Summit Elevations (m): 2957, 2928
Trip Date: October 16 2022
Elevation Gain (m): 2200+
Round Trip Time (hr): 14
Total Trip Distance (km): 51
Quick ‘n Dirty Rating: Class 3 – you fall, you will break something
Difficulty Notes: The technical crux is the short wall under the summit of Barrier Mountain (SC7), everything else was easy to moderate scrambling with routefinding. Crossing the Red Deer River is a major logistical difficulty, necessitating a late season ascent of a route that must be dry to even think about doing with short daylight hours.
Technical Rating: SC6+; RE3/4
GPS Track: Download
Map: Google Maps
As my tired legs pumped the pedals of my trusty 2-wheel steed along the dusty Ya Ha Tinda road my eyes were drawn to the inky blackness of the silent sky above. A myriad of stars twinkled and shone overhead. The Big Dipper looked close enough for me to reach out and take hold of its handle and bring it even closer. I was feeling the effects of another long day on the eastern border of Banff National Park but it wasn’t sore muscles and dehydration that were on my mind. I was thinking how darn lucky I was to be out here with a healthy body and mind, able to have an experience like this in perfect mid-October conditions. The beam of my headlamp reflected the winding road in front of me and focused my mind on all the incredible adventures I’ve managed to experience in 2022. I never thought, way back when my kids were young and I got out a maximum of 2 days a month, that I would still have the passion that I do for the Alberta Rockies many years later. Today was the perfect way to end the hiking and scrambling year – snow is forecast for the coming weekend. Today we experienced a bit of everything that my Rockies scrambling adventures typically involve. From a bike approach to a deep and cold river crossing, bushwhacking, creek hiking and boulder parkour to endless rubble and scree traversing. From ascending multiple peaks to endless ridge traverses and undulations with over 2200 meters of height gain. Starting in the dark and ending in the dark. Today had it all and much more! I laughed to Sara that if people want to know what my year has been like they can skip reading about the other 60+ peaks and just read this trip report. It’s all in here.
As the last of an endless series of perfect weather and conditions weekends loomed large in mid-October 2022, I had a major (1st world) conundrum ahead of me. I was tired! Not so much physically, although obviously I have my share of aches and pains going on, but this was a typical end-of-season tiredness of the mind. I’ve said it before, but I have no idea how certain peakbagging friends can ascend well over 100 or even 200 mountains in a calendar year without getting somewhat bored with the whole enterprise. Don’t get me wrong – I love the mountains and I have a seemingly bottomless pit of yearning to explore them, but I do get a little tired of it all towards the end of each season. It doesn’t last more than a few weeks and I’m back to wishing it was summer again but at some point I find myself thinking it might be time for more golf and other hobbies in my life. All that being said, this was shaping up to be the perfect weekend for a long planned set of peaks that require a very special set of conditions to be done effectively. Peaks that have been on my list for at least 7 years since I scrambled Warden Rock with Steven and Ben in 2015.
There aren’t many trip reports on Barrier Mountain or Mount Gable, the only online versions I could find are from Rick Collier and Cornelius Rott. Some folks on Facebook have reported a route from the east over Jap Mountain that sounds slightly easier than NW ridge but still lengthy at over 30 kilometers and 2100 meters total height gain. The other issue with the easier route is that there is no practical way to combine Mount Gable into it like Collier and Rott did. The special set of conditions necessary to make the NW access canyon route work are two fold. First, the Red Deer River must be low and slow and this only happens in the fall or winter seasons. Second, snow and ice complicate things on both peaks and almost certainly rule out a Calgary-to-Calgary day trip like the one we did.
