Summit Elevation (m): 2895
Trip Date: August 19 2016
Elevation Gain (m): 1700
Round Trip Time (hr): 11
Total Trip Distance (km): 27
Quick ‘n Dirty Rating: Class 3 – you fall, you break something
Difficulty Notes: A long day. The access gully and summit block are extremely loose, only recommended for small, experienced parties. Note: Since the Verdant Creek wildfire in 2017, access to this area is pretty restricted.
Technical Rating: SC6; YDS (3rd)
GPS Track: Download
Map: Google Maps
On Friday, August 19th I was joined by the indefatigable Phil Richards and Wietse Bylsma for another longish day trip in the Canadian Rockies. After two previous off-trail adventures to Breaker and Molar, Phil and I decided that it was time for a mostly on-trail objective. We settled on The Monarch, located between Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park and Kootenay National Park in British Columbia. Wietse has had his eye on this peak for many years, since Ben Wards posted on the old RMB forum that his group found a scramble route on it. Since then, Alan Kane has come out with the 3rd edition of his infamous scramble guide and added the same route to it.
Interestingly, the best access to The Monarch isn’t via either of the two parks it straddles but rather via a long trudge that starts in Banff National Park. We started bright and fairly early from the Sunshine parking lot, heading up the Healy Pass trail at around 07:30 in very crisp, clear mountain air. I have skied the approach to Healy Meadows / Pass many times but never hiked it. It’s even more boring hiking it than skiing it! We covered the first ~6km pretty quickly before taking the branch towards Simpson Pass where the trail starts gaining some real elevation.
Once we finally got up to Simpson Pass the views started to open up a bit and there was even some frost nipping the low bushes beside the trail. Fall colors are just starting to come out. I knew that I’d be wishing it was larch season all day and this desire started already around Simpson Pass as there are many larches in the area. I already knew at this point that I’d be revisiting this area some nice fall day – it must be stunning in full color! We passed a couple of border markers at the pass and kept ascending towards Eohippus Lake as Kane describes. After a couple of hours of lovely hiking we finally saw our objective across rolling terrain and started towards it off trail, trying to shortcut between the ponds and tarns that dot the landscape around the North Simpson River valley and beneath the Monarch Ramparts. To be honest, I’m not sure the off-trail “shortcut” was worth it. The terrain dips and rolls in the area and we even ended up with some light bushwhacking. Going all the way to Eohippus Lake is a bit further but easier and not much longer.
Eventually we ended up on a nice ramp leading up the Ramparts right under the east face of The Monarch on its north end and the extreme south end of the Ramparts. We found a nice trail here again too (coming from Eohippus Lake). Soon it was time to once again leave the trail and ascend right to the ridge top under the north ridge of The Monarch. It took us just under 3 hours to reach this point and we were feeling pretty good. The view over Eohippus Lake and the North Simpson River valley towards the Sunshine Meadows and Mount Assiniboine was already very respectable. We stopped for a bite to eat before scouting our route to the base of the lower access gully that is the key to scrambling The Monarch – located on the NW side of the mountain. You probably won’t follow my advice because it looks like a waste of distance and elevation loss, but I wouldn’t bother trying any sort of shortcut or side-hilling on scree slopes to gain the gully. It sucks, but you’re much better off following our return route along treeline to skier’s right of the debris field. This route is much easier on the feet and faster thanks to the much easier dirt / grass terrain over boulders and scree.
We descended much further than it first looked from the Ramparts and eventually found ourselves looking up at the obvious scree cone leading into a manky looking gully high above. I’d guesstimate that the height loss is more than 150m – we were thinking it’s closer to 200m elevation loss – certainly more than the 100m that Kane mentions. There wasn’t much to do at this point but start the long grunt up the gully. In order to save weight, Phil and I both wore approach shoes for this scramble. On hindsight we got very lucky. I didn’t even know about Ben’s trip report or I would have worn boots and brought light crampons. The gully is very narrow and since it’s north-facing the snow doesn’t completely melt in it. When we hit the snow we were very relieved to find a narrow crossing that Wietse kindly kicked steps across for us. Any more snow – or even worse, ice – and Phil and I would have been very unhappy. I recommend crampons, ice ax and boots for this scramble. You don’t want to hike all the way in here to be turned back by some icy slope.
