Summit Elevation (m): 2838
Trip Date: Sunday, July 05, 2020
Elevation Gain (m): 1800m
Round Trip Time (hr): 11
Total Trip Distance (km): 27.5
Quick ‘n Dirty Rating: Class 3 – you fall, you break something
Difficulty Notes: This is a much bigger day than you might expect from the parking lot. There is some route finding and moderate scrambling on the ridge.
Technical Rating: SC6; RE4/5
GPS Track: Download
Map: Google Maps
Every time Phil Richards and I drive hwy 93 south to Radium through Kootenay National Park we have the same conversation. Usually twice – once on the way up and once on the way down. Finally after having the same conversation on our Mount Soderholm / Red Man Mountain trip a week previous it was time to change it up. It’s hard not to notice Mount Shanks across the Simpson / Vermillion Rivers as you come through Hector Gap, delineating the Vermillion (north) and Mitchell (south) Ranges. There’s not much doubt that peaks in the Vermillion Range such as White Tail, Verendrye and Foster are much more impressive than Shanks, but they’re harder to see from the highway and aren’t in your vision as long as Shanks is while driving. Plus Shanks and Hawk Ridge both look deceptively close and deceptively simple.
It’s only when you start looking at the details that you realize that maybe these objectives aren’t quite as straightforward as you first thought. Firstly there’s the lack of trip reports. I could only find one firsthand report from Rick Collier (who else?!) from 1989 with the appealing title of “An Unpleasant Ascent of Mount Shanks”! Reading his report does NOT make the mountain any more appealing although it sounds like moderate scrambling at most. There’s a YouTube video that comes up when you search but they were on their 2nd or 3rd unsuccessful traverse of the ridge and haven’t made the summit yet. Rick references a two or three day trip by Peter Spear and R. Workum but that’s about it. Rockies South only references the Peter Spear / R. Workum traverse as a route and 4th class at that! So. With all the lack of beta, Phil came up with the most logical route via the Simpson River Trail and south ridge already years ago and we put it on the backburner for another time. That time became Sunday July 5th 2020.
It was Phil’s turn to drive so I met him at his house in Canmore at 06:30 on Sunday morning. We had no idea what to expect from our day ahead. The stats were fairly stiff but not bad – 1800 meters of elevation and around 19km of distance. BUT. The fly in the ointment was always going to be the section of hiking and scrambling between the Simpson River Trail and the open south end of the south ridge above tree line. What would the burn area be like? Mount Shanks and much of the area along hwy 93 burned way back in 2001 and again several times more since then including the huge 2017 Verdant Creek fire which nuked a large area just west of Assiniboine Provincial Park including much of the Simpson River Trail. In September 2019 a key bridge was rebuilt and campground cleaned up at the confluence of the Simpson River and Surprise Creek. I am not sure how much of the Simpson River trail to Mount Assiniboine has been cleared but apparently the trail to Ferro Pass is in various stages of clearing in between blowdowns of burnt trees. We, of course, only cared about the section of trail nearing the south end of the south ridge.
The drive to the trailhead was quite pleasant with plenty of morning sunshine. We were expecting some clouds in the afternoon but weren’t too concerned about storms this particular day, unlike on Red Man Mountain a week previous. I was a bit tired from my 26km, 1800m day with Wietse on Gibraltar Mountain a few days before so once again Phil set the pace as we marched across a roaring Vermillion River on a good bridge from the parking area and continued along the trail towards a distant Mount Shanks. Almost immediately we were confused. Not really, but a little bit. There was a fork in the trail soon after the bridge, a sign labelling one of them “Mount Shanks” trail and the other “Simpson River” trail. Hmmm. Neither of us had ever heard of a “Mount Shanks” trail before. After getting home and researching things we realized this is an old lookout trail that was decommissioned way back in the 1970’s already. Rick used this trail with bikes back when he did Shanks – obviously well before the fires came through. Perhaps the trail is still good to the old lookout site – who knows? We were tempted but we had a plan and we stuck with it, taking the right hand branch leading to the Simpson River.
Hiking up the Simpson River on the faded trail was very pleasant in early morning sunshine with birds going off all around us. The river itself was feisty and beautiful with millions of flowers growing in the burn and on islands in the river itself. As we hiked, the size of our day slowly got larger and larger until we had no idea how big it would be. We had planned a route but it became obvious that we’d be hiking much further along the trail than we’d originally planned. At first we were thinking 2 or maybe 3 kms of trail but soon we realized it would be more than 6! No matter. It made sense to wait before bushwhacking to the ridge and we waited pretty much until the last possible moment before finally leaving the trail just as it dipped down towards the river from a nice bench in the burnt forest. So far we’d been surprised with the openness of the burn and this theme continued as we started slowly towards the south end of the ridge.
Frankly, we were expecting hellish conditions once we left the Simpson River trail. But we never really got them – it’s a wonderful thing to get better-than-expected conditions. The south slopes to the ridge above are much larger and steeper than they first appear. Like a slow boil we started up chipper and conversational but quickly settled down and grew silent as we saved our energy for the long journey upward. Lower down in the old burn we were surprised to find very sharp fire-hardened spikes all over the place. These were a tripping hazard both to trip over and to fall on as they would have impaled and injured us badly. Thankfully the spikes didn’t last too long. We followed our noses and the terrain but we were always aiming for an avy slope we spotted already from the trail – high above through upper forest to the bare scree slopes beneath the south end of the ridge. There were moments of lows but many more highs as we took in the wonderful views back over the Simpson River to peaks such as Indian, Octopus, Selkirk, Needle, Split, Spar, Wardle, White Tail and Verendrye. Acres of wildflowers accompanied our steps as we squeezed our way through a standing burn just below the avy slopes. Even the standing burn and Christmas tree sections weren’t as bad as we were expecting. All of the gnarly stuff was very short-lived and we could usually spot the end of nasty sections even before starting them.
