None of us got exhausted after Opal Ridge and Little Chester, and we were hoping for another ascent on Sunday. Weather forecast was calling for a sunny day, and avalanche condition was moderate/low. Perfect! Then we would just keep our original plan, Smutwood Peak, with the option of traversing to Snow Peak. Before last weekend, there was only one online trip report for doing Smutwood Peak in winter, from Nugara. He didn't make to the summit and still called it as a mountaineering peak. Based on his photos, I didn't agree with the "mountaineering" part, but still, I wanted more beta on this route. So despite the superb view, Smutwood was on my "maybe" list, up until last weekend when Vern, Bill and Wietse successfully ascended it. Their photos suddenly raised this peak to my "must-do" list. I guess someone else was thinking the same way!
I know it would be another insanely long day if we do traverse to Snow Peak, so we set up alarm at 5:45, and got to trailhead before 8. Sky was crystal clear and I was very excited. We were treated with some alpenglow view while crossing the swamp area. (Of course there's no swamp in winter time).
The approach should be pretty easy to follow given the fact this is a very popular area for skiers. However I was a bit paranoid about getting too far climber's left to Commonwealth Lake.. So at the first major junction, we took the right hand side fork... BIG Mistake! This trail eventually goes to Engadine Lodge. I recognized this when we got down to Commonwealth Creek, and we started the bushwhacking and post-holing up the creekbed. Obviously the creekbed was not easy to follow. We had to hop over some questionable snow bridges in order not to wet ourselves, and the trail breaking definitely was definitely not enjoyable. After 20-30min of these stuffs I thought we must be off-route. We ascended the bank on left side and soon found the real trail. It was in such a good shape... Oh man, we shouldn't waste time and energy here. Once got back on track, we soon made to the open area, and the morning view of Smuts and Fist was gorgeous.
From here on the route parallels with the summer trail, and it was a long way across the flat area. Make sure you constantly have eyes on The Fist. At one point it looks like Roche Miette. The steep gully on climber's right side of The Fist was apparently skied recently. Further up the valley, we crossed a huge slide path coming down the east face of Mount Smuts. This path goes all the way from summit to valley floor. I think if you are crazy enough, you can bag Smuts on skis. After this bit we were directly aiming for the big face of Birdwood, doing another creek-side traverse, and then we almost arrived at the base of steep slope up Smuts Pass.
The slope was definitely steep and obviously, avalanche prone. The ski tracks we were following was too flat for snowshoeers, and we decided to shoot straight up. The snowpack felt like spring condition and was very supportive. We gained elevation very quick, and it didn't take us long to top over this hill, and then we were staring at the infamous Mount Smuts. The summer route up Mount Smuts requires you to aim for the big pile of scree cone. But this time, we could stay high on climber's left avoiding losing elevation. On the meantime, we got better perspective of its scramble route. On the meantime, Mount Birdwood was trying her best to compete against Smuts. But as for now, Smuts was the winner.
Once we topped over Smuts Pass, we got our first head-on view of Smutwood Peak. It looked to be awesome. The alpine bowl was also very inviting if you're a skier. But for us, the side-sloping on hard snow was almost a nightmare for our ankles for the next 20 minutes. We kept looking back and the awesome view helped to reduce pain. We did a short break (perhaps the first break) at the pass between Birdwood and Smutwood. The view towards the other side fully opened up. Oh man, it was gonna be awesome! It was already awesome!!
We tried to keep snowshoes on for as far as possible on the ridge, but soon a short climbing section required us ditching shoes and switched to boot travelling. I also took out an ice axe for this bit. It wasn't too hard but there exist easier lines if you want to traverse further climber's left. And then we simply followed the ridge crest up. Miner rock bands were blocking our way, and we could just by-pass almost all of them on climber's left side, but we didn't bother. One of them was extremely hard. Ben and I had to swing ice axe to hook a hold and pull ourselves up the snow covered down-sloping slabs. Mike and Andrea found a much easier line on climber's right, but this would bring you closer to the big cornices. We were forced to stay below other rock bands up towards the false summit. I tried to climb up one band but gain, it involved hooking with ice axe. I was pretty tired and wasn't in the mood of challenging unnecessary stuffs. We cut back towards the ridge crest and followed it to the false summit. The connecting ridge to true summit looked to be inviting. Looking back, we noticed a group of 3 approaching Birdwood/Smutwood pass. We immediately dropped down to the col and started the final slog. The summit ridge was actually pretty easy. There was one section requiring probing, but mostly just a walk-up. Near the top there were some interesting cornice scenery. The summit itself was actually a big cornice. I took out my probe and carefully probed the safe boundary.
We had some discussion whether traversing to Snow Peak or not. There's a substantial elevation loss towards "Birdwood col", and then we had to drop down below treeline to the other side, and regain the elevation towards Burstall Pass. There wasn't enough time allowing us to do so, and we did a quite long summit stay on Smutwood Peak, soaking in the views. Eventually we started the descent.
It was much easier than going up, and in no time we made back to the col below false summit. At the meantime the group of 3 were coming down from the false peak. They turned out to be Golden Scramblers and their friend, Evelyn. Nice to meet them again! We had some nice discussion about some future plans, and after saying goodbye our group decided to skirt around to save some elevation regain. There was ice spots on SW facing slope and we had to take out crampons to traverse. The rest of the descent back to our snowshoe ditching are was nice and fast.
We had lots of extra time. There's a bump ahead of us and we decided to go up there and check things out. We ditched snowshoes and backpacks at its base, and scree slogging brought us to its highpoint. Mount Birdwood looked to be rather a Himalayan Giant. Mount Smuts were trying its best to compete, but this time Birdwood is the winner. I highly suggest everybody to do this variation if you still have time after Smutwood, or if you cannot go up Smutwood Peak. This gives a better perspective for Smuts, Birdwood and the surrounding alpine environ.
We plunged step down the fresh powder to the bowl below, and re-ascended back up to Smuts Pass. We met another 2 skiers at the pass, and soon after that, we started the even faster plunging step down the big slope. It was very fast and enjoyable. At one point I stepped onto a thin snow covered hard slab and started to glide on the surface. Some sort of snowshoe skiing?. Well.
The rest of the way back was scenic and fast. Round Trip Time: 8 hours including all of the stops, variations and detours. Overall, this is a very satisfactory day out. The view ranks high on my winter adventure list. I highly recommend Smutwood as a winter ascent. I didn't get good view from the nearby Burstall Pass Peak and Mount Smuts, and this made up for the loss. I'll definitely do Snow Peak in winter, under crystal clear sky!