Summit Elevation (m): 3335
Trip Date : October 17, 2015
Elevation Gain (m): 2100
Round Trip Time (hr): 15
Total Trip Distance (km): 41
Quick ‘n Dirty Rating: Class 1/2 – you fall, you sprain something – i.e. your ego
Difficulty Notes: No difficulties with good route finding. LONG day trip but much of it on easy-to-follow trails and mellow terrain.
Technical Rating: OT4; YDS (Hiking)
GPS Track: Download
Map: Google Maps
The weather in mid October 2015 was sublime. So sublime, in fact, that with the weekend fast approaching, I found myself invited on a number of trips that would normally be done in the summer – certainly not in the last half of October! Phil and I have been on a bit of a roll the past month, so it seemed appropriate to continue on with that vibe. Poboktan Mountain first came onto my radar while climbing Mount Brazeau with Ben this past August. As the sun was setting on us near the summit of the 11,000er, we got a great glimpse of Poboktan’s twin summits and they looked wonderful. I wondered aloud if Poboktan was a scramble or a climb, but neither of us knew anything about it at the time. Since then, I’ve also had a great view of the other side of Poboktan from Mount Stewart and Mount Willis.
After getting home from Brazeau I did some poking around and realized pretty quickly that Poboktan was, in fact, a very easy ascent but not done often considering just how easy, probably due to its obscurity and the fact that it’s not quite 11,000 feet high. Considering the weather, but also considering the short daylight hours, Phil and I eventually settled on doing Poboktan as a 1.5 day trip. We’d drive to the trailhead on Saturday morning, carry our camping gear to the Waterfall Campground along Poboktan Creek and then bag the peak before coming back to camp for the night. The following morning we’d finish the hike out. Liam indicated that he’d heard of folks doing the peak in a day (with the help of bikes on the approach) but two days seemed appropriate for us. The distance on my proposed route was over 40km and 2000m height gain. In an impulsive moment, Phil’s friend Robin decided that she’d like to get blisters and sore feet too, and joined us for the adventure. Phil may have forgotten to mention a few of Poboktan’s more endearing features to Robin before we started conversing about them later, when it was way too late for her to back out. This included Rick’s description of the “worst scree in the Rockies” on the summit slopes and other similar gems. She’ll get over it. Right Robin? We were up at 03:00 and by 04:00 we were driving to the Rockies down a very quiet Trans Canada Highway. After a long 3.5 hour drive we were finally on the approach – hiking past the trail head along Poboktan Creek near the warden compound on hwy 93 just north of the creek.
We barely needed our headlamps and soon the air was warming up with the rising sun. “Poboktan” might mean “owl”, but we didn’t hear or see any as we marched along the trail, which was in excellent shape and unlike the September long weekend, there was nobody around. The forest was bone dry around us as we hiked, and surrounding mountains only had a dusting of snow. This was looking and feeling more like an early July morning than late October and it was still only 08:00 in the morning! We set a good pace to the Poboktan campground, located approximately 8km from the parking lot. From the campground the trail started to climb fairly steadily. This was a good thing, as we knew our elevation profile was fairly steep and long. Unfortunately the trail takes a big dip back to several creeks on its way to the Waterfall campsite. I knew we wouldn’t be appreciating that on the way out. The Waterfall campground was very nice.
Reading a good book across from the cascading series of falls directly opposite camp is a very nice way to spend your afternoon in a late October warm sun. Yeah right! Phil wasn’t having any of that nonsense! We were here to bag a peak, not simply to enjoy nature or a good book!! After dumping our overnight gear at the campsite, it was time to approach the base of Poboktan, still 4km further up the trail. This section of the Poboktan Creek trail was a bit muddier and horse affected than the first 12km were, but there were also some great views into the valley with the Waterfall Peaks rising dramatically to the west. A warden cabin is situated perfectly along the creek – one of the nicest back country stations I’ve seen.
I kept everyone’s mood light by continually pointing out that our peak was much higher than the impressive Waterfall Peaks rising across the valley. I think they appreciated the healthy dose of realism. It was humbling to realize just how much height we still had to gain as we approached the SW ascent slopes of our peak.
Finally, around 4.5 hours from the parking lot, we found ourselves at the base of Poboktan’s SW slopes, looking up at its distant summit snow slopes through a break in the trees. It didn’t look that far, but I knew from scrambling up Sunwapta, it’s neighbor to the west, that this slope would be brutally foreshortened. I was right. Thankfully the bush was very light and we hiked easily to tree line. From tree line we slowly hiked up and climber’s right until we reached the lower blocky scree slopes under the giant west scree and snow face of the upper mountain. We were already thinking that the snow would be an excellent break from the endless scree, long before we actually got to it. At first we assumed it would be a matter of minutes to hit the snow patches, but soon we realized that the “patches” were actually hundreds of meters in length and it was taking us a while to get there! I also pointed out that Poboktan’s summit was higher than Sunwapta’s, which was now looming impressively over the Waterfall Peaks to the west and looking pretty freaking huge. Again, I think Phil and Robin really appreciated me continuously pointing out how bloody far we still had to go to the summit.
Phil led up the snow slope, kicking steps in the soft base easily – he’s a machine. Robin was doing a heroic job of keeping pace and I was feeling pretty darn good as we ascended higher and higher into a deep blue sky with mind blowing views opening up all around us. The most incredible thing was how bloody warm it was! We were all in t-shirts and wishing for shorts. A cool breeze finally started hitting us at around 10,000 feet and we were grateful for it. The final slog to the false summit involved some of the scree that Rick so endearingly mentions in his report. It wasn’t pleasant. 8 hours after leaving the parking lot we found ourselves on the west summit of Poboktan Mountain with expansive views kicking us in the eye sockets from every direction. My favorite view from this summit was towards the Brazeau Icefield. Great memories of my trip in that area with Ben only a few months previous flooded over me. Brazeau, Warren, Coronet and Mary Vaux looked incredible from this angle. Those weren’t the only beauties though. Sunwapta Mountain was looking very impressive immediately to the west and countless other peaks were also vying for attention in all directions. There was no register in the cairn, because the east peak is considered the main summit and looked to have a giant cairn on it. After snapping a bunch of photos we made the spectacular traverse to the main peak about 20-30 minutes away via easy scree and snow slopes.
