July 30 2008 was a very weird day in the mountains. And not just because it was a Wednesday or the fact that I was with Kevin Papke on a mountain either. No, there were many things that conspired to make this day a very different one than I had originally planned.
It all started when Kev and I got to the west end of Calgary and made a quick decision that our original objective, Mount Niles in Yoho National Park, would not go on this particular day. (Actually, our original plan was for Mount Daly but a combination of the weather forecast and some pitiful whining from our esteemed colleagues who want to climb Mount Daly via the northwest ridge in winter convinced us to change our minds to Niles...) The view west was dark and gloomy and the forecast was even gloomier. So we started thinking about peaks of a more southerly disposition while Kev phoned his wife and kindly requested the weather forecast for Pincher Creek. Seventeen degrees and sunny suited us just wonderfully and so began the weird day.
Since we were on the west side of Calgary we had a long detour to find highway 22 that would take us to the Castle area. This involved some nice, winding roads with beautiful scenery but was still a colossal waste of time compared to jumping on the Deerfoot and speeding down to Pincher Creek. Ahhh well. We settled in for the long ride and decided that Syncline Mountain with a traverse over to St. Eloi would make the 500km round trip worth it. Andrew Nugara's book doesn't have a detailed description of this traverse but only briefly mentions it as an option for 'fit and fast parties' so we generously announced ourselves as 'fast and fit'. I also had a vague recollection of a trip Linda Breton and Andrew did, where Andrew tagged the center peak of Syncline from the St. Eloi col so I knew it would go.
For a while the weather improved dramatically the further south we went. Then it started deteriorating again as we drove the highway to the Castle Mountain Resort. Very dark clouds were pouring in (literally) over the continental divide and we both chuckled at the irony that we would still be soaked this day. I'm not sure why we thought that was amusing but it's remarkably easy to laugh when you're still sitting in a dry vehicle. It was also bewildering that Pincher Creek was in sunshine all day, even though it's only about 25km east of all that cloud and rain and the clouds were moving east. Very weird.
Here's where something else went awry. From Nugara's "T intersection" with highway 507 to Pincher Creek, it's supposed to be 23.5 km to the Syncline trail head and 24.5km to the St. Eloi trail head. Either his odometer is wrong, or mine is! I drive a 2004 Toyota Corolla that always seems to be bang on with my speedometer so I think my car is pretty accurate but it would be nice to confirm this with someone else so I'll simply give some further directions in case you are going to do either, or both of these peaks. According to my car, it's exactly 22.5 km to the Syncline parking spot and 23.5 km to the St. Eloi trail head. This is significant because you will either miss the obvious trail to St. Eloi or you will end up on the wrong ridge of Syncline, or you will have to bushwhack through some nasty bush to gain the right ridge on Syncline after you realize you're headed toward the wrong one. In case you can't read the 'tone' of this report, I'll spell it out for you in clear Verdana font. All three of those things happened to us in short order.
Here's how you avoid similar confusion. Make sure you park near Syncline's northeast ridge, not the southeast one. For St. Eloi, drive a bit further until you see a yellow sign and a place to park in the ditch. The yellow sign tells you to stay off the trail that you will hike in on. Apparently the area is being 'reclaimed' which leads to other problems if you're combining the two peaks, which will be discussed later! If you come to a bridge, you're too far for St. Eloi. The yellow sign is on the right side of the road (when driving towards Castle Mountain Resort) and is on a gravel berm about 20 or 30 feet into the ditch. If you're traveling 100 miles an hour you will probably not see the yellow sign because it's being 'reclaimed' too.
So we drove exactly 23.5 km to the yellow sign / berm, but of course we thought we were at the Syncline trail head, not the St. Eloi one. So we were planning on going up the ridge right in front of us, which I soon realized was the wrong one (I think we could have gone up this ridge but you never know). Since rain storms were moving through the area already all night, what followed was a bushwhack from hell. A wet hell. The bushes and grassy plants were soaking wet and honestly, neither Kevin nor I have ever had feet so soaking wet from simply walking through long grass before! My socks were making funny squishing sounds (funny thing is that I didn't find it that funny), but it wasn't worth wringing them out because they'd simply get wet right away again! The 1 km bushwhack back to the ridge was not cool either. We found ourselves in devil's club and brush that was way over our heads and so thick we had to scramble over / though it. Kev was only 5 or 6 feet behind me but he was completely out of sight! Thankfully it didn't last too long and we were gasping our way up steep, gravelly slopes to the northwest ridge. The bright side was that we didn't have to hike back to our car from the St. Eloi trip but that was little consolation when we were up to our armpits in undergrowth. Where the next 'weird' thing happened.
