Summit Elevation (m): 2377
Trip Date: September 10 2016
Elevation Gain (m): 1500
Round Trip Time (hr): 7.5
Total Trip Distance (km): 19
Quick ‘n Dirty Rating: Class 4 – you fall, you are almost dead or wish you were
Difficulty Notes: Some loose, difficult scrambling on the upper mountain with delicate routefinding.
Technical Rating: SC7; YDS (4th)
Map: Google Maps
The weather forecast for the Alberta Rockies wasn’t looking great for the 2nd weekend in September 2016. Big surprise. Not! I had a choice to make, and it was harder than it should have been. Stay home and sleep in or drive 3+ hours to Waterton Lakes National Park where the forecast was quite positive. Guess which movie I chose to watch with Kaycie on Friday evening? The Revenant. What else was I supposed to watch before solo hiking in one of the most dense bear concentrated parks in the Rockies?! When I fell asleep I still wasn’t sure what I’d be doing Saturday morning, but set my alarm for 05:00 just in case I got some inspiration while sleeping.
Apparently, I got inspired.
I’m not sure how but for some reason I was up at 04:45 and out the door before my alarm went off. As usual I really enjoyed the drive to Waterton. I’ve done many solo trips around the Waterton and Castle Wilderness areas for some reason. I’ve said it before, but the landscape of rolling hills meeting the prairies reminds me of growing up in southern Manitoba and reading way too many Louis L’Amour and Max Brand western novels. I cranked my favorite music, sat back with a coffee and watched the prairie grass, wind turbines and cattle pass by under a reluctantly lightening morning sky.
By the time I drove through the very full town site of Waterton and parked at the Bertha Lake trailhead it was only 07:30 and I was only the 3rd vehicle there. I started the hike to Bertha Lake under a cool, partly cloudy sky and quickly made progress to the first falls. From the falls to the lake the trail did its usual annoying over-switch-backing habit which sees the hapless hiker go 500m horizontal for every 10 feet of height gain. Oh well. Eventually I did make it to Bertha Lake.
Other than a few ducks and some very fresh bear scat (!!) it was only me and the lonely windswept trail to the end of Bertha Lake, from where I could finally see the start of the scramble route. The entire way up to the lake and even around it, I still wasn’t 100% sure I was going to bother with scrambling Richards on this particular day. I wasn’t sure I was in the mood for a difficult solo scramble and was already quite satisfied with the lovely hike and nice drive. The clouds seemed to be getting thicker as I hiked, which didn’t boost my desire to go higher either. But you know how it is. After driving 300km, hiking for several hours and now staring up at easy approach slopes to the upper ridge, I decided I might as well go a bit higher and see how things progressed. I was here now. You can see where this is going.
With scenes from The Revenant still fresh in my memory I started up the easy slopes at the end of Bertha Lake, nervously letting any resident Grizzlies know I was coming. I took the right-hand stream which looked slightly less steep than the left one and soon found myself looking forward to a boulder field followed by a scree slope to Richard’s north ridge. I also spotted two small figures, high up on the scree slope! Apparently I wasn’t alone out here after all. For some reason, spotting two other climbers ahead of me on my intended route gave me some energy.
As I crested the north ridge of Richards, I noticed the two figures who used to be way ahead of me were now pretty much right at my height on the north ridge. They appeared to be searching around a bit for a route and didn’t have climbing gear so I assumed they were likely scramblers. I yelled over to them that I had a GPS track and that they should try the east side of the ridge for more benign terrain. They yelled their thanks back to me and disappeared over the east side of the ridge. I slowly began up the north ridge towards the spot where they crossed over – slightly higher than where the access to the lower traverse to the SE ridge starts.
The traverse to the SE ridge started on a narrow scree ramp heading down from the north ridge. After losing a bit of height I noticed some obviously traveled terrain angling up again, past some stubborn trees on the face and trending climber’s left along the east face. When I started over to an obvious break I noticed a pink ribbon tied to one of the trees nearby. The two scramblers ahead of me had missed this cue and were a bit further down and ahead of me but scrambling up to my line. We met and introduced ourselves. To my surprise, Trevor Helwig was one of the two – I knew him from years previous on the old RMBooks forum and ClubTread. The gentlemen scrambling with him was Rod Quapp. They are both from Lethbridge and part of the Southern Alberta branch of the ACC. They thanked me for my routefinding advice and I thanked them for the company / motivation to continue to the summit. We agreed to stick together and continued the traverse.
It’s going to be almost impossible for me to describe the traverse in any meaningful detail but I’ll give some broad strokes. Marko’s GPS track was very handy here but due to the terrain it can be hard to follow a GPS accurately so don’t rely only on that! The only obvious clue along the east face traverse was the pink ribbon and looking for traveled terrain in the form of slightly different colored scree. Other than that, we followed our noses, never going over more than difficult scrambling terrain and never into 5th class stuff. A few times I thought for sure we were going to be cliffed out but after going around the corner another route would open up in front of us. Eventually we broke onto the SE ridge and looked up at some more difficult looking terrain directly above us. There wasn’t much else to do but head upwards at this point – so that’s exactly what we did!
As with the east face traverse, we never got into 5th class terrain but certainly navigated a few 4th class moves, especially when deviating slightly climber’s right of the SE ridge proper in order to get around low cliff bands on the down sloping terrain. A few spots were quite exposed! Eventually the angle eased off a bit and soon I was watching Trevor and Rod cross the last bit of ridge to the summit.
Summit views were excellent, as expected, but the wind and clouds made it quite cool. After signing the 2nd register (the first was too soggy to bother with) and grabbing a bite to eat, we turned back down towards the SE ridge. For our descent, we followed the north ridge just down from the summit before descending back to our right down the SE ridge. Instead of retracing our difficult route up the spine of the ridge, we traversed climber’s right into the gully that Nugara also mentions. This gully worked excellent and soon we were traversing our way back to the SE ridge to our east face traverse line. We pretty much managed to follow our line back across the east face to the north ridge where we stopped for a bite to eat.
As we prepared to descend back to Bertha Lake we noticed a figure rapidly climbing towards us on the scree slope below. Apparently Richards is a popular peak! A young gentlemen from Saskatchewan attending the University of Lethbridge was out for a stroll and hoped to bag the summit. I gave him some route advice and he continued up to the north ridge, the excitement of being in the Rockies clearly evident in his demeanor. We pointed our feet down the scree slope and made short work of it to Bertha Lake. Here we parted ways, as both parties wanted to continue around the lake opposite our morning paths.
The rest of my day was quite pleasant as I completed the Bertha Lake circuit and started down the endless switchbacks to Bertha Falls. There were hordes of folks on the trail from the Lake down, including many still heading up. My round trip time of 7.5 hours wasn’t too bad consider almost 20km of travel and a vertical mile of height gain. I really enjoyed this scramble – much more than I expected to.