Summit Elevations (m): 2512, 2470, 2470
Trip Date: Sunday, June 09, 2019
Round Trip Time (hr): 12
Elevation Gain (m): 2350
Total Trip Distance (km): 32
Quick ‘n Dirty Rating: Class 3 /4 – you fall, you break something or die (Krowicki)
Difficulty Notes: A high level traverse of three relatively obscure peaks in the extreme SW corner of Castle Provincial Park above Middle Kootenay Pass and Middlepass Creek. Easy to moderate scrambling with scree, ledges and other route options to make it harder or easier with a difficult scrambling section on Krowicki’s SW ridge.
Technical Rating: SC7; YDS (4th)
Map: Google Maps
This trip started like any other one – we planned an entirely different objective. Then it snowed. A lot. So naturally we changed objectives half a dozen times before finally settling on a bike ‘n scramble. We were going back to an obscure corner of the Rockies where a tiny paradise valley lies tucked away, just inside BC across the Alberta border past the SW corner of Castle Provincial Park. The Middle Kootenay Pass and Middlepass Lakes / Creek had provided us with a great traverse on the east side of the valley in the fall of 2018, so this time we settled on a traverse of its west side.
I was still hurting quite a bit from my first bike ride of the year on Deadman Pass Peak a few days earlier, but the only way to cure pain is to liberally layer more pain on top so I readily agreed that something with an even longer and much rougher bike approach was the obvious choice (!!). After meeting at 05:30 in De Winton, I could tell that Phil was enamored with my camo pants attire for the day. I told him I was trying to “fit in with the locals” but I’m not sure he bought it. Trust me though – I looked fine, other than my disappearing bottom half. Phil drove us the many kilometers towards the Castle Ski Resort and the start of our bike approach along the West Castle River Road. On our drive we kept glancing west and commenting how much fresh snow the latest storm had dumped on the mountains – a recurring theme for the Spring of 2019. Thankfully there seemed to be a pocket of less fresh snow right around the Castle Ski Resort for some reason – another reason for this trip choice obviously.
I knew from a recent Facebook post that the area around Mount Haig was snow free enough to scramble but was still expecting some winter snow around the Middle Kootenay Pass due to its location and the fact that it probably gets many feet of snow every winter. Knowing how long the trip was going to be, we packed our crampons and axes “just in case”, and set off up the approach road / trail on our bikes. As we biked up the wide road, the local song birds did their best to serenade us to the tune of the rushing West Castle River. It was another lovely start to a day filled with adventure.
Approach to Middle Kootenay Pass
After crossing the West Castle River for the last time the road started gaining height and we finally started warming up. We also noticed how dry the peaks on each side of us looked and started questioning the added weight / bulk of the axes and crampons. In classic Vern and Phil style we overanalyzed this situation for about 10 minutes (while biking uphill) before finally agreeing that any snow we encountered would be too soft for crampons. We left the extra gear in a recognizable bush along the road and continued on our way – a few precious pounds of gear lighter. You might wonder if this sort of gear pruning is really worth it but trust me, if you’re over 40 years old any pruning of weight and/or bulk is always worth it! (Assuming that the pruned gear isn’t needed later of course…)
The rough road leading from the West Castle River to Middle Kootenay Pass was very familiar. Songbirds kept me company as I sweated, slipped, swore and skidded my way up the rounded rocks that form the base of the steeper sections of track. I was amazed with myself that I biked down this in the dark the previous fall! As the angle finally eased off a bit we came to the gate that blocks the road (somewhat unneeded now that OHV’s are prohibited in the park). Fortunately the gate was open this time. Unfortunately the stream just beyond it was rushing across the track with lots of energy and a big snow bank lay just beyond.
