Summit Elevations (m): 2490, 2394, 2232
Trip Date: September 17 2022
Elevation Gain (m): 1500
Round Trip Time (hr): 9.5
Total Trip Distance (km): 18
Quick ‘n Dirty Rating: Class 3 – you fall, you break something or worse
Difficulty Notes: Routefinding is key to keeping this scramble moderate. The terrain is much trickier and things take longer than you think they should.
Technical Rating: SC6+; RE3
GPS Track: Download
Map: Google Maps
I can’t remember when the Ex Coelis group first got onto my mountain radar. Most of the peaks that I’ve been interested in over the last few years are inspirations from the likes of Rick Collier or Graeme Pole. I’m pretty sure that the Ex Coelis group was inspired from my friend Eric Coulthard. Back in the mid-2000’s Eric was a very active scrambler and mountain explorer while I was still chasing many of the so-called “Kane peaks”. I didn’t get out with Eric until our 2009 trip up Mount Coleman but back in 2007 he was very focused on David Thompson Country and Jasper area peaks. Eric posted a trip in 2007 from a traverse of 3 of the 5 peaks in the Ex Coelis group in a web forum that we were both part of and I became interested in them. They didn’t sound like the easiest peaks to attain despite their lowly stature and over the years many folks have tried them in varying conditions. As some of the lowest official summits in an area of the Rockies that tends to be drier than peaks further west, these summits are often attempted in early season conditions. Despite seeming like great early season objectives this has resulted in some tricky scrambling for some who underestimated them. There are a few online trip reports from the likes of Eric and and more recently from Josee in 2015 – Ardennes, Normandy, Stan Waters and Brandon Boulier in 2016. In 2016 Josee was back at it, this time ascending Rhine Peak via a very difficult and exposed gully on its NE face. In May of 2017 Eric, Doug and Brandon did Elbe Peak and in 2018 they completed the 5 peaks with a trip up Rhine Peak. More recently there has been at least one traverse of all 5 peaks in a day by folks with a lot more climbing skills and nerves than I have.
Originally the Ex Coelis group was dubbed “Kadoona” by Mary Schaffer way back in 1911. This was her pronunciation of the Stony name, “Kedonnaha Tinda”, or “Meadow of the Winds” – now known as the Kootenay Plains. The name didn’t stick and it was officially dubbed “Ex Coelis” in 1994. Ex Coelis is Latin for “Out of the Clouds” and is the motto of the First Canadian Parachute Battalion, one of eight battalions which made up the Sixth British Airborne Division during World War II. In 1997 the individual peaks were named for WWII battles (Normandy, Ardennes and Rhine) that the battalion was involved in. “Elbe” is a river in Germany where the battalion met up with the Russian army towards the end of the war. Stan Waters is the highest peak in the complex despite all maps showing different. It is named for an outstanding member of the battalion who not only had a distinguished military career but also went on to be a successful Calgary businessman and eventually served on the Canadian senate in Ottawa.
Phew! After all that naming and historical significance, climbing this set of peaks is almost an afterthought. Trip reports over the years mentioned several interesting areas of difficulties on the three peaks that are usually combined into one day trip. Many folks start off trying to attain all three and end up with only one or two due to early season conditions and more complex terrain than anticipated. Three areas that caught my attention were the NW ridge and NE face of Ardennes and a narrowing of the exit drainage between Rhine and Ardennes where a waterfall and steep, smooth rock had many people on rappel. Everyone I knew who’d tried the three peak traverse did it starting with Ardennes but I figured climbing up 2 of the 3 difficulties rather than down was preferable. I also like to start with the highest peak when possible. I made the long 3.5 hour drive from Calgary early on Saturday morning. My plan was to focus on the Ex Coelis traverse solo before camping in my favorite gravel pit off Abraham Lake and meeting up with Mike Mitchell the following day for another long sought DTC objective. I was surprised by the amount of fresh snow on many of the peaks along my route but was relieved to see very little on the Ex Coelis group. By 08:30 I was hiking up the Siffleur Falls Trail across the Kootenay Plains.
