So where do you go if you want a good day out with great scenery? Well, it's always a good bet to go either on a glacier or somewhere really close to a glacier so that you can take lots of pictures of the glacier. Mistaya Mountain was done this year by a few people that Raff and I know and the pictures from those trips bumped it up both of our priority lists. For some reason we also thought that we could bag Caldron, since it's seen relatively few ascents and also sports a fantastic view. On the map the two mountains look quite close to each other and if we were going to hike all the way in there, why not bag two peaks instead of one? (Hmmm. That kind of logic will wear out your body when you follow it to conclusion.)
There is one big problem with the hike to Caldron Lake. It's a 300 meter height loss, first thing in the morning and obviously a reciprocal 300 meter height gain as the last thing you do before getting back to your vehicle at the end of the day. On the way down the excellent trail from the Peyto Lake viewpoint I kept thinking about all the height we were losing. It felt like a lot but we convinced ourselves that it was only around 200 meters and that we wouldn't worry about it till the end of the day. (Hmmm. That kind of logic will wear out your body when you follow it to conclusion - are you sensing a theme here yet?)
The rest of the hike to Caldron Lake was very pleasant - as pleasant as hiking on moraines can ever be. The only place I've ever seen scree piled so ridiculously steep is on moraines because it's cemented in place with glacial debris, ice and water. Being cemented also means a very hard, unforgiving surface. Easy to go up. Not so pleasant to descend. Another thing I should mention is crossing the outlet stream from Caldron Lake and Peyto Glacier. On the way in we actually walked straight to the stream and spent the next 1-2km looking for a place to cross it without getting our feet wet. Eventually we came to a nice bridge built over the stream. You have to hike right into the canyon coming off the Peyto Glacier before you'll get to that darn bridge. It's worth it though, there's a good trail backtracking on the other side of the stream the whole way to the moraine and then up the moraine. You do 'waste' some distance, but IMO it's not significant and I'd personally much rather be on a packed trail then stumbling over loose rocks and nasty glacier detritus. Instead of trying to cross the stream as soon as you're done the descent from the lookout, you should stick to the trail on the left (east) side of the gravel flats. When the trail goes up (especially in the trees) you can usually just bypass these sections by staying on the flats. You'll be doing enough ups and downs without these extra diversions! (Hikers have this annoying habit of making their trails go up and down, almost like they're searching for some extra exercise. I think they should just start bagging more peaks and stop with the roller coaster trail building habit.)
Once we got on the moraine that leads up to the weather station and then back down to the Peyto Glacier, I got a sense of 'deja vu'. The last time I was on this pile of cement (or another word that starts with 'c' and ends with 'rap') was with skis on my back, trying to get up Jimmy Simpson. I ran out of steam on that trip and went back to the truck by myself in the dark leaving Raff and his buddy to bag the peak. Wait a minute. I was with Raff again this time. Uh oh.
Since Raff only had 4 hours of sleep the night before, I led for most of the day. This doesn't mean Raff slowed us down any, he just wasn't feeling quite as aggressive as I was! We pushed up the moraine at a good pace. Once at the top we took the right hand fork (climbers) and traversed the steep and exposed trail that runs between Peyto Peak's northeast flank and the Caldron Lake headwall. This is not a good place to slip and the hard gravel with small pebbles and a severe downslope make it feel a bit dicey. I can't imagine what it feels like with snow - you want very stable snow conditions before even considering this route in the winter. The run out on this section is so bad you might as well not even bother turning your avi beacon on here. If you go down, you're going down 6 feet under, permanently.
After the traverse we got to a small boulder field and descended (yes - there's lots of height gain / loss on this trip) to the beautiful and pristine Caldron Lake. This would be one of the nicest places I know, just to spend a day lolly-gagging around an alpine lake, taking in the stunning scenery and just catching a few zzz's. Unfortunately for us, we are peak baggers and peak baggers don't like lolly-gagging underneath perfectly climbable peaks without first climbing those peaks! We set off around Caldron Lake on the north edge and were soon gaining height on old glacier garbage (I really do enjoy moraines, it just doesn't seem like it). I knew that we'd have to lose some of this height once we got under the ascent gully beneath Mistaya's ridge but it was easier terrain and the views were great so it was worth it (at the time).
