Mount Galwey is a 2,348-meter (7,703-foot) peak in Waterton National Park of southern Alberta. It is a sharp tower of buff-coloured shale rising above barren hills of bright red rock. The summit appears impossible to achieve without technical gear, but there is actually a weakness on the mountain’s western flank that provides an exciting 3rd-class scramble. Situated on the eastern front of the Rocky Mountains where the mountains meet the prairies, the summit provides an exceptional perspective on the small but scenic national park.
TUESDAY SEPTEMBER 16th, 2014
It’s a glistening alpine morning. The mountains are half-covered in snow from a series of recent late-summer storms. From our campsite on the shores of Waterton Lake, Giselle and I see that the south faces of most mountains appear mostly dry. We decide to try to climb the south face of Mount Galwey, to the summit and back in the span of the day. Packing up the tent, we drive a short distance up Red Rock Parkway and park at the Coppermine Creek picnic area, located at an elevation of 1,388-meters on the south side of Mount Galwey.
There is a straightforward route through the open grassland, made even more clear by the guidance of a bighorn sheep. For about 400 vertical meters, the animal leads us up each successive step on the red rock staircase. He is careful to keep his distance ahead of us, however.
There is a garden variety of geologic features, both structural and depositional, to keep our attention occupied. Giselle and I admire lacustrine (lakebed) features like mudcracks and symmetrical ripple marks on the shale layers. The brilliant red rock is of the widespread Apukenny Formation, giving the landscape a unique colour.
Our halfway point is the last of the redrock outcrops at 1,900-m where the route continues up the frighteningly steep scree of Mount Galwey’s dry southern flank. At the bottom of the slope we fill up on water from a small snowmelt creek. The climb is a brutal slog including a snowy scramble at the crest of the ridge. Mount Galwey’s intimidating south face looms directly above us.
Around the southwest shoulder of the mountain, in the shadow of the great pyramid, we traverse steep snowfields using sharp rocks and ice axes. We choose the most inviting gulley leading to the skyline. The mix of snow and 3rd-class rock is strange terrain for Giselle, but she adapts quickly.
Up on the southern ridge it’s airy and free. Stacks of flat-lying shale form precarious towers that Giselle and I navigate around. The psychological crux of the route is a precarious traverse of an exposed shale ledge above an abyssal drop. The rock is surprisingly sturdy, and we successfully manage this section without difficulty.
Below the summit we find a natural rock window providing a view thousands of feet down to the golden prairies below. The window is rectangular and large enough to fit our bodies lying down.
Our sights are on the summit, however. After a few minutes of searching I locate a chimney that appears to be climbable. With some interesting 3rd-class maneuvers we ascend the final 30-meters to the summit pyramid. From the top, we see all the high snowy peaks of Waterton to the west, and also the endless expanse of prairie to the east. Almost all of the summit-register entries make note of the strong wind, but we find it to be relatively calm.
We scramble carefully down off of the summit pyramid to the snowy western ledges. A surprising amount of snow has melted off in the span of two hours, making the traverses less daunting. We leap down the scree slope, drink from the meltwater stream, and continue jogging down the red ledges of the Apukenny Formaion. By the time we make it down to the car it’s been an 8-hour roundtrip.