Summit Elevations (m): 2764, 2879
Trip Date: Sunday, September 05, 2021
Elevation Gain (m): 2000+
Round Trip Time (hrs): 11
Total Trip Distance (km): 38.5
Quick ‘n Dirty Rating: Class 3 – you fall, you break something. You fall far enough, you die (exposure).
Difficulty Notes: An “easy” 12km bike approach followed by a great moderate scramble route up Mount Scrimger (MUST be dry). Easy to moderate scrambling up Mount Etherington with some route finding to avoid cliffs and difficult terrain.
Technical Rating: SC6; YDS (3rd), RE4
GPS Track: Download
Map: Google Maps
I never really had high expectations or even much desire to scramble either Mount Scrimger or Mount Etherington until seeing them recently from the summits of Aldridge and Courcelette. That’s how it usually works isn’t it? Peaks that don’t excite all of a sudden go way up the priority list when we get clear views of them. Both of these peaks were on my radar of course, after all they are continental divide peaks and both have online trip reports from Collier and Nugara. So why weren’t they very front and center for me? Well here’s a quote from the indefatigable Collier on bivouac.com from his 1993 solo ascent of Mount Scrimger;
Scree is then followed S up the ridge to the summit massif of Scrimger; difficulties push one further to the W and out onto the NW face at this point. This was quite demanding and tricky scrambling, often wet, crumbly, and exposed, with some difficult moves higher up (I later wrote in my climbing journal, “I really should not have been there by myself”).
So that’s Scrimger – sounds fun! Then there’s this inspiring quote from Andrew Nugara on his ascent of Mount Etherington way back in 2008;
Typical that one of the piles of crap on the Continental Divide would ruin a string of amazing recent ascents.
Damn! That sounds like a whole bag ‘o fun too, doesn’t it?! Geez guys – way to upsell two scenic summits sitting over the Continental Divide in the High Rock Range of the southern Canadian Rockies. With glowing reviews like this, is it any great wonder why no one seems to bother with these two mountains? Googling either of them quickly leads one back to these inspirational quotes. It’s like a giant black hole of “suck”. So naturally both Cornelius Rott and I thought it was time someone attempted them both as a day trip from Calgary to set the record straight. Why not right? Sometimes I wonder about our thought processes (or obvious lack thereof) but it does lead to some pretty fun adventures…
Another quote from Ric’s report on Mount Scrimger had me scratching my head a bit;
My descent back to the col, however, opened up a potentially easier ascent route: the SE side of the ridge is etched with a wide shelf running back to the scree slopes.
Wait, what? The SE side? That didn’t really seem to add up on the satellite maps or anything else I could find to examine this potentially easier route. I mapped out something that sneaked under the summit on the east face before coming around and back up the SE ridge but I didn’t really expect it to work out. There was nothing else to do but head up to the area and give things a closer look! We arrived at the trailhead around 08:30 and by 08:45 and immediately noticed a very strong wind even down in the valley. I shrugged it off as “a fluke gust” and soon we were biking along the wide, easy Cataract Creek trail / road leading slightly downhill for the first 1km from the trailhead.
There isn’t much beta out there on biking the Cataract Creek trail. Any quotes you do happen to find aren’t much more positive than the ones referring to the summits we were riding towards. But that certainly wasn’t our experience as we peddled past the Lost Creek trail and continued riding a wide, well maintained track towards a still distant Continental Divide. Apparently the Calgary Snowmobile Association maintains the trails in this area and they do a pretty darn good job of it, especially if you’re a mountain biker using them in the summer. The trail was not only well maintained with bushes cut back and trees groomed along many kms of cutlines but there were bridges over two major crossings of Cataract Creek too.
There was only one slightly manky section along the trail where there is some bog and mud (dried for us but very rough from cows) but other than that we were very surprised at how the good trail just kept going and going, until we were nearing the 12km mark with the headwall just ahead. One fly in the ointment was an issue with Cornelius’ bike seat that we managed to resolve on return with some duct tape, but other than that the ride was very straightforward compared to a great deal of my other riding this year. I think this was actually by far the easiest riding I’ve had, especially over this kind of distance. It was much simpler than my ride 2 days previous up Sheep Creek and not even comparable to rides like the Ram River, Mount Burns or the Clearwater River. We stopped riding as the cutline trail we were on finally disintegrated in a series of washouts – likely from the 2013 floods.
