Summit Elevation (m): 3618
Elevation Gain (m): 2500
Round Trip Time (hr): 36
Total Trip Distance (km): 23
Quick ‘n Easy Rating: Class 5 – You fall you die
Difficulty Notes: Don’t underestimate this mountain! Many folks have and many have subsequently failed to reach the summit or worse. Just because it’s popular doesn’t make it “just a scramble”. Note: We combined Assiniboine and Lunette in a traverse from the north ridge to the SW face which has some unique challenges mainly around route finding.
Technical Rating: MN9; YDS (5.5)
GPS Track: Download
Map: Google Maps
I’ve been dreaming of the Matterhorn of the Rockies since I first laid eyes on her while on a hiking trip to the area in 2008. I never actually thought I’d be climbing its NE ridge but it was fun to imagine! Towering over everything in its vicinity and visible from almost every prominent peak in south Banff and Kananaskis , Mount Assiniboine is a big, beautiful mountain that has inspired climbers from all over the world to test its charms. Many have succeeded but many have also failed – a number of climbers have even lost their life on the steep unforgiving slopes over the years. I’ve heard stories of people losing their way and rapping down the north face in white-outs. I’ve talked to people who attempted Assiniboine as their first peak and then watched others die from serious injury after slipping on descent – exhausted and inexperienced.
Falling at just under 12000 feet high, the weather and climbing conditions are extremely unpredictable on Assiniboine and this contributes to its charms and it’s bite. Experienced climbers call the ridge a ‘glorified scramble’ when dry and have soloed it in 5 hours hut-to-hut (including raps), but I have other friends who have taken 9 hours just to reach the top. After recently climbing Mount Fryatt with Kevin Barton, we made some plans on that long drive home to attempt another 11000er if the weather held into late September. Against all odds, the weather did hold and by the week of September 16th we were planning either an ascent of Mount King Edward or Mount Assiniboine and Lunette Peak. Kev strongly preferred the ‘Big A’ and I wasn’t arguing so that was that.
Given the unbelievable warm and dry weather in Sept 2012, I was caught a bit off guard when the reservation staff for the Hind (climbers) hut stressed repeatedly to me on the phone that our planned objective was plastered in snow and ice. She also gave me a tone that implied we were nutso for even thinking of climbing it this late in the season. When I phoned the lodge on Wednesday to confirm the hut was still open I got the same vibe – the mountain is out of shape for the year but “good luck”! Apparently no one had even tried the peak for three weeks – that the lodge knew of.
Hmmm. I even went on a scouting mission with a hike up Tent Ridge with the family to scope conditions on the mountain and it looked pretty dry to me from a distance but if the staff at the lodge were saying the route was icy and snowy how could I argue? It sits right outside their window after all. Kev and I weren’t scared of some snow and ice, we climbed Mount Victoria and Mount Huber together just fine in rough conditions. We simply geared up for the possibility of snow and ice and made plans to give ‘er. The forecast was so good for the whole weekend that we didn’t fully trust it. A huge omega block was stabilizing the weather for weeks of sunshine and dead air all over the Rockies – conditions local climbers pray for but only get once or twice a year – at MOST. (The block is still here as I’m typing this trip report while sitting on a rock near Drywood Creek after climbing Pincher Ridge on September 24 under warm and dead calm conditions. It’s always windy in the Castle area.)
One thing making our climb a little bit more work than usual was that we were planning to bag both the big ‘A’ and Lunette in one push. This meant we had to exit via the huge SW face of Assiniboine and Lunette Lake and also had to lug our full packs with all our bivy gear etc. up the north ridge of Assiniboine since we weren’t coming back to the hut on our traverse. It also meant descending the SW face to Lunette Lake with heavy packs – possibly partly in the dark.
Approach to the Hind Hut & Mount Strom
I picked Kev up at 0745 and we headed for Settlers Road in Kootenay National Park. The gravel mining road was in superb condition and I flew down it pretty quick in my xTerra. There were a few tight stretches where I’m glad we didn’t meet mining trucks but in the end we only ran past two of them in 38km so there aren’t that many on the road – they do drive very fast though. As we turned onto the much rougher and narrower Aurora Creek road for the last 4 km we started to realize how beautiful this area really is. We stopped the truck to take photos of Aye and Eon – both of them rising spectacularly above the valley beneath. With their fall coats and the brilliant blue sky they looked very inviting but also remote and a little intimidating.
We parked at the trailhead (any vehicle should be able to make the drive but no guarantees about crossing the manky bridges.) and wrapped the truck with available chicken wire. We used a lot of the material that was laying around because we were the only ones there. We loaded up our packs and headed up the trail – a hot sun beating down from above in a clear fall sky.
