On July 14th I got a last minute wild hair to climb Sir Douglas. I knew this
mountain had a reputation for staying out of condition most of the year. However,
Joffre was still freezing 4 days earlier so I gave it a go.
The hike in to Burstall Pass is uneventful for the first several kilometers. I wish I
had taken a bike, as there is a locking bike rack before the gravel flats. Of course
on the way out, I was really cursing for not thinking of this. Burstall Pass comes
as a relatively quick and easy 7.5k. At the gravel flats, which were heavily flooded
this year, you will have great views of Sir Douglas's east face and glacier as well
as Robertson's appearance as a spire (although this is a distortion from the
angle from which you are viewing) Shortly before you get to the actual pass and
before the sign marking Banff National Park, you will proceed due south aiming
for Sir Douglas' northwest face and twin glaciers which dominate the southern
skyline. Proceed on to South Burstall Pass. There is no identified trail along the
way and few cairns. Just head for the mountain. When you get to the southern
pass, you will have two options.
In the Selected Alpine Book there is the option of descending into the Palliser
drainage and contouring around the west edge of a spur that shoots out of Sir
Douglas' north east ridge. However, I challenged the route and ascended straight
up and over the spur and was rewarded with a birds eye view of my objective
looming in front of me. I found these snow and rock slopes easy to maneuver.
Once on top of the spur, I proceeded east and found a great scree ramp right
before you run into the north east ridge. I utilized the contour route on my return,
but much prefer the option I just subscribed, coming and going.
It took me 4 hours total to get to a bivy site on the moraine edge below the right
hand glacier (glacier melt close by and a soft spot good for at least one bivy). I
awoke at 4:AM to unfortunately warm temperatures. I heard rock and ice fall all
night and realized I would have to do the West Ridge versus the Northwest Face.
Due to extreme hanging ice, you will be forced to stay glacier left for the 1500'+
climb to the col on the west ridge. Some steep snow and ice take you right onto
the ridge. I wore crampons on this ascent. Once on the ridge, you have another
2000'+ of 4th and 5th class climbing. Since we had late conditions this year, I
had to apply my crampons more than once to cross over several ice steps and
cornices. I also took two axes. I wish I had a rope, because the final 1000'
presents some exposed and difficult free climbing. When I crossed the first
rappel station, I started to consider the wonderful down climbing experience that
awaited my descent.
It took me 3:40 to reach the summit and 2:20 to descend, but that is swiftly
moving. I was the first to sign the register in 2004 and that comes as no
surprise. Sir Douglas' reputation for bad rock is well earned. At 9:AM, this was
one of the quietest and scenic summits I have ever achieved. Joffre to the South,
Assiniboine to the North and a massive blanket of a glacier on the backside
named the Haig, more than likely the largest single Rocky Mountain glacier south
of the Icefield.
There are about four rappel stations I noticed on descent, I would have used
them all if I had brought a rope. Conditions are tedious at best on this ridge,
snow, ice and rock that comes to pieces in your hands.
One has to be an expert route finder on this ridge. As usual, speed can be an
advantage. Within an hour of being off the glacier, I heard a huge boom and
looked over my left shoulder as thundering amounts of ice wiped out my bottom
tracks. I recommend saving this one for a winter ascent.