Finally we found ourselves on the large avy slope leading up to scree. It was bloody STEEP! We made short work of this section and were soon grovelling up dinner plate scree to the ridge line above. The avy slope was shorter than expected but the scree was longer.
It took us 4 hours to reach the sound end of the south ridge from the parking lot. The sky had clouded up significantly by this time but our views over Verdant Creek to The Monarch and over the Simpson River to Simpson Ridge, Peak and Nestor Peak were incredible. I was surprised to see many of the Sunshine peaks including Eagle, Howard Douglas, Quartz Ridge and Fatigue Mountain. Mount Assiniboine was unfortunately in clouds but Indian Peak and Octopus Mountain were clearly visible – both peaks on our radar after our Simpson Ridge trip in 2018. The summit of Shanks looked FAR from the south end of the ridge for the simple reason that it was far! There wasn’t much to do but put one foot in front of the other and hope we didn’t hit any huge obstacles along the way.
The south ridge of Shanks proved to be a wonderful route to the summit. From hiking to easy and moderate scrambling it never had as much teeth as it looked from afar. Sticking to the ridge crest was the way to go for almost 100% of the traverse. Every time we tried deviating to the west (left) of the ridge crest we would regret it – other than some obvious side-hilling to avoid unnecessary height gains. The terrain off the ridge was pretty horrid with slick dinner plate scree and mud complicating even moderately steep terrain. If you are a moderate scrambler you should be fine on the ridge. If you don’t like exposure and some loose terrain this might not be your cup of tea. Aunt Edna would have tripped on one of the spikey burnt things way down in the forest already and would be on her way back to the car in a huff. Definitely don’t bring her along on this outing if you value your sanity.
Views off the ridge were stunning even with the clouds. Dominating the views were peaks in the Vermillion Range to the Rockwall including Wardle, White Tail, Verendrye, Floe and Foster. The Monarch loomed far over the burned out Verdant Creek valleys. Slowly as we completed each roll and dip in the ridge the summit grew closer. Every time we went over a roll we wondered what the other side would bring, but it was always pretty straightforward until we could clearly make out the structures on the summit ahead. Looking behind us we were treated to spectacular views of interesting and rarely ascended peaks such as Indian, Octopus, Sam, Daer, Selkirk, Needle and Split Peak. For a very interesting read see Rick Collier’s report of his three attempts to climb Split Peak which he considers the toughest of the 572 named peaks in the Southern Rockies Guidebook (as tough as Mount Alberta). Rick has many interesting trip reports from this end of the Mitchell Range including Needle Peak.
The final ridge to the summit was the most “moderate” section of the traverse. I stuck right on the ridge and it was fun scrambling without getting too airy or scary. A short walk to the summit and we were on top of Mount Shanks, approximately 6 hours from the car. The summit shack door opened with some effort, revealing radio equipment and allowing shelter from storms if you needed it. We searched in vain for a summit register which would have been neat to see but we didn’t find it either in the hut or in the small rock cairn built next to it. The wind was cool and after about 30 minutes of snapping photos and naming peaks we started the long descent.
The return along the ridge was shorter and easier than I expected. There are height gains and losses but the views and the summit “high” gave us energy and boosted our moods considerably. The weather was improving too which helped. The strangest thing was how tempted we were to descend the west face below us on the right. We knew there were cliff bands there (that’s why we chose the route we did) but these aren’t visible from above. It looked so easy to go back that way! After coming home and reading Rick’s report of the forest I am very glad we resisted that temptation.
After a short but delightful break on the south end of the ridge we started the long, steep descent to the Simpson River trail. Thanks to soft ground the trip down went much quicker than we expected – we were surprised how bloody steep the whole slope was and realized we’d gone pretty quick on ascent earlier in the day. This south slope gets a lot of summer sun so make sure you factor that in if you do it. Also remember that there’s no fresh water sources after the Simpson River trail and carry enough to get you up and down this lofty peak. I carried 750ml and refilled it with snow several times and had just enough on a cloudy, cool day. With straight sun and warmer weather we would have needed a few litres each at minimum.
The last 6km hike in late afternoon sunlight along the Simpson River trail was pure hiking magic. This is always a favorite time for me. The summit is in the bag and all we have to do is put one foot in front of the other and enjoy the wildflowers, birds, rivers and peaceful atmosphere.
I can’t really say enough positive things about the Mount Shanks scramble via the route we took. What’s not to like about it? A pleasant hike through a burned landscape with wild rivers and streams, flowers, green grasses and incredible views to some big, remote peaks. The hiking is beautiful, the scrambling is fun and the entire south ridge is engaging and interesting without being scary. The one small disappointment is the shack at the summit but then again if you do get caught in a summit storm you have an excellent place to shelter until it fizzes out! There’s even a helipad if you want to take a nap for a bit before heading all the way back.