Mount Smuts is a 2,938-meter (9,639-foot) peak located in the Spray Range of the Canadian Rocky Mountains. It is a dramatic shark-tooth peak composed of near-vertical strata of the Palliser limestone formation. Situated directly on the Continental Divide (also the border of Alberta and British Columbia), Mount Smuts serves as a triple boundary point shared by Banff National Park, Kananaskis Country, and Peter Lougheed Provincial Park. The summit affords excellent views of the three major peaks in the region: Mount Sir Douglas, Mount Joffre and Mount Assiniboine.
The south ridge of Mount Smuts earns a YDS grade of 5.4 and is a highly coveted prize for any experienced mountaineer in the Kananaskis area. It is spoken of as being perhaps the most difficult route in Alan Kane’s Scrambles in the Canadian Rockies guidebook; in reality it pushes the upper limit of what can be considered ‘scrambling’. The majority of parties elect to use a rope for safety on the exposed upper pitches, but the high quality of rock makes it ideal for the confident climber to ascend in free solo fashion.
SUMMARY: I climbed Mount Smuts with Darren and Aaron in early August of the year 2015. We drove almost two hours from Calgary to the Commonwealth Creek trailhead along the scenic Spray Lakes corridor. A hike of some 7.2 kilometers brought us up and over Smuts Pass and into the idyllic Birdwood Basin. Setting camp on the north shore of Lower Birdwood Lake, we launched our afternoon ascent of Mount Smuts via the infamous class-5 (YDS 5.4) south ridge. From the summit we descended the class-3 north ridge, returning to our lakeside camp in the late afternoon. Before nightfall, Aaron and I scrambled to the top of Little Birdwood Peak, a small spur between Mount Smuts and Mount Birdwood, in order to gain views of both peaks. We slept the night on the windy north shore of Lower Birdwood Lake. The following morning, the three of us ascended Smutwood Peak and then returned to the trailhead via the same Commonwealth Creek trail.
11 AUGUST 2015
Darren and I leave home at 7:30am, driving to the western outskirts of Calgary in order to convene with Aaron. The three of us get comfortable in Darren’s car and follow the scenic highway-1A out to Canmore. We stop briefly in town to refuel with London Fog tea and head deeper into the heart of the Rocky Mountains by way of the Spray Lakes corridor. We follow the gravel road alongside the Spray Lakes reservoir system until reaching the Commonwealth Creek trailhead, a small clearing of dirt at 1,500-m in the dense boreal forest.
Once we’ve arranged our gear, it’s time to tackle the gentle 7.2-km ascent to Smuts Pass. The trail starts with two kilometers of southward walking on flat terrain, here and there crossing small creekbeds.
At the termination of these two kilometers, the trail turns sharply west and begins following Commonwealth Creek, meandering in and out of the forest while providing occasional views of the two gatekeepers of the valley: Mount Birdwood and Mount Smuts.
The trail remains quite flat until reaching the head of the Commonwealth Valley, at which point we must climb steeply up to 2,330-m at Smuts Pass. The trail here is poorly defined and badly eroded, resulting in slow travel. As we move higher up towards the pass, Mount Smuts (our objective for the day) comes to dominate the upper horizon. All visible faces of the great mountain appear to be steep walls of white limestone.
Glancing back over our shoulder, the imposing east face of Mount Birdwood looms over its snowfields and glacially-scoured cirque.
But the climb continues upward, leading us to high meadows with unobstructed views of Mount Smuts, a sight that becomes increasingly intimidating as we get closer.
At length we reach Smuts Pass (2,330-m), which is a broad plateau separating the Birdwood Basin from the Commonwealth Valley. From this perspective, Commonwealth Valley displays remarkable symmetry – ignoring The Fist, of course.
The Birdwood Basin is a veritable postcard of Canadian scenery, with the immense limestone cliffs of Smutwood Peak (2,690-m) towering above the emerald-hued Birdwood Lakes.
