If I were forced to apply our pandemic-realty of cohorts to mountains, I’d gladly choose Prairie Bluff (2258 m) and its outliers: ‘Prairie Fire” (2131 m), “Prairie Sky” (2042 m), and “Prairie Storm” (2092 m) to be in mine. Quite simply, there are few mountains that offer the combination of dead-easy access with multiple routes to the top. Indeed, the Prairie Bluff Family allows each trip to be totally different from the last. You can do a simple hike up roads and trails, or engage in some wonderful scrambling – or both. For me, this was my fourth time up Prairie Bluff (PB) and my second to its outliers. For Andrew, it was his twelfth time – that’s right, twelve times! – making him the reigning Prairie Bluff champ. However, even after that many times, he had never tried today’s route, and that’s why this diminutive mountain is so special.
So, why PB today? Well, in two words: INSANE WIND!! Wind is a matter-of-fact in southwestern Alberta, but the wind storm over the past few days saw gusts reaching upwards of 170 km/h in sections of the Crowsnest Pass. The original plan was to try a route up Buchanan Ridge in Waterton, but there was no chance of that happening given the wind and snow. That forced us north along the front range of the Castle where we contemplated a number of repeat destinations. We eventually ended up on the north end of PB, but by that time, the cold wind had begun to shift from the west to the northwest and so we abandoned that idea.
Instead, we diverted our attention to the southeast ridge of PB, where our curiosity led us onto the east face. Here, we not only found excellent opportunities for scrambling, but almost complete shelter from the wind – at least until we reached the top of the ridge. From that point on, we endured the fierce wind as we plodded our way up the short, but easy slope to the summit. This was expected, though had we not experienced such a fun scramble beforehand, it could have become demoralizing.
After a quick look around, we made the decision to continue towards, “Prairie Fire” (PF) (2131 m), and then evaluate our desire to continue from there. Fortunately, the wind diminished as the day went on, and our time on the summit of PF was quite enjoyable. Our curiosity was also piqued by a high point immediately to the west of PF that looked to be of equal height. This was enough to convince us to continue and soon we were standing on top of what Andrew cheekily nicknamed, “Prairie Oyster” (PO) (2137 m).
From here, when then decided to head to “Prairie Sky” (PS) (2042 m) and forfeit the trip to nearby, “Prairie Storm” (2092 m). By the time we reached the summit, the wind had all but disappeared and we could enjoy the views as we scouted for new scramble routes to the top. In fact, we decided to descend using two different routes, with Andrew trying a route off the east end while I tried a variation of my 2011 descent route using the cliff bands on the northeast side. Both paths worked out wonderfully, with Andrew and I reconnecting at the bottom near a gas well. We then enjoyed the easy hike back to the trailhead.
I’m not a huge repeater of trips, but as I get older, I’m discovering great joy in exploring new routes up familiar mountains, especially when weather and circumstance dictate alternate destinations. I know that Brad previously experienced a great winter trip up the east face of PB using two snow-filled couloirs, and I’m looking forward to trying something similar. I’m also looking forward to trying some new scramble routes up PF and PS. Who knows, maybe I’ll give Andrew some competition for PB champ one day? I know for the moment, I might just hold the “Blue Mountain” trophy… 😉
Be sure to read Andrew’s trip report!
To get to Prairie Bluff, drive ~19.5 km south from Pincher Creek on Highway 6 until you reach the Shell Waterton Complex Road (Township Rd. 43A). Turn onto it and drive west for ~9.1 km until you come to a junction with a gravel road near to the entrance of the plant. Turn left and onto the gravel road and continue for ~3.9 km until you reach Butcher Lake. Continue straight for another ~1.5 km, until you come to a Shell pumping house which is the original Windsor Ridge trailhead. Keep following the road as it curves to the right and continue for another ~2 km until you arrive at closed gate on your left where an old road leads toward the mountain. This is the starting point.
We followed the road for ~600 m until it came to an open gate. Once on the other side, we headed to our left and across mostly open fields and meadows towards the base of the southeast ridge. Eventually we came to a fence (this is not private land – see my “Prairie Storm 2” report for information) that after some searching, were able to step over without much effort.
After reaching the base of the ridge, we began to trend to climber’s right and around the mountain until we reached its east face and the start of some wonderful scrambling terrain. We ended up ascending alongside the first large gully that we came to, though if we had kept going, we would have found other spots to ascend. The scrambling was all on excellent rock with minimal ice and snow present.
From where we emerged on top of the ridge, it was then an easy ~1 km hike to the summit, despite the wind doing its best to thwart us. Once there, it was an easy ~2.9 km hike to the summit of PF. From PF it was then a ~1.5 km trip to the top of PO, and then a ~1.4 km hike over to PS. We descended using the northeast and east scramble routes and then skirted the base of PF to end up at our original track back to the trailhead.
Our total roundtrip distance was 16 km with a total time of 6 hours and 34 minutes. Total elevation gains came in at 1167 m.
A blustery morning at the trailhead. The southeast ridge of Prairie Bluff is in the centre with “Prairie Fire” to its left.
Andrew starts up the old road from the trailhead. I’m guessing that the video surveillance sign is related to wildlife trail cams as this is not private property (see my “Prairie Storm 2” report for more information on this).
Enjoying the easy walk towards the base of the southeast ridge (right). Our eventual route would ascend alongside the first large gully (pictured), though if we had continued beyond it, other opportunities would have been presented.
Approximately 600 m from the trailhead, we came to an open gate. We would go through it and then immediately head to our left and towards the base of the mountain.
Andrew crosses a large, open meadow as we head towards the southeast ridge. On the left is “Prairie Fire” and on the far left is “Prairie Sky”.
