Well Thankfully I Don't Have to Climb That Again - Assiniboine's North Ridge

Past Failure on Assiniboine

Roughly a year ago, I found myself sitting on a mountain with Nate and Conor. We were cold, wet and looking out into a soupy sea of clouds and sideways rain. We were on Assiniboine. We were at our high point, but it wasn't the top. An alpine start had rewarded us with smooth sailing for a whole damn hour before degenerating into it's ultimate soggy state. 

Well I don't know what we're going to do with this... Our high point on our first attempt.

Rather than push on, we retreated to the hut, bemoaned the incompetence of weather models which had promised blue sky and basically angry-napped before hiking out the next day.  

So it is with climbing tall things in the Canadian Rockies - regardless of what the forecast says, the weather may just ruin your plans. Builds character or something.

We planned an attempt for another weekend last year but the forecast that time was bad enough we bailed the day before. I'm not sure if it counts as an attempt if you don't even get out of bed.

Assiniboine Round 2

Getting to Assiniboine Lodge

After getting skunked last year, we immediately decided we were going to go for a round two, so nearly a year in advance we called up the Assiniboine Lodge who manage reservations for the Hind Hut and booked a long weekend. After our weather issues we decided to give ourselves contingency and have two potential summit days so we could absorb a weather day without the whole thing being a bust.

The whole thing then sat on the back burner until all of a sudden our hut reservation was only a few days out. And this time the park was closed because most of Assiniboine Provincial Park was currently on fire. Shit. How do you even plan for that?

Just a couple of days before our attempt the park re-opened, but Conor had made other plans and had to bail leaving Nate and I to call the Lodge to book some spots on the heli.

So here's the deal with accessing Assiniboine. You have three options: 

  • Hike in 11km from the BC side (involves a bunch of logging road driving and then some glacier travel) - apparently takes about 6-8 hours
  • Hike 27km from the Mt. Shark trail head to the Assiniboine Lodge. From there, hike around Magog Lake and then up through the Gmoser ledges to the hut (taking an additional 3-4 hours from the lodge)
  • Fly to the Lodge for a pretty reasonable $175 and then just do the 3-4 hours up the Gmoser Ledges to the hut

Both times I've gone up to the hut I've taken the Heli to the lodge and I'm never doing it again. Even though it isn't super expensive, having spoken with people who have hiked in from the BC side the added hiking time is minimal and if you factor in the amount of time spent dicking around in the Mt. Shark parking lot waiting for your heli ride, it's probably overall faster to just hike in from the BC side. 

Anyway, Nate and I cheated and just jumped the Heli into the lodge. 

Climbers come last. Nate and I share a heli with the lodge's laundry

The Gmoser Highway

From the Lodge you quickly skirt around the North Side of the Lake and then traverse up the scree slopes and gain the Gmoser Ledges via a gully.

Magog Lake sitting below Assiniboine and the Gmoser Highway (the ledges on the right)

The Ledges themselves are an hour or two of consistently fourth class scrambling and some tricky route finding. People have gone the wrong way enough that there's wrong turns that look suspiciously like the trail.

Climbing up scree from the lake to access the Gmoser Highway

My advice, if you head up that way, is that if you ever find yourself in a spot where you're feeling like things are starting to feel a little more burly than seems entirely reasonable, look back the way you came and above you - you'll probably spot a cairn indicating a less than obvious ramp you missed.

Nate on the Gmoser Highway - a scramble with sustained, serious exposure

The Gmoser Highway ends with a steep rock corner (or nearby snow ramp depending on conditions/what you prefer) that gives you access to a large moraine. It's a 'so close yet so far' sort of situation as you get to slog up the moraine for over half an hour from the top of the ledges before you get to the hut.

Don't slip. The Gmoser Highway is not trivial.

Pro tip - take a lower bunk, if the hut gets full, it gets super on the top bunks.

Anyway, we stumbled through the door, dropped our packs and discovered a fellow ACCer - Rick - was already up there. Rick's partners having come in via the BC side, he was going to do a solo attempt on the mountain, but we talked him into tagging along with us instead.

The Climb

Our route up Assiniboine was the North Ridge which is the standard route. 

We got up at 4 and while Nate made breakfast, I was useless and went outside to take some photos.

Nate's making breakfast and I'm taking photos.

At 5, we hefted packs, fired up the headlamps and started slogging across the moraine. 

