Walcott Peak & Mount Burgess

Summit Elevation (m): 2599
Elevation Gain (m): 1450
Trip Date: August 28 2010
Round Trip Time (hr): 9.5
Total Trip Distance (km): 14
Quick ‘n Dirty Rating: Class 3/4 – you fall, you break something or worse
Difficulty Notes: A fall on the crux (Burgess) would severely injure or kill so take necessary precautions. Small parties and dry conditions are highly recommended. Note: This trip report is for both Walcott (easy) and Burgess (hard).
Technical Rating: SC7; YDS (4th)
GPS Track: Gaia
Map: Google Maps

Preamble – What and Where the Heck is Walcott Peak?!

What I didn’t know until coming home and doing some research after scrambling Kane’s “Mount Burgess”, is that Kane could have made things much simpler for readers and himself. The ‘easy north peak’ of Mount Burgess actually does have another name. It is officially called ‘Walcott Peak’. Why Kane didn’t simply call his scramble after the actual name of the north summit is beyond me but it sure makes things easier. Walcott wasn’t officially named until 1996 so Kane may have missed this in his updated edition of the scrambles book. (Note: This has been rectified in the new editions.)

Walcott Peak & Mount Burgess Route Map – APPROXIMATE.

This makes the Burgess trip a two peak day, which is rather to my liking! The easy ‘north peak of Burgess’ is Walcott and the difficult south peak is officially Mount Burgess. They should also have separate registers so that people aren’t tempted to move the Mount Burgess register to the easier Walcott Peak – which has happened a few times in the past! It also removes the temptation for novice scramblers to attempt the difficult traverse to Mount Burgess because they think they haven’t done a peak until they attempt it.

Trip Report

After arriving home from my brother’s wedding on August 26 2010 I was feeling a bit bummed about the weather forecast for the Rockies that coming weekend (27-29). With only two (or was it three) Kane peaks left I was determined to finish before 2011 rather than have two last peaks hanging around for another year! Unfortunately for me though, the week previous had dumped fresh snow all over the Rockies and I was sure that Yoho probably got hit with the most. The forecast was also very grim with rain, thunderstorms and snow in varying percentages for Friday, Saturday and Sunday. I ended up cancelling the trip planned for Friday due to a bad forecast. On Friday afternoon I emailed Bill (the only remaining person interested in attempting anything on Saturday) and we concluded that a front range peak was probably the wisest choice given the forecast for Saturday. At least we would get out and get some exercise.

But I didn’t want a front range peak…  Just before leaving the house at 0530 on Saturday morning I checked the weather forecast one last time. Surprise! Kananaskis had a 70% chance of rain in the afternoon and Yoho had a 20% chance of thunderstorms. I decided that I’d rather go half way up Walcott / Burgess and at least give it a shot than slog up a front range peak and still possibly get soaked. I just hoped that Bill would be open to the last minute change of plans. He was. As we greeted each other in the cool morning air under a remarkable clear sky he took one look at me and said,

You want to switch to Mount Burgess don’t you?

I offered to drive as a peace offering for changing objectives and soon we were barreling towards Yoho. We were getting a wee bit nervous as we drove past Lake Louise and noticed a lot of fresh snow on the higher peaks. You see, the issue with Mount Burgess is that it actually has two summits in the “Kane list” and route description. Officially, in the scrambles book, the mountain is listed as “easy”. In the description however, you quickly realize that this “easy” rating is only for the north sub-peak known officially as Walcott Peak, not the summit of Mount Burgess. Burgess is listed as the “south peak option” in Kane’s route description. So the only way to tag Mount Burgess is to go to the difficult summit. With fresh snow the difficult traverse to the south peak could be a problem. (See the preamble section above for details on the south / north peak name confusion.)

Walcott Peak

We honestly didn’t even expect to make the summit of Walcott so being nervous about the conditions for Burgess was getting way ahead of ourselves. After negotiating the unmarked road to the Burgess Pass trail head (about 1 km east of Field, BC) we started out on a good trail through the quiet forest. OK – it’s not quiet! The Trans-Canada highway is right beside you for the first 2-3 km of ridiculous switch backing on this trail. About 500 meters into the hike we realized that there are perfectly good trails coming in from the Yoho visitor information center so if you can’t find the trail head or want to save 1 km on your feet just park there and cross the highway. Better look for traffic first though.

Why are the switchbacks ridiculous? Because after gaining 8 feet of height the trail goes 200 feet horizontal for each switchback!! It’s a wheelchair accessible trail except it’s not quite wide enough. One of the poorest designed trails I’ve been on in a national park – but I won’t complain too much. Still much better than bushwhacking. After about 1 hour 15 minutes of chatting and casual hiking we came to the open slopes beneath Mount Burgess and Burgess Pass. There was no obvious trail here, but there was a cairn and we headed up for the “tree island” and an obvious scree gully.

