Summit Elevation (m): 3082
Trip Date: August 20, 2017
Elevation Gain (m): 1650
Round Trip Time (hr): 9.5
Total Trip Distance (km): 22
Quick ‘n Dirty Rating: Class 3/4 – you fall, you are either hurt or almost dead
Difficulty Notes: Complex terrain that requires good routefinding skills combined with loose rubble and slabby gullies that either hold fickle scree or snow and ice.
Technical Rating: SC7; YDS (4th)
Map: Google Maps
I first spotted the impressive hulk of Mount Lyautey in 2006 from an ascent of Mount Putnik as part of an engaging and entertaining Northover Ridge backpacking and peakbagging adventure. At the time I was only around 5 years into my scrambling career and wasn’t very familiar with the peaks all around me. Now, over a decade later I’ve been on most of their summits – but as of the morning of August 20th, 2017 I still had not stood on top of Mount Lyautey. In August of 2009 my interest in the mountain was once again sparked by two reported ascents in the span of just a few days – on a peak that had only seen a handful of total ascents since the 90’s! Over the years since 2009 I had many plans for Lyautey but as always, there’s so many options and for some reason or another it kept getting sidelined.
In 2016 two more reminders boosted the priority of this peak for me. Alan Kane published the 3rd edition of his Scrambles in the Canadian Rockies which now included Lyautey, and Raf, Sonny and Andrea bagged the peak (they invited me but I couldn’t make it). After already delaying the peak once this year, it was time to finally go for it. After cancelling plans for a trip up the Icefields Parkway due to a last minute wx change (snow?!), Phil Richards and I were at a bit of a loss what to replace it with. I suggested Lyautey and Phil agreed. We were wary about forest fire smoke as the views from Lyautey are pretty stellar, but in the end we had to take a chance or stay home. Sitting on the couch seemed like a bit of a cop-out, so we settled on a 07:00 departure time from the Interlakes parking lot instead. Secretly I know we were both hoping to get lucky with views like I had two days previous on Mount Ogden in Yoho National Park.
The day dawned clear and fairly smoky as we drove to the trailhead. As we prepared for the first 4km on our bikes, we both commented that maybe we should just go back home and get on the couch. For some reason we didn’t bother following this wise suggestion, and soon we were pedaling furiously along the annoyingly undulating 3.8km section of trail from the Interlakes parking lot to Invincible Creek. Despite pushing our bikes up at least 2 or 3 hills, the bikes did make short work of the first 4 kms. Within 35 minutes of leaving the parking lot we were hiking over Invincible Creek and along the well padded trail towards our destination.
The trail running up the Upper Kananaskis River was in excellent (very dry) condition and before long we were looking to our left up the gravel outwash that leads to the headwall granting access to the NW bowl / glacier on Lyautey. The outwash is located just after Three Isle Creek and the Upper Kananaskis River hook up. It’s also just before the Forks campground. The gravel outwash is pretty wide. There is more than one way to ascend it, but eventually every approach is funneled into the headwall and the wild bead of water cascading down it. According to Sonny, this headwall proved more problematic than the rest of their ascent of Lyautey! That was a surprise, as Kane simply mentions that any difficulties can be overcome on “climber’s right” of the waterfall. Phil and I were determined to find a route up this headwall that avoided difficult scrambling. One thing I appreciate about Kane is that if he calls something “scrambling” or “simple” – it shouldn’t usually feel like death is staring you in the face. Usually.
As we approached the waterfall I noticed something else that no trip reports or guidebook had mentioned. There was almost no doubt that going climber’s left, instead of right, would be no more than an easy scramble or possibly even only a hike. Two parallel scree ramps trended easily up and over the headwall on climber’s left. Both ramps had trees and vegetation on them and were reasonably angled. We debated quite a bit about giving one of these ramps a try but I mused that we couldn’t see the top of this route and we may end up quite a bit off a direct ascent line. On hindsight this is true, but I still think either of these ramps are great alternate access to the NW bowl (or egress from it) and is almost certainly easier than any line going climber’s right of the waterfall. I’m also certain that this is the winter line of ascent as folks ski the NW glacier and even summit Lyautey in winter conditions.
After deciding to give climber’s right a try, we started ascending manky scree slopes up to our right, keeping an eye on the headwall and scoping out possible ascent lines. I had spotted Sonny and Raf’s route already from the creek. From far away it looked straightforward but I knew from experience that slabby terrain and gullies always look easier from a distance. Closer up we could see that despite being dry (they had it wet), this was still not going to be easy scrambling. We kept trending up and to our right until we neared the west end of the headwall. We’d spotted a good candidate ramp here earlier and it proved to be just the right one. It had trees running up beside it (indicating a reasonable angle) and the gully itself was just loose scree / dirt and only easy scrambling. Everything was pretty loose, but if anyone has issues getting up the headwall using our route, they should definitely not bother with the main ascent, as it’s much more convoluted and difficult both to find and to follow.
