Mt Assiniboine, North Ridge

August 15-17, 2008 / III 5.6 (mostly 4th class with short technical sections)

Ah, Canadian limestone peaks! Assiniboine is at once one of the most beautiful mountains in the Canadian Rockies, particularly when seen from Lake Magog below, and the loosest pile of junk we have ever had the pleasure of climbing. The experience as a whole, however, is magical! Catching the first views of the peak - and the cirque with its spectacular ice falls - from Lake Magog; finding the unlikely, yet surprizingly straightforward Gmoser Highway, up and across the daunting looking headwall; spending the late afternoon watching the peak grow pink in the waning sunlight. All experiences to remember and cherish.

Friday August 15: Busy day. After moving the bus from the Canmore visitor center to the Heliport, we spend the morning buying last-minute supplies and printing route beta at the new internet place in town (very expensive). We get pretty stressed. We check the forecast again; they are now forecasting a severe storm for Monday. We're worried about the storm arriving earlier than forecast - as is often the case - so we change our plans: instead of spending one night at the lake before hiking up to the hut on Saturday, we'll hike up immediately after landing. Landing? Yes! We are taking the easy way, flying to Lake Magog by helicopter instead of facing the long, flat, 17-mile hike in. Our knees are getting older... We call the reservation office and fortunately they let us change our reservations for the Hind hut. We are now booked for Friday and Saturday nights. This gives us two chances at the peak in case of weather: Saturday, the primary option, or Sunday as a backup.

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Packing our gear on the parking lot of the Canmore Visitor Center.
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Choppers going back and forth between Mt Shark heliport and Assiniboine Lodge (click for movie).

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Finally, it's our turn.
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Fun ride with tremendous views.
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First glimpse of the mountain from the helicopter.

We go back to the bus in a hurry and get ready to go. We make the dusty 45 minute drive from Canmore to the Mt Shark heliport, park the jeep, then spend a few minutes repacking our gear: since we're hiking up directly to the hut, we'll leave one day's worth of food at the lodge, just in case (for the way out in case we climb the peak on Sunday), and are not taking a tent. Our packs are now well within the 40lb weight limit. We have to wait an hour or so for our turn to fly. One chopper is making rotations to the hut and back, carrying six people at a time. Eventually it's our turn. Eric sits in front. Fun flight. Great views.

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Landing at the Assiniboine Lodge helipad.
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Within 5 minutes, the chopper flies back to the Mt Shark heliport for another round (click for movie).
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Hiking to the Hind hut.
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On the trail, with Assiniboine and The Gmoser Highway in the background.
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The Gmoser Highway.

We briefly stop at the lodge to check in with them and ask them to hold on to our extra food and water filter. No time to loose. We start the hike to the RC Hind hut right behind a group of four from Canmore. We make some noise and keep bear spray at hand while going around the lake: two grizzlies have reportedly been inhabiting the area around the campground for some time this season. We pass the other group at the start of the scramble up the Gmoser Highway. I expected the worst based on descriptions I had read, but it really isn't all that bad. The exposure is a bit severe in spots (and you definitely wouldn't want to slip), but the route-finding is fairly obvious and the going pretty straightforward (mostly 3rd and 4th class, with maybe a move of 5th). We do 50m of snow climbing at the end of the traverse, before reaching the moraines of the upper basin.

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Looks daunting but it's mostly cairned, and mostly easy...
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...with a few tricky sections...
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... and tremendously loose and exposed.
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Going up the final gully leading to the moraines below the hut.
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The North Ridge looms above us.

Another 40 minutes of hiking and we're at the hut. Only one climber there yet, and he's moving out to sleep outside, on one of the two wooden bivy platforms. We get first dibs at sleeping arrangements and pick the bottom bunk, away from the table. Two older Canadians arrive almost at the same time (we caught up with them in the moraines; they were moving very slow). They are also going to sleep outside. The other two groups (a party of four from Canmore, and a party of four visiting Japanese guides) arrive a few minutes later. That makes 10 of us in the hut, and three more sleeping outside. It makes us a bit worried about the rockfall potential on the route tomorrow. Fortunately, the group from Canmore decides to wait until Sunday to do the climb. It also looks doubtful that the older two Canadians are going to be fit enough to climb tomorrow. That leaves the four Japanese, the soloist, and us. All experienced parties, so we're not too worried. We'll try to start not too far behind the Japanese (they plan to start way early). Early dinner and to bed. Very warm night in the cozy hut; we leave the windows open.

