Sunday, October 05, 2014

Seven Sisters

The seven sisters is as much of a Crowsnest Pass icon as Crowsnest mountain itself.  However, the peak may be more of an ambience setter for it's larger neighbour than a destination in and of itself.

The seven sisters was first climbed in 1951 by Bruno Engler.  This ascent would have happened a number of years after his time working as a ski instructor in the Waterton (late 30's to early 40's for 2 seasons) then Blairmore area (early 40's - about 4 or 5 seasons).  Engler did a number of routes in the area that he termed quite difficult and maybe a bit haphazard.  It is speculated that this included some of the short routes at the Blairmore Riverside crag and some unknown alpine routes, perhaps around the Ptolemy - Parish - McLaren area.  I've also found out he climbed the seven sisters on a route he considered extreme.

See one of Engler's pictures with Fritz Frei here (Not sure about where that would be on the sisters, as none of the summits have that type of bridge with an open backdrop….  My guess is that it was a staged shot somewhere on the peak.  Probably on the top of the ridge, but not yet on the main (6th) summit tower)  UPDATE: Here is the actual location of the shot - right side of pict.  

The only other reports I've heard of seven sisters ascent are a 2008 attempt by Rick Collier (no summit pyramid done), and a 2014 early Sept solo ascent (unknown friend of Raff's and unknown summit tower, likely the main 6th one, climbed at 5.6).  There's also fairly good reason to suspect that Martin Krippl & Greg Hooge from Lethbridge may have done one of the summits in the 80's (they had done a number of technical ascents in the southern area during that era).


Height: 8,501
View-o-meter: 4/5
Scrambling Difficulty: 5th class
Total Trip Difficulty: Moderate
Best Feature: The desert towers of the Rockies
Worst Part: Rotten rock

Approach
Drive up the Allison creek road to the normal Crowsnest Mtn. start.  Allison creek road is a paved road that leaves highway 3 just west of Crowsnest Mtn.  Continue pass the Allison creek campground.  About 5km past the a compressor station a good dirt road spur takes off on the right.  Follow it for about 500m, parking where the road first touches a cut block  (49.710202, -114.604285).  Hike up an old narrow logging/jeep road which marks the start of the Crowsnest Mtn trail.  The first opening you come to - an open slide run - is the easiest way to approach the main stack of towers.  A large weakness in the bottom cliff band makes for a technically easy talus approach.  (see left side of below image).

The easiest approach is straight up the old slide run

(If you're doing one of the south towers, follow the Crowsnest Mtn. trail until it leaves the tress, then sidehill to the col.)

Our Detour
Instead of following this route to the main summits, we decided to try to gain the topmost talus slope and traverse the ridge just under each of the seven towers (see google images to see what I'm talking about).  While the towers look connected to the lower cliff bands, there is a large continuos talus slope that runs under them all.

The three gullies which bar approaching a pure traverse


Unfortunately, the images from Crowsnest underestimate the climbing on the 3 approach gullies and an apparently feasible southern ledge system.  The rock on the southern ledge system is horrible, and there are some solid 5th class blanks here and there.  Perhaps a closer look in summer would yield a viable way to ascend the southern arete, but I wouldn't hold my breathe.

We decided not to try to run out one of the icy gullies and rapped down to reach the main talus slope between the 1st and 2nd cliff bands.

The traverse along the coal band and up higher under the sisters is actually pretty nice.

Coal intrusions and high sulfur content rock make for horrid looseness.  Up high things get better.

More Context
The number of summits is actually pretty deceiving when traversing.  Each tower seems certain to be the biggest and last.  However, they just keep coming.

The southern flank of each of the towers would prove extremely difficult.  Only one tower had a feasible southern line.  On each tower obvious climbing routes occurred on the north part of the towers and occasionally on the west or north-western face.  I'm not sure I believe reports of summit ascents from the south-west.  My guess is people have been mistaking west for south-west.  

Ascending the Seventh Sister (or the first if you count from the north)
Traverse along the coal band until you get to a talus slope that breaks through the second cliff band.  Angle up to the top of the ridge.
The talus slope in the center.
Traverse under a series of towers along a faint sheep trail and on 2nd class talus slopes.  There are two or 3 traverses that have some exposure for 3-5m.  However, only one is narrow enough to necessitate side shuffling and hands (4th class).