As we hiked along the washed out cutline track towards the headwall between our two objectives we both wondered just where exactly the summit of Scrimger was. It looked from our vantage that the NW peak was higher than the foreground one. The headwall also looked tricky at first but as usual with these things it mellowed out as we got underneath it and started our ascent. We took different lines to avoid rockfall and both worked fine. The winds along this section were incredibly strong – apparently the gusts we felt already back at the parking lot weren’t a “fluke”. I haven’t been in winds this strong for many years – perhaps ever! Some of the gusts had to be close to 100km/h and I almost lost my shades when they blew 100m across the slope. We donned our helmets because our hats were threatening to fly off and I hastily put a cord on my sunglasses to keep them fastened to my body.
The headwall route leads up to climber’s left before hitting the col between Scrimger and Etherington. A mix of grass, scree and slabs made for a pretty quick ascent and soon we were ogling our first objective for the day and wondering just how we were going to attain it!
We knew that although the north ridge directly from the col looked easy, it ended at serious cliffs just under the summit high above. As we examined the north aspect of Mount Scrimger Cornelius pointed out an impossibly steep looking scree bench running under the NW summit and ending at the gently angled west ridge to the summit. I agreed that this route was worth a look – I’d just had great success on my traverse from Zombie to Otuskwan Peak 2 days previous using a similar scree bench. Another factor leading me to a hasty affirmative tone was the incredible winds that almost knocked us off our feet at the top of the headwall! We both figured that if nothing else we’d get some shelter on the east face of the NW peak.
The first obstacle to attaining the scree traverse was getting to the north ridge leading up to the NW outlier above. We had no idea if there would be a deep valley in between us and the ridge or not – these are the risks with taking the unknown routes. Although the risk of an unproven route is obviously abject failure, the rewards are also huge. In this case we were awarded right away with an easy and very scenic traverse to the north ridge with stunning views both of the imposing north face above and the upper stretches of Henretta Creek behind us along with its impressive ring of peaks along the Continental Divide including Gill Peak, Courcelette, Aldridge, Cornwell and Baril Peak. Mount Etherington was also visible rising steeply over the headwall we’d just ascended.
Cornelius set a furious pace up the easy lower slopes of the north ridge before stopping just under moderate slabs for a break. The wind continued to gust with fierce intensity. Talking was impossible for the most part and if we did talk we had to yell directly in each others ears. I’m sure some folks would have turned back in this kind of blow – it was bad enough that I was happy to be as big as I am. The next obstacle facing us was a section of low angle slabs leading up to the scree bench high above. Initially we thought this might be SC6+ terrain but it was more like SC5+. I’ll call it SC6 to be on the safe side but there are pretty easy routes up here if you look for them. It didn’t take long and we were staring across an extremely exposed scree traverse to the west ridge of Mount Scrimger wondering just how “easy” this route was going to be!
It turned out to be pretty darn easy. Again, I’ll call it SC6 to be safe but it’s no more than exposed hiking on scree and ledges. We were surprised how easy it was compared to how it appeared but we both acknowledged that it was terribly exposed in places and a slip would not be advisable anywhere along here. BUT IT WORKED! Fantastically! What a great route. Other than the first section where we should have gone a wee bit higher on the north ridge before starting the traverse, the terrain was quite reasonable and didn’t feel very difficult.
Hiking along the scree bench was very pleasant with no wind and incredible views back to Henretta Creek and over the north face cliffs of Scrimger. Initially when looking along the traverse we assumed we’d follow the bench all the way to the west ridge along its widest aspect. There was an option to bail out a bit early but this looked horribly exposed and steeper than the main ledge so we didn’t give it too much love. As we approached the alternate bailout slabs we both changed our minds. The slabs were firm with some confidence-inspiring handholds above and edges for our feet below. Ironically despite looking more exposed than the main traverse they felt less so due to the scree bench just beneath. Again however, I’d advise against slipping here.
From the end of the ledge traverse the west ridge looked straightforward but of course we had no idea if there would be unseen drop-offs or any other “pleasant” surprises waiting for us as we ascended to the summit. Thankfully there weren’t any hidden gotchas – as a matter of fact it was much easier than it looked. Soon we were on our first summit of the day, feeling very good about our efforts so far. Somehow even the brutal wind was calmed just enough to enjoy some photos and scout future trips from the top. There was no register in the small cairn.
