Summit Elevation (m): 3080
Trip Date: Saturday, September 2, 2017
Elevation Gain (m): 1400
Round Trip Time (hr): 10
Total Trip Distance (km): 20
Quick ‘n Dirty Rating: Class 4 – you fall, you are almost dead
Difficulty Notes: One of the most dangerous mountains I’ve ever climbed but a gorgeous approach. Loose, unprotectable and confusing upper mountain with natural terrain traps and gullies.
Technical Rating: SC7; YDS (4th)
GPS Track: Download
Important Disclaimer : I don’t think I’ve ever put one of these on a trip report before and this should make you sit up and take note of it. I DO NOT RECOMMEND this peak. I debated even publishing a detailed trip report for it. You will read why I am discouraging you in the main report that follows, but please realize that there is a reason it’s not in Nugara’s latest guidebook despite the great views and awesome approach. This is a dangerously loose mountain that takes more than a few coins out of anyone’s luck jar, who bothers attempting it. This is definitely not a group objective!
On Saturday, September 02, 2017 I completed one of the most dangerous mountain ascents of my life and was only the 8th recorded ascent of a peak that is very distinct and recognizable and highly visible from a major highway corridor (#93) and yet not very well known in the climbing or scrambling community. I was joined on this dubious adventure by Wietse and Phil. OXO peak has been on Wietse’s radar for several years. I remember discussing it with him for at least 3 or 4 years, since he first saw a Rocky Mountain Rambler’s trip report on it in 2013. As the Labor Day long weekend approached in 2017, the emails started circulating on possible objectives. Since I was still recovering from a lengthy trip up Mount King Edward less than a week previous, I was in favor of something a bit more laid back than what we might usually plan. When Wietse suggested OXO Peak, I was all in and excited to finally go for this relatively obscure peak. For some reason, both Phil and I were under the impression that OXO was no more than a moderately rated scramble, so when Wietse indicated an “SC7” rating (difficult) on the RMRA’s trip report, we were surprised. No matter, we were committed to it at this point. Nugara doesn’t give a rating in his rather terse description of the peak either, other than strongly suggesting that it’s extremely loose and a bit of a maze.
Interesting Facts on OXO Peak
OXO is the highest point of the south ridge which runs down to the west of the N fork of Mosquito Creek. It was first climbed in 1941 by Georgia Engelhard and Eaton Cromwell with the second ascent in 1999 and the third in 2008. Since then only 5 more ascents have been recorded (including ours). According to Ben Gadd, the peak is composed of Eldon Limestone sitting on top of Stephen Shale and is collapsing bit-by-bit into the lovely approach valley between it and Dolomite Peak.
UPDATE: Sure enough! In early winter 2018 there was a significant rock slide on a popular ski run on the SE end of Puzzle Peak. This should be a clear demonstration of the type of looseness you deal with on this mountain.
We got to the familiar Mosquito Creek parking lot at around 08:00. This was Phil and my third time in this area in 2017 and second time on the exact same approach trail. Back on July 29th we used the Mosquito Creek trail to access the wonderful Cataract Peak via North Molar Pass. I’ve also used this trail many other times, in both winter and summer conditions to access peaks such as Willingdon, Mosquito, Ramp and Quartzite. We made short work of the approach and soon turned left up a major drainage coming down from the valley between Dolomite and OXO. This valley is part of the Dolomite Circuit that I’ve done in winter on skis. There was some recent avalanche debris to hump over and around right off the trail, but soon we were ascending very scenic terrain in an energetic creek. I was surprised how much water was still coming down this drainage in early September, but apparently there was still a good bit of snow melt going on in the valley above.
The creek branched higher up and we stuck to the right (and much smaller) one, even exiting the creek bed to climber’s right at one point to avoid side-hilling in the creek. We found smatterings of animal trails in the light forest every time we strayed into it. There is no wrong way to ascend to the upper hanging valley – even going through the forest isn’t a bad idea as it’s open and fast travel. The hanging valley was a real treat. Fall colors were just starting to come out and the interesting terrain was captivating to say the least. A mix of sun and cloud kept the lighting very dynamic – adding to the allure. Huge piles of rock and scree dotted the landscape, with tilted slab, cheerful creeks and dying wildflowers dotting the little slice of paradise.
