Summit Elevation (m): 2533
Elevation Gain (m): 700
Trip Time (hr): 7.5
Total Trip Distance (km): 10.5
Quick ‘n Dirty Rating: Class 2/3 – you fall, you sprain something
Difficulty Notes: Easy to moderate scrambling depending on the route chosen up to the summit and on the alternate return. This is a combined traverse of Belmore Brown and Tiara Peak.
Technical Rating: SC5; YDS (Hiking)
GPS Track: Gaia
Map: Google Maps
On November 24th 2007, Wietse and I dragged ourselves out of bed way too early and headed out to the Powderface Trail and the parking area for Tiara Peak and Belmore Brown. Wietse already did Belmore Brown on November 17, a week earlier. My plan was to head up Belmore Brown Peak first and then do the traverse over to Tiara Peak. I would presumably meet up with Wietse on the traverse. He promised me that he was not going to go quickly and that I would have plenty of time to catch up with him. I wasn’t sure about that but agreed to give it a shot. I figured worst case scenario he would be breaking trail for me!
Belmore Brown Peak
Because it was still dark when we left the trail head, we got ourselves a bit confused at the start. It wasn’t rocket science where we had to go and by the light of the moon we were soon crossing a cut block on a well packed trail in the snow. The temperature was chilly but not extremely cold and the wind was blowing but seemed short of unreasonable. As we made our way along the tracks in the snow the sun began to rise and threw our surroundings into a pale shade of pink. It was short lived, but very beautiful and we made sure to catch the moment on camera.
Within an hour we were looking up at Tiara and getting close to the turn off to Belmore Brown. The route was well marked with a trail in the snow (obviously a very popular late season objective), cairns and even bright orange flagging. As the trail steepened I followed the tracks up onto Belmore Brown’s south east ridge while Wietse continued up the gully before trending climber’s left for the ridge to Tiara.
I was pleasantly surprised by the nature of the terrain on the the south slopes of Belmore. I was expecting very tedious, loose scree but instead it was firm chunks of rock with grippy slab between. This made for fast and fun hiking and before I knew it I was standing on the east summit.
I was again surprised when I peered over a deep crack between the west and east summits – I wasn’t expecting that! I scrambled over the crack and after a few quick pictures on the slightly higher west summit I was making my way along the ridge to Tiara.
Ridges that have elevation gains and losses often look much worse than they really are and the one from Belmore Brown Peak to Tiara Peak is no exception. There are actually 2 or 3 high points on the ridge traverse from Belmore to Tiara that are noticeably higher than the summits of Belmore Brown. When you’re looking from Belmore towards the traverse you may be discouraged but don’t be! First of all, the distance isn’t nearly what it looks like (thank goodness) and the height gain isn’t too bad either. I’m not gonna lie to you, you will be gaining more height than if you only bagged Tiara, but what did you expect from a two peak day? The best part of the ridge is the unexpected scrambling you get to do on it! There are a few steep cliffs that are the most fun if you simply tackle them straight on, but if you really want you can avoid them by circling underneath.
Eventually I came to the highest point on the ridge and could see Wietse flailing up some steep snow slopes underneath the ridge. I was a bit puzzled by the fact that the opposite side of the ridge (the west side) was completely snow free, but figured that he must be avoiding the wind or something (there was a very brisk wind on the ridge). Because I was on the bare side of the ridge and he was on snow, I quickly caught up to Wietse and yelled over to him. He was quite astonished at my speed and was a bit sheepish when he realized that he didn’t need to be cramponed up on snow but could have been walking on bare ground! He thought that the ridge dropped off on the west side and since he never went all the way up to check it out he didn’t realize the true nature of the terrain. It didn’t take long for Wietse to traverse over the ridge crest and take off the crampons and we continued up the ridge, soon coming to the summit block of Tiara.
