Mount Tecumseh Attempt

August 27, 2020. Late summer scrambling on the Alberta/BC border.

  • Region: Crowsnest Pass. Traditional territory of the Blackfoot and Ktunaxa First Nations
  • Elevation of Objective: 2549 m
  • Total Ascent: 1500 m due to my wandering off course. Accounts of uncomplicated ascents put it at 1100-1200 m
  • Distance: 16.1 km due to my wandering off course. Accounts of uncomplicated ascents put it at about 14.2 km
  • Total Time: 7h 17m
Topo map of the route, featuring some zig-zags that represent GPS malfunctions.

August 27 was one of those days that everything didn’t go as planned. After ascending, descending, then re-ascending part of Mount Tecumseh’s south face, I had the summit in sight 300m ahead of me and decided to abort. My legs felt fine, but my brain felt done.

Mount Tecumseh shares a massif with slightly-shorter Phillips Peak, which sits on the continental divide. It makes for an impressive sight from Hwy 3 westbound, as well as from other peaks and trails in the region. My favourite view of it is from the Star Creek Falls trail:

Mount Tecumseh as seen from the Star Creek Falls trail.

There’s a fairly popular scrambling route to the top of Mount Tecumseh starting from Phillips Pass, which runs between Tecumseh/Phillips on the north side and Crowsnest Ridge on the south. An old dirt and gravel road runs through the pass – the modern incarnation of the first formal road crossing the continental divide in Canada. Some interesting historical background about the pass has been posted by Discover Crowsnest Heritage. Older trip reports describe an approach from the east, but this crosses private property. The most recent edition of Kane’s Scrambles in the Canadian Rockies acknowledges this and suggests approaching from the west side, which is what I did.

The route starts from the Crowsnest Provincial Park parking area off Hwy 3, just to the west of the Alberta/BC border. There’s a big parking area with some toilet facilities and picnic tables. Search for it by name or click here and Google Maps will drop a pin on it. At the northwest end of the parking area there’s a locked vehicle gate. The route starts there, following an old road that hooks around and heads east, into Phillips Pass and back over the provincial border.

I brought my bike, since Kane commented that it may be useful, but didn’t find the terrain suitable for my level of cycling fitness. After 2 km of struggling to ride the thing or pushing it up inclines, I stashed it by the side of the road. Walking along the road was pleasant enough – it ascends fairly steadily then levels off after curving around the western contour of Crowsnest Ridge. About 3 km along, the road passes by Phillips Lake which sits right on the provincial border, then continues past a fenced-in metal building which Kane mentions as a landmark. A little over 1 km from the lake, a rocky drainage beneath power lines intersects the road from the north. This is the start of the ascent route.

The initial ascent follows a fascinating creek bed along a course that varies in depth from slight depression to small canyon. In places it’s simply a collection of rubble and debris, but frequently it features the bare limestone of the mountainside, worn into smooth slopes, slides, and pot formations by millennia of water and swirling rocks. At the time of my visit the creek was completely dry, so I just stayed in the creek bed and enjoyed scrambling up the terrain. In a couple places I left the creek bed and deviated left to avoid steep drops, but made sure I didn’t wander off too far – the easiest and best way seems to be to stay right next to the creek and return to it ASAP. I did find a couple of cairns in the creek bed itself which seemed to mark good spots to deviate onto the banks on the ascent and descent, but given their small size and location I’m not sure they persist year-to-year.

A little under 1.5 km horizontal distance and 400m elevation gain from the base of the ascent, I entered the large scree and boulder field under Mount Tecumseh’s southern face. Here’s where I went off-course. All route descriptions emphasize that the best way to approach the summit is to deviate into a scree basin off to the left of the direct line toward the summit.

This is definitely what I intended to do. I just waited too long before trying to do it, and found myself in the right-most of 3 parallel scree slopes separated by long rocky ridges – I should have been in the left-most. I climbed one of the rocky ridges to get a look around. What I saw left me with the impression that crossing through the middle slope, or descending down it before crossing to the left-most one, would be unwise because I couldn’t see the whole route. So, I climbed back down below all three slopes and traversed to the left-most one. This turned out to be the right decision – the bottom of the middle slope featured a 50′ drop. At the end of the day, on my descent, I discovered a cairn marking the best spot to head to the left when ascending. I probably walked within 10 meters of it earlier in the day and didn’t notice.