Looking up at Mount Smuts from Smuts Pass, it is possible to trace the majority of our route to the summit. It begins by scrambling up to the highest part of the scree slope, then ascends class-3 rock slabs in the gully up to the main notch. From the notch, climbers step right onto the south ridge and follow a series of class-4/class-5 chimneys to the airy summit.
The three of us drop our rucksacks at the top of Smuts Pass and initiate our ascent of Mount Smuts. Our first action is to traverse a huge scree slope to the base of the south ridge.
Reaching the base of the south ridge, we make the transition from unstable scree to solid rock. It’s not necessary to gain the crest of the ridge just yet; we climb the south couloir, sticking to the limestone slabs on the right side of the trough. The angle of the slabs gradually increases as we move higher, but the techniques never exceed class-4. We make extremely short work of this section, gaining over a thousand feet of vertical elevation in less than half an hour.
Near the top of the south couloir, the continuous limestone slabs give way to a smattering of broken ribs sticking out of a thin covering of talus. Keeping to these ribs ensures us the safest travel because the integrity of the rock greatly reduces the risk of avalanche.
Eventually we come to a place where it is necessary to leave the south couloir and traverse across to the main south ridge. We find a thin class-3 ledge that leads us up to a small platform on the ridge – the point at which most parties begin using ropes and harnesses. The three of us, however, elect to continue in “free solo” fashion, without any type of technical climbing gear.
The first of several crux sections presents itself immediately in the form of a steep headwall. We surmount this headwall by utilizing a shallow chimney, enabling us to keep the climbing at class-4 for now.
At the top of the headwall, we are forced to traverse a short distance across to the right using a blank slab. This section is largely considered the crux of the route due to its exposed, “blank” nature. However, this slab is easily crossed with one long, confident stride. Despite the definite potential for a thousand-foot plummet, we would hardly consider this a crux section.
The upcoming crux sections consist of several chimneys ranging from class-4 to low-class-5 in overall difficulty.
The first chimney is steep yet secure; climbers with experience in class-5 chimney technique should have no issues nor reasons to be nervous.
At the top of the first chimney, the ridge narrows and once again looks impossible to ascend. Darren leads us across a section of easy class-3 slabs to the bottom of a second chimney, which proves to be slightly easier than the first.
The second chimney terminates directly on the airy crest of the south ridge, and once again there appears to be no way to continue upward. A brief time spent probing around either side of the ridge leads us to the discovery of a ledge. Although several body-lengths in width, this ledge is wildly exposed, jutting precipitously out of the east side of the main crest.
The ledge connects us to yet another chimney – one that looks decidedly steeper than the previous others. Looking up at the skyline, it appears to be the final pitch before the summit ridge. Inside the chimney, the maneuvers are awkward due to the fact that the left wall is severely overhung. My helmet scrapes against the limestone roof as I muscle my way up the tricky gap. However, the quality of rock in this chimney is the finest that I have yet to encounter on scrambles in the Rockies, thus it makes for fun and exciting climbing.
Once we’ve navigated this final crux section, it’s time to make our way to the true summit. The topmost crest is simple to follow, but rather narrow.
Balancing along the crest, we revel in the far-reaching views of mountains in all directions. One careful step after another takes us safely to the spectacular 2,938-meter summit of Mount Smuts. The fact that this is such a prominent peak means that we are able to enjoy a full 360-degree panorama from the heart of the Rockies!
To the north, the main crest of Mount Smuts continues downward to the Spray Lakes Valley, making one final exclamation mark in the form of Mount Shark. Below the east face of Mount Shark, one can barely make out the miniature dot of Shark Lake, which reflects a brilliant aquamarine colour. Beyond this, the cerulean-blue waters of the Spray Lakes trail off in the direction of Canmore and the Bow Valley.
The tallest mountain on the northern horizon is none other than Mount Assiniboine, known as “The Matterhorn of the Rockies”.
Looking south from the 2,938-meter summit of Mount Smuts, there is a veritable sea of jagged peaks. The aesthetic yet monotonous fins of the Kananaskis Range make up the eastern horizon, while grander massifs such as Mount Sir Douglas characterize the southern horizon. The closest major peak to the south is Mount Birdwood, which looks absolutely epic from this perspective.
