Summit Elevation (m): 2223
Trip Date: January 17 2015
Elevation Gain (m): 865
Round Trip Time (hr): 8
Total Trip Distance (km): 7
Quick ‘n Dirty Rating: Class 3/4 – you fall, you will break something or worse
Difficulty Notes: Some route finding and avalanche gullies to be wary of in the winter. Climbing section is short but subject to ice / snow / wind since it’s near the summit block.
Technical Rating: SC7; YDS (5.1)
Map: Google Maps
The weekend of January 17th found me with a mountain itch. The last outing for me was on December 31, when I snowshoed up Rawson Lake Ridge in Kananaskis. A month is a long time between summits for me. The usual suspects (i.e. Ben, Vern and Steven) were busy emailing trip ideas until Friday afternoon. Original plans for an ascent of Center Peak in the Livingstone Range were cancelled, thanks to wind warnings in the area. We settled on a rarely ascended peak in the Don Getty / Ghost River Wilderness Area instead – Phantom Crag also known as Devil’s Fang. We wanted to get some winter rock experience in preparation for some climbs we have planned in 2015.
Phantom Crag is best known for its many vertical climbing walls, giving it a striking appearance when you drive into the Ghost River Area. There are many climbs up it’s impressive walls, including some short, sweet bolted routes tucked away up the access creek that we took. I can’t imagine these routes see a ton of traffic, considering they’re off any beaten track with no cairns or ribbons or trails (that we could see anyway). The idea to scramble / climb Phantom Crag came from a trip Kerry Vizbar et al did in 2008. Kerry noted that his party scrambled the crux, which is pretty impressive. This is certainly beyond scrambling terrain – especially in winter with snow and ice and in mountaineering boots. The Rocky Mountain Ramblers also did this ascent in 2010 and used a 30m rope at the crux. They reference a comment in the register regarding the route as ‘moderate scrambling‘, but I believe this was in reference to the non-climbing sections at the summit block itself – not the crux. We decided that since we’d be climbing in winter conditions we’d bring axes and a full 60m rope, just in case there was snow / ice on the crux. A good decision on hindsight.
We arrived a bit earlier than planned, witnessing a gorgeous sunrise on our short approach to the ascent drainage on the north side of Phantom Crag. I could have driven 1km further but in the dark I wasn’t sure about the ice on the route ahead. The winter road down the big hill and towards Black Rock and Devil’s Gap was in excellent condition. My 4×4 with all season tires did just fine. A few of the deeper snow drifts required a bit of a run to float through, but all-in-all an easy drive. The drainage was obvious and soon we were tramping up it on snow covered boulders, trying to maintain our balance with fairly heavy packs. Our first route decision was whether to continue up the main drainage or take an obvious branch to our left. Since the peak was to the left, we took that branch. Soon we were staring up at an imposing series of slabs covered in ice that I’m sure a pretty waterfall cascades down in the summer. There was no obvious route up this section, so we turned climber’s right and hoped to find a path up cliffs on climber’s right. We found a perfect trail up the base of the cliffs skirting the slabs and topped out neatly right above them.
From here it looked like we’d be at the crux cliff band within an hour or so. Kerry talks about a 4-5 hour round trip so we were expecting things to go pretty quickly. Small mountains have a way of biting back and Devil’s Fang was no exception. Knee deep, unconsolidated snow, combined with moderate bushwhacking and very slick and hard slopes underneath conspired to slow us down and make us tired. It took almost 2 hours of dogged persistence before we found ourselves under the curtain wall of low cliffs guarding the summit block. We ended up right at the base of the section clearly referenced;
Two of the party had done the peak before, on separate trips, and neither remembered any major problems. On this day we, however, struggled to find a scramble route through the lower cliff band and in the end pulled out a 30m scrambling rope. There was a gully further east but Sim and Bill described it as “slimey” so maybe when things dry off it might be the way. We used a less steep break that had a double crack in the steepest part that wasn’t too bad but, in my mind, was definitely SC7+.The Ramblers
From the bottom the “double crack break” didn’t look too serious, so Ben attempted it free solo. He soon backed off (carefully) and declared that at the very least, he’d need an ax or two to free the route in its present condition. Although it was pretty bare, and grippy rock, there was just enough spin drift and ice to make it extra spicy. Ben felt that with an ax or two, he’d be able to pull himself over the slick sections. I had noticed the “slimy” gully to the east already on ascent and felt we should attempt it before committing to this line. Ben and Steven waited while I checked it out. The slimy gully had a much shorter crux, thanks to piled snow, with less serious consequences. I thought we should try it. Ben tried to stem up, but small (no) holds and a flare towards the top, combined again with blowing snow and big mountaineering boots made it very awkward. Back to the double crack.
As Steven put on his rock shoes, Ben decided to attempt the double crack with his ax. It didn’t look very easy as he grunted his way up but eventually he did make it. Thankfully we remembered to tie the rope to his harness so he could bring Steven and I up safely. Steven grumbled as he put his boots back on but it was nice to have a belay while we climbed the crux. Ben and I left our packs behind to make things easier. I found the crux to have good rock / holds, but thanks to the wind, blowing snow and small bits of ice and hands that were so cold I couldn’t feel any of the holds (!!) it certainly felt harder than anything I climbed on Mount Fryatt. (Of course Fryatt’s crux is much longer.) Kerry rated the crux at 5.4, I’m not sure it’s quite that stiff, but it does deserve some respect. It’s only around 6-7m high so it’s not ‘much’ of a climb – just high enough to have some consequences if you slip.
Once we topped the crux we still had some nice looking terrain on the summit block. The wind was gusting pretty fiercely as we tackled the bone dry rock. Careful route finding kept the scrambling at low-difficult. The views from the summit were quite unique, including the far off summits of Girouard and Inglismaldie over Lake Minnewanka in Banff National Park and the closer summits of Devil’s Head and Black Rock to the north. We decided to keep our summit stay short, before we blew down to the Ghost River in one of the violent gusts.
We carefully descended back to the top of the crux. I have a new year’s resolution for rappelling, which was making me a bit nervous about rapping off the anchor we used to climb the crux. My resolution is meant to safeguard against the most dangerous part of almost any climbing – the rappel. Many experienced and careful climbers have died due to rappelling accidents. This is too bad, because usually these are very preventable. My resolution states that I will only rap when I’m 100% confident that both anchor points are sufficient for the rap. I will rap off one anchor point only if I would hang my truck off it without any worries. (Obviously I understand that there are situations where I will be forced to rap off one manky pin or a less-than-stellar anchor, but I want to minimize this and save it for when it’s really needed.) In our case the rap anchor was a sling around a rock that looked only to be frozen into the slope rather than part of it. The rock was also fairly small, which wasn’t inspiring. I wanted to either back it up with a pin, or search out a better anchor.
We traversed above the slimy gully and searched for a better anchor – and found the perfect one. Steven noticed a beautiful hole in the cliff above the gully which allowed a perfect rap that would have held my truck, I’m sure. We rapped the gully with no issues and were soon sliding down the hard scree to the drainage below. There were no more difficulties to the truck, other than avoiding a twisted ankle on the slick snow covered rocks and trees. We found some very nice bolted routes in the drainage on exit – we’ll be back to try these some day for sure. This outing was a fantastic use of a warm winter day. We joked on the way home that we were a FRWA (first recorded winter ascent) for Phantom Crag, but in reality I’m sure someone has done this striking summit in winter before. We learned a bunch of things for our next climbing adventure and discovered the joys and hardships of roped climbing in windy and cool conditions.