Summit Elevation (m): 2815
Elevation Gain (m): 1610
Round Trip Time (hr): 6
Total Trip Distance (km): 10
Quick ‘n Easy Rating: Class 3 – You fall you break something or worse
Difficulty Notes: Very steep hiking and easy to moderate scrambling with careful routefinding. Exposure on the crux but not quite deserving an SC7 rating IMHO.
Technical Rating: SC6+; RE2
GPS Track: Download
Map: Google Maps
I’m not 100% sure when I first heard of Mount Wardle. It was a long time ago, that I do know. People in the scrambling community generally know about this peak that sits high above Banff-Radium highway at the south end of the Vermilion Range. It’s certainly very visible from the highway and I think this is what makes it so well known – at least in name and reputation. The first ascent of this somewhat lowly peak was likely in 1922 by the topographical survey but you wouldn’t know they actually made the summit by any of their photos which are all from a much lower vantage on the south ridge… Rick Collier documented a winter ascent from 1992 and that was the primary reference for more current beta. His report reads in part;
…overall it’s pretty much a ramble, with only moderate scrambling and certainly nothing technical. It remains something of a mystery to me that Wardle has not found its way into Alan Kane’s ‘Scrambles in the Canadian Rockies’ guidebook since it is relatively easy of ascent.
In 2007, Dinah, Bob and Sonny, inspired by Rick’s casual tone, attempted and documented an ascent of their own. It’s these later two reports that somewhat dulled its reputation – at least in my mind. Bob says;
I was dismayed to find that this was not a moderate scramble, but a difficult one. Immediately beyond the South Peak, the ridge dips slightly and narrows to a foot or two. A fall on either side here would be fatal.
In the end Sonny made the traverse but Bob did not attempt the crux. Subsequent trip reports have also labeled the peak as “difficult”, including a more recent trip by Brandon in October 2022 who rates it 4th class. Bob, Sonny and Brandon all mention nasty bushwhacking and route finding lower down on the mountain and all took much longer than you would think on such a straightforward ascent. David Jones’ Rockies Central climbers guide doesn’t clear things up. At all. It rates two different routes PD- 5.1 50m (SE face and ridge) and F 3rd (SW ridge) even though the two share the exact same crux near the summit! And so Mount Wardle sat on my list for many years – percolating and waiting for the right mood to strike. I wasn’t in a rush as the peak didn’t seem to be in a hurry to go anywhere and it isn’t rarely ascended, taking away that carrot. When Phil and I scrambled Mount Shanks, across the Vermilion River to the east, we had great views of Wardle and it went from a priority “4” to a priority “3” on my list – still not very high.
Then, during the winter of 2022/23 while planning my next summer adventures I came across another documented ascent of Mount Wardle. Matt Kennedy posted a trip report from 2015 and either he or someone else used this beta to put up a subsequent track on Gaia in 2019. I didn’t see the track until last winter, but maybe it’s been there for a while and I just didn’t notice it. To make a long story short, Matt documents a relatively bushwhack free ascent, straight up south slopes from the Radium highway. On hindsight this is the exact route Rick posted about 31 years ago that nobody else seemed to pick up on. Matt writes;
I learned through my research that the scree and rock bands of the southeast ridge and face that tower over the highway offered a route, steeper than the ridge, but with almost no bushwhacking to speak of – Hans Fuhrer Route, as he describes it in the Kootenay Climber’s Guide…
Wait, what? There’s a route on Wardle with NO bushwhacking?! Yup. Matt followed it successfully to the false summit where he turned back due to conditions. I have to admit that I was suspicious. BC climbers can make anything up to 5.8 trad sound like nothing more than an afternoon stroll in open-toed sandals. You (obviously) have to be very careful with Internet beta! Rockies Central rates a SE route as PD- 50m 5.1 and this sounded suspiciously like that one. Since he did turn back at the crux I assumed Matt could be trusted when he said the route was basically a steep hike to that point and I saved the Gaia track that mimicked the Fuhrer route. Now that I had a potentially bush free ascent line, Wardle rocketed up my priority list. After yet another remote, rugged trip on Cuthead Peak with Phil I decided it was time for something a bit more straightforward and made plans for a solo venture to see what all the fuss on Wardle was about. Spoiler alert – I agree with Rick Collier on this one.
