My buddy, Gary, had unsuccessfully tried to climb Mount Stephen 2 or 3 times before so he was really keen to finally get this one. On one trip Gary was stopped near the top by snow and ice and on his most recent attempt he had accidentally knocked off a sharp rock which had cut his knee for 20 + stitches. The scramble is rated as a difficult in Kane’s Scrambles in the Canadian Rockies and the elevation gain is about 1950 m which is the most gain of any trip in the book.
The biggest impediment on this scramble is the requirement for a permit to pass by the world famous fossil beds which are a world heritage site. These permits must be obtained in person (with picture ID) the day of the climb after 9:00AM or the day before you climb which means you have to stay overnight and then you have to take what you get for weather. Campgrounds in the area are always full during August and especially if the weather is good. We decided to go out the evening before and just sleep in Gary’s van and go early since it was going to be a hot day.
We drove from Calgary and arrived at the warden office in Field. The young girl warden did not seem convinced that we old guys were climbers or that we could do the climb and be back down before dark. The only access to the fossil beds is with a guided trip and it is a stiff 2-3 hours up for the average person. She handed us over to her supervisor who asked us about our experience and gave us lots of warnings about not collecting fossils but he reluctantly gave us the permits without even checking for a criminal record. I guess they were nervous because the week before some friends of ours had seen a tourist who was caught with fossils and they said he was charged with a $25,000 fine and maybe jail time. The friends had pictures of the tourist so the wardens told them they may be material witnesses if it went to a trial.
We ate at Truffle Pigs which is the best restaurant in the village and then had a few beers in the lounge. We slept in the van on a back street but Field is on the main railroad line which is double tracked here so there were trains going through every 30 minutes one way or the other. Finally we gave up trying to sleep and started hiking at 4:30 by headlamp. The trail starts right from the edge of town. We went by the fossil beds as the sun started to come up and stuck to the trail to avoid stepping on too many fossils. We waved at the cameras on the poles although I doubt anyone was up at that point to actually see us although they would be recording. The wardens said they also have cameras triggered by motion sensors but we didn’t see any.
We passed some more very broken shale bands and then passed an old bivy site.
The upper part of the West ridge from just past the bivy site.
We followed trail up through the rock band and then pounded scree up to the first big wall where we went right.
There are two gullys to the left in the wall(see Dow's pic and my topo to orient yourself) which lead to a steep loose bowl with low fifth class climbing which goes to the ridge and is a shortcut but we decided to use the guidebook route.
Dow's pic of gullys/openings on left end of wall
As per guidebook, we followed bits of trail right along the base of the wall to its right end.
I have had many discussions about the route finding on the upper part of the mountain so I drew up a simplified topo to explain where we went. There are many route options up to mid fifth class although rock quality is a concern.
After going to the right end of the wall, we went up the left side of the ridge along top of wall versus the gully to the right as we had heard that the gully is looser and it is harder to cross the snow gully at the base of the main wall if you come up the gully. Near the top of the ridge, it had a flat spot with a cairn which was the top of the steep bowl route which comes onto the ridge from the left. You then come to a 20 ft wall which blocks progress on the ridge, traverse 100 ft to the right on ledges and up ledges which leads to the top of the ridge (cairn with stick) and a view across a snow filled gully at the main wall/upper ridge.
Some people jump a 5 foot gap to the base of the wall but we went down 10 -15 feet to the right and stepped across to a ledge which went right 50 ft to the base of a left leaning groove.
Dow's picture of gap
There was an old piton with a welded biner here. Stephen was the first mountain over 10,000 feet that was climbed in the Canadian Rockies in the 1880's.
We climbed the left leaning groove to halfway up the main wall. looking up the groove.
Halfway up the groove.
Near top of groove. We went to notch above my head to get on the upper ridge.
Also see colored picture on page 12 in guidebook.
It lays back here and we scrambled up loose rock to a notch which brought us out on the upper ridge. Looking left at summit block.
We followed it along until we hit the main summit block where the ridge becomes rocky and narrow 3-6 ft(1-2m wide) with 6300 ft(1950 m) off the North side down to the highway/railroad.
The end of the final summit ridge.
The final summit has a communication shack on it and Gary opened the door and went in to look around. I opened the door and he said don’t let it close since there was a sign that it apparently locked and we would have had to climb out the window. The trip up was about 6 hours which is not bad for just over 6300 ft of gain.
We took some pictures and then sat down for lunch. We took lots of scenery pictures which are attched in the gallery.
A couple of examples. Best Viewed at Original Size.
Mount Vaux and the Bugaboos in the distance.
We heard a faint thumping and could see a helicopter in the valley.
Mount Victoria behind the copter. Best Viewed at Original Size.
It slowly circled its way up until it came into the stiff wind and landed on the snow patch beside us. The skids settled in the snow and the tail rotor dropped very close to the rocks. We both instinctively reacted and dived behind the shack but all was okay. It would have been ironic to climb a mountain and then get killed in a fiery helicopter crash on the summit! We had a good laugh with the pilot who had lots of hours but was new to mountain flying and of course he insisted that it was not that close. The two passengers (electricians) were a little shook but went to work to fix the damage from a lightning strike.
A couple of years later we were exploratory heli-skiing on a special deal at Chatter Creek and we ended up with the same pilot. Gary gave him a hard time but it was all a good laugh and he turned out to be a talented and safe pilot.
The summit ridge is quite narrow and on the way down the exposure off the North side was more noticeable.
Looking down at the Village of Field - over 6300 ft vertical.
Upper ridge - approaching the notch. Routes goes down off right side to main wall.
We downclimbed the groove in the main wall and retraced our route back along the lower ridge. The snow gully is below Gary and the gap is just off the picture to the right.
The rest of the scramble down off Stephen was uneventful and we passed a couple of groups of young guys going up. The girl warden was surprised to see us back down at 4:30 PM to check out. She asked about the young guys and we told her they were still going up when we came down but we didn’t tell her how early we had started.
Overall a very interesting scramble with challenging route finding and a good fitness test.