The Not So Rotten Rockies, The Great Cambrian Cliffs of Canada

Publication Year: 1970.

The Not So Rotten Rockies

The Great Cambrian Cliffs of Canada

William Lowell Putnam

FOR GENERATIONS the mountaineering fraternity has referred to the rock quality of the Rocky Mountains of Canada in terms of somewhat less than admiration; and not without good reason. The greatest part of the rock formations of which these ranges are composed is described geologically as “incompetent”. A few ridges and escarpments, however, are more resistant, and isolated areas have become more respected for the quality of the climbing. But, by and large, the divide peaks are high, but crumbly; and west of the divide, with most infrequent exceptions, the rock is even less reliable (The Goodsirs are an exception). To the east, though, there has been some hope, but very few serious climbers have been in the habit of seeking out these hills.

The analysis that follows is born partly of the author’s personal experience in certain limited parts of these frontal groups, partly of the well recorded quality of rock in the vicinity of Banff and the Yamnuska, and partly of extrapolation founded on the very reliable field work of the Geological Survey of Canada. For this last, thanks are due to Dr. John O. Wheeler of the GSC, whose work in the field has taken him to all parts of the mountain areas of western Canada; and to Dr. R. A. Price, formerly of the GSC and presently of Queens College, who is presently engaged in the years-long task of compiling that field work into readable maps. This discussion is concerned only with the frontal ranges and does not attempt to treat the outcroppings of the same middle Cambrian rocks which also form the significant cliffs around the hydrographic apex of North America, the Columbia Icefield.

The first edition of The Climber’s Guide to the Rocky Mountains of Canada, by Dr. J. Monroe Thorington and the late Howard Palmer, carried accounts of the already recorded ascents in these areas, and it is interesting to note that while a few new routes have come into subsequent editions, not many more peaks have reached print and hardly any that are more than ten miles from a highway. Better access into other areas might well be a factor in this neglect. However, one is inclined to speculate that while there remained unclimbed summits or imposing new routes of significant mountaineering attraction, which all could see and appreciate, there was little desire to backpack into an unproven area to walk up peaks that were understandably passed off as “writing-desk mountains.”

This is not to attempt to revise this dubious designation, for “writing desks” these peaks certainly are. These generally Cambrian rocks all strike in a northwest to southeast direction, and for the most part dip down to the west at an angle of between 20° and 35°. There is a goodly measure of overthrust faulting, which causes the formations to be repeated as one travels northeastwards from the divide towards the plains. The southwest slopes of the great majority of the peaks in the frontal ranges are gentle and can for the most part be ascended without need of rope or serious technical difficulty. But the northeast exposure is a different story.

The first impressive cliff that greets the oncoming mountaineer as he drives up the Bow River west from Calgary is that offshoot of Mount John Laurie, known to the initiates as the Yamnuska. Two miles west of the mouth of the Kananaskis River, and an equal distance downriver from the Exshaw Cement Works (busily engaged in grinding up the neighboring beds of the very Cambrian formations we here extol), lies this beautiful and popular cliff. Brian Greenwood has thoroughly described its routes in a privately circulated manuscript entitled Yamnuskanalysis. This is the first sight of the two formations which an attentive student of mountaineering can trace (with the help of Drs. Wheeler and Price) for over 100 miles to the northwest, culminating in the peaks at the upper end of Maligne Lake.

The Middle Cambrian formations are not all like the Yamnuska, only in part. The Chancellor Group, including some related series, are generally shales, with some parts that stray into argillite and others that tend towards a weak but dolomitic limestone. In closer association with the resistant beds we will follow are the Mount Whyte, the Stephen, the Pika, and the Arctomys formations. But, the high-angle Cambrian climber will be looking only for the Cathedral and the slightly younger Eldon. These are resistant dolomitic beds ranging generally from 400 to 500 feet in thickness. We shall trace them from the Yamnuska to Maligne Lake, making no guarantee of uniform quality of rock or that every hopeful access route will pan out on foot.

Numerous points along the way are officially — and even unofficially — unnamed, both the heights and the valleys. Despite this lack of nomenclature on even the most recent and highly accurate series of maps, those who will flock to these Canadian Dolomites upon first reading of this analysis should not feel like explorers, for a long chain of pioneers have been in many of the valleys, and a great number of the high points have also been visited, all by the easy west-side way. Ancient campsites and occasional cairns are to be found in many out-of-the-way locations, and the old trails have long been the subject of historical reminiscences (see C.A.J., xviii, p 50 “Some Trails Between Banff and Nordegg” by Morrison P. Bridgland).

