September 11, 2020. Straightforward scrambling to a summit on the Continental Divide.
- Region: Castle Wilderness. Traditional territory of the Blackfoot, Tsuu T’ina, and Ktunaxa First Nations
- Distance: ~13.5 km round-trip (my 3 tracking programs varied wildly on this: 12.6 km, 13.3 km and 14.9 km)
- Total Ascent: 1414 m
- Elevation of Objective: 2500 m
- Total Time: 6h 22m
St. Eloi Mountain sits astride the Continental Divide, right next door to the Castle Ski Resort. Its neighbours – Mount Syncline and Mount Haig – seem to get a fair number of visitors. St. Eloi doesn’t capture as many peoples’ attention. Arriving at the summit I found no register, and just a tumbled-down little cairn. It’s too bad – I found this to be an excellent objective featuring an engaging approach and excellent views once I reached the ridge. All of this with almost no bushwhacking. Moreover – the route begins at the newly constructed Syncline Barnaby Staging area. This is an easy to find, massive parking area with pit toilets and some picnic benches. I think it may be new as of this year – I don’t recall seeing it before. Perhaps in years to come this’ll be a more popular objective.
Nugara does include this peak in More Scrambles in the Canadian Rockies 3rd ed. though its entry is a mere 3 paragraphs, perhaps leading some to think it’s not a particularly worthy objective. I found a good trip report by Bob Spirko, and I’m pretty sure it’s his route that is included as a track in the Topo Maps Canada app. I got some additional helpful information from a video report posted by All Stone Adventures, recording an ascent in dense smoke in August of 2018. All 3 describe the same ascent route. Nugara suggests descending by the same path. Both Spirko and All Stone made more of a loop route, descending by a drainage adjacent to the summit. Both found themselves dealing with unpleasant bushwhacking. With that in mind, I decided not to be tempted to do a loop and planned to go out-and-back along the same path.
Access is via the Syncline Brook Trail, which is now an official maintained trail. It begins at the Syncline Barnaby Staging area, located about 22.5 km from the edge of the village of Beaver Mines on Highway 774. The staging area is so new that, as of this writing, it doesn’t appear on Google Maps. Its location is approximately 49.344600, -114.416143.
I followed the Syncline Brook Trail for about 2 km, looking for a small wooden bridge. Beyond the bridge there’s a broad rocky drainage coming in from the right (north). This is the 3rd such drainage you reach, so the bridge is the important landmark to look for. The official trail crosses the drainage and continues along the valley bottom, but the scrambling route departs from it here, heading up the drainage. I began to ascend here, and found that what starts as a broad rock and rubble-strewn drainage soon narrows and becomes a fascinating creek bed running over angled rock slabs.
Ascending along the creek makes for some fun hiking, but it’s important not to proceed beyond about 1.5 km. There, the route departs the creek ascending a very steep bank on the left side. Once on top of the bank, I found myself in some brush but my next landmark – a minor hight point on the ridge between Mount Syncline and St. Eloi Mountain – was visible far above. I found a pretty good route through the bushes by paralleling the creek for a short distance on an animal trail. This led to some dense alder but the trail carried on, albeit faintly, through this obstacle. With a minimum of bushwhacking I came out on the other side to open ground and an animal trail ascending towards the ridge. My GPS came in very handy in navigating this area especially on my return trip, when the route through the alder and back to the creek wasn’t particularly obvious.
I ascended towards the ridge, following a bit of an animal trail here and there. I stayed primarily to the right side of valley, even though there seemed to be another rocky drainage towards the left that could have got me where I wanted to go. The terrain was quite steep, though, and the drainage just looked steeper. Getting to the ridge was a slog, but the steadily improving views of Mount Syncline helped keep my spirits up. The terrain was quite soft in places, leading to occasional treadmilling. One particularly treacherous spot changed things up – there was just a dusting of shale on top of steeply sloped solid slabs. I kept that in mind for the descent.
Directing myself toward the minor high-point, I eventually found myself just below it. I decided to start traversing left, bypassing the high point, then I gained the ridge and began to walk along. The views were rewarding in all directions. The summit was visible in the distance, and the route from there was very obvious. Along the way there’s a more prominent high point which I bypassed around the left, though Nugara mentions that it’s worth a visit if you have the energy.
Beyond the high point the ridge descends a bit to a saddle, then abruptly climbs to the summit. I reached the summit at about 3h 25m, which included quite a bit of lollygagging down by the creek. Smoke from the U.S. fires had made its way north, so there was some haze marring the air. The views were better to the north than the south, and the big peaks in the Crowsnest Pass were clearly visible. Nearby, to the west, Mount Haig looked very impressive. South, things looked more hazy, but Barnaby Ridge, Table Mountain, and Beaver Mines Lake were easy to pick out. East, the three peaks of Syncline Mountain dominated the view.
The summit cairn was just a jumble of rocks, so I rebuilt it a little bit (there weren’t that many big rocks up there to use). I didn’t see a register. I enjoyed the view for some time – the wind was light and there were no clouds. The larches were in amber-clad, ready to welcome autumn. When I finally departed, I followed the same route back down.
Click on the pictures in the gallery below to access full-sized images.