Stop and smell the roses. That is something I have had to learn how to do in my mountaineering exploits. It is easy for some of us to be totally focused on the athletic aspect of the climb and lose sight of what we are really seeking, to be one with nature for a period of time. The approach to Mount Smuts takes you by Engadine Lodge and thus one of the most ideal moose habitats in the Canadian Rockies. It is a large marsh created by the overflow of Commonwealth Creek. The moose have dug out a large mud flat area which serves as their primary defense against ticks and mosquitoes. Moose don’t typically die of starvation, but more so from blood loss due to ticks. An adult moose can carry as many as 200,000 ticks at one time. On my approach to Mount Smuts this early summer morning, I caught 10 female moose (photo) in the mud flats, some even laying down. As I came out from my climb via my bike, I almost ran into two additional bull moose on the old logging road.
It is best to take your bike on this approach. You are forced to park at the north end of the old logging road that proceeds back to Commonwealth Creek. The sign was knocked down in 2006, but large stones are in place and the bottom line is they do not want you driving your vehicle down the road. Bike south for no more than 20 minutes looking to fork right onto a single track trail. You can continue on bike until the thick brush makes it more convenient to hike. Continue on the trail as it brings you to Commonwealth creek at a beautiful wide 3 meter tall waterfall (photo). Start ascending the right bank via the trail up into the Commonwealth Valley which is one of the most lush valleys (photo) in Kananaskis Country. This is prime bear habitat, take proper precautions. One set of scramblers had to outwait a bear crossing at the Fist-Smuts Col (photo) from the summit of The Fist.
Continue along the right side of the valley bottom aiming for the Mount Birdwood (left) and Mount Smuts (right) Col. You will pass the Fist on your right. In 2006, the trail becomes somewhat faint due to a recent significant avalanche event that crossed its path. Work your way through the destruction intermittently going in and out of forest. Once you reach the end of the valley, you should still find plenty of snow in July along with an army of mosquitoes. Ascend the snow slopes or if completely dry, you will continue on a decent trail up the right side of the Col to the right of some rock croppings until the huge cone shaped scree field that leads up Mount Smuts southern ridge comes into full view before you reach the actual Col.
At the base of the scree you have completed approximately 1400’ of the 3400’ total for the day. Take the scree field up to the base of the southeast ridge of Mount Smuts. Stay right to enjoy a quick ascent on firm rock. This 1000’ gain to the west shoulder is pleasant and fast. If you are climbing in the morning hours, you will appreciate the shade provided by the ridge, which gives reprieve from the heat and mosquitoes that will follow you to 8500’ if conditions are right in this area. From certain photo perspectives, this section of the climb looks dauntingly steep (photo), but is not so bad once you are into it. Sort of a huge chimney.
Once the left ridge peters out into a western shoulder and you are approximately at 8600’+/-, it is time for you to make your ascent up onto the ridge to your right. In 2006 this area was well marked with cairns. However, from studying certain on line reports it appears some do ascend this ridge too early. Make sure you get high enough to where you are basically traversing ledges back right to a significant flat spot in which to don harnesses or simply prepare yourself mentally for the upcoming crux. Scramble onto the ridge and proceed up steep slabby terrain (photo). Your crux will be an exposed section to the right where you must traverse back left over some relatively (by scramble standards) blank sections. Staying on the ridge itself affords better climbing and keeps you on firm rock. You will bypass two pitons in this vicinity. Eventually you top out of this section and venture into another where you can ascend steep solid rock above or ascend a solid chimney to your right (photo). The chimney was easy going, albeit somewhat exposed. At the top of the chimney climb left up some steep terrain back to the ridge and proceed past a relatively new (2006) bolt and hanger. You have now completed the two crux sections of the ridge and the remaining climbing, although exposed here and there, is relatively easy.
Proceed across a couple of small fake summits to the real thing. In 2006 there was a summit register and I was the 2nd sign in on July 5th. There was also a separate memorial canister for a local climber who perished off the summit in the summer of 2005. The views of the three giants of the region, Mount Sir Douglas, Mount Assiniboine and Mount Joffre were spectacular. Mount Sir Douglas is nicely framed behind Mount Birdwood to the south and is the closest of the three. Incidentally, what all three of these 11,000’+ mountains show you from the summit of Mount Smuts are their most popular routes in full view.
There are three options for descent, either bring a rope for two rappels down the ascent route, down climb the ascent route or descend the north ridge (not the northeast which others have done by mistake) for just a few hundred feet, if even, to a well cairned (2006) loose chimney that descends off of the west side of the ridge. You basically reach a point in the north ridge where it would be difficult to descend any further, so it is not that difficult to find the chimney. Descend the initial steep chimney onto some loose scree on firm rock and make your way down several hundred feet, maybe 500’. I was solo, but if you have a partner, stay close together on this descent due to potential rock fall. Again, you basically come to a point that would be difficult to descend any further. Traverse left onto some narrow ledges that work their way back south to easier descent paths. Eventually you will find yourself on large scree and can then make a fairly rapid descent to the Col between Mount Smuts and a portion of Snow Peak. Turn left and descend a fantastic snow slope (early July) all the way down to the lovely lower Birdwood Lake. This is an incredible spot of super large boulders surrounding a pristine and deep lake being filled by a waterfall at the southwest corner coming down from upper Birdwood Lake.
Ascend the Mount Smuts-Mount Birdwood Col and descend back to the valley. You should be able to take advantage of several snow slopes along the way. Return the same.
Essential GearHelmet, Boots made more for Rock Climbing than Mountaineering, Poles and Gaiters. Harness, Rope and Biners to leave behind if you want to Rap the ascent route. Mosquito deterrent is a must. Bear Spray is as well. Bike.
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