Alpine start on Assiniboine

The beginning of the route is a straightforward slog up a moraine until you hit a cliff band. You then climb a broad chimney to gain the slabby slopes above. From there you just grind up the slab until you reach the Red Band - the first technical hurdle.

By the time true dawn hit, we were making progress up the slabby lower slopes of Assiniboine

The Red Band is the point where some parties will rope up - especially if conditions aren't great. It's a band of higher quality rock by the standards of the route that's also pretty legitimate low fifth climbing. By picking the right line through it, you can minimize the difficulty, but it's generally still going to be at least a few moves of fifth class.

Nate navigates the Red Band as Rick watches from above.

We ended up just free soloing through as the line we were climbing was mellow enough, and the rock solid enough that we didn't think it warranted pulling out the rope.

Above the Red Band is where the climbing gets fun. It's super fun ridge climbing with incredible exposure on either side. It's mostly 4th class, but some parties either pitch it out or rope up and simulclimb. 

Enjoying the views from a flat spot on Assiniboine's North Ridge - this is about as beautiful as this planet gets

On one side you have Strom, the Hut and the moraine, to the other and incredible drop to glaciers and lakes below. Amazing.

Nate and I climbing up the incredibly aesthetic North Ridge of Assiniboine - photo: Rick Thiessen

Nate and I climbing up the incredibly aesthetic North Ridge of Assiniboine - photo: Rick Thiessen

The second technical difficulty of the day is the Grey Band - a second band of higher quality rock that takes you through steeper terrain and another feature many parties will rope up for.

Nate makes some delicate moves on the Grey Band

Once again we elected to not rope up. The rock quality was good (by Assiniboine Standards) and the climbing easy enough that we just didn't feel the rope was warranted.

The Grey Band more or less delivers you on top. You really just have one last step of ridge climbing and a mellow ridge walk to get from the sub-peak to the true peak.

It's a little thin in spots, but the final walk to the summit is pretty easy.

On the top, Rick busted out an airline bottle of scotch which we shared before high fiving, taking photos and starting to contemplate the descent.

Summit selfie!!!

From the top, we beat a retreat. You retrace your footsteps using a few conveniently located rap stations along the way. In terms of bolted stations, there's one above the Grey Band, two within the Grey Band itself (you can actual rap from station to station if you have a 70m rope, anything shorter and you'll have to walk to the second station) and then one through the Red Band. 

The station within the Red Band is right on the ridge line by the way in case you can't find it - it's climber's left of the climbing line by about 30m.

There's also a few other scattered stations consisting of pitons or slung features and we made use of a couple to bypass some of the worst down climbing.

Anyway, down climbing sucks. The whole ascent took us about four and a half hours. The descent took, well, let's call it 'a while'. If down climbing isn't your strong suit, you're going to be glad for the alpine start. Most of the descent can't be easily protected so we really took our time. You're down climbing what feelings like an unending pile of choss so every move feels tenuous and sketchy - continuously kicking footholds to see how badly the move, wondering if they can support your weight.

At one point, we deviated off the ridge and onto the face to try and avoid what had been a trickier slab move on the way up and paid the price for exploring. We ended up down climbing about 10-20m of 5.3 crumbly choss and slab strewn with kitty litter. This is normally easy climbing, but with no rope and wearing mountaineering boots and gloves due to the cold rock, all while looking at the seemingly unending exposure below us made for slow, deliberate moves.

Hurray for down climbing! This is far from the worst of it. In fact this is some of the easier stuff.

Eventually, we made it back to the hut. A little tired, but pretty damn stoked to have both gotten up, and down, Assiniboine. 

Highest peak in the Southern Rockies, done. It was gorgeous and an awesome day, but I'm really, really stoked I don't have to go back up it any time soon.

The Escape

Hiking out under another perfect blue sky

The next morning we beat a retreat back through the Gmoser Highway and down to the lodge. Our original plan was to drop our heavy bags to be flown out and actually trail run out the 27km with minimal gear as we did last year, but feeling pooped, we decided to cheat again and grabbed seats on the last heli out.

Me: How's your day going? Pilot: Up and down....

It might have taken two years to get the right weather. but we got our window and we safely tagged the summit. I'm pretty stoked I won't have to climb the chossy mess that is the North Ridge again. Or at least until the next time.

Grumpy, cantankerous, wildly opinionated and so much more! Getting really tired on skis is what makes me happy.