May 24, 2014
Grande Cache, AB
The weather was a bit tricky. Both Vern and Ben could only manage a day-trip on Sunday but weather looked miserable. Saturday was gonna be the better day, but even so, Grande Cache was the only area without rain in the forecast. Therefore I had two choices – solo ascending something easy in Grande Cache, or wasting another weekend at home. Obviously I chose the former.
For a long while I wanted to save Mt. Stearn as a snowshoe objective when avalanche condition or weather isn’t at the greatest. However, after last year’s miserable Lightning Ridge trip I started to have other thoughts. Remember on that trip we had tracks to follow and even so, it was one of the worst post-holing suffer-fests I’d ever done. Mount Stearn shares the same approach as Lightning Ridge and I wasn’t sure if I had the mood to repeat that suffering. To make things nicer, I’d hike it rather than snowshoe.
However, as I got a view of my objective from the town of Grande Cache, I decided to haul all gears up (snowshoes, ice axe and crampons). There was still a lot of snow at treeline elevation and near the summit a steep snow slope remained. I hate unnecessary weight but it’s overall not a long trip, so better safe than sorry…
Mount Stearn’s trail is very easy to follow even for newbie hikers, but it is a long one. There are a couple spots that one can get a glimpse of the summit and it appears to be “right there”. Don’t be fooled with this deceiving view though. This trail is very sloggy and seems to drag on forever (you don’t get much view other than the trees). On this day, condition was summer-like at lower elevation and I didn’t encounter snow until an hour or so into the trip. But soon after that the trail started to get very muddy, with a “stream” running on it. Further up (isothermal) snow covered the trail and once snow became continuous I strapped my snowshoes on. They surely saved me a lot of post-holing. Without them it would have been waist-deep.
At treeline the route deviates from the main trail. It’s very obvious though, as you pretty much just need to go uphill, climber’s left and you’ll hit the ridge. Then follow the ridge to the summit block. I avoided some elevation loss/regain by traversing on the gentle north slopes rather than following the ridge crest. The summit block requires either a short scrambling section or losing elevation. On this day I kicked step up a snow slope directly to the base of the rock band. The scrambling was short and fun, and soon after that I was on the summit.
On the descent the snow had softened considerably but with snowshoes it was still strong enough to hold my weight. Lower down I met a couple going up (with their objective being Lightning Ridge). They just started the snow section and they didn’t have snowshoes. The rest of the descent went by fast. My round trip time was 5.5 hours. It was lunch time only but I was short on motivation for anything else so drove home.
In the end, just like other Grande Cache peaks, there’s nothing spectacular about Mount Stearn, but it serves as a good shoulder season or off season objective. There’s a good amount of elevation gain and if snow covered, the post-holing will keep you in shape.