Summit Elevation (m): 2454
Trip Date: Wednesday, September 26, 2018
Elevation Gain (m): 2200
Round Trip Time (hr): 12
Total Trip Distance (km): 33
Quick ‘n Dirty Rating: Class 2 – you fall, you sprain your wrist
Difficulty Notes: Despite appearances, the ascent from the Middlepass Lakes to Rainy Ridge is fairly straightforward and easy when dry. A slip on some of the exposed spots would not be a great idea. NOTE: This trip was part of a 4 peak traverse resulting in the distance and elevation gains indicated.
Technical Rating: SC5; YDS (3rd)
A day after ascending close to 1800 vertical meters and biking / hiking and scrambling almost 30km up and down Mount Coulthard and McLaren in the Crowsnest Pass area, I was back at it with Phil Richards. We were planning a very full day of biking, hiking and peakbagging in the South Rockies within the newly formed Castle Wildland Provincial Park, near the Castle Mountain Ski Resort and just outside the other newly formed park, Castle Provincial Park. Our original plan was to spend a few days in the Middlepass Lakes area but with a deteriorating weather forecast for the Thursday, we decided to make it a long day trip instead and travel with lighter packs.
I spent the night in Blairmore and met Phil near the Castle Mountain Ski Resort just after 08:15 near the start of the West Castle River road. Our plans were slightly changed right off the bat, since Nugara’s suggested approach doesn’t work anymore with the closing of the road (Range Road 40a) to large vehicles right near the resort where it first crosses the river. It took me a while to figure out that there was no way the small bridge was meant for vehicles when I first arrived – I must have been tired or something because it took me way too long to come to that conclusion! I scouted around, desperately looking for a better crossing before realizing that the road was now permanently closed to vehicle traffic but still accessible for small OHV’s and obviously bikes. Oh well. It’s really no big deal if you’re bringing a bike and you should definitely bring a bike for this approach. We saddled up and started down the easy road by around 08:30 – much smoother and easier than my approach up a muddy OHV track to Coulthard the day previous.
Already within 15 minutes of leaving the parking area we were arriving at Nugara’s clearing, where he recommends parking. At the south end of the large clearing we crossed a bridge and continued along a fairly wide and flat road for another 10 minutes of easy riding before things got more interesting. By “interesting”, I mean the road narrowed, got rougher and started gaining serious height. In a repeat of the day before, we ended up pushing our bikes up some fairly loose, rocky and very steep OHV tracks. At a small clearing with signs of previous camps we noted that the trail got even narrower and steeper – this is where Phil assumed we’d be leaving the bikes. We also noted some tents off in the distance in a large meadow and wondered who was camping out here and why they chose that location. As we grunted and pushed our bikes further up towards Middle Kootenay Pass we got our answer re: the tents. Three very geared up and professional looking hunters greeted us and looked at our bikes with a combination of envy and amusement. They commented that we were in for a “fun” ride back down and looked a bit dubious that Phil would survive such a descent as his bike is slightly older and underwhelming from a downhill riding perspective (it doesn’t have shocks and weighs about 50lbs).
The uphill section was tougher and longer than I expected, and especially after the previous days efforts, pushing my bike uphill another 500 vertical meters was challenging to say the least! Finally we arrived near the pass and rode our bikes for the last few hundred meters to the official pass and our first glimpses down Middlepass Creek into British Columbia on the west side of the pass. It took us about 1.5 hours to bike and push our way up the first 8km of the approach but would prove more than worth it on return.
The weather was gorgeous as we abandoned the bikes and started our trek around the west shoulder of Rainy Ridge towards the Middlepass Lakes on a good trail that we found just under the pass on the BC side. Even though Nugara suggests taking the west shoulder and ridge to the summit, we knew we weren’t descending to the lakes after Rainy Ridge (we were traversing to Three Lakes and beyond) and wanted to explore them. The fall colors were absolutely brilliant and we lamented that this was likely to be our only remaining nice September outing, and resolved to take full advantage of it. The trail was recently maintained, making it very pleasurable to hike and before long we were at the first lake and working our way around it to the much smaller middle one. I was getting excited as we started finally passing larches – my first official larch trees of the 2018 Fall season! I have to admit there were less trees than I expected around the lakes, but it was still very pretty and the camp area at the third and largest lake was very respectable. There was a very new storage container for camping near the third lake in a grassy meadow near the camp – I’m assuming that the BC government must be making this camp more formal soon?
After checking out the camp area at the largest lake we started uphill to the col between Rainy Ridge NW and the main summit on easy terrain. Looking up towards the summit, the terrain looked much more challenging than it was and soon we were tackling the last 100 vertical meters on a series of ledges and bits of crumbling ridge – classic Castle Wilderness scrambling terrain. Our views back down to the lakes was, as expected, sublime and as usual I took way too many photos of it all. The weather continued to improve and despite being stuck under a very stubborn cloud, we were enjoying the dry mountains and warm weather immensely. This was what September hiking and scrambling was supposed to feel like!
On our final few steps to the summit we were delighted and somewhat surprised to see a forest of larches and more lakes and tarns to the east and south. Within about 4 hours of leaving the parking lot we were on our first summit of the day with expansive views in every direction. From the summit of Rainy Ridge I was originally planning to descend into the valley directly south to avoid tricky scrambling along the ridge direct route to Three Lakes Ridge. After looking along the connecting ridge, however, Phil and I decided to get our noses into it and see how hard it really was – it didn’t look so bad. So off we went!