August 13, 2021. A fantastic scramble to the summit of one of Southern Alberta’s iconic mountains.
- Region: Crowsnest Pass. Traditional territory of the Ktunaxa, Tsuu T’ina, and Blackfoot First Nations
- Distance: 8.6 km
- Elevation Gain: 1101 m
- Elevation of Objective: 2783 m
- Total Time: 4h 14m
I first climbed Crowsnest Mountain about 21 years ago. It was an August ascent, but there was a cold wind blowing and a few stray snowflakes began to fall as we ascended. When we reached the summit thick clouds rolled in. The wind picked up and more snow started to fall, so we descended right away. It was a worthwhile trip just for the fun of the scramble, but I always felt a little sad that I didn’t get to enjoy the views from the summit. Fast-forward more that 2 decades and on another August day I climbed Crowsnest Mountain again. This time it was while a “heat dome” sat over western Canada and smoke from forest fires blanketed the landscape. The views were once again limited, but the climb was once again great fun.
Crowsnest Mountain is an eye-catching peak sitting isolated from the surrounding ranges. Its only neighbour is the Seven Sisters just to the north. It is a popular objective and has been in Kane’s Scrambles in the Canadian Rockies since the first edition. The mountain holds special significance in First Nations culture. To the Ktunaxa the mountain is Kokinakitteis: Raven’s house. It is the home of their creation being and from its summit Raven keeps a lookout on the surrounding lands. Blackfoot stories tell that Omahkai-stow, the Raven Spirit-Being, lived at Crowsnest Mountain. In the mythic past, Omahkai-stow battled Ksiistsi-komm, the Thunder Spirit-Being. Ksiistsi-komm lived at the other distinct mountain which stands alone in the southern Rockies: Ninastako (Chief Mountain). The two eventually made an accord that they would divide the year into two parts. Summer would be Thunder’s time, while winter would be Raven’s. I love this story because it makes me think of the dark clouds and snow closing in on me 21 years ago – Omahkai-stow was preparing for winter.
Access to the scrambling route is via the Atlas Road. From Highway 3, west of Coleman, take the turn north onto Allison Creek Road. Continue on it as it turns into the rough and rocky Atlas Road. Park where the road widens 9.7 km from the highway. Click here for the Google Map. East of the road there is a little trail marker showing the way to go. An ATV trail going north-south is soon encountered and there’s an information sign adjacent to a walking trail entering the woods. This trail goes southeast through the woods for a short distance before emerging on a wide (decommissioned) ATV trail. From there you’ll probably note that you could have skipped the walk through the woods by going south on the ATV trail back where the info sign was and then turning east soon after onto the decommissioned ATV trail. I went that way on my descent.
The old ATV trail climbs steadily through the woods for about 2 km before emerging on the rocky lower slopes of Crowsnest Mountain’s northwest face. The route is well-travelled enough that there are visible paths in the scree and rubble. A few cairns dot the route. As I approached the bottom of the first cliff band I noticed an arrow spray-painted on a boulder indicating the way towards a weakness in the cliffs – what Kane describes as the lower rock steps. These made for some easy and fun hands-on scrambling. From the top of the rock steps I could once again see an obvious path in the rubble, traversing left and ascending to the base of the second cliff band. A key landmark, a section of the cliffs which are notably dark from trickling water, was easy to see. To the left of it was the entrance to the ascent gully through the second set of cliffs.
The gully was filled with rubble but I stayed to the left as I ascended and mostly kept my feet on solid rock. The final climb out the top of the gully would make for difficult scrambling if it wasn’t for a very convenient chain fixed in place there. There were a few sections of chain, all of which seemed very securely anchored (though one section was a little lighter in caliber – like it had been stolen from a swing set). The rock was fairly steep, and smoothed from weather and the passage of thousands of scramblers. The chain was probably well-anchored, but I decided to keep 3 points of contact with the rock and one hand on the chain. Once out of the gully I went left a short distance then turned right and followed another path in the rocks as it ascended and traversed a short distance below the ridge line. A final zig-zag up some rocks below the summit and I was on top. It took 2h 9m to ascend.
The day was hot and smoky – Ksiistsi-komm was clearly asserting himself. Distant views were blotted out by the smoke but I had a nice view of Seven Sisters and some hazy views of the High Rock Range to the west. South and east were mostly just grey haze. After enjoying the summit for about 20 minutes I made my way down the same way I came up. I took a short detour between the two cliff bands to have a look at a bit of a viewpoint above the lower rock band. Getting back to my car I was already pondering my return trip on some clear-skied day in the future.
I feel obligated to make this comment about safety: This route is very well-travelled and over time it’s possible people have stopped respecting the hazards involved in climbing this mountain. Two people have died there in the last 2 years, one of them on the scrambling route. This is most definitely a scramble, not a hike.
Click on the pictures in the gallery below for higher resolution images. My sources for the First Nations history of the area were:
The Blackfoot Gallery Committee. (2013). The Story of the Blackfoot People: Niitsitapiisinni. Firefly Books Ltd.
Candler, C. and Murray, M. (2019). Technical Memorandum: Ktunaxa Nation Rights and Interest in relation to Benga Mining Limited’s proposed Grassy Mountain Coal Project. https://registrydocumentsqa.blob.core.windows.net/commentsblob/project-80101/comment-66252/126654E.pdf (accessed August 14, 2021).