After scrambling up Mount Norquay the night before, I found myself heading back to the mountains on Thursday, June 28 2007 with Kevin Papke. Kev and I had met over Starbucks through Dave Stephens and this was to be our first trip together. Kev found my house no problem and after stopping briefly (or not - that Tim Horton's was SLOW) for gas and coffee we were speeding down the highway towards our destination - Tombstone Mountain South.
We seemed to hit it off pretty good and after swapping war stories about our experiences in the mountains it didn't take long before we were pulling into the Elbow Trail parking lot in the Highwood Pass area. We geared up quickly and soon Kev was setting a furious pace up the steep trail to the lakes. Within 20 minutes we were ogling the peaceful area of Elbow Lake - both of us thought it would be the perfect family backpacking trip because of the extremely short 1.5km approach. Mount Rae was reflected beautifully in the water and the cool morning air carried the scent of pines and wet earth to us. We both reflected on how lucky we were to have the opportunity to get away from the concrete jungle and be in the middle of nowhere, letting our stress of living just melt away.
Of course we still had a mountain to climb so the meditation was over quickly with Kev bounding away around the shoreline towards our objective! Soon we could see the mountain and it looked kind of nasty from our angle. We double checked the book and sure enough, that was the right one so we headed off towards it. Allow me to digress a bit here about the approach to Tombstone.
First of all, this is one of the most beautiful alpine meadows I think I've ever seen. The rolling hills of green grass and flowers with towering mountains all around and a meandering stream running down the middle of it creates a surreal environment. I'm sure that this has to be prime bear country and we did see bear signs along the approach. Secondly, there are two ways of approaching the scramble route. The hard way (we did this on the approach) and the easy way (we did that on the way out). The hard way is to simply go straight across those lovely meadows towards the south ridge till you eventually hit a trail running around the mountain. We ended up crossing two fast / deep streams about knee deep with no bridges and doing some short but nasty bush whacking on top of that. A far gentler, but slightly further approach is to keeping hiking on the road past at least 3 obvious trails branching to your left. Two of these trails will be cairned but if you can hold your peak bagging instincts in check for just a bit longer you will come on a trail that is actually SSE of Tombstone's south ridge. Following this trail will take you back north west towards Tombstone, across the creeks and then will actually turn straight west as you traverse back across the end of the ridge. Again, if you can hold your peak bagging instincts in check for a second time (yes - I know how hard this can be!!) you will be rewarded with a clear view straight up the ridge to your right. There is no trail but when you come to this clearing you will know what I'm talking about. It's the first clear view up the ridge that you will have from the trail. If you can follow this description you will avoid ALL bushwhacking and have a very pleasant approach experience. Guaranteed. :-)
[Beautiful Elbow Lake is still in the morning calm.]
[Kevin confidently marches towards Tombstone South (R). We should have stayed on the trail a bit longer.]
So after our little nasty approach, Kev and I were more than ready for some solid rock. We didn't quite get the solid part as quickly as we would have liked, but we headed up steep slopes and were soon approaching tree line. We followed up along the right hand (climber's) of a prominent buttress and using the solid rock of the buttress we managed to mitigate the worst of the scree slope. Once we hit the ridge we could see that the scrambling was about to get much more interesting.
[The scrambling finally gets interesting as we gain the ridge proper.]
[There is still lots of scree but also plenty of exposure up ahead to keep us occupied.]
I really loved the scrambling along Tombstone's ridge. If you chose to stick right to the ridge you will be on what I would rate closer to 'difficult' terrain than the 'moderate' rating Kane gives it. I'm not sure if Kane's route did more traversing underneath the ridge (on climber's left) than our route but we were on some pretty airy terrain! There was one section in particular that would result in a rather quick fatality with a slip 6 inches to either side... Kev and I both agreed that this scramble was absolutely first rate and a bit tougher than we were expecting. The weather helped because it stayed sunny and warm with a nice cool breeze on our backs.
Sooner than we expected we were clambering up to the false summit. Another airy traverse (but not as good as the previous one) and a short, steep scramble had us on the windless summit. We lounged around on the summit for 15-20 minutes enjoying the satisfaction of a fun ascent. The other secret of Tombstone South is the incredible views! We could see a lot of front range peaks like Cornwall, Fisher, Remus, Romulus, Banded, Outlaw, Cougar and other big mountains like Joffre, King George, Assiniboine and Rae. All-too-soon it was time to start down and try to beat the rain that was building up in the west.
[Yep. There's some exposure!]
[Kevin still seems to be having fun!]
[We stayed right on the ridge the whole time. This resulted in a more difficult than moderate scramble, in my opinion. Slippage was not optional.]
[Plenty of steep, slabby terrain if you stray too far off the ridge.]
[Kevin regains the ridge near the summit.]
[Kevin and Vern on the summit of Tombstone Mountain South.]
[Mount Rae and the Rae glacier as seen from the summit of Tombstone South.]
[Looking towards Cougar Mountain, you can see the false summit on the left.]
[Mount Joffre pokes its head above the other peaks in this view to the south west.]
[Warrior Mountain and Waku Namba soar high above Kananaskis Lakes.]
[The mighty 'boine is back in view again!]
[The Royal Group. From left to right we have Princess Mary, King George, Prince Albert and Prince Edward.]
[Panorama from the summit of Tombstone South. ++]
[Interesting cornices on the east side of Tombstone Mountain.]
The real treat for us was the awesome descent conditions on Tombstone. We took Kane's alternate route down. Because of the heavy snow pack this past winter, we actually managed to descend loose scree and boot-ski down long patches of snow, even though July was just around the corner! We could not believe our good luck as each time we traversed over to skiers right there was another long snow-filled gully to ski down. There wasn't just 1 foot of snow either! In some spots it felt more like glacier travel than snow travel, as we could see down at least 6 feet on the sides of the snow pack. This is also why we didn't just glissade down. We wanted to be able to react quickly if the snow stability acted up or we got into a situation. I think it only took us about an hour to get down 800 meters from the summit - and we weren't racing either! After spending about 5 minutes walking down the stream bed, hawk-eyed Kevin found the trail we had taken briefly on our way up. This is the trail that you should take on the way up and down. We stuck to the trail all the way back to the Elbow Pass fire road and both commented on how much more pleasant that was then the bushwhack on the way up!
You can see the Tombstone Lakes far below Kevin as he makes his way cautiously down from the summit block.]
[This is what helped our speedy descent. Every narrow gully we came to, seemed to be filled with 2-6 feet of snow.]
This mountain was a great treat. I wasn't expecting it to be so much fun and I don't think Kev was either. Kevin and I both agreed that we matched each other's pace and conversation so I'm looking forward to many more outings. A highly recommended trip for people who don't mind some real airy traverses or scree slogging around them.