Summit Elevation (m): 2829
Trip Date: January 22 2022
Elevation Gain (m): 900
Round Trip Time (hr): 6
Total Trip Distance (km): 12.5
Quick ‘n Dirty Rating: Class 2 – you fall, you sprain something
Difficulty Notes: Not many difficulties but in winter the upper NW gully has some avalanche exposure / wind slab issues.
Technical Rating: OT3, RE3
GPS Track: Download
Map: Google Maps
While hiking the James Walker Creek trail on route to a solo scramble of Headwall Peak last Fall I remember looking at my Gaia base map and noting an oddly named peak looming high above me – “Mount Chesmill”. The ascent went up steep looking grassy slopes and I wondered if this was actually Headwall Peak’s lower south summit, also documented in David Jones’ Rockies Central. It turns out that So Nakagawa put up both the route and the name way back in 2010 as a snowshoe trip and it does not quite make the south summit of Headwall Peak. (Of course, it’s not really a “summit” at all but that’s not the point when you’re looking for something new to ski in Kananaskis that also has summit-like views.) I completely forget about Chesmill – I didn’t like the name and I didn’t like it’s non-summitness. When Ephraim Roberts posted a successful snowshoe trip from the Headwall Creek side on good snow my attention focused back to this non-summit as a possible ski adventure. Funny how things change only months later when you’re in the depths of winter and craving those sweet views!
After a dreary start to the year I was more than ready to ski and scramble something at least resembling a peak. Avalanche ratings seemed to spike every weekend for the past month. After a nice – but very short – outing to Burstall Pass the weekend before, I hoped the third weekend of January would be better. It was. I contacted Ephraim and asked him if the terrain would be good for skiing and his enthusiastic response demanded that I give it a shot. When special avalanche warnings were put out for every area of the Rockies except Kananaskis Country I decided not to wait any longer and after contacting a few friends it ended up being Sara and Sarah who agreed to meet in the Chester Lake parking lot at 08:30 on Saturday morning.
We set off up the Snowdrift Trail towards a distant Headwall Creek in lovely warm – but not too warm – winter temperatures. The approach was pretty much the way I remembered it from a few previous hikes in 2021 including an easy scramble of South Fortress. The trail undulates a bit before dipping down to Headwall Creek and crossing it on a good bridge. From here the summer trail starts a bit further up the Snowdrift Trail, above the creek on the east bank. A set of ski tracks heading directly up the creek was way too tempting to pass up however, so that’s where we went.
The skin track up Headwall Creek was surprisingly scenic, fun and bush free – for the most part. There were a few tight squeezes and near the bottom of the NW ascent gully we had to perform some tricky moves to get over the creek. We stayed dry so that was a win! I was expecting some pretty dense bushwhacking up the lower part of the NW ascent gully but in another good surprise there was essentially none. I like those sorts of surprises.
As we started skinning up the steep gully to a windblown col high above, I found myself smiling a lot. I enjoy trudging uphill on skis for some reason – especially on a solid snowpack like we had. Classic “dust on crust” Kananaskis skiing. The temperature was perfect – not too hot or cold and I could tell that our NW gully was protected from direct sunlight making it a safe objective for a warmer day. We crossed one short section where exposure from the right could be an issue in more elevated avalanche conditions but for us everything was locked up pretty tight. I could see that our ski adventures would be ending near the col with wind hammered slopes to the summit above. Views behind us slowly opened up including Mount Chester and the stunning SE face of Mount Smuts in the distance.
As we approached the upper col our dust-on-crust turned into slab-on-crust. It wasn’t a big enough slab to worry about getting caught in a slide but it made skinning up the steep slopes almost impossible. We decided to start a bootpack from just below the col and continued up above it until we ran out of skiable terrain. If I’m honest about it the rubble slog to the “summit” from the col was a little miserable in ski boots – as these things usually are. Loose, unconsolidated pockets of snow combined with unstable rocks and small boulders conspired to twist ankles and knees.
It only took about 40 minutes from the col before I found myself looking at a pink ammo register and some pretty sweet views of many familiar Kananaskis and Assiniboine peaks. Mount Chester, Headwall Peak, Mount Inflexible and Kent North were close neighbors. Mount Assiniboine over the striking SE face of Mount Smuts was also incredible. Across the Smith Dorrien road, CEGNFS, Murray, Smith Dorrien, French and Sir Douglas were prominent.
It was most excellent to feel sun and wind on our faces in the alpine again, without feeling like we were standing at one of the earth’s poles in a hurricane of frozen air. We enjoyed the summit for at least 15-20 minutes before finally starting to feel the chill. The descent was easier than expected to the skis.
Once reunited with our snow sticks it was time to really enjoy this trip! Can there possibly be a better way to descent a mountain than on skis? I think not. The upper gully was a bit choppy on hard slab but once we entered the main gully the skiing was fantastic with about ankle deep powder on a firm base.
The bottom of the gully narrows considerably but even this presented few issues for a crappy skier such as myself and I enjoyed swooping back and forth through the steep walls on either side. One final short section through trees and we were back at Headwall Creek wishing for a longer ski run. We could have done another lap but there was two other skiers ascending the gully already and due to the closed in nature of the terrain it was going to be pretty skied out by the 5 of us doing one lap, nevermind a few more. We put skins on for the undulating creek and Snowdrift Trail back to the parking lot. I needed a day like this and am super stoked about finally getting into the alpine on a clear, warm(ish) winter day again.