Nice ridge lines throughout.
Uncertain as to which pinnacle was going to be the last sister, we traversed all the way to the most northerly one.  With conditions such as they were, the last, and perhaps easiest sister seemed good for the day. 

First pitch of seventh sister (5.4 / 5.6 / 4th class)
We had a false start for the first pitch, and ended up opting for what look like a rope-dragger of a pitch to tackle a key off-kilter fist crack flake (and first guarantee of pro).  Luckily we didn't have to head to the fist crack.  Two marginal pieces of gear led an exit onto the arete.  Once on the arete there was 5m of bulgy steps followed by a 5m section of large wafer edges. On top of the wafers we found a very good belay.  On the way down we set our rap above the bulgy steps at the base of the crux wafer face. 

Overall, while gear wasn't good, there was enough to keep you from falling off the mountain.  In the summer you could almost scramble this section.  However the wafer section is solid 5th class soloing with a deadly 30-60m bounce.  The chances of wafer breaking are also pretty high.  It would be a heady scramble.  However, there is a large ledge right below, so you never know….

On top we noticed the start of a cairn on the sixth sister.  This might have been from the 2014 Sept long weekend solo ascent.  Trevor asked if we should build a cairn on the summit.  None of the summit rocks seemed to have never been disturbed.  I said "Why ruin it for someone else? It's nicer the way it is - undisturbed"  

We down climbed 10-20m of 3rd class terrain with two short 4th class sections and got a solid hex from which to start the first of two 30m raps.

We followed the north ridge's talus down to what looked like an easy exit point.  Unfortunately a band of fossil limestone blocks easy exit from the upper talus ledge system.  We cut around to the east and, instead of picking our way through that fossil algae band or walking another km to find a break, rapped off a good horn.

The fossil algae band blocks the way for a clean and easy ridge traverse
While you could avoid descending the fossil algae band by following the talus ledge back to Crowsnest (and your car) , we had earlier decided to follow alpine meadows to the north west.  Descent through the trees was pretty easy.  A good game trail avoided getting caught in the steep sided creek drainage.  The last 500m through the trees was a bit aldery, but nothing terrible.  

The seventh sister from the north west
In hind sight, the quickest way down from the 6th or 7th sisters would have been to head straight down the talus and do a 30m-90m rap through the bottom cliff band visible in the image above, but out of sight when descending.





The Sisters

While I could be off, here's my best recollection of pictures and tower numbers (as measured from south to north….).  Here's the best image I've found from which to do the numbering (many other images seem to only show 6 towers/sisters).  Note the linked picture is taken from the east, while my description and most people come at things from the west.

Sister 0
North side shown

Un-numbered minor sisters right (south) of the first sister (as numbered s to n).  The 1st sister's south face is partly visible on the left.

If you look at the above picture and the gap between the right-most pinnacles  you'll find where Engler's 1951 staged shot was.  Unless he did all the easy towers, I doubt he ascended that nubbin.  The location of the climber in the 1951 image certainly isn't on the obvious ascent route.  From the location and shadowing the image was taken early in the afternoon.  I doubt they would have taken the time, prior to their main peak, to head up a small tower and risk having to leave some rap cord.  Chances are they needed some shots for the day. Just behind the notch is a very long drop down the east face.  A rope would have been prudent.  If they had already done the main tower, chances are decent that they may have climbed this and other minor pinnacles during their outing.  I'll work on the geometry of the shadows to try and better pin down the time of day (see comments).


     Onto the "real" sisters


The first of the sisters (sunlit tower) from the south
Sister 1(...I think) from the north.

Sister 2 (...I think) from the north.

X
Sister 3 - no shots


X
Sister 4 no real shots (looked like there was a good 4th class chimney on the north side)


Sister 5 from the north.

Sister 6 as seen from the 7th sister's summit.  Rough cairn visible.

Sister 7 (our summit) from the north.









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1 Comments:

At 10/08/2014 11:26:00 AM , Blogger chris goble said...

For Engler's old photo, I've done some quick calculations on time of day and time of year.

Based upon vertical shadowing of 70 degrees (assuming 90 cliff face), I've got the following ranges

Max time of day span - June 21 from 11:30am to 2:00pm

Max time of year span from to May 14 to July 28. Obviously the lack of snow suggests a time more toward the end of June and July.

The horizontal shadowing (which I haven't calculated) suggests a time past noon. Therefore I suspect a time close to the end of June for an ascent with a time of day around 1pm.

 

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