Summit Elevation (m): 2514
Trip Date: Saturday, August 24, 2019
Elevation Gain (m): 2000
Round Trip Time (hr): 9.5
Total Trip Distance (km): 22
Quick ‘n Easy Rating: Class 3 – You fall you sprain or break something.
Difficulty Notes: A fairly large day with height variation and some route finding to keep it “moderate”. Fairly stable weather would be ideal on this traverse. Can be combined with Haig and Gravenstafel for a real challenge!
Technical Rating: SC6; RE3
GPS Track: Download
Map: Google Maps
Tombstone Mountain (in the Clark Range) has been on my radar ever since reading about Andrew Nugara’s ascent in 2010. Earlier this year, in late June, Phil Richards and I set out to attempt the Boot Hill / Tombstone traverse but were thwarted by less-than-ideal weather. I ended up repeating Haig and Gravenstafel and I swore that I would not be back in 2019. Apparently my oaths don’t hold much value. When Trevor Boyce contacted me with some logistical questions involving Tombstone, Haig and Gravenstafel I instantly forgot my oath and invited myself along on whatever crazy sh_t he was busy concocting. I did mention, however, that there was no way I was repeating Haig and Gravenstafel a third time… He was OK with that.
When the dust finally settled on our plan, it was Wietse, Cornelius, Richard, Trevor and I leaving the Castle Mountain Ski resort at around 07:00 before the lively Huckleberry Festival could wake up. I wasn’t feeling enthusiastic as Wietse and I drove into the parking lot that morning. On our drive past the Crowsnest Pass area it looked like rain. The SpotWX forecast had changed from mostly clear to mostly clouds and possibly even rain later in the day. This year has been great for lack of smoke and bad for consistent weather forecasts. I was NOT in the mood for another rainy, cloudy, no-views day in the Castle area. We were all there now and there’s not much in the Castle left for me to do as a backup so we decided we were going for it no matter what.
We are all experienced Rockies scramblers and it had been a while since I was out with either Trevor or Cornelius. I’d never met Richard before, and Wietse and I had our last trip together on snow sticks! We made a rather eclectic little group, being almost entirely of Dutch and German descent, or from Manitoba, or both. We had much to chat about as we made our way up the ever-steepening Paradise Lake Trail from the resort. Cornelius was finally back from a year abroad, living an interesting life that included a spontaneous desert crossing on a camel and many other adventures I can’t even pronounce, much less find on a map!
The Paradise Lake Trail has likely been around for a while already, but this was the first time I was taking it to access the east ridge of Mount Haig just south of Paradise Lake. I’m not sure exactly why, but previously we’d used a convoluted and ill-advised route that involves steep ski hills, bushwhacking, extra elevation gain / loss and other bits of silliness. I’m happy to report that there is now an officially marked and maintained trail from the ski resort all the way to treeline on Haig’s east ridge. There is no longer any need to bushwhack on this approach or exit, depending which direction you’re traveling. Of course we’re idiots, so we happily ignored a sign just under Paradise Lake pointing to the right. We decided that instead of the proper trail, we would continue straight on a smaller path that went left. This worked out eventually, but did involve bushwhacking for no reason whatsoever.
Once on Haig’s lower east ridge the route was obvious – probably because it was my second time in only a few months looking at it. We ascended 400 meters on the east ridge before I led the side-hill traverse of Haig’s SE face to the Boot Hill “bump” col. I got pretty lucky with my line as 80% of it was on a faint goat track. The traverse wasn’t as bad as most of us were expecting – it was certainly easier without snow.
The weather didn’t get too much worse as we traversed and by the time we were looking up at the bump on route to Boot Hill I was feeling pretty optimistic that I might actually be successful this time. Clouds were starting to swirl on the summit of Mount Haig behind us and I wasn’t sure I’d have any views but it wasn’t time to be greedy.
