I was feeling quite ill the week of August 7th 2017. I'd probably been on one too many long day trips with Dr. Phil - or I was just allergic to work. Probably the latter. Of course, as the weekend approached and looked to be quite clear and warm, we started throwing around plans despite my current illness. After finally settling on a pretty fantastic trip that excited both of us, we were discouraged to find out that despite its relative obscurity, this particular peak was being visited by another party on the very same weekend. We decided we didn't care (even though we really did) and upheld our plans for a two day trip.
As I drove towards the mountains early on Saturday morning, August 12th, I was bitterly disappointed to see that they were covered in a thick blanket of grey and depressing smoke. 2017 has been getting worse and worse for out-of-control wildfires in the neighboring province of BC. In a sort of irony, the dry weather this year is giving scramblers a dream summer of dry rock and clear routes but is also resulting in no views after reaching the tops of many of the long-sought peaks. Since one of the main reasons I scramble is for the views, my motivation drops inversely proportionate with the increase in smoke or haze impacting said views.
As Phil and I drove out of Canmore and towards Lake Louise, we debated about the weather and the smoke and its potential impact on our plans. Phil suggested that perhaps we should do Quill and Conical peaks instead of our original peak, which was further north up the Icefields Parkway and a much longer drive. These two had made the short list a few times already in 2017 but were always pushed off for one or another reason. Now that we'd done so many peaks in the area, including Bobac, Watermelon, Cataract, South Totem and Spreading Peak already in 2017, we were hoping to save Quill and Conical for another year. As we debated the pros and cons, it became clear that doing these two did made some sense. We'd already had great views of the area so why not? We quickly texted our loved ones about the change in plans, literally seconds before losing cell reception on hwy #93. The final text was sent with me holding my cell phone as high as possible out of the car window.
We had another decision to make, now that we'd settled on our revised objectives. One day or two? We knew from earlier planning that we were looking at over 2600m total elevation gain and over 30km of travel distance. We also knew that it was 90% or more off-trail. Bobac and Watermelon had been long too, but the majority of that trip was on a trail of some sort. Eventually we decided to go light and attempt a one day trip of both peaks. Remember - I was coughing and hacking with a full-on summer cold and had a low grade fever the three days previous. I wasn't sure I could do it but decided to throw caution to the wind for once. It would be a good test of my base endurance, if nothing else.
We found parking along hwy #93 with some difficulty as the shoulders aren't that wide near the Silverhorn Creek bridge. We joked about being 300m up the road from the creek - it would seem much further than that on our return. We started our long day at 07:00, searching for a rumored trail along climber's left of the fast-flowing Silverhorn Creek. According to Josee, who ascended along this creek twice in 2015, there were 'intermittent' trails along the creek on climber's left. We started out on the very obvious Noyes Peak approach trail, but too soon we had to abandon it and find our own way lower down to the creek. Indeed, we did find a small trail and eagerly followed it up steeply alongside the creek. We soon realized that this trail is likely from folks checking out some impressive waterfalls and cascades which are located pretty close to the highway. We made this brilliant deduction after the trail vanished and we found ourselves bushwhacking through some dense forest soon after the creek stopped showing off.
[A nice morning to be walking along the Icefields Parkway. Silverhorn Creek is about 300m distant in this view looking north towards Bison Peak and Murchison Towers.]
[On a very faint trail through the dry forest along Silverhorn Creek. 'Dry' doesn't mean it was always open and easy though.]
[The lower section of Silverhorn Creek, just before it meets the highway, is the most scenic with waterfalls, a small canyon and rapids. Breaker Mountain (L) is another marathon day trip that Phil and I completed in 2016. Thank goodness it was without smoky skies as it was arguably even more work than Quill / Conical and much more technical. Peaks at center and right include Ebon, Aries and Stairway.]
[Lovely creek landscapes along Silverhorn Creek. The one-and-only advantage of smoke is that it brings out the vibrance in closeup nature shots.]
