I soloed the rather remote west ridge of Mount Sir Douglas
, III, 5.5, in 2004. Several years later I soloed the much more popular Mount Smuts
south ridge as well as scrambled up Commonwealth Peak
. I had basically triangulated Mount Birdwood by climbing to the summits of mountains on three sides. When I climbed Mount Smuts, I was stunned by the aesthetic north ridge of Mount Birdwood, a route I knew had yet been published. Why had the chossy Lizzie’s Ridge on the east/south side of the mountain been published in our local alpine climbing guide, but not the north ridge? I was definite at that point that if I ever took the time to summit Mount Birdwood, I would solo this north ridge aspect.
The call came from another avid peak bagger in the Canadian Rockies. We had missed getting out with each other for years and 2009 was winding down. On just about the last day of September, before I left for the southern deserts, he called and asked if I would consider the north ridge of Mount Birdwood. There is no published beta on the route and thus he wanted to take gear, ropes, etc. I told him if he agreed to give it a chance solo I would be game.
The approach is the same as it is for Mount Smuts. It starts with a very pleasant mountain bike ride on an old timber road past more moose than most folks see in a lifetime.
This particular cool fall morning we saw seven moose, but I have seen as many as 13 on this trip. The infamous Jack Hanna
had just finished filming these same moose for his new wildlife show, “Jack Hanna’s Into the Wild”
and threatened to buy a place in Canmore as a result of his trip.
It is best to take your bike on this approach.
You are forced to park at the north end of the old logging road that proceeds back to Commonwealth Creek. Large stones are in place and the bottom line is they do not want you driving your vehicle down the road. Bike south for no more than 20 minutes looking to fork right onto a single track trail. You can continue on bike until the thick brush makes it more convenient to hike. Continue on the trail as it brings you to Commonwealth creek at a beautiful wide 3 meter tall waterfall
. Start ascending the right bank via the trail up into the Commonwealth Valley which is one of the most lush valleys in Kananaskis Country
. This is prime bear habitat, take proper precautions.
One set of scramblers had to outwait a bear crossing at the Fist-Smuts Col from the summit of The Fist
Continue along the right side of the valley bottom aiming for the Mount Birdwood
(left) and Mount Smuts (right) col. You will pass the Fist on your right. Once you reach the end of the valley, you will continue on a decent trail up the right side of the col to the right of some rock croppings . Continue to the col itself.
Route DescriptionPlus or minus, you will gain approximately 4000’ for the day.
It is best to traverse out right
versus gaining the ridge directly above the col. Side step your way up loose scree back left to the ridge at an easier point of entry, a flat col of sorts between the ridge proper and the northern sub peak. We observed six mountain goats aim for the same point we gained the ridge, a small saddle in the ridge that gained them access to Birdwood’s northeast face.
Continue along the ridge for the rest of the day for the most part. First crux, from an exposure point of view, comes at a notch in the ridge that you down climb to the left and then gain a steep corner on the right side
that leads back to it. Another crux comes after a flat open length of the ridge leads to some 5th class climbing, again on the right side to regain the ridge at a fixed rappel station (2009)
. Next crux is a short chimney on the left side of the ridge (optional slab to the right). Final crux involves some 5th class scrambling up a corner on the right side of the ridge on surprisingly solid rock or an exposed traverse
even further right that leads to easier broken ground up a short arête. From there you scramble across a short knife edge section, but no real 5th class moves are involved. Continue on to the summit.
There was a summit cairn as I recall and some tat that leads to the southwest descent. We returned via our ascent (northwest ridge) down climbing all aspects even though a fixed station existed at the top of one of the crux sections. Retrace your steps back down to the col. The hike out offers several options. There is a scree trail under Mount Smuts (looked like the preferable option), a direct faint trail directly below the col (what we used for ascent to the col) and another scree trail below Mount Birdwood.
It was a hell of a windy day the day we were on the northwest ridge which meant it was a bit cold at times. My partner even claimed to get lifted off the ridge a time or two. It is obvious this ridge is quite exposed to the elements. We did the trip solo and I recommend this as a solo trip for the competent climber. Otherwise, take along whatever gear you would consider appropriate for a mid-5th class ridge climb. One 50m rope would be more than adequate for any considered rappels.
External LinksKananaskis Provincial Park
trail conditions or closures, wildlife notices, weather conditions, avalanche conditions, camping permits, whitewater conditions, etc.