Summit Elevation (m): 2690
Trip Date: October 01, 2021
Elevation Gain (m): 875
Round Trip Time (hr): 6.5
Total Trip Distance (km): 18.5
Quick ‘n Easy Rating: Class 2/3 – You fall you sprain or break something
Difficulty Notes: An easy scramble or hard hike depending on your experience and fitness levels. There is a trail the entire way but it’s not official so don’t expect signage or other assists along the way. Very muddy when wet – all the way to the upper SE ridge.
Technical Rating: SC5, RE2
Map: Google Maps
If you’re thinking, “Wait a minute!”. “Didn’t Vern already do Smutwood on skis”, the answer is “yes, he did”. Back in 2013 I joined a group of skiers as we tackled this little peak tucked in behind Mount Shark and Smuts with stunning views of Mount Birdwood. Already back then, but certainly more nowadays, Smutwood was more of a fall season destination than a winter one and I always wanted to experience it without snow for myself. With my daughter a graduated and employed cardiac nurse she can now take time off in September and on this particular day she wanted to hike with me so I picked Smutwood, and it was certainly the day to do it! I was feeling a bit stiff from my 45 km day on Lone and Kishinena with Wietse the day previous but Smutwood promised to be a pretty easy day and I wasn’t too concerned about it. My body can rest this winter. Maybe.
I can tell you that in the 16 years since I’d last been up the Smuts / Commonwealth Creek trail I’d forgotten how circuitous it begins and that I used a bike for the first 3 kms last time. This easy start along a road allows for easy walking and talking. KC and I used to walk together daily when she lived with us and I miss this time we had together terribly. Everyone thinks they want their kids to grow up and move out as quick as possible but not me!! My kids can stay with me as long as they want – and come back any time. The house is way too quiet with them gone. ;-( Of course I am delighted for her that she’s striking out on her own with her friends but selfishly I’m also sad. Ironically we often walk together without saying very much at all and this was the case today as well. We have spent many hours together in comfortable silence so this was fine with me. The weather was pretty much perfect with blue sky, puffy clouds and a good trail – at least for the first while. It was shortly after arriving at a small waterfall in Commonwealth Creek that the trail deteriorated beyond what I remembered from many years previous.
I won’t complain too much since it was such a lovely day overall but the slick muck that stuck with us for the next few kilometers until high on the SE ridge of Smutwood was surprising to say the least. I know that Instagram has made this peak and trip extremely popular and presumably has led to the removal of any gravel or rock on most of the trail. With rain the previous night, we experienced the worst of it. When we finished later in the day we had muck from our shoes to our knees – it was really quite bad for the Alberta Rockies. I can’t remember having this on any other trail outside of some valley bottoms in Jasper which are known for being boggy.
Another surprise was how bushy the trail was despite being very obvious and obviously well traveled. It’s just wide enough to accommodate a human, but no wider than that. We got soaked from the wet bushes and trees growing right beside the trail. At first I was annoyed by the crappy conditions but then I thought that maybe it keeps this area from being completely overrun. Some level of hardship might be a good thing for the approach…
As we neared the end of the Commonwealth Creek valley under the imposing north face of Mount Birdwood we finally started gaining height. The ascent to Smuts Pass at the Birdwood / Smuts col was spectacular with the clear morning views back over the Commonwealth valley to The Fist and larch forests on various high points on either side. The trail continued to be strangely slick – this wasn’t simple dirt but acted much more like clay. We were worried about descent at this point – both of us were wearing shoes without a lot of grip.
The wonderful views back over our approach kept us entertained in the cold wind as we crested Smuts Pass under its namesake peak. The scramble route up the south ridge and gully on Smuts looked terrifying as usual and it was hard to believe that this is “only” a scramble – and not the hardest I’ve done either. KC said, “no thanks”. For reference if you’re thinking of hiking Smutwood, it took us 2 hours from the parking lot at a relaxed pace to reach the pass / col. If you it has taken you much longer than this to get here, count on it taking at least 1.5-2 hours from here to the summit (we took another hour). From the col the views over the Birdwood Lakes to Smutwood were incredible.
As we followed a distinct trail up scree towards the lower SE ridge the views south to the larch forest between Birdwood and Snow Peak were absolutely mind blowing. The combination of yellow and orange trees and vegetation with the puffy white clouds and deep blue sky with snow and rock was stunning to say the least. We laughed (and swore a little if I’m honest) at how muddy the trail up the lower SE ridge continued to be. Would it be slick all the way to the darn summit?! The terrain remained reasonable as we gained the lower SE ridge but I would have to classify it as SC5 or OT5 rather than simple “hiking”.
