was a balmy 3 degrees and we even encountered light frost on our way through the forest on climber's right of the meadows. We contoured quite a bit to climber's right of the meadows area - aiming for the low point of the south ridge instead of gaining it from the west side. On hindsight you could probably save a bit of time by heading straight up through the meadows and gaining the ridge a bit higher up, but read on before committing to this approach.
[A surprising amount of bushwhacking before the ridge.]
[So is still the man!]
Two things surprised me about Ishbel. The first surprise for me was the amount of bushwhacking involved in gaining the ridge. We contoured quite a bit around to climber's right, trying to access the ridge lower down and also avoiding some of the blow-down in the burn areas. We did end up climbing over and under a fair amount of nasty, jumbled, burnt bush and anyone who's done this before knows how much energy this can sap first thing in the morning! To be honest I found the bushwhacking on Ishbel comparable to Inglismaldie - shorter in length but more dense in sections. Once we finally gained the ridge we trended back to our left and ascended very steep grassy slopes. This area was covered in a carpet of wildflowers and I tried not to get too distracted with the camera since we were only just starting our day. ;-)
[Finally out of the thicker forest and ascending more open slopes - the ridge visible above.]
[I am very easily distracted by colorful flowers.]
[We briefly considered crossing this gully and ascending the far notch, but instead we stuck to the ridge we were on. (L)]
I didn't have any pictures along from other trip reports, so we kind of had to guess regarding the 'first significant rock wall' that these reports mention. We were pretty confident we had the right wall since there was an obvious trail heading down along it to the left. The 'amphitheater' description from several trip reports was a bit confusing. If you follow the left trail along the cliff face you will first drop down a ways before trending back up. If you keep going you will come on a huge amphitheater / scree bowl. This is NOT the amphitheater that Robert Lee or Sonny are talking about. The amphitheater / cliff access that seems to work best starts up the cliff where the trees / grass are growing and there are small ledges to work your way up. This area is slightly back from where you spot the large scree bowl along the trail. This should not be more than moderate scrambling or you're off route.
[This is the ridge we stayed on, left of the previous photo]
Once we were up the cliff face we were in a smaller amphitheater of loose scree. We worked our way straight up this bowl and then went climber's left to gain the ridge proper again. I wrote earlier that two things surprised me about Ishbel. One was the bushwhacking, the other was the level of difficulty. Our route was not as difficult as I was expecting.
[We're not above the cliff face, traversing up to the main ridge - see photo of the cliff area from our descent further down.]
[On the ridge - finally! Note how high we are already.]
Once on the ridge you have choices. You can either stick right on top of the ridge from this point on which will involve a serious down climb quite soon, or you can temper down the difficulty by traversing grass / dirt / rock slopes on the east side of the ridge (climber's right), crossing through several bowls and not gaining too much height since you will have to lose it all again anyway. We did the traverse and I believe this route choice puts Ishbel into a solid scramble as opposed to a climbing route. The traverse we did, also significantly sped up our ascent. The traverse is still exposed and loose in sections and route finding is key. There are no trails and you kind of have to guess and use your route-finding senses to eventually gain the ridge shortly after the crux section which is described in detail by Sonny.
[You can spot the steep terrain we came up at lower right. So follows up the ridge.]
[Part of the traverse that bypasses some difficult terrain above on the left.]
[Looking back at the traverse terrain (C) with the much more difficult ridge above to the right - clearly you also have to lose height if you stick on the nose of the ridge. ++]
Once we gained the ridge again, the scrambling certainly picked up a notch. I would compare the overall difficulty to Smuts, Northover and Fox - maybe slightly easier but still very exposed with loose rock and lots of no-slip zones. We had a ton of fun on this section, Ali led us through it pretty quickly. He is very confident on exposed terrain and more than once I was amazed at his nonchalant walking over 12-18 inch wide ridge sections with nothing but air on either side! Good thing it wasn't windy...
[On the ridge - delightful scrambling terrain.]
[Looking ahead up the ridge to the summit of Ishbel.]
[Heading toward more serious terrain.]
[The ridge narrows considerably in places and is full of loose scree.]
[More of the ridge.]
[Looking back along a section of narrow ridge (R) across at Cockscomb Mountain (L). ++]
[The north ridge of Cockscomb at center with part of Sira peak at left. ++]
[Looking down the exit valley between Ishbel and Cockscomb.]
