Looking west from South Baldy, Kananskis Country

Looking west from South Baldy, Kananskis Country

Tuesday, 2 August 2016

Mount Rundle Main Summit

Hiking Mount Rundle from Banff

Mount Rundle has several summits; the climbers' traverse description includes about ten. From the east, these include EEOR ("Daffern's summit" (I), then "Kane's summit" (II)), then two more that can be hiked before the going gets tough. Peaks IX and X are the last two before the mountain plunges into Banff via the Rundlehorn slabs. Both are described by Alan Kane, and IX, being the true summit of Rundle, attracts a lot of attention. 

It's quite a haul up Rundle. 15 km round trip, and 1,530 m of ascent. The view down from the summit cliffs is sheer and intimidating. It's not one that I would rush to repeat, although the views were excellent, and it's a good workout for tackling more distant peaks.

The advantage of the mountain's popularity is a good trail for the first 6.5 km (surely the best thing to come out of the Banff golf course...sorry, old joke). The disadvantage is the crowds that it attracts. I've ranted previously about Muppet Mountain. Rundle is its big brother. Imagine if someone turned off the oxygen near the top of Ha Ling, and you'd get something akin to what I observed on Rundle. I saw numerous pilgrims - I assume - crawling up the mountain on their hands and knees. Of around 50 hikers that I passed, I only three had poles, and two of those were carrying them on their bags, while wallowing in some of the worst scree I've ever fought my way up. How was that enjoyable? Kane asserts that this walk is an excellent case for carrying ski poles. He's right - I tried a few steps without them and it was hell. 

There was a liberal smattering of graffiti on the rocks, all along the trail, and especially towards the summit. In a National Park this is appalling. I struggle to reconcile this kind of thing with Parks Canada's agenda to push for providing greater wilderness access to people who have no concept of how they should behave beyond the city limits (and arguably none in general). Increased numbers of uninformed visitors equals greater environmental damage; on the summit of Mount Rundle that relationship is written on stone. Like Ha Ling, Rundle appears to be a sacrificial summit - one that is allowed to become a focal point for abuse so that others remain unscathed. As such, I can't recommend it. 

Bow Valley view
View looking towards Canmore from main summit of Rundle.

Mt Rundle
Another summit view, looking along the ridge

Looking down Mt Rundle
The dizzying view straight down the summit cliffs towards the Bow Valley

Friday, 29 July 2016

Hiking Mt Lougheed II and III

Hiking Mount Lougheed

Any Calgary skyline ticker (as I am almost proud to admit myself to be) will have eyed the series of serrated teeth that runs south from the Bow Valley towards Moose Mountain, and wondered (a) what they are, and (b) whether they are accessible. The chain starts at Big Sister, and runs through Lougheed's four peaks, Sparrowhawk, Bogart and Kidd. That's a lot of Big Scree, in anybody's book. 

Most of those mountains can be accessed by the non-climber, but some of the approaches are exposed and/or difficult. Fortunately two of Mt Lougheed's summits are reasonably easy to ascend, although it would be easy to do something regrettable on the approach. The route takes in Lougheed II (the main summit) and III (a fifteen minute addition). I think it's known as the Spirko Route these days. These peaks are sandwiched between Lougheed I ( a difficult, exposed, and potentially lethal scramble), and Lougheed IV, better know as Wind Mountain. There is a sketchy-looking scramble up that one too.

The approach to Mt Lougheed
The approach starts from the Spray Valley side of the range, winding its way up to a beautiful alpine valley. On the way we passed a verdant spring in the woods, and crossed the new High Rockies mountain bike rail that will connect Canmore to Kananaskis Lakes when completed.

The fairly-recent trail up Lougheed is faint in places.

Starting up Lougheed II (3107 m) from the green valley
After a pleasant valley approach, and a couple of creek crossings, the trail to Lougheed headed straight up a huge scree slope, into what appeared to be a dead-end wall of cliffs. Goodbye grass, hello scree! We soon passed the guys who you can see way up the slope; not that we were fast, it's just that they still had a long way to go when pictured.

Mt. Sparrowhawk from where the main Lougheed scree slope enters the cliff bands.
Escaping the cliffs was easy enough. The only hazard was ball-bearing scree on slabs, which persisted until we were a fair way up the ridge above. I was soon on the summit ridge, and opened up enough space to be able to photograph the others against the skyline as they traversed towards the main summit of Mt Lougheed.

