Summit Elevation (m): 3406
Trip Date: Sunday July 19, 2015
Elevation Gain (m): 2500
Trip Time (hr): 21
Trip Distance (km): 26
Quick ‘n Dirty Rating: Class 4/5 – you fall, you break something or more likely die
Difficulty Notes: Glacier ice to 40 degrees with rockfall hazard, a bergschrund crossing and then steep, loose, dangerous rock to an exhilarating finish along an airy, exposed summit ridge. Now reverse it…
Technical Rating: MN8; YDS (5.0-5.2)
GPS Track: Download
Map: Google Maps
Raf told me I should climb Mount Sir Douglas this year (2015) since it was my 40th birthday and Sir Douglas is the 40th 11,000er in Corbett’s book. Who am I to argue with the crazy Pol? I tentatively made plans to attempt this peak at some point this year, and that point came to fruition with the usual crazy planning that Ben, Steven and I usually end up doing. Our plans changed at least 3 times over 2 days, including a phone call and last minute weather checks from Red Deer as they drove out to my house. The weather forecasts couldn’t agree on Sunday’s weather and we changed from Eon to Saskatchewan to Sir Douglas a few times, before finally just sticking with the 11,000er and hoping for the best. So far we’ve had incredible luck with weather, even when the forecasts weren’t perfect. On Alexandra we did the exact same waffling back and forth on pretty much the same alternate objectives and it worked out great. We hoped for the same luck this time.
For some reason I was super-psyched and excited to tackle Sir Douglas. I felt like a kid whose birthday is the next day. I wasn’t nervous at all about climbing it and I felt really pumped and positive the whole time despite climbing out of my comfort zone. I had the same experience when I climbed Mount Assiniboine and ended up soloing the NE ridge and really enjoyed the entire experience, even with the loose conditions on the SW face descent. Sometimes I’m nervous or apprehensive about tackling bigger objectives, but it felt like Mr Douglas and I had some destiny to fulfill or something. Hard to explain, but I love that feeling! Let me say it right up front – many people don’t like the west ridge of Sir Douglas at all. You’ll have a hard time finding a trip report that’s positive and many people swear it’s one of the loosest, most horrible routes on the 11,000er list. I can honestly say that I had a lot of fun on this mountain and enjoyed the experience immensely.
Sir Douglas is strange beast. Many alpine objectives have a standard rating that most folks pretty much agree on after climbing it. Not so with Sir Douglas! Based on different trip reports and the guidebook, it’s rated anywhere from Alpine II (no rock rating) to Alpine III, 5.5. Raf put it at Alpine II 5.2. After soloing the mountain, I can see why the ratings are so varied. The approach glacier is already vastly different depending on whether it’s snow or ice – snow is a walkup and ice is a shooting gallery of rock fall and black ice with embedded rubble. Although this is called a “ridge” route, it’s really a route based roughly around the west ridge, deviating between the northwest face, the west ridge and southwest face, largely leaving the difficulty of the route up to your route-finding abilities. I think that Dow’s rating is quite fair if you stick to the main ridge and hardly deviate off it. Staying on the west ridge is much harder than you’d think as it is not just a knife edge poking into the sky but rather a series of sloping ledges with many different ridges rising along it. This is where Raf’s rating is more appropriate for the general route. If you take your time and look for low 5th class terrain, it’s usually available to you.
Like any Rockies alpine climb, just because a section is ‘only’ 5.1 doesn’t mean it’s not freaking exposed and freaking loose – and that’s what everyone who does Sir Douglas agrees on – it is LOOSE! Considering the “Alpine III” rating I’m giving it, I believe that that the vast majority of climbers will take at least half to a full day on technical terrain, whether it’s glacial ice, dealing with bergschrunds or climbing the ridge itself. Alpine II might apply if the glacier is snow covered and the ridge is quite dry, conditions which will be hard to find.
There are a few choices for approaching Sir Douglas and a few suggested bivy sites. The first part of the approach is the same for all routes – via Burstall Pass to South Burstall Pass. A bike will save you 3.5km of walking on your way back to the parking lot, but you’ll have to leave your bike in an area that gets a lot of foot traffic while you’re gone for a day or more. We chose to walk the entire approach and it wasn’t bad.
The hike to the Burstall Pass meadows is lovely and quick. We left the parking lot at around 15:00 and got quite a few looks from day hikers returning with their small packs – many asked us where we were going with all that gear! We followed the Burstall Pass trail until just before it breaks to the col under Snow Peak above tree line. Here we deviated off the good trail on soft meadow grasses to South Burstall Pass along a bench running under Burstall Pass Peak (an excellent ski objective BTW). This is lovely terrain – well worth a day hike with the family. Countless wildflowers dotted the landscape and the views in all directions were great, since the area is above tree line. We contoured around to the south end of the pass where we could clearly see the prominent spur / ridge coming off of Whistling Rock Peak, blocking any direct access from South Burstall Pass to the Sir Douglas massif. This is where there are a couple of route choices.
