Free Drop Off to the Bow Valley and Calgary
Mt. Sir Douglas, NW Face Direct Ski Descent
Brought to you by Canmore's premier small mountain skier Kieran Crimeen
I've been wanting to climb this route since I got to Canada and started flipping through a friend’s copy of the Book of Lies. It’s an enticing maze directly up the face of Sir Douglas, one of the few 11’000ers in Kananaskis. Unfortunately at that point I was an ice climber and that would likely mean an overnighter and swinging tools and catching shards in the face which is really just silly. There had to be a better way.
Enter skiing. The big winter we had seemed like enough to cover any nasty ice so I joked to Matt on Saturday evening while heading to Calgary that it would be nice. The response that he reckoned it was a ‘good thought’ seemed enough to commit to ‘having a look’ which turned into ‘making plans’. With a bunch of weather models saying some different things it seemed worthy to pin our hopes on just one of them and commit to slogging out there to take a look.
I got home at 10pm that night and hurriedly packed, leaving all my gear by the door. A sleepless night and a morning rush had us meeting at the Casino parking lot at 4am. The plan was to drive the 40 to avoid the Destroyer of Cars aka Smith Dorrian Trail. Predictably some fool had forgotten his helmet so we had to backtrack to my place to pick it up. We ended up leaving the trailhead at Burstall after 5, motoring up the approach blasting Huey Lewis and the News to drowsy bears, arriving at the base of the north glacier in 4hrs.
Looking at the face proper we had time to plot the route and identify any overhead hazards. There weren’t any cornices guarding the top, it was a non solar aspect and no signs of slough or recent instability. “Well, I guess we have to ski it” Matt abjectly stated.
At this point the caffeine high had worn off and I crashed. We took another two hours to go a paltry 2km and 500m. What happened to the skimo speed? This would become the theme of the day. Note to self: it’s hard to do things if you’re tired.
The glacier had a couple of sags but seemed fairly benign barring a few little seracs. A frigid wind numbed our hands but inspired confidence; only one model was matching what we were experiencing and it was the favourable one. After gaining the ramp we did some recon as it seemed it was discontinuous. I attempted to climb up and over in an attempt to rejoin the route higher up but punched in some facets along the rock face and fortuitously discovered some fixed pro. It seems that the route requires a small 5m rap down to go up. Wallowing in facets at the base of the rap (where I think the Lavigne/Slawinski Double Direct joins the face?) I suggested we leave the rope for ascension later. Matt was carrying 20m of rap cord which was adequate for any retreat or ski belay.
Once on the face proper the booting consisted of a number of repeatable sequences. There was a diagonal left traverse, some cautious poking along a vertical roll for some predictable but stubborn windslab, half boot front pointing on thinly covered gravel up a chute, and then back to the traverse. Wash, rinse, repeat. We proceeded upwards slowly. I was hoping Matt would volunteer to charge up the whole thing like he usually does but we were both feeling pretty dead so we sluggishly swapped leads. The last 30m seemed like an eternity. We hit ridgetop around 8hrs after leaving the car and basked in the first sunlight of the day. After some panting, eating and attempting to alert my SO that I’d be home late I clicked in and skied off the mushroom to the entry of the line, a short rock section above the entire face.
If anyone’s seen Downside Up they’ll know what dry skiing is. Sometimes I get stoked and think I’m half as good as Vivian Bruchez but this time I was reminded that the Rockies are not known for rock quality, even in winter. With little faith in my edges I grudgingly took the skis off, scrambled down a few meters and clicked in again. Now it was on.
I was forced to sideslip the first few meters due to shallow snow then got stuck into it, swapping leads and making sure to give the little vertical rolls a good ski cut before committing to the traverse and chute sections below. The angle wasn’t anything too extreme, averaging around 45 degrees with some 50ish in the chute sections. The exposure, however, was oh so real. Due to the traversing nature of the line we spent almost all our time looking down disappearing rolls.
The snow was creamy where it wasn’t thin and thin where it was. Some turns would bottom out on gravel and there were sharks aplenty. Where the snow was deeper we were able to ski with a little more vigour.
Arriving at the rope I got set up to ascend. Some frustration with my ski carry, mounting stress and fear that KPS was coming to get us had me throwing a little tantrum. Eventually I composed myself and prussiked up the rope, assisting Matt on a top belay to follow. All that was left as some creamy powder down the glacier, attempting to powder 8 Matt’s tracks.
Following an episode of childish glee, giggling at our tracks we turned towards home, a short slope to ascend and a 15km double pole/freeheel grind back to the car with the final stretch on the endless Burstall Pass Trail.
I’m so amped to have skied this line. We got lucky with the timing, getting it the day after a small snowfall to cover most of the rocks but before the wind had time to get its teeth in. Given the depth in sections I suspect any later in spring would force a skier to do a little too much sidestepping and scrappy screebashing, much earlier would have been entirely on the unsettling K-country snowpack. We think it’s a first but with the high concentration of badasses around here and the prominence and accessibility of the line who knows.
Some rough stats for those interested (my watch died on the way back):
- Approx 30km return
- 2100ish m elevation gain
- 13hrs (12.5 for Matt because I don’t have triceps)
- 6 gels consumed
- 2 core shot gained (skis became lighter :D)
- 33:32 mins of siiick footy recorded 4 the boyz
- 1 man hug shared