For some reason, the ridge looked like a nice clear, classic, grassy Rockies ridge, leading nicely up to two rock outcroppings (mentioned in the guide book) that we would go between to gain the summit. But the closer we got to the rock outcrops the less open the ridge became! I think part of the reason was that we didn't want to go climber's left because of a VERY strong wind so we ended up too far climber's right and were soon bushwhacking again. This time it was larch trees, so not quite as bad as earlier, but not an open walk either. This lasted till just before the two outcroppings and since everything was soaking wet it didn't make us real happy. The good part was that the rain had stopped and now we had mostly sunny skies with rain showers hammering Haig Mountain to the south and the Crowsnest to the north of us. We stopped briefly for lunch at a sheltered spot between the outcrops before heading up into a very strong wind and the summit of Syncline Mountain.
From the summit, we could clearly see the bumps in the traverse to the center peak and the center peak. We could also see St. Eloi, and it looked like a disturbingly long walk from where we were. The traverse over to the second summit looked straight forward enough though, so we skipped down the ridge towards the first bump. (Actually, only Kevin skipped, I simply walked. Kev is a real 'skipper' if you know what I mean...) We got pelted by ice pellets and rain on our way to the first bump on the ridge. What a pleasant day we were having... ;-) We got to the first bump and must have misread the guidebook because we went around it on the left, the guidebook says to go right, but either way works well. Then we could not see an easy way down to the col from the next bump.
We followed a very promising track around the skier's right of the bump but it ended in a short section of low fifth class, exposed climbing. Since we didn't have a rope, neither of us felt comfortable doing it and it certainly wasn't moderate scrambling so back up to the col between the bumps we went. Even the left side of the second bump was not an obvious route at all. We had to drop down at least 100 vertical meters to get around steep cliffs and slabby terrain with pebbles on it (the worst kind of accident terrain) which didn't feel like "staying high" to us. We side-slopped all the way around this terrain and ended up below the center summit and nowhere near the grassy slopes that we had seen earlier! At this point we decided that if we were going to bag St. Eloi we would have to forgo the center peak of Syncline and continue our traverse up to the ridge between Syncline and St. Eloi and summit that mountain instead. Since I didn't consider Syncline's second summit as an official summit, I had no problem with this but Kevin (who considers every summit of Syncline as distinct) was a bit disappointed. The second summit did look like fun to ascend from the ridge going to St. Eloi. If the weather was nicer I think we would have quickly bagged it from our position and then traversed over to St. Eloi.
The traverse over to St. Eloi was extremely windy but posed no major issues for us. It was actually very enjoyable as far as traverses to. We weren't side-hilling anymore so we covered ground pretty quickly. The clouds were thickening up too, which helped keep our motivation to keep going a bit higher. Right below the final summit slope we took a quick break and then left the packs and tackled the final 250-300 vertical meters. Twenty three minutes later we were on the summit (climbing without a pack is amazingly easy ;-)) with thick clouds all around us. There was a new register which we signed before snapping a few photos and heading back down to our packs.
Here the day got weird again. If only we had planned this trip ahead of time, instead of on our way to Mount Niles, I would have read Bob Spirko's St. Eloi trip report and therefore we would not have gotten ourselves all tangled up again. The gully right under the ascent slope to the summit of St. Eloi looks very innocent from above - and it is. We descended it very quickly on loose scree / grass and before we knew it we were going down a very pleasant little drainage. We knew that the guidebook ascent route for St. Eloi doesn't go up this drainage, but rather up two drainages to our (skier's) left but the going was easy and I knew there was (supposed to be) an obvious trail snaking up the valley below that we would run into (like on Mount Gladstone) so we didn't bother side-hill bashing to our left because quite frankly we were sick and tired of side-hilling at this point!
We should have side-hilled skier's left.
We found the same goat track that Bob mentions in his report and followed it for a bit. Since we didn't have Bob's report though, when the trail split left and right, we followed the right hand trail back towards the drainage. This was a bad mistake (I'll openly admit it was my idea). We should have known that this was a bad idea immediately upon hitting the creek again. The rock was so slippery we could hardly make it across. When we did get across we were in thick underbrush that was the nastiest bushwhacking either of us have ever done! Devil's club and tentacles of brush conspired to choke the life out of us and the slope was so steep we were in danger of plunging over cliffs back into the drainage with one wrong move! We should have turned back at this point but stubbornly continued, hoping that the slopes would open up again - but they didn't. After a very long and intense battle with the bush (Kev actually glissaded down a section of undergrowth rather than walk through it!) we emerged on a trail running down the valley towards our car. I didn't like the feel of this track though - it wasn't prominent enough. Sure enough, it soon ran dry. We turned back to the drainage and after descending another 50 vertical meters we encountered a 3 foot wide track with a clear trail running down the middle it. HOME FREE!!!
Or maybe not quite yet.
Again, Bob's trip report would have saved us here. Andrew's book doesn't comment on this route out of St. Eloi so we can't blame the guide book. The 3 foot wide swath through the jungle slopes below Syncline and St. Eloi happens to have a very nasty habit of vanishing completely! This was one of the oddest trail experiences I've had in a long time. One minute we were strolling nonchalantly down a beautiful trail and the next minute we were standing at a creek desperately searching all over the place for the trail - any trail! Again, since Andrew's book doesn't describe this part of the route we only knew that he says follow it to the ascent drainage and go up. He has no reason to describe where the trail crosses the creek several times, because he doesn't follow it far enough to know that it does this. He also doesn't have to mention that there are areas where the trail has either really vanished or avalanched out or is very hard to find. Well it does and it is.