It was obvious right away that we would have to put the crampons back on for a short traverse over very firm snow slopes underneath the east face of the summit block. The gully routes looked like fun, but we didn’t want to risk getting into icy terrain without protection so we decided to do the easy route. Considering it was November 24, we were lucky to be bagging peaks in these conditions anyway! We traversed around to the south side of the summit block and I was surprised by the terrain there. For some reason I thought we’d just be able to start scrambling up right away, but first we had to traverse around to the west side, which we did. After taking the crampons off it didn’t take long to grunt up the west side and onto the summit of Tiara. I should note, however, that the west slopes are very loose and quite steep. I wouldn’t go up there with a large party – you’d be kicking rocks on each other all the way up and down. I nearly took Wietse out with a large rock on the way down, it’s a good thing he stopped when I yelled!
Once we got back off the summit block we had a decision to make. We could try the alternate descent route which would be quicker and meant we probably wouldn’t need to bother with crampons or we could traverse back around the east side of the summit block and then descend Wietse’s ascent route. Since we had to be back in Calgary before 17:00 we both agreed that the alternate descent was the way to go and proceeded down the south east slopes below the two pinnacles (on their east side). Here’s where we got a bit dumb. The snow was not deep on this slope, but was almost so hard that we needed crampons again. As we worked our way lower we started getting into a steep gully system. I became more and more nervous as the snow became deeper and deeper, but the travel was quick and there were no signs of whoomping or cracking in the snow. In a classic case of getting ‘suckered’ into a terrain trap, we continued descending quite quickly, rather enjoying the soft snow and speedy pace.
When we got to the top of a small bowl we started thinking that maybe it would at least be prudent to separate in case of avalanche or sloughing so Wietse started glissading into the bowl. Since we were on bare rock most of the day, and since the snow pack was so shallow (we could see scree and rocks in various places on the slope) we really didn’t expect anything to happen. But of course it did. As Wietse approached the bottom of the bowl there was a sudden ‘whoomp!’ and the entire bowl about 10 feet below him sheared off and began sliding down the narrow gully below. As I stood there and watched very calmly, the avalanche gathered speed and more snow as it slithered down the gully and out of sight, leaving only a smaller powder cloud in its wake. Even though the slide seemed very slow, it was all over in about 15-20 seconds or so. Wietse sat frozen on the slope and neither of us said anything for a bit. Then Wietse looked up at me and quickly got off the snow slab he was still on and went up the other side of the bowl, on hard slab, now that the soft stuff was all off of it! I looked near my feet and was astonished to see a large crack in the snow at the top of the bowl. Then I realized how lucky we were that for some unexplained reason, only half the bowl had let go! Wietse was left sitting on the half that didn’t slide – but it was definitely itching to join it’s other half way down the gully! We decided that we (obviously) needed to get the heck out of there and after some scary (but really fast) traversing under the ticking time bomb that was the upper bowl we were out of the gully.
Since the avalanche was relatively small and peaceful (no 200km/h powder slide), we kind of convinced ourselves that even if caught we would’ve been fine. Once we got down the gully further (we descended in the trees on the slope above the gully) we saw where the smaller powder cloud in the slide came from. There was a 20-30 foot cliff in the gully that we would’ve been carried over – and that was more serious than the size of the slide for sure! I think it was at this point that we realized just how blessed we were that the upper bowl held. The depth and speed of the slide probably would not have harmed us, but the rocks and terrain that we would have gone over had the potential for a much grimmer outcome. We were both glad that this happened early in the year and on a small scale. We will certainly be ‘on our toes’ for the remainder of the winter season! We also won’t (foolishly) leave home without avy gear again when there’s snow on the ground, even only a couple of inches. On hindsight we were so dumb to be in that gully! There was wind loading, we were in an avalanche path, there was a terrain trap, the wind loaded snow was unstable, the temperature was rising (it was 12:30pm) – it didn’t take a rocket scientist to realize that we were in a place we never should have been! It’s very embarrassing but I guess no-one’s perfect and hopefully we learned our lesson and anyone reading this may learn from our mistakes.
The rest of the trip went off without a hitch. We descended forested slopes in sugar snow (4-12 inches of it) and walked back down a tributary of the creek we walked in on. Eventually we rejoined our ascent track and enjoyed a nice walk back to the car. I agree with Linda Breton that small mountains are the worst for giving you grief! I think it’s because you don’t expect much from them. This is a highly recommended trip for a late season outing. Remember that the Powderface Trail is closed on December 01 and watch the conditions.