Summit Elevation (m): 3090
Trip Date: Thursday, July 23, 2020
Elevation Gain (m): 1800
Round Trip Time (hr): 9
Total Trip Distance (km): 34.5 (24km on bike)
Quick ‘n Dirty Rating: Class 3 – you fall, you break something
Difficulty Notes: Route choice will depend on the scrambling difficulties – it’s easier than it appears if you look for safe / firm holds and ledges. The bike ride is more technical than most approaches.
Technical Rating: SC6; YDS (3rd)
Map: Google Maps
First Ascent: 1915; Boundary Commission
Years ago Sonny Bou posted a trip report of an ascent of Tornado Mountain on the RMBooks forum that a group of scramblers used to use before Facebook was a thing. Yes – I’m that old! 😉 I decided right there and then that Tornado would be a priority mountain for me and promptly forgot about it for quite a few years as it slipped off the radar. About 5 years ago or so it became a very popular mountain – many friends and Facebook acquaintances posted trip reports and kept it off the top of my list. After completing a couple of pretty big days on William Booth and Hangman Peak a few days previous, and having big plans for the coming week I decided that Tornado Mountain was just what I needed to fill the gap. I decided to go solo and just enjoy a day out in the beautiful summer weather that 2020 had granted me for holidays.
I wasn’t nervous about the mountain other than two small details. Firstly, I was concerned about the possibility of lingering snow on the giant south face. Secondly, I was concerned about the drive up Dutch Creek. I have an awesome mountain approach truck (2016 Toyota Tacoma) but I don’t like breaking it and I’m a bit of a wuss when it comes to off-road or very rough roads. The day was forecast to be very hot and I wanted to be off the mountain before any storms could pop up, so I left YYC at the early hour of 05:00. Cornelius mentions a driving time of up to 3.5 hours from Calgary but thankfully from my house in the SW it ‘only’ took around 2.5 hours before I was approaching the “T” intersection along Dutch Creek and the parking spot for the bike approach. The road was horribly rough for the last 5km, beyond which I only saw 1 other person truck camping. I stepped out of the truck into silence and got ready for my day ahead. Soon I was peddling my trusty 2-wheeled steed up the north branch of the “T”.
Something that surprised me when researching Tornado was the total elevation gains required when doing the Dutch Creek approach. At 1800 meters of elevation gain and over 34 kilometers of travel this was not the shortest trip I could have chosen before! By the time I realized how much work I was in for it was too late – Tornado was firmly planted in my head and was going to happen no matter what the physical toll. That’s how these things work, I’m afraid. The other thing that surprised me about Tornado was the number of approaches. There’s Dutch Creek, which has become more popular lately. There’s also the Hidden Creek / Oldman River approach that Sonny took. But there’s also a BC approach that I know at least one person has done that requires much less distance and presumably elevation gains (but way more time driving). With all the approach options, I chose the one with the most current and reliable beta – the Dutch Creek one. Something I noticed right away while biking uphill from the T intersection was a series of berms cutting across the old roadbed. Geoff Hardy assures me that they counted over 50 of these when they did the mountain in 2019! Until you experience them you won’t really understand what I’m talking about but they were a giant PITA on approach – I stalled out on top of at least half of them and had to bail off my bike. In the morning heat this quickly got more than a little annoying.
Another surprising tidbit on Tornado is that you gain over 300 meters and subsequently lose almost all of it on the bike before getting to the GDT. This means a LOT of uphill biking on return. It also means that when I was 4 km into my day I was already hundreds of meters higher than the truck and an hour into it when I realized I’d forgotten my hiking poles. CRAP. Not cool. As I wrote earlier, I was planning a big 3 day trip with Phil Richards 24 to 48 hours after this one and forgetting my poles meant much more wear ‘n tear on my poor knees than strictly necessary. I sat there and stewed for a bit. What to do? Poles are a critical piece of my scrambling and hiking kit – providing relief on descent but also providing a much needed energy assist on ascent. I spend a ton of money on poles, the latest ones I’m using are the 95g Black Diamond single piece carbon poles and are one of my not-so-secret weapons to personal longevity as a scrambler and hiker. I wasn’t turning around. Sure! I’d be back at the truck in 30 minutes, but then what? Bike up another hour? In even warmer temps? In a rush? Nope. I decided to push on and build myself a single pole for the hiking and scrambling ahead. I always carry a spare wrist strap for my poles and I was carrying my good knife since I was solo, so I knew I could manufacture a solution. When I found the perfect pole along the ride it cheered me up a bit and I strapped it to my pack for later use.
I got a bit grumpy again as I continued over and past the east shoulder of Gould Dome and started cycling first away and then back down towards South Hidden Creek. There was the “pole forgetting incident”, but there were also huge, deep mud holes along the trail and then there was all the damn height I was losing! Dang it – I was expecting to lose height but it felt like a lot! Ah well. Even covered in mud, sweat and bug bites (!!), I can’t stay grumpy too long in the hills. I crossed a good bridge over South Hidden Creek and started biking along the road leading up towards the GDT intersection and the end of the bike ride. I was surprised to miss the GDT and run up against the creek again, but it worked out well when I took a much needed break and drink before returning 100 meters back to the required start of the hike. The 12km approach ride took me just over 1.5 hours of pretty steady riding. I spent 10 minutes working a solution with the single hiking pole, a carabiner and my spare wrist strap before locking up the bike and starting up the signed GDT.