After building some cairns along the top-out of the gully we used to get up the headwall (could be tricky to find the gullies on return), we continued trending up and climber’s left back into the main NW bowl. At this point we still couldn’t see the peak or the NW glacier. A lateral moraine was blocking most of our views and we easily ascended and crossed over it. As expected, the excellent view up the Kananaskis River towards the Haig Glacier and its surrounding peaks was also blocked – by annoyingly thick layers of grey forest fire smoke. Thankfully the views on the ascent of Lyautey are mostly close-in, including some pretty darn impressive amounts of Horn Coral fossils and soaring cliffs on every side of the alpine bowl. Phil was laughing at me as I got distracted by the sheer number of fossils on our route. There were so many laying around and embedded in the surrounding rocks that I had to force myself to look up once in a while. When I got back from our trip and did some research on Horn Fossils, I realized that I might have even seen some impressions of the creatures that built the horns – they were apparently multi-tentacled and flower-like and I saw some impressions matching this description that I regret not photographing now. I guess I have to go back some day.
The fossils and the interesting, stepped, rocky terrain provided a nice distraction from the distance and elevation still ahead of us. By the time we finally rounded a corner, crossed the lateral moraine and got our first views of the NW glacier and our mountain, I was shocked to discover we were approaching the 3 hour mark into our trip! Trips like Lyautey are fun because they involve multiple disciplines (biking, hiking, scrambling, glacier etc.) and lots of interesting and varied landscapes (lakes, rivers, waterfalls, streams, glaciers etc.). At the 3 hour mark we were finally dumping extraneous gear at the toe of the glacier before continuing our journey. Just as on Conical Peak the week before, we simply walked up the glacier in light footwear. I was once again wearing approach shoes while Phil was in trail runners. I have to say that wearing approach shoes has been a game changer for me this year. I bought the La Sportiva TX4’s this year and they have performed way above any expectations I had for them. I’ve worn them on every type of terrain including on snow slopes with crampons! They are starting to show some wear on the treads, but the toe rands and sidewalls are still almost as new.
Obviously glacier travel in runners is a bit sketchy, but we managed to get all the way up to the bottom of the scree slope granting access to Lyautey’s NW face without any issues. We knew that we’d be avoiding the ice on descent, as it was just steep enough to be problematic if facing downhill without some sort of metal attached to our feet for extra grip. I had my aluminum crampons along but a certain unnamed trip partner forgot his spikes at the trailhead that morning. Aluminum crampons are fine in a pinch, but for long distances on any sort of ice they suck. As we ascended the glacier we noted Kane’s lateral moraine running high above us on climber’s left. The glacier on Lyautey is so tame that I would recommend taking it on ascent even if you’re “only” a scrambler. There are a few crevasses but they are very easy to avoid in dry summer conditions. If the glacier is snowy you should avoid it unless you’re experienced in such terrain and conditions.
Lyautey is a strange beast. As we approached the end of the NW alpine bowl on the glacier, the route didn’t become obvious until we were practically on it. Even the summit was obscured by its surrounding terrain – we had no concrete idea where it was until again – we were on it! I had Sonny’s GPS track loaded up, but there are so many gullies and cliffs on this peak, that any GPS track you might have (including mine from this trip report) will be approximate at best. If you suck at routefinding, Lyautey may not be a good candidate for you as you’re going to get off route at least once or twice no matter how much beta you have along. As we approached the loose ascent slopes on the NW end of the mountain, we noted two routes forming above us. There was an obvious gully system running directly up the NW end that looked very steep, loose and slabby. This was the gully that Sonny’s group used for both ascend and descent. A careful reading of Kane’s route led us up a slightly less steep line to climber’s left of this gully on scree. We debated quite a while about which way to go, but Phil finally pointed out that Kane obviously came at the mountain from the moraine / ridge and so there must be a feasible moderate / difficult route up the face from this abutment. Dr. Phil has his moments, I have to admit.
