Spine Peak

Summit Elevation (m): 2914
Elevation Gain (m): 1400
Trip Date: April 20 2024
Round Trip Time (hr): 8
Total Trip Distance (km): 13
Quick ‘n Dirty Rating: Class 2/3 – you fall, you sprain or break something
Difficulty Notes: Winter ascent includes serious avalanche risk. 
Technical Rating: SC6
GPS Track: Gaia
MapGoogle Maps

Almost 11 years to the day, on April 21 2013, I joined a group of aspiring young alpinists who would go on to accomplish a lot more in the hills than I ever will including establishing a guiding business and ascending all the Rockies 11000ers and even standing on the summit of Mount Everest! Back then however, I was one of the more experienced mountaineers as we ascended both Big Bend Peak and North Saskatchewan Junior on snowshoes. Ever since this trip I’ve had a neighboring objective on my list – Spine Peak. Nugara details this trip in his Snowshoeing in the Canadian Rockies guidebook and on his web site from an April 2010 ascent with his brother Mark.

Views from Big Bend Peak in 2013 show the approximate route up the west and NW face of Spine Peak.

As a group of us left a brilliantly sunny parking spot at the “big bend” in hwy #93 I mused at how I was once again going snowshoeing with an interesting bunch of people. It was my first time meeting Aaron but I had met Rob and Dan the week previous on an ascent of Bident Mountain. Both of them have tons of mountain experience and interesting stories. Doug Lutz is an old friend who is heavily involved in social media scrambling groups and has an active YouTube channel. Devan Peterson burst onto the mountain scene with impressive trips and hasn’t looked back since, already several hundred peaks ahead of me and in a class way above my pay grade. And then there were the two actual celebrities of our group. Simon (aka, “Foresty Forest”) and Rocko (aka, “cute dog”) have almost 71,000,000 views on their YouTube channel and have just under 400,000 followers! Even before he blew up in popularity over #vanlife, Simon was known to local Rockies climbers for his generous trail cleanup activities and beta sharing. 

Spine Peak Route Map. Do yourself a giant favor and follow our exit line rather than our approach one.

I surmised even before the trip that with all of our experience and strong personalities, there was potential for a common issue to occur. It only took about 30 minutes and my prediction came to pass. One of the main obstacles to Spine Peak is getting from the North Saskatchewan River valley approach trail, over an inconvenient ridge and subsequently into a scenic valley to the south. I had traveled this route in 2013 but didn’t have great memories of the steep bushwhack and height losses involved. Despite the bad memories, I was determined to follow a similar line to our 2013 trip and led confidently up a series of ever steepening slopes on the lower NE shoulder of Big Bend Peak. Dan stuck with me while Devan got tired of my silly route and followed an old set of ski tracks further climber’s left. Doug, Aaron and Rob followed Devan. Simon and Rocko were with me until they also split off, finding what turned out to be the best route over the shoulder and into the hanging valley on the other side.

This was always going to be an issue with such a large group of experienced alpine travelers. Why follow someone else’s silly route if you know you have a better one? As Dan and I caught Devan’s group the problem with this independent mindset became clear. Earlier, Rob had offered the use of radios, which we all politely declined. That was now looking like a very silly decision as we yelled and debated where the heck Simon and Rocko were. It was nobody’s fault – most of the group prefers solo travel to large groups and most of us simply aren’t used to dealing with group dynamics. After spending 20-30 minutes debating turning around to look for the pair, we settled on deciding to trust that they were likely way ahead of us in the valley bottom and continued hiking over the shoulder.

Sure enough! As we settled into the valley bottom there was a set of snowshoe and puppy tracks leading happily up the brilliantly scenic landscape towards our objective. We followed the set of tracks as they wound their way up some of the most beautiful snowy landscapes I’ve seen in a while. This hidden valley is a gem. Not easily attained and usually only used by folks heading in to climb Mount Saskatchewan it feels much more remote than it is on the map.

