Mount Ishbel is located in the Bow River Valley east of Johnston Canyon in Banff National Park. When I first moved to the Canadian Rockies, I skied up Johnston Canyon to the Ink Pots via the Johnston Creek Trail and became charmed with Mount Ishbel. She was just one of those esthetically pleasing mountains that grabs your attention more than most. As part of the Sawback Range, many consider Ishbel the most sawback looking of the group. This is due in part to a glacier that undercut her southeast facing slopes resulting in a massive slide some 8000 years ago.
The beauty of Mount Ishbel is that you gain her long south ridge fairly early giving you a full on ridge climb for most of the day versus the bushwhacking many neighboring objectives require. The south ridge was roughly an eight kilometer ride to the summit. We gained the ridge in the realm of 6500’, still well below tree line. There were several traverses from east to west and vice versa as we traveled north, mostly just moderate obstacles until we came across a steep problem blocking the ridge. We kept right and bypassed this section as it continued to some enjoyable hands on climbing back to the ridge. The most airy crux we came to involved a solid downclimbing move or two on the left with extreme exposure, but provided good rock for holds. My partner chose to take a ramp down the east side and work her way back up to the ridge. This manner of retaking the ridge from the east via some 5th class moves pretty much defined the final 1200’ of the day until…
Eventually I came to a razor thin section leaning to the east. The most noticeable aspect of Mount Ishbel is that the rock gets considerably worse the further you progress. This leaning flake of the ridge crest was conspicuously hollow and fractured. At this juncture, we had noticed for quite some time that we could in fact have taken a ledge full of scree straight up the east side to the east ridge and ascend to the summit from there. It was at this point that we had enough of re-attacking the ridge and down climbed roughly 30 meters to this ledge. As soon as I reached this ramp there was a cairn, so evidently we were not the first to abandon the weak “knife edged” ridge. We took easy street to the east ridge for 400’ in gain and then turned west to ascend via decent hands on climbing through a few steps for the final 100 meters or less…
As we signed the summit log and took our summit photo, the black clouds that were chasing us all day proceeded to converge. All of a sudden I heard this zinging noise coming out of my pack and my partner’s eyes got big as she exclaimed we needed to get out of there. It was then that I heard my helmet start to zing as well, just a constant electrical charge as though it were a kitchen appliance vibrating on the counter. Only real problem was that it was on my head. I quickly considered taking my alpine ax off of the pack and tossing it, but I hate littering nature’s landscape. I figured it was safer just to grab the pack and run down the east ridge. I was zapped one more time and my partner also got zapped in her helmet which is made exclusively of foam.
I believe this is a phenomenon where as the current was coming through our feet and resting in our helmets. I could feel the current well the second time it occurred and we set a record for descending the top 100 meters of this peak. In fact when we came to the first of three rappel stations on descent of the east ridge, we quickly down climbed ledges to the right to avoid having to stop and attach our harnesses and therefore, more metal to our bodies. By the time we reached the second rappel station we felt comfortable we were out of harms way.
We did use number two and three rappel stations and continued to descend the east ridge to a corniced col between Ishbel and an unnamed peak to the east. A serious alpine accident has been documented on this descent but once out of a gully to the left, we chose to start descending to a snow patch below the cliff bands versus descending completely to the col. Once down to the snow, we enjoyed a moderate glissade to a grassy knoll where we finally finished our lunch. While I awaited my partner at this spot, I observed a Ptarmigan hen directing her five chicks to disperse in equal distance and hide under rocks as she remained visible and close to distract me. The idea being that a predator will possibly only find one or two chicks. It was quite the show and displays the true harshness of having to live and maintain in the wilderness versus our small episode on the summit.
From the grassy knoll, we descended down into Ranger Canyon and waded our way out via Ranger Creek. A fine “circuit” trip!
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