Summit Elevation (m): 3199
Trip Date: Saturday, August 20, 2005
Elevation Gain (m): 1920
Round Trip Time (hr): 8.5
Total Trip Distance (km): 12.5
Quick ‘n Dirty Rating: Class 4 – you fall, you break something or worse
Difficulty Notes: A fall on the crux would severely injure or kill so take necessary precautions.
Technical Rating: SC7; YDS (4th)
GPS Track: Download
Map: Google Maps
On August 20, 2005 Sonny and I scrambled up over 1900 meters from the town of Field, BC to the summit of Mount Stephen. The weather was a beautiful, clear 20 degrees with a light south breeze keeping us cool for most of the day. We started out pretty late for such a big mountain because we first ‘had’ to get permits which would allow us passage through a world heritage fossil site. I put that in quotes because we ended up meeting 3 other guys none of who actually bothered with the passes. Officially of course, you should get a permit, if for no other reason than to avoid hefty fines of up to $25,000.
My overall impression of Mount Stephen is that if you do the Kane route it deserves it’s difficult rating. If you do the ‘Sonny’ route you are in for a real treat. The first hint of what was to come came on the drive to the trailhead. Sonny directed me up a nasty back alley when the paved road through town would’ve worked just fine. Sonny likes to explore different routes.
We started off at the trailhead around 09:30 and quickly started climbing. If there’s one good thing about all the elevation gain on this mountain, it’s that half of it is done on a good trail. Once we entered the ‘blue zone’ (no stopping allowed) we kept the pace – a nice slow and steady uphill push that saw us gaining the first 1000 meters in about 2 hours under a nice cool morning breeze. We were feeling quite put off by the fact that we weren’t seeing any fossils when all of a sudden we started seeing them everywhere. It was pretty cool to be walking on top of hundreds of very impressive fossils just scattered on the ground all over the place. There were also signs warning us away from the ‘red zone’ (attack helicopters will come after you).
Soon after encountering the main fossil beds we noticed a guy wandering around the edge of the red zone picking up fossils (a huge no-no here) and gazing into space with a rather empty look. At first I thought he must be a ranger or warden because we were the only permits on the mountain that day but it became pretty obvious that he really had no idea where (or who?!) he was. I asked him some questions and he avoided answering any of them clearly. He didn’t really know what time he left the trailhead and thought he could somehow avoid the fossil zones (even though he was right in the middle of it). Sonny and I didn’t become alarmed until he suggested that we continue climbing as a team.
I told him he could join us – what else was I going to say – but under no conditions were Sonny or I going to take responsibility for his lack of a permit or him picking up fossils. If helicopters came for him or rubber bullets started flying he was on his own! Thankfully he very quickly fell behind our increased uphill pace and soon we spotted him making his way slowly back down. I think he got a bit scared by all our talk about crazy wardens and permits. Sonny and I had an interesting discussion about how we didn’t really like scrambling with complete strangers because you never know their abilities. After this rather bizarre encounter we continued up very steep dirt / shale slopes until finally we were above the fossil bed zones.
The story doesn’t end here. Once back in Calgary, Sonny got a phone call from the Yoho National Park staff, inquiring about a guy they’d caught with a pack full of fossils, descending Mount Stephen when we were there! Because we were registered, they had our contact information and I generously let Sonny be the ‘trip leader’ so he got the call. There was a chance he’d have to go to court to help prosecute the guy but as far as I know the case never went further.
At this point we still had 1000 meters of elevation gain to go and even though my cardio was fine, I could feel my legs singing a bit already. We pushed on up the shoulder and through a very loose scree gully until we came to a huge scree slope that had smatterings of a trail interspersed between large fields of chunky scree boulders. We pushed ever upwards towards what we thought was probably the summit bump. WRONG! As we approached the ‘summit bump’ I realized that we weren’t even close yet. We still had 500 vertical meters to go according to my trusty Suunto altimeter watch.
