Distance: 21 km
Elevation gain: 2100 m View map Download GPS track
Sandra and I have hiked up the majority of peaks in Waterton National Park and today we had our sights set on Mount Blakiston, the highest peak in the park. Our goal was to complete the “Hawkins Horseshoe”, a loop that involves ascending Mounts Blakiston, Hawkins, and Lineham in one big horseshoe-shaped circuit beginning at the Lineham Falls trailhead and ending at the Rowe Lakes trailhead. It is described in Alan Kane’s scrambling guide and in dozens of reports online as being an easy scramble with a moderate couloir just below the summit of Mount Blakiston.
When I first looked into the ascent I decided it wasn’t possible for Sandra and I, but recently started to believe that it wouldn’t be all that bad, especially since we wouldn’t be descending the crux on Blakiston. It reached the point where the only way to find out was to go scramble up the darn mountain and see for ourselves, so we made it a goal for this trip to Waterton.
As this would be an exceptionally long day involving 2100 m of elevation gain, we woke up at 5:00 am and were on the trail by 6:30. Things didn’t start well, however, as my touchy stomach decided to act up, but with little interest in turning around after such an early wake up we continued. In retrospect this may have been an omen of sorts warning us to quit while we were ahead, for over the next few hours the literal shit was transformed into shit of the metaphorical kind.
After an hour of slow hiking on the Lineham Falls trail we reached the ascent avalanche path. The view of the upper ascent looked quite intimidating from below, but everything always does, so we started up the obvious trail to the right of the drainage. While on the trail the going was relatively easy, but as dirt and shrubbery transitioned to scree, rubble, and bedrock the trail largely disappeared and things became more tedious. Surprisingly, there weren’t even cairns to guide us, an unusual thing on a Kane scramble. We trended to the right as we ascended, supposedly onto easier terrain, and slowly gained elevation.
It didn’t take very long for both of us to start hating everything about the ascent. The rubble was insanely loose and short bands of bedrock covered in marbly scree made it even trickier. Complicating matters were a series of larger cliff bands that had to be scrambled up – moderate scrambling for sure – and with each bit of scrambling my concern with continuing increased.
Taken alone, each problem with the ascent was an inconvenience, but taken together they were quickly adding up to something we’d have a lot of trouble descending. It’s the classic psychology phenomenon of “in for a nickel, in for a dime”; I just didn’t know when to quit and each successive step further ensnared me. Physically we were both fine, but I was being slowly mentally exhausted by the constant micro-routefinding, tediousness of the ascent, and worrying about Sandra, who I knew must have been having a worse time than I was.
After a couple hours of this we reached a grey rock band. A few minor trails converged at a break in the band, but it was clearly a moderate scrambling move to get up and neither of us were interested in determining whether we could do it without falling and getting seriously injured. My thoughts were such a mess by this time that I felt both relief that we’d finally have to quit and great anxiety that we’d have to retrace our terrible route back down. The anxiety was greater, however, so we decided to traverse along the cliff band and look for an easier way up. I knew there was one further to our left that others had used, but it looked pretty awful from afar, but about halfway to it I saw the coolest little window heading through the band. By taking our packs off we were able to squeeze through and thus continued heading up.
For most of the ascent I’d been telling myself that it would get better higher up and short sections of tolerable scree frequently reinforced this belief, but the closer we got to the summit cliffs the more horrid travel became. I haven’t been on such terrible scree and rubble in a long time, if ever!
Finally, nearly four hours after setting out, we arrived at the base of the couloir leading through the summit cliffs. We were both anxious as we’d put ourselves in a position where a retreat would be very difficult and I was frustrated by the irresponsibility of having continued when we should have quit. Heading up the couloir would be entirely committing as there was absolutely no way we’d be getting back down, but with the allure of a much easier descent via the Lineham Ridge trail we (stupidly, again) decided to go for it. I know many others find these sections “fun” and easy, but this was definitely the worst scramble I’ve ever done and it was far beyond both our comfort zones. It’s not that we can’t do it, it’s that we hate doing it, and for good reason too – a slip or just bad luck could’ve killed us.
Evidently we survived the couloir and we soon found ourselves standing on the summit of Mount Blakiston. The views were, of course, fantastic – we don’t often find ourselves on the highest peak in the immediate vicinity – but our enjoyment was tempered by what we’d done to get there. It’s not something we’ll ever repeat (but thankfully there are hundreds of peaks out there where we don’t need to do crap like this!).
After the first of three lunches we set out along the broad ridge leading to Mount Hawkins. This was initially very easy, but below a minor subpeak of Mount Hawkins we encountered nasty quartzite rubble. It wasn’t technically difficult to get through, but the micro-routefinding involved slowed our progress again and taxed my already tired brain even more. Things improved dramatically after this, and while the ascent of Mount Hawkins was again over rubble, it was much tamer than the previous piles of crap and didn’t present a problem at all.
The one thing that was going our way today was the weather, and we ate our second lunch of the day on the summit of Mount Hawkins under sunny skies, perfect temperatures, and light winds. The wind picked up a bit as we crested the ridge to the west of Mount Hawkins – the northern end of Lineham Ridge, I suppose – but it never reached problematic levels.
The entire day we’d been treated to wonderful views of the Lineham Lakes, nestled in the isolated and nearly inaccessible basin below the Hawkins Horseshoe. Just before we connected up with the official Lineham Ridge trail I stopped to take yet more photos of this magical place and was amazed to see two bears wrestling on the snow in the basin! I’m not sure if it was a real or play fight, but it was certainly wild. Many times the two would grab each other and tumble down the slope, rear up on their hind legs and claw and bite, and chase when one tried to flee. That’s probably something I’ll never see again!
Now that we were on official trail our anxiety mostly disappeared and we decided to continue to the summit of Mount Lineham, a goal I hadn’t allowed myself to consider until I was sure we were safe (and now, being on official trail, we were as safe as possible), and after our third lunch of the day we started the final push. The ascent was about as simple as it could be, with an obvious trail over easy terrain leading to the summit, and before long we were standing on our third summit of the day.
We rested for as long as we dared, took some more photos – Rowe and Cameron Lakes to the south were particularly stunning – and then faced our final decision of the day: Do we head down the avalanche slope heading directly to the Rowe Lakes trail, described as an easy scramble in Kane’s guide, or do we head back the way we’d come up and follow the official trail out? The latter (and safer) option would take at least an hour longer, and as I was “sure” I could find my way down an easy scramble route we decided to head directly down the avalanche slope.
Thankfully the descent turned out to be quick and mostly easy, with the exception of dense bushwhack at the bottom, and we arrived on the Rowe Lakes trail an hour after leaving the summit. An hour later we reached the Akamina Parkway – a time that could’ve been much quicker had my stomach cooperated – and after leaving my pack with Sandra at the trailhead I made my way swiftly back to the truck, 1.3 km away at the Lineham Falls trailhead. I’m rarely excited to see the truck at the end of a hike, but today was it ever a welcome sight!
This was a very interesting day with a few lessons for me. On the positive side, I learned that I am capable of more than 2000 m of elevation gain in a day, a benchmark I’ve never before reached and one that I’m confident I can repeat. However, it also revealed just how terrible I am at calling it quits, and similarly, how prone I am to “escalation of commitment” (the in-for-a-penny phenomenon). My stubbornness and inability to quit has served me well in most other aspects of life, but none of those scenarios could’ve killed me like a fall below the summit of Mount Blakiston today!