Distance: 21 km
Elevation gain: 1450 m View map Download GPS track
The eastern edge of the Castle Wilderness, just to the north of Waterton National Park, is reputed to contain some of the best and most colorful scenery in all of the Rockies. In the heart of this region is Loaf Mountain, our primary destination today and the name given to the western highpoint of a long ridge composed largely of red argillite and flanked by two lush green valleys. It is also the highest mountain in the general area and thus would give us a good view of other nearby scrambles. There are several routes to its summit, but we chose the northern route described in Andrew Nugara's scrambling guide
. While this is not his preferred route it was shorter than the southern one, and as we planned to extend our day with an ascent of Spionkop Ridge, length was an important factor in our decision.
We relied heavily on the directions in the guidebook to find the trailhead, but the trail itself was obvious, being regularly used by ATV's. The only point of minor confusion was where to leave the trail and begin our ascent. Photos I'd examined beforehand showed what appeared to be an open and treeless slope, but as we approached from the east most of the slope seemed to be covered in thick krumholtz and not at all passable. We eventually settled on an ascent line near a drainage, leaving the trail to cross South Drywood Creek just upstream of a waterfall.
We had to remove our boots to cross the creek, but with the exception of Sandra dropping her water bottle in the creek and making me wander around in the cold water looking for it, the crossing was dead easy (the creek is only a few feet wide). Once across, however, we realized we'd been very, very lucky - in the stunted aspens on the bank where we crossed there were two moderate-sized hornet nests! I'd actually bumped up against both trees with the nests, but somehow had not disturbed either nest. So in the event that you literally follow in my footsteps later this summer, don't cross where I crossed!
After crossing the creek the initial ascent was a terrible bushwhack for a hundred meters or so. I can power through the thick stuff, but Sandra gets stuck easily and with the image of the hornet nests still fresh in our minds we took a fairly circuitous route to avoid the worst of the bush. As the slope steepened the bush disappeared, thankfully, and after 500 m of ascent the sparce vegetation that had made our ascent relatively easy transitioned to loose rubble. I'd hoped to encounter a trail at this point, and within mere meters came across a very good sheep trail heading towards the low point of the ridge. This made things wonderfully easy and within minutes we were standing on the ridge.
The ascent was both technically and physically easy from this point forward and the views were absolutely fantastic in every direction. We reached the summit an hour later and had lunch on a ledge sheltered from the wind just below the summit. Oddly there were two summit cairns, each containing a register. One is clearly the original (placed by Rick Collier) and well sealed, while another bulky one is soggy and had been placed in 2014.
After lunch we continued west along the Loaf Mountain ridge, planning to ascend the north face of Spionkop Ridge. The final scramble to its summit from this side is considered a moderate scramble by those who have done it (1
), but we figured it was worth a try anyway and the interceding 3 km of beautiful scenery and ridgewalking would certainly make the journey worthwhile even if we didn't summit. Shortly after setting out, however, the real crux of the day became apparent - the WIND! It had been strong all day, but was now gusting easily to 80 km/h and on several occasions we had to stop moving and simply brace ourselves against it.
The north face of Spionkop Ridge looked quite intimidating from below and Sandra sheltered behind a ridge while I went up. Thankfully the lay of the ridge kept most of the wind at bay as I ascended. The first 100 m was an easy scramble, but the final 50 m required some routefinding over loose and mildly exposed terrain and as each rocky ledge and scree pile looked identical I had to make a few cairns to ensure I'd be able to find my way down. While I wouldn't call it an easy scramble, it wasn't a very difficult moderate scramble either, at least with the route I took.
The wind made a traverse along the short and mildly exposed summit ridge impossible, but by detouring to the west I was able to follow a route where the wind would only blow me into the mountain, not off it. The views from the summit were perhaps the most beautiful I've ever seen, with lush green valleys and colorful red ridges stretching out in all directions and a few small glaciers on rockier mountains to the southwest.
The descent was easier than expected and after rejoining Sandra we started back towards Loaf Mountain, planning to detour around its west end and descend towards Bovin Lake (Blue Lake) before heading back to the truck via the trail along South Drywood Creek. The wind, however, had greatly intensified and travel along the ridge was nearly impossible by this point. In addition to being blown over several times and being viciously battered by our own clothes flapping in the wind, the wind was strong enough to make holding our hiking poles vertical very difficult; the torque on our wrists being too great at times. I've never experienced anything like it. While stuck bracing against the wind at one point it even blew a water bottle (empty) right out of my backpack pocket, hurtling it away and out of sight like a kite! Even breathing was difficult, and my nose actually hurt from flapping in the wind...and it's not a flappy nose either! So much for a nice, relaxing ridgewalk!
Finally we reached the col above Bovin Lake and were able to head down into the valley on good trail and get out of the wind. Everything went smoothly along this section, and after a short stop to help fix a broken dirt bike, we arrived back at our truck, happy and excited by the views we'd had yet moderately traumatized by the wind!