Mount Louis is a 2,682-metre peak that stands near the town of Banff and has one of the most extensive histories of any mountain in the Rockies.
“Warm sunshine threw all of us into that dreamy state of delicious indolence when any movement is an effort and one is content to lie and gaze at the figures and images outlined by the cracks on the rock walls and to work out possible lines of ascent without trying them.” – Albert MacCarthy
It’s one of only a few peaks in the Rockies that’s a true “climber’s mountain” in that there’s no way to hike to the top, you must climb. There’s no glacier or snowfield and it’s relatively easy to access. It’s unique spire-like shape and solid rock has made it a popular peak for climbers.
The first ascent was in the summer of 1916, after which the now legendary guide Conrad Kain looked up at the peak and said to his client, “Ye Gods, Mr. MacCarthy, just look at that; they never will believe we climbed it.”
Kain and Albert MacCarthy were on a “preliminary reconnaissance” to scout for a possible route. While riding around on horseback, Kain noticed a potential line. He began searching for a route on the lower cliffs, MacCarthy followed him up and they continued up a rib. Eventually they’d climbed hundreds of metres and were near the summit.
One last obstacle stood before them, a headwall. Luckily, a gash presented itself and they climbed the chimney and made the first ascent of Mount Louis. To retreat, they had to downclimb the entire route, starting with the Kain Chimney. In 1929, the Kain Route was soloed by Roger Neve, a visiting climber from Ontario.
Mount Louis’ dipping limestone is Devonian in age. The earth’s strata was thrust into a perfectly vertical position. The east and west faces are the top and bottom of the strata whereas the north and south are the sides.
Over the years, pieces have fallen away from the east and west in large sheet-like rocks leaving behind large flat faces. Between the separating strata are cracks and chimneys. The north and south aspects offer less-than-vertical climbing and the lower flanks on all sides are low angle enough to be called fourth-class.
Mount Louis is one of a group of three peaks which are part of the Sawback Range. Mount Edith is the southernmost of the group of three. To the north of Louis lies Mount Fifi, a similar peak to Louis, but shorter and with less steeply sloped sides.
Mount Edith, Mount Louis, and Mount Fifi were all named one day in 1886 when Canada’s first Prime Minister, Sir John A. MacDonald, and his wife were making a cross country trip on the recently completed Canadian Pacific Railway.
Louis Stewart, the park superintendent’s son, took Lady MacDonald’s “attendent,” Edith Orde, and her dog Fifi hiking to Edith Pass. The pass provides views of the three peaks and a park surveyor named them after the two hikers and the dog.
Mount Louis from the southeast: A-Greenwood/McKay 5.8 / B-Kor/Fuller 5.11a / C-Gmoser Route 5.10a / D-Project / E-The Gargoyle 5.10a / F-Kain Route 5.7 / G-East Face Access 5.7 / H-East Buttress 5.8 / I-Homage Access 5.4 / J-The Holeczi-Slawinski 5.11- / K-Homage to the Spider 5.10a / L-Eclipse Point 5.11 / M-The Shining 5.13c / N-East Buttress Variation 5.8 / O-Painter’s Arete 5.9 / P-Perren Cracks 5.8 / Q-Kain Chimney 5.6 / R-Bucking Horse Rider 5.11 A0
Tim Auger explains Mount Louis as such: “Put your palms together with your fingers pointing to the sky and you have just made a miniature model of Mount Louis. Turn your hands clockwise and you’re looking at the east face, way over there on the far edge is Homage to the Spider, its your baby finger.”
Europe had exceptional climbers before the mountains had been charted in Canada so it is no surprise that most of the first to explore the Rockies came from Britain, Austria or Switzerland.
Some Europeans were crafty with aid climbing, some were quick to the summit, some were brilliant route finders, but one in particular was a phenomenal free climber: Walter Perren. Perren was known as the Spider of Zermatt. He would run around town bouldering on the stone walls of buildings, no one had ever done that before and people were surprised at his agility and fluidness.
Sometime during the 1950s a pair of climbers from Europe came to the Rockies to make short films about the mountains and climbers who live in the area. One of the climbers they filmed was Perren at Back of the Lake near Lake Louise. Perren was demonstrating free climbing techniques for the camera, long before anyone had began establishing the Back of the Lake climbing area.
Perren lived in the Rockies for years and made outings to a number of the longer routes including Mount Louis. Perren had climbed the Kain Route a few times and climbed the chimney near its top over and over.
Convinced that another free line to the top was possible he looked outside the chimney and found a continuous crack that is now named for him: Perren Cracks. He used his years of free climbing skills to unlock the secrets of the crack which has matchbox sized holds on the face next to the crack.