The trail crosses the creek several times, and it's never obvious exactly where this happens. One minute you're walking merrily down the trail and the next minute all you have is thick, nasty bush on every side and a slick stream in the middle. Very frustrating times my friend - very frustrating times! What saved us on one occasion was me noticing that there was a very unnatural looking straight line running down a hillside - that was the road running way off on the other side of the creek - somewhere we never would have looked otherwise. What made the whole experience more exciting (we'll use that word even though there are others I can think of) was the humongous bear scat we kept seeing on the trail. No black bear could do that. This was a daddy grizzly and he was getting his fill of fiber. This made subsequent bushwhacking through stands of berry bushes a bit tense. I'm sure they could here us yelling in Pincher Creek! At least it was fiber he was full of - obviously a vegetarian bear. Although I did point out more than once that he was probably craving meat at this point (doesn't every vegetarian crave meat? That's why they all think that eggs and fish aren't meat right?). Our strategy in case we ran into papa bear was that I would quickly stab Kev with my hiking pole. He would run off into the bush with a fresh trail of blood to distract the bear while I went for help. I'm not sure if Kev actually heard this suggestion but in my books, silence means affirmation so that was the approved plan as far as I was concerned.
After what seemed like an eternity of bushwhacking and hiking on a great trail for short stretches in between, we encountered the first section of trail that is in Andrew's book. This section is very straight-forward and had us right back to our car in short order. When we got to the car we turned around and read the yellow sign stating that we should not enter the area because it was being "reclaimed". Our conspiracy theory is that 'the government' has destroyed all cairns and flagging on this route to discourage people from using it. Don't laugh too loud - we didn't see more than a couple of half-hearted cairns and not one tiny bit of flagging all day long. Our round-trip time was just under 9 hours with essentially no breaks at all and walking fairly fast where we could.
Should you repeat this route? Have you read the report - are you crazy!? Seriously though, if you insist on trying these two peaks in one day, I would suggest doing St. Eloi first. Park at the yellow sign (23.5 or 24.5km from 507, depending what you drive) and follow Nugara's route description to the letter. When you're done St. Eloi, traverse to the second summit of Syncline and skirt around the two or three bumps on the right, back towards the main summit of Syncline. Then follow the northeast ridge down and bushwhack to the road before walking a kilometer back to your car on the road. This will save you a lot of anxiety. I guarantee it.
Or just be sane and do the routes separately. That would work too.
Kev heads up the northeast ridge.
View to the east looks pretty clear at this point.
Kev heads up to the rock outcrops.
The view up highway 774 from the ridge.
Rain moves in from the southwest over Gravenstafel Ridge.
The second and third summits of Syncline Mountain from the first.
Vern on the summit of Syncline Mountain.
The first bump on the ridge. We went left around it. Could have gone to the right too.
Very colorful cliff bands around the first bump. Summit of Syncline in the background.
The second bump. St. Eloi Mountain in the background.
Gravenstafel and Haig with the ridge of St. Eloi on the right.
Kev descending under the second bump.
Kev on the side-hill bash traverse.
Looking back at the first bump.
Gravenstafel and Haig from the traverse. Amazing colors and scenery as usual in the Castle Area. Even Kev was raving about the colorful rocks and flowers after awhile.
Kev descends the ridge towards St. Eloi. Third and second peaks of Syncline Mountain in the background.
All the bumps and summits of Syncline Mountain are visible in this shot.
The valley on the north side of the traverse from Syncline to St. Eloi is incredibly lush and quite remote. It looks like there's a nice trail in there too. Possibly a longer access to St. Eloi?
Vern on the summit of St. Eloi with Syncline Mountain in the background.
Syncline Mountain is an awesome looking peak. The atmospherics make it even better.
Kev is just visible on the descent from St. Eloi back down to the col. Our route out is to the right of this photo.
Our entire route out looks pretty easy from this vantage point. The obvious drainage is fine till you get to the point where it vanishes in the picture. There's a reason it vanishes. It's called 'jungle'. :-) At this point you should traverse out skier's left.
Southfork Mountain from the descent route.
Flowers and Gravenstafel Ridge.
More colorful slopes. We weren't swimming in undergrowth yet at this point.
The treasure (i.e. trail) really is at the end of this rainbow. Too bad we didn't search for it at this point.
Kev is only 4 feet in front of me. It's steep and it's nasty. And that's not a smile either. It's a grimace. Trust me.
This is much more like it! If you're not on a trail this obvious, either you're lost or the trail is.
Wild Gaillardia. Love this flower!
Don't read this sign if you want to hike in on a good trail.