Originally when planning this trip I thought I’d be solo and I thought I’d only get Barrier Mountain as a day trip. In the back of my mind the numbers seemed to support a shot at Gable on exit from Cornelius’ ascent line but realistically I didn’t expect to have the mojo to bother with a 2nd peak. Then Sara happened. After pinging me on Saturday evening about possible Sunday objectives she agreed to join me. I warned her that Gable was a possibility which would greatly extend the trip but she was ok with that (she’s getting used to the way my mind works). We agreed to leave YYC around 04:30 and start the bike ride through the Tinda ranch by around 07:00 with headlamps. On the drive up to the Bighorn parking lot two of the biggest wolves I’ve ever seen ran through the beam of my headlights – they were absolutely huge! Good thing they don’t typically mess with humans or I’d be reconsidering solo trips into the Tinda area! I also witnessed two bright meteors streaking through sky ahead. Was this a portend of the number of peaks I would bag this day? I wasn’t sure.
Daylight was going to be one of our biggest issues of the day and despite leaving in the dark I was already concerned about it as we pedaled up the familiar road leading through the Tinda ranch towards the eastern Banff boundary. Sara had never biked this road before but for me this was the second time this year, nevermind the many rides I’ve done before. There was a new gated fence with a sign warning against many activities such as camping, drones, fires and even horse wagons along the first stretch of road from the parking lot before Skeleton (Scalp) Creek. I’m not sure what this is all about but thankfully it didn’t ban bikes or humans (yet). Crossing Skeleton Creek is always the first challenge of a trip up the Red Deer River through Tinda but this time it was low enough to walk on rocks and keep dry feet. This was a good sign that the Red Deer River would be low enough to allow us to wade across. We passed through a more familiar gate with the same new sign prohibiting pretty much anything except biking and hiking before passing the outfitter camp and arriving at the eastern Banff boundary between Warden Rock and Mount Wapiti. We stashed our bikes as the sky continued to brighten and started up the fire road into Banff. Our feet were frozen from the bike ride, something I always forget about late season rides. We hiked 1km on the road before cutting off towards the NW access canyon between Warden Rock and Gable across the Red Deer River.
Thankfully the river looked fairly tame – although deeper than I thought it would be. We didn’t look long for a crossing so there might be shallower ones. Our crossing point was only knee deep on the close side but as we continued to wade across, it quickly deepened until it was crotch deep. I was very happy to be in waders! Sara was slightly less happy than me but figured a fast hike would warm up her frozen legs and feet. From the crossing we walked up a dry creekbed before veering left to an obvious trail running up the NE side of the drainage. It didn’t take long before the creekbed narrowed into a very steep and winding canyon that necessitated a steep ascent on the NE bank. As usual the situation “on the ground” was much different than I imagined from reading trip reports. After ascending the bank we traversed steep, loose slopes back into the canyon. Of course we didn’t realize it at the time but traversing steep and horribly loose slopes would become a theme on this trip. Once back in the creekbed the hike up the canyon was some pretty special stuff. I can see why a geologist like Cornelius would travel very slowly up this thing! If you want to move quickly through here make sure your hiking buddy doesn’t know anything about geology. There were fossils and interesting landscape features all along the route. Sometimes creek parkour can be endless and tiring but this was way too much fun and way too scenic for that. Where the creek narrowed into steep dried out waterfalls, I found easy by-passes while Sara practiced her climbing skillz, tackling most of them head on. As expected everything was pretty much bone dry with only small half frozen puddles and some water oozing out of cracks in the rocks. Any snow or ice on this approach would have cut our pace in half but as it was we very quickly moved through the fascinating terrain.
Within 90 minutes from the bike drop we were passing Cornelius’ campsite and the ascent line for Mount Gable. This was much quicker than we were expecting since he mentions getting here at 13:00 and it was only 09:30 for us. Obviously a very early start from YYC, dry conditions and light day packs were making a huge difference. We were greatly encouraged that a shot at both Barrier and Gable might be more realistic than we first thought.
