⚠️ Hiking and scrambling are inherently dangerous activities. Please read my Disclaimer. ⚠️
After spending the past few years focused on the Crowsnest Pass and the Castle Crown, I certainly picked an interesting day to try and bag my first peak in Waterton. Originally, Mark and I had talked about a trip to Hollebeke Mountain in the Castle Crown, but after several days with temperatures in the mid- to high thirties, the forecast called for cooler temperatures and afternoon rain showers for southwestern Alberta. The long bike & hike trip to Hollebeke wouldn’t have jived well with the forecast, so when Mark suggested that we head to Waterton and try Sofa Mountain, I eagerly agreed. While I’ve hiked some of the popular trails with my kids and with university students, I’d put off trying for any peaks in Waterton simply because there are so many other amazing summit destinations near Lethbridge. I knew that I’d eventually have to get around to Waterton and today would be that day.
Even though the forecast had called for sunshine in the morning, the sky was a moody grey when Mark picked me up at 7:30 am. As we drove towards Waterton, the clouds grew increasingly dark and the wind began to howl (which in and of itself is not unusual). Unbeknownst to us, an Alberta Emergency Alert had also been issued early that morning which notified Waterton townsite residents of the need to be on a one hour standby for evacuation, as a fire had broken out near Goat Haunt in Glacier National Park. Since the route for Sofa Mountain does not require you to pass through the Park gates, we were unaware of this, however, we knew that a fire was nearby since a thick haze of smoke obscured any remnant of visibility. Fortunately, the evacuation alert was lifted later that morning.
Thus our day began in rain, wind, and smoke, and while I’m sure that the views from the summit of Sofa are stunning, they were not to be had on this day. Nevertheless, it ended up being a great experience as Mark was excellent company and the scrambling routes up and down Sofa were incredibly fun.
Edit May 2022: Recent scholarship by Ninna Piiksii (Mike Bruised Head / Chief Bird) has uncovered that the Blackfoot name for Sofa Mountain is Istiikoiistakoo, which means ‘Slide Out’ mountain.
There are so many wonderful trip reports for Sofa Mountain, that it is probably redundant to include information on how to get to the access trail. It is Waterton National Park after all. So I will simply note that if you are coming from Lethbridge, turn left onto Highway 6 before reaching the Park gates and then drive ~ 7 km until you come to a gravel pull off on the side of the road. Here is where the unmarked access trail begins. To ascend we used Andrew Nugara’s route from, More Scrambles in the Canadian Rockies, and to descend, we used Bob Spirko’s route off of the north ridge.
I forgot to reset my GPS until .93 km into the trip, so our actual round-trip distance was 13.99km. Total elevation gains were 1142 m and our total round-trip time was 6 hours and 20 minutes.
Mark gears up at the trailhead as light rain begins to fall. Sofa Mountain can be seen in the background through a haze of smoke.
Travel along the trail is easy even though some sections are overgrown.
I figured that the blue dots and metal tags were there to either mark the trail or let us know that we were entering gang territory.
The trail goes through a dense patch of thimble berries. Mark is 6′ 6″ so this gives some perspective as to the height of the plants.
After hiking the first kilometre through a section of forest, the trail eventually led us to open meadows and our first views of Sofa Mountain. According to Peak Finder, the mountain’s name came into use shortly after 1865, when Kootenai Brown had described it as, “a sofa-like peak among the clouds”. However, on this particular day, it was more of a sofa-like peak ‘within’ the clouds.
We came across some Parks Canada research markers next to the trail so we made sure to smile in case we were caught on a trail camera.
Our entire hike to the base of the mountain was done under light rain. When combined with the previous night’s precipitation, travel along the trail was a rather damp affair. (Photo by Mark Kadijk)
After ~2.75 km, the trail came to the base of Sofa Mountain. We left the trail and climbed up the slope on the right. On our way down, we used the slope on the left and rejoined the trail at the entrance to the valley located in the centre.
Despite the rain, Mark is enthusiastic as we begin our ascent.
Nearing the top of the first slope.
Just before the shoulder, we came across an interesting rock formation. Knowing that our views were probably going to be limited for most of the day, I thought I’d better capture this.
At the top of the slope is a broad shoulder that leads to the first section of scrambling. It was at this point where we began to be blasted by some really intense wind gusts that required us to be mindful of our footing. Fortunately, the rain had begun to abate.
The view as we arrive at the first section of rock. We stayed to the left on all scrambling sections to stay out of the wind. Had any portion of the scrambling been along a knife’s edge or dragon’s back, we would have turned back as the wind would have made it too dangerous.
Thankful to finally be out of the wind and rain, Mark and I enjoyed a brief break at the base of the rock (I guess you could say we were ‘couch potatoes’ since Sofa is another name for couch – haha?) We would begin the day’s scrambling via the small chimney directly above Mark.
Looking back at the shoulder we had just crossed.
Sun! Our first glimpse of sunlight that day was to the east.
After our break Mark begins the scrambling fun.
There were multiple ways to ascend each rock band. (Photo by Mark Kadijk)
While we were ascending, we noticed a party of 4 hikers who had already summited and were preparing to descend the north ridge (skyline centre). They must have gotten off to a very early start!
The rock on the left side of each band was solid, dry, and most importantly, shielded from the wind. (Photo by Mark Kadijk)
Mark approaches the last section of rock to be scrambled. Mark is an experienced climber and hiker who was fortunate to grow up attending and then working at Crowsnest Lake Bible Camp. This out-trip based program teaches children and young adults backcountry skills such as mountaineering in a welcoming and dynamic environment. Several of the skilled climbers and scramblers that I know in southern Alberta are former Crow campers. My own kids happen to attend Pioneer Ranch Camps, which is another Christian-based camping program that focuses on developing year-round outdoor skills, in particular, horsemanship. This year it has been fun to follow the backcountry adventures of my 16 year old daughter, Janelle, who now spends most of her summers at Pioneer as both a camper and as a cabin leader. Seeing her begin to help lead younger girls up mountains; down rivers in canoes; and through the backcountry on horseback, is a very cool thing. I’m a big believer in allowing kids the opportunity to experience discovery, wonder, and healthy risk, and good camps are one of the best places to foster this. Anyway, back to the matter at hand…
Mark searches for a way up the final rock band.