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The moraines below the hut.
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The Hind Hut.
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Cozy hut....
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...with even cozier restrooms!
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We spend the rest of the afternoon unpacking and scoping the route.

Our summit day (saturday) - begins at 3:30AM, when the group of Japanese climbers (mountain guides on vacation) wakes us up 20 minutes before our own alarm is set to go off. The normal morning routine is a bit more pleasant than usual, in the relative comfort of the small hut. The Japanese leave around 4:15AM. We follow them a half hour later. By the time we start the descending traverse from the hut to the toe of the ridge, we can see their head lamps slowly making their way up the loose scree toward the first cliff band. Another single headlamp precedes them by another half-hour: the solo climber who spent the night on one of the wooden tent platforms outside the hut.

While scouting the route last afternoon, we had considered making a near-horizontal traverse around the entire cirque, to join a trail that traversed back left above a small black cliff to join the ridge above the infamous loose scree. Looking at this today, in near obscurity, makes that traverse seem much too long, most of it on seriously unpleasant- and unstable-looking moraine. We decide instead to take a straight line to the highest point of stable, lighter-colored boulder field at climbers' right of the scree cone, then make a leftward, slightly ascending traverse to the ridge. It is much easier to diagonal across unstable scree than attempt to take it head on. This approach works well.

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The North Ridge (left skyline).
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Leaving the hut early morning.
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A section of scrambling below the Red Band.
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Enjoying the sunrise.
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Taking a breather.

We reach the ridge very close to the first break and at the start of a lower angle section with a stable trail that leads to the first cliff band. We make good time. We catch up with the Japanese group as they are taking a short break at the base of the rock band. The sky is completely clear overhead, but a band of thick storm clouds can be seen maybe 100km to the North. Incredibly, a couple of flashes of thunder light up those clouds well before 5:30AM! I cannot remember seeing thunder this early in the morning before… Just hope these clouds are not drifting this way. The Japanese start up again, and we follow right behind them, trying to time our progress to minimize exposure to any rock they might inadvertently knock down. Fortunately, they are all experienced guides and climb very cleanly.

This first rock band looks steep from the hut but goes very easily (class III), via a narrow gully with relatively solid rock. Above this starts an interminable slog up a generally unpleasant mix of loose gravelly slopes, horrendously unstable rock, and sections of gravel-covered wet slabs. There are many ways to go here, all providing sections of "trail" through scree between scrambles. Anyway, the goal is to reach a small rocky outcrop, 50 meters below the Red Band, then make a diagonal traverse to the right into an obvious weakness. Again, the Red rock Band is not nearly as difficult as expected, and goes as a mere scramble, with maybe one move of easy fitfh class. So far, the rope is staying in the pack.

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Scoping the route.
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Yep, it's pretty loose. The red band is at the top of this photo.
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Just below the red band.
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Eric scrambling up the red band.
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My turn.

Once at the top of the Red Band, a well established trail leads sharply left, back to the ridge proper. The rock improves considerably (which may not be saying much, given the appalling quality of the rock so far). The next obvious obstacle is a band of gray rock, some distance above. The route stays right on the ridge from this point on, with gut-wrenching exposure onto the east face to our left.

The first two thirds of the way from the red to the gray band consist of small blocks and ledges right on the ridge crest. The last third is of the horribly loose and wet variety again, as it diagonals slightly right of the ridge to the once again obvious weakness through the gray band. This is the technical crux of the route, at about 5.6. We rope up and belay this section. The rock is probably quite sound (it gets enough traffic), but is hard to trust. Eric place a few pieces (medium cams) along the way, then belays from a cordelette around a large boulder, right on the ridge.

