On a early (0430) August 6 2005 morning, I joined Dave Stephens and Blair Piggot on a full day trip to scramble Mount Smuts and The Fist in Kananaskis Country. Blair and Dave do a lot of mountaineering and climbing trips together and every once in a while Dave manages to sucker Blair into a scramble.
Dave and I were turned back from summitting Smuts on July 23rd when a strong wind and impending storm forced us to rappel back down the ridge after making it about 1/4 way up the 'tough stuff'. There was a reason why Dave and I really wanted to make the summit of Smuts and that was to place the memorial cairn for Van Belliveau who who tragically fell to his death from the summit of Smuts a few weeks earlier.
[On our first attempt a week previous, we were turned back by clouds / rain about 1/4 way up the tough stuff.]
Mount Smuts has always made me more than a little nervous. The way Kane describes this mountain it's a 'climbers scramble' and 'exhilarating'. I love the whole 'exhilarating' thing but the climbing thing always made me a bit nervous. Lately some people have been posting reports about scrambling Smuts and reading them didn't help my apprehension any! I knew after our unsuccessful attempt that the ridge wasn't as bad as I had made it out to be in my head. I also knew that the super-exposed section of the ridge wasn't nearly as long as I had originally thought.
Saturday morning was a clear and windless one and as we biked from the trailhead we were in good spirits. After ditching the bikes almost 3km in we realized that we could have biked a bit further (to the first falls) but oh well! We quickly made our way along the trail to Smuts Pass and just before the climb to the pass we met up with Bill Kerr and Gary Vandergrift. After quick introductions we continued on and following Blair's blistering pace we were on top of the pass only just over an hour from the parking lot! Blair apparently doesn't believe in the need to stop and catch your breath - he just motored all the way up to the pass with 1.5 stops.
[Looking down the approach valley from the Smuts / Birdwood col]
We stopped for a quick snack and drink and then pressed on up the scree slope to the ribs that lead up to the ridge. Right away Dave and I knew that this would be a much better day than two weeks ago. The rock was dry and we could stay to the right of the gully on the slabs which made for quick and fun scrambling. (In other words if you are attempting Smuts and you can't climb the ribs along the climbers right of the gully don't even bother continuing!) Once again, Blair kicked our butts up the mountain and eventually Dave and I joined him on the ridge. My strategy was clear in my head. I already knew the route to the second rap station and from there I was going to go straight up. When I got to the crack that forced the Nugara brothers to go further left I was going to go right. (Kane's route picture shows the route always going to the right.)
[Starting up the scree to the main access gully on Smuts from the pass]
[Dave follows up the slabby access gully that must be followed a good way up beside the ridge before crossing over onto the ridge proper and ascending it directly.]
[Vern and Blair in the gully (pic by Dave S.)]
[The tough section from the lower ridge. A lot of folks go straight up the crack here, but if you work your way climber's right the cracks / gullies are easier.]
[I took off on the other two guys - this is me back on the ridge after detouring right and ascending the right hand gully / crack visible here.]
Without waiting any longer I started up. The rock was dry, the sun was warm on my face and the breeze was light. I never stopped until I recognized the spot where I was planning to go off to the right. There are actually two cracks here. To get to the right-hand one you have to carefully work your way down a sloping ledge and than climb up the crack. This crack was steep and obviously exposed but I found the rock to be solid and in no time at all I was at the crux - an east-sloping slab that required some friction climbing to navigate up. After this bit of exhilaration I let out a whoop of relief and quickly scrambled up the rest of the nasty stuff till I knew I was onto easier terrain. I apparently went up the ridge very fast. Dave and Blair were nowhere to be seen and they told me later that other than the occasional whoop of excitement from above them they never really saw me till we met on the final summit ridge! I waited for a bit till I could spot Dave and Blair negotiating the tricky slab. I took some pretty cool pictures of the event and soon they caught up with me. Blair told me that since I was in some sort of groove I better keep going to the summit so I quickly took off and was soon standing on top of the infamous Mount Smuts about 2.5 hours after leaving the parking lot.
[Looking up the ridge - it's loose but not too bad. Certainly a lot easier than Sir Douglas! ;)]
[Looking down the very steep west face of Smuts from a nice perch on the ridge - I'm already done the hard sections.]