The next hour or so was a bit frustrating - if I'm totally honest about it. One problem with doing so many peaks in such a short amount of time, is that my expectations start becoming unrealistic. I've noticed this before on years where I start getting 30, 40 or even 50 peaks in a tight time window. If every peak doesn't have brilliant views and stellar approaches, I start getting a bit miffed. Trip reports for Quill are scarce, but the few that are available don't say too much about the approach up Silverhorn Creek, other than some 'side-hilling' and some 'intermittent trails'. This is entirely accurate, but for some reason we were expecting a similar experience to Totem Creek a few weeks earlier. Alas - the trail builder that spent so many hours in the Totem Creek drainage had not yet made Silverhorn Creek a priority. Another issue affecting my attitude was that I was sick. I had a nagging headache and was suffering from a severe head cold already early in the day, and was concerned about my fitness as a result. Even before leaving the parking spot, we knew that this trip was going to be among the longest that we'd ever done in a day. Being at 65-70% fitness for such an aggressive plan made me a wee bit grumpy.
Needless to say, as we bashed and thrashed our way (very slowly) through some thick, unpleasant bush high above Silverhorn Creek, I wasn't feeling too excited about things. When my cap disappeared in the bush somewhere behind us, I was even less excited! I grumbled and mumbled my way behind Phil for about half an hour after losing my cap. Now I would be without proper head covering on a 30 degree day - with a head cold. Awesome sauce. This particular day just kept on giving. :| (On hindsight it was still a helluva lot better than the office - funny how that works.)
[The sun is visible at center, trying to rise and shine through a thick layer of smudge. This is a nice open slope that we side-hilled on approach, we could have descended to the creek already here on hindsight.]
[The first headwall is easily bypassed on the left. The sun is visible rising above our distant access gully that we'll turn up to the left.]
Phil put up with my shitty attitude like a trooper, although I know he was having his own reticent doubts about the long day ahead. The smoke was getting so thick around us as we hiked, that as we could feel it in the back of our throats - not to mention the great job it was doing, hiding all of the wonderful views that we knew were under its haze. After over an hour of bushy approach (very few trails of any sort - intermittent or not), we finally tip-toed across a brutally loose scree / dirt slope and descended above the first headwall and a pretty set of cascades to the much more open, flat and lovely gravel flats resting between Mount Noyes and Mount Weed. On ascent we avoided wet feet along the Mount Weed side of this upper valley while on descent we kept right in the creek, which was much quicker and easier.
[Looking back from the top of the first headwall towards Breaker Mountain. On return we'd descend to the creek sooner than later after this headwall rather than side-hill the slopes on the right. Eventually the terrain does force a side-hill traverse.]
Our moods slowly improved as we followed the lovely upper valley towards the NE gully that would give us access to both Quill and Conical Peak. Within 2 hours of leaving hwy 93, we were starting our way up rubbly slopes into the NE drainage. I was slightly ahead of Phil, who was taking a quick break below, as I made my way up the rubbly slope towards an obvious low cliff band above. My mood definitely improved as I took in the impressive form of Mount Weed behind me - it's east face was absolutely incredible! My headache had faded at this point and although the smoke was still very thick, the views of the upper Silverhorn Creek Valley and the cool morning air did inject some energy back into my tired body.
[We enter the gravel flats above the first headwall and spot our first cairn.]
[Avoiding wet feet was a bit of a hassle on approach. On egress we simply walked right in the creek which was much more efficient.]
[Sunrise reflected in Silverhorn Creek. Our access gully under the sun here.]
[Click to view the approx route we took to access the gully from the gravel flats.]
[Looking back at Mount Weed (R) and the upper Silverhorn Creek valley from the lower slopes entering the access gully.]
[Looking back at our approach valley with Mount Weed on the left and Noyes at distant right.]
Phil caught up with me and we started contouring into the NE drainage valley, happy to see water cascading down the middle of it. The best way to save weight while on long day trips is to avoid carrying too much water. The downside of this strategy is when there's no fresh water sources along your route. Thankfully the Quill / Conical route is covered in semipermanent snow patches and ice, rendering lots of fresh water along the way. We crossed the creek below an obvious headwall before having some fun on the moderate cliffs on climber's right of the cascading water. Once above the headwall we started angling up and slightly left, again using as much stable terrain as possible. Low cliff bands and slabs worked well for speeding up our progress as we aimed for a scree shoulder high above the drainage to the north. Almost 4 hours from the highway, we finally found ourselves looking across a surprisingly large patch of receding glacier, that gives access to Quill Peak's south scree slopes.
[In the access gully looking at the second headwall which we by-passed on climber's right.]
[Fun and fast scrambling up the headwall.]
