Summit Elevation (m): 2618
Trip Date: June 14, 2008
Elevation Gain (m): 1750
Trip Time (hr): 9
Total Trip Distance (km): 14
Quick ‘n Dirty Rating: Class 2/3- you fall, you break something
Difficulty Notes: No major difficulties – mostly a hike with easy scrambling and some route finding.
Technical Rating: SC6; YDS (3rd class)
GPS Track: Download
Map: Google Maps
June 14th, 2008 found me wanting to bag a peak pretty badly! The spring of 2008 has not been a very friendly one for scramblers and hikers. It’s been wet, and cold and nasty. After much deliberation, Wietse and I decided that we would head down to Waterton for the day, attempting the Lost / Anderson / Bauerman triplicate. I got up at 4:45 and arrived in Okotoks a bit early. After getting a coffee I picked Wietse up at 06:00 and we barreled down highway #2 towards Waterton. Once we got around Pincher Creek we started to rethink our Waterton plans. First of all, the mountains to the west didn’t look too bad for conditions, especially compared to the Kananaskis peaks we’d been staring at from Calgary. We both decided that we really just wanted to bag something and if we decided that Gravenstafel and Haig looked too snowy we would console ourselves with an easy / short day up Table mountain.
As we drove towards the Castle area I was amazed at the wonderful scenery unfolding in front of us. I’d never been there before and to put it plainly, I think I’ve found a new favorite area to climb in! There are tumbling waterfalls and streams everywhere. Towering cliffs and mountains are connected by easy ridges that reveal a panorama of brightly colored rock – truly a very special area of the Rockies. We arrived at the Castle Mountain Resort around 08:30 to a beautiful and very quiet morning. On the drive up to the resort we noted how only one of the hundreds of wind powered generators was actually turning – very strange to see in an area that’s almost always very windy. I had a bright idea on the way into the resort area. Why not climb Gravenstafel Ridge first and then, depending on conditions, go for Haig? This is the reverse of Andrew’s suggested route but looking at the surrounding peaks we knew we could get to the top of the ridge, but weren’t so confident about Mount Haig – there was still a substantial amount of snow on all the surrounding terrain.
As we were getting our gear ready for the scramble, a resident of the resort ambled toward us with a cheerful greeting. He wondered whether we were planning to go hiking in the area and when we confirmed his question he pointed out that there was a sow grizzly with two cubs “somewhere up there on the ski hill”. After some deliberation and asking him how aggressive she was we decided that if we went right up the middle of the ski runs and made lots of noise there wouldn’t be any (good) reason for the bear to bother with us and we would continue as planned, our only assumption being that the bear was a reasonable one. Shortly after the first fellow left, another one approached and also mentioned the bears. He affirmed that the mother wasn’t overly aggressive, she was near his house one morning that week and didn’t do any damage to anyone. Since this was a resort, obviously she was used to humans working and walking around her territory so we didn’t feel too unsafe. It’s amazing how my attitude towards these creatures has changed over the past few years! I know for a fact that two or three years ago I wouldn’t have gone anywhere near where I knew a sow grizzly was living with two cubs and now I was calmly hiking right up through an area where a confirmed bear was living.
I should point out that Wietse had his bear spray ready and we had a strategy worked out where he would stand in one spot calmly spraying the bear in the face while I ran screaming hysterically towards the chair lift and clambered up the ladder on the pole to wait for rescue in one of the chairs. Only when I was safe would Wietse turn around and outrun the enraged and now spiced up, female grizzly. I should also point out that Wietse didn’t know all the details about this plan, only that he had the responsibility of standing his ground and spicing the bear with pepper… Our progress up the ski run was admirable. I’m not sure if it was the threat of a local family of bears or the fact that it was a beautiful morning but either way, we gained height quickly under the chair lift. It was a profitable day too. I found a credit card and Wietse found 10 cents! I bet that the first person to hike up that chair at the end of the first big melt finds a lot of cool gear. I may just make it a habit to find hikes that go under chair lifts and do them early season from now on.
