Summit Elevation (m): 2728
Elevation Gain (m): 1800
Round Trip Time (hr): 10
Total Trip Distance (km): 20
Quick ‘n Easy Rating: Class 3 – You fall you break something
Difficulty Notes: There are some moderate scrambling sections (especially when snow covered) on the ridge traverse from Old Baldy towards Mount McDougall. Note: I got lost twice on this outing which accounts for all the extra height gain.
Technical Rating: SC6; YDS (3rd)
Map: Google Maps
On my last week off in the first week of October I decided to try a scramble in the fresh snow that the front ranges got. I don’t have a lot of Kananaskis front range peaks left to do so I looked in Andrew’s book for ideas. I settled on the last part of the “big traverse” that I had left – Old Baldy Mountain (GR356417 or McDougall NW2) and Mount McDougall. As I drove down hwy 40 I thought maybe I’d get lucky and have minimal snow on my approach trail.
Old Baldy Mountain
As I walked up the Evan Thomas trail I realized that there was probably more snow than I was initially counting on. The small trail running up beside McDougall creek isn’t that obvious. Basically go a couple of hundred meters past the “trail not maintained” sign. You’ll crest a small hill with a trail on the left. Don’t take this one. Go another 50 meters and just before the creek there’s two small cairns with a trail in between. Follow this trail. I followed the trail no problem until it steepened and widened considerably. As I climbed higher the snow obviously deepened and soon was over my ankles. I tried following the trail high above the creek and of course I lost it. That sucked big time. Since I had no idea where the trail was supposed to go I did what peak baggers always do – I traversed way too high. By the time I finally realized that I was way off the trail I was getting a bit grumpy. It felt like I was wading through an endless amount of snow on slick side-hilling and wasn’t even on the mountain yet.
Finally I dropped down to the creek and followed the trail again (barely visible in ankle deep snow) to the small tarn. From there I began to kick steps up a snow gully leading to the west slopes of Old Baldy Mountain. This snow gully was awesome but also exhausting since I was the only one breaking trail. I wouldn’t come close to this gully once the next heavy snow fall fills it up as it’s a major terrain trap. Once I reached the top of the gully I was almost ready to give up on the day. I was pretty tired already – the past few weeks have slowly worn my body down – and the amount of snow was getting annoying. My feet were already soaked because I stupidly forgot my gaiters and the route to the summit didn’t look easy with water ice, rime and slick snow on slabs. I decided the weather was nice enough that I might as well at least make the summit of Old Baldy while I was up this far anyway, so I kept going. I ended up traversing on climber’s right of the ridge before finally gaining the summit of Old Baldy.
Due to the snow it was hard to know where the trail went near the summit so I stayed right on the ridge. This was more exposed than I was expecting and with the snowdrifts over my knees and water ice on the slabs I actually wasn’t sure I was going to make it! Near the top I decided to traverse over climber’s right and this worked well – I found a light track that led me up to the summit.
The views were incredible with all the fresh snow and as I replenished and gazed around I discovered some new energy. Amazingly I decided to try the traverse to McDougall – it looked a bit tough with all the snow but didn’t look that bad and the views were crazy so why not? The only issue was my escape route off the mountain. I knew from others that the traverse to Volcano Peak was not easy and the descent off that peak was hellish bushwhacking so I had no desire whatsoever to do that.
After struggling up Old Baldy in more snow than I was expecting I started the traverse over to McDougall – against my own better judgment I should hastily add! The ridge looked fairly straight forward but the amount of snow combined with the total elevation gain wasn’t looking attractive. I descended the steep scree slope in snow up to knee deep and continued the traverse to the first bump. I ascended the bump no problem and continued on to GR362405 – a higher bump before the final slog to McDougall. Nugara says that the traverse from Old Baldy to McDougall should take about an hour. It looks much farther from Old Baldy but even with snow and slippery conditions it took me 1 hour and 10 minutes to do the whole traverse.
After snapping photos of the gorgeous snow covered peaks in the Kananaskis Valley and front country I had a decision to make. I decided quickly that I didn’t feel like messing with a steep unknown route down the west side of McDougall and also didn’t feel like wading through the snow in the valley below. I traversed back to GR362405 (first bump on the return to Old Baldy) and began the traverse to GR357404 instead. The traverse started out OK and slowly became more serious until I found myself looking down at an exposed and slippery slab with nothing but air underneath. Under dry conditions I would have attempted it but being solo and given the water ice on the slabs I reluctantly turned around and slogged back up the ridge.
By now I’d been on the move for hours on end of snow slogging and was starting to get a bit tired of the peak bagging game. I decided to try one more thing before I’d give up and re-climb Old Baldy. I’ve had good luck with following sheep lately so I thought I’d try following goat tracks across the south face of Old Baldy. This worked for about 10 minutes but goats apparently don’t mind water iced slabby rock with exposure! Crap! I really didn’t feel it but I had no more choices. I had to re-climb Old Baldy!
I took a while to ascend the 300 meters to the summit ridge of Old Baldy but eventually I made it and followed my tracks down the mountain. I was a bit frustrated again on the way back – I still couldn’t find the right trail with the all the fresh snow and ended up side-hilling and bushwhacking a bit before descending enough to have less snow and a good trail again. Overall the day was wonderful, with some really amazing views, but at 20km of hiking / scrambling and 1800ish meters of height gain it wasn’t an easy stroll, that’s for sure! I recommend this trip for drier conditions than I had.