North Ridge/West Face of 'South Schlee', 5.6, Alpine II

North Ridge/West Face of 'South Schlee', 5.6, Alpine II

Page Type Page Type: Route
Location Lat/Lon: 50.67639°N / 115.03577°W
Additional Information Route Type: Mountaineering, Trad Climbing
Seasons Season: Summer, Fall
Additional Information Time Required: One to two days
Additional Information Difficulty: II
Additional Information Rock Difficulty: 5.6 (YDS)
Additional Information Number of Pitches: 1
Additional Information Grade: II
Sign the Climber's Log


‘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 of  South Schlee West Face
Summit and North Ridge of  South Schlee Summit Tower
Elpoca Mtn. and  South Schlee 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.

Getting There/Approach

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.

GR407165 -  Tombstone South Elbow Lake
 South Tombstone  from main trail”South Tombstone” from main trail
 Mt Schlee  (l) and  Cat s Ears  (r)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’.

Approach Valley to Tombstone Mtn.View to Piper Pass
Basin between  South Schlee  and  Mt. Schlee Basin between Schlees
Sheep above Piper CreekSheep above Piper Creek

Route Description

Route details for summit of South SchleeRoute details

- 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.

 South Schlee  from campView to basin
Basin between  South Schlee  and  Mt. Schlee Basin between Schlees
View up basin from mid pointHead 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.

View up basin from mid pointGain leftmost scree gully
Head to scree gullyAim for central gully
Nearing narrow scree gullyEnter central gateway

Most of the way of narrow scree gullyUpper scree gully
View up to U notch”U” notch from gully
The  U  notchThrough 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.

Traverse to ridge low pointHeading to ridge low point
Heading downLow ridge point on descent
Just over the low point of North RidgeOver 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 Elpoca CreekView to west
Nearing gullyChosing our line
Lower gullyEntering 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.

The real climbing startsScott on lead
The cruxView up crux
View down cruxView down crux

Heading to station from gullyLast easy section to ridge
Station above gullyScott at belay
Looking down 5.6 gully from stationView 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.

Last scramble to easy summitSteep scramble from station
Final easy summit slopesWalk to summit
Final summit of South SchleeSummit

Scott on summitScott on the summit
Scott with Elpoca behindScott wandering around
View to northView to Jerram and Cat’s Ears

Summit posersBoys on the summit
First Recorded AscentNew summit register
Leaving a traceNew 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.

View down upper North RidgeUpper section of North Ridge
Rock towers on upper ridgeOn tower traverse
Descending towersSmall tower section

Essential Gear

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.



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