OverviewThe Southwest Ridge of Uto Peak is a smaller, somewhat easier, and less committing version of the classic Northwest Ridge of Sir Donald. Both routes are accessed from the Uto-Sir Donald col. Although the consensus rating is 5.1, exactly how hard the climbing is will depend entirely on your route finding skills. Most of the route is class 3 or 4, with a few steps of class 5 climbing. In general, turning difficulties on the left will make things easier.
The climbing is on solid quartzite that dips favorably to create incut holds. There is considerable exposure in many places along the route. There are a few places were one is obliged to traverse southeast-sloping slabs on the right side of the ridge. These could present a significant hazard if icy or snow covered. The rock is covered in black lichen, which becomes quite slippery when wet.
First ascent credit goes to Van Santvoord Merle-Smith and Ernest Feuz, who climbed the ridge on July 31, 1911.
ApproachThe approach starts at the Illicillewaet campground, three kilometers west of Rogers Pass on the Trans-Canada highway. Follow the paved road into the campground, past the warden kiosk to a parking area just before the pavement ends. The hike starts up a dirt road (blocked to vehicle traffic by posts). In about 50 yards you encounter the signed trailhead. Follow signs to the Sir Donald trail. It is alleged to be four kilometers to trail's end, but it isn't clear exactly where that is. You will walk more than four kilometers and gain more than 1,000 meters before you are done.
After a steep, seemingly endless grind up an avalanche path the trail emerges at treeline beneath the snout of the Vaux glacier. It traverses left (north) beneath a cascade to gain the crest of an old moraine. Shortly after starting up the moraine an obvious track breaks off to the left. Take this path. It is reasonably well marked, and leads to the new bivy site nestled in a grassy depression about 300 meters below the Uto-Sir Donald col. The bivy site has bear boxes and a privy.
From the bivy site head up to the right of the Uto-Sir Donald col. If you are lucky you will find a reasonable use trail. If not, the going is mostly over stable talus and goes quickly. A use trail skirts the base of the cliffs below Sir Donald, leading to a ledge that is followed across the imposing cliffs beneath the col. The col used to be the standard bivy site for parties headed toward Sir Donald's Northwest Ridge. The lower bivy site is now recommended; it is better sheltered, and there is little chance of pitching off a cliff while stumbling toward the privy in the middle of the night.
Route DescriptionStanding at the Uto-Sir Donald col, the route is fairly obvious. Follow the ridge, turning difficulties mostly on the left. The climb consists of mostly scrambling, with a few steep pitches of class four and five climbing along the way. The bulk of the challenges lie lower on the route.
Essential GearThe route can be climbed in mountaineering boots or trail runners. Rock shoes are unnecessary. The route is often soloed, though you ought to be comfortable leading 5.7 or so before trying it unroped. There are plenty of opportunities to make the grade harder than the advertised 5.1. A 50m rope and scant rack of nuts and cams will suffice to protect the more challenging sections. A helmet is recommended. If the snow slope leading to the Uto-Sir Donald col has not melted out, or is in firm condition, an ice axe and crampons may be required to the approach, as well as the Northwest Ridge Descent, if that is your plan. You will be able to judge the need for snow gear from the lower bivy site, and stash gear there if it not needed on the climb.
DescentYou have two options on descent: rappel and/or downclimb the route, or complete a traverse of the peak by descending the Northwest Ridge. Returning the way you came presents no surprises. The rap anchors you passed on the way up will no doubt come in handy if you brought a rope.
If you did not bring a rope, then the NW ridge descent might be a better option--it will take about the same amount of time, but has lower risk. That said, the NW ridge is not quite as straightforward as the class three rating might suggest. Minutes from the summit you will encounter a rap anchor poised at the top of a steep, loose gully. If you have a rope, I'd suggest using it. There is at least one more rap anchor in the gully. Downclimbing the gully didn't seem like class three to me. Of course downclimbing is harder than ascending.
Once at the bottom of the gully, head back to the ridge and follow it down, turning difficulties mostly on the left (south). As you near the Eagle-Uto col you will find a scree gully that appears to be much-used. Do not descend this gully, as it cliffs out a couple hundred meters lower. Either continue over the hump in the ridge, or skirt it on the south, following an obvious ramp system back up to the ridge. Soon you will reach a second scree gully. This is the one you want. If glissading the gully, be aware that it funnels down through a narrow passage in a short cliff band near the bottom. An uncontrolled slide above this section could turn out poorly.
Once out of the gully, head north to the bivy site and the trail back to the campground.