[Looking back down the access gully towards Mount Weed - distant peaks now covered in smoke.]
[Heading north up broken terrain up to the high terrain around the glacier.]
[Looking back down the impressive access gully with Weed still showing off it's east and north faces. ++]
[We get our first views of Quill rising through the thick smoke over the glacier. Many hours to go before we're even on the easy south scree slopes yet. The intervening scree summit obvious at center.]
I was in my approach shoes for the day while Phil was carrying boots for use with crampons and wearing light runners everywhere else. I've discovered that for low-angle snow and ice, I can use my aluminum crampons with my approach shoes, saving me the weight and discomfort of full shank boots. After donning crampons, we started out along the glacier towards a significant intervening scree summit in between the glacier and Quill. Thankfully the glacier was very tame, only a few small crevasses were found by probing carefully with our hiking poles, before long we were on bare ice with clear visibility of any other holes around us. We were cautious with our route, sticking to low-angle terrain and easily accessing solid rock on the eastern edge of the glacier against the west edge of the intervening scree summit at around 11:30, already over 4.5 hours from the road. We enjoyed the ice-cold, fresh water running off the ice and the interesting views on the edge of the glacier.
[Phil crosses the glacier with Conical trying its best to show up through the choking smoke.]
[The glacier's edge - Quill at center but we have much terrain to negotiate between here and there, including the intervening scree summit rising to the right.]
[Finding an easy spot to disembark the ice. Conical in the distance.]
As we took off the crampons, we noted that the smoke was even thicker than it had been earlier in the day. We could barely see the outline of Conical Peak just across the valley! We dropped any unnecessary gear (i.e. crampons and axes) before heading up alongside the edge of the glacier and then the easy scree slope on the intervening summit. Quill Peak still looked a long way off from the lower slope of this PITA obstacle. As we topped out on the scree summit, we spotted an obvious cairn to the north - on what looked like the edge of a cliff. We assumed this must be marking the best descent line, and indeed it did. Thanks Josee's team! Despite appearances, the east face of the scree summit was a pretty straightforward descent, first we encountered fun little cliff bands and subsequently broken scree. From our descent we could finally start seeing the rest of the route up Quill and it still appeared a long ways off.
[Surprisingly good views looking back at the glacier that we crossed with Weed peeking above at center left and Noyes at center right. ++]
[Looking over the intervening scree summit at the two lower obstacles and finally the scree slopes to the summit of Quill - still many kilometers distant. ++]
[Phil stands at the cairn marking the best descent spot over the east face of the intervening scree summit (aka PITA Peak).]
[Phil descends the easy / moderate terrain down the east face of PITA Peak.]
[Off the steepest part of PITA Peak and looking at our upcoming traverse towards Quill. ++]
We knew that we had some moderate terrain still ahead of us after descending the scree summit, leading through a couple more intervening bumps along the ridge to Quill's easy south scree slope. We followed sheep trails and Josee's route hints through this terrain, including a climber's left bypass to the only difficult section on the final bump before Quill. Finally, 5.5 hours after leaving the highway we were actually on the scree slopes leading up to the summit of our first mountain. Some day trips are longer than others... All that was left now was one tired foot in front of the other, working our way to the apex. We still had 400 vertical meters and a few kilometers of work ahead of us. It was at this point that my vision started acting up.
[Click for our approx route. ++]
[Some trickier bits, but nothing too difficult.]
[400 vertical meters and 2+ KMs to go...]
Thanks to my head cold and lack of cap protecting me from the (thankfully smoke-filtered) hot summer sun, I was not in very good shape as we started up the massive south scree slope of Quill. The thick smoke grating against the back of my throat didn't help, I'm sure. When I started seeing spots in my vision I got worried. I get one or two annual migraines and they involve temporary vision loss - called "auras". I've only had one of these on a mountain, while Sonny and I were hiking back from South Kidd Peak years ago. While not a critical health event, losing one's vision in a mountain environment, even only temporarily, isn't an ideal scenario. We were 11km from the nearest road at this point and had a lot of convoluted terrain between our current location and the car. I decided to pop some Tylenol Cold to see if that would help calm the cold symptoms and relieve some pressure on my poor noggin. Thankfully this seemed to work and within a few minutes my vision came back to normal and I continued following Phil up the endless scree slope. I was secretly wondering how the heck I was going to get all the way back out again - nevermind tack on another summit!
