With spring beginning to settle in around here, and conditions looking up this past week Kieran and I decided we had better get out and take advantage. After some back and forth the night before, we settled on a proper mission in the NW Face Direct on Mt. Sir Douglas. Steep and imposing, the line goes at an alpine IV grade in summer conditions, but we were hoping for something a little more skiable than that when we left the car sometime after 0500.
The trail to Burstall Pass is a bit of a grind, and I won’t bore anyone with the details of approaching it. On the way, we got a few sneaky glimpses of our objective as well as the valley’s multitude of gorgeous peaks, all bathed in morning alpenglow.
From South Burstall Pass, a few hours into the day we finally got our first real look at the face. This was our main decision point for the rest of the long approach. If the line looked in, we would keep going until we had a really good reason to turn around – preferably our boots on the summit. If it didn’t, we still had plenty of time to switch to a backup objective before the sun had a chance to get to it.
It looked in so, propelled onward by slightly nervous stoke, we went. The route meanders around Whistling Rock and over several ridges, gaining and, annoyingly, losing a fair amount of elevation along the way. Eventually, our chosen route took us down the roughly 300m ramp that we believe also makes up the summer route to the base of the peak’s northwest glacier.
By this point we had already covered a respectable 13 km or so, and we were feeling it just a little bit. A meal break helped though, and so did the cold temperatures. Even if our energy waned (spoiler: it did), we knew the sun and warmth wouldn’t threaten us on the face. Soon enough we were roped up and ascending again. The foreshortened approach glacier was both steeper and longer then we had anticipated but of course we eventually did reach the face.
As we got closer, it had become more and more apparent that the line went almost perfectly. Its only notable difficulty was in the ramp at the very bottom of the face, where a bit of a cornice had grown on a rocky break in the snow. Annoying, but it was the only cornice on the entire route – including at the top – so we let it have its fun and got out the rope.
While digging around for some protection of our own, or maybe just wallowing in a facet hole next to the rock, Kieran stumbled across a fairly recent anchor. We happily recycled it without even having to replace the tat. Very convenient. Thanks to whoever left that, if you happen to be reading this.
Once we were both down, we decided to leave to rope to make re-ascending easier later. I was still carrying a 20m rap cord which we hoped would see us through any unforeseen difficulties above. Then the bootpack began, weaving first across the ramp, then through a series of short couloirs and snowfields. Every step the exposure grew, which gave a particularly wild feel to the already shadowy and foreboding face. It certainly had the character of an alpine climb, not just another straightforward ski line.
Tired legs finally dragged us up a final choss step and onto the summit ridge. We were uncertain which hump was the true summit, so we chose the one that looked the most skiable. We are, after all, skiers first and mountaineers second. As is generally the case on high peaks in Kananaskis Country, the views were tremendous, with fellow 11000ers Joffre, Assiniboine and King George standing out in particular.
Then, ski time. We had to downclimb the small choss band we’d encountered on the way up, which amounted to about 5m off of the ridge. Everything else was skiable, and in excellent condition. The one exception was a thin choke which did require some careful moves on barely buried scree and loose blocks but we were able to keep our skis on throughout.
We had taken care to set a bootpack that we could follow for the duration of the descent, which made routefinding simple. Even still we stayed close, leapfrogging each section and piecing it all together with short, exacting turns; keenly aware that any kind of serious fall was simply not an option.
It was a good thing we’d left the rope up earlier because re-ascending the cornice and slab combo at the bottom of the face would have been a little nightmarish without it. As it was, it still took a while for both of us to get back up, with Kieran ascending the rope and dragging me up after on a top belay. There was probably a more efficient way to do that, but like I mentioned earlier, we’re skiers first, mountaineers second.
The glacier below skied beautifully, each fast turn releasing a little more pent up stress from the fairly technical climb and ski above. Now fully exposed to the sun though, we wasted little time transitioning so that we could get out of the oven. Once our skins were back on, we headed up the ramp we had used on approach. After that, a combination of skiing, stepping, power poling and skating got us back to the car without having to use them again, though our shoulders and triceps certainly paid the price.
All told, the day came in at over 33 km, ~2100 meters and 12.5 hours – only slightly longer than we had planned for. Both of us were and are beyond stoked to have put tracks down on this wild line. As far as we can tell, we’re the first to have done so, but as always in this part of the world, there is no way to know for sure. Humble crushers abound, and I always feel so nervous about claiming anything. Please get in touch or drop a comment if you know more about the history of this face one way or the other. Though I’d be hard pressed to recommend it as a classic, it was an incredible ski.
Check out Kieran’s writeup too, over on our mutual supporter Ski Uphill’s blog: https://skiuphill.ca/blogs/news/sir_douglas_nwface_direct_ski
climbed the face as mountaineer in the early 80’s, well done team for skiing it. John R McIsaac
Awesome work Matt & Kieran! That is a serious line to throw down tracks on, and even though your time car to car was slower than you planned it sounds really fast for that route during any season for that matter
Great article, photos, video & route Matt. Well played🎿
sick line Matt!