Summit Elevation (m): 2840
Elevation Gain (m): 1525
Round Trip Time (hr): 8
Total Trip Distance (km): 14
Quick ‘n Dirty Rating: Class 3 – you fall, you break something
Difficulty Notes: Some exposure on the ridge leading to the highest point north of the ridge. Much easier to the lower south summit than the higher north one.
GPS Track Download: Download GPX File
Technical Rating: SC6; YDS (3rd)
After coming so close to its summit the day before after a traverse from Tuff Puff, I knew I was coming back immediately to make a second attempt at Whirlpool Ridge’s highest summit the very next day. I enjoyed a delightful (free) camp along hwy 11 the evening before, setting up my mid on the back of my truck for the first time, which worked out great. The only fly in the ointment was repeated gunfire nearby, throughout the evening which kept me up until around 11pm when darkness finally started settling in! The joys of camping outside of a park I suppose.
Apparently I was just outside a protected area where I camped. When I asked a conservation officer about the gunfire the next evening, he mentioned that it was likely illegal as there’s still very strict rules about how guns can be used in the area – and absolutely no guns are allowed in the protected areas to the east. I awoke at 05:00, determined to beat any weather that might be moving in. It was windy and cloudy as I drove to the nearby trailhead for Whirlpool Ridge and started up a faint track. I followed Bob’s GPS track to access the lower ridge, which was very appreciated due to a myriad of trails in the area that all conspired to lead me in different directions. There’s a gap in the lower part of the treed ridge and your goal is to avoid gaining the ridge until after this obvious notch. (Note that there are references to an “old road” in both Bob’s trip report and the local hiking guide. I did NOT follow any road, but shortcut it which worked great and was on smatterings of a trail the entire way. Follow my track and you’ll be fine.)
Once I gained height to the ridge, the route was obvious despite the odd cairn and trail marking the way. Sticking as close to the ridge crest as possible was where I found the best terrain. Any time I deviated off, I immediately came back to the crest. This theme would continue for the rest of the day.
The weather was ominous as I approached the first crux to what I now think is the summit of “Whirlpool Ridge” as defined in a popular local hiking guide. This is consistent with the theme for DTC, where often the ridges are named at their lowest point (i.e. Two O’Clock Ridge), rather than their highest (Two O’Clock Peak). Which is kind of weird IMHO. The first crux of the day, after getting onto the ridge proper, is ascending slabby terrain to the upper ridge and first summit. You have two choices. Bob chose the easier route, skirting the base of the slabs on scree, but ironically he missed out on the summit of the ridge by doing this! I decided to take advantage of the dry rock and ascended the slabs directly. Once again, I had decided to wear my heavy boots since I brought the crampons just in case there was hard snow near the summit. I wished I had my lighter shoes for the slabs, but there was nothing more than moderate scrambling at most here. Where the slabs steepened near the top, some folks might start to feel the exposure a bit and some won’t like the pebbles that conspire to make things a bit more interesting. To avoid the slabs and still make the summit of the ridge, simply follow Bob’s route and then loop back right (south) when you reach the ridge crest to find the summit cairn / register.
I’d seen the cairn the day before while descending Tuff Puff, so that didn’t surprise me, but the register inside the cairn did surprise me a bit, as it indicated that this was likely considered the “summit” of the ridge. I was certainly going to tag the high point to the north, no matter if it was considered an official or unofficial summit, so after snapping some great shots (despite the clouds), I turned around and continued north along the initially wide ridge crest. The clouds sucked a bit but the lack of wind was pretty welcome on the ridge. As I walked towards the summit, I noted that it was still 500 vertical meters and over 3km away. This wasn’t going to be a fast traverse but thankfully it did look like a fun one.
As usual with ridge traverses, and especially in this area of the Rockies, there were some hidden surprises along the way. I managed to bypass the center peak on a nice series of ledges and scree ramps which saved me some time and elevation but it was the section after this that threw an obstacle at me in the form of a short section of narrow and exposed rock. Once again, each time I tried descending off the crest, I’d quickly run into slabs or other problems – the best place to be was right on top of the ridge, so that’s where I tried to stay. One section reminded me of Lady MacDonald, not too bad with a good hand line along the ridge crest, but a slip to either direction would kill or at least cause unwanted issues in your life. I can only remember one small section of ridge where I had no choice but descend a bit to my left (west) before re-ascending to the ridge crest, thanks to a drop off that went a bit beyond scrambling. I would call the scrambling “upper moderate” – not quite “difficult” but maybe close in short sections. I loved it. I can’t stress enough – stay on the ridge if possible, even if it looks hard. There’s even some bypasses on the east side that you won’t see if you’re not right on the ridge as you’ll think it’s all cliffs on that side.
After the crux section between the center high point and the summit, I enjoyed a few hundred meters of hiking along a wide and easy ridge, before tackling the summit block. Again – the scrambling was mostly easy up this section, with maybe a few steps of moderate moves. With careful route finding the terrain was pretty tame. I was delighted to finally make the summit but a bit annoyed at the thick clouds which prevented 360 degree views. Oh well. I’d seen most of the views already – remember I was 30m below this point the day before!
It was nice to finally confirm to myself that Whirlpool is indeed a scramble via the south ridge. And guess what? Another register was buried very firmly in the cairn! Hmmm. When I opened it, I noticed that it was labeled as “unnamed”. Not very unique or creative IMHO. The group the day before hadn’t even signed it – but it was difficult to find and dig out of the register so I’m not surprised. I waited for a few minutes for the clouds to clear and only had limited success – better than nothing though. I was getting chilled in the stiff winds from the northwest and some of the clouds looked pretty ominous so I tucked tail and started back down.
While I was descending an easy bump before the crux section of the ridge, I noticed two things that I liked. I noticed a huge scree gully leading directly down, all the way back to treeline below me and a sheep track leading along the bottom of the west aspect of the ridge just above treeline, looking to intersect with my morning ascent line up the end of the south ridge. Perfect! I love when there’s a harder route up than down. Taking a bit of a risk, since I had no idea what the route would be like, I plunge-stepped my way quickly down the loose scree gully and started seeking out sheep trails along the bottom of the west face of loose scree and slabs. It was mostly good news. After hundreds of Rockies peaks, I have a pretty good sheep trail “radar” and I managed to find good trails for about 75% of the traverse. There were a few short sections of annoyingly loose terrain with some steep gullies that had to be negotiated along the way. Overall the alternate descent worked very well – I highly recommend it if you are good at finding sheep trails.
As the sky cleared behind me (of course right?!), I joined my morning ascent path and made it the rest of the way down the south ridge to my parking spot at Whirlpool Point. My round trip time of just under 8 hours left me with a very relaxing afternoon at my random camping spot where I read lots of Stephen King, Yuval Noah Harari and planned out my next day. I highly recommend this moderate scramble – which might even grant you two peaks depending on your definition. The approach is short and easy, the terrain is interesting and varied, the views are stunning in every direction and it has an easy alternate descent route. What more could you want out of a scramble?
Thankfully there were no more gunshots that evening, but 3 teenagers who decided to rip around my camp site in their beater car did get arrested in front of me by law enforcement officials. I’m sure they were in a heckuva pickle by the time they were finally driven off with their car towed! They must have been high or drunk or both. Never a dull moment in DTC apparently. It was at this time that I chatted for a bit with one of the arresting officers and confirmed that I could, indeed random camp there.