We each wandered our own path up the valley, taking photographs and choosing our own lines up towards the pass. There were a few mountain features that really stood out along the way including the NE outlier of Dolomite and the SE outlier of OXO. After working our way up and through a narrow gorge under the pass, we crossed a large patch of snow and grunted the final few hundred meters up to the pass. It was much cloudier than expected, but the views were still pretty darn sweet towards Cirque Peak and down Dolomite Creek. The scenery in the Dolomite Creek drainage never disappoints. We took a well deserved break at the pass, we’d reached it in just under 2.5 hours of steady hiking from the parking lot and were feeling pretty good about ourselves at this point. We should have known at this point, that confidence often begets trouble in the Rocky Mountains.
Even with the Rambler’s GPS track and description, the route didn’t look very straightforward from the pass. It was obvious that we had to trend slightly to our left up a rubble slope before negotiating a very complex series of steep, rocky gullies up the north end of the mountain on its west face. At some point it looked like cutting back to our right would get around pinnacles on the north ridge and lead to easy summit scree slopes, which weren’t even visible from the pass. In complex terrain like this, it’s usually best to follow one’s instincts and try to keep things within the realm of ‘scrambling’ as best as one can. With this attitude, we started up from the pass.
We made good progress across the “scree apron” that the Ramblers mentioned, before getting our first real taste of the mountain. It was a bit rotten. More than a bit, actually. It was horribly rotten already around the first ‘easy’ gully feature that we ascended. Wietse took a steeper line than Phil and I and nearly ended up pulling a large boulder down on himself – only narrowly jumping out of the way as it crashed down below him after he weighted it! The good thing about this near-miss was that he was on edge for the rest of the day. Being on edge is necessary to surviving OXO and I’m not exaggerating.
We followed the terrain towards another, much more serious looking gully on the face before starting up it on loose scree and boulders. I’ve done well over 500 peaks in the Rockies, from easy hiking to alpine climbing, including loose and dangerous monsters such as Mount Sir Douglas and I can tell you without doubt that our next few hours were no less dangerous, loose and unpredictable terrain than that peak was – without the ice of course. Next to Sir Douglas, I can’t think of a more serious exposure to objective hazard that I’ve been subjected to. I climbed Mount King Edward only days before OXO and even it’s loose and very exposed upper east face was less dangerous than the gullies we spent the next few hours negotiating. As I’ve alluded to before, sometimes too much beta can result in bad routefinding, and this happened to us on OXO.
The Ramblers mentioned a “chockstone” in their trip report that they had some fun going under. As we climbed up the first gully, we were on the lookout for this standout feature to let us know we were on the right track. We ascended higher and higher, climbing some pretty steep and loose terrain and even passing snow / ice that would have been a huge issue earlier in the summer. (Snow might be preferable here in early summer, but ice would suck.) As we got higher in the gully, the terrain got more and more serious until we were definitely pushing the edges of “scrambling”. We could clearly see a huge chockstone in the gully above us at this point, but there was no way we could go under or over it as the gully was choked with ice and debris and very steep around it. The group was expressing concern as I scouted out a route up very steep and broken terrain on climber’s left of the gully. This is when someone else’s route choices started hurting us. I found a cairn.
I’ve been using cairns since I was a kid, negotiating Canadian Shield country in Manitoba, where the ancient rock is way too hard to form a good trail, and rock cairns are essential to navigating the landscape and finding one’s way from lake to lake. I’ve also used many cairns in the Rockies, either built myself as a breadcrumb to get me back down tricky terrain, or to guide me along the routes that others have pioneered. BUT. There’s an issue with using cairns to navigate complex and tricky terrain. Often they are built on the approach to somewhere – before the builder really knows if they are on route or not. If the builder descends a different way, or forgets to knock down their cairns on return from a failed objective, these little piles of rock can mislead years of navigators into the exact same bad route as the original builder followed! As you’ve surmised by now – this is exactly what happened to us on OXO.
The combination of having a huge chockstone in the gully below us, along with a few cairns to guide us up along steep walls on the edges of the gully led to a few hours of frustration and dangerous scrambling. First we were on the left side of the gully, negotiating some steep and exposed terrain over and around the chockstone before getting back into the gully on steep scree. I had a bad feeling at this point, that we were too far climber’s left along the north end of the mountain. I could clearly see that we were funneling into a very narrow gap between two vertical walls along pinnacles high above. We were close enough to the top of the gully at this point, that I checked it out anyway, while Phil and Wietse waited below. Sure enough. When I peeked over the top I could see that this route was not going to work. I descended to the others and we thought about things.
