Smoky Mountain (Roaring Creek)

Trip Date: Saturday, August 26 2023
Elevation (m): 3136
Reference Trip: Trekking along McConnell & Roaring Creeks
Quick ‘n Dirty Rating: Class 2 – you fall, you sprain something.
Difficulty Notes: An easy scramble up a scree ledge from a basecamp SE of the peak.
Technical Rating: SC5; RE5
GPS Track: Gaia
Map: Google Maps

Smoky Mountain is one of those peaks that once you start researching it and get rare glimpses of it you can’t let it go. Anyway, not if you’re Phil Richards or myself. I think I first saw Smoky Mountain from the lofty summit of Cataract Peak back in 2017 but I knew about it long before that from a trip report by Rick Collier from 2000. Of course, Rick’s trip also involved exploring the remote valleys along the bases what William Putnam dubbed “great Cambrian cliffs” (CAJ, 1970, pg 57) and travelled for 16 days in the summer of 1969. He writes,

Our plan envisaged a start from the campground at the mouth of the Siffleur River, which we had used in the preceding two years, and which is fortunately little known to the more obnoxious road bound tourist. This is maintained, to just the proper degree, by the Alberta Forest Service, and lies very near the impressive lower gorge of the Siffleur and the northern terminus of the trail which runs the full length of this river and its west fork, Dolomite Creek, from Dolomite Pass and the Banff-Jasper Highway near the mouth of Helen Creek.

In company with Andy Kauffman, Rob Wallace, Morgan Broman, and Lowell Putman, I set out on July 26th to see if the great Cambrian cliffs really amounted to what the geologists and topographers of the Department of Mines and Technical Surveys indicated they did.

Neither Rick’s group or ours had 16 days available to travel the incredible terrain that the Putnam group did but we managed OK with the days we had. Rick took 5 days to approach, ascend and exit the same 2 peaks we did in 3 days. Before you get too impressed, Devan Peterson ascended 10 (!!!!) peaks in the same area as us (ironically at the exact same time too) in the span of only 4 days. So there ya go. As usual, there’s always someone younger, faster and braver and I’m slowly growing more and more ok with this fact as I grow older. I am in a constant mix of awe and annoyance of the seemingly impossible and almost superhuman feats of a younger generation of explorers. I remember back in 2015 feeling the same way about Steven Song nailing all the northern Columbia Icefields peaks in one trip when it took me 3 or 4 years of approaches and climbs to accomplish the same thing. In the decade since then, I’ve been humbled enough times by enough incredible feats by people in my orbit that I am firmly in my place as far as these things go. 

Trekking along the Red Deer River to McConnell Creek and Roaring Creek. Smoky Mountain is the tiny little extension at the north end of our route above “Bivy 1”. It ain’t rocket science – just a dang long way from nowhere.

Smoky Mountain didn’t sound technically difficult from the only source of information on it – Rick’s report. The only interesting thing about it is its location and its height. At almost 10,300 feet it’s not small and its summit is striking enough to be recognizable from many other remote and obscure peaks that surround the wild and remote Roaring Creek valley that it stands proudly over. Speaking of its summit. According to Putnam and Boles the topographical survey ascended Smoky Mountain way back in 1919. I find this claim interesting because of two sources contradicting it. Firstly, the Mountain Legacy Project has no stations marked in the Roaring Creek valley at all – very strange if the expedition was busy ascending peaks in the area. Secondly, even if they did ascend and leave a cairn (as they usually did), when Rick ascended the mountain in 2000 he only found a cairn on the lower, west summit – not the true eastern one. We’ll likely never know for sure. All we knew was that we were going to learn from Rick’s mistake and take an easterly rubble ledge to the true summit rather than waste time on the wrong ascent line to the false summit.

Sunrise on Smoky Mountain (R) from camp. Our route from lower left to upper right.
The sun rises on the north ridge of Mount Leblanc with Smoky Mountain at distant right as we pass the upper Smoky tarn.

After waking at our remote camp at a large (windy) tarn SE of the mountain, Phil Richards and I slowly worked our way up to the high col on Smoky’s south ridge that would grant us access into the Roaring Creek valley below. Just before getting to the col we dropped our gear and continued the 400 vertical meters to the summit on an easy mix of rubble and scree along cliffs dropping from the false summit. Although the route reminded us a little of the bench on Cataract Peak, this one was much easier – thank goodness.

Slowly the peaks around us dropped lower and lower until we were higher than everything except the giants to the west – Cataract, Little Cataract and Dip Slope Mountain. The morning breezes were brisk as I nervously opened the soaking wet register to find that we were, as expected, the first to sign after Rick and Bob’s ascent 23 years previous. (Little did we know that Devan would be at this spot after traversing from Bellow and Howl only a day later!) We took in the wonderful summit views, remembering way too many other trips into these valleys and summits before slowly starting back down to our packs.

Views over the Roaring Creek valley at left running off to Clearwater Lake at distant center. Peaks include (L to R), Cataract, Dip Slope, Willingdon, Harris, Icefall, Mamen, Whimper, Malloch, Lost Guide, Howl.
Views over our ascent route and the three Smoky tarns. Upper Roaring Creek at right. Peaks visible include (L to R), Peters, Howl, Boar Station, McConnell, Leblanc, Goodair, Cataract, Little Cataract. Our rubble ascent bench at right.

Descent was fast and easy to the packs where we continued on to a long day of exploring the Roaring Creek valley and ascending Mount Goodair that afternoon. Smoky Mountain is likely one of the easiest peaks I’ve ascended in the area other than maybe Whimper Peak, which felt much bigger since we didn’t camp 350 meters below its summit the night before.

What makes Smoky Mountain such a rare gem is simply the process of getting onto its easy south rubble ledge. In our case that involved a 48 kilometer, 11.5 hour approach with over 1200 meters of height gain with overnight packs. Once you’ve managed to work through that ‘little’ problem, there are no more difficulties other than a few hundred additional vertical meters and some loose rubble to get to the top.

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