The present author recommends access by foot as being, in this day of dehydrated foods, reasonable in these more open valleys, and vastly less expensive than alternative methods. Most of the region where the Cathedral and Eldon formations outcrop lies within one of Canada’s great national parks, or adjacent designated wilderness areas, hence use of helicopters and other motorized equipment is restricted.

Next north of the Yamnuska, and about halfway to the eastern end of Lake Minnewanka, is End Mountain, the south buttress of South Ghost River, where the river leaves the mountains for the high plains of Alberta. Overlooking the narrows of the lake is Saddle Mountain, on the Banff National Park Boundary. These two peaks appear to be unclimbed, and like all those that we will consider, are most impressive when viewed from the east or north.

Two miles north of the narrows of Lake Minnewanka, and south of the main stem of Ghost River, is Mount Costigan. This 9775-foot peak is still unclimbed and boasts a magnificent cirque on its northern flank with cliffs up to 2500 feet in height. This cirque is a mile across. Continue north across the Ghost River to Devils Head. This 9174-foot peak has been climbed only from the west-northwest, via its longest ridge. The south, east and north faces remain challenges that might have long since been climbed were they more approachable, but no road comes within ten miles. Two miles west of Devils Head, as well as four miles to the northwest, are four unnamed summits all reaching over 9500 feet, and all with impressive east and northeast faces. These faces, like the cirque of Mount Costigan, are all over a mile in length, but reach a mere 2000 feet in maximum height. Here, the first section of the Middle Cambrian terminates, so we will now adjourn to Banff.

It is from Mount Edith, four miles west of Banff, that the Middle Cambrian takes its second faltering start as a mountaineering challenge. Behind Edith is Louis, and to her west is Mount Cory, known locally as “Hole in the Wall”, because of the large cave high in its southwest face. But, the Middle Cambrian here is only a thin sliver in width and of little mountaineering consequence compared to the much greater mass of Devonian dolomites that make up the bulk of the Sawback Range. This sliver continues northwestwards along the crest of Edith through Louis to Fifi and then takes a short break in prominence for several miles to resume in earnest beyond the Cascade River. Here, though, the characteristic northeast-facing cliff is less prominent than farther on.

One of the incidental attractions of the Sawback Range is the complex of alpine lakes immediately south of Block Mountain. The lowest and largest of these lies closest to the mountain and immediately under its impressive east face, the height of which is exceeded by the north face which overlooks the Cascade River. Three of the Block Lakes are attractively located right at timberline, two others are close under the south face of the mountain; and the remaining four constitute a delightful complex of alpine sinkholes with subterranean drainage. The best access to this area is via the park road up Cascade River, which reaches to within a mile of the lowest lakes. It is perhaps worth noting that this whole area abounds in disappearing streams, typical of limestone country.

Since the quality and attractions of Mount Eisenhower, composed of Middle Cambrian rocks, are so prominently visible, there is little need to point out that the mountain is there to be climbed, for there are many routes to this summit. Similarly, we do not intend to dwell on the well exhibited potential of Mount Hector next along the chain, and the peaks extending from there to the great mass of Mount Murchison. This entire area, even including Molar Mountain to the east of Hector, is well known for its karst topography. Our intent herein is to draw attention to the area of finer cliffs which lie off the beaten track, and are largely supported by the Eldon and Cathedral dolomites, in their more easterly outcroppings.

Starting some six miles due north of the junction of Route 93 with the Trans-Canada highway, and west of the head of Johnston Creek, there lies an unvisited four-mile wall culminating in Pulsatilla Mountain. This is an outlier, so to speak, of the main trend of the cliff running northwestwards from Mount Eisenhower.

Opposite Block Mountain on the north side of Cascade River, a 9600-foot peak starts a cliff line trending on towards Bonnet Peak. Parts of this wall reach over 1500 feet in the three miles to Bonnet. The high cirque immediately east of this summit should offer much interest, just to reach its floor. North of Bonnet Glacier lies the wooded valley of Douglas Creek, the west side of which is marked by the high (10,867 and 10,614 feet respectively) summits of Mounts St. Bride and Douglas. In this vicinity the strata are more nearly horizontal than in other parts, hence the cliff lines are more diffused, and the precise structural control of the topography is lacking. Challenges, however, remain, even though the, Cambrian has here been thrust over the younger Denonian.

West from the Douglas Group lies an area, not pertinent to this analysis, of lesser peaks and highly fossiliferous strata, which is easily reached from the vicinity of Lake Louise. A good trail, extensively used in winter, ascends Pipestone River and branches up its major east tributary to a ski lodge at Skoki Valley. This trail continues eastwards over the timbered pass to Red Deer River and thus provides the easiest access to the most challenging area discussed so far in this analysis.

