The last time that I was on the summit of Prairie Bluff was in September of 2011 with my son, Joel, and his friend, Carlos. Last March, I made a solo attempt to ascend a north facing ridge located approximately 1km west of the summit, but was ultimately thwarted on a treed section of the ridge by waist-deep snow. On my way up, I remember eyeing the ridge located across the drainage immediately to the east, and wondering if I should have taken that route because there was considerably less snow on top. Had I been on the ball, I would have known that Andrew Nugara had posted two trip reports (March 2017 and May 2017) about that very ridge – though in my defence, my March 2018 trip was not planned in advance, but rather, was a hasty throw in to salvage a day.
Today however, was different. I actually planned this trip in advance and so I was not only armed with Nugara’s information, but also an eagerness to experience what he proclaimed as, “one of my new favourite routes in the Rockies!!!” (May 2017). For a diminutive peak such as Prairie Bluff, this is high praise and Nugara has determined that this route will be included in the 4th edition of, More Scrambles in the Canadian Rockies, whenever it is published.
Setting off late in the morning, I made quick work of the short approach and soon found myself enjoying a fantastic scramble through bands of red argillite accentuated by patches of vivid yellow and orange lichen. Though disappointed that I didn’t have the clear sky or angle of the sun that Nugara experienced, the colours still popped. I was also surprised at the number of possible routes for scrambling and on my way back, I descended using a completely different track just for fun. The only thing that I did not enjoy was the relentless northwest wind, as I found little escape from it while scrambling and once on the summit, I struggled to maintain my balance.
At the end of the day, this ended up being a quick, but terrific solo trip that took me only 2 hours and 26 minutes to complete. Indeed, I was surprised when I looked at the time when I was on the summit and realized that it had only been an hour and half since I left my vehicle. On my way down, I actually considered resetting and reascending the initial argillite band to find a third scramble route followed by a fourth one on the way back. If the wind had not been so miserable, I most likely would have done this as the colours combined with the scrambling made for a unique experience. Thus, the advice that immediately comes to mind when I think of this route is to take your time and linger. I’d save it for a clear day and perhaps wait for ideal lighting conditions as Andrew did, and then soak it all in because it’s really is a fantastic little route!
To read Nugara’s route description, including an alternate way to drive to Prairie Bluff, click here.
To get to Prairie Bluff from Lethbridge, follow Highway 507 west of Pincher Creek to the Gladstone Valley Road which is located on the left side of the highway, ~1.4 km past the bridge over Mill Creek. After turning onto the road, keep left at all major junctions, and you will eventually cross two bridges over Mill Creek. Approximately ~16.3 km from Hwy 507 or ~3.5 km from the 2nd bridge, you will come to a junction where a closed red gate prevents you from continuing straight ahead. Continue on by taking the hairpin curve to the left and follow the road as it climbs upwards for another ~3.3km until you come to a side road on your right. This road leads to a gas well at the base of Prairie Bluff, but the parking spot for Nugara’s route is located on the other side of the gas well road near the junction. You can’t miss the large patch of gravel.
From here, the route is obvious. Climb the small embankment above the parking area and walk across the open meadow until you come to a creek. Cross the creek (it was dry for me but this may not always be the case) and follow it until you reach the point where it enters the trees. On your left you will see a slope leading into the trees. This is the beginning of the ridge, so follow it upwards through light forest for ~300m until you are above the tree line at the base of the ascent slope. A short, but steep hike of another ~300m will bring you to the base of the first and largest band of argillite. Pick whatever route you want from here depending on how easy or how hard you want it to be – or bypass much of it by keeping to climber’s left.
After ~100m or so (straight as the crow flies) of enjoyable scrambling, you will emerge on a small shoulder. A quick walk will bring you to a small high point and then a second rock band. Again, scrambling routes can be chosen to preference or bypassed. This band is shorter than the first and once beyond it, it is an easy hike to the summit ridge and then the summit.
I returned the same way, but chose a completely different route through the large argillite band. You could also drop into the drainage immediately to the west of the ridge.
Unlike my trip from 2011 that included all of the intervening high points between Prairie Bluff and Victoria Peak, this is one of the shortest routes to the summit. My friend Brad has also completed a technical winter ascent up the east face, which is the most direct route.
