Summit Elevation (m): 2149
Trip Date: Saturday, May 02, 2020
Elevation Gain (m): 950
Round Trip Time (hrs): 5.5
Total Trip Distance (km): 11
Quick ‘n Dirty Rating: Class 3 – you fall, you sprain your ankle or break a wrist if you’re unlucky
Difficulty Notes: There’s a highway most of the way to the major cliffband and the start of the treed section to the summit with options for moderate to difficult scrambling along the way. From there it’s easy hiking.
Technical Rating: TL2; YDS (Hiking)
After a record number of small bumps and easy hikes this Spring due to Covid-19 closures and restrictions, it was time for a real scramble on Saturday, May 2 2020. Wietse and I debated between skiing and scrambling when Provincial Parks opened back up for May 1 but scrambling won out in the interests of trying to stay as safe as possible. Part of me wishes I listened to Wietse and we skied instead, but oh well. The mountains will be skiable another day. The weekend before, while hiking Saskatoon Mountain, we both noted how dry Bluff Mountain was looking and started looking into some details for this small front range peak just north of the town of Blairmore in the Crowsnest Pass. Both Bob Spirko and Dave McMurray have trip reports on this objective, but only Dave’s sounded interesting enough for us to give it a go.
We arrived at the parking spot along hwy 3 just over the Crowsnest River west of the SE ridge and geared up in the crisp, clear morning air. We made a fateful decision to leave the snowshoes behind and started walking along the dirt road towards the base of the SE ridge. Thanks to reports from Bob about being turned back while trying to descend the SE ridge at a “major cliff band” and Dave’s account of “4th class terrain”, we were all geared up with helmets and mentally prepared for difficult terrain. We were both a bit surprised to encounter a major trail right off the bat leading up the SE ridge! Sure – as on most mountains there were options to make things much more difficult on either sides of the path we were on but why risk more than necessary? After scrambling hundreds of peaks and climbing some pretty loose and exposed terrain in the Rockies I’m hardwired to avoid difficult terrain if there’s an easy and obvious way around it. It’s just the way I’ve developed my route finding skills I guess – I love difficult and exposed terrain but I don’t like being there if I can spot an easy, low risk route around it.
We were surprised with the size and recent maintenance of the trail we were on. The easiest way to follow it was by looking for recent tree cuts along the way – someone had been along it recently with a saw. There was some very easy scrambling on dry rock which felt great in our approach shoes and had us looking forward to the more difficult sections which we assumed must be just ahead. As we quickly ascended the trail we noticed incredible views back over Turtle Mountain and the Crowsnest Pass area and even to Castle Provincial Park and Waterton Lakes National Park. Beside us to the east, Morin, The Dog, Livingstone South and the eagle lookout looked clear and dry. The scrambling stayed easy as we got higher and higher and we started wondering if we were even on the same ridge as Dave had been! Another confusing detail was the lack of an “antenna building” – we never did come across it and we assume that it was removed since 2015.
In order to protect the finger smear pictographs (similar to ones discovered in Montana) and detailed a bit more on Dave’s site I am going to insert a few photos of them here and then I won’t reference them further. These have been documented by archaeologists in 1998 and 2007 so are pretty recent as far as official documentation is concerned. They are referenced as the “Bluff Mountain Site” or “Bluff Mountain Pictograph”. You will not find very much more online about this sacred site. We found it no problem and were very careful to treat the area with respect, as should you if you stumble across them.
After about 1.5 hours we were approaching an obvious cliffband running over the ridge ahead. I could spot an obvious trail leading in scree and boulders to a ramp heading up to the right, through the cliffs. It didn’t look very difficult from afar and as we approached closer this was indeed, the case. Once again, we didn’t find any terrain harder than hiking or very easy scrambling through the cliffs which left us wondering how hard Bob looked for a route down when he bumped against them while looking for a route down the SE ridge. Of course, the obvious trail we were on likely wasn’t there back when he did it in 2005. Speaking of the trail, it pretty much vanished after the cliffband. This was due to two factors – snow cover and I believe many folks don’t bother going higher as the views don’t improve from this point forward.
Once we got above the cliffs we started running into patches of snow that grew alarmingly deeper and larger the further we went. I immediately started getting grumpy about our earlier decision to leave the snowshoes behind. Wietse had to put up with some serious grumbling from me for the next hour or so as we started encountering more and more snow to the point of ridiculous. Honestly, most people would have turned back at several points along the way to the treed summit but we’re idiots who don’t give up on summits easily. The only reason we kept going was that about 50% of the time the snow held our weight without snowshoes, giving us hope that things would “get better”. Every 20th step we sank to knee or even crotch deep – it was BRUTAL!! The next 1-2 hours was spent wading, tip-toeing and plunging over the “summit” (no views) and then trying to find a line down the west face towards Greenhill Ridge.
We managed to delicately balance over an old snowshoe track down the west face until things went to total crap and we were once again wallowing in bottomless snow. I have massive bruises on my legs and shins from the ice crust and hidden deadfall that we kept falling into. These two hours of hell definitely took the shine off of Bluff Mountain – it certainly doesn’t even come close to being a favorite Crowsnest area mountain for me! 😉 As we finally broke off the west face we looked back from Greenhill Ridge and saw that we had taken the snowiest line possible – that did not improve my mood or my language.
Greenhill Ridge was fast and pleasant compared to the hell we’d just come through on Bluff’s west face. The views from the summit were 100x better than from the apex of Bluff and the dry descent down a road on the south ridge was downright pleasant compared to what we’d just endured. Walking back along hwy 3 to the parked car we wondered if we should have followed the power lines instead – that is something I’d recommend if you follow our route.
I would rate Bluff Mountain as an excellent and easy scramble via the SE ridge and I would highly recommend going back over Greenhill Ridge. We didn’t run into any “No Trespassing” signs or private land issues and the pictographs are a pretty unique Rockies experience. Just make sure that the summit ridge is snow free or you might be in for way more “adventure” than you signed up for.