As we progressed up the valley we came to a steep slope on the SE side of the creek. Normally a slope like this wouldn’t be an issue, but this one was exposed to the creek below and frozen rock hard. On snowshoes it was a little dicey, I took the ‘shoes off and kicked steps with my mountaineering boots. As Doug and I sped along Simon and Rocko’s tracks, the others hung back as several group members were thinking this might not be their day to nab a summit.

The second obstacle of the day was this hard pack slope where some of the team turned back. A slip here is ill-advised.

Doug and I stayed ahead for the next 20 minutes or so, following Simon’s track as he switched from snowshoes to crampons for a steep ascent between the creek and a break in the rocky cliffs above. We managed to keep the ‘shoes on and Devan and Rob managed to catch us on this slope. We all managed to finally catch the speedy duo of Simon and Rocko who were waving at us from a comfortable rocky perch. The snow on this west facing slope was a precursor of the rest of our day – a mix of rock hard slabs and unconsolidated sugar with rocks and scree underfoot.

From the top of the first steep section the rest of the route was obvious but much larger and further than it first appeared. We broke trail, continuing first east and then SE up a long NW shallow gully to the north ridge high above.

Huge blank slopes wait for our tracks.
The team works their way up huge snow slopes on Spine Peak, rising at right here.

At some point most of the group switched over the crampons except Rob who stubbornly kept is ‘shoes on all the way to the summit. The final slope to the upper north ridge and false summit was steep, unconsolidated and tiring.

After cautiously probing and figuring out where exactly the cornice at the false summit was, Devan, Simon and Rocko proceeded to lead the way along the namesake “spine” to the true summit. The spine was fairly wide and despite some cornice exposure it felt quite tame compared to other snow spines I’ve traversed (e.g., Mount Collie, South Twin Peak and others).

Devan, Simon and Rocko traverse the “spine” of Spine Peak to the summit. Steep snow to the right and cornices to the left.

Views from the near-windless summit (2nd one in a row for us) were stunning – as expected of any reasonably high peak in this area of the Canadian Rockies.

Views south include (L to R), Cirrus, Doug, Quill, Coleman, Amery, Hooge, Willerval, Lyells 1,2,3 and Mount Saskatchewan.
Views north include (L to R), Saskatchewan, Bryce, North Towers, Castleguard, Columbia, Saskatchewan Jr., Androlumbia, Andromeda, Athabasca, Big Bend, Hilda, Wilcox, Nigel, Andover, Parker Ridge and Nosecone Peak.

After at least 30 minutes on the summit it was time to head back down. Unlike the week before on Bident Mountain, we didn’t leave the parking area until after 09:00 and it was now already after 14:00. We weren’t too concerned about our slopes in the strong afternoon sun, but they could pose issues in the right conditions and should be treated with respect.

Rob returns along the “spine” of Spine Peak – sublime views in every direction.

From the false summit we made our way down steep snow slopes below. Some of us had a more controlled descent than others but we all enjoyed it more than the opposite direction of travel. Views and conversation kept us distracted until we reached the valley bottom again.

Our exit down the hanging valley went without issues – once again I took my ‘shoes off for the steep traverse which was getting slick in the strong afternoon sun. Near the end of the valley, Devan and Doug retraced our route over the intervening ridge while Rob and I followed Simon and Rocko out of the valley.

Simon’s route was much better than my earlier one had been – by a long shot. To be fair, the lower exit to the North Saskatchewan River trail was still very steep and is going to be more work than you’re expecting, no matter how you get up the intervening ridge. There’s steep, unconsolidated snow and bushwhacking no matter which route you take. Hiking back to the parking lot was a pleasure in afternoon spring sunshine.

Crossing the North Saskatchewan River on a good snow bridge (L) to the parking area.

Under 8 hours after leaving hwy #93 we were back, greeting the rest of the team. Overall this was another wonderful day in the hills, spending time under a brilliant blue sky with incredible views in every direction. I highly recommend this peak as a winter / spring objective with the usual caution that you will be spending a lot of time in avalanche terrain and should come prepared for that. The last two weekends have been a little different than I’m used to, traveling in a much larger group than I normally do and experiencing all the pluses and minuses that this entails. I had a great time meeting new folks with tons of mountain experience and hope to get out with any of them again some day.

2 thoughts on Spine Peak

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