Summit Elevation (m): 2454
Trip Date: January 26 2013
Elevation Gain (m): 650
Round Trip Time (hr): 5
Total Trip Distance (km): 10
Quick ‘n Easy Rating: Class 2 – You fall you sprain something
Difficulty Notes: Winter ascent includes serious avalanche risks. Learn how to manage these risks and perform avalanche burial rescues before attempting this trip.
Technical Rating: OT3/4; YDS (Hiking)
GPS Track: Download
Map: Google Maps
So how does one end up on a peak about 4km due east of one’s original objective when one actually left the correct trailhead and there was clear weather and an obvious ascent track? I’m not 100% sure. But it happened. Wietse and I originally intended on skiing as much of Smutwood Peak as possible before slogging up to the summit in our ski boots. We would approach the mountain via Commonwealth Creek and the Birdwood / Smuts col – it should all be very obvious. The weekend before I had seen at least 10-15 cars parked near the winter trailhead so I assumed we would have no issues.
What we got instead was a whole new ski tour in K country, rivaling (or even superior to) Burstall Pass and the French-Haig-Robertson traverse! And we still managed to back a peak too. It’s all good when you’re loose in the hills. Wietse called it. We were grunting through a steep hill when Wietse mentioned that he thought we might be too far climber’s left. I dismissed that idea because I honestly didn’t realize that you could go wrong on the approach up Commonwealth Creek. I’d been in there in the summer and only remembered steep walls on each side of an obvious valley – there was nowhere else to go! WRONG! I forgot about Commonwealth Lake.
It turns out that in a former clearcut we should have taken the trail branching to the right (2nd obvious track branching that way – the first goes to Tent Ridge for Yo-Yo skiing). We were following a set of tracks from someone who arrived even earlier than us – and we were skiing before sunrise. If those fresh tracks had gone up Commonwealth Creek we would have followed them – oh well!
After grunting up through steep forest and coming up on Commonwealth Lake we knew we were screwed as far as bagging Smutwood! We figured we’d go up to the col and scope out a descent route into Commonwealth Creek and at least salvage the day with a new tour – one we didn’t even know existed before this day. Eventually we heard some ‘whooping’ and met up with the two skiers in front of us doing laps above Commonwealth Lake. They thought the lake was unnamed but told us of “super” slope on the other side of the col and mentioned that it’s a fantastic tour. “Super” slope sounded serious but they assured us it was pretty safe if we skied on the right side of the slope. We pushed on.
There was one very serious slope that we crossed on the way up to the col. I wouldn’t have crossed it with a higher avy rating or any signs of instability. The snowpack seemed very stable and we had no issues on the slope – but it would wind load very easily and was very steep – evidence of previous slides and slope creep were everywhere around it. Once we tagged the col we realized that we could easily bag the peak to the North. We had great views already and imagined it could only get better. We were right! We didn’t know if the GR was named or not but we really didn’t care. The weather was gorgeous and we had plenty of time so why not check it out?
The views from the summit were awesome. We had excellent views of Commonwealth, Pig’s Tail, Birdwood, Smutwood, Smuts and the Fist. We also had prime seats for the classic mountains to the north and east including Engadine, Galatea, The Tower, Gusty, Fortress and Chester. We traversed the entire Pig’s Back and then came back to the high point where we tucked in behind a rock and had lunch.
Once we got back to the col, we noticed fresh ski tracks descending into Commonwealth Creek on the other side. The couple that we’d passed earlier must have followed our skin track to the col and descended ahead of us. At least we’d know where to do now. “Super slope” looked a bit intimidating but we’d only be on the very bottom of it. Skinning to the top of it would’ve been a blast but it looked fairly cross loaded being a north facing slope with lots of extreme winds from the west. I will go back some day to ski the whole thing but avy conditions have to be very stable first.
I followed Wietse into the lower valley – the skiing was a blast! We descended into a rather steep and narrow gully (creek bed) that doesn’t look very friendly once you’re through it. I would never have guessed such a great ski run was hidden on that side of the Commonwealth Creek valley. From the Commonwealth Creek valley we had a delightful ski back to the car. Pig’s Back looks like a ‘real peak’ from the valley and I’m glad we ended up bagging it.
The entire route up Commonwealth Lake and over the high col and back out via the creek can take as little as 4 hours or even less if you have a broken track. You get lots of chances for side skiing, like a few laps above Commonwealth Lake, skiing from the top of “Super Slope” or doing some yo-yo skiing in the avy paths descending from Smuts and The Fist. We loved this traverse and will definitely do it again. It’s far superior in variety and options than Burstall Pass or Chester Lake and much less traveled.