Though there were multiple options, we decided to ascend the first chimney that we came to.
Up, up, and up.
The scrambling was short-lived but extremely fun. After ascending past the final band of rock, Mark makes his way towards the top of the ridge. However, after leaving the shelter of the rock, we were once again exposed to the elements and as soon as we passed the high point in the foreground…
…intense wind gusts repeatedly knocked us off our feet and made it a struggle to continue.
I’m quite certain that the wind gusts on top were reaching 120+ km/hr. It was reminiscent of the gusts that we had encountered on Mount McLaren a couple of years ago (cue flashback sequence #1).
Once we topped out on the ridge, the summit of Sofa Mountain (distant centre) was still ~2.3 km away.
We found a brief moment of relief as we passed next to some krummholz, though once we were back in the wind, we stayed far away from the edge.
We watched despairingly as a mixture of clouds and smoke enveloped the summit. This was also the point where the near freezing wind had begun to whip us with ice pellets. Mark in particular, felt the sting on the exposed sections of his legs, and so we made a hasty descent to the shelter of the distant tree line.
Here is where I discovered the one flaw in the training of those Crow campers – they seem to forget to pack pants! 😉 So, being the product of Pioneer Camp that I am, I naturally took off the shell that I was wearing over my own pants and offered it to Mark – bereft of any teasing of course.
Since Mark is 6’6″ and I’m 6’1″ a little flooding was inevitable.
With the ceremonial lending of the pants complete, we once again set off for the summit. This is the view as we looked back at our route from the tree line. Outside of the wind, ice, smoke, and lack of pants, there really wasn’t anything difficult to this leg of the journey – just a long walk.
The summit is somewhere in front of us…
Like the ninja that he is, Mark disappears into a combination of cloud and smoke. On the bright side, I’m guessing that smelling like a campfire was perhaps better than what I usually smell like after a hike.
These cliffs beneath the summit would be our only semblance of a view.
Almost there. This part of the trip reminded me of my experience with fog on Thrift Peak (cue flashback sequence #2).
Just to rub it in, the summit cairn appeared to greet us with a middle finger salute.
It’s a good thing that we’re so good looking ’cause there was not much else to look at 😉 Mark on the summit of Sofa Mountain (2515 m).
Myself and the cheeky cairn. Thankfully the wind was less intense on the summit.
Mark signs the registry which was really just a scattered collection of loose paper. As luck would have it, there also happened to be a bakery on the summit that was selling fresh bagels, so at least we didn’t go hungry.
Mark’s entry into the register. No problem Mark!
Mark and I simultaneously take each other’s pictures. Like I said, there was not much else to look at.
The cairn maintained its impudent disposition even as we left the summit.
Heading back into our version of a Stephen King novel.
Returning the way we came and trudging against the wind was not an appealing thought, so we headed over to the north ridge to check out Spirko’s descent route. As we walked along the ridge, the veil of cloud and smoke began to dissipate and we could look over at our ascent route.
A section of blue sky appears! The hills are alive with the sound of music!
The top of the north ridge is marked by a smaller but more even-tempered cairn.
The sun began to shine as we reached the end of the north ridge.
The clearing skies also offered us a view of Sofa’s interesting east ridge.
A prominent cairn – apparently built by a former Soviet Bloc Olympic weight lifting team – marks the route off of the north ridge.
Looking at our descent route from the ridge. Like the scramble up, the scramble down would also prove to be one of the highlights of the day.
The initial section is marked by good rock and a series of ledges that offer multiple options for descent. I thought this would be a good location to deploy my squirrel suit and cruise to the bottom, but I refrained because I had already proven the superiority of my Pioneer Camp training to Mark. (Photo by Mark Kadijk)
Mark down climbs a section of rock. The scrambling section of our ascent route is visible in the background.
A telephoto of our ascent route.
Despite the lack of a summit view, it was still a really enjoyable day. (Photo by Mark Kadijk)
Closer to the bottom we began to trend to the left so that we could reach the entrance of the valley and regain the trail.
The much anticipated, ceremonial return of the pants.
Looking back at our ascent and descent routes from the bottom of the north ridge. We would continue down to the valley where we would regain the trail.
The trail crosses a pretty creek as it leaves the valley.
Back on the trail under sunny skies.
In an example of Murphy’s Law, the forecast reversed itself and the skies cleared off in the afternoon. Also by this time, the danger to the Waterton townsite from the Goat Haunt fire had subsided.
Mark pauses for one last view of Sofa Mountain from the trail.
On the trail but still immersed in foliage. My Pioneer Camp training has taught me that in these situations, always put the 6’6″ person in front so that you can find your way out. This might also be an effective strategy for locating and attracting sasquatch.
Along the trail we passed what I think is a Parks Canada DNA collection spot for bears – either that or the trees in Waterton are evolving into the Hell’s Angels of the plant world.
After 6 hours and 20 minutes and just shy of 14km, we arrived back at Mark’s truck. Our time on Sofa Mountain was thoroughly enjoyable due in large part to Mark’s company and the opportunities we had for scrambling both on the way up and on the way down. While the views from the summit were non-existent on this particular day, given the mountain’s location, it was not hard to speculate that on a clear day, they would be pretty awesome.