Helena Ridge East

Summit Elevation (m): 2560
Trip Date: February 24, 2019
Elevation Gain (m): 1100
Round Trip Time (hr): 5 
Total Trip Distance (km): 16
Quick ‘n Dirty Rating: Class 2 – you fall, you sprain something 
Difficulty Notes: A very easy backcountry ski or snowshoe trip with minimal exposure to avalanche terrain. 
Technical Rating: OT2; YDS (Skiing)
GPS Track: Gaia
Map: Google Maps

The month of February 2019 has been one of the longest and coldest in Alberta’s recorded history. As usual, the mountains to the west have had a few days of relative warmth and inversions but for the most part getting the timing right for these events has been a bit of a gamble, especially on weekends. To make matters worse, I decided to hurt my back about mid way through the month and have been dealing with sciatic issues for a few weeks. After missing out on a gorgeous day on the Family Day holiday Monday, I was absolutely determined to try something (anything!) on the following weekend.

Helena Ridge – East Peak Route Map

The weather forecast wasn’t looking ideal with 2 hours of sun and overcast conditions but I decided to follow Matt and Alison’s ascent tracks up Helena Ridge East no matter what the views might be. This was a bit of a shame because their photos were spectacular! Despite my initial determination, I almost didn’t go. Saturday night I was watching a movie late with Hann and as we fell asleep I rolled over and shut off my alarm. My left leg / lower back was still hurting and with the solidly “meh” forecast, I just didn’t feel like it. Fast forward 6 hours and I was out of bed getting ready. This has been my attitude lately – oscillating between wanting to go out no matter what, and deciding to hibernate in a warm, cozy house working on the endless amount of trip reports for my new website.

By 06:00 I was driving a dry highway in -25 degree temps towards the Rockies. As I drove into the Rockbound Lake parking lot I was exceedingly happy I was NOT in my bed at home. The sky above me was absolutely clear of any clouds! For once The Weather Network was overly pessimistic. I started skinning up the luge track towards Rockbound Lake in cold but clear and windless conditions. It didn’t take long for me to warm up enough to take off my outer layer.

Skinning up the long, well-packed Rockbound Lake trail.

My sore left leg didn’t bother me for the first couple of kilometers and I started to think I might actually pull this trip off. The sun was surprisingly warm as I did the final long switchback before noticing an obvious snowshoe track peeling off to the right towards Silverton Creek and the south slopes of the ridge. My left leg was hurting a bit but since I’m a stubborn idiot I kept going – albeit a wee bit slower. I found that if I kept my strides short it didn’t hurt too much and the day was simply much to nice to “waste” with an unsuccessful summit.

Views back to Eisenhower Tower from the rocky lower drainage.

The packed skin track was a huge help as I worked my way through tight trees and up towards the rocky drainage that Matt mentioned. I’m sure I wouldn’t have made it much higher than this drainage without the set track so a huge “thanks” to Matt, Sandra and Alison for their hard work 5 days previous. The forest above the rocky drainage to the larches was more open than I expected, but the snow was quite sugary. Breaking trail here must have been a bit of a nightmare!

As I finally hit the more open larch forest I realized again how lucky I was getting on this particular day. My leg and back was holding up and the views were spectacular in the clear, cold winter air. There was a light blue haze over the Bow Valley towards Banff and the Castle Mountain massif to the west was impressive, as were the views towards my last ski objective – Gibbon Pass Peak tucked under Mount Storm and Ball.

A gorgeous morning as I approach larch forests near treeline on the ridge. It’s still -20 though!

As expected, once the terrain opened up I had to finally break my own trail – but the views helped distract me from the work at this point. I still managed to follow the faint outline of a skin track and my leg and back continued to cooperate until I was on top of the ridge looking towards the summit. I decided to first ascend a small high point on my right, giving me spectacular views into the Johnson Creek Valley towards Mystic and Ishbel peaks and southeast towards Banff.

Nearing the ridge top looking back at my approach. A lovely winter scene towards Gibbon Pass Peak which was my last ski summit almost 1.5 months ago. The Castle Mountain massif at right.
Mystic (L), Ishbel, Cockscomb, The Finger, Cory, Rundle, Sulphur, Sundance, Massive, Bourgeau, Assiniboine, Pilot, Brett, Monarch, Copper (R) seen from the south end of the ridge.

There wasn’t a breath of wind as I worked my along the corniced ridge to the high point and took in the stunning winter views. Despite being -23, the sun felt strangely warm as I sat at the summit with a thermos of warm Starbucks coffee and drank in the mountain atmosphere that had been absent from my life far too long – around 5 or 6 weeks.

Views from just north of the summit include the outliers of Helena Peak at left and the long Johnston Creek Valley towards Luellen Lake (not visible) at center. Block Mountain at distant right. The Bonnet Icefield somewhere at distant center with Aquiline Peak and Pulsatilla Pass.
A giant summit panorama looking south (L) and west (R) includes Mystic, Ishbel, Pilot, Copper, Ball, Storm, Castle and many other peaks.

I was especially interested in the views toward Pulsatilla Pass, Aquiline Peak, Block Mountain, Noetic Peak and Mystic Peak. Despite being relatively close to the busy TCH corridor, these peaks get very little attention from the average hiker and climber. The Sawback Range is a beautiful line of distinctive mountains and reminds me a bit of the Opal Range with far less named and even less often ascended peaks.

The Sawback Range includes Block Mountain (L), Noetic Peak (L) and Mystic Peak at right. And tons of unnamed, but striking peaks in between. Sira Peak might be hidden in there somewhere in the background at center as well.

Even with a huge winter down jacket I started getting cold after around 30-40 minutes on the summit and prepared for the ski back down. 

Skiing back along the summit ridge towards a distant Pilot Mountain.

The downhill ski went far better than expected considering my back and leg. For some reason it seemed to hurt less after the 1100m vertical ascent. I guess I have to start working less and skiing more… The tree skiing wasn’t pretty but it was fast. I followed a drainage to skiers left of my ascent track until the rocky drainage. From there it was quick to the main Rockbound Lake trail.

It’s an easy ski down the south aspect to treeline. (UPDATE: In December 2019 I skied down further west (right) of this ascent line where the route goes through a mild rock garden. This was better terrain and leads into Silverton Creek and back to the ascent line from there.)

I was surprised to only run into one other person on the Rockbound Lake “luge track” but thanks to the cold weather, the track wasn’t icy and was easy and fast to ski relatively safely. Helena Ridge, east summit is an easy, safe ski or snowshoe option for either a solo workout or high avalanche conditions. It is much more skiable than other easy days such as Healy Pass but is also more work and more likely not to have a broken skin track the whole way up!

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