I took one look at the upper snow slope in the ascent gully from the moraine and asked the crazy Pol what he though of it. He replied that it wouldn't be as bad as it looked, which was a good thing because it looked almost vertical! We descended to the lower glacier / permanent snow gully coming off of Mistaya's ridge and cramponed up for the ascent. I'm not sure if this is a small pocket glacier or a snow field. I probed with my trekking pole all the way up and didn't find any cracks. All I know is that Mistaya will not be an easy objective once the snow completely melts from this gully. The rock to the right of the gully looked very loose and somewhat exposed to rockfall hazard too. Not the best terrain to be in for very long. The gully was in perfect condition for step kicking. I led most of the way up, it was very steep near the top but there's a very nice run out zone so it didn't feel too dicey. Raff charged up the last 15 meters or so and then we were on the summit ridge. So do I consider Mistaya is a scramble or an alpine climb? It depends a bit on your route. Eric Coulthard scrambled up mostly rocks but his route looks longer and less fun than the snow gully. If you go this way Mistaya is mostly a scramble. I would say that if you plan on ascending the snow gully, since you pretty much have to use crampons and an ax, and since conditions on the snow slope have to be solid or there's a very good chance of being caught in an avalanche, this route should probably not be considered 'just' a scramble. Even if you stay to the rock in this gully (only possible in dry conditions) it didn't look that pleasant or safe to me. On the other hand, it's certainly not a very technical or tough alpine route either. Who knows? If you're comfortable assessing snow conditions you'll find the snow gully easy, otherwise go up the rock route that Eric went up. The views are worth it either way!
Once on the ridge it was an endless plod to the summit. I was seriously lacking energy but we managed to get to the summit in just under 5 hours from the car. The views were amazing and kept us busy for almost an hour. We could see many of the Wapta peaks, Yoho peaks, Mount Mummery, the Lyells, Forbes, Murchison, Hector, Recondite and many more recognizable summits. I hunted for a summit register but there was too much snow and ice encasing the cairn and I didn't find anything. We still weren't sure at this point if Caldron was a possibility, I didn't think I had the energy but I told myself that if we were down Mistaya by around 14:30 it may be worth it. It looked like a heck of a slog to get up the scree slopes of Caldron and even looked like the hike from Mistaya to Caldron would be fairly draining.
The descent was fast and easy. The steep snow was a bit dicier to descend, we didn't even bother with crampons because the snow was quite soft (5-8 inches of slushy snow on hardpack) and the crampons would just ball up and make it less safe. Plus if we did slip, we didn't want to be wearing crampons for the ride down! It was tempting to glissade the slope but we were a bit worried that we could start a huge slough of wet snow and there was potential to lose control of the descent that way so we didn't bother tempting fate on this one.
We were at the bottom of the snow gully by 14:30. Raff figured that from where we were there was roughly 300 meters to gain to the summit of Caldron. I figured slightly more than that but we agreed to give it 2 hours and see where we were. To myself I said that it would probably take about 2.5 hours or we should be turning around. This would ensure just enough day light to get back to the car. I was trying very hard to ignore the height gain waiting for us at the end of the day (yes, that kind of logic will wear out your body when you follow it to conclusion...).
Once again, we had to gain a bunch of height to get over the glacial deposits and moraines between Mistaya and Caldron. The height gains / losses were slowly taking their toll on us and we started to slow down a little bit. The weather was still by far the nicest day I had all summer and this helped bolster the energy and mood levels. The scenery also continued to amaze and I felt truly blessed to be in this wild and beautiful place. As we dropped back down towards Caldron I realized that we should probably dump some gear before heading up to its summit. There was no need for crampons or axes or anything like that. The weather was very stable so we could leave goretex coats and pants behind too. Raff decided to dump his entire pack and just take the bare minimum with him, I elected to take the pack with half of its contents. We dropped yet a bit more into the small valley at the base of Caldron before starting the long plod up its scree-covered slopes.
When we were in the small valley, just before heading up Caldron, I glanced at my altimeter. What I saw was not very encouraging. Instead of a 300 meter height gain, we now had over 500 meters! I guess all those ups and downs add up eh?! I decided not to tell Raff until we were half way up - that way he couldn't turn around anymore. What are buddies for right? :-) So we plodded on and on, taking a good number of breaks. The scrambling was very easy - except where the scree was loose. That almost killed us. We didn't have the energy to be sliding around on really nasty scree. I forced myself not to look at my altimeter again till we were an hour from the base of Mistaya. It felt good to see that now we did only have around 300 vertical meters to the summit. I told Raff and he looked a bit shocked. "From here?", he asked. "Oh yeah, I forgot to tell you that it was 500 meters from that basin...", was the blatant lie he heard back. Lying to your buddy so you can bag an extra peak - good times!
