Summit Elevation (m): 2566
Trip Date: January 10 2016
Elevation Gain (m): 790
Round Trip Time (hr): 5
Total Trip Distance (km): 7.5
Quick ‘n Dirty Rating: Class 3 – you fall, you sprain or break something
Difficulty Notes: Moderate to difficult (avalanche) terrain to the true summit depending how much snow there is on route.
Technical Rating: SC6; YDS (3rd)
GPS Track: Download
Map: Google Maps
Phil Richards and I decided that Commonwealth Ridge would make a nice first summit of 2016 – and we were right. We started in beautiful predawn light from the Smuts Pass parking area along the Spray Lakes Road in cold temperatures of around -23 degrees. The cold was a bit of a bummer as we were expecting warmer temps – but we warmed up soon enough as we snowshoed towards the ridge on a highway of ski and snowshoe tracks. Initially we were following So Nakagawa’s GPS track, but soon we started questioning this decision and turned back to find a more direct trail up the ridge. Thankfully we found another highway track going in the right direction which I’m sure saved us hours of deep sugar-snow trail breaking which is as much fun as it sounds – i.e. not much!
After doing two other, fairly straight forward snowshoe trips in the region recently (Rummel Ridge, Little Galatea), I was concerned that I might be bored doing yet another peak in the same area. I shouldn’t have worried about that, as Commonwealth Ridge is quite different in both views and approach to the other two. The lower trail to the upper shoulder was very well packed and very quick to ascend. The nice thing about Commonwealth, is that unlike Little Galatea, there is virtually no boring trudge along a treed ridge, after crossing Smut’s Creek it’s all uphill to the summit. The only traverse is a spectacular ridge traverse with great views – the best kind of traverse.
Once we broke tree line and made the lower shoulder, the terrain steepened and became more scramble-like and we were only following one set of tracks. After ascending a bit of ridge on the ‘shoes, we ditched them and donned crampons for the rest of the route. I’ve heard of many folks turning around due to the upper ridge conditions and wishing they had ax / crampons, so we came prepared. This was also Phil’s second attempt so he was determined to make it this time. The ridge to the north summit was great fun with amazing views in all directions. I was happy for the crampons and there was a minor cornice issue to watch out for. I’m sure this would be a bit too exposed for some folks, but for scrambler’s it shouldn’t be an issue.
The terrain from the north to the south (true) summit looked much more involved, and it was. There were no more tracks to follow here either! Thanks to a few other trip reports from So and Marko, we knew that the best course of action was to descend climber’s right and contour around a prominent rock pinnacle blocking the direct route between the two summits. Marko and So both describe this contour as fairly easy and compared to the direct route it is. I have to say that with the unconsolidated, nearly waist-deep snow conditions that we had, it didn’t feel that easy though! Many folks (wisely) turn back rather than risk these avalanche slopes and you must be able to assess conditions before safely traversing them when they are loaded with snow. The exposure to the west towards the Pig’s Back is tremendous, and getting caught in a slide here would very probably be the last ride of your life. We stuck close to the rock face, trying to stay on top of any dangerous slopes, but this meant steep and slick terrain with very loose rocks underneath.
Eventually we worked our way past the pinnacle and scrambled up to the summit to enjoy glorious views of many familiar and spectacular peaks. After enjoying a cup of warmth at the summit, we turned back and retraced our steps along the ridge – enjoying the views immensely. It helped that the temperatures on the ridge were much warmer than in the valley – and just like on Little Galatea a few weeks previous, there was no wind up high either.
I highly recommend Commonwealth Ridge as either a snowshoe or ski objective. On hindsight, I could have skied up the ascent route and cramponed to the summit from the shoulder on ski boots before skiing down a fantastic run on the east face of Commonwealth Ridge. There were tracks indicating that this is done when conditions are stable.