Traversing rubbly slabs to the firmer rock of the summit ridge.

Mt. Lougheed
The northern summit: Lougheed I
For scale, spot the tiny figure outlined against the lake.
Mt Lougheed
Lougheed II is the sunlit lower peak in front of the shapely summit of Wind Mountain (Lougheed IV).
Being an admitted sad skyline ticker, I took the chance to run down Lougheed II and bag Lougheed III. It was a simple enough scree run. On the col I saw some frost polygons; I'd not seen those out here before, although I knew that people sometimes go down into the Sheep area to see them.

Mt Allen
You don't notice these folds when you're on Mt Allen
The voiews of the centennial Ridge were excellent, showing the folds that create the steeper parts of the descent when heading north from Mt Allen.

The summit ridge of Lougheed II
Centennial Ridge
An unusual view of the pinnacles on the Centennial Ridge of Mt Allen
Lougheed II
My companions Lindsay and Eric on top of Lougheed II, from Lougheed III.
This photo made Mt Lougheed appear suitable hardcore, but the truth is that the slope is not that steep - you can see the scree lines where I ran down to the col.
This guy appeared accustomed to hikers.
On the descent we ran into a large group of Chinese hikers; mothers and teenage kids huddled under an outcrop. They didn't seem very well equipped, or to know where the trail went, but I did not hear anything about a rescue. There was a good thunderstorm brewing, and after suggesting they might ant to keep an eye on it, we headed down as fast as we could.

Canmore spider
A huge spider (by Rockies standards). I cannot find out what it is.
Overall, it was a good day out. The valley below Sparrowhawk is worth visiting regardless of whether you intend to summit Lougheed.

North Ridge of Moose Mountain

A Hike-a-Bike up Moose Mountain's North Ridge

Moose Mountain occupies a huge sector of Calgary's mountain panorama. Most people who hike or bike up it do so from the southern well road ("the Moose Mountain Road"), off Highway 66. The problems with that are that: 

- It is a crowded route;
- Unless approaching via the Pneuma or Moosepacker trails, you miss out most of the ascent; and
- It only takes in part of Moose Mountain's skyline.

I'd done the tourist route many times, and had always regarded the other ridges with interest. This is my brief account of taking the North Ridge approach.

The route is described by Gillean Daffern, although this is a trip for which her compound approach to descriptions caused me some confusion. IMO it's best to just use the Gem Trek map, and forget the book, unless you want to extend the day substantially by taking cut lines etc. instead of the direct approach.

From the Pine Woods picnic area (washroom and non-potable water pump) we immediately took the wrong route. The map suggested that we could descend to a creek directly underneath the parking area, then pick up a cut-through trail to the Husky well road that would take us to the end of the biking section. Unfortunately, the 2013 flood removed a bridge here, so we started the day with wet feet. If you do this route, ride north from the parking lot for 500 m, until you reach the gated well road junction, then descend to a bridge, and continue towards Moose Mountain.

The road is about 14 km long. At least 13 km of it is uphill, and I ended up walking several times. The extra weight of hiking gear, boots, and water made quite a difference. Eventually, after passing several oil and gas facilities, we skirted the main site (the only staffed facility), and continued for 2 km uphill to the col and well pad below the north ridge. Partway up this leg, we noticed a cairn that I believe marked the faint trail to Jumpingpound Mountain. We dumped our bikes behind a berm, changed, and headed off uphill through some lovely meadows that offered great views. 

Cycling up the road to Moose Mtn North Ridge
Moose Mountain's north ridge, leading to the summit, seen from the interminable well road.
Hiking moose mountain
On the meadows where the North Ridge kicks up. It's raining in Calgary!
The summit of the North Ridge is only a little lower than the main summit.
The north ridge turned out to be a pleasant almost-scramble, along a narrow rocky ridge. Part way along there was a shovel standing upright in a cairn. I've asked around, but nobody seems to know the story behind this oddity. It's been there for a good few years.

Moose Mountain north ridge
Andy descends from the main summit, passing a memorial stone.
The final few metres were fairly steep, but the footing is OK, and after a short climb, the ridge met the main trail. On the descent we noticed a memorial stone (it's down past the fire lookout's biffy, if you want to take a look). 

