Summit Elevation (m): 2800
Trip Date: June 17 2017
Elevation Gain (m): 1700
Round Trip Time (hr): 10
Total Trip Distance (km): 14
Quick ‘n Dirty Rating: Class 2 – you fall, you sprain something
Difficulty Notes: No difficulties to the summit of Tuff Puff. Whirly Puff is mostly an off-trail hike if you avoid our ill-advised attempts to Whirlpool. Note: We did an exploratory trip well beyond Tuff Puff to see if we could forge a route up the NE face of Whirlpool Ridge. We couldn’t and we didn’t.
Technical Rating: SC6; YDS (3rd)
GPS Track: Download
While on our 15 hour, 2600m+ vertical day traversing from Mount Ernest Ross to Two O’Clock Ridge with Mike Mitchell, there were two other peaks dominating the landscape for most of the day. The first was Elliot Peak to the north, the second was Whirlpool Ridge to the south. Especially from Two O’Clock Peak and onwards to the ridge, I kept looking back at Whirlpool’s north bowl which looked to have a very esthetic line going up snow gullies and chimneys to its summit. The more I looked over at it, the more I liked the idea of trying it. The catch was access. Two O’Clock Creek looked fairly choked up lower down and didn’t appeal to me.
As Mike pointed out the ridiculously named and placed “Tuff Puff”, I got my answer to the access for the north bowl of Whirlpool. Why not ascend the easy hiking trail to Tuff Puff and then traverse around the north aspect of Whirlpool before ascending the obvious north bowl drainage? Sure! There was some side-hilling involved but with enough snow, the slope looked pretty darn straightforward and easy.
Why not just ascend Whirlpool’s obvious south ridge? Well, I’d read of two attempts from both Bob Spirko and Eric Coulthard and neither had made it all the way to the northern high point of the ridge, so I just assumed it wasn’t feasible as a scramble. I probably should have done a bit more research, but even now I can’t find good beta online for the south ridge of Whirlpool. In my head, I assumed that the only access must be from the north or west aspects and after seeing such a nice line up the north bowl, with snow to assist, I couldn’t resist trying it. Initially I thought I’d be alone in my attempt but after some Waterton plans fell through, thanks to deteriorating weather forecasts, I ended up convincing Geoff, Phil and Robin to join in my efforts. As I pointed out to them, worst case scenario we’d end up with ‘only’ one summit – the mighty TUFF PUFF. Geoff wasn’t suitably impressed but the more impressionable and summit-crazed Phil was all over this plan. As usual, Phil lied to Robin about the whole thing in order not to scare her off, considering our last adventure together which scared her off scrambling with us for a couple of years…
DTC is a long drive from my house at around 3.5 hours, so I decided that since work was slow, I might as well spend a few days there instead of just one. I drove myself and met the others at the parking area for Tuff Puff / Kinglet Lake. Just as I pulled into the small parking area off hwy 11, I noticed a large black bear crossing the highway nearby! I’ve seen at least 10 bears in the past few weeks – way more than usual for me. It didn’t seem too bothered by my presence, so I didn’t bother with it either and soon it crossed a nearby fence and wandered off down towards the river. Phil drove up soon afterwards and soon we were hiking up the trail to Tuff Puff. We had a discussion at the trailhead about what gear to bring. I brought crampons and ax, while everyone else chose to leave the ‘pons at the cars. This is why I like aluminum crampons – I’m less likely to leave them behind due to their very light weight. I knew we’d be on snow and figured it might be steeper than expected, given what Mike and I dealt with on our traverse in the area. I also wore my “light” mountaineering boots, which are about 3x heavier than my scrambling shoes and far more uncomfortable. It makes me grumpy to wear those boots – but with the amount of snow and side-hilling I knew we had to deal with, I figured I’d better be smart about it. I was glad for both of my decisions to carry more weight this particular day.
The trail was obvious and didn’t waste any time before gaining height. I decided to be very astute and mentioned how “tuff” this “puff” was, at least every 20 minutes or so on ascent. The rest of the group was very appreciative of my creative and witty humor. Our views back over the North Saskatchewan River towards the Ex Coelis Group, William Booth, Siffleur and Peskett were stunning as we got higher and higher on the south ridge. Our idea to chase the good weather fx was working out fantastic (we learned later that Waterton was raining all day). As we worked our way through some open grassy meadows, filled with wildflowers, we heard talking ahead. Soon we came up on a large group of students, coming back from an overnight trip to Kinglet Lake. They were waiting for the group leaders to catch up (!) before hiking to Tuff Puff before heading back. We continued up the trail, passing over a small snow slope before a final, steep (still hiking) ascent to the “summit”, which is really only a shoulder on a ridge leading west towards a high point, which we would eventually call “Whirly Puff”, which is around 500 meters higher than Tuff Puff.