After the long drive from YYC, I spotted the “goat lick pull-out” that Matt mentions in his report. Alas, since he didn’t drive he didn’t mention the two “No Parking” signs prohibiting me from using the handy spot. How frustrating!! I was forced to drive another 100 meters down the highway and park at a much more dangerous area at a much smaller gravel pull-off simply because I didn’t want to get a ticket. There were no signs prohibiting parking there and I didn’t get ticketed so who knows? Matt mentions that he wished he’d started his scramble a few 100 meters further north than he did and I found out why on descent. Learn from our mistakes and backtrack up the highway until you see an obvious slide path. That’s your route to avoid as much bushwhacking as possible. I followed the route from Gaia as it wandered through medium density bush for a few minutes before sneaking under a rock cliff at the end of the south ridge and turning climber’s left up a narrow, steep, rocky gully.
Holy cow! Talk about a bloody steep ascent! I can’t believe Rick did it in winter conditions – they must have had little snow or this is a very serious avalanche risk. I groveled and struggled my way up the relentlessly steep gully – there’s no way to capture how steep it was on photos. Being south facing and being a 30 degree day didn’t help either! I only had 1 liter of water and knew there was zero water on route. I was counting on a 6 hour return trip time from the stats and the ease of this route and would be pushing things on the hydration front but I (sort of) knew what I was doing – I’ve been at this game for more than a minute.
As I ascended the Gaia track did some wandering that I didn’t bother with. I just stuck in the narrow gully (helmet on) and kept going up until running into a small rock wall that holds a waterfall when/if there’s ever water in it. At this point I simply traversed to my left and started up the next phase of the route – the lower southeast ridge.
After popping out on the SE ridge I realized just how steep and direct the south route on Wardle is. It was a beautiful morning as I worked my way quickly up the grippy slab – remembering how much fun I’d had on similar rock a few days earlier on Cuthead Peak. The route finding was pretty obvious for anyone with Rockies scrambling experience. There were plenty of options to make things harder but I kept them at an easy to moderate level. The trick – as always – was to assess the route before committing to it. In a funny twist that only happens on BC peaks, I was amused to stumble into a 2nd forested section 1/3 of the way up the bloody mountain above the lower SE ridge! To be honest there was no bushwhacking here and I appreciated the temporary shade.
Finally I exited the last of the forest and after a brief struggle with loose scree found myself with incredible views from the upper SE ridge over the massive east face and down over the Vermilion River and Radium highway. Despite worrying about smoke, the views weren’t terrible and I could still breathe so I continued up easy slopes on the ridge.
The next 30 minutes or so was all pretty simple stuff. It was a little frustrating to realize just how big this “small” peak was – again typical BC peak where you start so low that even 2800m peaks are a vertical mile of elevation gain! I was feeling pretty darn good and kept my pace up – the views were distracting enough.
2.5 hours after leaving the hwy I was standing atop a false summit with a clear view of my objective. And it looked awesome! There was an easy traverse line from where I was to the very easy looking SW face leading up to the false summit. So far, so good and I was stoked.
I wandered my way along a rubble spine to the SW face, finally intersecting the SW ridge route part way along. The rubble face looked much bigger than it ended up being once I was on it.
Part way up the face, I popped out on the upper south ridge to some pretty darn incredible views down the east face and across the Vermilion River – even more impressive than the views I’d had lower down. This peak was quickly becoming a favorite despite the smoky haze on the horizon.