Here’s where we had two options. If you want to make every other section on this mountain seem quite straight-forward then I would recommend you do the Sonny route. It rivals anything I did on Smuts two weeks ago – actually for me personally it was worse because most of the holds were very loose. Don’t get me wrong, it was a lot of fun and like I said it made all the other sections seem quite tame – including jumping over empty space and severe exposure in several other parts of the upper ridge. For the curious, the Sonny route goes straight through the block on top of the huge scree slope. There is a darker opening that you can see from the shoulder and you simply go straight up through it. The first part looks bad enough but once you’re about half way up things get vertical and loose really quick. I was temporarily stuck for about 30 seconds in this section desperately trying to find a solid foot / hand hold and finally had to close my mind and just ‘go for it’.
The sane, or ‘Kane’ route follows faint trails around to climber’s right of the wall and scrambles up a steep / loose gully back to the left to get on top of it. If you do this route I would recommend the steeper but more stable climbers left of the gully on a bit of a ridge. Once at the top of the crux we noticed the cairns and the much tamer gully climbers right of where we came up. We both agreed that we would be taking a different route down. We took a breather and Sonny climbed a small tower for some cool photo ops and then it was time for the final 500 vertical meters to the apex of this huge peak.
I would strongly recommend that if you are comfortable with steep and exposed places take the ridge as much as possible for the upper part of the mountain. It’s possible to go to climbers right around most of this stuff but you will miss out on some excellent scrambling that you’ve paid a lot of heartbeats for! There are plenty of cairns to guide you up these areas so it’s pretty hard to get too far off route. Remember – Kane never expects an experienced scrambler to feel the need for a rope in good conditions on any of his routes. After our crux we came to an impossibly steep wall (that Sonny briefly considered scaling!) that we went around on climbers right, following cairns through a couple of cool moves that brought us beside another steep slope to our left that we thought about going up. Instead we kept traversing and came to a point where you could either head up to climbers left on steep (cairned) ledges or continue traversing to a steep snow gully. Both options lead you to that steep wall that you see in color in Kane’s book. I went up the ledges and traversed a very exhilarating and exposed ridge to the wall while Sonny struggled up the gully.
At this point we heard voices and realized that two guys were coming down the steep wall. It turns out that they didn’t have permits and had left the parking area at 07:00. One of them used an old rope that was only held in place by a small rock that was wedged in between two bigger ones, while the other guy removed the rope after determining that it was ‘unsafe’ – I couldn’t believe anyone would seriously consider putting all their weight on such an unprotected / old section of rope! It’s at the transition from the ridge to the wall that you do your first jump over a lot of nothing. It’s kind of a cool feeling but at the same time you really have to hope that the landing zone holds.
Sonny joined me at the top of the wall and we worked our way towards the summit which was still unseen at this point. Here’s where I led us slightly off-route. Again, it probably works to avoid exposed traversing by staying quite low to climbers right but eventually you will have to go up anyway. I followed some tracks along snow at the base of the ridge and eventually realized that we’d be better off just going up. We turned back and scrambled up to the summit ridge at the first possible spot. It looks fairly nasty but that’s why this is a difficult scramble and after the ‘Sonny crux’ this was no big deal! The last 125 meters is very exposed and must be bone-dry to even consider. No wind is also preferable here. We topped out on Mount Stephen in 4 hours and 20 minutes from the parking lot.
At the summit we enjoyed a beautiful panorama of mountains, ruined slightly by a small shack that is anchored to the mountain with a bunch of thick steel cables. The summit register is actually in this shack and there is a warning in the register that if you let the trailer door shut behind you, you are trapped inside and will have to exit a small window! The register was from 1988 and we added our bits of wisdom to it. Sonny composed his ‘trooper shot’ before we reluctantly headed back down.
We stuck more closely to the ridge on the way down and agreed that it was exposed but more fun than avoiding it. There were a couple of places where we had to jump over small gaps and the jump from the base of the wall back onto the ridge was very interesting. Best not to think too long about what you’re doing in these situations.
We avoided our crux gully on the way down by going to skiers left and negotiating our way down the more stable terrain on the sides. After this there were no other obstacles. Dipping our heads in the creek on the way out was a really good refresher and Sonny led us at full speed to my waiting car.
Our round trip time was 8.5 hours including 50 minutes at the summit. Overall this was a fabulous trip. Both Sonny and I commented more than once that it didn’t seem like 1920 meters height gain. I think it’s partly because we were both feeling pretty good and there are enough fun parts in the last 500 meters to keep you from thinking about all the effort it’s taking.
A highly recommended trip for experienced parties.