We decided to try to keep our feet dry by riding through the rushing water. Phil immediately gave up 1.3″ (yes – that’s INCHES) into the stream and proceeded to wade across. I managed to bike across in desperate fashion, keeping my feet relatively dry (the water was deep enough that I dipped one foot into it). Immediately after the crossing we decided there was too much snow on the trail and we ditched the bikes. This was a bit unfortunate because we remembered the upper section of track to Middle Kootenay Pass as very pleasant downhill riding. Oh well. We’d come 6.5 km already in only 1 hour 15 minutes so the bike were once again a no-brainer for these objectives.
Middle Kootenay Mountain
Ditching the bikes where we did proved to be a smart decision. About 100m further along the trail all my effort to keep my feet dry was wasted in the form of another, deeper, stream and copious amounts of snow. I’m not gonna lie – hiking up snow with soaking wet feet sucked a bit. On hindsight I should have taken the time to wade the stream barefoot and kept the shoes a bit drier, but that is not generally our “style”. 😉 One of the many advantages of scrambling in approach shoes (in this case La Sportiva TX3’s) is that they dry out much quicker than boots and don’t give blisters even if wet. A disadvantage of approach shoes is that they transfer the cold from snowy ascents directly to the feet – much more than boots do.
We kept ascending a fairly snowy trail until it made sense to follow a dry path leading towards the lower east ridge of Middle Kootenay Mountain well before reaching Middle Kootenay Pass. This shortcut route worked beautifully and soon we were huffing and puffing our way up the mostly snow free scenic east ridge. As we ascended we were buffeted by a stiff, cool wind which combined with my soaking wet feet to make me a wee bit grumpy. Thank goodness for a down jacket, gloves and a toque which significantly warmed me and soon I was back to enjoying the familiar scenery of the Middlepass Creek Valley and Rainy Ridge to the southeast of our position.
As we approached the false summit of Middle Kootenay Mountain we were growing concerned. Not with the mountain we were on, but with the next objective on our list. Originally we were planning a slightly ridiculous traverse between Middle Kootenay and Tombstone to the west but looking at our intended route it wasn’t at all clear that it would “go”. We discussed this as we ascended and came to the conclusion that combining Miles and Krowicki with Middle Kootenay made much more sense and hence our objectives changed yet again! (Being somewhat flexible on route is key to making big days in the mountains successful.)
From the false summit we followed the terrain and our noses which generally agreed with Nugara’s route. We descended blocky, snow covered boulders and small cliff bands to our left (south) until we could gain the ridge leading to the main summit block. The summit block was obtained with a moderate scrambling step and soon we were enjoying excellent views of the area including Rainy Ridge, Barnaby Ridge, Haig, Tombstone and many other Castle area summits.
There was a lot of lingering snow along the east face of Mount Miles, but we decided to give it a shot.
The descent of the scree / dirt south slopes of Middle Kootenay Mountain towards the east face of Mount Miles went without issue. We finally warmed up as we took a break from the stiff, cool wind and settled into the next part of our day – figuring out the scrambling route on Mount Miles. We had two options to travel along the east face before contouring around and ascending much easier east gullies to the summit ridge. The first option was to lose quite a bit of height and traverse under the snow slopes. The second option was to lose a bit less height and hope the snow slopes were soft enough to traverse safely in approach shoes without crampons or axes.
On hindsight we should have just descended the extra 150m to dry ground but hindsight is always 20/20 isn’t it? The snow wasn’t terrible, but kicking steps across it got tiring. Eventually we made it to a steep, stepped gully and ascended straight up it on surprisingly firm ground. Phil wasn’t excited when I told him we still had ~400m of vertical at this point, but there wasn’t much to do but dig the hiking poles in and start upward.
The day was turning into another stunner. Despite a cold wind, the sun was warm when it wasn’t hidden behind clouds and the mix of shadow and light on the green valleys below us was producing a very “Spring” atmosphere. Wildflowers were blooming in the wet dirt slopes around us and we were both silent, ascending step after step lost in our own thoughts.
Sooner than first imagined, we were topping out on the summit ridge and hiking up to another stunning view.
Middle Kootenay and Tombstone stole the show from this summit – at least until we started the traverse down to the Krowicki col.