The next hour or so was pure hiking magic. The Great Divide Trail is very well maintained through the light forest and I felt energized despite the long, somewhat manky bike approach. Sometimes hiking alone is a burden, but for me it’s usually the opposite. I can go my own pace, I can settle into my own thoughts and I can let the woods soak into my soul in a way that simply doesn’t happen in a group. Some folks might find the idea of being out in the middle of nowhere in a dark, silent forest very intimidating and I used to too. With experience and over hundreds of trips I’ve not only grown accustomed to this atmosphere, I crave it when I haven’t had it in a while. Today was just one of those perfect summer days. Birds chirped in the forest, water gurgled happily in the creeks and the wind nudged the countless wildflowers into a slow dance as I hiked up towards the pass and Tornado’s SW gully ascent route.
As I neared tree line the trail steepened considerably and my views opened up dramatically. I was expecting it, but the landscape still caught me by surprise – it was beautiful! I continued up the steepening trail, aiming for an obvious line of cairns marching up towards the distant pass. Everything about the day was perfect, except the “tiny” patch of snow I could see high up on the SW face. I was sure this snow patch was much larger than it first appeared, and I was 98.9% sure it was blocking the regular route – at least in part. I shrugged. This was clearly a future Vern problem. Present Vern was happy as a clam in a shell.
The sun was warm but the breeze was cool as I completed the steep hike to the col and started up the lower easy section of the SW gully / face. I could clearly see wet rock up ahead on the dark cliff band and planned to traverse above it from my left to the right, as indicated in several other trip reports. The scrambling stayed easy as I did exactly this and continued upward on a mix of scree and nice easy ledges. The water running down the face worried me a bit – it meant quite a bit of snow above me somewhere… I also realized that in order to keep the scrambling moderate, I would have to do a fair amount of route finding and careful traversing back and forth on the many ledges and small cliffs scattered with copious amounts of scree (of course). No matter. I wasn’t in a hurry. I had all day!
Once above the black band I started serious route finding to avoid more difficult, wet slabs on the west and central part of the SW gully. I stayed on ledged terrain to the east before being forced back across the gully to the west in order to avoid steeper terrain.
There were patches of snow here, complicating my route choices slightly, but I always managed to find a path up and around that didn’t involve anything more than “moderate” moves on fairly good rock. Finally I ran into the first large patch of snow on the face. Without ax, pons or even decent poles, I was forced around it and up some low-difficult terrain. It wasn’t too exposed but was no longer moderate and I was glad to be 6′ tall for some of the moves. I found myself on the western edge of the SW gully with a nice scree ledge stretched out across the face towards a cairn in the distance and headed over to check it out rather than flirt with the difficult ridge directly above me.
From the cairn I ascended fairly crappy scree-on-slab and low cliffs up to the summit. Fierce gusts of wind not only threatened to blow my sunglasses of my head, they were even dislodging the occasional rock, making me glad for my helmet! Views were promising to be stunning as I grunted my way up the final steps to the lofty summit of the highest peak in High Rock Range.
The summit sported two registers – both were pretty soaked and I didn’t bother with either. Both were very busy too – it’s getting hard to find “obscure” peaks along the spine of the Rockies these days! It’s nice to see that so many people have the energy and will to ascend peaks like Tornado which certainly aren’t in the same realm of ease as many other lofty summits. A geocache at the summit also proved the rapidly growing popularity of that sport – something that caters spectacularly to the outdoor OCD type. 😉 After enjoying 30 minutes at the top it was time to start the descent. I mostly followed my ascent line except for the section under the summit to the cairned ledge. Here I took what looked like a much harder line down slabs and low cliffs that was actually easier due to more solid rock.
Descent went fairly quick, thanks in part to my cairns built on the way up and thanks to some nice patches of loose scree once lower down. For some reason the wind was extremely strong at about mid-mountain despite being almost nonexistent at the summit. It’s the first mountain I’ve experienced this on. Once I reached the pass I dipped just under it where the winds were light and took a very welcome and relaxing 30 minute nap in the alpine grasses and flowers. There are worse ways to spend a Thursday afternoon in July!
Descent from the pass after my little snooze was quick ‘n easy. I remained all by myself as I walked through carpets of wildflowers and back down to the cool forest below the pass. I drank deeply from the one large stream crossing and dipped my head completely under water. So refreshing! Tornado was quickly becoming one of my summer favorites.
After retracing my steps down the GDT to my bike it was time to ride out. Normally this is a moment of excitement and energy but in this case I was a wee bit apprehensive and for good reason. The first part of the ride along South Hidden Creek was fast but as soon as I crossed the creek the trail tilted the other way and became a hot mess of muck and afternoon sun. I didn’t love this part of the return, let’s just leave it at that. Before long I started back along the more pleasant traverse of Gould Dome – but still there was more uphill than I would have preferred. The berms on descent to the truck were much more fun on descent but there were at least 2 or 3 that couldn’t be ridden through the bottom and these presented a few panicked moments that must have looked pretty funny if you weren’t me.
I was happy to see the truck again, although my round trip time of 9 hours including almost an hour of breaks doesn’t seem that long compared to many other reports. I didn’t feel rushed all day and other than some crappy riding and forgetting my poles, this was a solo trip that’ll stay in my positive memory banks for a long time I think. Tornado Mountain is a combination of hard work (the approach), route-finding, hiking and gorgeous alpine and forest landscapes. If you don’t like these things than you probably shouldn’t bother with the whole sport of “scrambling” since it’s those very things that drive folks like me off the comfort of our couches and west to the Rockies on such a regular basis.