Eventually we came to a much more serious looking ridge section. I knew we were about 200 vertical meters from the top so I scouted around to climber's right and sure enough, a scree ledge system ran up the east side of the ridge. Incidentally there are virtually no cairns on any part of the route - it doesn't get ascended often so don't go up there expecting cairns or flagging to show you the way. I know of more than once person who has free solo'd the upper ridge, but this is probably going beyond scrambling. It's nice to know there's an easier route for descent if you do choose the more difficult ridge on the way up.
The scree ledge started out quite narrow and eventually got wider the higher we went. We followed it right to the end at which point we traversed up to climber's left on very loose terrain to gain the summit. The summit views did not disappoint. A plethora of unnamed peaks greeted us to the east along with many familiar peaks to the west and south. There was no wind at the summit and a blue sky with puffy white clouds kept us at the top for almost an hour before heading back down.
[Summit views back to the south over the Trans Canada highway and the Bow River. ++]
[Looking west (L) north and east (R). The peak at left is Mystic Peak, the series of peaks at center are all part of Sira Peak. Cascade at far right. ++]
[Looking at So coming up the ridge to the summit.]
[Ali finds a myriad of peaks that we can identify from Ishbel's summit.]
[Ali takes in the incredible view on this gorgeous day.]
[The lofty summit of Mount Assiniboine stretches skyward to the south]
[Mount Ball looms over Copper Mountain.]
[The Goodsir Towers are hidden in the clouds to the sw]
[Pano looking south over Pilot, Brett and Massive, Black Brett and Bourgeau (R to L). ++]
[Looking north and east over Sira Peak's many summits and green valley's. ++]
[Looking west and north with Bonnet, Mystic, Pulsatilla and the Castle Mountain massif from R to L. ++]
We decided to descend our ascent route and this worked very well. Some of the down climbs were a bit tricky but overall it wasn't any worse than other Kane 'difficult' descent routes. We traversed back along the east side of the ridge around the crux so this also kept things within the scrambling range. Once we descended the short cliff band under the amphitheater we decided to change our descent route a bit and bail off the south ridge's west side and head straight down to Hillside Meadows. This kind of worked but we had to route find around 2 or 3 cliff bands and the bushwhacking got annoying after a while. I'm still not sure I would recommend going up this way, or follow our ascent route which accessed the ridge lower down.
[Carefully working our way down alongside the summit ridge. Many folks bail off to the left here and hike out of the valley between Cockscomb and Ishbel but the terrain is loose and difficult, often requiring a rappel. We decided to just follow the ridge all the way back to our ascent route.]
[A gorgeous day to be scrambling!]
[Looking back, showing the steepness of the terrain off the summit ridge a bit better.]
[Back on the ridge proper, lots of careful down climbing required.]
[Ali having fun on the ridge]
[Balancing along the south ridge of Ishbel.]
[Looking back at the south ridge, just before we drop down the west side to access the cliffs that we used to gain the ridge.]
[Descending towards the top of the cliffs we ascended - we will descend on skiers right of the trees in this bowl.]
[The cliff we climbed to access the ridge. This is looking south along it (the direction we came up in the morning).]
[Looking north along the same cliff, from the same vantage as the previous photo. This is the view as we approached in the morning. If you walk too far past this point, you'll come to a large amphitheater that is the wrong one.]
[Descending the lower ridge.]
[Descending more westerly slopes than we ascended in the AM. Not necessarily that much better...]
[Lots of granite cliff bands make for some interesting route finding on descent.]
[Lovely forest below the ridge.]
Eventually we stumbled out of the bush into Hillside Meadows for a very pleasant stroll to the car. There we also found signs announcing the area closed for hiking due to wildlife preservation efforts - I guess it's a good thing we didn't go up this way! :-) I can highly recommend Ishbel as a difficult scramble - if you follow our route. There is a lot of route finding involved to keep it a scramble and your choice of descent route will also impact the difficulty. Don't expect cairns or trails to make this ascent / descent obvious - I made a point of looking back a lot on the ascent and still had to guess at some of the route on the way down.
[Hillside Meadow with Ishbel rising above. We descended slopes above So's head and ascended to the right, out of the photo.]