The last time I was here I was also solo, hiking towards a much less known scramble east of the Ex Coelis group – Mount William Booth. I don’t know how long the hanging bridge over the North Saskatchewan River will last but without it there will be no easy way to access either Whiterabbit Creek or the Siffleur River from this side of the valley. The bridge is an impressive bit of infrastructure but it’s sitting across a huge river and must get some major wear ‘n tear over the years. Given the way the government has defunded most trail maintenance over the years I’m not sure they’ll replace it when it finally gives up but I digress… A few years ago I hiked up the Siffleur Falls Trail with Hanneke and was impressed with the scenery. Today was no different. I was all alone with some birds cheering me up as I hiked to the first viewpoint and then the falls shortly thereafter.
I continued up the well worn trail along the Siffleur River in cool morning air. As usual when hiking solo I felt alone but not lonely as I enjoyed the quiet forest and sounds of the river. For some reason there were many small birds flitting about in the trees around me, keeping me company. Despite the falls being the main attraction in this area, I personally prefer the section of river upstream of the falls. The water flows quickly through narrow rock channels here, creating some great landscapes. I took my time photographing this scene before turning my attention towards finding the proper approach to the Ex Coelis drainage.
Over the years, as friends completed various bits of the Ex Coelis group I’d been collecting bits of GPS tracks and storing them in Gaia. As I approached the cutoff point from the Siffleur Falls Trail I had more than one option to follow. There wasn’t a huge deviation so I chose the first one. Of course I should have chosen the second. 😉 No worries. After a short stint in light forest I was in the drainage, rock hopping my way upstream in a dry creekbed. Despite many folks making this trip an early season attempt, I would suggest it’s a better late season one. No snow on the more difficult bits and much less water in the drainage and over the problematic falls at the choke. The drainage was a gorgeous little hike and I gained height quickly between steep canyon walls. For some reason I was nervous about the choke section. Previous parties seemed sketched out here and some people even mentioned the possibility of purposefully sliding down which seemed very risky to me. At least three parties had rappeled this section. What was I in for? As it turns out – not much. When dry in late season conditions and when ascended rather than descended the choke is no more than moderate scrambling. I would NOT recommend ever sliding down the whole thing – you could definitely break a leg unless you get very lucky. If anything it seemed to me that one could cross over the falls from climber’s left to right and then butt scootch down a series of ledges. I ascended on climber’s left up smooth rock with small ledges. There was one big step to get across a smooth section which is likely where most folks get jittery on descent – especially if it’s wet.
After the much easier-than-expected ascent of the canyon choke, I was ready to gain some serious height on relatively easy terrain. My plan was to ascend the easiest line to the Stan Waters / Rhine col and from there check out the ascent gully on Rhine Peak’s NE gully. I knew I would likely not ascend Rhine based on several reports putting it at a minimum class 4 and potentially class 5. I figured I might as well check it out just in case I was feeling like a hero. The ascent to the col was indeed very easy on a mix of rubble and hardpan. My views back over Ardennes were stunning in early morning lighting and once at the col I enjoyed views towards Hatter Peak and up Whiterabbit Creek. The NE gully on Rhine looked absolutely terrifying but I ambled up towards it anyway. After a few difficult scrambling moves I backed off near the bottom on a smooth flaring slab section with serious exposure. It turns out that I wasn’t in the mood to push my limits or take any coins out of my luck jar today. Interestingly the gully looks terrifying from afar but much easier once you’re right under it. Then when you get up around 20 meters or so it looks scary again. I almost re-ascended for a 2nd attempt but decided to be smart about it. I know there’s another route that’s less dangerous and there was no reason to take risks today on this one.
After backing down from some tricky 4th class terrain in the NE gully on Rhine Peak I was ready to stick to more moderate ground for the rest of my day. The SW face of Stan Waters peak looked downright easy from the col and it was. It only took me 30 minutes to reach the top.