The scree gully has been labeled by quite a few experienced scramblers as more difficult than expected given it’s rating of ‘easy’ by Kane. I agree. While certainly NOT difficult, it is much looser and steeper than a lot of other ‘easy’ routes such as Piran, Fairview or Ha Lin. I would not take my kids or dog up this peak. There is a lot of very loose rock in the gully and a few tight areas that require some hands-on maneuvering. I would rate this gully as easy-moderate which would probably default to ‘moderate’ rather than ‘easy’.

We topped out to some cairns with flagging before realizing that we had to lose a bit of elevation before heading up a broad scree slope to Walcott Peak. A short trudge later and we were on top.

A lovely summit view of (L to R), Carnarvon, Emerald, Marpole, President, Vice President, Michael and Wapta Mountain. Emerald Lake shimmering far below at left.

On our way up to Walcott we both scoped out the possible steep access gully to the summit ridge of Burgess and both of us were pleasantly surprised at the complete lack of snow on this ridge. As we sucked in the amazing views from Walcott we realized that the doom ‘n gloom weather forecast was not going to hit us for quite a while. After a quick summit break we decided not to linger too long before heading for Mount Burgess.

Mount Burgess

After completing the easy scramble up Walcott Peak Bill Kerr and I started on the traverse to Mount Burgess. There are a few trip reports available on the scramble route to the summit of Mount Burgess from Walcott Peak. They all indicate that this is a difficult and exposed scramble. There are two acceptable routes, one that goes around two pinnacles on the south ridge (the second pinnacle is only bypassed with a very exposed ledge maneuver). The other route goes up a steep, narrow, loose gully which avoids the two pinnacles and exposed traverse. After the 2nd pinnacle the routes join up and continue on an exposed ridge to the summit. Sounded like fun to us!

A train winds its way along the Kicking Horse River towards Field.

Bill and I decided on the gully option since north aspects were holding snow and we couldn’t see the ledge from our angle. The gully option also sounded a bit safer although Bill had left his helmet at home so the steep and loose stuff wasn’t the safest for him either. According to Bill’s logic at least falling off the ledge would not require a helmet – you’d be toast with or without it. We angled down to two snow patches sitting below a number of obvious cracks on the north end of the south trending ridge (Kane’s words, not mine). Once at the base of the gullies we had to choose one. All had signs of passage but one of them seemed more traveled than the others. It also had an obvious pinnacle at the top and we remembered that Sonny mentioned this in his description as the proper gully. There were no cairns marking any of the gullies so we built some here on our return. The correct gully is the third from climber’s left or the second that you’ll come across on your descent and traverse from the north peak. You should clearly see a very pointy pinnacle towering over this gully when you start up it.

The gully on Burgess reminded me a lot of the gully on The Fist. Steep, loose and tight in places it is not for the beginner scrambler. I’m not sure if it’ll get easier or tougher with more traffic but as it is now you do not want more than two people at a time in this gully – and don’t leave your helmet at home either! After exiting the gully right at the 2nd pinnacle we examined the exposed ledge traverse that we had just avoided. At first Bill dismissed it as “not a huge deal” but after a few moments of poking around we both realized how exposed it actually is! Put it this way, I recommend the gully option for non-climbers.

After the pinnacles / gully there is still difficult scrambling left to the summit. The ridge to the south summit of Burgess is not as difficult as some of Kane’s other scrambles but it’s pretty close to being another “climber’s scramble”. Bill commented that the two peaks – Burgess and Walcott – are completely different scrambles. I agree. I’m glad that I can list them as separate peaks, since they deserve separate route descriptions with a common approach. They are completely different. The easy Walcott Peak has better views while the highest peak has much better but more difficult scrambling. Both are great for different reasons.

Great view looking back at Walcott from near the summit of Burgess. Carnarvon, The Presidents and Wapta in the bg.

We couldn’t believe our luck with the weather as we sat on another windless summit to the same great views we had an hour earlier. It felt wonderful to “steal a day” given the weather forecast and our initial feelings towards our chances of success!

Looking across the TCH at Cathedral (L) and Stephen (C-L).
Mount Field to the NE with Ogden at left and Niblock at distant right.
Emerald Lake and its namesake lodge sit many thousands of feet below our summit.

After 30 minutes on the summit we started our descent. The ridge was solid enough not to cause problems but the gully presented us with a few small showers of rock before exiting. After building some cairns to mark the proper access gully we descended into the bowl between Walcott and Burgess and trended to the toe of the ridge on skier’s left. We easily ascended this ridge a short ways and came to our original easy/moderate access gully. After getting suckered down the wrong gully (still not sure how that happened) we regained the right one – that would be the one with all the ribbons / cairns – and easily descended out to the Burgess Pass hiking trail via an obvious shortcut.

The long walk back was uneventful and went quickly with a good philosophical discussion. Walcott / Burgess was a great day out and is highly recommended for either or both peaks. Just make sure you’re the first one up so nobody kicks a ton of loose rock on your head and don’t forget the brain bucket.

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