The views from Tuff Puff were much better than I expected, to be honest. Sure, it’s not much of an actual summit, or even a scramble, but it’s still 1000m higher than the trailhead and has the views to prove it! I think if you’re a hiker in DTC you should absolutely check this one out. It took us just over 2 hours to reach the summit, so a 4 hour day is all we’d have if we turned around here. But we didn’t! We had much more adventures ahead yet. This was only supposed to be our approach.
From Tuff Puff we made our way along my proposed route to the north bowl of Whirlpool Ridge, side-hilling on mixed terrain of snow, scree, mud and boulders. The boulders were, as usual, the most tedious terrain, requiring concentration and balance as we made our way high above Two O’Clock Creek to its source in the upper valley between Two O’Clock Peak and Whirlpool Ridge. Finally we could see a direct route up mostly snow to the summit, about 500 vertical meters higher than we were. Some of the terrain was looking pretty steep from this angle. I started kicking steps up the low angled snow in the bottom of the bowl, not requiring the ‘pons or the ax at this point yet. Towards the middle of the bowl the slope steepened considerably and we got out our axes and donned helmets in case of rockfall or a slip. Phil took over kicking steps and we slowly progressed towards our peak, still very confident that it would go. We were delighted with the beautiful weather and great views and feeling pretty good about the day so far. Of course, this is when our lovely plan falls apart a bit.
As the terrain steepened considerably, we were left with two options to gain the summit of Whirlpool. We could swing right and attack it directly from the north, or swing a bit left and attack it via a steep snow couloir on the east aspect. We chose the north aspect first, since it looked easier. As usual, once we started up the snow it steepened quickly and soon was fairly close to 40 degrees – even approaching 45 near the top of a short arete before topping out on scree. From here we looked around in a bit of dismay. There were cliffs blocking direct access and we had to traverse to the east aspect to see if we’d get lucky with a chimney or couloir to the summit, which was at most 20-30 vertical meters above us. We couldn’t find one. There was one possible candidate, but a combination of exposed snow on ice (which meant only I could even attempt it, with crampons), followed by very exposed and loose rock traverse after that, turned us back from this route. Without snow it would still have been difficult and likely not feasible as a scramble route.
Somewhat dejected, we descended the steep snow arete and started towards the second option for ascent – the steep snow gullies on the east aspect of the summit block. It was at this point that Geoff, who decided to tag a nearby high point while Phil and I checked out the gullies, yelled towards us that there was someone already on the summit of Whirlpool above us! WHAT THE HECK?! You have got to be kidding me!!! While it was cool to realize there must be a feasible route somewhere on the dang thing, it was incredibly frustrating to realize that we obviously weren’t going to find it from our vantage. To make a long story shorter, Phil and I gave it an honest effort. A combination of terrain and bad snow conditions (east and south facing aspects) prevented us from getting to the summit from the east via steep gullies. In the summer these gullies would likely provide access, but would be loose and exposed. There was obviously a better way! While we were checking out options from below, the summit team above us (four of them) were descending the south ridge. Yep. Apparently there was a route up the south ridge after all! We yelled back and forth a bit and confirmed with on of them that it was a “fun scramble”. Double dang it. I was a bit frustrated but we decided that we’d still had a great day out and named our high point, “Whirly Puff” – Geoff’s contribution to the strange names in the area!
Our descent was uneventful and we discovered the very nice valley between Whirlpool and Two O’Clock Ridge before re-ascending Tuff Puff and hiking back out to our vehicles. I had already decided that my next day was going to be gaining those 30 vertical meters to the summit of Whirlpool Ridge and drove off to find a campsite for the night, while the others made the long drive back to Canmore and YYC. This was a great day out in the hills, exploring new routes and terrain with friends and as such, it was a raving success despite the plans falling apart a bit towards the end. Tuff Puff is certainly worth your attention if you like nice mountain views. Whirly Puff is much higher with even better views, but it does require quite a bit more effort to attain and is definitely not an official, or even semi-official summit. Does that diminish the views from the top and the lovely terrain you’ll pass through on your way there? Only you can decide that.