After dumping some gear at the col (mostly extra water) we continued up the intervening bump towards Boot Hill. It was surprisingly chilly for August – Cornelius and I even broke out our (matching) toques! We were setting a pretty furious pace at this point, only taking just over 2 hours to the first col from the parking lot. The bump presented zero difficulties and soon we were descending to the bump / Boot Hill col. Boot “Hill” looked like more of a “mountain” at this point and although the route up the NE ridge was obvious it didn’t look completely trivial either. (Click here for info on the naming of Boot Hill.)
There were options to make things more difficult than necessary on the NE ridge and we took some and ignored others. Sticking to the ridge was more difficult than a line slightly climber’s left of it but I’d still rate this as slightly harder than most SC5’s. We continued our quick pace (I don’t think anyone wanted to slow anyone else down – you know how it goes…) and within about 45 minutes of leaving the “bump” we were approaching the false summit of Boot Hill. A few minutes later we were on the true summit with very respectable views in every direction and most importantly to the south to the impressive north face of Tombstone Mountain.
We took a nice break at the summit of Boot Hill before deciding it was time to take advantage of the lifting clouds and improving views while they lasted. Speaking of views – the view of Tombstone from Boot Hill was one of the highlights of the day just as Nugara says it is. The descent to the Tombstone Col was straightforward and soon we were traversing the impressive east face of the mountain to a more scramble friendly south aspect.
We spotted and followed an obvious sheep track to the east ridge before traversing on easy grass / scree under a line of black cliffs. Once again there were options through this cliff that were SC6+ to SC5+. Wietse and I took a slightly easier line than the others – traversing a bit further towards the south ridge before heading up through the cliffs above. On descent we noted an even easier option (OT5) would be to traverse all the way to the south ridge before heading up, avoiding all traces of the dark cliff band.
The south face above the cliffs was loose but easy scrambling and eventually we all headed left (west) to gain the easier south ridge to the summit above. As we crested the summit I was extremely pleased to realize that not only did we have views but even some patches of blue sky! We enjoyed another break on our second summit of the day, naming the somewhat obscure peaks in the Flathead Provincial Forest area and beyond. I’d been enjoying familiar peaks such as Middle Kootenay, Miles and Krowicki for a good part of the day already. Syncline, St. Eloi, Gravenstafel and Haig looked much different from this vantage. The register was surprisingly ‘busy’ with 8 or 9 ascents since Rick Collier first placed it in 2007. Obviously the peak saw much more interest since Nugara first mentioned his route in 2010. After enjoying a break it was time to turn back.
It had only taken us 5 hours to the summit of Tombstone from the parking lot – our day was going much quicker than estimated thanks to an efficient group and a good route line. On descent we found the easier south ridge line to the south face traverse and Cornelius and Richard even descended far enough to completely avoid the black cliffs.
The ascent of Boot Hill started to wear on our energy reserves a bit but was easy enough. Cornelius and Trevor went to the true summit a 2nd time to place a register that Trevor had brought along and saved in case Tombstone didn’t have one. We joined up to descend the NE ridge to the “bump” col, some of us found a scree bypass to the ridge which was a nice speedy descent option. We hiked over the “bump” and reunited with the gear dump under Haig’s easy south aspect.
After a short hydration break, Wietse and I parted ways with the other three, wishing them “good luck” with their continued adventure over two more summits and another 600m of height gain! Rain clouds were forming to the west as we retraced our footsteps in the soft scree and down the east ridge of Haig. We learned from our earlier mistake and found a trail linking directly off the lower east ridge to the Paradise Lake trail – no bushwhacking required. We enjoyed an easy hike out to the parking lot, munching on Thimbleberries, Huckleberries and even deliciously ripe Raspberries along the way. Our round trip time of just under 9.5 hours including all breaks was much quicker than expected.
I enjoyed this outing immensely – both for the company and the scrambling and views. Despite the height gains and distance involved, this trip should not be the “epic” for you that it was for Andrew! As a pioneer he endured the issues of finding an efficient route, making his efforts much larger than any of us that follow. We only took his suggestions and made it even more efficient. I have to thank him yet again for yet another mountain gem in the Southern Rockies. For fit parties I would highly recommend doing what Trevor, Richard and Cornelius did and add Haig and Gravenstafel to the mix for a four peak Castle area extravaganza.