Summit Elevation (m): 2618
Trip Date: Saturday, June 22 2019
Elevation Gain (m): 1750
Trip Time (hr): 7.5
Total Trip Distance (km): 14
Quick ‘n Dirty Rating: Class 2/3- you fall, you break something
Difficulty Notes: No major difficulties – mostly an easy scramble and some route finding, especially if there’s ongoing ski hill construction activity.
Technical Rating: SC6; YDS (3rd class)
Map: Google Maps
The last time I scrambled this circuit was over 10 years ago in the opposite direction, on June 14, 2008 with Wietse. I don’t generally repeat trips and despite not planning this particular trip for this particular day, on hindsight I’m perfectly OK with repeating it – it’s a beauty! Our destination peaks for the day were originally Boot Hill and Tombstone Mountain. The reason we picked the deep south Rockies yet again, was to avoid another huge dump of snow and subsequent bad weather blanketing the Rockies (yet again). June 2019 has been a pretty interesting month. Driving down hwy 22 we were a bit apprehensive about the weather. We stopped along the way to take some dramatic landscape photos before continuing towards Crowsnest Pass.
Soon after stopping for photos of the dark clouds along hwy 22 we noticed clear blue skies over the Crowsnest Pass area. Our hopes went way up that we might actually get a pretty decent day. Then we drove through the hamlet of Beaver Mines (population exactly 100 ;)) and realized we were probably in for a bit of a “day”. Dark clouds were pouring over the divide and the closer we got to the SW corner of Castle Provincial Park, the darker and lower those clouds were! The one issue with driving so far and into this area was that we really didn’t have good backup options, so we shrugged our shoulders and hoped for the best. Soon after leaving the Castle Ski Resort parking lot we came on our first sign, guiding us straight ahead to access “Haig Lake South” or turn uphill to access “Haig Lake North”. I wasn’t aware there were two “Haig Lakes” but we chose the south option. (There is only one “Haig Lake” – the different routes go to the same lake.)
Within 100m of the first sign we came on another. This one told us in no uncertain terms that the ski hill and all access through it was closed for the summer for anyone but the construction crews that were working there. We hummed and hawed and tried to reason around the bright orange sign with symbols from hiking to biking to horseback riding all clearly crossed out with a “NO GO” message. This was really crappy! Eventually we decided that the sign just 100m back didn’t say we couldn’t hike to Haig Lake North, so we’d try that option and hopefully figure out a route that gained Haig Ridge higher up above the construction.
It was all very strange and discouraging, to be honest. The weather combined with the now-convoluted approach was adding up to make me feel a bit “meh” about our planned objective and we’d barely left the parking lot! (Originally I was planning to use the “Paradise Lake” trail which is by far the most reasonable approach to Mount Haig’s east ridge.)
Despite the morning being beautiful with blue sky, low clouds and lush green flora all around, both Phil and I felt that familiar “rushed” feeling that is a result of being thrown a loop right from the parking lot both in terms of weather and closures. We were kind of worried that we’d be turned back by another sign higher up, not to mention we were 1km off course and a whole valley too far north of Haig Ridge and our approach! I won’t belabor the story too much other than to say we were not in as good of moods as we probably should have been considering how gorgeous the hiking was.
After hiking a good way up the North Haig Lake route we started looking for an escape to Haig Ridge. Eventually we had two choices. Either bushwhack to a steep scree gully splitting Haig Ridge (unknown if it would “go” or not) or follow a trail / ski run back down across the creek and then backtrack east towards Haig Ridge’s NE end, intersecting it at some point where cliffs petered out – near the lift and near the closed area. We didn’t like either choice but settled on the easiest, crossing Gravenstafel Brook (knee deep) and continuing a backtrack to the NE end of Haig Ridge. Eventually I got tired of all the screwing around and suggested a bushwhack straight up a small drainage towards Haig Ridge. After thrashing through soaking wet vegetation we stumbled on an obvious trail that led right up to the crest of Haig Ridge. Phew!! That was a lot of unnecessary work just to get to this point.