Eventually we tire of the summit and begin to long for the serenity of the meadows and lakes below. We choose to take the north ridge on the descent – although it has less stable rock than the south ridge, it is not nearly as steep.
We follow the ridge northward until it becomes too steep, then we look for a gully on the west side of the crest that we might be able to use to continue downward progress. The most sensible option is a moderately steep couloir containing extremely loose rock. With extreme caution, the three of us descend one-at-a-time.
The couloir leads us safely to the lower portion of the massive west face of Mount Smuts. There is a small section of class-3 rock to navigate before we are able to freely slide down the lower scree slopes.
In fact, we are able to run down the scree (like madmen) all the way down to Lower Birdwood Lake!
We climb the short slope up to Smuts Pass in order to retrieve our rucksacks, then begin making camp on the north shore of Lower Birdwood Lake. The wide-open meadows don’t do much to block the relentless wind, but they certainly provide a glorious setting for us to relax the afternoon away.
The three of us pass the remainder of the afternoon by the lake until we begin to get restless again. Darren stays by the lake, but Aaron and I can’t resist going on an exploratory romp. First we scramble up to Upper Birdwood Lake in order to gain views of the massive west face of Mount Smuts.
From this angle, the south ridge appears far too steep to be climbed! The setting sun defines our route at roughly the sun-shade line, and we are able to trace it all the way to the top.
Our curiosity propels us to scramble up a small sub-peak of Mount Birdwood, which I affectionately name Little Birdwood Peak. It measures approximately 2,500-meters and offers outstanding views of the area.
The most rewarding aspect of our short scramble up Little Birdwood Peak is the unobstructed head-on view of our route up Mount Smuts. Once again, the south ridge is highlighted by the sun-shade line; once again, the route looks impossible! We take pride in our achievement.
We descend rapidly to our lakeshore camp by sliding down a snowpatch on the north slopes of Little Birdwood Peak.
Aaron and I join Darren in the tent and brew a pot of tea before lying down to rest. The wind is so strong that the tent constantly flaps against our faces throughout the night.
12 AUGUST 2015
We awake around 8:30am and promptly begin packing small packs for a quick ascent of Smutwood Peak.
From the upper reaches of Birdwood Basin, we scramble up a small mound of scree in order to gain the primary south ridge of Smutwood Peak. Initially the crest is rather mellow – a pleasant change of pace from the class-5 terrain on the south ridge of Mount Smuts.
We stick to the crest, which affords exceptional views of the surrounding landscape – particularly westward into British Columbia.
The final stretch leading up to the summit consists of unstable class-3 talus. We delight in sending huge rocks down the thousand-foot slope on the west side and watching them tumble violently to the valley below.
Just before reaching the summit, we notice a trio of mountain goats lounging on a high saddle between Smutwood Peak and Mount Smuts. It’s difficult to make them out from such a distance, and they seem to be lying down and/or sleeping. Aaron insists that they are actually snowpatches until finally one of the goats stands up to adjust his “bed” of scree.
We channel the mountaineer spirits of our mountain-goat counterparts by scrambling directly up to the 2,690-meter summit of Smutwood Peak. The west face of Mount Smuts is prominently displayed from this perspective!
Looking back to the south, we see the now-familiar forms of Mount Birdwood and Mount Sir Douglas. The Birdwood Lakes seem to be 2,000 vertical feet directly below us! We can barely make out our camp on the north shore of the lower lake.
We run all the way back down to camp via the same south ridge, taking a moment to rest by the lakeshore and gather our things. Then we set course along the Commonwealth Creek trail to return to the vehicle.
It’s mid-afternoon when we arrive to our vehicle parked at the trailhead. The thermometer in the car measures 32-degrees celsius, which is about the hottest conditions I have ever experienced in these mountains. We roll the windows down and cruise all the way back to Calgary with Darren pointing out the names of all the peaks as I inquire about them.