As we continued up the SE ridge the views behind and around us became more and more jaw-dropping. There is a reason this hike / peak is so prominent on vlogger, blogger (is that still a think?!) and influencer sites all over the place. One of the reasons I don’t mind jacking up the hype on this particular objective is simply because it can’t get higher than it already is. Just Google it and you’ll see what I mean.
We screwed up a bit as we ascended the upper SE ridge to the summit. The ridge looks a bit intimidating from below so we continued following an obvious trail below the summit crest. This trail soon vanished on some slabs which weren’t at all pleasant to ascend and had me wondering about the rating of this hike and how the heck I managed it in ski boots. Only on the way down did we realize that a much easier route exists right along the ridge. You should never be more than a few feet from the crest and should be on a fairly obvious trail. We joined two other folks at the summit within 3 hours of the parking lot to some of the best views I’ve had in a while.
We chatted with the nice couple at the summit for a few minutes. They were both from Waterton and told us that they were on Smutwood the day previous in a whiteout and with heavy winds. That was especially ironic since I was in Waterton with sunny skies and light winds the day before! They mentioned that it was much busier the day before with dozens and dozens of others “enjoying” the complete lack of good views. Being from Waterton, they weren’t familiar with all the peaks around so I enlightened them a bit, letting them know that Kaycie was a 4th ascent of Warre and Vavasour just to the west. They also weren’t aware that this peak is so popular with influencers and social media junkies and realized that this explained why it was so darn busy. I think they expected much more peace and quiet on such a relatively obscure and hidden summit. After 30 minutes or so we got cold and started down the SE ridge – avoiding the slabs we took on ascent.
The descent was much easier than expected – the trail that has formed makes it pretty straightforward despite looking steep and exposed from afar. I tagged a small outlier along the ridge on the way down while KC took the trail around it. This outlier was not really worth it and had some pretty loose terrain – I don’t recommend it for most. Views to the south and west over Leman Lake continued to be stunning.
Just for fun we decided to take a slight detour down to the lovely Birdwood Lakes on exit. This was a neat little side-hike but again, not really that worth it IMHO. It’s probably best to leave this area for the Grizzlies that obviously wander through it. The lakes look best from Smutwood anyway.
From the lakes it was simply a hike back to the parking lot along the mucky approach track. Thankfully enough people had now come up to dry it out somewhat and the little bit of warmth in the air helped too. It wasn’t quite as bad as earlier in the day. We were surprised by the number of people either coming up later in the day or even some that seemed a bit over their heads (i.e. 2 hours and not even ascending to the col yet). I’m sure they all ended up having fun and some great views so I’m happy for that.
I’ve been rethinking some of my “NIMBY” attitude lately and realized that I’ve been too harsh in my attitude towards others in “my” beloved mountains. There is a point where being grumpy and upset about others using, or even “overusing” (whatever that means) the landscape gets more tiring and depressing than those actions themselves. I realized earlier this summer that I’m more interested in encouraging others to behave properly in the backcountry and have a good and safe time there than dissuading their presence altogether. In this regard you’re going to notice GPS tracks popping into more and more of my trip reports again. If I can help people travel safely and efficiently through the mountain landscape why wouldn’t I? To a point anyway! 😉 I’m not going to shotgun my tracks for every single trip but if a trip exists in Gaia or AllTrails who am I kidding that my little site is going to make any material difference. Rather than try to shut it all down (except for me of course), why not help solve the real issues? Life is a learning process so I don’t apologize for my NIMBY attitude going forward I am going to try to be a bit more open to inevitable change in the Rockies. Let me know if you have any good ideas.
I loved this hike even more than I thought I would. Sure! It’s overused and over photographed and definitely overshared but that doesn’t change the fact that I had a wonderful time with my daughter enjoying some of the best views of my year from this lowly objective. And that’s what it all comes down to in the end isn’t it? Sharing nature and fresh air while exercising with loved ones and being amazed over and over with stunning views of wild landscapes in all directions. The fact that thousands of others have shared this experience shouldn’t lessen it but should encourage us to seek out new experiences rather than going back to the same ones over and over. I won’t be back to Smutwood in the fall any time soon but I sure am thankful for this particular trip.