Summit Elevation (m): 2520
Trip Date: Saturday, March 23, 2019
Elevation Gain (m): 1000
Round Trip Time (hr): 8
Total Trip Distance (km): 17
Quick ‘n Dirty Rating: Class 2/3 – you fall, you sprain or break something
Difficulty Notes: The most difficult thing about Winchester Ridge is figuring out which route you want to take to get to it. The ridge and south face offer lots of choice from easy to moderate scrambling.
Technical Rating: SC6; YDS (3rd)
Map: Google Maps
Even before Cornelius Rott forged a route to the summit of Winchester Ridge, it was on my radar. This has happened with a number of relatively obscure peaks over the past 3 or 4 years as Cornelius is attracted to the same types of objectives as Phil and I. Apparently he also has more time to go bag them… 🙂 The down side for us is that we don’t get to do these peaks as relatively ‘virgin’ adventures but the upside is that we have beta. “Mount Balfour” jumped out at me on the ViewRanger maps as an oddity. There was no information on the name and it seemed way out of place considering the real Mount Balfour is located far away on the Wapta Icefield in Banff National Park.
Phil and Cornelius had a chat and agreed that the name had to be in error and agreed to call the unnamed ridge after the creek on its northwest aspect – “Winchester”. Hence its unofficial new name, Winchester Ridge. (I have seen some references to a “Dormer Ridge” but am not sure where this is located.)
For some reason, I’ve never driven the forestry trunk road (#40) past the Waiparous Valley Road on my Mount Davidson attempt with Eric. I’ve always used the Sundre access for Ya Ha Tinda but since Phil was coming from Canmore we agreed to give the FTR access from the south a try. It worked much better than expected. Within about 90 minutes of meeting at the hwy 1A junction we were already pulling up to the sour gas site on the Panther Road. I think I’ll be using this access more often for this area as it’s about 30 minutes faster (at least) from my house.
We came loaded for bear (literally) with bear spray, snowshoes, crampons and axes. It’s that time of the year when we had no idea what to expect. The snowshoes were a good idea right off the bat when the OHV track alongside the Sheep Creek was covered in 1-2 feet of snow. As we crunched our way up the semi-supportive surface we noted that the south slopes on our right looked almost bone dry. As we started punching through the snow further up the track we started looking a bit more seriously at the forested slopes on our right.
Our planned route was to take the Sheep Creek OHV track all the way to the open south slopes under the SW (true) summit. Cornelius didn’t know which summit was the highest and naturally went for the labeled summit first, taking a much more circuitous route and many hundreds of meters of extra height gains and losses. Our planned route wasn’t even 900 m of height gain compared with his 1400 meters. BUT. As we crossed the creek near a rustic campsite we started to rethink our plans. The dry south slopes above us became too attractive to ignore and eventually after an hour along the track, we gave up and agreed to go for it. We could see a line on the map that would avoid the “SE Hill” that cost Cornelius an extra 200 meters and we knew the south face would likely be doable in the dry conditions we were seeing.
We timed our departure from the OHV track almost perfectly. Right away the snow was gone and we were left with a beautifully warm, sunny, windless day on typical brown grasses and lightly forested slopes of the Ya Ha Tinda area. We followed the terrain and our noses up towards what I’m referring to as the “SE Hill” which is a bump just SE of Winchester. This is the hill that Cornelius ended up traversing over, we chose a line side-hilling its west aspect instead. An unexpected escarpment just before the side-hilling gave us some great views of our objective and towards Zombie Peak further upstream.
A short bushwhack and slight ascent and we found ourselves under the north summit and between Winchester Ridge and SE Hill. At this point we were still only focused on the SW (true) summit and planned a nice rising traverse up to the ridge via the south face. After a quick break we set off on pleasantly dry rubble slopes. Our route worked great – we were on a roll with routefinding! Despite appearances, the snow slopes were fairly tame and the rock beside them was even tamer. Easy scrambling and following our noses got us up to the ridge where we were greeted by no wind, warm sunshine and great views over the Dormer River towards Dormer and Barrier mountains.
Looking to our left we could see a relatively dry ridge leading all the way towards the summit and wasted little time getting onto it. The scrambling remained pretty easy with some minor exposure all the way to the summit. We were blown away by the views and the weather – much more enjoyable than either of us were expecting as a Spring scramble. We chilled at the summit for a while, scoping out some lines on distant peaks before agreeing that rather than descend too quickly we should take advantage of a perfect day and traverse to the north summit – just to confirm it was indeed lower.
Traversing the ridge to the north summit was worth it big-time given the conditions we had. There were only a few moderately exposed sections that provided some engaging and fun scrambling, the rest was simple off trail hiking. It’s rare to get such windless days at altitude in this area and I’m glad we took full advantage. The views from the false summit were very similar to the south and we confirmed that it is indeed about 13 meters lower despite appearances to the contrary. Both Phil and I agreed that Cornelius deserves some kudos for bothering with the traverse – I wouldn’t have bothered I don’t think!
After another quick break we started our descent straight down the south face from the north summit towards SE Hill. Again, despite appearances, the route was no more than moderate scrambling. From below it looked much more involved than it actually was – there is some room for route finding gaffes here but no need to be on difficult terrain unless you’re looking for it.
Once through the obvious cliffband that runs along the south face of Winchester the going got easier. We descended scree slopes to the SE Hill col and from there we were pretty much home-free. Other than the slog back out along Sheep Creek of course!
We took a slightly better line through the forest to the creek – this is the one I’ve GPS’d in this report. The snowshoe back was easier than the approach with slurpee quality snow on the OHV track.
Our round trip time of just under 8 hours wasn’t too bad. I’m sure if we didn’t bother with the false summit we could have shaved about an hour off, but why rush when the weather and conditions are being so cooperative? A great early or late season objective, but doing it without snow on the OHV track would have the very obvious benefit of using a bike. This could make Winchester a very casual 6 hour day quite easily.