Moose Mountain North Ridge
Lovely meadows on the descent, near the well pad.
The descent was insanely fast. Overall the trip included around 29 km of riding, and 4 km of hiking. It's not a long day per se, but the continuous uphill grind on the bike is sure to take its toll. Fortunately Andy had sneaked a couple of chilled beers into his cooler, so getting into the baking-hot car afterwards was a little easier than it might have been.

A short climbing story

Last year I attended a short writing online course at Mount Royal University, Calgary. The great thing about doing a writing course online is that you never meet your coursemates, so it's easy to post your stories without fear - it's effectively anonymous. The downside of the online format is that perhaps it doesn't pressure you to inject as much care into your writing as you would if you saw the readers every day in person. That's rather like this blog really! I'm going to pretend that I have an audience out there though, concealed behind their iPads and laptops. They just don't use the feedback button - unless it's to post spam...I get a few of "those" emails.

Here's one of the stories that I wrote on the course. The instructions were to write something that focused on interaction and dialogue between characters, in less than 500 words. I chose to write about climbing. Climbers don't talk a lot when they're on the cliff. They have to choose their words carefully to avoid miscommunication that could cause an accident. The story is a bit melodramatic, but I wanted to write something that the non-climbers on the course (i.e. everyone) would find interesting. Raving about threads and flakes, and extolling the virtue of the perfect hex placement probably wouldn't have cut it.

The photo accompanying the story is of a much younger me, leading Riders On the Storm in Pembroke, Wales. The sea was kicking up pretty hard that day, and made it one of the most memorable short routes I've done - or perhaps it's just this photo that keeps the memory alive, 20 years later.

Pembroke HVS climbing on sea cliff
Riders on the Storm, Pembroke, Wales


Susan steps smartly upwards into the sunlit safety of the stance. She clips a karabiner to a rusty pin, and yells: “BELAY OFF!” Her call is a bird that plunges at the booming sea, before swooping faintly beneath the jutting roofs to her partner’s perch. Unseen rope passes through protective palms, knots bend, and a life passes between hands, observed only by a hooded figure on the headland.

She exhales, relaxes, and pulls a sling from her neck. Safe again! Sweating. Shaken - but so alive!

“I’ve been looking for you”.

With a climber’s reflex she flinches forwards into the cliff, when another might have flipped into the space behind. Above her, Georgina’s curls whip darkly against the wind.

“Oh! Well shit. I’m glad I’d clipped; I nearly went the wrong way then. What’s up, George?” Air rises and falls around her like the waves below.

Georgina sends a shaded, insincere smile. “Just thought I’d check on you guys. How are you getting along with your new partner? ” She edges closer.

Susan shrugs. One hand feeds looping snakes of rope that flap and swing in space, until her partner’s lifeline tightens like a hawser. The ocean shakes the cliff; rainbows arc and fall like flying fish. She locks her belay device, relaxes. “Good, but he needs practice. I didn’t feel that safe leaving the last stance. Still, we made it OK. CLIMB ON!” Her shout tumbles end over end from sight; momentarily the rope comes alive and flows into her ready hands.

Across the gap, George slips into focus like a wary mongoose. “Oh. Sorry to hear.” Her eyes squint downwards into the seething maw; the endless, shifting ranks of whitecaps that besiege the wall. She looks back at Susan; staying silent until the sea’s roar subsides to permit her words passage. “So - was he any good?” She smiles again, falsely, steely; watching. The sky hangs still as stone beyond them.

Suddenly Susan is surrounded by screeching threats: the what-ifs, and she-knows surge from their stinking perches. Gravity pulls, and the wall lurches as if shaking her loose. Like a drunkard she grasps for steadiness. “You know?!”

George nods. “For a long time. You don’t have to say anything. It’ll be over soon. Poor Ben though. Really; it’s not him; it’s you.”

Her meaning is lost to the wind; too late, uncatchable. Susan’s mind scrabbles to fathom it even as she takes in slack rope and below her a figure emerges through the overhang, reaching high and swinging out above the seething sea. Understanding floods back suddenly. “Wait. George, no! You have it wrong. It’s not Ben.” George’s hand opens - in confusion, or bloody conviction? The jury of gulls explodes outwards as a ragged rock flies free to ricochet from the roof. Scarlet shards streak the wall, and a dead weight buckles Susan’s knees.

The sea falls silent; a faint cry carries from the headland. Wide eyes stare at the shocked onlooker, then two voices share his name.

