July 20, 2015
Being fully aware that many others have written in a very informative nature about all sorts of scrambles and climbs, my blog posts have always been of a more personal nature with my experiences with mountains; both to avoid redundancy with others posts and to shed light on my perspective. This post; however, will be slightly different, due to an obligation I feel to inform of the whereabouts and route information regarding Mount Darrah.
For many years I have looked northwest from Castle with eyes of great longing at the magnificent peak that is Mount Darrah and it’s neighbours. For years I wondered who had been there, and what it would require to one day stand on top of it myself; yet it seemed so unknown, so far out of reach. Then as my experience grew and I gathered friends who had similar interest in an ascent alongside me, it seemed as though our vision may not be realized, at least not in the near future. Our hopes of an ascent were squelched by both an extremely involved 4x4 approach, as well as basically no information about an ascent.
Two things led to the ascent of Darrah being completed. Firstly, it was attending a three-month mountaineering program that gave me all the confidence to take on a peak that may or may not require alpine climbing experience. Secondly, I had a friend contact me with interest in climbing it who had two necessary qualities: A 4x4 that was dedicated to rigorous mountain travel, and years of quality climbing experience. It was all coming together, a date had been set, and we were going to give it a go one way or another.
For those unaware of the whereabouts of Mount Darrah, (which, based on the amount of info I could find online, seems to be everybody) it is placed south of the mountains dominating the landscape to the South of highway 3 in the Crowsnest Pass, and Northwest of the predominant and easily accessible mountains of the Castle Crown Wilderness. This puts Darrah in an awkward place, one not easily accessed by vehicle, even of the 4x4 variety.
As far as climbing Mount Darrah goes, information online is almost zero. I could find that it had been first climbed in 1914, and I found reports of a group of 3 climbing it in 2009, but no information regarding how they did it existed. All I could tell was that they walked the ridge from McGladrey to Pengelly, and finally to Darrah, which led me to believe that they walked the northern ridge to the summit of Darrah. They also mentioned that they encountered 5.3+ terrain, but it did not mention on which of the three peaks they came across such difficulty.
So, disappointed with the information I could find, but also extremely excited at the opportunity to be one of the few summit groups to ever stand atop the peak, I planned out a route based entirely on information gathered from satellite images. The route would take us from a relatively unknown location, based on wherever we could get the truck, and take us west, up the north col, and then south, following the ridge to the summit. The biggest unknown for us was if getting to saddle was even possible. We knew that the ridge had been done (most likely) but their ascent did not require an ascent of the saddle and the satellite images did not look promising.
And so the day began, very early, with everything looking good except the forecast for wind. We the trail we ended up taking headed south on Sartoris road, somewhere around trail 37 (many trails in the vicinity will take you to an acceptable place, and the few that are more northern than our chosen route would likely be better) Sartoris road, if taken from Lynx creek, has a washed out bridge, so a 4x4 will be required; but, if taken from the north, is just fine in a small car (taking a small car will require a long approach on foot that will make the day epically long, perhaps impossible, biking would help immensely if a 4x4 is not an option.) Another thing worth noting is that when I mention a 4x4, I don’t mean taking your 2013 F150 or borrowing your brothers CRV, this is a trail that will do a number on your vehicle, so be prepared to leave some paint with the trees.
When we had reached an impasse, the boots and packs came on and the walking started. Not totally sure of the correct trail to take, (we had a trail map but many are unmarked or not on the map because they have been designated as forest land use zones) we took whichever trails we believed headed to the correct drainage. Turns out, our nav. skills weren’t half bad because it took us exactly where we needed to go. The approach was about 6km (approx. depending on where you decide the “approach” is over) and had little to no elevation change.
Once we reached an adequate viewpoint, we assessed our route up to the saddle. It was rather cliffy, but there were very defined bands of cliffs stretching across the bowl, clearly marked by differences in rock type and quality. We decided to head far left until we reached a dark band of rock, then we would follow it right (north) until we reached a break in the cliffs that would lead to the ridge. Our plan worked out essentially exactly as we planned, with only short mild sections of 3rd class scrambling.
Reaching the saddle we encountered the wind. Discouraged by its strength, but encouraged by its steadiness, (almost no gusting) we continued on. From what we could see, the route would follow the ridge nearly the entire way, excluding one block where we would traverse right for a short ways and then scramble upward (this would prove to be a highlight of the day) and near the false summit where the route seamed very unclear.
The scrambling began immediately once we started uphill, and this would be the trend to the summit. Approaching the first difficult section, we traversed right as planned, but encountered no real break in the cliff. We did; however, find terrific quality rock with moderate climbing. This may have been fifth class for a very short time, but the rock was so good and the exposure relatively low, so we continued on confidently without protection.
From there it was mostly 3rd, sometimes 4th class scrambling up to the false summit with basically no relief or notable ledges to speak of, the climbing was sustained and consistent. Some moderately clever route finding was necessary, but an incorrect choice in route finding would not yield bad results, maybe just some extra work for yourself.
The only bit of scree we came across was just below and leading up to the false summit, the rocks were of the perfect size so as to keep our travel efficient, and it was so short that we barely took notice of it. The final ascent to the false summit led us slightly right (west) and the west ridge led us to the top. Now we had gained the final high point before the summit, and we were excited to see how little elevation we had to lose to gain the summit. We were; however, concerned to see what lay ahead of us: a thin, knife-edge ridge with stomach churning exposure and poor quality rock. It was here that we decided it was time to rope up. Although a daunting bit of ridge lay before us, the climbing looked relatively straight forward, so with the idea of being efficient, we decided to simul-climb.
I lead the ridge with relative ease, the only trouble for me was finding acceptable pro. A couple of horns could be slung and I did my best to weave through high points to use natural protection, because finding cracks in crumbly rock with only a rack of nuts proved difficult. That being said, I probably placed six nuts in the short section of ridge.
And so, before we knew it and with relative ease, we had reached the summit. Still as a write this it seems like we got away with something we shouldn’t have, the stars really aligned for this one. Very few problems were encountered, and even though the scrambling was hard in sections and some fifth class climbing was required, the rock was so good (excluding the final ridge) and the climbing so fun that I cannot think of a single thing to complain about. But as we reached the summit there was only one thing on our mind: the summit register. And to our surprise, there was one there! It had been placed there in 1993 on behalf of the Alpine Club of Canada, and since it was placed, we were only the 3rd summit party to sign it.
The route back down was exactly as it was on the way up, we saw little option for descent anywhere else. But as we looked west it appeared that the west ridge leading to the false summit might be possible, (approached from the Corbin Mine road, but I’m not sure about the approach that would be required, and the ridge seemed to have a lot more loose rock than the north ridge) let me know if you try this route!
I do not throw this around lightly when I say it was the best “scramble” I have ever done. I can’t get over how sustained and high quality the scrambling was as soon as we reached the saddle; it was truly one for the books. That being said, sufficient knowledge of trad climbing is required to adequately protect parts of this climb, I would not recommend doing it without ropes. Now, perhaps I’m breaking an unwritten rule of “hidden gems” by explaining in great detail the logistics and route required to climb such a peak, but I believe that a peak of this quality cannot remain so unclimbed.
Put this one at the top of your list, it’s worth the trouble.
“Because we’re insane”
- Warren Harding