The bivy & approach we took followed Dow William’s suggestion to go up and over the spur. This worked great, route finding was no issue at all with this route. There are cairns marking the easiest way up the spur, but we didn’t even use them on ascent, just going straight up. One huge advantage of this route is the views – they are excellent, especially those towards the objective itself. Once at the top of the spur, we went climber’s left (east) right to the base of Whistling Rock Ridge before descending southwest down an obvious scree ramp leading to the broken terrain under Sir Douglas. We could see our bivy site from the top of the scree ramp.
The other option for bivying, is much closer to South Burstall Pass, just beyond it where there’s a water source. The route to Sir Douglas from here drops around the western side of the spur before ascending back up to the glacier routes on Sir Douglas. This route description includes the words, “traverse a bushy, west-facing slope” – enough to justify our route IMHO – no bushwhacking. Our bivy site was right under the right hand glacier (West Ridge access route). It was a great location, we had multiple waterfalls cascading down cliff faces high above us and clear views of the lower glacier. The glacier was looking pretty bare – it made us a bit nervous since none of us are ice climbers. We had a lot of climbing gear along, based on recommendations from several friends who have climbed this mountain. We even had two full length climbing ropes for double rappels, but even I thought that might be overkill.
I carried the 70m rope on the approach and it was not light! The one thing all that gear did, was give us confidence that we could pretty much deal with any conditions. It might not be pretty, but we’d get up this thing if the weather allowed it. When we set up our tents I noticed I was missing my sleeping pad. Bummer! We turned in around 22:00 with our alarms set for 03:00 hoping for an 04:00 start the next day. I actually slept pretty good even without my mat, and was very reluctant to get out of my cozy sleeping bag at 03:10, but I managed it.
The temperature was very warm overnight and we could see a pretty cloudy sky above, which made us nervous. Another thing making us wonder about our day ahead, was the sound of constant rock fall and Ben’s observation that a huge falling boulder had threatened our camp the night before! The forecast was for afternoon rain / thunder showers and we did not want to be at 11,000 feet with lightning threatening our safety on top of everything else. There wasn’t much to do except start or give up, so we did what we always do – start putting one foot in front of the other. Under a dark sky we followed our noses and head lamps up to the lower glacial tongue, accessing it on climber’s left, as far away as possible from the overhanging seracs and as much out of the way of falling rocks as we could get.
As we gained the hard, black, debris-littered glacial ice we stopped and assessed both the conditions we were encountering, and our abilities / comfort levels for a few minutes. It was still pretty dark out and it was intimidating to be on dark ice with only the sound of waterfalls and rock falling all around us, down the glacier we were supposed to be climbing. Eventually we all agreed to suck it up and go for it. We climbed the ice fairly swiftly, thanks in part to the constant threat of rock fall. Every 30 seconds or so there would be an event, usually just small pebbles, but not always. The objective hazards on this approach should not be undermined. It reminded me of the ascent gullies on Diadem Peak – and I know people have been hurt from rock fall in those gullies. Finally, as daylight gradually bloomed around us, we found ourselves on the small, gently sloped upper glacier leading to the west ridge. There was only one viable option for accessing the ridge, and after crossing a deep, scary schrund on a moderately safe (!) snow bridge, we found ourselves briefly on ice again. We were used to it now, and simply climbed up as far as possible on the ice before hitting crumbling rock just under the ridge. We kept our crampons on until hitting the ridge proper – the rock above the ice was really horrible stuff, like frozen scree but not quite frozen and with small bits of sharp, crumbling dinner plate sticking out of it at all angles.
Once we were perched on the ridge, we took stock of things. We were feeling a bit ‘stretched’ mentally, thanks to the condition of the lower glacier and Ben was feeling ill – was it the colored licorice or the dehydrated bananas?! We were excited to finally be on rock though, and after ditching some unnecessary gear we started up. As I mentioned earlier, I was feeling really good about climbing this mountain and my attitude never changed once we started climbing the ridge. The best way to describe the west ridge is that while it’s certainly loose – it’s no looser than many other Rockies peaks like Recondite, Willingdon, Harrison or Murchison… And while it’s loose, especially in the gullies, it’s also composed of very grippy limestone slabs with great holds and solid little ledges that help a ton with the difficulty level. I climbed with an ax in one hand and used it to dry tool a lot of the smaller holds – it worked great and gave me a lot of confidence. I can see that if you aren’t used to the Rockies, or don’t like trusting holds that have to be pushed down rather than pulled on, you won’t have fun on Sir Douglas! But if you’re like Ben, Steven and I and spend almost every weekend climbing on that terrain, you might actually have a lot of fun on the West Ridge, like we did. We laughed more than once on the way up that we must be a little strange to be enjoying the ‘solid’ ridge so much, compared to most other folks who do nothing but swear at it. The weather was holding, but we could see that the upper mountain was periodically covered in clouds and there were darker clouds to the west so we kept our pace up as we climbed higher and higher.
Every time the terrain looked especially gnarly, we would check out other options to either side of the ridge. In general the SW face was more loose gullies and scree covered slabs and the NW face was more vertical slabs with decent ledges / holds but at a higher grade. We climbed past at least 5 or 6 rap stations on ascent – most were on top of exposed 4th class terrain. We ended up climbing 5th class rock on the NW face for the upper part of the route before finally reaching the exposed ridge traverse to the summit, in swirling clouds.