Friday, 15 July 2016

Low-Grade Banff Classics: Gooseberry and Rundlehorn

Gooseberry and Rundlehorn

I'm on a slow mission to tick the low-grade classics of the Bow Valley and Kananaskis. To save myself the effort of reading through the many guidebooks to the area and trying to define a list, I'm relying mainly on the web to identify the climbs; the easiest way to do this is to look at the routes used by the local guides. My thinking is that the routes up which they tow their paying clients are likely to be reasonably clear of loose rock, and offer decent belays.

Last week I did two of these climbs: Gooseberry (5.8) on Tunnel Mountain and Rundlehorn (5.5) on WEOR. The two climbs face each other across the embarrassment of an exclusive golf course (well, to be fair, it's fully inclusive if you have a thousand dollars to drop on a four-person game of motorized tiddlywinks) built within a National Park, and both are affected by the noise from the tannoy used to remind people that they are late for their tee-off. I can't think of anywhere else in the National Park where this would be allowed, but for some reason (hint: money) the Park makes an exception for golfers. I wonder for how long a climber might use a tannoy to make their belay calls before getting a ticket.

Oh well, the route's called Rundlehorn, not Grumblehorn, so I'll get on with a brief account of the climbing...

Rundlehorn rock climb
Rundlehorn (as seen from Gooseberry) climbs the narrow bedding plane slab that begins as a sparsely treed gully where Mt. Rundle intersects Tunnel Mtn on the photo above. Where the slab pinches out, it hops up a short wall to gain more easily-angled ground above.

Lou's first long-ish route of the year was to her liking; here she is leading off up the narrow Rundlehorn slab, on the fourth pitch.

Looking down the slab.

Tunnel Mountain crags in the background, above the river.

Lou leading one of the two best pitches of the climb, after the short wall that takes you off the slab.

Cascade Mountain

Lou with Cascade Mountain.

Banff Springs hotel

The upper pitches are quite photogenic.



Mt Rundle

After climbing, we had a quick paddle up the creek from near the "Banff Canoe Club" concession to Vermillion Lakes, but the water was really shallow and it was windy, which made for tough going in our solo boats. If your idea of wildlife is drunk teenagers doing dumb things in boats, then this area is a haven for spotting many varieties of that species!

Tunnel Mountain

Looking down Gooseberry, about four pitches up. There are perhaps three cruxes on this climb, all around 5.8. I got the loose-looking flake on Pitch 2/3, which turned out to be alright. We broke the second pitch into two because of potential for rope drag around the entry to the flake/groove system.

Selfie while waiting for the call to climb, around pitch six or seven. The trees are starting to look small, which is a good reminder that despite being on Tunnel Mtn, and considered to be valley cragging, this is a decently long climb.

Tunnel Mountain

Lindsay seconding one of the 5.7 or 5.8 pitches near the top of Gooseberry. I found these pitches difficult, but the others though my lead was tough - I think I approach leading with a different state of mind to that I have when seconding, where I often struggle to engage fully with problem-solving.

Tuesday, 14 June 2016

A Long and Testing Day: The Fable-Gap Traverse

Mount Fable and Gap Peak

I first saw Mt. Fable and Gable Ridge several years ago; perhaps from the Barrier Fire Lookout. I remember regarding Fable’s seemingly impregnable pyramid and tangle of knife-edge ridges, and thinking “I’ll never try that one – it looks difficult and terrifying.”

Mt. Fable from Exshaw

Somehow though, it became a bit of must-do peak, as part of my “skyline quest” – the general mission to ascend all of the major scrambling peaks between the Highwood Pass and Banff, plus any that you can see from Calgary. After several previous non-committal, aborted plans to try it, yesterday Tristan and I headed to Exshaw. We were still in denial; we planned to summit Fable, but were not really entertaining the idea of attempting the “Gable” ridge that joins it to Gap Peak. Therefore we made no plans for leaving a bike or second vehicle near Grotto Canyon. Still, what’s so bad about a 4 km road walk in the rain on a Sunday night?

The approach to Fable covered approximately 8 km of flood-damaged canyon floor. It started off easily enough; from the footbridge by some large blue bins (the correct parking place to avoid annoying the local residents) a rough trail avoided the Lafarge property, depositing us at the old dam. After that the going was a little tedious, but not difficult. There was no clear trail; we just boulder-hopped and criss-crossed the creek with occasional detours to avoid logjams.

