‘South Schlee’ (GR 388157) is located in the southern end of the Opal Range
in Kananaskis Country. It is one the many highpoints along the main range of the Opals that runs from Mount Evan-Thomas south to Elpoca Mountain. This beautiful mountain reaches a height of 2800 metres (9,186 ft.) and is the first high point on the main range ridge crest north of Elpoca Mountain.
This summit has no official or even unofficial name; I have applied the name of “South Schlee” since is just south of the summit of ’Mount Schlee’
(GR 385168) (2850 m). The unofficial name of Mt. Schlee was applied by Glen Boles after his team’s first ascent of that peak in 1976 (F.A. team D. Forest, G. Scruggs, G. Boles and M. Simpson via South-East Slopes/South Ridge). GR denotes grid reference of the Universal Transverse Mercator (UTM) National Topographic System of Canada (NTS).
|West Face |
|Summit Tower |
|Elpoca (l) South Schlee (r)
Until our ascent on September 18, 2016, there is no recorded ascent of this peak. Searching all published and online resources, and discussions with several local climbing historians, our ascent is the first recorded ascent. As well, we found no evidence of previous passage; no cairns, anchors or summit register on the mountain. First recorded ascent by Kevin Barton and Scott M. Berry via North Ridge to upper West Face of summit block and descent via the North Ridge. Lower slopes of the mountain were approached from Piper Creek and up/down the scree slopes on the eastern side of the peak.
This route is 95% a scramble, but the summit block provides some interesting alpine rock climbing and the views to the surrounding Opal Range summits is simply spectacular.
Best vehicle access from Canmore/Banff or Calgary is via the Trans Canada Highway, then south along Highway 40. From the intersection of Highway 40 (Kananaskis Trail) and Highway 1 (Trans Canada Highway) travel south towards Kananaskis Lakes to the Elbow Lake trail head, approximately 62 km south of the Trans Canada Highway. Access to the parking area, Elbow Lake trail head, is affected by a seasonal road closure and is not accessible by motor vehicle from December 1 to June 15.
The distance to Elbow Lake is short, only 1.0 km to the lake, and provides the only backcountry campground in this part of the park. As well, the scenery is fantastic, the trail, though steep in parts, is well maintained and clearly signed.
To gain the lower east slopes of ‘South Schlee’ you need to access upper ‘Piper Creek’ (unofficial name), which can be difficult as there is no official trail and a significant river crossing. An excellent, well trodden, trail exists near the eastern bank of Piper Creek that leads all the way to Piper Pass, but can be difficult to locate, but well worth the effort to find since the lower section of the valley is fairly treed and the bushwacking unpleasant. Best method to find the trail is too aim for the South Ridge of “South Tombstone” from the Elbow River trail (old road), at first through open meadows, then drop in the low Piper Creek valley, cross the creek, and just up slope, the trail parallels the creek.
|Elbow Lake |
|”South Tombstone” from main trail |
|View into Piper Creek valley, Mt. Schlee (l) Cat’s Ears (r)
Once in the upper drainage of Piper Creek, head north towards a high col (outlier of Mt. Jerram, ‘Cat’s Ears’; and Mt. Tombstone col; Piper Pass) about 1.5 kilometre before the col access to the South East slopes of ‘South Schlee’ is straightforward. From the trail, just above the primary tree line, just before the trail heads up a short steep section right (east) of a small waterfall in the main creek, head west into the bottom of a large scree basin between ‘South Schlee’ and ‘Mt. Schlee’.
|View to Piper Pass |
|Basin between Schlees |
|Sheep above Piper Creek
- North Ridge, West Face, Alpine II, 5.6
From the waterfall in Piper Creek, head across the creek, up left (facing up stream) follow the small drainage, first up steep and loose dirt/small scree, then eventually rock steps and into the scree basin between South Schlee and Mt. Schlee. Head up the centre of the basin up scree, towards a flat spot above a line of large boulders.
|View to basin |
|Basin between Schlees |
|Head to saddle on ridge
From this flatish section, basically a straight line towards the summit of South Schlee, generally aiming to the low point between the two visible highpoints of mountain. We picked our way up scree slopes, with a line traversing up and south west. Along the left edge of the large scree slope (looking uphill) are a few small rock towers, forming an entrance to a small scree gully. Head into this narrow left hand section of the scree slope. This slope narrows into a gully as you ascend. Nearing the top of our steep scree gully we exited through a “U” shaped gap on the left side up the gully. Steep loose scree/dirt below the gap.