The final 300 meters passed without incident. My heart rate was through the roof after 15 or 20 steps and each time I'd stop and tell Raff he could pass me if he wanted. He never did, so I guess his heart wasn't any happier with the abuse than mine was. Once we finally hit the ridge it was a straight-forward and very pleasant walk to the summit. One thing we did notice was that if you headed up the wrong slope on Caldron and got to the first summit, you'd probably have a nasty down climb to complete the traverse. We weren't sure if it would go without a rope. There was a big cairn on that first (lowest) summit so we also wondered how many people simply gave up at this point? It couldn't be too many because this mountain isn't climbed very often.
The summit views from Caldron did not disappoint and made the suffering on ascent totally worth it. Peyto Lake wasn't quite as visible as I was hoping, but the mountains around us were clear and majestic. Traversing a bit off the summit was the most exposed scrambling we did all day but revealed more of Peyto Lake and offered a great (airy) place to sit and contemplate how the heck we were going to get back before dark. Jumping off the summit would have been really quick but crossing the lake with shattered limbs would have been slow. Jumping wasn't a great option but next to the walk back it was surprisingly attractive. The tight time line didn't stop the crazy Pol and I from taking more pictures of the same mountains we already had digitized from Mistaya though. That's why I like climbing with the crazy Pol. He takes almost as many pictures as I do! In his words, "it isn't worth the effort of climbing something only to get no views at the top". I couldn't agree more. If I just wanted exercise, I'd get a gym membership or something. I want views. Great mountain panoramic views. I'm addicted to them (obviously).
A quick look in the register (hardly any snow on Caldron) revealed just how remote and off the beaten path this pile of rock is. In the last 20 years there's been less than 20 ascent parties. Some years didn't see a single summit party. For a summit as easy as Caldron, that over-looks one of the most photographed lakes in Banff National Park this is quite surprising. It was neat to see all the who's-who of local climbing celebs like Don Forest, the Grizzly Ground and Rick Collier in the register. Apparently they thought this little peak was worth the effort!
We finally tore ourselves away from the summit and started the long trek back. It had taken us only 2 hours to reach the top of Caldron from the bottom of the snow gully on Mistaya but since we lingered at the summit for almost an hour we now had less than 3 hours till dark and a long trek ahead. As long as we were near the trail back up to the Peyto Lake lookout but sunset, I wasn't too concerned about hiking the trail back from there. Except for the whole height gain thing. But why waste time on negative thoughts? We managed to run down most of the scree on Caldron (the dark scree was loose, the orange stuff was nasty) and within an hour we were back at Caldron Lake. After refilling our water supplies at the lake we started up on the trail back to the moraine that would take us down to Peyto Lake. Yes, you read that correctly. UP on the trail... Thankfully it was short. But it was painful just the same! Going down the cemented moraine was a bit trickier than going up. The key to not slipping and getting nasty moraine-rash was looking for larger rocks to place our feet on. Every once in a while we would lose concentration (fatigue was setting in) and do the nasty moraine dance where we'd flail around like a dying chicken, desperately trying not to be the first idiot to fall off and get seriously hurt on a moraine! (Sorry if this has happened to you - I guess I just called you an "idiot" but don't take it personally - it's the moraine's fault.)
We crossed the bridge over a raging stream (the glacier must have retreated while we were gone) and started the long plod back to the car. As we approached the final trail up to the lookout, complete darkness started to settle in around us. Raff got a second (or probably tenth) wind at this point and started up the trail at a slow but steady pace. I told him to wait for me a few times, because I couldn't go on without resting every minute or so. The crazy Pol decided to be nice to me and waiting while I dragged my arse up that stupid trail behind him. The trail went on forever and you have no idea how good it felt to finally reach that lookout! That must be how it feels to summit Mount Everest. I should probably be more thankful than I am for the experience, because it didn't cost me $100,000 USD and a bunch of Sherpa's to feel like I was going to puke and then die after a day of peak bagging. All it cost me was a day off work! According to my altimeter we had gained almost 300 meters from Peyto Lake back to the top of the trail near the lookout. (Don't say I didn't warn you. That trail is not as fun as it sounds at the end of a long day.) We don't know exactly how much total height gain we did, but we do know that it's somewhere in the area of 2300-2400 meters with all the height gains / losses throughout the day. That's almost 8,000 feet or enough to make me tired again, just thinking about it.
Was it worth it? Oh ya. It was worth it.
Early morning shot from the Peyto Lake lookout before we descend almost 300 meters to Peyto Lake. Mount Weed on the far right is remarkably free of snow.
Raff makes his way along the outwash from the Peyto Glacier. We should have stuck to the left here but we went straight for the stream to try to cross it. Peyto Peak in the distance.