[Dave looks up a slabby section on the ridge below me.]
[A nice friction move!]
[Looking up the summit ridge and west face from on top of the difficult section.]
[An imposing Mount Birdwood rises behind Dave and Blair as they make their way up the ridge to the summit of Smuts.]
[A gorgeous view of the Royal Group behind Dave and Blair. Mount King George is the tallest member of that group at 11,228 feet.]
[Great views of Birdwood (foreground) with Sir Douglas rising to 11,174 feet in the distance beyond.]
[Dave and Blair get close to the summit. The three mountains directly across at center are Leval, Vavasour and Warre with Whiteman in the background. ++]
Dave and Blair joined me at the summit and we proceeded to build Van's memorial cairn. Once I saw the summit area it became obvious where Van had slipped down the west face. There is an area behind the summit cairn that has a short, very steep scree slope which ends in the 400 meter cliff down the west face - any slip in this area would be fatal. After saying a few words for Van we placed his memorial in the cairn and were ready to start down.
[The mighty Mount Assiniboine shows up over Morrison and Turner. Mount Shark at lower right. ++]
[A glass-smooth Spray Lakes with Mount Shark (L) and Tent Ridge (R) in the foreground and Fortune and Nestor beyond. ++]
[Dave, Vern and Blair at the summit of Smuts]
[Van Belliveau's memorial register with Assiniboine in the bg.]
[Van Belliveau is the first scrambler I've known personally who has died following his passion. A reminder that this sport can be deadly.]
[Mount Assiniboine is impressive and at 11,871 feet it's obvious why it's so visible from almost every summit within 100km!]
[Van's last words before falling 600m to his death off the summit of Mount Smuts. :(]
[Our second summit for the day will be The Fist - pretty small compared to Smuts!]
[Scramblers prepare to ascend The Fist from the Fist / Smuts col. I wonder if they know they're on camera!]
[One more shot of Birdwood (L) and Sir Douglas (R). Sir Douglas is another mountain with a bad reputation that I didn't find too bad when I finally climbed it's west ridge in 2015. The same trick applies to it's ridge as Smuts - avoid it when possible! ;)]
[Another panorama over Tent Ridge with Fortune, Nestor, Spray Lakes, Engadine, The Tower and many others visible. ++]
[Galatea, Chester, Kent Ridge and other peaks between Spray Lakes Road and Hwy 40 show up in the summer haze.]
The alternate descent is not easy!! After the ridge we were kind of expecting the descent to be a trivial matter but of course it isn't or everyone would simply scramble up to the summit this way! It was a very loose, very steep gully that (in Blair's words) cause some puckering every once in a while! ;-) Eventually we made it out and after traversing slabby terrain we were on the easy slopes curving back to Smuts Pass.
[Vern leads down from the summit ridge (photo by Dave S.)]
[Do not be lured into thinking the descent will be easy! This is the easy part on the upper ridge before the loose gully down the west face.]
[Dave follows me down the gully]
[The gully is very loose (photo by Dave S.)]
[Looking down the gully, which ends in a cliff! (You traverse left out of the gully before this point)]
[Vern having fun on descent! (Photo by Dave S.)]
[You do *not* want to miss the ledge traverse out of the gully or you'll end up in bad terrain.]
[Dave does a delicate scramble move while Blair is just clear of the hard stuff.]
[Steep, loose scree to exit the west face of Smuts]
[Birdwood and Sir Douglas with Birdwood Pond in the foreground and Snow Peak on the right.]
[Dave looks pretty small exiting under the massive west face of Smuts the prominent descent notch / gully clearly visible above him to the left.]
[The Birdwood tarns are a gorgeous place to lollygag a warm summer afternoon away. Alas. We are peak baggers and don't lollygag enough... ;)]
[Smutwood Peak on the upper left]
[Contouring around the east face of Smuts, we head for the Smuts / Fist col en route to the first double-peak day of Smuts and the Fist that I've heard of people doing.]
Since we hadn't had enough difficult scrambling for the day (!!) we decided that it was time to bag The Fist while we were in the area anyway...