August 25, 2015
Kananaskis – Highwood Pass, AB
With a mere 1 day’s break after our 17.5-hour traverse from Mt. Fitzwilliam to Mt. Clairvaux, Maury and I found ourselves planning another ascent. This time another local hardcore, Robb Schnell would join. Robb and Maury form a great partnership (they just climbed the Goodsirs Traverse a couple weeks ago), and I was pleased to join them for a trip. With these two experienced climbers in the team it made perfect sense to attempt a technical objective. Elpoca Mountain is one of the bigger peaks in the jagged Opal Range that consists of mostly technical summits in the heart of Kananaskis Country. It appeared like a series of towered pinnacles and rarely climbed.
The weather was perfect (sunny in all areas), but the smoke only got worse – couldn’t even see the outline of Mt. Lady MacDonald from Canmore so you get an idea. It’s literally the smokiest view I’ve ever seen, but oh well… As we drove down the Kananaskis Highway towards Highwood Pass we could slowly see some blue colours above so we had a slight hope that we might break through the smoke layer once we got higher. The first hour was hiking on the boring Elbow Lake trail. Before I realized we were already at the pass looking at Elbow Lake. We circumvented the late on the left side, crossed the stream on a log bridge and then the trail started descending. We picked a rough spot to leave the trail as we didn’t know where exactly we should and punished ourselves with some dense bushwhacking through brushes and alders. Then we crossed the creek (without taking boots off), and then up the thinning forest towards treeline and the impressive Elpoca Tower on our right.
From here on all the way to the high col was not very fun. The next while was not too terribly bad though as we slowly worked our way up the endless rubble and scree, but once the terrain got steeper the scree started to get super loose. Once entering the “golden gully” described on our reference (Orvel Miskiw’s trip report on bivouac.com) the terrain was downright ugly… I’d highly recommend to avoid this gully in the condition we had. It’d make much more sense in spring time when you can just kick step up the snow… The gully also got semi-technical about 2/3 of the way up but that might due to the fact we stayed too far on climber’s right. We eventually had to work our way over to the left but the rock was horribly chossy and loose. Having experienced almost all kinds of the Rockies’ choss this one still “stands out”, qualifying the second worse gully I’ve ever climbed (after the death-trap by Catacombs col)…
But we made through and got to the high col. From there we traversed along scree while losing some height to bypass the terrain directly in front, and once it made sense we bashed our way back up (on again, loose rock) to the ridge crest. Scrambling over a short, but exposed step we were at the base of the technical pitches. The first pitch went straight up the steep wall on climber’s right before traversing an exposed ledge back to the left – not terribly hard but we took our time to pitch it out. This brought us to a scree bowl and the second pitch was a little bit confusing. It appeared we could go straight up but by following Miskiw’s description we did a bit of extra work.
After the second pitch we were on the summit ridge now. Robb took over the lead and went a long ways over to the final summit block. As I followed the terrain was initially easy (but exposed), but towards the end of this pitch there’s the crux. It’s a down-sloping slab traverse/downclimb with very poor handholds. On boots it felt awkward but I was glad to have belay from both sides. Up the other side of the summit block it’s a short 5.4 climbing to the belay station. The last few meters was again, easy 5th class climbing and soon we made to the summit.
For the descent we did 3 rappels plus one belayed traverse across the crux slabby section. The last rappel had a bit of swing onto a vertical wall and was pretty fun. But soon enough the enjoyable stuffs were over and we had to get down that ugly “golden gully”… It’s super tedious but overall much faster than ascending it. I used the technique of “side-stepping” for most of it plus some “crab-walking” and a little bit of down-climbing. Rockfall was an issue though. Down into the bush we picked a better line to avoid those alders, but that deviated from the log bridge I used on the way in so we had to jump across the creek. And then it’s the boring hike back to the parking lot.
It’s a great trip despite the smoke and I’m glad to finally climb a major summit in the Opal Range. If I only have the chance to climb one then Elpoca Mountain is a good one. Once back to civilization we checked the weather forecast and it’s still good for the next 2-3 days, so guess what… Another trip was in the order…