Starting directly north from Mount Douglas, across the Red Deer River, with a 9500-foot tower overlooking the gravel flats near the mouth of Douglas Creek, is a wall that runs continuously for ten miles before its first break, at no point being less than 500 feet in height. This is country that has seldom been visited at all, even from the easy side, and has been seen from its impressive east vistas only by dominion surveyors in the early part of this century. Numerous points in this ten-mile wall exceed 10,000 feet and there is one impressive ridge about two miles northwest of Mount Drummond at the head of the Drummond fork of the Red Deer River, which exceeds 2500 feet from a delightful alpine lake to its 10,300-foot crest. For about half its length, the east drainage is to Red Deer River, but north of Cataract Peak the drainage is northwards to Clearwater River.

True devotees of the out-of-the-way will find a set of Middle Cambrian cliffs a few miles to the east of this Cataract Wall. Mount McConnell boasts a fine east face above a high alpine lake. Extending sporadically for nine miles north from Mount McConnell are several unclimbed, unnamed summits in terrain never visited by white men. The cliff lines in this country are not as massive as those in the main line a few miles to the west, but their day will come.

The culminating challenges of this formation rise above the sources of the Clearwater River, including the west drainage of Roaring Creek, both sides of the main stream and its north fork, Martin Creek. Approach has been made only by way of Pipestone Creek to attain the westernmost of the summits from the west. At the end of the ten-mile wall referred to above, however, there is a passable break which should allow access to the base of these cliffs from the Pipestone valley, debouching the climber into Roaring Creek drainage, which would enable him to contemplate these nameless faces.

West across the main branch of the Clearwater River lies Mount Willingdon, at 11,066 feet, the highest summit of the Middle Cambrian, surrounded on the west by its satellite summits. The northeast face of Willingdon runs four miles, and spans the high ground between the Clearwater and Martin Creek with a wall, at no place less than 1000 feet high and, in its northern portions, somewhat more than vertical. Those who prefer the merely perpendicular can content themselves two miles away, towards the plains, with the east face of Mount Harris and farther east with the unnamed 1500-foot wall facing north to Mount Martha, directly overlooking Martin Creek.

The drainage of Siffleur River, and most particularly of its eastern fork, Escarpment River, offers a fine series of walls. Here, one can readily discern the separation between the Eldon formation and the older Cathedral, for a fine shelf runs along the walls dominating Lumbago Lake and making up Kahl Peak. This is extremely beautiful terrain where alpine flowers spread in profusion right up to the cliff base. The walls farther back from Escarpment River are not of the Middle Cambrian with which we are concerned. Overlooking lower Siffleur River and its western tributary, Porcupine Creek, are the final stages of this formation prior to the great gap of the North Saskatchewan River. These cliffs rise straight from the timber of the valley bottom, reaching summits of more than 10,000 feet which are unclimbed even by the easy west way. Access is relatively good via the modern David Thompson Highway and the Siffleur River forest road.

North of the Saskatchewan River, the formidable appearance of the Middle Cambrian is temporarily lessened as the gentler approaches on the left bank of this river show minimum relief for a distance of several miles along the trend of these formations. In the headwaters forks of Entry Creek (a tributary to Cline River) there are two lakes. Between these lakes, and nearer the larger and easterly lake lies a 9300-foot summit. There is nothing to recommend this peak except that it possesses the first cliff of the resumed series. Five miles west lies the very interesting wall of Mount Cline. About seven miles down David Thompson Highway from Saskatchewan Crossing a small stream flows in from the north. Three miles up this valley, bearing to the right at the first fork, and left at the second, one comes under the massive east wall of Mount Cline. Reaching well over 1000 feet in height, and running more than two miles, this cliff terminates in the high col between Mount Cline and the lesser bulk of Resolute Mountain which lies to the east.

At the head of Shoe Leather Creek lies the triple mass of the Whitegoat Peaks, variously referred to as Thunder Mountain. While only the central (and highest) of these has been climbed, Don Linke’s pictures (C.A.J., xlii, p 43) show that there are challenges, even from the easy side. Incidentally he never got to see the northeast cliff, which is just as steep as what he did see, but twice as high.

West from the Whitegoat Peaks, four miles across Thunder Creek, and halfway to Pinto Lake and Sunset Pass, stretches a three-mile crest culminating near its southeast end in an unnamed and unclimbed 10,000-foot summit. At no point from this summit northwestwards is the cliff less than 1000 feet high, and around to the east of an outlying summit it reaches even higher.

