The Matterhorn of the Rockies

Standing at 3616m tall (11, 864 ft), Mount Assiniboine is one of the most recognizable peaks in the Canadian Rockies. Its nickname, the Matterhorn of the Rockies, comes from its massive pyramid and horn like shape.

The first time you see this peak, a common reaction is something along the lines of “Wow”, and than of course curiosity sinks in and you wonder what that mountain is. I remember this moment clearly. Over six years ago, I decided to move to Fairmont Hot Springs in BC for the summer to work. In order to get there from Calgary, you have to drive through Banff. I stopped in Banff for a few days on my way to visit someone I knew. She took me to Sunshine Village so I could spend a beautiful spring day snowboarding. As we got off the chairlift and started down the run, I was stopped in my tracks by the sight of Assiniboine. I had my “wow” moment, asked for a photo, and continued on.

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Fast forward three years later, and I had done a little more research on this mountain. It turns out you can backpack to the beautiful park it stands in! One Sunday after work, my friend Alex and I packed our bags and took the last bus up to Sunshine Meadows and started our 28km backpack to Assiniboine. We spent three beautiful days in the area exploring the land around the beautiful peak. While there, we stopped in at Assiniboine Lodge for a tea and one of the staff mentioned we should look into the telescope outside and see the climbing hut. The climbing hut? What do you mean? This is when I learned that people actually CLIMBED Mount Assiniboine. I was in awe and was also fairly certain these people must be crazy and insane.

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Fast forward exactly three years later again, and guess what? I stood on top of Assiniboine. My heart nearly exploded in that moment. It was a moment of accomplishment, reflection, and growth. I was proud. It was a moment I will never forget. I was standing on top of the mountain I first saw snowboarding. I was looking down on the lodge I had once backpacked to. I did it. Six years ago if you had told me this would have happened, I would have laughed. Now in that moment, I couldn’t be happier for exactly where my life ended up.

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Now for some details about our trip! My friend Nolan booked us two nights at the Hind Hut (the hut located at the base of Assiniboine). We booked two nights so that way we would have a few days of options for the best weather window to climb. A few days before our trip, the forecast was looking great! We were very excited.

We decided to approach the hut from the BC side. From Banff, you head to castle junction and than down highway 93S for roughly 85km. You take a turn on to settlers road and drive 40km to a parking lot. From there, the hike in begins!

An 11km hike that feels way longer. It’s a grind from the get go than luckily levels off. You pass Assiniboine Lake, head up a scree slope, hike to a glacier, travel across the glacier, go up another (worse, but shorter) scree slope, than descend to the hut. Easy right? Well for me, this seemed like the longest and hardest day. I choose to blame the heavy pack and the thunder/hail storm we got caught in twice, but the moral of the story is do not underestimate this approach. I have heard similar thoughts and feelings from others as well.

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We spent the late afternoon and evening at the hut. Everyone else staying at the hut had summited that day which was great for us because a) we got to hear the most recent conditions and information, and b) it meant less people on the mountain the next day (the rockfall hazard is real!). It sounded like we wouldn’t need crampons or ice axes, so I chose to make my feet happy and do the climb in my approach shoes. We were also grateful that our packs would be very light!

We went to bed early around 7pm for a wakeup the next day at 3am. The hut is a sardine can to say the least, and I don’t think either of us slept much at all. Ear plugs are a MUST for this hut, and even that may not help you that much. Much to our surprise, there were tent pads outside the hut, and should I ever make my way back up there again I would consider bringing and sleeping in a tent simply for the sake of having a quieter sleep.

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3am came around faster than we wished and soon we had ate our breakfast, chugged back a coffee, and were gaining the moraines towards the north ridge of Assiniboine.

The climbing is fairly straightforward- follow the ridge to the summit. This is mostly 4th and lower 5th class scrambling, with one section of 5.5-5.6 climbing that we accidentally scrambled up. We were so focused, that soon enough we were looking for the band to pitch out only to realize we had scrambled up through it! Oops! Not my usual style, but hey, it worked.

We met and passed another group of three climbers on the way up but those were the only people we shared the mountain with that day. Before we knew it, at 7am, we were standing on the summit of Mount Assiniboine! A dream come true! We hugged, smiled, soaked in the moment, had a snack, and than got our freezing asses back down the mountain. Getting down is a lot of scrappy down climbing with roughly five rappels. The rappels were fairly easy to find as all of the stations were marked by cairns. By 10:00 am, we were back down at the hut warming up our cold bodies in the hot morning sun.

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We had the hut booked for that night as well, however, being so early in the day and having such a rough sleep the night before, we decided to head back home after lunch. We ate our dinners for lunch so that we wouldn’t have to carry out the weight, had a little nap in the sunshine, and got packed up and geared up to go.

Just as we were about to leave, one of the men from the other party came running down the moraines and as he approached the hut, he called out asking for an emergency beacon. I always have my SPOT on me, however, I mentioned that there was a radio connecting with Assiniboine Lodge inside the hut that can be used to organize rescues. Turns out one of their party members was involved in a rappelling accident and couldn’t walk down the mountain. They had triggered their emergency beacon and waited two hours with no response. He was able to get in contact with Assiniboine Lodge, who organized a rescue helicopter, however, it seemed that at the same time they showed up, another helicopter from what we assume was the first beacon signal showed up as well. The pilots seemed to figure it out and one stuck around to see the rescue through while the other flew away.

For me, this incident held two reminders. 1) Always try to rappel with the fall line. This party rappelled down the ridge on an angle to the anchor and their party member took a big swing, injuring himself as he slammed into the rock. 2) Rescues take time. They felt impatient and concerned after waiting for two hours, however, with a beacon communicating no information other than a need for help, rescue responders sometimes take a while based on other incidents that may be occurring at the same time. I have had friends wait over three hours for help before. Although its hard to wait, trust that help is on the way.

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Once things were under control, there was nothing more we could do to help so we decided to start our journey home. We made good time and it was a hot sunny day. Both of us were very tired though and the hike out seemed endless. As we were finally about 2km from the car, suddenly Nolan, who was ahead of me, turned around and urgently told me to get closer to him right now. Well that’s never a good sign! I ran to Nolan and turned around and sure enough there was a young black bear following along with us. Our noise must have eventually spooked him and luckily he turned around and headed back the other way. The encounter was short and non-threatening, but its safe to say our pace quickened as we headed back to the car. Hey, maybe that was just the adrenaline we needed to pick up our pace again right? (ugh)!

Once back at the car, we dove head first into a can of Pringles and chugged a lot of water and started the drive home. Once we made it back to Banff, we were able to fully appreciate the amazing trip we had just had. We chatted about the journey, the summit, and of course the stoke. For both of us, this was a few year dream in the making, and to finally accomplish it was an incredible feeling. I think its safe to say we both soaked in that feeling for days to come. What an adventure! What a dream! What an accomplishment.

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