Coming down off Louis is no easy task, even by mountain professionals who know the mountain, it can still present hazards. Upon the modern decent is a section where climbers need to climb up through a notch to find the next rappel, many people ask if anyone has ever gotten into trouble by not finding the exact descent and the answer is: very much so. Don Vockeroth and Fritz Weisner who climbed the mountain separately, but were descending together by request of Weisner, were unsure of the route down. On the descent where climbers are meant to go skiers right, they went left and wound up on the southwest face for a night. It was a bad night to be there as a lightening storm rolled in and the lightening struck the mountain repeatedly, each time hitting Vockeroth. After the second time, he said if one more hits me I am dead. Another bolt of lightening hit him and he lived to talk about it. There is much more to the epic but the moral is to get the descent right.
A – In 1965, Brian Greenwood and Lloyd MacKay made the first winter ascent of the mountain via a new route on the south face, which climbs an impressive rib. The route is rarely climbed, but it is highly recommended as the upper pitches are on great rock. There are no fixed anchors and the lower pitches are prone to rockfall.
B – In 1964, Layton Kor and Jeremy Fuller added a technical aid route to the south face, west of the then-new Gmoser Route. The route remained unrepeated until Sean Dougherty and party freed the route at 5.10dR. After a few pitches the route climbs into a rib which is shared with the Greenwood/MacKay. The Kor/Fuller sees very few repeats.
C- The famous Gmoser Route is the most-climbed route on the south face. With a few low angle pitches with spaced protection (recently added bolts and all anchors are fixed on the route) the climb leads to a steep left-facing corner. Originally graded F7 or 5.7, it was long called 5.8 or hard 5.8. Then it was noted as 5.9 and after a few ascents in 2014, most said the route felt harder. Over the years, the small foot holds have become glossy and the crack greasy. It’s fair to say the crack is now a 5.10 jam/layback/stem corner and one of the best on the mountain. The route climbs into the Kain Route after two more pitches of chimney, loose rock scrambling.
D- Sometime during the late 1990s, someone started a fully bolted route up the slabs right of Gmoser Route. The line looks nice, but there’s no word if it was ever finished or if it’s fully equipped.
E- The Gargoyle was climbed in 2010 by Will Meinen and Brandon Pullan. The route adds seven pitches of climbing on sound stone. One bolt was hand-drilled at the top of pitch four as an anchor as the crux next pitch has a 10-metre run-out before any good protection. After the 5.10aR section, climb up a steep wall and across slabs to the final left facing corner. It joins the Kain Route at the top of the chimney.
F- The first ascent of Mount Louis was up this line in 1916. There have been a number of variations to the lower slabs, but they all lead to the south edge of the east face where a mandatory rappel brings you to the traverse that leads to the central south rib. At the top of the rib, climb the Perren Cracks right of the Kain Chimney. The Perren Cracks have had bolts added to them over the years, a blessing and a curse.
G- East Face Access – No one knows when this was first climbed, likely as a variation to the Kain Route, but more recently it’s been used to access the upper diamond East Face. Climb a number of rambley pitches with the odd 5.7/8 step. Two pitches below the upper diamond, the face steepens to two pitches of 5.9 and ends on a ledge below the diamond.
H- In 1974, Tim Auger, who had climbed Louis a number of times, teamed up with Yosemite veteran Galen Rowell for a new route up the east buttress. Climbed far right of the Kain Route, the pair climbed up the buttress that leads up to below the Diamond where thy then went right and up the final rib. From there they climbed up to a gully leading almost directly to the summit. They were back to the Alpine Club of Canada club house by dinner. Because the route never wound up in a modern guidebook, there have been at least five “first ascents” of the east buttress with minor variations each time. From Steve DeMaio to Mark Synott, a number of good climbers have climbed “new” routes up Mount Louis.
I- The third-class wall that leads to the base of the impressive south-facing diherdrals on the massive northeast pillar of Louis was originally used to access Homage to the Spider. Over the years, climbers have added bolts to protect the loose rock. In 2014, the Holeczi-Slawinski was added to a crack line left of Homage.
J- Raphael Slawinski is no stranger to the Sawback Range. He made the first ascent of the Lightning Bolt Crack 5.11 on Mount Edith over a decade ago. Steve Holeczi is one of the most experienced alpininsts in the Rockies. So when these two pair up, big things will happen and they did in the fall of 2014. Slawinski had tried the route earlier in the summer and returned with Holeczi to finish it off. The climb follow an esthetic left-facing corner to a 5.11 crux roof, the “ear.” With hard stemming and good protection, the Holeczi-Slawinski will surely be popular.
K- In 1987, Tim Auger was at it again, but this time with long time work friend Reg Bunyen. With hopes of finding a clean line on the northeast buttress they scrambled up broken ground. Peering right they saw a perfect crack separating two plates that went up about 150 metres to a ledge. They racked up and began to climb, freeing all of the pitches, they then climbed down behind the flake to the base of the main wall where a crack led up to another corner crack in a flake system. They followed it with sustained climbing to a small ledge where they looked up at another perfect crack, they followed it to the back of the last huge plate before the main bulk of the mountain. Behind this flake was a ramp of broken rock in a narrow space about one-metre-wide. They climbed easy rock to the top of the narrow “hallway” where they stepped over to a large flat ledge, where helicopters have since landed for rescues. From here a few more show rock buttresses up the north ridge lead to the summit. Tim found a piton near the last pitch of true climbing on the route on their ascent, no one ever came forward but the possibility it was climbed before them, although slim, seems to have presented itself. To this day no one knows where the piton came from, climbers had rappelled down this side of the mountain exploring options in the past, as well routes had been climbed up the north face, it is one of Mt. Louis best kept secrets. Auger named the route Homage to the Spider 5.10b, in honour of Walter Perren, his hero. The route was originally graded 5.9, but the crux has been upgraded as Auger said the nature of the pitch has changed in the last 30 years.