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More loose and exposed scree above the red band.
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Views of the East Wall are pretty impressive.
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More scrambling leads to the gray band...
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...where we start simul-climbing. Technical crux (5.6) of the route.
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Roping up again to go through an icy slot.

The rest of the way up to the false summit is a mixed bag of relatively solid sections right on the ridge, a short icy slot through a black band just to its right, and a steep scramble (4th/easy 5th) around the right side of an obvious small pinnacle. We solo some of this, belay the short icy slot (where we meet the solo climber on his way down), and simul-climb other sections.

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The hut looks so tiny and so far away from here!
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Another loose and exposed section.
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Views.
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Scrambling up a relatively solid section on the ridge.
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We also get the rope out to climb past the obvious gendarme.

Finally, we reach the false summit, a horizontal shoulder that appears as the summit when seen from the hut. The four Japanese are here; they just returned from the actual summit and are taking a break before starting the descent. We quickly greet them and continue on. Throughout the ascent, we have become painfully aware of the fact that descending this route is going to take some time… and we are really not looking forward to that part (it takes most parties quite a bit longer to descend that to ascend this route!).

The real summit is just slightly higher, and very close. A near-level snow ridge separates us from it. We get the ice-axes out, just in case, but it turns out that the only snow left is the large cornice above the east face, and we manage to stay on rock all the way. Two cairns mark the summit, right at the edge of the cornice. It has taken us 4 hours to get here from the hut. No register that we can find… maybe still under snow. We take the obligatory pictures and admire the scenery. Unfortunately, the cornice is blocking the view to the east. This is not the most comfortbale spot anyway, so we return to the false summit for a lunch break.

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The final ridge.
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Just above the false summit.
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Just below the summit. Best to avoid the huge cornice...
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Summit shot.
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The two summit cairns (click here for summit thoughts).

The Japanese have started down. They have two ropes, and are intent on rapelling most of the upper ridge. We take a half-hour break here. This morning's wind has died down, the thick clouds we were worried about earlier have spread our way but also broken up a bit, and puffy white clouds have been developing everywhere. Nothing too worrisome. Just one darker cloud to keep an eye on, getting closer on the west side.

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Gorgeous views from the false summit.
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It's pretty steep on the East side.
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Starting the long descent.
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We stay unroped at first...
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...but start simul-climbing down the gendarme.

An off we go, for the LONNNG descent. We scramble and simul-climb as much as possible, only making short raps here and there. We rap three times between the false summit and the gray band, then off the gray band, then one last time past the red band. Between those raps, we simul-climb to the top of the lower gray band, then unrope again at the base of the gray band. The worst sections are again just below the gray band, then the interminable slopes below the red band, down to the lower cliff and the end of the scramble.

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One of the short raps between the false summit and the gray band.
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Looking down at the hut. An oasis of peace in the middle of chaos.
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Views of the East Face.
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Eric happy as a clam with Lake Magog in the background.
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I just love the color of this cairn...

As we near the top of the final cliff, two climbers are coming up (!). They are making the climb car to car, from the South side (a rougher, much less traveled, but much shorter 8km approach).

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The loose scrambling section just above the red band.
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Throwing the rope...
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...to rap the red band.
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From there, the loose scree seems interminable.
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But the views don't get any better than this.

More knee-busting scree and boulder fields, then the short (200') ascent up the moraine and back to the hut (a killer) and we're done. It has taken 4 ˝ hours to come down. Total round trip time from hut to hut (including stops): 9hrs. No record broken but OK. We were getting pretty slow on the way down. It's 2PM. We have all afternoon to relax, rehydrate, eat, take a nap, and watch the pair of car-to-car'ers (!) make slow progress to the top, then back down just before sunset.

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Just look at the color of this lake!
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The very bottom of the ridge. A 45° scree slope!
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Home sweet home, finally.
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Hut scene.
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It's a long way up there!

