When Phil and I set out to scramble Pipestone Mountain, near the Red Deer Lakes and Drummond Icefield on the eastern edge of the Skoki area in Banff National Park, we had no idea how confusing finding and naming the darn summit would be! In the end we had to settle on a rather odd arrangement that I'm sure will not satisfy everyone but makes sense to us.
After ascending the highest point on the Pipestone massif, very clearly much higher than the SE (labeled) towers and near or at the officially listed height of 2970m, we were disappointed with the lack of a register, or even just a cairn. We knew Rick Collier had been there in 1992 and he almost always places a register, but we searched high and low in vain for it before giving up. The only thing to do was ascend the SE towers and see if there was any evidence of official records buried there.
[The Pipestone Towers (C) look pretty insignificant from the false summit of Pipestone Mountain. ++]
From the col with the high point, the towers looked pretty easy, although there was some concern about the final summit block. We dropped our packs and started up the ridge on blocky, very loose terrain. Quickly it became apparent that while they looked easy, the towers were going to be our scrambling crux of the trip. We did manage to keep things at a moderate level, but the looseness of the terrain was concerning nonetheless. We tried to avoid any difficult terrain on climber's right, but eventually we gave up with the tricky traverse and just ascended to the ridge top and proceeded to the summit along it.
[The towers are harder than they first appear, with steep crumbling rock and some exposure to the icefield below once on the ridge crest.]
[We tried to avoid difficult terrain by going climber's right, but in the end the ridge crest at upper left proved the easiest and most straightforward route, albeit loose and exposed.]
The west end of the highest tower was fairly steep and somewhat exposed but eventually we found ourselves at the highpoint on the SE towers with a small cairn awaiting our inspection. Alas, no register here either! I remembered a trip report from Mike Warren in 2007 where he mentions standing on this summit as part of a ski traverse trip. He also assumes in his report that the highpoint is the true summit - not the towers. Perhaps it was his party that built the small cairn? We decided we agreed with Mike's assessment and hence the separate naming of "Pipestone Towers".
Are the SE towers really a separate summit from Pipestone Mountain? I'm not 100% convinced that they are, but there is some logic in the separate naming of the two landmarks. Obviously the map makers have something about Pipestone Mountain confused, so naming the towers separately from the high point honors that confusion. Naming the highest point just makes sense - especially since it matches any official height listings. The views from the towers are unique enough to justify ascending them in any case, whether or not you want to claim them as separate summits is entirely up to you. Nobody outside of a few really hardcore peakbagger geeks really cares in the end anyway.
[The views from Pipestone Towers are almost better than from Pipestone - the Drummond Icefield views certainly are. Pipestone at left with Drummond at right. ++]
[Gazing south and west (R) off the Pipestone Towers. All three Red Deer Lakes visible here with Pipestone Mountain looming impressively at far right. All the main Skoki summits visible at left and center including Douglas, St. Bride, Lychnis, Tilted, Oyster, Anthozoan, Fossil, Redoubt, Skoki, Ptarmigan, Wall of Jericho, Pika, Richardson and Merlin Ridge. ++]
[Looking past Mount Douglas (R) towards the Sawback Range and distant peaks such as Gable and Barrier in the Ya Ha Tinda region of the front ranges.]
[Looking in between Fossil (L) and Skoki (R) peaks over Packer's Pass Peak towards Redoubt Mountain with Ptarmigan rising at right.]
[Looking over the largest of the Red Deer Lakes towards Skoki Mountain with Fossil, Redoubt, Ptarmigan, Wall of Jericho, Pika, Richardson and Merlin Ridge visible beyond from L to R.]
After taking a few summit photos, we descended the east end of the tower which was easier than the ascent line we took up the west end. We also stuck closer to the ridge crest on return, rather than side sloping around the blocks and towers. We descended some pretty steep and loose terrain - definitely the most scrambling we did on this whole trip and justifying some delicacy and care.
[Phil comes down the summit ridge.]
[More delicate downclimbing off the nose of this tower from upper left to lower right.]
[Impressive views of Pipestone Mountain from the col.]