I was feeling a bit flustered as we continued up Haig Ridge. The day was actually quite nice, with amazing views of Southfork Mountain and Barnaby Ridge with fresh snow on their summits and lush green valleys beneath, but we were going much slower than anticipated and the clouds coming over the Divide were still mucking with our original plan of heading up Boot Hill and the hard-to-access Tombstone Mountain. I also knew we had at least 200-300 meters of height loss ahead of us to get down to Paradise Lake and onto Haig’s east ridge yet.
We debated about cutting across Haig Ridge’s lower east aspect to gain the Paradise Lake valley but choose to stick on the open road / track on the ridge instead. On hindsight we should have shortcut the elevation gain and avoided some of the subsequent loss but again, we were out of sorts and still very unsure what we were going to do considering all the clouds still pouring over the Divide. We knew there was no point in going all the way into Tombstone in a complete grey out. The effort to get in there required at least some decent views!
Too soon we were at our apex along Haig Ridge and realized we’d better start the inevitable descent to Paradise Lake before we reached the summit of the ridge! (On hindsight I kind of wish I’d done that summit now – at least I haven’t done it before…) The descent to the east ridge of Haig past Paradise Lake was a bit depressing but easy and scenic. Soon we were on the Paradise Lake approach trail before finding a route up to the east ridge of Haig, which was a bit mankier than expected. Once we gained the east ridge we enjoyed a carpet of Glacier Lilies and more great views down the West Castle valley towards Lys Ridge.
As we ascended into the clouds on Haig’s east ridge we kept debating about continuing to Boot Hill or not. Eventually we simply gave up on our original idea and I suggested we bag Mount Haig and Gravenstafel Ridge instead. Sure! I’d done them already 11 years ago but Phil hadn’t and I remembered the traverse being rather fun so why not? We decided to traverse the south face of Haig to see if this route would work as a shortcut to Boot Hill the next attempt. The traverse worked perfectly. With low clouds over Boot Hill we made a final decision to abandon that idea and turned up towards Haig’s dreary summit slopes.
As we approached the summit of Mount Haig the clouds threatened to lift but they never did. We touched the cairn and turned to the north ridge descent to the Gravenstafel col.
As we descended easy scree slopes to the Gravenstafel col the clouds finally started to lift and our views once again became stunning. I remembered Haig Lake being very charming under Haig’s north face and it was! It was sobering to see the ski tracks from a recent trip where a skier was killed by rockfall from this face – we heard rocks tumbling down it the rest of the day.
As we continued down the col I remembered how much height loss this traverse entails – much more than it appears at first. The terrain is much more fun and scrambly than I remembered too – for sure moderate scrambling in spots and very blocky (and loose). The views just got better and better and by the time we were nearing the col with Gravenstafel even Boot Hill was coming out of the clouds. This was a bit of a bummer, but we both still felt OK with our choice to switch objectives. The views of Gravenstafel with its uniform shape and the aqua gem of Haig Lake sitting under the brooding north face of Mount Haig more than made up for a “missed” new summit opportunity.
From the col to the summit of Gravenstafel ridge the scrambling was fairly easy depending on which line we took. I found some nice moderate scrambling on the nose of the ridge which had the added bonus of keeping Haig Lake in sight longer – which had the added effect of filling up my memory card on the camera…
The summit views from Gravenstafel Ridge were as good as I remembered them. Looking out over the prairies we could see large storms building. Despite the clouds lifting and even revealing Tombstone Mountain there was obvious instabilities in the atmosphere and we didn’t linger long after taking a break and enjoying the views of many familiar peaks and valleys in the Castle area.
Our descent of the ski hill on the east slopes of Gravenstafel was quick and easy. As we exited the hill we were slightly annoyed by the fact that the strict “closed” sign was now moved aside (so how strict is it then?). Our decision to abandon the original Tombstone plans was justified as heavy rain came over the Divide just as we were pulling out of the parking lot.
I’m not gonna lie – it was a bit of a bummer to be forced into doing a repeat after driving over 6 hours return to the far SW corner of the province for a much larger objective. BUT. That being said, it’s pretty hard to remain disappointed when I look back on the beautiful summer day with clouds, blue skies, bright flowers, green valleys, chirping birds, waterfalls, tarns, ponds and good exercise. The fact that I live somewhere where a day this nice is the backup plan when “all else fails” makes me pretty darn lucky.