Summit Elevation (m): 2949
Trip Date: Sunday, June 26, 2020
Elevation Gain (m): 1300
Round Trip Time (hrs): 5.5
Total Trip Distance (km): 12
Quick ‘n Dirty Rating: Class 2/3 – you fall, you sprain or break something.
Difficulty Notes: The main difficulty with an ascent of Soderholm, if you’re not local, is getting to the trailhead. From there this striking peak is remarkably straightforward with very little bushwhacking or challenging terrain if on the best line.
Technical Rating: SC6; RE4/5
GPS Track: Download
Map: Google Maps
Mount Soderholm has been on my radar for quite a few years now. In 2009 I got some nice winter views from Snow Peak, in 2014 I got views from Mount Warre and in 2018 I got even more perspectives on it from nearby peaks such as Currie and Brussilof. The complication with Soderholm was always going to be about accessing the peak more than ascending it. This relatively obscure mountain is located off the grid in the Blue Range of the Rockies between Height of the Rockies Park and Assiniboine Provincial Park in British Columbia. There is no easy approach. In 1995 the indefatigable Rick Collier made a possible first ascent of the north glacier and snow field from the Cross River to the north. In 1996, Alistair and Gail Des Moulins forged a route up the SW side of the peak which instantly caught the attention of Phil Richards and myself while perusing David Jones new Rockies South guidebook. It was a matter of time before we’d attempt this sucker and for some or another reason that time turned out to be Friday June 26 2020 before a weekend of more rainy, cool weather moved in to ruin other plans.
As I wrote above, the main issue with Soderholm was going to be getting there. Many folks would likely prefer to camp near the trailhead and for good reason. I woke up at 03:50 on Friday morning and was out the door heading for Canmore at just after 04:00 – with faint light already appearing on the eastern horizon! I was at Phil’s house at 05:30 and proceeded the long drive to Settlers Road along hwy 93 south near Radium, BC. I’ve driven Settlers Road a few times and it’s always in surprisingly good shape due to the active mining and resorts sitting along it. The question I was asking myself was what condition the Cross River Road would be in this early in the season and the even more obscure Miller Pass Road branching off of it. I get nervous driving on forestry roads since so much can go wrong and you’re stuck in the middle of nowhere. It’s silly, I know, but it’s a thing with me. But it was my turn to drive and thankfully I do own a pretty darn good off-road vehicle so I wasn’t overly concerned either. It took another 1.5 hours from Phil’s house to reach Settlers – 2.5 total hours from my house in YYC. We bombed easily down Settlers, meeting only two mining trucks before getting slightly confused finding the Cross River Road. The first road we tried was too early and ended at a washout. The second one wasn’t on our maps but did correspond perfectly to the directions in David Jones book (33 kms from Hwy 93). We continued up a much smaller Cross River Road for another 6.2 kms before things got real on an even smaller road – the signed Miller Pass Road. So far all streams had been either bridged or patched with culverts and gravel on the Cross River Road. A few kms up the Miller Pass Road conditions deteriorated a bit as we climbed steeply up a rutted, washed out section. I kept driving around a steep and exposed section of road before it improved again. We decided since we’d driven this far we might as well continue on the good road bed. About 4.5 kms up the Miller Pass Road we came to a bridge over the creek draining the SW side of Soderholm and decided to park and bike up the spur road leading off towards the SW valley. It was 4 hours of driving from my house to the trailhead – not a short trip!
Driving the 4.5 kms and over 300 meters of height gain was a huge bonus for our day. Despite the brief section of deteriorated road the drive had gone very well. We had planned to bike the Miller Pass Road from the Cross River Road and I would suggest this for anyone not driving a high clearance 4×4. If you do continue up towards Miller Pass, beware that once you’re on the slightly washed out section it will be tough to turn around there and you’ll have to cross your fingers and hope you make it past that bit of road. Biking this section would be tiring on approach but very fast on egress. The reason for the good roads was apparent when a group of mineral explorers passed us as we prepped our bikes at the bridge – they were apparently doing some work near Miller Pass (we found this out later in the day). We had no idea how far up the valley the spur road went, nor any idea which of the many SW gullies Alistair had taken to the upper west ridge. I mapped out the most promising route and gully on Gaia the day before using satellite maps and this is what we followed.
The spur road from the bridge was obvious and clear at first but quickly ended after less than 1 km at a berm and an overgrown logging road continuing into the SW valley. We laughed at ourselves bothering with the bikes but you never know… From the bike drop we made our way into the SW valley via an overgrown logging road with an obvious track running along it. The sun was hot and in typical BC fashion it was windless and very humid. Another reason for me getting up so early was a weather front forecast to move in from the north and west mid afternoon. When looking at the numbers for the trip we reasoned that it couldn’t take THAT long but of course we didn’t know what kind of approach we were in for with very limited (i.e. no) usable beta. As we pushed our way along the overgrown road we both commented that this was saving us a lot of time. BC bushwhacking is not fast and not for the faint of heart either! Eventually our road seemed to run out against some massive avalanche paths and we had a decision to make. Should we traverse further above the messy stream to our left or try lower down? We chose to ascend and see what transpired. What transpired within about 10 minutes of open forest was an obvious person-made trail (chainsawed logs) running further up and into the SW valley – exactly where we wanted go!