[The south scree slope was easy but never ending.]
[Looking back at PITA peak, the glacier beyond and Conical just barely visible left of center.]
As I started topping out on Quill's interesting summit block - a strip of black rock slab rising out of the endless scree slopes - I couldn't help but feel some disappointment. The views were so choked with smoke that we could barely make out any of the stunning scenery that we knew was buried behind the haze, just out of reach for us. Even Kentigern, directly across the Siffleur River was barely visible, nevermind anything further out like Recondite, Augusta or Cataract. Thankfully there were some dramatic close views of the false summit and the very impressive north face of Quill. The unique, ominous black, overhanging north face had yellow colored seams of rock darting through it. In some ways, the haze gave it a mythical and foreboding presence. Despite my bad health, it had taken us only around 6.5 hours to reach the summit. This was much quicker than we expected. as it had taken Josee's group 9.5 to do the same (we got to take advantage of their route beta of course). My hopes of reaching Conical Peak increased when I realized we weren't going as slowly on my diminished energy reserves, as I first feared. My base fitness was getting me through a tough day as I'd hoped it would.
[Phil tops out on Quill Peak.]
[Despite the smoke, the views towards Quill's false summit and along its impressive north face are impressive. Peaks like Mount Osgood, Bobac and Watermelon would normally be visible here. ++]
[Some views back towards Mount Noyes (C) over Porcupine Creek.]
[We traversed to the false summit for some more views, this is along the traverse - again looking past the north face of the false summit.]
[Looking back at the summit (L) and the false summit (R).]
[The summit from the false summit.]
[An attempt at a summit panorama looking back to the SW with Conical, PITA, Weed and Noyes left to right. ++]
After taking a brief rest and looking in vain for a summit register, which I'm sure would have been almost empty, we turned back down the scree slope towards the now-distant glacier we'd used on approach. Thankfully the Tylenol worked wonderfully and as I descended my headache vanished and my optimism towards tagging Conical Peak grew slightly. I was still feeling disappointed in the "wasted" views that we weren't experiencing, but c'est la vie. We were here now, and we tried to enjoy the micro scenery for what it was. I'm sure on a clear day, views into the Porcupine Creek Valley to the west and over the Siffleur River Valley to the east would be mind-blowing. I commented more than once that this had the potential to be a top 10 trip but wouldn't and couldn't make that rarified list in its current condition.
What makes Quill Peak such a demanding day trip is the massive amount of elevation losses on the way up the mountain. Thankfully most of it is on interesting terrain that requires some level of routefinding and scrambling to get up and over. As we stood at the low col, looking up at the three intervening summits before the glacier on our return from the summit, we wondered once again if Conical would be in the cards for us. Thankfully the terrain kept us entertained enough that we managed the ascent fairly easily and quickly. The smoke started clearing out a wee bit as we did the easy scree run back down to the glacier from the scree summit. We had to chuckle at the fact that the scree summit (which we climbed twice) was higher than Conical Peak, but we couldn't claim it since it isn't named. I've now named it unofficially as PITA peak.
[Re-engaging with the moderate terrain guarding Quill. We have to re-ascend over two smaller bumps before tackling the large one rising to the right which I've lovingly dubbed PITA Peak. :) ++]
[Although small, the bumps along the way back to the glacier are starting to feel "not small" as we re-ascend them.]
[Phil on return to PITA Peak. Note the thick smoke again!]
[The crux is bypassing the final bump just before the south slopes of Quill - but still only moderate scrambling at most.]
[Looking back at the moderate bump which is traversed on climber's left about 3/4 way up. Quill rising in the background now.]
[PITA Peak is a Pain in the Ass - especially on return! The route goes straight up the foreground ridge before dropping back down to the glacier beyond. Conical Peak is a long ways off at left. ++]
[Phil descends PITA Peak towards the glacier. We will now traverse the left hand side of it before contouring towards Conical which is OOS at left here.]
[South Totem and Spreading Peak are hidden somewhere in that smoke.]
[Glacier meets rock.]
[Rivers of ice cold water flow out of the glacier.]
[A last glance back along the glacier towards Quill Peak.]
The glacier was melting furiously in cascading waterfalls and different sized rivers and streams as we rejoined our dropped gear and started looking towards our second objective of the day - Conical Peak.