I took this picture at the end of the day to help illustrate my folly. The numbers show the location of the 3 scree slopes which are out of sight above. The two rocky ridges dividing them are visible in the background middle. The solid line is the way I went. The dashed line is the way I should have gone, ascending and heading left towards 1. Notice the little cairn? I didn’t, even though I probably walked with 10 meters of it. When I checked my pictures from earlier in the day, one of them had the cairn visible in the corner. I just wasn’t looking for it. (click or tap for a better image)

I merrily headed off in the wrong direction, distracted by the colossal cracked rock slab off to my right. After toiling up scree and seeing I was off track, I descended, traversed to the proper scree slope…and toiled up more scree until I reached the summit ridge, a short distance west of the summit. By this time essentially all the vertical was behind me, and I was something like 300m from the summit. For some reason, though, I just felt like I was done. I’m hardly a grizzled mountain expert, but I know enough to listen to my gut feeling when it says “you’re done”.

I had a seat on the ridge and enjoyed the views for a time before descending. I stopped every so often as I descended back to the boulder field to piece together how I went off track.

Click on the pictures in the gallery below to access full-sized images.

Route overview. The winter satellite images on Google Earth and Google Maps aren’t so useful. As with the topo map above, note that some of the major zig-zags are GPS glitches.
Freehand approximate representation of my route on an Apple Map, which at least shows some terrain details. Numbers correspond to the numbers in the picture in the route description above.
The big parking area at Crowsnest Provincial Park, just west of the Alberta/BC border. There’s a locked gate behind that little RV to the left…which was was parked directly in front of the gate despite a vast, empty parking lot.
The road through Phillips Pass. Occasionally it’s intersected by other rough roads, or it passes near the power line cutline. It was always obvious which way to go. Eventually it passes Phillips Lake, then a metal shed, before reaching the start of the ascent.
The start of the ascent. You want to go behind those trees in the foreground and stay in the creek bed.
Ascending the smooth rocks in the creek bed.
There were lots of little “pots” like these along the way. Further up, there were very big ones.
There are a couple of smooth, steep, slides like this. A chance to climb by wedging yourself between the walls and shuffling up.
One of the sections with larger, deeper depressions. I climbed up to the left and passed through the woods for a bit. After a short distance, looking right, I could see that the level of the creek bed was once again level with the banks and I moved back over.
Climbing onto the left bank, I got some nice views of some of the more impressive carved rock in the creek bed.

Continuing along the left bank before entering the trees for a short distance.
Now above the area of the deeply carved canyon and back onto an almost level creek bed. Looking back, I saw this little cairn with a branch sticking out the top. Someone likely placed it to warn of the major drop-off ahead, which you can’t really appreciate from a distance on the descent. It’s a tiny little cairn, so I wouldn’t trust it it be a permanent feature on this route.
Telephoto shot up the slopes – the boulder field eventually comes into view.
In the boulder field. Here is where I should have started paying attention to what was to my left.
The exact moment I went the wrong way. I didn’t notice it, but there’s a cairn in this shot, mid ground near the left of the frame. I was thinking I would climb further, beyond the trees and then cut over to the left. That way I could check out some of the more interesting rock on the right. I didn’t realize that once I got that high there’d be no direct way to cut left.
Climbing up, my attention was focused for a time on the immense rock formation in the distance. This drew me further off course.
In my defence, this was an amazing sight.
After realizing I was on the wrong track, I climbed up on the rocky ridge dividing the slope I was ascending, and the middle slope. There were nice views from that spot out across Crowsnest Pass.
Looking west from my perch on the ridge, across the middle scree slope and next intervening ridge, I could see how far off track I was. There seemed to be a fissure dividing the middle slope, so I couldn’t just go across from here, and I couldn’t see the bottom of the slope, so I decided to descend the same way I’d come up.
Having descended below the intervening ridges, I could see the cliff at the bottom of the middle slope.
Finishing my traverse toward the left-most scree slope.
Finally, I was toiling up the proper scree slope.
Looking left on the ascent, there’s some great rock scenery below the summit of Phillips Peak.
Looking left again, almost to the summit ridge.
The summit ridge of Mount Tecumseh. A short walk would have taken me to the summit. It feels exposed, but wasn’t really so bad.
Panorama looking east-to-south. Crowsnest Ridge is directly down-slope on the other side of Phillips Pass (note the telecom tower). Crowsnest Lake was a lovely blue that day – it sits in the main valley, which is Crowsnest Pass. Sentry Mountain is on the other side of the valley. Mount Ptolemy and environs are beyond. Turtle Mountain is in the background near the left of the frame. The peaks of the Castle are silhouetted in the distant background.
Looking over the ridge to the north towards Deadman Pass. The line of peaks on the other side of the pass include Allison Peak and Mount Ward (near Window Mountain Lake). The peak visible here doesn’t have an official name that I know of.
Looking west. Phillips Peak dominates the view.
A look at the south aspect of Phillips Peak as I was heading back to descend into the scree bowl. A direct approach from this side doesn’t seem feasible for scrambling. The route descriptions I’ve seen involve following the southern ridge from Phillips Pass.
The northern aspect of Phillips Peak.
Back down in the boulder field, and heading home.

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