After gaining about 500 meters of height we were at the top of the first chair lift. My pack was feeling ridiculously heavy and my knees didn’t have much ‘juice’ either. I was carrying way too much camera gear, and knew it, but stubbornly wanted to “try something”. I’m a dummy sometimes. Whatever made me think I had to lug my 70-200 f/4 L IS canon lens up 1600 meters of vertical height gain and two summits was dumb. There were a few other photography items that should have remained in the car. When I tested Wietse’s pack against mine, to see how heavy mine really was, I couldn’t believe how light his pack was. I think mine was at least 2x heavier, if not 3x. Oops. Good thing the snow was fairly consolidated and we started gamely up the second chair lift, kicking steps in snow, up the steep hill. We continued to gain height quickly and after 850 vertical meters of gain we were at the top of the second chair. Gravenstafel’s summit is behind this top lift, so up we went. Another 100 meters of height gain had us on our first summit of the day within 2 hours of leaving the parking lot.
The panorama at the top was very impressive – much more than I was expecting. For some reason I always thought that the Castle area peaks were unimpressive, but I could not have been more wrong on this assumption. Our spirits were also boosted when we looked towards Mount Haig and the traverse between it and us. There was snow, but the route would go. So off we went, down Gravenstafel’s south ridge towards Mount Haig.
We knew that we had a tough slog ahead of us as we left the summit of Gravenstafel Ridge and started our traverse to Haig. Since Mount Haig was an 1100 meter height gain and Gravenstafel Ridge was only 950 meters, with a 300 meter drop to the col between Gravenstafel and Haig, we figured that we had to gain another 500 meters from the col to the summit of Mount Haig. It didn’t look like 500 meters but we were actually bang on with this number so don’t say I didn’t warn you! The descent down Gravenstafel was fast and easy. We took a quick break at the col – the weather and views were sublime at this spot.
The ridge connecting the col to the final 300 vertical meters of Haig’s west ridge looked a bit daunting from this angle, but it proved to be fun, hands-on scrambling almost all the way up. We were both thinking that doing the loop in this direction was working out pretty good so far. The final 300 vertical meters almost killed me. My pack was still way too heavy and so Wietse took control of the situation and broke trail to the summit.
The summit view was incredible and we were very surprised to only be the 8th unique summit party (one guy from Pincher Creek was in there 3 times) since the Centennial register was placed. It is quite a slog but well worth it – and considering how prominent it is to a popular ski resort, I would think more people would visit this summit. I’m sure Andrew’s book will attract more traffic to this peak. We had a hard time getting off the summit – not because we couldn’t down climb but because the weather was so nice and the ground was warm and comfortable! We both dozed off for a few minutes, it felt like winter finally left in that moment.
The way down the Southeast ridge was interesting and fun. Good scree with solid down climbing and colorful scenery made the time fly by. Until we got to the little lake, that is. Here time slowed down again. This was the perfect spot to set up a small camp for the night. Unfortunately we didn’t have bivy sacks or a tent and we had to regain the ridge ahead of us before hiking out via the ski hill. We underestimated how high up the ridge we had to go. I was hoping we could go up halfway and follow a bench around the nose and onto the ski hill, but that turned out to be a false hope.
We’d have been better off just to go right to the top of this ridge and follow it out. It’s a 200 meter height gain, and it hurts at this point, but you’re either going to gain that height or do some really nasty bushwhacking and side-hill traversing – so pick your demon and get it done and over with!
The top of the lift is actually 100 meters lower than the top of this ridge, which is longer then we were expecting. Eventually we found the chair lift and had an easy hike out from there.
Our final round trip time was just over 9 hours at a steady pace. It took over 4 hours to descend from Mount Haig to the parking lot – so if you do the loop in reverse like we did be prepared for that final 200 meter gain from the lake. One of the best one day, multi peak trips I’ve done in a long time. Andrew (and those who helped him discover the Castle area) deserves big ‘kudos’ for writing about this area and opening up new possibilities for peak baggers in the Rockies.