Summit Elevation (m): 2782
Trip Date: June 09 2017
Elevation Gain (m): 1650
Round Trip Time (hr): 9
Total Trip Distance (km): 20
Quick ‘n Dirty Rating: Class 2/3 – you fall, you sprain or break something
Difficulty Notes: Easy / moderate scrambling when dry via the southeast bowl route.
Technical Rating: SC5; YDS (3rd)
On Friday, June 09 2017 I managed to summit Mount Head in the Highwood Range of the front range Rockies with Wietse and Kev Papke. Exactly ten years previous, to the day, I scrambled up Mount Head’s southern neighbor, Holy Cross Mountain, also with Wietse. Also, almost ten years to the day, was the first time I became aware of the scrambling on Mount Head when some friends did it and reported back. It was on my radar ever since and just never seemed to get priority until now. This was long before Nugara’s scrambles book added it to yet another list. We didn’t even realize this anniversary date as plans flew around and kept changing thanks to a windy and not-so-reliable forecast.
After scrapping Waterton plans when it became clear that 100km/h winds were likely down there, we started throwing around east aspect ascents to try to limit our exposure to fierce gusts. Wietse came up with the brilliant idea of Mount Head. I have to admit I hesitated at first. Despite the fact that it’s been on my radar for a decade, there is a reason why Mount Head never bumped to the top of my hit list. First of all was the various descriptions of bushwhacking, side-hilling endlessly and route finding. Secondly was the ~200m of elevation loss from over Grass Pass that had to be regained on return. Thirdly, I’ve done so many other hikes and peaks in this area of the Rockies, it’s like trying to get motivated to do more peaks around Canmore or Spray Lakes – been there done that. But sometimes you head to the hills for reasons other than just the views from the top, and this was one of those times. (Ironically – this is a good thing consider the views we ended up with!) I hadn’t done a trip with Kev Papke in a long time and wanted to get out with him again and I wanted to test my knees and back, which were giving me some issues after two back-to-back long trips with significant elevation gains the weeks previous.
We agreed to meet in south YYC at 06:30 and were soon bombing down highway 2 in Kev’s Jeep. Wietse directed us to the parking spot (very close to the Zypher Hills one) and we geared up and head off up the steep approach trail towards Grass Pass. I didn’t realize it beforehand, but this was not the same starting point that we used for Holy Cross ten years earlier. I’ve never done the Grass Pass hike before, so it was a bit of a surprise when we gained a quick 400m of elevation gain with great views back towards Mount Burke and Hell’s Ridge. There was even copious amounts of grass. Go figure.
From Grass Pass we knew we had to lose significant elevation along Wileman Creek to our access drainage to the southeast bowl and east aspects of Mount Head. Despite knowing this, it was still a wee bit depressing to go through it. 😉 We quickly continued on the main trail, heading downwards and through some lovely open meadows with great views of Gunnery, Holy Cross and eventually Mount Head. The weather was holding better than expected but clouds up high made me wonder if we would get the promised light rain around noon that SpotWX was forecasting. Wildflowers were blooming in droves along the trail – this area is certainly a flower nerd’s paradise.
Eventually we dropped steeply down a muddy section of the trail and found ourselves at the turnoff to the east aspects of Mount Head. An obvious drainage with a pretty lively creek provides the access and there’s a few different ways to approach the mountain from here. We chose to roughly follow a track on the ViewRanger’s landscape map of the area, up the north side of the drainage. This worked quite well for the most part. Don’t expect a beaten path the whole way, but you should be on various bits of animal trails and even a blazed and flagged trail for a long section. We did lose the trail / tracks more than once and ended up doing light bushwhacking. (Warning: My definition of “light bushwhacking” has been severely compromised since a few weekends ago for the rest of the year.) We never deviated too far north of the creek – keeping it within earshot most of the time.
When we got to a split in the creek where two drainages joined, we had to make a choice. The track on our map stuck to the north of the right hand (north) drainage. For some reason we didn’t think that route looked very inviting. We didn’t want to end up traversing endlessly from the east ridge to the SE bowl but rather we wanted to ascend the most expedient and direct route up the SE bowl directly from the drainages that it feeds below. We had descriptions from folks descending this way, but nobody seems to ascend it. We chose a risky option (considering it was an unknown route to us) – ascending a steep ridge between the two drainages. We crossed our fingers and hoped that the bush wouldn’t be too bad and that we wouldn’t end up gaining a ton of height on a local high point, only to have to lose it higher up. We got lucky. The ridge was very steep at first, but soon flattened a bit and led upwards high above the main drainage to the north. The bushwhacking wasn’t horrible either – although it was thicker than lower down along the north side of the creek. Eventually we could see that we would only have to lose minimal height before our ridge curved towards the north creek and gave us direct access to the SE bowl – right up the drainage itself.
Unfortunately just as the scrambling become somewhat fun in the SE bowl towards the summit, the weather deteriorated around us. The drainage provided a quick ascent on slabs towards an obvious tree island. From the tree island (avoided on climber’s right) we ground our way higher and higher on endless, loose scree to an obvious pinnacle on the ridge high above. This is the terrain most people end up traversing from the east ridge route and I can see why it would add hours to your day. As snow started coming down, we finally reached the pinnacle on the upper ridge and bypassed it on slabby / scree, sticking well below the ridge crest. Once around the tower we still had several hundred vertical meters to go – and I was surprised to see almost 1/2 a kilometer of distance remaining too. We stuck to easy scrambling terrain until the final summit ridge where we balanced carefully to the summit snow patch (cornice) and finally to the summit itself. We were disappointed to have zero views from this lofty front range perch and decided to wait a few minutes to see if things would improve. After a brief semi-break in the clouds, the snow started up again and we reluctantly accepted the fact that we were too fast this particular day. The forecast was bang-on and we would likely get clearing skies on descent.
Sure enough! While descending the loose terrain in the SE bowl, the skies gradually did start clearing above us. It was hard to tell if they were clearing on the summit though. Oh well. I’ve experienced my share of wonderful views in the Rockies – every once in a while I can expect a bit of rain / snow and grey-outs. Descent was pretty fast and we enjoyed a few nice breaks. So far our time was much quicker than expected so we weren’t in a massive rush to get out. The creek draining the SE bowl was especially lovely in the upper valley and we took several breaks to enjoy it before turning our attention back to the bushy descent of the lower drainage towards the Grass Pass trail.
We followed our ascent route on exit to the Grass Pass trail and it worked out pretty good. The bushy ridge between creeks was much quicker on descent and soon we were following the mix of animal trails, blazes and no trails whatsoever back to the main Grass Pass trail. We took a final break at the main trail before grunting up the 200 vertical meters to the pass and then down 400m to the highway. The weather kept improving and the hike back was very pleasant and warm.
Overall I enjoyed the Mount Head scramble much more than I thought I would. I think the fact that we did the easy route, considering our iffy wx kept it enjoyable. Of course, I would rather have had clear skies and summit views from the top but the company and the ‘micro’ scenery including the creek, waterfalls and countless wildflowers made up for lack of views from the top. I highly recommend our route if you want to keep this peak easy – or at least as a nice descent option after ascending the more difficult options.