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. Ah 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.
[Looking at the traverse - we'd go right here through bush.]
[Hiking up the lower part of a drainage - we'd have to eventually cut further climber's right to another ridge from here.]
[Finally getting close to the correct ridge - to the far right. We should have stayed lower and just traversed all the way there but after driving hundreds of kilometers we were kind of desperate to gain some height I guess!]
[Looking down our rising, bushwhack approach which comes from somewhere bottom left. As you can see, the weather isn't perfect here either.]
[Views to the east over Southfork towards Table (L) belie the weather to the west.]
[The 'rock gate' is ahead.]
[Kev scrambles up towards the 'rock gate'.]
[The views east from just under the summit. From left to right, Table, Whistler, Gladstone, Victoria, Castle, Windsor and Southfork across the West Castle River in the foreground.]
[Looking down through the 'gate'.]
[Looking back to the north over Suicide and Gardiner Creeks to the small foothills and prairie.]
[The other two summits of Syncline from just under the east summit.]
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.
[Incredible mood lighting over Gravenstafel and Haig - to the right of the Castle Mountain Resort in the valley below.]
[Summit views include left to right, Table, Whistler, Gladstone, Victoria, Castle, Windsor and Southfork in the foreground.]
[The weather doesn't look great at this point! Gravenstafel and Haig at left and St. Eloi at far right.]
[It's almost impossible to tell which of the three summits of Syncline are highest without GPS measurements. In my experience, just because a summit looks higher in the mountains, doesn't make it higher - and these all look very close!]
[Views to the west include Hellebeke (L) and McCarty (R).]
[Starting our traverse to St. Eloi - the first obstacle is a pinnacle on the ridge between the east and south summit.]
[A view back to the surprisingly sunny summit of Syncline as we descend on the St. Eloi traverse.]