Typical terrain in the first 6 km of the approach

Mt. Fable looks a long way off when you start. After an hour, it did not appear to be any closer, but it did look a lot bigger - huge, in fact. Kane’s book suggests that the necessary branch valley is reached in an hour; we took twenty minutes longer, which had me wondering whether we were well off our usual pace. We pushed on; the angle soon increased and the going got rougher.

After an hour the mountain appeared no closer - just higher

The objective is to circumvent the mountain’s south face and gain the west ridge via a scree slope. It’s 1,325 m vertical from the car; most of this happens after you enter the branch valley. The going got progressively less pleasant; at first the ground just became rougher, but soon we were clambering over boulders, and cursing treadmill scree diversions up the sidewalls.

Mount Fable

Our route around the mountain started to appear - a brown scree slope left of centre.

After about 7 km we reached a narrowing where a landslide had choked the canyon. At this point the angle increased again, and soon we were scrambling over rock steps while the scree slope to the ridge unfolded ahead of us. The scree itself was pretty disgusting. There was a party of four scramblers behind us, one of whom took Kane’s suggested gully scramble off to the right. He made good progress, but set off some rattling rockfalls that suggested the gully was not a good place for groups.

It really did feel like a long way to the ridge; I thought this ascent was harder work than Middle Sister, which I’d scrambled the weekend previous. From a col on the ridge, the summit cone still looked a long way above us.

Mt Fable

Tristan arrives at the col.

The scrambling got a little harder and more exposed immediately after the col. First there was a cluster of gendarmes. Some were easily climbed over, but at least one required a small detour back down to the right before it could be passed. Then came a slabby section where the friction was superb, but falling off would not be enjoyable. After that, the ridge became a little more defined, and alternated between solid slabby sections and loose scree over rock. It wasn’t difficult though, and we made good progress to Fable’s distinctive summit with its cross.

Mount Fable

Halfway up the summit cone, where slabs and rubble alternate.

Mt Fable scramble

Tristan negotiates more interesting ground just before the summit ridge.

Mt Fable

Looking towards the summit cross - at last!

Mt. Fable

The view north, back along the summit ridge. We shared the ridge with four scramblers who had come up just for the Fable summit. They'd misread the guidebook, and thought that the Gable ridge was "not a scramble". As it turned out, misreading the book was a bit of a theme that day...

Mount Fable

Lunch on the summit.

Exshaw Creek is a huge drainage. It looks like prime grizzly country. For scale, there is a herd of eight Bighorn Sheep on the orange scree. Can't see them? Exactly.

It had been sunny all morning, but looking south towards where Mt. Assiniboine should have been visible, the sky had darkened. No rain was forecast, so we were not concerned, and the skies nearby stayed mostly blue. At this point we had a good view of the Gable Ridge. There were two places where it looked sketchy: a section that appeared to be a tilted bedding plane creating a knife-edge, and the final approach to gap Peak. We still didn’t have a firm plan, but the approach had been unpleasant enough that we thought another way off might make a pleasant alternative.

Gable Ridge

Gable Ridge Part One: From the col, ascend past towers to reach (or bypass) an unnamed summit. Turn left.

Gap Peak

Gable Ridge Part Two: Pass a step. The terrain turns rocky and more interesting.

Gap Peak

Gable Ridge Part Three: For a kilometre or two the ridge appears crenelated, bare, exposed, and more demanding, before it hits Gap Peak

At this stage, the vague wording of Kane’s book was causing me some concern. Usually his route timings are presented as a range. For Mount Fable this meant 6-9 hours. By my reckoning, despite the oddity with the south fork turning, we were running perhaps 15 minutes behind the six hour mark, allowing for a rapid descent on running scree below the col. The next part of his description for Gable Ridge just said “11 hours”. So was that 11 hours at six-hour pace, or at nine-hour? If it's for six-hour, then you need to be on your game, otherwise you're looking at nine hours plus eleven minus six, which is 14 hours. That's a long day...

Gap-Fable Traverse

All of Gable Ridge, seen from Mt. Fable summit.

Another issue was his side-stepping assigning a grade to the ridge. Instead of the usual choice of easy-moderate-difficult, the book merely said “this is not a difficult scramble”, almost as if countering an argument made by other scramblers’ accounts. Misgivings were brewing like the dark clouds that were now enveloping Mt. Lougheed.