|Gain leftmost scree gully |
|Aim for central gully |
|Enter central gateway
|Upper scree gully |
|”U” notch from gully |
|Through the “U”
Once through the ‘U’ notch, continue upward tending right to, first on rock ribs, then scree, then steeper rock steeps. As you ascend, you can see a upper scree field below the north ridge, you are aim for this. Pick easiest line, all easy terrain (Class 3), but some exposed steps. Nearing the long summit ridge, a simple plod to the ridge line. (GR 387158) 2720m.
When on the ridge, head south, downing a bit to stay on easy scree nearing the lowest section of the ridge north of the summit block (obvious lowest point). From this viewpoint it appeared that very near the final summit ridge of South Schlee, a deep notch on the upper ridge looked very difficult (turns out to be easy left of the crest). Fearing a difficult rock ascent, we dropped from the low point on the ridge and followed easy scree slopes south, skirting the summit cliffs until directly below a prominent deep notch. We did descend the North Ridge from the summit, it mostly straightforward, but one section is about 5.2 climbing up narrow towers on the ridge. Then a short but very exposed knife edge ridge to the access the ridge above the 5.6 gully. Either route to the summit goes.
|Heading to ridge low point |
|Low ridge point on descent |
|Over ridge line
Our ascent line was up the steep gully on the final summit block of the West Face. At the base of the gully we considered climbing the face just left of the gully since it looked like easier climbing, but we didn’t see any obvious gear placements, so we opted for the gully.
First with scrambling, then one tough 5.3 ish step. Above this step we entered a steep and tight bay. We decided to get out the rope. We build an anchor with one piton and one cam. Only I had brought a hammer, and Scott was keen to lead, so I gave him the ice hammer.
|View to west |
|Chosing our line |
|Entering the gully
From the belay Scott climbed about 30 metres of 5.5 to 5.6 rock, then about 10 metres of loose scree to gain the North Ridge adjacent to to the deep notch see saw on the summit block. Off the station the climbing was about 5.5 to clear the first slight overhang, cam/nuts were available, but not easy to get and difficult to make fully secure. Just above the slight overhanging step, easy climbing until at the base of the cool, smooth rock tight gully; the crux. Scott managed to bang in a piton and then launched up this cool slot canyon like section. Hand and foot holds were very thin; and snow, verglas and big boots made stemming a challenge, very nice lead by Scott; solid spicy 5.6. Just above the slot constriction, the angle and climbing eased off, then about 10 metres of steep loose scree to gain the ridge line.
|Scott on lead |
|View up crux |
|View down crux
|Last easy section to ridge |
|Scott at belay |
|View down from belay
Turned out the overhang of the notch could be avoided by scrambling a loose and steep gully to climber’s left of the notch overhang, difficult scrambling at the start of the gully. Once up the gully and on the final broad summit ridge, it was a walk of about 70 metres over a few low bumps to the summit.
|Steep scramble from station |
|Walk to summit |
|Scott on the summit |
|Scott wandering around |
|View to Jerram and Cat’s Ears
|Boys on the summit |
|New summit register |
|New summit cairn
We descended the North Ridge, just after the deep notch, the ridge gets super narrow, with extreme exposure to the east, we bum shuttled on the knife edged ridge without a rope. Continued descending easy ridge (15m) to a short traverse section that had two towers, these small towers were climbed directly, I lead across this section, maybe 15 metres with easy climbing (5.2 ish), but exposed bumps, got good cams along the towers. Once across these two features, steep traverse on scree, then back to the ridge crest and scrambling back to the low point, and easy slopes back to Piper Creek. Return the same way back to the Elbow Lake parking lot.
|Upper section of North Ridge |
|On tower traverse |
|Small tower section
60 or 70 metre climbing rope and cord or webbing for stations. We brought a full set of wires, a few cams and a dozen or so pitons and a hammer, but didn't use much of it. Much of the rock was to compact from any passive protection, piton (knifeblades) provide the best option.
Helmet of course, poles are very helpful for the scree bash. Rain/snow storm shell, warm jacket, waterproof climbing boots and good food as required, based on weather or season.