The trail was yet another bonus in our day. We were feeling pretty darn good about things as the trail exited onto an even bigger avalanche slope and promptly vanished. The thing about the BC Rockies is that they are somehow bigger and “more” than many Alberta mountains. The valleys are deep and steep and the avalanche slopes are a mess of huge trees and growth compared to many of the ones on the eastern side of the divide. Similar to our approach on the nearby Mount Brussilof, we found ourselves wondering just where the best line to treeline was from here – and treeline in BC is also WAY up there. We decided the slope we were crossing wasn’t horrid so we’d try to keep trending up and into the SW gullies closer to the summit rather than try ascending right where we were. This worked great and Soderholm continued its kindness towards us with huge largely clean avalanche slopes – the like of which I haven’t seen very often. After crossing a few gullies and ascending a steep, low headwall we finally came to the mother load and yet another bonus in our day. A massive, but very reasonably angled avalanche gully led hundreds of vertical meters above us to the west ridge abutting the summit block. This was a perfect route – especially as we were carrying ‘pons and axes! We didn’t need prodding but quickly transitioned into the snow gear and started up.
The large avalanche gully was hugely foreshortened – as these things almost always are. I was full of energy for some reason (I was trying to beat the forecast clouds) and led the way up and up and UP. Every time I turned back Phil looked tiny in the huge terrain and looking forward I didn’t look like I was gaining on the ridge either! The only indication that we were steadily getting higher was the striking SW outliers of Soderholm slowly getting smaller and smaller behind us. It’s always a bit depressing to look at a towering peak and realize your summit is quite a bit higher than that one. It was amusing for me to step over Grizzly scat on the snow since that’s another class BC thing – bear scat EVERYWHERE. Finally as Phil caught up to me, we rounded a corner in the gully and started going up even steeper snow to the west ridge above. The snow softened and soon we transitioned back to loose scree. After only 2.5 hours from the truck we were standing high up on Soderholm’s west ridge, looking at a wonderful traverse to the summit block. So far this day could not be going any better. We sucked in the amazing views towards the Assiniboine Group and over White Man Pass before pushing on and up to the summit.
Wandering up the west ridge of Soderholm to the summit block was the best part of our day. The weather was holding and the views to the nearby Royal Group were mind blowing. Queen Mary and Prince Albert were especially intimidating from this angle. The ridge was simple and so was the summit block beyond. Lingering snow and ice on slabs with pebbles made for some slick conditions but exposure was limited. The summit block was once again, higher than it appeared. I couldn’t quite believe it as we traversed towards the summit cairn – I had finally climbed Soderholm!
It’s always exciting to see a register tucked into the summit cairn of what you suspect is a rarely ascended peak. As I approached the pile of rocks at the apex of Soderholm I immediately spotted a classic PVC register and decided to take a look before snapping the requisite 400 summit photos. We were surprised to be the first party in 11 years and only 6th in the last 25 to sign this one. For such a straightforward ascent of a prominent peak, this was very cool. It shows once again that the location and access to a given peak can have far more impact on its number of ascents than how technically difficult it is. Rick’s 1995 and Alistair’s 1996 ascents were both recorded along with a few others. We mused that the trail lower down was likely headed to the beautiful little lake tucked under the south outliers rather than an approach to Soderholm itself. We spent almost 30 minutes at the summit, snapping photos and identifying familiar and less familiar summits.
The weather was holding pretty good as we started our descent. This was a good thing – of course – but it led to a silly idea. Earlier in the day Phil had joked that “Red Man Mountain is in the area, you know”… I had ignored this comment at the time, but now it bubbled to the surface. Why not try it? It was a silly idea, of course, but it also wasn’t. It was silly because we’d already done a full mountain and Red Man is a completely different ascent – in no way tied to Soderholm. BUT. With a 4 hour approach drive already complete and most of the logging roads driven, why not at least drive the rest of the way up the Cross River Road and at least check it out? We agreed that if the weather held, we’d at least do the drive. (We knew full well we’d do more than just drive to the trailhead, but sometimes you need to do things one step at a time or they seem too ridiculous to even start.)
The descent was almost even better than the ascent! The snow in the avalanche gully was just soft enough to boot-ski and walk down. We easily descended the open avy slopes and headwall and then we found the trail even sooner than we’d found it on ascent and followed it all the way to the overgrown logging road below. We had to laugh at the 2.5 minute bike ride to the truck – it was so quick Phil almost blew past the truck!
Mount Soderholm is already a classic in my books. How can it not be? We traveled 12 km and ascended 1300m in only 5.5 hours under perfect conditions. The approach was almost completely bushwhack-free and we took off 9 km and over 300m of ascent by driving up Miller Pass Road as far as we did. The unexpected trail, the perfect snow conditions in the avalanche gully and the incredible views from the west ridge and summit all combined to make this a top ascent for 2020 despite so many ascents still waiting for us.