The final ridge traverse certainly looked intimidating! There was a choice between going over some extremely loose and exposed pinnacles or around them on very exposed down sloping terrain. I didn’t think about it too long and went for the traverse. One move on that traverse was quite interesting – I think a belay would not be silly here.
Soon afterwards we were standing on the summit of Sir Douglas! It felt awesome to be on top – and our ascent time of 4.5 hours wasn’t too bad either, especially considering the icy conditions on the glacier. The clouds swirled around us and reminded us of our time on the top of Alexandra. We did manage to get some views to the west, but didn’t see any of the Haig Icefield, unfortunately.
Our descent was interesting. We avoided any horrendous terrain, mostly following our ascent line except for the upper part which we avoided via a steep snow gully on the SW face. We followed that snow gully too low and had to re-ascend it about 40 meters to safely traverse back to the ridge.
One thing to be aware of, is that you should never be too far off the west ridge, if you’re not right on it. You may run out of moderate terrain and will have a tough time traversing back without gaining significant height. Lower down we used another long snow gully just off the ridge on the SW face to descend at least another 150 vertical meters. This saved us considerable down climbing on rock, and if we would have found it on ascent I’m sure our time would have been even better, but the gully is tucked right against the ridge out of sight until you’re literally on top of it. Just as on ascent, we down climbed past many rap stations – we didn’t feel the need to use any of them.
The weather was slowly improving as we carefully made our way down the west ridge. We took our time and stuck close to each other to avoid rock fall issues and enjoyed the wonderful views we were now getting to the west, over the Spray River Valley, including Mount King George and Assiniboine. It was all going wonderfully until Steven slipped and dislocated his shoulder. I envisioned lowering him the rest of the way down the ridge and then calling for a heli-rescue at the col above the glacier, but he took 2 minutes to pop it back in and kept down climbing! He treated the shoulder with respect for the rest of the day, but it seemed to function fine. Apparently this has happened to him before so thank goodness he knew how to fix it on his own or this story would have been quite different.
The short section off the ridge to the upper glacier wasn’t fun to descend, but soon we were back across the gaping schrund and walking towards the ice tongue. Originally we were planning to rap off v-threads rather than down climb the ice, but Ben and I both felt quite strongly that we should attempt the down climb first. The main reasons were rock fall and the quality of ice vs. our experience at building trustworthy v-threads (i.e. none). We had more than enough gear if we really needed to rap a section but down climbing meant we could avoid the rock fall more easily and move quicker through the most dangerous areas lower down, which were getting pummeled pretty consistently thanks to the warm air temperature. Descending the ice was not the most fun I’ve ever had. It was great experience but after 100 vertical meters of no-slip zone front pointing and hoping the crampons and axes would hold in the dirty ice we were mentally and physically tired. We stuck as close to the rock wall on climber’s left as possible, which kept us out of the direct line of fire from above and serac fall on climber’s right. There was one 20-30 vertical meter stretch with zero protection from the rocks coming down, and this was really not fun to descend! I got hit directly in the head 3 times – thank goodness for my helmet! One rock was big enough that I was shaken a bit after it hit the top of my helmet with good force. I was thankful for good ax placements or that one might have knocked me off. Setting up a rappel for that section would have been more dangerous as we’d be facing uphill directly into the line of fire, which could also cut the rope. I had other rocks go past me with nothing but a low humming noise due to their velocity. I tried down climbing even faster and thankfully we all made it through the section unscathed. It is a unique experience to be half way down a steep section of ice with no bailout options and rock fall coming down all around you. That is when you have to suck it up and deal with the stress of the immediate environment rather than give up – which is what you feel like doing for a brief moment in time.
As much fun as the down-climbing on ice while being bombed from above was, it was very nice to finally hit the loose scree slopes back to our bivy after 11 hours of climbing. It only took us 4.5 hours to the summit, but 6.5 back down thanks to the icy glacier. It would have been very nice to relax for the rest of the day and spend another night enjoying our success at camp, but alas, some of us have jobs to go back to on Monday morning.
We slowly packed up camp and set off across the loose moraines towards the spur / ridge scree ramp. The ascent up the scree ramp was my least favorite part of the entire trip. I was gassed by the time we finally struggled up the last of the loose scree and started our descent towards South Burstall Pass. We easily followed a line of cairns down the spur (that we somehow missed on ascent) and tramped across the meadows in lovely late afternoon sunshine. The trek back to the parking lot was a little bit painful, but the afterglow of a successful summit helped diminish the pain.
If I’m honest about Mount Sir Douglas, I have to admit that I enjoyed it very much – much more than I expected to. I totally understand why many (most?) people would not enjoy the loose, exposed nature of the West Ridge, but for some reason I had a destiny with it and as result it felt good to be on it and great to be back down safely. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s in my top 5 11,000ers, but it’s probably not in the bottom 5 either. Exactly where it sits on the ‘favorite’ list will take some time to figure out. In the meantime, I’ll just enjoy the memories and not worry about it too much.