Mount Castleguard is an isolated and singular sentry, standing alone near the southern edge of the massive Columbia Icefield at the northern edge of Banff National Park. This heavily glaciated peak has a strikingly steep summit block that reaches 3090 metres (10,138 ft.). The mountain is almost entirely surrounding by major glaciers (Columbia Icefield, Castleguard Glacier and Saskatchewan Glacier) and provides aesthetic mountaineering in a magnificent alpine setting.
Mount Castleguard was named by Arthur O. Wheeler in 1918. Arthur Wheeler felt that, as well as having a castle-like appearance, the mountain seemed to stand guard over the southern portion of the Columbia Icefield. First ascended in 1919 by Interprovincial Boundary Commission. The Interprovincial Boundary Survey determined the exact location of the boundary between the provinces of British Columbia and Alberta, mostly along the continental divide.
In his 1925 book, "Roof of the Rockies," Lewis Freeman described the view from the summit of Castleguard Mountain as follows,
"Possibly lacking the sheer breath-taking wonder of the first sight of Kinchinjunga's snows from Darjeeling, the view from the summit of Castleguard is still one of the great mountain panoramas of the world. Set on the southern rim of the Columbia Icefields, with no other peak encroaching on its domain for many miles, there are no masking barriers close at hand to cut off the view in any direction. Not only are almost all the great peaks of the Canadian Rockies system notched into the splendid panorama, but also many of those of the Selkirk and Gold Ranges, far beyond the purple-shadowed depths that mark the great gorge of the Columbia River."
Mount Castleguard can be easily approached from the Icefield Parkway (Banff-Jasper Highway (Highway 93)). From Calgary drive west 165 km on the Trans-Canada Highway to Lake Louise in Banff National Park, from Canmore drive west 81 km to Lake Louise.
From Lake Louise drive west 3 km on the Trans-Canada Highway to the Banff/Jasper Highway 93, drive north 110 km to the “Big Bend”. The “Big Bend” (UTM 950800 | 52.170685, -117.073446) is a sharp hairpin turn in the highway just below the steep climb to Sunwapta Pass. At the apex of the lowest sharp turn, there is a large pullout area, this parking area is not signed.
Map of approach and ascent route
Red Tape / Camping and Bivouacs
All national parks in Canada require an entrance fee. No permit or fee is required to climb in Banff National Park. A voluntary safety registration system is available for climbers in the Rocky Mountain National parks. It is necessary to register in person at the park information centres or warden offices during business hours. On completion of the excursion, the party must notify the park by telephone or by returning the registration form.
Climbers are permitted to bivouac on long routes or otherwise where necessary to safely complete a climb. Some restrictions apply; mostly prohibiting the most popular peaks. A backcountry use permit is required for any overnight stay, contact any Banff National Park visitor centre, where you may obtain the permit. Most parties will bivy or camp near the crown of the Saskatchewan Glacier and ascend Mt. Castleguard and return to the highway on the second day.
Looking down the Saskatchewan Glacier back to camp
Views on return to camp
From the “Big Bend” parking area ski towards the trees, across an open gravel creek washout, towards an old road, located about 100 metres left (climber’s left) of the obvious creek opening in the trees. Follow this usually well tracked trail to the washouts below the massive Saskatchewan Glacier.
Where the summer trail peters out, one can ski/walk the flats directly to the toe of the glacier, or stay high on left bank (climber’s left) above the flats. In the winter, a ski track is often set in both locations, except the more open flats trail blows in with snow quickly. In the summer months, a large lake exists at the toe of glacier; usually access is not a problem on either edge of the lake.
At the toe of the Saskatchewan Glacier head straight up the glacier. The majority of parties will ski up the entirety of the Saskatchewan Glacier to the Castleguard/Mt. Andromeda col, where the Columbia Icefield begins (UTM 820760 | 52.134355, -117.262982). Most parties will camp near here and ascend Mt. Castleguard the following day.
Nearing the Saskatchewan Glacier
Halfway up the glacier
Direct approach to NE slopes of Mt. Castleguard
Approximately 7 km up the glacier there is an alternate, and more direct, approach to Mt. Caslteguard. This route is rarely ascended as it provides much more complex terrain, with steeper snow slopes and substantially more crevasses. This route is shorter and can provide a quicker approach/descent from the upper NE slopes. Exit the Saskatchewan Glacier via a steep lateral moraine and head straight for the summit.
When to Climb
Typical Canadian Rockies situation; best conditions for a ski approach and ski ascent is usually from December to April (earlier means less snow of course), and with July to September usually providing the best conditions for high elevation summer climbing (later usually means less snow of course).
Canadian climbing and skiing legend Chic Scott has authored many ski mountaineering guide books that provide great information regarding the Columbia Icefield and Mount Castleguard. Chic’s guidebook, Summits & Icefields 1 | Alpine Ski Tours in the Canadian Rockies, was recently updated and provides the best information regarding Mt. Castleguard.
- North Ridge/East Slopes, Alpine I
The line of the first ascent, the first winter ascent, and the standard contemporary normal route. Most parties will camp near the divergence of the Columbia Icefield and the Saskatchewan Glacier, typically around 2500 metres (8200 feet). The North Ridge, which is vertical rock cliffs at the summit block, drops quickly and soon creates a low angled broad ridge that drops to the Mt. Castleguard/Mt. Andromeda Col and head of the Saskatchewan Glacier.
View to West Face North Ridge left skyline
Rounding the North Ridge
Traversing NE Face
This low angled ridge provides quick and easy access to the summit block. When the summit rears up into vertical cliffs, about 2840 metres, traverse South-East, aiming for steep snow ramp of the East Ridge. Just below the summit ridge proper, the East Ridge drops in a steep snow ridge. This snow ramp/ridge can avalanche, proper assessment of the snow conditions are required.
View to NE bowl
Our ascent was just left of big rock band
Base of steep snow
Shorter, but steeper, snow gully access to the summit ridge is possible from the small and tight North-East bowl, immediately north of the East Ridge. Where the summit rock cliffs run into the East Ridge, short, steep gullies provide fast access the summit ridge. These gullies have avalanche potential as well, but the gully/slope is much smaller snow volume, and has a much safer runout zone, in the NE bowl, then the big broad East Ridge.
Heading to summit ridge
Gaining summit ridge
Summit pose (er)
We chose a line adjacent to the last rock section, the surface snow was loose, but the base was solid. Post hole to the lower broad summit ridge, a quick walk reaches a narrow section just below the summit. Descend the same route.