Apparently there’s some debate about whether Stan Waters or Rhine Peak are the highest in the Ex Coelis group. IMHO there’s no debate here – Stan Waters is higher than Rhine. If you look at my photos I am clearly looking over the summit of Rhine and likely by several feet if not meters. The maps are once again, wrong. This area seems to have drawn the short straw when it comes to whoever decides the heights of things on a map… After eating breakfast on the summit I started down the NW ridge of Stan Waters towards the very easy looking SE ridge of Normandy Peak.
The NW ridge descent of Stan Waters was a little tricky in places but never more than SC6 with maybe a “+” or two thrown in depending on route choice. There is plenty of space to get onto SC7+ terrain but it’s not necessary. With snow or ice I could see this ridge being tricky. At one point there is a drop-off that must be circumvented on skier’s right via a cutback and traverse on scree ledges back to the ridge. It took about an hour to navigate the terrain to the Normandy col where I stopped for another break in glorious late summer sun with zero bugs and very light winds. My day was turning out quite perfect so far! The SE face / ridge of Normandy Peak was as easy as it looked. Soon I was topping out on my 2nd summit of the day with stunning views over Abraham Lake to many familiar peaks that I’ve visited here over the years.
I enjoyed the summit views from Normandy Peak despite it being much shorter than Stan Waters. I was surprised to be only the 2nd summit party of the year. Many of the entries were from members of the Canadian Armed Forces which makes 100% sense given the naming and history of these peaks. Looking towards the NE face of Ardennes I was reminded that I was only done 1 of 3 potential difficulties for the day. It also clarified the lack of signatures in the Normandy Peak summit register. I’m not gonna lie – the face looked very intimidating from afar! There wasn’t much to do but continue down the SW face of Normandy towards Ardennes and check things out for myself. Descent was pretty straightforward but there were a few detours around slabby cliffs along the way on skier’s right. The col between Normandy and Ardennes was annoyingly bushy but short. Soon I found myself under the NE face of Ardennes ready to find out just how “moderate” this thing was.
Choosing the most obvious and moderate line up the NE face of Ardennes I kept reminding myself that many folks downclimb this face blind after ascending the NW ridge to the summit. So it couldn’t be THAT bad, could it? Despite some exposure and loose terrain the route was much easier than it looked from afar. Unlike on Rhine Peak I never felt that I was on more than SC6 terrain. Once again, routefinding was key to keeping things reasonable.
Before long I was striding towards my 3rd peak of the day. Time had been slowly slipping by as I traversed from peak to peak and I was starting to realize that my day would be longer than I anticipated. I could now see why many folks end up running out of time on this traverse – it simply takes a while to negotiate all the complex and moderate terrain. Views from the summit were better than expected for such a lowly peak and once again there were very few entries in the register from 2022.
After my final summit break on Ardennes Peak it was time to face the last difficulty of my day – a NW ridge descent. I was wondering if I should descend the NE face and simply hike out of the drainage between Ardennes and Normandy and now on hindsight I think that would have been quicker and easier. I won’t bore you with details but the NW ridge of Ardennes is definitely moderate scrambling with plenty of room to get into much more difficult terrain – especially if descending it blind like I did. That being said, the fact that I knew it shouldn’t be more than SC6 did keep me calm even on sections that seemed to be getting gnarly. It took awhile to figure out the terrain but going slow and taking my time I managed the descent back to the Siffleur Falls Trail in around 1.5 hours. Not fast!
Overall this trip went much better than I thought it would despite some unforeseen challenges and the complexity of the terrain. Some of the SC6 sections were at the top end of moderate, hence my “+” overall rating. Many people assume this trip is easy and straightforward because the stats and elevations make it seem like it should be. It’s not. If you treat it as a full day and take your time routefinding you will have a very enjoyable outing. If you tackle these peaks as a backup plan in shitty weather and non-ideal conditions you might start hating your life choices. 😉 With good weather, the great views up remote valleys and over Abraham Lake make this a more scenic outing than you might expect – that is certainly what happened in my case. I’m very satisfied with my decision to reverse the usual clockwise direction, ascending 2 of the 3 difficult sections rather than descending them. Rhine Peak is an option for a 4th peak if you are braver than I am, or use a rope on its NE face / gully. A highly recommended route for experienced Rockies scramblers.