L- A few years later, Auger teamed up with local hard man Peter Arbic and the pair climbed difficult and steep rock on the east face above the Kain route to the left edge of the diamond. They followed the south arete of the diamond to its top and made the first ascent of one of the most out-there looking features in the Rockies. The pair then rappelled down behind the feature and up to the summit. They called the route Eclipse Point. An archaeological dig near the trail head at the fire side parking lot found a spearhead nearly 10,000 years old, which proved that natives had seen Louis a long time ago. The arrowhead was named Eclipse Point and since the diamond looks like an arrowhead Tim dubbed it just that.
M- One of the Rockies once-leading developers, Eric Dumerac, dreamed of a European sport route-style climb that wound up the mountain on the best rock and finished on the diamond face. He nearly finished, but couldn’t completely free the diamond face. During his rap-bolting, Dumerac fixed a tyrolean cable from the main peak to the diamond flake. The Tyrolean was removed, but the bolted face remained to be climbed until two of North America’s best climbers set there sights on it. Sonnie Trotter was told about the route by Dumerac and the potential for hard free climbing. Sonnie invited friend and climbing great Tommy Caldwell along to scope out the face in 2011. Before long the pair were bolting a line from the bottom of the diamond ground up, aiding and bolting on lead they established three pitches in three days, rappelling down and heading home every night only to return when weather was good, and on the third day came upon Dumerac’s rap-bolted route. The stars had aligned and Sonnie and Tommy climbed to the top of the Diamond in a July snow squall. Rappelling into the gully behind and leading a new 5.12-pitch bolting on lead Sonnie took the hard way out at midnight with snow falling to top out and the two hurried down the mountain to get out near morning. Another trip would see them work the route out only to return a fifth time, solo up to the base of the face and each of them redpoint the climb at a modest 5.13d, five pitches up the diamond. The climb became the most difficult big route in Canada proving once again that Mount Louis was at the cutting-edge of climbing, providing ground for a new generation of climbers to explore. Sonnie and Tommy named their route The Shining. In 2016, Alex Megos onsighted the 5.13 route. In 2017, Trotter returned and linked the 5.13 pitches into 5.14s.
N- This major variation to the east buttress has been climbed many times over the years. It climbs about a half-dozen pitches different form the main buttress. There are a number of quality 5.8 and 5.9 cracks that might be of interest. The anchors are fixed with pitons for the most part. It’s similar to the Kain Route, but with steeper climbing. It finishes up the large gully behind the diamond face.
O- Nick Rochacewich and Nurdjana de Rijcke were out in 2010 to climb the Kain Route. Once they reached the rappel, they found a line straight up to an upper arete. After piecing together some steep climbing they gained the arete proper and found some solid 5.9 climbing. Rochacewich was one of the leading route developers in the Rockies during the time and had an eye for a line. Being one of the most high-end painters in the Bow Valley, he named the route Painter’s Arete.
P- The famous Walter Perren cracks east of the Kain Chimney have been the preferred line since they were first climbed. Tim Auger would solo them every summer for nearly 30 years. They were once fixed-gear-free, but over the last few years a number of protection bolts and anchors have been added. Above the cracks are two more pitches of third-class to the summit where an iron cross and register marks the peak.
Q- The Kain Chimney is the original line up the mountain, but few climb it these days. Some say everyone who climbs Louis has to climb it at least once. At only 5.6, the chimney is easier than it looks, but is loose as it appears.
R- In 2015, Paul McSorley, Tony McLane and Jason Ammerlaan climbed the new 600-metre route they called Bucking Horse Rider. The route climbs an obvious corner that makes up the opposite side of the large “flake” where the famous 1980’s route Homage to the Spider 5.10 goes up. It is not visible in the photo above. The “flake” is a bedding plane, as the Sawback Range’s peaks are ancient horizontal seabed layers that are now vertical. Where the bedding planes separate are cracks and chimneys and the most obvious are along “Homage to the Spider” plane.
There is a multi-pitch rappel down the west face that’s set up for a single 60-metre rope, but two ropes makes it faster and safer. The descent is technical so find the right beta.
Mount Louis has inspired nearly a century of climbers from the best in 1916 to the very best in 2014. Mount Louis will continue to provide adventures for generations to come. The north face has reportedly been climbed once, up the upper ribs. But, there is a large steep lower wall with impeccable rock and lots of potential.