March 29, 2015
Ya-Ha-Tinda Ranch, AB
Though not nearly the biggest in its vicinity, Warden Rock is certainly a striking peak guarding the gateway to Banff National Park from East along Red Deer River. It kept catching my attention during multiple visits to Ya-Ha-Tinda area over the past two years. Through some careful examination of my pictures and thorough research on the Internet it’s apparently not a difficult peak to ascend technically but getting there is not an easy task neither. The lengthy driving on gravel road, the long approach on foot and the requirement to ford Red Deer River together has probably deterred most scramblers from even thinking about this ascent. Ben, Vern and I are hardcore peak-baggers so that’s not going to be the case for us. To make this major river crossing feasible we just had to do it in the off-season.
Taking advantage of the fact we camped at Bighorn Campground the previous night, we decided to wake up at 4 am in the dark to facilitate this long trek. It’s a Sunday trip so we all wanted to get back home early. The first 6 km or so would be a boring hike along the decommissioned road towards Banff Park boundary. Even though Ben and I had done this approach before we still made a navigation error this time. We missed an unsigned short-cut (ATV track) in the dark and ended up following the truck road veering more towards north than west. It got us back on track eventually but the path was much more circumventing than necessary. In just over 1 hour we left the trail and bashed our way downwards to the bank of Red Deer River. At this time of a year the fording was easy and refreshing and by this point it finally got bright enough to not need headlamps.
Loosely ascending the obvious drainage that came down from the basin beneath Warden Rock and Barrier Mountain on the west side of the creek we accidently came across a well-defined horse trail. Note that this is not the “Hidden Falls” trail described on the government trail guide but rather a mythical trail unknown to most people, including us. This trail brought us a long ways up the forested slope high above the creek bed and shaved off a couple kilometers of bushwhacking for us. But despite that, it’s still a tediously long bash to the large cirque at the base of our objective. At roughly 2 km from the ascending slope we came across some large patches of snow (knee deep) and lost the trail so there was still some bushwhacking to do. The wind also picked up considerably at treeline and this got us mentally prepared of what exactly to expect once hitting the summit ridge.
The slog from this cirque to the summit ridge of Warden Rock appeared to be very steep and ugly but thankfully there was a snow gully assisting our ascent. The gully wasn’t as steep as it looked and the snow was rock hard making some fast travelling conditions. For about 1/3 to half of the length we were able to front-point straight up. Once exiting the gully we still had to slog up some ugly scree before cresting the broad summit ridge.
It was here that the wind finally picked up to crazy to the point that we barely could stand up… Traversing the broad summit ridge was nothing rocket science but given the wind gusting to perhaps 100 kph we really had to fight with it. It’s also quite a long way to go thank to the foreshortened view. The final traverse to the true summit was somewhat narrow and exposed towards climber’s right side making some interesting moments in the wind but nothing overly tricky (it’s an easy scramble overall). I kept my center of gravity fairly low for more control in case of a sudden gust. Thankfully the wind wasn’t as crazy near the summit as it was lower down on the broad ridge/plateau.
For obvious reasons we didn’t linger any longer than necessary on the summit so immediately started the descent. The wind got even stronger by now and I even got picked up once while descending the broad ridge. It was just fierce… The steep descent down the scree and then snow was fast and fun and in short time we were back to the broad bowl/cirque at treeline. I think this would be a great bivy spot. By now the hard work was finally over and it was merely putting one foot in front of another down the horse trail back to Red Deer River. Fording the river felt very refreshing but the final slog along that decommissioned road was tedious.
Our round trip time was 10.5 hours on a fast pace which was just as expected. It’s a satisfactory ascent but I probably will only recommend Warden Rock to scramblers capable of long days and don’t mind quality suffering. Breaking it into 2 days isn’t a bad idea neither since most part of the ascent is pure slogging.