Northwestwards once more, across the Upper Cline River, and situated around Mount Stewart, are a number of lesser cliff lines, where the two resistant formations are repeated four times in a lateral space of six miles to make a parallel set of “writing desks,” all reaching about 1000 feet in height on the northeast face. These four ridges have now been visited and for the first time intensively explored on the ground.

The last of the Middle Cambrian cliffs lies beyond Brazeau River, and make up the east wall of the massif known as Le Grand Brazeau. Certain of these walls are in their turn very substantial, most particularly those overlooking Brazeau Lake, and the magnificent north face of Poboktan Mountain. A culminating reverse twist is found in the final outcrop below the southern tip of Maligne Lake, where the cliffs extending from Mount Henry McLeod to the Monkhead face westwards to Coronet Creek. These form the familiar double wall, with a median ledge separating the thousand-foot rises.

Go northeast, young man! Take your bongs, slings, nuts, hammocks, hard hats and hammers.


When I wrote the above analysis, I did not know what I was talking about. It all sounded good in theory, but the whole proposition was unknown, not just to me, but to anyone. This supplement adds a few facts to substantiate the climbing possibilities. In company with Andy Kauffman and Rob Wallace, along with Morgan Broman and Lowell Putnam, both of whom entered this game the previous summer, I set out on July 26 to see if the great Cambrian cliffs really amounted to what the Department of Mines and Technical Surveys indicated. We were accompanied for three days by Earl Whipple, until better judgement and worse boots forced his retreat.

We followed familiar, well-marked trails southwards up the Siffleur River to camp at the mouth of Laughing Bear’s Creek. The second day we continued up that creek to a 7500-foot, timberline camp at the easterly bend of the creek. Rob, Andy and I climbed to the top of First Pass (9200 feet). Next day we ascended the peak at the head of this valley, which we named in honor of Jim Simpson, distinguished guide, poacher and raconteur. Our route was via the west ridge with approach from the north over abandoned moraines. Day Four saw Rob and Andy accompany Earle down to see him safely across the Siffleur, before following us. The rest carried everything in sight over First Pass, down Bill Field’s valley of 1925, up the 1500 feet to 9800-foot Second Pass and down three miles to camp at the head of Martin Creek.

After a rest day, we set off early for Mount Willingdon. We approached over the abandoned bed of its glacier, gaining the ice after a few bouts with glacial streams. A long hot slog took us across the ice and névé to the notch at the base of the west ridge. From here we essentially followed the route used by two earlier parties, finding the ridge pleasant but rotten. On the summit, excavation in the cairn revealed an obvious truth:

"Whoever climbs this mountain will find we have been here first Wm Osgood Field A AC*

Chas Dana McCoy John P. Hubbard*

Max Brooks – “Trail Rider”

July 11, 1925 *Harvard Mountaineering Club

31 yrs later

July 10, 1956 Lome Pelton Donald Gill John Barber

Topographical Survey”

Having digested this information (along with lunch), we went down the south ridge to the col and then in an easy hour romped up the neighboring unclimbed 10,980-foot summit to the south. We decided to climb these hills from the west only after ruling out the Cambrian cliff on the east because of a menacing icefall that beetled over a hanging glacier.

We still had 70 miles to go. Although in subsequent days we traversed for the first time three more high passes and checked on the quality of the climbing, we made no significant ascents. On Day Twelve we moved up the valley of Douglas Creek and then up its west side to Lake Alfred. The next day we climbed Mount Lychnis via its east ridge, not a difficult ascent, the problem being to know which of the two high points was the summit.

Although now in fairly civilized country, we had one last obstacle to cross. We left Lake Alfred and went up onto the Bonnet Glacier, crossing in a true southerly direction towards Pulsatilla Pass, which we attained after a fine scree slide down the 9200-foot exit below Hickson’s Peak. Rob and I climbed Pulsatilla Mountain, largely a repeat of the first-ascent route. Day Sixteen saw us exiting down the 15-mile trail along Johnson Creek.

It is obvious that a party can go happily and safely through these hills for 90 miles, carrying all its own food and without any external support. We were hardly the first to prove this. We made some interesting ascents and certainly crossed the country the hard way; back-packing, we climbed a cumulative total of more than 15,000 feet merely in our six passes.

The great cliffs are there, just as the excellent new series of Dominion maps says they are. Where we tested the quality of the rock, we found it good. But we did not test it everywhere. The country is worth further research.