Peyto Peak is reflected in a puddle with early morning light on it. The moraine that we would eventually walk up is in the center of the picture.
Rhondda South and Habel (Rhondda North) along with the Peyto Glacier and the Wapta Icefield as seen from the top of the moraine trail. We cut out of the photo to the right to access Caldron Lake.
Wow! Gorgeous Caldron Lake with Peyto Peak in the background. The scramble (rock) access to Mistaya is directly across the lake, next to the glacier.
Waterfalls come off the Wapta Icefield and Peyto Peak into Caldron Lake. It's already very warm this early in the day.
The route up the snow gully to the ridge on Mistaya (out of sight on the right side of the photo). Quite steep near the top.
Raff comes up the lower part of the snow slope. Caldron Peak is the snow capped peak in the center of the photo.
The slope steepens considerably near the top, but we had good conditions and continued up it rather than take our chances with loose rock.
Looking across Wildcat Creek and the Mistaya Lodge towards Mount Mummery and Mount Cairnes. In the far distance is Mount Laussedat.
Raff comes up the final bit of snow slope on Mistaya Mountain. Mount Baker is the high peak with Trapper Peak in front of it and Mount Collie behind it on the left. Peyto Peak on the far left with both Rhondda's in the background. Even Mount Gorden is visible on the far left of the photo.
A very good look at Mount Forbes with all five of the Lyell's behind it, looking over the shoulder of Barbette Mountain.
The many summits of Mount Murchison.
Looking down Delta Creek towards Mount Weed (far left) and Silverhorn Mountain. That tall pointy peak in the far distance is Recondite Peak.
A view of a bunch of Freshfield Icefield peaks. Raff knows their names... ;-)
A closer look at Recondite Peak. I want that one because it's such a tough peak to access. To it's left is Mount Augusta (I think).
An amazing view looking west from the summit of Mistaya Mountain includes the Freshfields, Forbes and the Lyells.
Mount Willingdon shows up over Caldron Peak along with Willingdon South and Willingdon Crown. (Right side of photo.)
The amazing environs of Caldron Lake from the summit of Mistaya Mountain. The lower slopes of Caldron Peak on the left and Mounts Jimmy Simpson and Thompson in the background.
Mistaya Lodge is just visible from the summit of Mistaya Mountain.
Vern on the summit of Mistaya Mountain, high above Caldron Lake.
The Delta Glacier with Mount Patterson in the background. Murchison is in the center background with Howse, Chephren and White Pyramid to the left of center.
Panorama looking north and east from the summit of Mistaya Mountain (click to view full size).
Panorama looking south, west and north from the summit of Mistaya Mountain (click to view full size).
A glance over Caldron Lake from the descent slopes of Mistaya.
Close-up view of Mount Mummery with it's impressive glaciated east flank.
Raff descends the snow gully with Caldron Peak in the upper right of the photo above him.
This was the angle of the snow slope. Good thing there was a safe runout at the bottom of it! Still wouldn't want it to slide though.
Peyto Peak rises over Caldron Lake as we cross the moraine field towards Caldron Peak.
A good look at the entire ascent route for Caldron Peak. There was a large cairn on the brown summit on the right but it's not the official peak. The down climb to the main peak on the left looks doable from here but worse from up closer. Note that we still have to lose 100 vertical meters before going up. This is a common theme on these two peaks! We basically followed the line between dark scree and the slabby terrain all the way up.
A glance back at our tracks on the snow gully to the ridge of Mistaya Mountain.
Raff takes in the views from Caldron Peak with the outwash from the Peyto Glacier running into Peyto Lake far below him.
Looking over Peyto Lake towards Cirque and Dolomite Peaks, Mount Jimmy Simpson just over the lake.
Raff and Vern on the summit of Caldron Peak.
Some pretty famous locals have signed this register! Rick Collier placed the other one, we signed that register because it was an 'official' ACC one.
Summit panorama from Caldron Peak looking north, east and south (click to view full size).
Interesting terrain on the hike back to Caldron Lake from Caldron Peak looking towards Mount Thompson.
The only trees I saw since getting off the moraine trail. I think these are the only three or four trees on this whole plateau. Caldron Peak and the crazy Pol in the background.
An interesting rock with the outlet from Caldron Lake and Peyto Peak rising in the background.
The sun is setting on Caldron Peak as we start back down.
Observation Peak is lit up with the setting sun. We have a ways to go yet!
Raff crosses the Peyto Glacier outlet stream.
Darkness settles around us as we near the ascent trail back to the parking lot. Peyto Peak in the background and Caldron Peak looming on the right.