Almost immediately we ran into a registration box for people going in to do Assiniboine. We noticed that a party had completed the climb a week previous – there goes the theory that nobody climbed it in three weeks anyway. This was a good sign. The trail to Assiniboine Lake is excellent. It climbs steeply at first and then more gradually, crossing a few streams (one log bridge with cable) before splitting at the Lunette Lake turnoff. I looked up that trail as we passed it, thinking that possibly we’d be coming out on it the very next day with a successful climb! It seemed impossibly far off at this point though! When we got our first glimpse of the SW face I almost gave up and turned back to the parking lot – it looked ridiculously huge and steep from this angle! It looked awesome too though.
At the turquoise waters of Assiniboine Lake we took our first break – Kev’s feet needed some TLC. The trail ends just past the lake so we also took in some food for the climb ahead. The route from the lake to the Strom / Assiniboine col is pretty straight forward but requires some effort to negotiate. We went up scree slopes at the far end of the lake and around an obvious buttress on climbers right. Soon after that we struggled up an old moraine and could see the Sturdee Glacier far off and to out right. We headed for the glacier and ascended scree slopes to our left. By staying left we avoided using our crampons and also didn’t feel the need to pull out the rope and glacier gear. The glacier was mostly bare ice and we have experience on Rockies glaciers therefore you should not just assume you don’t need a rope for this glacier – you may have very different conditions and experience than us so please act accordingly.
After crossing the glacier we had a horrible grunt on really ugly scree to the Strom / Assiniboine col. Our packs were starting to feel heavy at this point. As I glanced over at the enormous north face of Assiniboine my pack felt even more weighty. The hut was nestled on a ledge beneath us and we both realized how awesome it was going to be to sleep on a nice mattress instead of a bivy. But there was something else calling my name first – Mount Strom was only about 500 feet above us on fairly benign terrain. I suggested we go bag it “while we’re here anyway” and to my delight, Kev was all-in. I guess we are both peak baggers at heart.
Only twenty minutes later and we were snapping photos from our impromptu summit and soon we were headed back down – we needed food and sleep!
We reached the hut around supper time, a 5.5 hour approach not including the push for Strom. The hut was quiet and empty, we had the mighty Mount Assiniboine all to ourselves. This is not normal and is very rare – especially in the weather and conditions we were experiencing. The air was still and the north face was catching the warm afternoon sun and looked very snow and ice free. At this point I felt very confident of the climb and felt no nerves at all for the remainder of the night.
I was excited but not at all nervous. I felt like I had a date with the mountain and was confident it would go very well.
The Climb – Mount Assiniboine
We woke at 05:00 and choked down some coffee and breakfast before heading out in the darkness with full packs and no idea where the approach trail was! Once we were halfway to the ridge I finally located the beaten trail (we were too far climbers left) and we followed that trail via headlamp to the ridge. What followed was the most delightful climb of my life. Under a brilliant rising sun and a clear, calm day we tackled the NE ridge of one of the Rockies highest peaks head on. Up to the red band we found the route fairly benign – maybe moderate to difficult scrambling.
At the red band things got more serious. Still mostly difficult scrambling, I could see how any ice or snow could quickly make things very spicy on this steep section. We made our way up the north face more than the ridge at first in order to break through the red band and then traversed immediately climber’s left, back onto the ridge where the exposure and terrain was absolutely exhilarating.
The east face exposure on our left took my breath away as I climbed higher and higher – I felt so alive, the exposure making it necessary to concentrate on nothing other than my immediate environment – the cool breeze on my skin, the call of a bird circling beneath and the still warmth of the sun on my face. It was in a word – awesome.
The grey band came too quickly but I wasn’t even 100% sure I was in it until I was above it and looking over at the summit above. I still had some seriously exposed terrain remaining but it looked solid and fun. I think I may have found a way around the grey band 5.5 crux by traversing a slight overhang on climber’s right before climbing through a chimney with solid and well placed holds.
Kev was behind me and didn’t immediately find my route. He wanted a belay but I convinced him to try where I ascended and he soloed it no problem. Kev doesn’t think we did anything harder than 5.4 so maybe we somehow avoided the 5.5 crux or our perfect conditions just made it seem easier. I don’t care either way. It was one of the best mornings of my life climbing that ridge on that beautiful mountain, in those perfect conditions on our own with no other teams anywhere else on the mountain.
It took us just under 4 hours to climb Assiniboine – with our not-so-light overnight alpine packs. We had perfect conditions. We spent almost an hour at the summit with absolutely no wind and no extra clothing – I climbed in a single layer merino long sleeve tee and was almost too warm.
The views in all directions were mind blowing and we were enjoying it all by ourselves. No snow or ice impeded our efforts on the ascent – what little there was could be easily avoided. We were so incredibly lucky to enjoy such a grand summit on an amazing fall day late in the climbing season. I’ll never forget it.
After snapping many photographs of familiar and unfamiliar peaks all around, we turned our attention to our next objective – Lunette Peak. This would prove to be a much harder and longer day than we were expecting. As it turned out, climbing the northeast ridge of Assiniboine is much more straightforward and even ‘easy’ in good conditions, than descending the SW face with a side trip up Lunette, especially if you are descending it ‘blind’ – i.e. not ascending it first.