This was a quick trip thanks in part to the really high elevation I started at. My total roundtrip distance travelled was 4.4km and total elevation gains were 568m – though keep in mind, the weather played havoc with my GPS as noted from the jagged lines on the graph. It took me 1.5 hours to reach the summit and my total roundtrip time was 2 hours and 26 minutes.
Gearing up at the parking area with the route and summit (far left) in the background. The route that I attempted in March 2018 is on the far right. On that particular day, all was good until I reached the trees at the top and encountered waist-deep snow. Nugara’s route is much shorter and offers more options for scrambling.
Walking across the meadow towards the creek. It was dry when I crossed, but at other times in the year, there may be water flowing through it. Once across, I followed the creek until I reached the point where it entered the forest (far right).
The ridge begins (left) where the creek (far right) enters the forest.
Looking back across the meadow toward Mount Albert (right of centre) in Beauvais Lake Provincial Park.
Easy travel through the intervening section of forest.
After a quick hike of ~300m, I was above the tree line and at the base of the ascent slope.
Another short (but steep) hike of ~300m brought me to the start of the first rock band (upper centre).
The base of the first band of argillite is amazingly colourful! I went climber’s left from here and through the small gap just to the left of centre. On my way back, I descended skier’s left (or climber’s right from this vantage). To avoid much of the scrambling, keep trending climber’s left.
A closer look at the amazing colours. Even though it was partly cloudy and the sun was behind the mountain, it was still vibrant. I would definitely recommend visiting Nugara’s May 2017 report to see what this looks like when the sun is shining.
Through the small gap and looking at a wide range of options.
So much fun!
I went between the colourful rocks in the upper centre. The summit is on the far left.
A closer look at my route between the rocks.
This really is a cool little route!
Above the the first band of argillite and heading to a high point along the shoulder (centre). The second band is behind it to the right of centre.
At the base of the second band of argillite. I tackled it head on, but it can be completely avoided by sticking to climber’s left.
My route went through the gap to the right of centre.
In the foreground on the right, is the section of trees where I was thwarted by waist-deep snow.
I cut across this section of hard-packed snow to reach the summit ridge.
Looking southwest from the summit ridge at Victoria Peak (far left), Windsor Mountain (centre), Castle Peak (centre), “Mill Creek Peak” and “Mill Creek Mountain” (right of centre), North Castle (right), and Mount Gladstone (far right).
An easy, but incredibly windy walk to the summit.
The summit of Prairie Bluff Mountain (2258m).
A telephoto to the northwest of the Flathead Range with Mount Coulthard on the right and Mount Darrah to the left of centre. Table Mountain is on the far left with “Gladstone’s Toe” and “Whitney Creek Mountain” in front of it.
A more comprehensive view to the northwest includes the Livingstone Range (distant centre). Mount Albert is in the foreground on the far right.
The view north with Christie Mine Ridge in the foreground.
Trying hard not to let the wind blow my phone out of my hands…
One last look along the summit ridge as I head back.
Checking out the steep slopes beneath the summit.
I bypassed the second rock band by sticking to skier’s right…
However, I wanted to see what other scrambling routes existed through the first rock band, so I cut as far to skier’s left as I could and then proceeded to make my way down.
More amazing colours!
The gully on the left leads down to the drainage. As this was not my plan, I chose to go through the gap on the right.
I found a neat little couloir that I could use.
Looking back at the small couloir (centre) that I used to descend.
Arriving back at the base of the first rock band. My ascent route went past the large rock on the right, while I scrambled down to its left. Though this side of the rock is rather drab, the other side is insanely colourful.
Another look at the colourful lichen-covered argillite that greets you at the base of the first rock band. I was seriously tempted to turn around, and try to find more routes because the scrambling was that fun – the wind however, was not.
The upper portion of this tree reminded me of the cycloptic alien siblings, Kang and Kodos from The Simpsons.
The view back to the summit and the ascent route.
Arriving back at my car only 2 hours and 26 minutes after I started. This was a fun trip and I think I will come back even to just experience the first argillite rock band again. The only problem is that it’s too short, but maybe that’s the way it is with good things? Anyway, if you’re looking for a quick, but enjoyable scramble in the Castle, this little route is well worth trying – but save it for a clear, sunny day and don’t be afraid to linger.