As we continued up the widening canyon our views to Warden Rock and its gorgeous cliffs opened up to our left. This is when Sara first mentioned a high traverse between Barrier and Gable. I wasn’t at all convinced at this point. Cornelius mentions in a photo caption on his Gable report that “The connecting ridge to Barrier Mountain is long and undulating, but looks inviting from this angle. Who knows how many unseen cliffs there are, though.” Collier didn’t even seem to consider a traverse between the two peaks but to be fair he did them in February with full on winter conditions and short daylight hours. We continued traveling up a very scenic alpine valley before starting a scree grind to the SW ridge descending off a false summit of Barrier. Despite the slope looking horrid from afar, it was frozen in place making for a fairly easy ascent. Hitting a goat highway 3/4 way up was a huge mental boost and we followed it almost to the col before continuing up to our left to finally gain the ridge and get our first views of Barrier Mountain. It looked huge and very distant!
As we ascended the rubble slope I kept insisting that the traverse back to Gable looked very far with way too much height loss to be worth it. As we crested the ridge I finally realized that what I’d thought was the traverse to Gable was actually looking all the way back to Wapiti Mountain and I had been all turned around. Oops! The actual Mount Gable looked reasonably close and the crux of the traverse (as far as we could tell) didn’t look threatening enough to kibosh the idea. I was slowly warming to the traverse but we had a long way ahead to our first objective and focused on that. In a constant theme for this trip, everything was further, looser and bigger than it first appeared and this included a traverse of rubble slopes along the SW face of a prominent summit NW of Barrier Mountain. We ascended SW slopes under this false peak before transitioning over slabs and scree into the rubble bowl which would take us to the NW summit ridge of Barrier Mountain. As soon as I took my first step along this traverse I knew we were in for a slog. It was horribly loose. If you’re a regular reader of my reports you know that I do my fair share of rubble traverses. This was one of the worst of the year – possibly only matched by the one Wietse and I did on Cheshire Peak back in August.
Every step forward was a half step down as we struggled across the slope towards Barrier Mountain. As much as I utilize scree slope traverses on many of my trips to make things easier and more efficient, this was a heckuva grind! Finally we neared the end of the interminable slog and found ourselves on the NW ridge of Barrier, looking up at the summit block ahead. The next 30 minutes or so were reasonable scrambling on a mix of slab, rock steps and of course, rubble.
Despite the crux wall looking pretty fierce at first, Sara danced up like it was nothing but a casual hike. I took a few more minutes, ensuring that I would be able to descend the dang thing. Kudos to both Cornelius’ and Rick’s group for making it down this short but steep wall with snow and ice on it! By 12:30, only 5.5 hours into our day, we found ourselves on the summit of Barrier Mountain with some of the clearest air I’ve been in all year. Even the still-burning prescribed Dormer valley burn was cooperating nicely with the smoke hanging low in the valley to the south.
From the summit of Barrier Mountain the ridge traverse to Mount Gable looked very doable. Considering it was only around 13:00 by the time we started our descent of Barrier’s NW ridge, Sara and I agreed that it was definitely worth a shot. My original plan was that if we were near Cornelius’ ascent line from the NW access canyon before 15:00 we would attempt it from valley bottom – this route seemed quicker with less total height gain. The risk was that we would run into a non-scramble section but the odds seemed very low based on what we could see and based on our collective experience. Sara made the descent of the crux look, once again, easy. She’s been doing a lot of rock climbing and bouldering and it certainly shows in her scrambling abilities. Apparently sitting on the couch watching Netflix doesn’t increase one’s abilities in quite the same manner… It took me a bit to work out the one difficult move but eventually I sorted it out and we continued down the NW ridge and onto the horrible scree traverse under the NW outlier. We retraced our steps past the top-out point from the NW canyon, on towards a SW trending line to the east ridge of another outlier between Barrier and the high point of the traverse. Rather than ascend this lower outlier we chose to traverse SE rubble slopes which looked fairly short and easy. Of course it was neither short nor particularly easy. It was another horribly loose affair but we eventually stumbled towards the north ridge of the high point on our traverse, hoping that the obvious crux ahead would be nothing more than scrambling.