I was surprised to see how dramatic Krowicki Peak looked as we descended to its shared col from Mount Miles. They were easily among the best views of the day, with storm clouds starting to form and the dramatic north ridge and NE face catching the sunlight off dark ledges and bright snow. At first glance Phil was quite concerned about the NE face traverse but I surmised that it would actually be quite easy on ledges or snow. Despite the fact that Nugara puts Krowicki 30m lower than Miles, I think they’re pretty much the exact same height – and they looked it. The interesting thing was the different routes Phil and I had in mind.
I had a planned route for both Miles and Krowicki that I’d put together a few years previous when planning a trip with Wietse that never panned out. My planned route was Nugara’s so-called “easier” left hand route. His description is somewhat nondescript, simply implying that an “easier” route will make itself known as you ascend and traverse far around the east face to the SE one. See the green line on my detailed route map for my interpretation of his instructions. Phil only remembered Nugara’s more difficult right hand route which ends up on more difficult terrain to the SW of the peak.
Thanks to snow on the NW aspect, we were forced to attempt my line up the east face. The traverse of the NE ledges was much quicker and easier than the snow traverse on Miles and before long we were off the slabs and looking up a very intimidating east ridge. This couldn’t be the “easy” line could it?! We dismissed it and kept traversing around the east and then south aspects until we could see an obvious line to the col with a small unnamed summit south of Krowicki. The terrain above the col to the north looked pretty darn complex, but having seen nothing easier we really didn’t have a choice but to check it out at this point. So we did.
We shortcut the col on loose terrain to gain the south end of the SW ridge of Krowicki, only to see darn storm clouds and what looked like rain or snow quickly approaching from the northwest. This was not good timing, considering the very complex terrain we were staring up, but again there wasn’t much else to do but get our noses into things. We ascended an annoying scree slope for about 100m before the SW ridge really made itself known. And it wasn’t a friendly greeting at all!
Loose towers of crumbling rock with extreme exposure on both sides greeted us like a cold shower. And it was also literally a cold shower with wind and snow starting to swirl around us and views closing in rapidly with the weather. After lucking out with conditions all day we were getting payback at the absolute worst time! For some reason despite the gloomy conditions and scary looking terrain I had no desire to give up until we really had to. Phil was also busy picking out possible lines as we picked our way very carefully towards the summit. Nugara underwhelms this route a bit IMHO. We didn’t realize he’d done it at the time, but coming home I read his “right hand” option which ends up on the SW ridge. While he does mention one difficult section, he basically calls it “moderate” scrambling. In my books any terrain this loose and exposed, where a fall will definitely severely injure or most likely kill, is 4th class and “difficult”.
As the snow whipped up around us (literally going UP instead of down thanks to the wind and cliffs) we poked along the scary ridge. At first and second glances we felt like morons to even bother continuing, but as usual in the chossy Rockies getting our noses right into things tamed them somewhat. Somewhat – but not much! Everything we touched or stood on was terribly loose and unstable and the falling snow was quickly threatening to add “slick” to the equation. We had to be very delicate with our holds, pulling or pushing on anything too hard would guarantee its failure. The crux was obvious – you’ll know when you’re on it! 😉 Severe exposure down a short wall with decent holds at the bottom and shit holds near the top was almost too much but we decided to give it “one shot” and see where things went afterwards.
As we continued up the ridge Phil wondered if we’d finally hit our proverbial limit when I whooped aloud back down to him and confidently stated that Krowicki was “in the bag”. Sure enough! The final narrow ridge to the summit was a cakewalk compared to the crap leading up to it and soon we were looking down at the summit crater with puzzled expressions. Yes. Krowicki has a dubious distinction of sporting a summit crater rather than a summit cairn. The weather was still pretty awful and I was frozen – especially my hands, despite being in thin gloves the whole day. We knew we were in a temporary squall but neither of us had the desire to wait it out and we started a very careful descent.
