Summit Elevation – Vimy Peak (m): 2385
Summit Elevation – Mount Arras (m): 2423
Summit Elevation – GR939323 (m): 2500
Trip Date: September 17 2015
Elevation Gain (m): 2000
Round Trip Time (hr): 10
Total Trip Distance (km): 35
Quick ‘n Dirty Rating: Class 2 – you fall, you sprain something
Difficulty Notes: No difficulties if taking the hiking trail / easiest route. Nugara has some scramble routes if you’re looking for something a bit spicier up Vimy Peak. Some of the route between Arras and Vimy might be a bit much for the average hiker and obviously this is a big day if doing the whole traverse.
Technical Rating: SC5; YDS (Hiking)
Map: Google Maps
I think I was due for one of these extremely rare days in Waterton Lakes National Park. What days, you ask? One of those rare gems where the wind is manageable and “sunny” actually means you see blue sky and the ball of fire sustaining life on our fragile planet. Oh – and one of those rarest of days when you have a route planned ahead of time that will take 100% advantage of these prime scrambling and hiking conditions. In our case Phil Richards and I were planning a grand traverse from Vimy Peak to Arras Peak (Vimy Ridge) to the highest point of Vimy Ridge (GR939323) and back again.
I met Phil at around 06:45 at the Wishbone Trail parking area where we unloaded our bikes and finished prepping our packs for the long day ahead. The bike ride started pretty fast with some downhill single track through light forest and prairie grasses. I’ll state it right up front that we were full of energy this particular day – we must have been because the bike ride felt downhill both ways for us.
The sun was coming up as we experienced something very unique and special while biking near the river crossing on the flats. At first we heard what sounded like people being tortured – the screaming was pretty intense! After few minutes we realized we were in the middle of a huge Elk rut! Wow. We saw at least 30 elk, including 5-8 LARGE bulls with massive racks. The bulls were calling out loudly, circling each other and generally getting their rut on. I thought we’d have to turn back more than once, but amazingly the huge animals let us through unscathed. We didn’t get stupidly close of course, but we had to wait for the animals to move out of our way several times. I’d have been really nervous on foot – I felt that we looked bigger on bikes. The two images that really stand out for me are two huge bulls ready to engage. They stood there, heads lowered, for about 5 seconds before deciding they’d save the fight for later. The other image is a lone bull, the largest we saw, standing in the morning light with the mountains behind him lighting up and his breath clearly visible streaming from his mouth as he called loudly for a mate. Pretty cool stuff.
Since our day was pretty much made at this point everything else would be a bonus. And what a bonus it was! We biked a bit further than the river before coming to the split in the trail. We took the left fork up to Vimy Peak. Maybe I was just in a good mood but the trail up Vimy is fantastic. It’s very well designed in that it doesn’t lose or gain unnecessary height. I admire trails that manage to take the best possible line to their destination and this is one of those rarities. Phil set a furious pace (probably slow for him…) and I must have been feeling good because we still managed to chat about just about everything on the way up. The pace and chatting made the approach fly by and before 3 hours were even up; we were standing on our first summit of the day.
Vimy Peak is an easy scramble but it has amazing views of the Waterton Lakes and the small Waterton town site far below. I scrambled off the summit in order to get the best views of the lakes. The most amazing part of the summit was that we could sit there and enjoy our views with very little wind and warm sunshine. This is not entirely normal for Waterton. We were thinking that our day was just getting better and better.
After signing a very full register (at least 30-40 entries per year) we continued on towards Vimy Ridge, or Arras Peak as it’s also called. Along the way we enjoyed new sights (for us) of peaks across the border in Glacier National Park including Vulture, Custer, Chapman, Kintla, Kinnerly and Long Knife.
There isn’t much I enjoy in life more than a high line traverse in the mountains. I love them because I feel like I’m flying above the landscape. This only works, of course, if you can actually see the landscape (unlike on Rowe and Festubert the week before) and such was the case on our traverse from Vimy Peak to Arras to GR939323. Not only were the views completely sublime, but also the wind was extremely light for the area, allowing us to converse while we walked. This is not normal. The first thing you should note is that just as with all traverses, the destination isn’t quite as close as it appears. It isn’t “Festubert far” but it’s going to add hours to your day even if you’re fast – which Phil definitely is.
The first part of the traverse from Vimy Peak was very easy. We even bypassed the first small bump on climbers right before encountering slightly more challenging terrain. I think Nugara calls this “easy” but if you’re more of a hiker than a scrambler you will find it “moderate”. You can stick right to the ridge crest but travel is slow there. We found traversing on climbers left of the ridge a wee bit quicker (not much) and eventually we crossed over to climbers right to finish that part of the traverse.