The Egress – Lunette Peak
After enjoying our 4 hour ascent of the north ridge on Assiniboine we were feeling like we might just make it down to Lunette lake before dark. The only problem? Well, as it turns out – the SW face of the big ‘A’ is not quite as trivial as some might lead you to believe, especially if you didn’t ascend it first! While nobody claims it’s easy, there are some trip reports on the internet of folks so-called scrambling the SW face. I re-read these trip reports after descending it myself and have concluded that these were all free solo climbs and not really scrambling at all. I think people should not be misled into thinking the SW face of Assiniboine offers an easy route to the summit – in my opinion it has more objective hazard than the North Ridge route due to loose rock, tough route finding and snow and ice on route.
The shortest term I can use to describe the SW face is “harrowing”. A few more? “Loose“, “Exposed“, “Loose“. It was quite nasty, honestly. By the time we finally got low enough to ascend Lunette Peak we both knew that we weren’t getting down as quickly as we initially thought. We had already rapped twice just to get here and although there were some cairns (thank goodness), we still ended up in some pretty serious terrain.
On the second rap the terrain was so bloody loose I knocked a rock onto the rap route while setting up the rope. The rocks crashed onto the coils of rope I’d thrown down and I was shocked to find the rope cut clean through at the ends when I rapped down!! If that rock fell while I was on rappel I wouldn’t be here right now. Very scary stuff. It was so loose I knocked big rocks down the face below just by walking past them without even touching them. I carry some good bruises from this descent at the time of writing this report.
Finding the easiest route up Lunette wasn’t trivial either. We started up climber’s right of the gully separating Assiniboine and Lunette. Kev suggested we traverse a small scree ledge and there were some cairns so we followed those around the west face of Lunette. There were a few breaks in the cliffs but nothing resembling scrambling so we kept traversing climbers right. Eventually we started giving up.
In an effort to save some energy we had left our heavy packs and climbing gear back at the point where we started up Lunette. We didn’t think it would take long and we were sick of lugging those dang packs around! This was starting to feel like a mistake though – we needed to rappel every route I could see up. Finally I decided to traverse all the way right, pretty much as far right as possible before cliffing out. It worked. Barely. We had to ascend a tight chimney before traversing climbers left across some exposed terrain and another chimney. This gully has a huge chockstone in it and Kev went under it while I found a route around it on climber’s right. A short exposed scramble and we were on top of our second 11000er of the day! Amazing views again – including the east face of Assiniboine and Marvel and Gloria Lakes. Eon and Aye were also amazing from this vantage.
We had a long day still ahead of us descending the rest of the SW face and hiking back to the truck – not to mention the drive back home due to work commitments the next day for Kev. After a brief summit break we headed back down Lunette to our waiting gear. The down climbing wasn’t terrible but I got lucky finding that route because there was no evidence of prior parties on it and lots of rappel stations in other locations on Lunette. Like all the down climbing on the SW face of Assiniboine, it was very, very loose.
We struggled slowly down the massive SW face inching ever so slowly towards Lunette lake and freedom. But freedom didn’t come easily for us. We rapped a third time and still had to find routes down a seemingly endless line of cliff bands and loose gullies. We were thankful for cairns, orange flagging and even red paint on the rocks but even with all these route markers it was hard to navigate such a loose and complicated route that we didn’t ascend. IMHO unless you are chasing the 11000ers I wouldn’t bother with Lunette. It’s views are nothing compared to Assiniboine and the ridge route is so much better than the manky crud on the SW face that I would suggest avoiding this face all together if possible. It’s certainly easier to descend it if you scramble up it too, but you’ll need at least one or two raps anyway on descent. I’ve done many manky, nasty scrambles in my hundreds of peaks but this one takes the cake – truly.
After hours and hours of stressful and painfully slow down climbing we were finally in the last exit gully before the lake. Right? Wrong! As the sun set and we strapped on our headlamps we still weren’t even at the lake yet! Wow. What followed was a nasty bushwhack in the dark – no trail that we could find! We tried desperately to get to the lake but even started to run into cliff bands in the forest! Finally we had a stroke of genius / luck and broke onto a hard scree slope on the south side of the lake that ran through the cliffs all the way to the lakeshore. We had to guess at the route by now, because it was pitch black out by this point in our day.
FINALLY we reached the trail going around the climbers right of the lake. We started following cairns only to lose them again. It was extremely frustrating to bushwhack around Lunette Lake when we knew there was a trail somewhere in all this mess. We eventually stumbled on the trail leading back to the truck and after 1.5 hours, at 23:00 we stumbled into the parking lot.
On the way home at around 01:00 we had to slow down for a pack of wolves crossing highway 93. An amazing and rare sight and a great way to end an amazing trip – one I won’t be forgetting in my lifetime. It took us 36 hours truck-to-truck for Strom, Assiniboine and Lunette. It felt very, very good to be off the SW face but I miss the north ridge already. Mount Assiniboine was a great climb with great company. I look forward to more of these pesky 11000ers – they sure bring out some fresh challenges compared with the scrambles that I’m used to.