After getting back to our gear at the col, it was time to descend the long gully to treeline. Our ascent had been very efficient on ledges and firm rock, so how fast would our descent be? It turns out - pretty darn fast! Pipestone is one of those rare mountains that happens to have loose scree right beside the firm ascent gully which greatly sped up our descent. We went from the col to our gear below in about 45 minutes! It was still 14:30 by the time we finally rejoined the Red Deer Lakes trail and continued on towards the largest Red Deer Lake where Phil would collect his final soil sample.
[Descending alongside our ascent gully on the much softer ground to the right.]
[Another gorgeous day as we approach the bottom of the gully.]
[Brilliant fall colors.]
[Looking back up at the Pipestone massif from the lower SE gully. The towers clearly visible at center, the summit out of sight at left.]
[A short bushwhack to the Red Deer River trail.]
[A last look up the long gully.]
[An open forest made for pleasant travel back down to the trail.]
The rest of our trip was a bit more muddled than I would have preferred, to be honest. We spent the rest of Friday doing a lovely traverse from Red Deer Lakes to Merlin Lake via a trail running south of Little Pipestone Creek, over the NW ridge of Skoki Mountain. This trail was not marked on our ViewRanger map. I realized at this point that I should still bring at least a photo of the map along as ViewRanger's Landscape map was WAY OFF on all the trails we followed from the largest Red Deer Lake all the way up to Merlin Lake.
[The warden cabin near Red Deer Lake with Cyclone (L) and Pipestone (R) rising above.]
[A gorgeous fall hiking day around the Red Deer Lakes.]
[Mount Hector rises over the largest of the Red Deer lakes.]
[A sea of fire with Tilted Mountain at left.]
[A good trail leads along the south edge of Little Pipestone Creek from the largest Red Deer Lake.]
[Molar Mountain rises over meadows on fire as we traverse around the NW shoulder of Skoki Mountain en route to Merlin Lake.]
[A plethora of ribbons and even a sign tells us that we are on route towards the Merlin Meadows campground.]
[Beware the trails in this area of Skoki that are clearly marked on the ViewRanger Landscape map - we found that they either didn't exist or weren't obvious at the very least. ++]
[Interesting landscapes along the trail to Merlin Meadows CG.]
[This rickety bridge crosses the stream running out of Castilleja and Merlin Lakes just downstream of the Merlin Meadows CG.]
[Pleasant late afternoon fall hiking up to Merlin Lake with the Wall of Jericho rising above.]
[Back into larch forests as we approach Merlin Lake.]
[World on fire as we approach Merlin Lake - just visible here at right.]
[The Merlin Lake headwall view, looking back down over Castilleja Lake towards Cyclone and Pipestone at far distant left. ++]
We originally had some plans to scramble and take photos around Merlin Lake, but the weather moved in overnight on Friday and ruined them. As it turns out, it didn't have to, but we had no idea what the forecast was and rather than wait out the pouring rain at 04:00, we packed up and left the Skoki area very early on Saturday morning. On hindsight this was disappointing and we should have waited as the rain stopped and only clouds remained - a lesson for next time I suppose. In one pretty intense moment, I uncapped my bear spray and was ready to do battle with some Grizzlies in the dark when we spotted animal eyes moving towards us on the pitch black trail early in the morning! We were grateful to spot some rather tame deer behind those eyes before engaging the spray. We enjoyed the Skoki Lakes even though the larches were past prime, before quickly descending Boulder Pass to our waiting bikes.
[A very different scene the next morning as we pass the Skoki Lakes in thick morning clouds. ++]
[Hiking around the Skoki Lakes never disappoints.]
[Looking back at Skoki Lakes as we ascend Packer's Pass with the Wall of Jericho looming above.]
[Amazing Skoki views from just under Packer's Pass on our return. Ptarmigan Lake at right. ++]
[Descending towards Ptarmigan Lake with Redoubt at right and Heather Ridge at center.]
Overall, I really enjoyed this 2.5 day outing in Skoki during prime fall hiking season. As usual, Phil and I covered a lot of kilometers and a many hundreds of meters of height gain accessing some of the more remote Skoki peaks. Pipestone and Cyclone should be on every peakbaggers list as they are near a good back country campground (Red Deer Lakes) and are very easy to ascend. The fact that they have mind blowing views in all directions should improve their low ascent numbers.