As we traversed up the north ridge of the high point I noticed an easy looking line from climber’s left to right situated off the ridge to my left. Despite necessitating another rubble traverse I decided to check out this line and Sara chose to continue up the north ridge. Thankfully this traverse was short and the line was easy, ascending loose dinner plate to the SE ridge under the summit before offering an easy hike to the high point. Sara was already there, her route going at moderate to difficult scrambling depending on the exact line chosen. This was great! The traverse from here looked pretty straightforward with only 1 or 2 more drop offs that almost certainly had easy bypasses on the SW side of the ridge. It was now almost 15:30 and we were realizing how much further everything was than it first appeared. We had to keep moving in order to beat sunset ruining our day on descent.
The rest of the traverse to the summit of Mount Gable went about as good as these things can. There was no wind and we were in t-shirts in mid-October so it was very hard to be negative over the various undulations and loose traverses along the route. The views remained incredibly clear, allowing us to see objectives as far away as Recondite and even Mount Assiniboine. Although most of the nearby peaks were new for Sara, they were old friends for me including Wapiti, Tyrell, Condor, Bellow, Boar Station, Prow, White, Grouse and Melanin.
It took a few more bumps than I was expecting but finally at around 17:00, a whooping 4.5 hours from the summit of Barrier, we were standing on our second peak of the day. Even now I’m surprised that it took us that long for the traverse. I don’t think we were moving that slow but who knows? Maybe with a certainty of the route and my GPS track this can be sped up. I’m sure there are folks who’ll think about adding Wapiti and Tomahawk to the day to make it really worthwhile. Good luck!
We certainly didn’t have time to linger at the summit of Mount Gable. I was psyched that we’d gotten both peaks but now it was time to face the fact that we were very quickly losing daylight. I should have done a bit more research on routes which would have given us the option of descending an easier and quicker route into the valley east of Gable like Rick did. Instead, we spent the next 90 minutes descending the same series of low cliffs and ridges that Cornelius and Richard used to valley bottom. We were moving quickly but the moderate north and NE ridges felt like a long way down. Snow or ice on all the rock steps would make this whole affair much slower.
After trending north on the ridge we cut down an ENE ridge leading to valley bottom, still far below. This is where the crux on Gable is located if taking Cornelius’ route. I strongly suspected there was an easier bypass and left Sara to downclimb the cliffband while I simply walked along rubble to my right before scrambling easily down a slab and rubble ramp through it all.
From the crux cliff band we descended scree before cutting back to the ENE ridge and descending varied degrees of rubble and scree to treeline and the NW access drainage below. Phew! I don’t know about Sara, but I seriously underestimated how high Mount Gable is above the NW drainage. On hindsight there is no way we would have had time to descend from Barrier to the bottom of this route and ascend Gable from there before dark. I seriously doubt I would have had the energy or will to ascend both peaks from the NW drainage in a day – the traverse is the only realistic way to link these two mountains. We didn’t have time to linger upon reaching the NW drainage. We were both dehydrated, we’d had no access to water for 9 hours since last passing this spot at 09:30 in the morning! Thankfully we found a puddle and quenched some thirst before trying to beat total darkness to the Red Deer River. We didn’t quite make that goal but we did manage to finish exiting the main NW drainage around the lowest choke point before night descended over the Red Deer River valley.
We followed our headlamps to the Red Deer River and crossed it before walking back to the bikes. Riding back in the dark along a dusty fire road reminded me of Phil and my 73km day trip of Mount White and Grouse Peak back in 2020. As we rode the final few kilometers through the ranch I told Sara to crank her headlamp to the right. As she did so, dozens of eyes reflected the light back to us. A large herd of Elk stood there blinking slowly back at us, wondering what the silly humans were up to at this time. Our day came to an end 14 hours after it started – again in the dark at the Bighorn Falls parking lot. What a day! I can’t think of a more appropriate or better way to end the main 2022 summer season. This trip has it all and requires the exact set of circumstances that we used to complete it. A very highly recommended trip for parties that can move quickly through typical Rockies terrain with a light pack. Just make sure you’re well-hydrated before leaving that valley floor towards Barrier Mountain!