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Mount Sir Donald

Alpine Climbing
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Friday, August 1, 2014

The northwest ridge of Mount Sir Donald is the crown jewel of climbing in Rogers Pass, a route described in Fifty Classic Climbs of North America, and the focus of Steven and I’s efforts in Rogers Pass since first heading there. Taking advantage of a fabulous (yet short) weather window we decided to move this route up our schedule and give it a go. Originally we were planning to spread the route as a day and a half trip but after being delayed en route to the trailhead we switched gears, got an hour or so of sleep, and set off on a daytrip.

The approach for Mount Sir Donald is a very well defined trail that leaves from the Illecillewaet campground just off the trans Canada highway. We were both pretty tired after driving out and not sleeping so it took a little under four hours to travel the 6.4km (and 1300m) from the car to the Uto/SD col. Getting to the col it was time to sort out or gear and get ready for some fun climbing. For gear we had a 70m climbing rope (extra length for some unplanned raps can be handy in a pinch) a handful of mid-range cams, a set of nuts, and a whack of slings. Surprisingly enough, we ended up not placing any gear (or even getting out the rope) on the way up but that was mostly due to the route being bone-dry. If there was any ice or water on the route placing pro and pitching out the ridge would be critical. We had heard many different reports about the grade of the NW ridge (varying from 5.2 to 5.6). I would say that I agree with the ‘standard’ rating of 5.4

Climbing on the ridge had sustained exposure and fun moves. The beta we had read gave only one rule for routefinding ‘if in doubt, stick to the ridge’, which proved to be 100% correct. There were a few instances where we were tempted to dip off the ridge to follow an easier line but before long the ridge presented a way. Don’t be surprised if you are constantly moving back and forth between the Eastern and Western sides of the ridge. Compared to our usual haunts in the Rockies the rock quality was splendid, but there were still a few decent sized boulders that would wobble if prodded the wrong way. After some discussion we decided upon taking the west face bypass for the last third of elevation gain to the summit. If I was climbing the route again I would stick to the ridge the whole way but at least this way we knew exactly where to go for the descent shortly after. The west ridge bypass is more like a Rockies scramble, loose, few solid holds, and pretty much unprotectable. On the way up the bypass we took too high of a line and traversed icy slabs which made for a slow, careful pace. After crossing the face and gaining the SE ridge, rock quality improved and our pace quickened. Once on the ridge the summit was only a few short hops away.

Like our previous trips in Rogers Pass, my favorite summit views were looking back towards the Rockies. Despite the smoky weather in the past few weeks views were remarkably clear with many giant peaks visible in all directions (I’ll have to submit one of the pano’s to Eric’s site for more proper peak identification). There were a surprisingly large number of wasps on the summit which seemed to be guarding the summit register (thankfully a gust of wind disrupted their watch long enough for us to scribble down a few lines).

I had heard from many folks that the tricky part of Sir Donald is not the fun climb up, but the tedious slog of raps on the way down. For the descent Steven and I first took the West face bypass (which after having scouted on the way up made for a quick direct way down) and then downclimbed the first part of the ridge (skipping the first three official rap stations). If you feel confident enough (and if conditions are favourable) downclimbing is definitely the way to go for speed and helped us to shorten our descent time by a little bit. Once we started on the raps (hitting the last station on the ridge and then all of the stations on the face) progress slowed considerably and with glacial speed we moved down towards the lower scree slopes. On this day the rap stations were all in good shape (with either two or one chains on each station), stations were clearly marked with bright (yellow/orange) shapes surrounding the bolts. It is worth trying to spot a few stations of the way up to save some routefinding on the way down. Once on the rap path routefinding is minimal (the stations seem to drift slowly skiers left as you go further down). When we made it to the last four stations a two man (err one man, one woman) group from Canmore caught up to us and we joined forces to set up stations for each other to speed up all of our descents. For the last two stations we did a double length rap (60m) which got us back down onto solid scree in short order. Once back down, Steven remembered that he had left his poles and the col so he went to grab those while I sought out some grass for a well deserved nap. The rest of the descent was quite routine if still warm (apparently Revelstoke got to 36 as an afternoon high that day!).

All in all I’m really happy we decided to go for Sir Donald, it is a fabulous route worth of any alpine climbers attention! If I was climbing the route again I would probably do a few things differently, first I’ll probably camp at one of the bivys the night before, second (if conditions we known to be dry) I would take much less gear up the route (say two 30m ropes for rapping and a bushel of slings for pro), and lastly I’d go for the ridge the whole way rather than taking the bypass. Well, that’s a plan for another year I suppose.


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