As I topped out on the south ridge I continued wandering towards what I assumed must be a false summit. I descended a pretty easy rubble ledge and traversed some exposed ridge and slab that never really had me thinking “difficult”. Especially compared to terrain that I’d navigated on Cuthead Peak a few days previous, this was all pretty simple stuff.
Imagine my surprise when I realized that the cairn in front of me had to be the summit and a register inside it confirmed this! Hmmm. Where was the 4th class, exposed, difficult crux supposed to be?! Some peaks are like this I guess. In dry conditions, with the experience I’d had only days earlier, Wardle just seemed so much easier than what I had in my head. It reminded me a bit of Mount Ogden in this regard. Views from the top were very respectable considering all the wildfires burning nearby.
It felt great to be at the summit only 3.5 hours from the car and I knew that I was likely going to make my goal of 6 hours without feeling very rushed at all. I turned down the south ridge to find the crux that I’d apparently skipped over without realizing it. 😉 To be fair, on return everything looked more exposed than on approach – just as on Ogden. But as Rick says in his report, the most exposed part is so short and angled in such a way that you don’t feel like it’s “difficult” – or at least I didn’t. I felt like I’d have to throw myself off of it in order to fall and that made it feel easier somehow. Exposure doesn’t really factor into things if you aren’t going to fall down it IMHO.
After the narrow upper ridge, I descended the SW face looking for “Wardle’s Hole” – a massive hole rumored to be just under the south ridge on the SW scree face. Talk about scary. This thing scared me WAY more than the upper ridge traverse! I did not like staring into that abyss. I threw a rock down it and counted off 6.5 seconds before it finally hit something and kept going down. I was not impressed with this hole and started having thoughts about the show “Outer Range“. After snapping some photos I got the heck outta there.
Note: “Wardle Mountain Shaft” is 122 meters deep and varies between 1m and 6m wide. It exits somewhere down along the cliff face and has two other openings bringing some light into the gloom if you’re ever silly enough to go spelunking down there. You won’t catch me in places like that!
After a pleasant stroll along the connecter ridge from the SW face to the upper SE ridge, I wandered down scree and rubble to the steep upper forest. Descending in shade during the heat of the day was a nice break from the unrelenting sun. The slopes immediately under the forest were even steeper than I remembered but I managed to pick my way down a mix of slab, scree and dirt to the lower SE ridge.
The lower SE ridge was good fun and I almost missed my small cairn indicating I should traverse into the steep south ascent gully. Talk about HOT. Yikes. The sun was now angled in such a way that it blasted directly into my face and also bounced off the steep rock walls on either side of the gully only increasing its intensity. I almost got worried at this point (water was running very low) but I knew I’d made short work of things and quickly kept going.
Sure enough – the gully was pretty simple stuff going down. It was just loose enough to keep my going but not loose enough to prevent me from stopping or tumbling back down on top of me. I would not love being in here with too many other people. It didn’t take long and I was transitioning out of the gully, back under the end of the SE ridge and this is when I finally spotted the relatively “bush free” route to the hwy. An obvious avalanche path showed up below and I headed for it, bypassing a low cliff just before finally bottoming out at a trickle of most welcome water.
I finished up with the most dangerous walk of the day – back along a busy Radium highway with semi trucks narrowly flying past at 100 kph. My round trip time of 6 hours didn’t feel too rushed but my 1 liter of water wasn’t quite enough for a south route in 30 degrees. I quickly polished off another liter in the car and felt much better after that. What a great little scramble! Mount Wardle felt much easier than I expected but not in a bad way. The views off the south ridge were incredible and don’t get mentioned (or seen) in trips up the bushier SW ridge. I highly recommend this mountain and this route if you are a capable Rockies scrambler. If you are looking to up your game from moderate to difficult terrain with some route finding, this would be a great objective to try. Exposed, but not too difficult and you should never feel like you’re in danger of dying with a tiny slip – you’re off route if that happens.