Phil Richards and I decided that Commonwealth Ridge would make a nice first summit of 2016 - and we were right. We started in beautiful pre-dawn light from the Smuts Pass parking area along the Spray Lakes Road in cold temperatures of around -23 degrees. The cold was a bit of a bummer as we were expecting warmer temps - but we warmed up soon enough as we shoed towards the ridge on a highway of ski and snowshoe tracks.
[Jeez, I can't get a break on these cold temperature, early morning starts along the Spray Lakes road!]
Initially we were following So Nakagawa's GPS track, but soon we started questioning this decision and turned back to find a more direct trail up the ridge. Thankfully we found another highway track going in the right direction which I'm sure saved us hours of deep sugar-snow trail breaking which is as much fun as it sounds - i.e. not much!
[Commonwealth Ridge from the parking area is the second peak from the left. We ascended a good track up from lower right. Commonwealth, Birdwood and Pig's Back also visible.]
After doing two other, fairly straight forward snowshoe trips in the region recently (Rummel Ridge, Little Galatea), I was concerned that I might be bored doing yet another peak in the same area. I shouldn't have worried about that, as Commonwealth Ridge is quite different in both views and approach to the other two. The lower trail to the upper shoulder was very well packed and very quick to ascend. The nice thing about Commonwealth, is that unlike Little Galatea, there is virtually no boring trudge along a treed ridge, after crossing Smut's Creek it's all uphill to the summit. The only traverse is a spectacular ridge traverse with great views - the best kind of traverse.
[Gorgeous morning lighting as we cross Smut's Creek.]
[Initially we followed tracks (and So's GPS track) down this road, but soon realized this wasn't the right way and turned up to our right along old ski tracks before finding the highway up the ridge to the shoulder.]
[It was bloody cold, but also bloody gorgeous on this particular morning.]
[Following old ski tracks through Christmas trees back to the main trail on the ridge.]
[Pretty impressive surface hoar at lower elevations - this has been a theme for almost a month now.]
[The trail up the treed lower ridge was in fantastic shape and even had some really nice switchbacks built up.]
[Breaking tree line, looking east off the ridge towards Little Galatea and of course, Galatea.]
Once we broke tree line and made the lower shoulder, the terrain steepened and became more scramble-like and we were only following one set of tracks. After ascending a bit of ridge on the 'shoes, we ditched them and donned crampons for the rest of the route. I've heard of many folks turning around due to the upper ridge conditions and wishing they had ax / crampons, so we came prepared. This was also Phil's second attempt so he was determined to make it this time. The ridge to the north summit was great fun with amazing views in all directions. I was happy for the crampons and there was a minor cornice issue to watch out for. I'm sure this would be a bit too exposed for some folks, but for scrambler's it shouldn't be an issue.
[Breaking tree line to the lower shoulder.]
[Great morning views looking east off the shoulder. The avalanche slopes ahead make for very nice skiing in stable conditions. ++]
[Phil starts up the ridge from the shoulder.]
[The avalanche chutes are gorgeous ski terrain in stable conditions!]
[The false summit rises above, the true summit out of sight behind the rock pinnacle right of center. We traded the shoes for crampons at this spot.]
[Looking west over Pig's Back towards Smuts and The Fist from the ridge to the north summit. Commonwealth and Birdwood on the left. ++]
[Phil heads up the north summit of Commonwealth Ridge. ++]
[The terrain on the ridge is not entirely straightforward in winter - for folks who aren't used to this sort of thing.]
[Views west and north off the north summit of Commonwealth Ridge, looking back along the ascent ridge. ++]
[Fantastic view east and south towards the true summit, which is obviously blocked by a huge rock prominence. ++]
[Phil comes up to the north summit along the ridge, Spray Lakes in the distant background. ++]
The terrain from the north to the south (true) summit looked much more involved, and it was. There were no more tracks to follow here either! Thanks to a few other trip reports from So and Marko, we knew that the best course of action was to descend climber's right and contour around a prominent rock pinnacle blocking the direct route between the two summits. Marko and So both describe this contour as fairly easy and compared to the direct route it is. I have to say that with the unconsolidated, nearly waist-deep snow conditions that we had, it didn't feel that easy though! Many folks (wisely) turn back rather than risk these avalanche slopes and you must be able to assess conditions before safely traversing them when they are loaded with snow. The exposure to the west towards the Pig's Back is tremendous, and getting caught in a slide here would very probably be the last ride of your life. We stuck close to the rock face, trying to stay on top of any dangerous slopes, but this meant steep and slick terrain with very loose rocks underneath.
[Looking back along the traverse around the rock pinnacle on the ridge to the true summit. We are off the trickiest terrain now. I got into some steep, loose terrain to the right of Phil here and recommended he not follow me! The slopes are steep and avalanche regularly so great care is needed when doing this traverse. ++]
[Looking up at the pinnacle while climbing back up beside it - obviously going over it, is NOT scrambling terrain.]
Eventually we worked our way past the pinnacle and scrambled up to the summit to enjoy glorious views of many familiar and spectacular peaks. After enjoying a cup of warmth at the summit, we turned back and retraced our steps along the ridge - enjoying the views immensely. It helped that the temperatures on the ridge were much warmer than in the valley - and just like on Little Galatea a few weeks previous, there was no wind up high either.
[Mind blowing views off the summit of Commonwealth Ridge! This is looking south towards Commonwealth Peak on the right and over Burstall Lakes at Burstall Peak, CEGFNS, Murray, French, Robertson, Sir Douglas left to right. ++]
[Looking over the Burstall Flats at the Robertson Glacier and the long ridge of Whistling Rock Peak.]
[Looking back along the ridge to the lower north summit towards Nestor, Engadine, The Tower, Galatea, Chester, James Walker, Kent and Inflexible across the Spray Lakes road. ++]
[Looking west and north over Pig's Back at Smuts and The Fist. ++]
[Phil enjoys the spectacular views.]
[One more view of the Roberston Glacier and Haig Icefield peaks. ++]
[Carefully heading back around the rock pinnacle.]
[Vern descends steep terrain around the rock pinnacle (photo by Phil R.)]
[Looking up at the re-gain to the ridge. As you can see, the terrain is very steep and loose.]
[The amazing upper ridge on Commonwealth Ridge. ++]
[Looking back at the rock pinnacle which we circumvented to the right.]
[Phil stands on the north summit.]
[Pano of the popular peaks across the Spray Lakes road including Engadine, Tower, Galatea, Little Galatea, Gusty, Fortress and Chester (L to R). ++]
[Phil descends the ridge]
[More great ridge views on descent. ++]
[Looking down the east face.]
[The Commonwealth / Pig's Back col has some skiers cresting it. Birdwood looms above them.]
I highly recommend Commonwealth Ridge as either a snowshoe or ski objective. On hindsight, I could have skied up the ascent route and cramponed to the summit from the shoulder on ski boots before skiing down a fantastic run on the east face of Commonwealth Ridge. There were tracks indicating that this is done when conditions are stable.