The expansive views towards Crypt Lake on one side and Sofa Mountain on the other, with Mount Cleveland looming over everything kept us entertained while we travelled. Phil’s favourite lines are “but why is it like that?” and “what made it do that?” and he applies this liberally to the micro terrain as well as the macro (he has two master’s degrees and a doctorate). Waterton, with its fantastic smorgasbord of rock and vegetation, provided Dr. Phil with many such opportunities of scientific inquiry. There were rocks and crystals of many shapes, colors and arrangements along the entire ridge. Some sections looked like patio bricks, complete with perfectly straight lines and interlocking pieces. Other sections had small erratic lumps of rock that didn’t seem to belong. In yet other sections there were old, gnarled trees that had to be hundreds of years old with their offspring nestled in their arms, protected from the wind even as the ancient ones finally gave up their lives in this harshest of environments. Phil and I both decided that he needed to get another masters or doctorate degree in geology sometime soon in order to start answering some of his own damn questions!
The best views of Crypt Lake were from the final ridge leading up to Arras. After this point we ended up passing the lake and it was hidden from view. I’ve never done the hike to Crypt but it looked pretty fantastic from above. A huge waterfall pouring over a caved in area looked particularly interesting. I think a very nice loop would be scrambling Vimy Peak, Arras Peak and GR939323 before descending to Crypt Lake and exiting via the Wishbone trail back to your bike at the Crypt / Vimy Peak junction. That would be an excellent but very long day! (Incidentally some guy from Europe did this loop in reverse in two days but I think he even used a boat to access Crypt Lake first.)
Getting up to Arras was easy after the jagged traverse and soon we were enjoying another pretty much windless summit with expansive views in every direction. I didn’t realize this peak was called “Arras” until looking in the register. I have no idea why this isn’t officially called Arras with the high point on the end of the ridge called “Vimy Ridge” but such is the nature of naming nature I guess.
After enjoying some great views we kept on towards GR939323 because as Andrew says, “why not?”
As I already indicated in my Arras Peak report, I don’t understand the naming of peaks along Vimy Ridge. Vimy Peak makes sense, as it’s the peak looming over the Waterton town site and named for a famous WWI Canadian battle. Arras Peak makes sense, as it’s a distinctive peak along Vimy Ridge and is the name of the overall WWI objective that Vimy was the opening act for. What doesn’t make sense (to me) is that GR939323 should be named Vimy Ridge as it’s the terminal apex of the long ridge running from Vimy Peak! Oh well. Lowly “grid reference” it remains I guess… Who cares in the end?
GR939323 looks pretty easy from the summit of Arras, but it’s the best scrambling we got all day. There are a couple of low cliff bands running across the ridge and we chose to scramble right up some of them, just for fun. Good thing we left the brain buckets at the parking lot… After scrambling through the cliff bands we labored up final rubbly scree slopes to another wonderful summit panorama in windless, sunny conditions. The views into the North Fork Belly River valley and towards Chief Mountain and the Blood Indian Reserve were special. Upon closer inspection, and with the assistance of my telephoto lens, we even managed to spot a large herd of Mountain Goats far beneath us at the headwaters of the North Fork Belly River. We spent some time on another windless summit, enjoying our day and the fact that we were now half way done our trip.
We descended GR939323 fairly quickly, finding easier lines through the cliff bands than on ascent by going slightly further skier’s left. As we made our way slowly back up and along Vimy Ridge towards Vimy Peak the sky began to cloud up a bit and the wind picked up – but nothing too extreme. When we got back to the high point before Vimy Peak we took a shortcut route into the upper bowl on Vimy’s east flank which saved us having to re-ascend Vimy Peak. There was an obvious trail on this slope with huge switchbacks. We lost the trail for a bit, but after traversing straight left we found the trail and followed it back to the bikes.
The bike ride out was surprisingly quick. We expected to be doing a lot of uphill pedaling as the morning bike seemed mostly downhill. We must have had a lot of caffeine that morning, because it wasn’t bad at all! There was no sign of the rutting elk on our exit and we only ran into one couple just before the parking lot.
I couldn’t believe that we did the whole traverse in just under 10 hours! I think this is a pretty fast pace – thanks to Phil the long distance runner. I think on my own this would have been a lot closer to 12 hours and for a larger group, 14 hours or more would not be unexpected. This was one of those very rare days in Waterton that gifted us with light winds and mostly sunny skies. I really enjoyed this trip.