We decided to descend to the col and have a think about continuing versus descending. It looked as if the first section of the ridge was pretty much a walk, so we could always have a look and come back...

Fable scramble

Negotiating slabs above the col on our return.

Well, of course, we carried right on up the ridge without pause. After a couple of small climbs and drops we reached a place where some hands-on work was required. Beyond that the going was easier, and we were soon on the main ridge heading towards Gap Peak.

Fable scramble

Looking back at Fable. Our route took a straight line from the top of the brown scree to the summit ridge on the skyline.

Tristan Wright

Tristan bypassing a tower shortly after leaving the col.

Mount Fable

Approaching the unnamed summit.

After perhaps a kilometre, the ridge split into two. A mountaineering traverse to Grotto headed right, and along the left branch our route became a super-easy highway in the sky. It was at this moment that we heard distant thunder. We hurried on; two lonely lightning rods on the skyline. Below us, the other scramblers disappeared towards Exshaw, and we were alone. It was now around 330 PM.


This fine, clear path belies the true nature of the route. It will abandon you as soon as things get tricky!

One odd thing about this route is that we did not see a cairn anywhere – you can’t rely on a clear path or markers. Although you are following the ridge, once the first rock steps arrive there is plenty of leeway for making the wrong choice. We dropped down a series of small steps. What had appeared from Fable to be a major obstacle, actually provided some fabulous slabby sections. These were the best part of the scramble in my opinion, but would have been horrible in rain, snow or ice.

Gap peak scramble

These slabs are rough, and pretty steep. In anything but dry conditions they would be deadly.

Gap Peak

Fable lurks like a monster in the background.

Mount Fable

Descending a typical rock step on the ridge.

We were relieved to find that the hard-looking bare section of the ridge was bypassed by a lower trail on the right, and at this stage the route down into Grotto Canyon looked simple, if we needed to escape. After this we passed two towers. The second had looked problematic, but a simple, level path threaded along its east face above the cliffs. Beyond this final tower we wandered through a slate garden that bristled with fissile rocky spines, and then we found ourselves approaching Gap Peak.

Fable scramble

The most ominous section of the ridge as seen from Fable is easily bypassed on a path that traverses above Grotto Canyon.

The two towers ahead were easily passed, but as we approached Gap Peak, no solution to the steep ridge junction was apparent at a Moderate grade.

At Gap Peak, the guidebook’s vague wording stopped us in our tracks. The ridge narrowed to boot-width, then started to climb sharply. In my perception, the grade of the scramble climbed at a similar trajectory. The first part looked like an exposed “moderate”, but as the narrow, bare fin climbed towards the summit, it became like nothing that I’d ever seen at that grade.


Crossing the narrow blade of ridge just before Gap Peak. The wind was gusting unpleasantly by now, so we stayed low and pretty much ran across this section.


The weather was closing in, and we had to make a quick decision on the route up to the summit.

We crossed the initial, level blade, and then stopped for a reappraisal. From our ledge above Grotto Canyon we could see a sheep track that approached us before disappearing behind a loose ridge and snow-filled chimney. From that track, it looked as if the summit might be gained via scree slopes. We decided to take a look, and found the going straightforward. Ten minutes later we were on top of Gap Peak!

Mount Fable

Looking back down Gable Ridge from Gap Peak. We abandoned the ridge after its narrowest point, and bypassed the section in the foreground. Correct decison? Well, I'm alive to write this...

Gap Peak

Relaxing on the summit as the weather brews behind.

Mount Fable

Looking back at Mt. Fable.

It was now 5 PM, and the weather that had been advancing from southern K Country was doing its best to cross the Trans Canada Trail. Lac des Arcs had been whipped into cafe latte, which was a sure sign of high winds in the valley. We quickly considered our options. There was a clear trail inviting us to head southeast towards the car, but Kane warned against it. Similarly, the valley below us was vetoed (I think it ends at Grotto Falls). We followed his suggested route over some bumps to the southwest. The wind increased steadily, and it began to spit with rain. After several bumps we could see a path that dropped off to our right and vanished into a long scree slope. With the threat of lightning on my mind, I jumped onto this, and rode it down for several hundred metres.

The descent route began with another section of ridge scrambling. We had not heard thunder for a while, but those clouds were not inspiring me to walk slowly here!