The views were incredible as we took a longer break on the main summit. The register indicated we were about the 16th summit party in the 26 years of entries since Graeme Pole first placed the register in 1989. We were the first entry in 2015, with only one entry each of the three previous years and many gaps in the register with no entries for years at a time. This was surprising to us, considering how easy the peak is and how high. Poboktan comes very, very close to 11,000 feet! My two devices and Phil’s GPS watch all put it at 3335m or even slightly higher. My highest reading was 3340, as was Phil’s. Another 58 feet and this peak would be much busier. I personally liked it better the way it was – sort of obscure and off the beaten path. I jokingly mentioned that given a nice 15 hour day and some energy, Poboktan could quite reasonably be done as a day trip on foot, no need to bother with camping. I could hear the gears in Phil’s head start to grind at that comment.
I counted all the 11,000ers I could identify from the summit and we came to around 25. We could see as far away as Murchison, Forbes and Clemenceau. Alas, there were some clouds to the northwest and we couldn’t quite spot Robson. It was interesting to see some rarely ascended peaks to the east, including the delightfully named “Chocolate Mountain” and brilliantly colored Isaac Peak. One giant peak to the southwest was bothering me because I just couldn’t place it somehow. I knew Mount Stewart was in that area, but the peak looked too tall to be less than 11,000 feet high. After getting home, I realize now that it was Mount Stewart, and somehow it’s even less height than Poboktan, despite looking much higher! Perspectives can get weird sometimes when you’re on the shoulders of giants I guess. As I ticked off mountain after mountain that I’d climbed or been near over the past 15 years I started to realize just how many summits I’ve stood on and how many valleys I’ve camped in over the years. It was a humbling moment for me – I’m so thankful that much of my life has been spent in these mountains. What a privilege it’s been! The sun was casting long shadows as we reluctantly turned from the views and started the long descent back to Poboktan Creek. The descent of the upper scree / snow slopes went very quickly. Within 45 minutes of leaving the summit we were already off the snow patches and back on the blocky scree to tree line. It was here that Phil made his wonderful and convincing pitch;
You guys aren’t going to like this, and you’re definitely going to say ‘No’, but I have an idea.
Wow! What a great sell Phil! He continued.
What if we didn’t camp at Waterfall, and walked all the way out tonight yet, before driving back to Calgary?
WTF?! Is Dr. Phil being 100% serious right now?! I think that’s what Robin was thinking anyway. To Phil’s shock, both Robin and I didn’t hesitate long though, before agreeing to this idea. Why not? It was still gorgeous outside. The bugs were hatching – that’s how bloody warm it was for goodness sake. Some of the shrubs looked like they had fresh buds on them. Might as well take advantage of it. There was a chance of rain overnight and nobody felt like hiking out in the rain and cold the following morning. The trail was in good shape, and could easily be followed by head lamp. We were all in. We were going to day trip Poboktan in mid October from Calgary. The best part? We even carried overnight camping gear 12km down the trail, just because. That was a bit silly, admittedly.
With new purpose to our steps, we continued the quick descent through light forest and soft ground to the Poboktan Creek trail. The 4km march to camp was quick and we even managed to arrive before needing our headlamps. I’ll admit that my feet were hurting at this point. We brewed up some warm drinks and enjoyed a bite to eat before setting back off down the trail. I popped some vitamin “I” and Robin gave some dire warnings that she’d be complaining the entire 12km death march back to the parking lot. We encouraged her that we’d be listening as long as she was close enough behind us. Aren’t we great friends? I know she’ll come along with us again some day – we are so supportive of group suffering.
It was awesome to realize every step of the way back that we didn’t have to be carrying tents, stoves, sleeping bags and all the warm layers of clothing weighing down our packs. (It wasn’t actually that awesome.) Phil and I kept up the chit chat to help pass the endless kilometers, while Robin silently cursed us and our dumb ideas from the back of the line. As we got to the last few kilometers our pace slowed and the whining started. Mostly from Phil, naturally. I had my GPS unit handy and I’d already slogged this trail earlier in the year so I was well aware that it was a long exit. The group got excited as we passed the viewpoint bench on the creek – we knew we were close now. Soon the lights of the warden stations were visible and our 15 hour day was done. It’s still amazing to me that so much can be done in only 15 hours. Over 40km distance and 2100m of height gain and I didn’t feel that bad. My iPhone logged over 63,000 steps and 520 flights of stairs for the day! I do have two black toenails from being in tight boots so long, but I feel pretty good overall. I told Phil our next goal should be a 50km day. He hasn’t said no to that idea yet… With daypacks and summer daylight hours, there is no reason Poboktan can’t be done in a day from the trail head. If you’re driving out from Calgary, prepare yourself for a 24 hour marathon though!
Side note: Many years later Phil and I would do more of these marathon day trips using techniques adapted from trail running and ultralight camping such as wearing approach shoes, very light packs and not taking off our shoes for stream crossings. Examples include Cataract Peak, Haunted Peak, Mount White & Grouse Peak, Block Mountain, Panther Mountain, Flints Peak and Boar Station Peak. I always come back to our 40km day on Poboktan as the one that started all this marathon nonsense!