Summit Elevation (m): 2908
Elevation Gain (m): 1625
Round Trip Time (hr): 9
Total Trip Distance (km): 11.5
Quick ‘n Easy Rating: Class 4/5 – You fall you break something or die
Difficulty Notes: A difficult scramble with route finding and loose rock almost everywhere. You should be comfortable on a “Kane difficult” before attempting.
Technical Rating: SC7; YDS (4th)
Map: Google Maps
On Sunday, July 24 2011 I was joined by So Nakagawa and Ali for a jaunt up Mount Ishbel in Banff National Park near Hillside Meadows. Over the years Ishbel has become a bit of an obsession for me simply because when you drive home from anywhere west of the Castle Mountain junction you get an amazing view of the long ridge of Ishbel rising up to an impressive summit. Also, over the past few years a number of friends have done the mountain and have come back with stories of a hands-on difficult scrambling experience and varying degrees of satisfaction with the ascent. The descent down the east face is almost always described as being much more involved – most parties rappel at least some portion of it.
Our goal on this trip was to make this a true scrambling experience – no alpine techniques. We brought a rope and some gear just in case things got testy but our resolute goal was to NOT use climbing gear. (Thanks to Ali for carrying the rope all day!) There were a few trip reports we used to prepare for our outing, including Dow Williams, Sonny Bou and Andrew Nugara. One thing about Ishbel that’s also true for 95% of mountains in general, is that the amount of fun or fear you experience will depend entirely on your route choice. This mountain has plenty of ‘fear’ options but also has a high ‘fun’ factor for scramblers if you’re careful about choosing your route.
We started our trip from the Hillside Meadows pullout, which is actually just east of the meadows. It was a balmy 3 degrees and we even encountered light frost on our way through the forest on climber’s right of the meadows. We contoured quite a bit to climber’s right of the meadows area – aiming for the low point of the south ridge instead of gaining it from the west side. On hindsight you could probably save a bit of time by heading straight up through the meadows and gaining the ridge a bit higher up, but read on before committing to this approach.
Two things surprised me about Ishbel. The first surprise for me was the amount of bushwhacking involved in gaining the ridge. We contoured quite a bit around to climber’s right, trying to access the ridge lower down and also avoiding some of the blow-down in the burn areas. We did end up climbing over and under a fair amount of nasty, jumbled, burnt bush and anyone who’s done this before knows how much energy this can sap first thing in the morning! To be honest I found the bushwhacking on Ishbel comparable to Inglismaldie – shorter in length but more dense in sections. Once we finally gained the ridge we trended back to our left and ascended very steep grassy slopes. This area was covered in a carpet of wildflowers and I tried not to get too distracted with the camera since we were only just starting our day. 😉
I didn’t have any pictures along from other trip reports, so we kind of had to guess regarding the ‘first significant rock wall’ that these reports mention. We were pretty confident we had the right wall since there was an obvious trail heading down along it to the left. The ‘amphitheater’ description from several trip reports was a bit confusing. If you follow the left trail along the cliff face you will first drop down a ways before trending back up. If you keep going you will come on a huge amphitheater / scree bowl. This is NOT the amphitheater that Robert Lee or Sonny are talking about. The amphitheater / cliff access that seems to work best starts up the cliff where the trees / grass are growing and there are small ledges to work your way up. This area is slightly back from where you spot the large scree bowl along the trail. This should not be more than moderate scrambling or you’re off route.
Once we were up the cliff face we were in a smaller amphitheater of loose scree. We worked our way straight up this bowl and then went climber’s left to gain the ridge proper again. I wrote earlier that two things surprised me about Ishbel. One was the bushwhacking, the other was the level of difficulty. Our route was not as difficult as I was expecting.
Once on the ridge you have choices. You can either stick right on top of the ridge from this point on which will involve a serious down climb quite soon, or you can temper down the difficulty by traversing grass / dirt / rock slopes on the east side of the ridge (climber’s right), crossing through several bowls and not gaining too much height since you will have to lose it all again anyway. We did the traverse and I believe this route choice puts Ishbel into a solid scramble as opposed to a climbing route. The traverse we did, also significantly sped up our ascent. The traverse is still exposed and loose in sections and route finding is key. There are no trails and you kind of have to guess and use your route-finding senses to eventually gain the ridge shortly after the crux section which is described in detail by Sonny.
Once we gained the ridge again, the scrambling certainly picked up a notch. I would compare the overall difficulty to Smuts, Northover and Fox – maybe slightly easier but still very exposed with loose rock and lots of no-slip zones. We had a ton of fun on this section, Ali led us through it pretty quickly. He is very confident on exposed terrain and more than once I was amazed at his nonchalant walking over 12-18 inch wide ridge sections with nothing but air on either side! Good thing it wasn’t windy!
Eventually we came to a much more serious looking ridge section. I knew we were about 200 vertical meters from the top so I scouted around to climber’s right and sure enough, a scree ledge system ran up the east side of the ridge. Incidentally there are virtually no cairns on any part of the route – it doesn’t get ascended often so don’t go up there expecting cairns or flagging to show you the way. I know of more than once person who has free solo’d the upper ridge, but this is probably going beyond scrambling. It’s nice to know there’s an easier route for descent if you do choose the more difficult ridge on the way up.
The scree ledge started out quite narrow and eventually got wider the higher we went. We followed it right to the end at which point we traversed up to climber’s left on very loose terrain to gain the summit. The summit views did not disappoint. A plethora of unnamed peaks greeted us to the east along with many familiar peaks to the west and south. There was no wind at the summit and a blue sky with puffy white clouds kept us at the top for almost an hour before heading back down.
We decided to descend our ascent route and this worked very well. Some of the down climbs were a bit tricky but overall it wasn’t any worse than other Kane ‘difficult’ descent routes.
We traversed back along the east side of the ridge around the crux so this also kept things within the scrambling range. Once we descended the short cliff band under the amphitheater we decided to change our descent route a bit and bail off the south ridge’s west side and head straight down to Hillside Meadows. This kind of worked but we had to route find around 2 or 3 cliff bands and the bushwhacking got annoying after a while. I’m still not sure I would recommend going up this way, or follow our ascent route which accessed the ridge lower down.
Eventually we stumbled out of the bush into Hillside Meadows for a very pleasant stroll to the car. There we also found signs announcing the area closed for hiking due to wildlife preservation efforts – I guess it’s a good thing we didn’t go up this way so we didn’t know about the closure. I can highly recommend Ishbel as a difficult scramble – if you follow our route. There is a lot of route finding involved to keep it a scramble and your choice of descent route will also impact the difficulty. Don’t expect cairns or trails to make this ascent / descent obvious – I made a point of looking back a lot on the ascent and still had to guess at some of the route on the way down.