Most of the difficult SW ridge was fairly easy to descend – other than loose holds which continued to threaten our existence. The difficult wall section was now getting slick and despite clearing loose rock from above it, descending it felt a bit desperate. In addition to the exposure looming under my feet, there were loose boulders and rocks threatening to fall from above. All-in-all it wasn’t an ideal scenario. But we made it and continued our descent to the col as the sun came out. Yes. Of course the sun was now shining – just in time for our scrambling to get easy again. :eyeroll:
Krowicki South & Exit
Ok, ok. Relax! I’m not “claiming” a fourth summit here! (Well, maybe I am – you’ll never know because I don’t really have a summit list anymore haha.) Just to make sure Phil didn’t think the rest of his day was going to be too easy, I suggested we bag the small but interesting summit to the south of Krowicki. Not only is this summit small and fast from the col, it actually has an interesting moderate / difficult little step up it’s north end if you choose to go that way – which of course we did.
Now that the sun was shining again we were feeling great as we topped out and took in the spectacular views in every direction. Naturally Krowicki stole the show, but Tombstone, Jake Smith, Scarpe and Red Argillite also looked mighty fine. The deep valleys on every side were showing off their Spring green, lush atmosphere and the moody sky above was bringing out that special mountain scenery that always impresses much more than a clear blue sky.
From Krowicki South we scouted our exit route to the Middlepass exploration road far below and proceeded back to the col and down easy east scree / ledged slopes. As we descended I spotted what I thought was 3 hikers far below on a snow slope in our descent gully! I yelled to Phil before I realized these weren’t 3 human hikers. They were 3 grizzlies – a momma and two cubs. In yet another special moment on a day that was starting to have many of them, we sat and watched as momma bear turned her massive head up towards us and proceeded to usher her two playful cubs out of the drainage and in the opposite direction. We always love seeing smart bears. 😉 As the bruins shuffled across open avalanche slopes far beneath and away from our descent line, we resumed our exit.
Seeing the bears was a good thing. I’d much rather see the bears and know they’re around than not see them and “enjoy” a surprise party in some thick alder trees on exit. This would be a party where I’m the cake… The snow gully provided very quick egress and soon we were in yet another magical hiking paradise with a cheerful creek, waterfalls, flowers and saturated vegetation from the recent snow squalls. As we descended out of the drainage to the exploration road, we gazed back at this scene many times – soaking it in for remembrance later. We hit the road with zero bushwhacking and started our long exit march up towards Middle Kootenay Pass. We were about 10 hours into our day at this point.
The exploration road varied in condition from an obvious road to a narrow single track to an overgrown gravel path. We briefly explored an obvious O&G gravel platform part way up the road (probably the reason it exists) before continuing up the much more overgrown and diminished road to the pass. The sun was back out as we walked through a tunnel of trees and shrubs, serenaded yet again by winged locals. The puget smells of Winter death and Spring life filled our nostrils as the angle of the road slowly ramped upwards to the pass. We intersected with our exit route from our Rainy Ridge Traverse and ascended the familiar sandy road to finally crest Middle Kootenay Pass.
Looking all the way along and down the Middlepass Creek Valley to so many familiar peaks on both sides was beautiful and exhausting at the same time. Considering we blitzed this whole valley (minus Scarpe) in two day trips was overwhelming for our tired minds, so we turned around and concentrated on descending to our bikes instead. Copious amounts of snow greeted us just below the pass on the Alberta side of the border. Thank goodness the snow was decently supportive and made the descent quicker instead of slower (we’d still have prefered bikes here though).
After arriving at the bikes all that was remaining was the fun and terrifying ride out to the West Castle River and the ski resort. I only bailed off the bike once, after losing concentration while fiddling with my Gopro. Oops. 😉 This was a fantastic and highly recommended trip to a neat “little” corner of the Rockies that has its own special atmosphere and feel to it. If you’ve done most of the peaks in the Castle region, I highly recommend some adventuring to the Middlepass Creek / Lakes area.