Mistaya Mountain & Caldron Peak

Summit Elevation (m): 3095
Trip Date: September 17 2008
Elevation Gain (m): 2350
Trip Time (hr): 14 
Total Trip Distance (km): 25 
Quick ‘n Dirty Rating: Class 3 – you fall, you break something  
Difficulty Notes: Some steep avalanche slopes must be crossed and ascended. Also, the bridge over Peyto Creek is washed out necessitating a difficult crossing. Note: This is a two summit day involving many hours of off-trail travel through alpine terrain including a glacier.
Technical Rating: MN7; YDS (3rd)
GPS Track: Gaia
Map: Google Maps

On Wednesday, September 17 2008 the crazy Pol (Raf K) and I decided that the beautiful weather had to be taken advantage of. We wanted two things. Scenery and scenery. We got them both. 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 Raf 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 Peak, 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? 

Mistaya Mountain & Caldron Peak Route Map

There is one minor problem with the hike to Caldron Lake. It’s a 300 meter height loss from the Peyto Lake lookout 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.

Gorgeous Peyto Lake in early morning lighting. Patterson Peak rises at left, Mount Weed at right.

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. 

Mistaya Mountain

The hike to Caldron Lake from Peyto 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.

Hiking along Peyto Lake as the sun rises. Peyto Peak above Raf’s head in the distance.

On the way in we actually walked straight to the stream and spent the next 1-2 km looking for a place to cross it without getting our feet wet. Eventually we came to a nice bridge built over the stream. (NOTE: This bridge is washed out as of 2016.) 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! 

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 Mount Jimmy Simpson. I ran out of steam on that trip and went back to the truck by myself in the dark leaving Raf and his buddy to bag the peak. (NOTE: They didn’t actually bag the true summit on that trip.) Wait a minute. I was with Raf again this time. Uh oh…

Mistaya peeks out over the Caldron Falls in this view from the moraine. We have to traverse above those falls by first ascending out of sight on the left here.

Since Raf only had 4 hours of sleep the night before, I led for most of the day. This doesn’t mean Raf 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 avy beacon on here. If you go down, you’re going down 6 feet under.

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 lollygagging 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 lollygagging 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 knew that we’d have to lose some of this height once we got under the ascent gully beneath Mistaya’s upper ridge but it was easier terrain and the views were great so it was worth it.

Stunning view of Caldron Lake with Peyto Peak rising above it.

I took one look at the upper snow slope in the ascent gully from the moraine and asked the crazy Pol what he thought of it. He replied that it wouldn’t be as bad as it looked, which was a good thing because it looked almost vertical to my eyes. 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 rock fall 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. Raf 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!

Incredible summit views over Caldron Lake to distant peaks including Cataract (L), Hector (C) and Thompson (R).

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.

L to R, Barbette, Forbes, Lyells, Howse, Chephren, Murchison, Marmota, Patterson, Weed, Quill, Recondite, Observation, Caldron, Willingdon, Cataract, Jimmy Simpson, Hector, Thompson and many, many others.
Views to the west include the Wapta Icefield (L), Mummery and Freshfield Icefields (C) and Forbes, Lyells (R).

The descent was fast and easy. The steep snow was a bit trickier to descend, we didn’t even bother with crampons because the snow was quite soft (5-8 inches of slushy snow on hard pack) 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.

More stunning views over Caldron Lake as we descend, including Jimmy Simpson, Crowfoot, Thompson, St. Nicholas, Olive, Balfour, Gordon, Peyto and Rhondda (R).
Slushy snow makes for a fast descent.

We were at the bottom of the snow gully by 14:30. Raf 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 daylight 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.

Caldron Peak

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 Gore-Tex coats and pants behind too. Raf 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.

Sublime views of Peyto Peak over Caldron Lake as we traverse from Mistaya (oos on the right) towards Caldron Peak.

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 Raf until we were half way up – that way he couldn’t turn around anymore. What are buddies for right? 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.

Finally at the bottom of the ascent slope – we roughly followed the line between light slabs and dark scree to the summit.

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! LOL. 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 all the abuse than mine was. Once we finally hit the ridge it was a straightforward 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.

Great summit views across and up and down hwy 93. Patterson on the left, Noyes, Weed, Observation and Peyto Lake in the middle. Watermelon, Andromache and Hector to the right.

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 timeline didn’t stop the crazy Pol and I from taking more pictures of the same mountains we already had digitized from Mistaya. 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.

Great views to Watermelon, Cirque, Dolomite and Jimmy Simpson Junior (R) over Peyto Lake.

A quick look in the register (hardly any snow or ice 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 overlooks 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 Group 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. 

Looking back at Caldron Lake (L) and Peak (R) with Patterson at distant center as we traverse back to the Peyto Glacier moraine.
Raf on the extremely exposed dirt / shale traverse from Caldron Lake to the Peyto moraine.

After refilling our water supplies at Caldron 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! 

Looking down the moraine towards Peyto Lake – note the setting sun on Observation Peak.

We crossed the bridge over a raging Peyto Creek (the glacier must have retreated quite a bit 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 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.

Raf 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. 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 heck ya. It was most definitely worth it.

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