Had I stopped to look at the guidebook, I’d have seen that the suggested route went left from that ridge, rather than right.

We continued to descend. The scree gave way to more solid rubble, and then trees, as the drainage gradually closed in. Soon we were in a defined canyon. We met a small rock step about three metres high. It was undercut, but there was a prominent, provident jug on the lip, and we were able to lower ourselves. At this point we still believed that we were on the recommended descent route. If this section had been wet, we’d probably have been trapped below it, but for now the rock was dry, and the friction good enough to allow us to re-climb it, if sufficiently desperate.

After descending further easier rock steps, we reached a horizon line within a tightly-walled rocky enclave. I lowered myself down to a ledge, and looked down. We were on a cliff band. Below me, the creek bed dropped in two vertical steps, then launched into a waterfall perhaps 15-20 m high. Fortunately, it was dry, although the clouds were now blocking our view of Grotto Mountain. What they did allow, however, was a view of the cliffs opposite, which rose 200 m before disappearing. It seemed likely that the same cliffs extended to our side of the valley, and that we were now somewhere in the middle of them.

Mount Fable

File under "Crazy Shit". We dropped down two short steps, then traversed off above a 15-20 m drop.

Looking down, I could see a grassy ledge that disappeared to my left. There was a superb, deep crack in the back of the waterfall at this point, and I used it to lower myself onto the ledge at the lip of the main fall. From here, it was possible to walk sideways and gain a forested slope above more cliffs. We scouted along the slope, avoiding places where the ground had collapsed, and was hanging out in space below. Soon, a mossy ramp led down and around the waterfall cliff.

After a hundred metres, we found ourselves back in the gully. Around this point I remember thinking that neither my phone nor my SPOT rescue transponder would be likely to work; the gully was too tightly walled. We followed it down, and down, climbing and sliding down several additional steps, constantly expecting to meet a stopper cliff with no exit. A friend of mind had been benighted on the descent from Gap recently; I wondered whether this was the same gully. To escape would require regaining almost 1,000 m of height, before trying to find another route down in failing light. I questioned whether anyone had been this way before. Certainly there had been signs of passage in the scree high-up, and in a couple of places I’d noticed rocks sitting in unnatural places, as if they’d been moved to assist people climbing down the waterfall steps.

Grotto canyon

Descending the umpteenth rock step/waterfall. This was getting really tiring, and we were a long way down the gully by now.

Grotto Canyon

Yet another smooth waterslide section to navigate. Belying appearances, this one was actually pretty easy.

Eventually, probably an hour after we entered the gully, it spat us out into Grotto Canyon. Although this was a great relief, I’d never been this far up the canyon, and was still concerned that there could be another cliff below us. I set about searching the canyon floor, and almost immediately turned up a discarded picnic bag. Normally I hate finding litter, but on this occasion it was reassuring to know that picnickers had made it this far!

I've never been so glad to pick up picnickers' garbage for them...

Soon after this, a rainbow appeared in the valley ahead.

We stumbled down the canyon. I’d forgotten just how far it is from the slab climbing area to Grotto Falls, and of course the floor was a mess of post-flood debris. Gradually a path emerged, and we made good time to the canyon mouth, where we collapsed on a bench, and updated our partners on our ETA home. All that remained was a 4 km trudge along the road, in the rain.

Heart Mountain

A welcome sight: rainbow over Heart Mountain.

Looking back, it’s not a trip that I am in a hurry to repeat. I’ve since read a few accounts of people tackling this traverse in the other direction. That would make sense; you can take a more direct scrambling route up Gap Peak, and descend the scree grind from Fable. Posted times in that direction tend to be about 8-9 hours, whereas the few accounts I’ve found for Fable-Gap are 10-12, without the 4 km road return. We took 11 hours and ten minutes, car to car. Our descent route would make an interesting line for an adventurous party; if you ignore the uncertainty of escape then the gully scrambling was generally fun, but if it had been at all wet, we'd probably have been in the local news last night.


Fable to Gap Traverse via Gable Ridge.
Distance: 26.1 km car to car.
Total Ascent: 2,000 m (I based this on Parry Loeffler’s table, which said 1,960 m, then added 40 m for the road section. By then you'll be well past caring).
Time: 11 hours and ten minutes.
Grade: Moderate if you avoid the upper ridge to Gap Peak.