Thankfully, most of the snow we encountered was hard-packed, making for easy travel. (Photo by Andrew Nugara)
Andrew checks out a fence at the top of a small knoll. We would cross it by heading north (climber’s right) for several metres until we came to a spot where we could easily step over it. The intriguing east face of “Prairie Fire” is definitely worth future explorations… 😁
After touching his tongue to the fence to see if it was electrified (just kidding 😂), Andrew easily steps over it.
Arriving at the base of the southeast ridge. (Photo by Andrew Nugara)
The view back at our route from the trailhead (upper far left).
Making our way onto the east side of the ridge. (Photo by Andrew Nugara)
We had initially thought about heading up this small gully to check out the rock formations at the top… (Photo by Andrew Nugara)
But we decided to see what lay beyond. (Photo by Andrew Nugara)
We started up this small gully, but left it when we came to the rock formation directly above me. (Photo by Andrew Nugara)
Andrew follows me up. An easier route from the trailhead to this location is spelled out in the background.
Rounding a corner… (Photo by Andrew Nugara)
And coming face-to-face with this amazing limber pine that had grown directly out from the rock.
A great shot of some twisted old bark – and of course, the tree. 😂😂 (Photo by Andrew Nugara)
Our first taste of the scramble to come.
I am definitely going to come back and explore more routes on the east face. I know that several years ago, Brad completed a winter ascent using snow-filled couloirs directly beneath the summit. (Photo by Andrew Nugara)
As the scrambling begins, so too, does the colourful rock. (Photo by Andrew Nugara)
Heading up alongside the large gully. (Photo by Andrew Nugara)
Great rock with minimal snow and ice made for an enjoyable ascent – oh, and by this point, we were completely sheltered from the wind! 😊
Andrew leads us towards the next section of scrambling.
This rock band presented several options…
With Andrew choosing a great route up.
Continuing up the same section.
A good view of our path alongside the gully. (Photo by Andrew Nugara)
I (centre) take the lead onto the next section. (Photo by Andrew Nugara)
This small couloir definitely grabbed my attention.
Ascending the previously pictured couloir.
The view down the couloir. This was turning into a super fun little scramble! 😁
I do my best impersonation of Sampson. (Photo by Andrew Nugara)
More intriguing terrain lies ahead.
We were also excited to see the rock becoming increasingly colourful.
Scoping out a route from the top of a small pinnacle. (Photo by Andrew Nugara)
I lead the way up… (Photo by Andrew Nugara)
With Andrew close behind.
I come to section that would force us to climber’s right. (Photo by Andrew Nugara)
My view of the previous picture.
Andrew cautiously traverses a patch of icy rock.
I definitely should have had my ice axe out for this… 😔 (Photo by Andrew Nugara)
Much to our delight, the rock kept increasing in colour.
Andrew leads us towards the gully.
This was stunning to see up close.
Exploring a potential route alongside the gully. (Photo by Andrew Nugara)
Andrew leads us along the edge of the gully.
Getting up-close-and-personal with the brilliant rock.
Andrew’s ARDAR (Argillite Radar) was starting to go off as we approached the next section.
Under the right lighting, this would be incredibly colourful.
Andrew leads us onto a small shelf.
The shelf will take us to the top of the cliff band that had previously forced us into the gully.
Andrew negotiates a short section of exposure…
Before arriving on a great little viewpoint.
I follow close behind as we near the top of the ridge. (Photo by Andrew Nugara)
Heading up from the viewpoint. (Photo by Andrew Nugara)
The final section before the ridge held more colourful rock along with some interesting pinnacles.
Andrew’s line-of-sight to me from the viewpoint. (Photo by Andrew Nugara)
A great view onto the prairies.
Christie Mine Ridge is on the left. It sits almost entirely on private land, but I hope to one day get permission to hike it. 😊
Checking out the pinnacles near the top of the ridge. (Photo by Andrew Nugara)
The inspiration behind Spirograph. 😉
Enjoying our last moments of shelter before the inevitable freight train of wind.
Almost at the top.
I long ago determined that ski googles not only keep 100+ km/h windblown debris out of my eyes, but they save me money, after having crosswinds rip many pairs of sunglasses from my face.
Andrew emerges onto the top of the southeast ridge. Our path to the summit is now straightforward.
A crosswind staggers me. If I held my poles out by only the strap, the wind would force them into an almost horizontal position. (Photo by Andrew Nugara)
Gazing across to “Prairie Fire” and to the right of centre, the western summit that Andrew nicknamed, “Prairie Oyster”. 😂😂
A quick look back while making sure that I had a great grip on my camera. 😳
Despite the warmer weather, there were still good-sized drifts on the upper portion of the mountain.
The east face becomes more severe as we draw closer to the summit (not visible).
Andrew stands next to an old bivy site just before the summit.
My fourth and Andrew’s twelfth time on the summit of Prairie Bluff (2258 m).
The view to the southeast…
And to the south.
Then to the west.
The view to the northwest.
A low-hanging cloud sits immediately to the north.
Finally, the view eastward.
Looking west at “Whitney Creek Mountain” (foreground) and “Gladstone’s Toe” immediately behind it. Both are excellent snowshoe destinations. In the background are “Eagle Peak”, “Whistable 1”, “Table Top” and Table Mountain.
I’m sure glad we aren’t on the Livingstone Range today!
A separate snow squall blankets the north end of the Flatheads.
The reigning Prairie Bluff Champ!
And the runner-up… 😂😂😂
Even though it was insanely windy, we decided that while we were here, we might as well keep going. Click to continue towards “Prairie Fire”, “Prairie Oyster”, and “Prairie Sky”.