Once on the abutting ridge (Kane’s route), we noted the many pinnacles that he mentions going around (on climber’s right) below us and turned our attention to the face above. Hmmm. We had many options! There were at least 2 or 3 steep gullies running up between rock ledges but none of them looked particularly easy. Kane mentions ascending “leftward over rock ribs” until finding a wide scree gully to just under the summit. On hindsight this makes perfect sense, but the “rock ribs” aren’t as easy or obvious to go simply go “over” as Kane’s description implies. I didn’t like the look of the broken and obscured ribs to our left so I chose the one gully that looked somewhat reasonable from the abutting ridge and started up it. Phil, somewhat reluctantly, followed me up. As expected, this was our crux of the day. It looked fairly innocent from below, but the gully had a steep, awkward step in it and was steeper than it appeared once we were 3/4 way up – a very common phenomenon on slabby terrain and gullies. I really hoped we weren’t blocked at the top of this gully as I wasn’t looking forward to going back down it! Thankfully there was an escape into the slabby gully that Sonny’s team used on the opposite side. Unfortunately this meant we were off the Kane route but c’est la vie.
We followed the slabby, loose, manky gully upwards, including a slab section that would be dicey if wet or likely impossible if icy. Snow might be helpful in this gully, but could be problematic elsewhere on the mountain. As we approached the top of the slabby gully we started running out of options. We could spot obvious ribs and gullies with snow and ice to our right but we knew these were steeper and harder than they looked. Sonny mentioned crossing a “rock rib” and finding an easier ascent line near the top, so we searched for this feature and thankfully found it. We even spotted a cairn marking the exit from the slabby gully over into the easier scree one. I traversed even further climber’s left and discovered another scree gully on the north face, that is likely the one that Kane used. Getting into this gully was tough from our vantage, so we saved it for return and ascended slightly harder terrain until popping out on a scree slope just under the summit. Finally, 5 hours after departure, we were standing on the summit of Mount Lyautey.
Our views from the summit were much better than expected, lifting our moods significantly. Clouds had moved in, but the amount of smoke thankfully decreased quite a bit from earlier that morning. Many familiar peaks showed up and just as on Ogden two days previous, I was flooded with many great memories. Kananaskis was my early scrambling and hiking hangout. I could only afford crappy vehicles when I started out, and only got out once or twice a month at most. Kananaskis was close to Calgary, so it was a natural target for my adventures. Now, many years later, I have fond memories of those innocent days of early adventure when I thought scrambling peaks like Mount Rae and Indefatigable were tough and long and I was still enthralled by the mountains as a prairie boy. The wind was cool and the weather was building around us so after signing the sparse register (far less than one ascent recorded per year), we headed down.
For descent we retraced our steps to the top of the wide scree gully that I’m 95% sure Kane used. As Phil started down this gully, the whole dang thing started sliding out from under his feet! For a few minutes afterwards, we just stood there, watching as a massive amount of loose scree flowed out of the gully literally beneath our feet and cascaded all the way down, out of our sight to the Lyautey glacier below. Yes – this mountain is that loose and that rarely traveled! Thank goodness we didn’t ascend this manky gully. The dirt that was left behind after the screevalanche was a bit icy and slick and we ended up tiptoeing down more loose terrain beside it until we could easily escape the gully over rock ribs to our left. From here we spotted a cairn just above that we’d built on approach and found our ascent line back. Still not trusting the rock ribs / gullies leading down the NW face of the mountain, we chose to descend the slabby west gully all the way out to the NW Lyautey Glacier that we’d approached on.
The slabby gully was very loose and full of moderate scrambling terrain, but searching around for reasonable routes prevented it from getting too technical. I’d say the most dangerous aspect of Lyautey is the object hazards of very loose, slabby terrain and getting stuck off route in a gully somewhere on the NW face. Other than that, the scrambling is never terribly difficult. We were both relieved to finally exit the slabby gully and start down easy snow alongside the glacier. Our runners didn’t work well on hard snow so eventually we just side-hilled the scree slope on skier’s right of the glacier. Soon we were back on the solid fossil ledges and working our way back to the waterfall headwall.
Thanks to our cairns and GPS track, we managed to find the right gully back down through the headwall. It was even easier than we remembered and soon we were heading for the creek and easier terrain below. The creek was raging much higher than earlier in the day and we had some interesting issues descending on skier’s left of it. On hindsight we could have used an easier descent line but we survived without any incidents so all’s well that ends well I suppose! The hike back to the bikes was fairly quick and easy thanks to our light footwear. The bike ride was much quicker on return – I made it back in just under 20 minutes which included navigating all the backpackers either coming in or going out along the trail.
Our round trip time of 9.5 hours surprised us, as we both expected it to be longer. I think 10-12 hours isn’t an unreasonable time to plan for on this mountain. The combination of routefinding and the complexity of the terrain add up. Lyautey was a lot looser and mankier than I expected. It’s a gorgeous mountain with a lot of interesting and unique terrain but don’t underestimate it – there’s a reason for its relative obscurity compared to its many rocky neighbors.