Speaking of the access gully. It’s manky. Lately I’ve been thinking that scrambles should have an exposure rating and an objective hazard rating! Exposure-wise The Monarch is a moderate scramble. Objective hazard from rock fall on the entire NW side is pretty bad. We had to stick close in the gully and even then we had some very close calls with large rocks / boulders crashing down at the lightest touch. I was relieved when we finally broke out of the gully – but the objective hazard isn’t actually much less in the giant scree bowl under the upper mountain. There is a remnant glacier tucked right under the NW face of the upper mountain and that, combined with the horribly loose rock, regularly releases rock fall down the bowl. Put it this way – I wouldn’t stop for lunch anywhere after starting the lower gully all the way to the upper ridge.
For some reason I had lots of energy at this point and scrambled a bit ahead of Wietse and Phil, up the giant scree bowl, trending left to the north end of the upper ridge where the cliff bands clearly disintegrated. (Phil was rapidly getting sicker as the day progressed – by the end of it he could barely talk anymore.) Maybe I was just having an off day or something, but the upper mountain wasn’t quite as straightforward as Kane implies.
The route will be obvious as you angle left toward the summit, which lies near the left skyline. Expect no real challenges if snow-free…Alan Kane
Hmmm. The general route might be obvious, but the actual scrambling line from the north ridge up to the summit wasn’t as obvious as I was expecting from the rating or the description. I started heading up the north ridge directly from the top of the scree slope I’d been on, but was soon blocked by very non-moderate terrain. The only way I could see around this loose, very exposed ridge was to traverse below it on climber’s right (west) on more very loose, somewhat exposed terrain.
I found a route that crossed a few loose gullies above low cliffs, but it wasn’t that obvious – routefinding skills are necessary to avoid really manky climbing to the summit from the north ridge. Up to this point I was thinking the scrambling was more on the easy side of moderate but a few moves on the west face of the summit block to the north ridge were definitely moderate on extremely loose and somewhat exposed terrain. There were no cairns on the entire route – I think it’s so loose that any cairns wouldn’t last anyway. I set up some small cairns for Wietse and Phil to follow and yelled down to them off the north ridge to traverse where I did.
The views from the summit were absolutely stunning – as expected. Also, as expected, I found myself wishing it was a month later and the fall colors were out. Oh well! You can’t wait for fall colors for EVERY objective! Soon Wietse and Phil joined me and we enjoyed a nice 30 minute summit break, taking in the views towards Assiniboine, the Rockwall, Sunshine Meadows and Mount Ball. I was surprised to see less than one ascent per year in the register but given the distance and effort required to attain this mountain I guess it makes sense. David P. Jones must really like this peak, as he ascended it twice since 2006 – via climbing routes of course! (And yes – of course many hundreds of people may have stood on the summit and not signed the register – I’m well aware!)
The above sarcasm is due to comments I’ve received that somehow I’m misinterpreting empty summit registers as a lack of ascents on some of the peaks I’ve been on lately. I call bullshit on that sentiment. Sure! Some people don’t sign registers, but especially on these giant peaks, the vast majority will scribble something down for posterity. The reality is that even though peaks like The Monarch are highly visible and quite accessible, they simply aren’t ascended that often. Deal with it.
It took us less than 6 hours to the summit but we were moving pretty steady on approach. I would say that Kane’s estimate of 7 hours isn’t out of line. We descended the summit block very carefully and even though we’d just come up it we managed to get a bit off route on our way back to the north shoulder / top of the scree slope. We carefully descended the huge scree bowl, sticking close to avoid kicking rocks onto each other. In the lower gully we were even more cautious but I managed to release two basketball sized boulders straight down towards Phil and Wietse, missing Phil by only inches with one of them! Not cool. I’m sure his leg would have busted if it would have hit him. We breathed a sigh of relief as we exited the lower gully.
Rather than retrace our “shortcut” up the scree / boulder field to the Ramparts, we decided to cross the boulders directly under the scree cone and ascend to the Ramparts via the edge of the treed slopes instead. This worked beautifully but it was a grunt and certainly felt like more than 100 vertical meters – we think it’s more like 175-200. From the Monarch Ramparts ridge we descended easy grass slopes to the trail which we followed to Eohippus Lake. The views of The Monarch over the lake were awesome, as were the sublime meadows that were filled with wild flowers and insects enjoying one of the nicest days of summer. There are smatterings of trails around Eohippus Lake but they’re harder to connect than you’d think – we ended up following our noses on some sections of open meadow before finally finding the main trail again.
The next few hours were mixed between lovely hiking to Simpson Pass and then a rather boring trudge back to the parking lot along Healy Creek in the forest. Our round trip time of 11 hours is moving pretty quickly all day, I would estimate that most parties should count on 12+ for planning purposes. I highly recommend The Monarch for folks who want something a bit different with unique views of Assiniboine and the Pharaoh Peaks / Ball area. The only suggestion I would give is to travel as light as possible (still bring crampons / ax) and in a small group.