Summit Elevation (m): 2696
Trip Date: March 29 2015
Elevation Gain (m): 1200
Round Trip Time (hr): 10.5
Total Trip Distance (km): 26
Quick ‘n Dirty Rating: Class 2/3 – you fall, you might break something
Difficulty Notes: No technical difficulties. Crossing the Red Deer River and route finding are the crux. We ascended a steep snow gully in late March.
Technical Rating: SC6; YDS (3rd)
GPS Track: Download
Map: Google Maps
The wind was forecast to be strong all over the Rockies on Sunday, March 29, 2015. The forecasts were right. I woke several times in the Bighorn Campground near Ya Ha Tinda by the sounds of a gusty west wind. When the alarm went off at 04:00 it was still gusting pretty strong but at least the sky over us was clear and the air temperate was quite warm at around 5 degrees Celsius. Our plans for the day were to ascend Warden Rock by an untested (or at least unreported) line on it’s northeast side and summit ridge traverse. Rick Collier reported an ascent from the west via south slopes, but we only had a small weather window, so bivying in the park wasn’t really worth it. We wanted to attempt it as a day trip from the Bighorn Campground.
We left the parking area near the campground at around 05:00 and almost immediately got off track. I love approaches in the dark! Even though Ben and Steven had done this approach before (on their Wapiti ascent), they only remembered that it “was confusing”. Oh oh… We followed the road as it rose up a hill and turned directly north, away from the river. I thought this was odd but Ben remembered some sort of signage so we continued. Eventually we did encounter a sign, indicating that the trail for Scalp Creek would get us where we wanted to go. Apparently you used to be able to park here but no longer. To make a long story short, our route worked – thank goodness for GPS – but it wasn’t the shortest path. If you can see anything when you attempt this approach (!!) you should take the first obvious track (horse / ATV) that branches off the main gravel road to your left. Basically, try to stick as close to the Red Deer River as the trails allow. The further you travel, the closer to the river you’ll be, although you’re rarely close enough to see it.
Steven had a proposed route in his GPS and we used this to decide when to cross the river. It was just getting light as we waded the chilly Red Deer River (not even knee deep at this point) and proceeded towards a stream bed on the other side that would presumably take us into the upper hanging valley under Warden Rock’s summit cliffs. We had crossed the river slightly too far west of the creek, so we angled left and eventually found ourselves in a wide, rocky creek bed. The question was, should we ascend in the creek or not? Based on distant observations from both Maze and Eagle, we decided to try ascending the forested right (west) bank instead. We knew from our photos that the creek bed became steep walled higher up and the west bank looked fairly lightly forested from afar. About 2 minutes later we found ourselves on a very well defined horse trail, ascending the west bank of the stream. Sometimes you get very lucky while scouting unknown routes in the mountains!
We followed the steep horse track up the west flank of the stream. It went exactly along our proposed route. As we ascended, the trail became icier and snow covered and eventually we lost it completely. By this time we were well above the creek and already contouring south west into the upper hanging valley. The bush got a bit tight on these slopes, and the snow patches were a bit deeper, but eventually we made it to the lovely alpine meadows east of the summit. We had underestimated how far back this meadow was – even with the horse trail we were behind schedule. We made our way towards the steep snow gully we had spotted from Eagle Mountain the day previous. I was very keen to crampon up this feature, while Ben and Steven weren’t so sure. There were steep scree slopes to either side, but I was determined to use the ‘pons since I lugged them all the way here. The wind was howling as we worked our way up the hard snow. The air temps were warm and we sweated our way straight up that slope – gaining height very efficiently. I love steep snow! Near the top of the snow gully we ran into a large group of mountain sheep, who looked confused at our presence. I’m sure they don’t see many folks tramping up here in late March.
We kept the crampons on for the steep scree to ridge line above the snow gully and popped out on top of the ridge to the south of the summit in a raging westerly gale. It was so windy up here that when we finally took our crampons off, we had to weight them with large rocks for fear that they’d blow off the mountain. In a few places the gale was so furious that we literally couldn’t stand up properly and dropped to hands and knees for fear of blowing clear off the ridge! One spot was a natural wind tunnel and I honestly felt that it was dangerous for us to be there. If the summit was this windy, I wasn’t sure we should keep going. We finally managed to force our way to the summit on easy slopes, where the wind was still fierce but manageable. The summit views were very respectable, especially the views into Banff National Park along the Red Deer River valley. It was also neat to see the front range Ya Ha Tinda summits from this direction for once.
We didn’t take chances with the hurricane winds (which were getting stronger throughout the day) and soon started down again. We had no issues with descent, even managing to find the horse trail a bit sooner from the exit of the hanging valley. After re-crossing the Red Deer River we plodded back through Ya Ha Tinda with a very energetic west wind ‘assisting’ us whenever it could.
Warden Rock is a very striking peak that guards a rarely used access to Banff National Park. This summit deserves more visits and with a good trail to tree line, the only thing stopping you is a fast and deep river crossing, making this mountain a perfect early and late season objective.