The group from Canmore calls the lodge by radio in the evening for an update on the forecast. With our knees hurting badly, we ask them to inquire about any space on an outgoing chopper for tomorrow… and there is! We had not planned on this but we're flying out after all (along with the four Japenese and the soloist). We have dinner quite late, enjoy the views at sunset, then hit the sack.

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Looking up at the Mountain from the hut at sunset.
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One of the big cairns surrounding the hut.
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Enjoying the sunset.
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Preparing breakfast the following morning in a very quiet hut.
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Eric admiring the views before starting the hike down to Assiniboine Lodge.

Sunday, August 17: Up at 6:30AM. Breakfast and packing occupies the morning. The hut is really quiet. The four Canadians left at 4AM for their climb, and the Japenese group also started early for their descent to the lodge. We have the place to ourselves; we take some time to enjoy the hut a bit longer and snap a few more pics. We finally leave the hut at 8:15AM (we have to check in for our flight at the lodge before noon).

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Another beautiful day. This lake is just postcard perfect!
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On loose scree just before getting on the Gmoser Highway.
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Looking across the Gmoser Highway (so much for a highway... who chose that name anyway?).
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Yours truly starting across.
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Negociating another tricky and exposed section.

We wear our harnesses this time, just in case things get too hairy on the way down. Not so, so the rope stays in the pack. Pretty straightforward again. We make it to the lodge around 10:30AM. While waiting for our flight out, we relax on the porch of the lodge, drink free (!) coffee, and use the lodge's telescope to watch the group from Canmore descend the peak.

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Back on easy terrain.
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The well worn trail leading to the Lodge.
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I guess...the sign says it all.
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Such a perfect Mountain from a distance.
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Spying on the party from Canmore on the South Ridge.

We fly out slightly after noon. Just the two of us in the chopper (last flight out). They're using two choppers today. Our helicopter has to wait for the landing pad at Mt Shark to become available so the pilot lands at the edge of the lake to wait a while before a final hop to the pad. In the process, we get extra flying time. Helicopter flying is not the most environmentally friendly mode of travel... but it's pretty fun! We then drive back to Canmore, stopping by Spray Lake for a quick skinny dip (only partial… the water is too cold and a steady breeze is blowing).

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Our ride is here!
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I definitely could get used to this (click for movie)!
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The heliport near Mt Shark.
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Home sweet home!
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Eh???

After showering at the bus, I go to yoga while Eric hangs out in town. Things have changed a lot (for the worse) since four years ago. Most noticeably, Marra's, the local downtown grocery store, has closed and been replaced by some luxury furniture store… the other local stores have also disappeared from main street: the hardware store, the chinese restaurant, etc. The transformation of Canmore into a second Banff is almost complete. Sad... Canmore used to be one of our favorite towns.

More Beta:

Reservations for the Hind Hut and the helicopter are handled by the Assiniboine Lodge. All the info you need is on their web site. As of winter 2008, a night at the hut costs $20/person/night. The hut has comfortable bunks with foam matresses, a two-burner propane stove, dishes and cutlery, a two-way radio, and a comfy toilet. There are also two wooden bivy platforms outside the hut with nice views. These can be a good alternative if the hut is crowded or fully booked and/or you want to save money. Flying to the lodge costs $150/person each way. A load of 40 lb (18kg) per person is included in the price. Packs are weighed at the helipad. Any extra weight costs $2/lb. Helicopters only fly on certain days of the week; check the website above for flight schedules.

If you choose not to fly, the approach is a 17-mile hike to Lake Magog. Unless you're willing to go all the way to the hut in a day, this option will probably force you to take a tent or bivy sack - unless of course you stay as a guest at the Assiniboine Lodge, but this is much more expensive than taking the helicopter!

The mountain can also be approached from the South. This option is only about 8km long but reportedly pretty rough (this is the only way to climb the moutain as a LONG daytrip). Don't know much about it other than we've heard that people do occasionally use that approach. This might be a good option if you are in the Bugaboos and are climbing Assiniboine as a side trip. On the other hand, you won't get the classic view of Assiniboine towering above Lake Magog, and won't experience the legendary Gmoser Highway. Two good reasons to approach the mountain from the North IMHO...