After a few minutes we chilled down substantially and decided to head back to the warm and calm scree traverse. At this point Cornelius mentioned ascended the NW outlier. At first I was reluctant but then I realized he meant to ascend it from the north ridge, not from the west one. This would be much easier and I agreed, “why not”? We weren’t coming back and the outlier looked higher than the main summit from certain angles.
The traverse was just as easy in reverse for the most part. I found that the initial steep section from the west ridge felt a bit awkward on return but soon that section was done and we were walking normally again. The ascent to the NW outlier was SC5+ from the north ridge and soon we were striding up a slab towards a very old looking cairn. There was no register but the cairn was built old school, neatly stacked and rounded like some other cairns I’ve found this year.
Descent of the north ridge was easier than I expected, even down the low cliffs to the scree below. Soon we were traversing back towards the south ridge of Mount Etherington, feeling very good about our day so far but also apprehensive at the ferocious winds that were getting stronger, not weaker as forecast. In another surprise twist, smoke was now visible in our photos and we could smell it and feel it in our throats all day already.
As we started up the easy lower south ridge of Mount Etherington we debated about adding “Henretta Peak” to our itinerary. There were a few issues with this idea, not least of which was the annoying, incredibly powerful wind that roared like an airplane in our ears for the most of the day. 1-2″ rocks were blowing off the deck as I walked in some sections! Another issue with “Henretta” was the return. Would we descend all the way into the lovely and interesting landscape of upper Henretta Creek and then loop back all the way around the western flanks of Mount Etherington and back up to the top of the headwall? Could we do all that with our remaining daylight? Did we even really feel like doing it? The last issue was the simple fact that “Henretta” is not an official summit and not very sexy either. It’s lower than anything else we were doing and wouldn’t have great views either. We decided to leave the final decision for later but I think we were both feeling pretty “meh” about it at this point already.
We tried to stick to the east side of the south ridge as much as possible to avoid the wind and it worked initially. The first cliffband was avoided along another scree traverse – this time over the east face following some massive cairns. Soon we ascended moderate terrain back to the south ridge before encountering a much bigger cliff ahead. This time we followed some cairns on a west face traverse before coming up to difficult and even slightly overhanging cliffs to gain the ridge back. This terrain didn’t match the limited beta we had. I decided to keep traversing along the west face despite a lack of cairns and soon enough we realized this would work out just fine. There was no more than easy scrambling and hiking along this entire traverse.
A scree grind brought us up to what seemed like the summit, but a quick glance further north showed a small cairn just a bit further along after a small dip. Despite suspecting the cairn was a few feet lower than our current vantage we slogged over to it anyway.
From the cairned summit we snapped a few familiar photos in the growing haze and silly wind before deciding once for all that Henretta wasn’t going to happen today. With calm winds and slightly more daylight we might have bothered but when it stops being fun it’s time to go home and save things for another day.
Descent of the south ridge went quick and relatively painless. We took both traverse lines and stopped for a last break out of the wind on the east face traverse before descending back to the top of the headwall.
I was expecting to drop out of the winds as we descended the headwall but alas, the wind was so strong that it whipped back into us as we hiked down! It was pure silliness at this point – and for some reason neither of us had noticed the wind forecasts on SpotWX. Lesson learned I suppose! The headwall has a number of possible routes and we used a few of them before exiting onto the scree and boulder slopes below.
Finally we got back to the bikes and after fixing Cornelius’ seat with some duct tape we were looking forward to a fast ride back. And we got it. For the most part the ride out was quick and painless. There were a few uphill sections, the final one being a 1km gentle climb to the parking spot.
Despite the unexpected and sometimes unnerving winds that we experienced all day, I quite enjoyed both Mount Scrimger and Etherington. Combining these peaks into a day trip makes perfect sense for fit parties who don’t mind 25km of cycling as part of their day. If I had to pick one peak it would definitely be Mount Scrimger for a more engaging route, better views and the bonus of the NW outlier. Mount Etherington isn’t nearly as tragic as Nugara implies but I have to admit that it’s also not the most pleasant peak I’ve been on this year. Just as with Nugara however, I don’t know how much of my feelings for it are a result of weather conditions or the actual mountain itself. The wind was getting mighty annoying by the time we summited our second peak of the day.