There was an escape from the gully on climber’s right that we’d noticed a bit further down. We agreed to try it, but we were all of the opinion that the scrambling was starting to feel a bit ‘desperate’. Wietse went first and found a cairn here too! Excellent! Were we back on track? I followed up the narrow ramp and determined that we might be able to traverse climber’s right on tilted slabs to get around the pinnacles and to the easier summit terrain. There was absolutely no way to know for sure – the terrain is way too closed in and convoluted to spot anything more than a few hundred feet away and it all looked the same. At this point Phil was feeling like he’d already pushed his limits a bit too far in the first gully and expressed his desire to “wait this one out”. His decision was proved smart about 10 minutes later when a dejected pair of scramblers joined him in the gully – we could not find a viable route across the complex terrain from the cairn.
We had a choice to make at this point, and we all agreed that we were either “done” or “nearly done” with OXO. So far it was far harder and more complex than anyone had expected and even with a chockstone, cairns and general ideas of the route, we’d still managed to get flummoxed to this point. With all the horrendously loose rock and funneling nature of the terrain, we felt on edge the whole time, especially when above each other. The wind was strong and even that was enough to threaten us with random rockfall from high above. Every hold was loose and every rock or boulder wanted to crash down the steep terrain around us. We descended at least 100m, very slowly and carefully, before we spotted another bailout to climber’s right and took it. The others were dubious, but I saw an easier traverse across some slabs to another ridge and suggested we at least check it out. Soon we were standing on climber’s left of another gully – and this time there was an obvious chockstone with plenty of space underneath it immediately below us! Ahhh! So there’s more than one chockstone on this freaking mountain?! Who knew?! Such is the curse of so-called, “distinct” landscape features. But I knew that we were now on the same track / gully system as the Ramblers had been on. We started out one gully too far left of theirs and it led us astray. On hindsight this was still a good route, we just should have bailed and traversed over to the right much earlier.
I was feeling strangely motivated again to attempt the summit from this point. Hours had gone by, and now we were looking at a much longer day than originally expected, but the weather was gorgeous and the views were forever and I didn’t want to come back up this nasty terrain ever again. I knew that if I turned back now, I wasn’t coming back. Everyone agreed that if by some miracle the terrain stayed moderate, we would keep climbing. As I secretly expected, the terrain didn’t stay moderate very long. Soon we found ourselves scrambling a very steep crack in the gully, sending down tons of loose rock and feeling a bit ‘desperate’ once again. Phil was done at this point. He wisely turned back to wait out of the line of rockfall for Wietse and I to reach the ends of our tolerance and return back down.
I’m not gonna lie – we almost turned back several times from the spot where Phil stopped ascending. It was nice to have the two of us to make good route choices and encourage each other up the loose, exposed, difficult terrain. I’m not 100% sure if I would have kept going had Wietse turned back. As it was, I felt like I had on King Edward when I sensed that the route ahead would go. I even sped up so much that Wietse finally had to yell up at me to slow down a bit. Near the upper ridge, the gully fizzled out and we exited up steep, exposed slab to our right, until finally I whooped aloud that we were on easy terrain to the summit! Unfortunately we still had 500m to traverse to the apex of OXO, but the small boulders and gentle terrain wasn’t difficult. Despite our somewhat frazzled nerves, we enjoyed the incredible views from the top immensely. We were the 8th summit party to sign the register since its first ascent in 1941 which was pretty cool. Views of familiar peaks were stunning in every direction. I also realized that I’ve climbed way too many peaks in this area.
We couldn’t linger long at the summit as Phil was still waiting below and we had a lot of challenging terrain to descend. Taking our time, we carefully worked our way back into the ascent gully before downclimbing tricky and extremely loose terrain towards Phil and the traverse to our first gully. Again, we knocked huge rocks and boulders down as we descended, despite being as careful as we could be. Anyone in the gully below would have been killed by the rockfall – no doubt about it. This is NOT a mountain to treat lightly. Sooner than expected we were down the last steep crack and traversing towards a waiting Phil, who was obviously a bit disappointed that we’d made it without him. I maintain that he made the smart choice, however. You should learn from Phil, not emulate Wietse and my stubborn Dutch ways.
The rest of the traverse and subsequent descent of our ascent gully went well, but was not without some close calls thanks to the loose terrain. We all breathed a pretty huge sigh of relief on finally exiting the lower gully back onto the scree / boulder slopes down towards the pass. After taking a much needed break at the pass, we turned back down the lovely hanging meadow between OXO and Dolomite. Near the south end of the valley, just before dropping back down the drainage, we noticed a group of at least 5 hikers walking along the main stream. I suppose this area does see some visitors, despite the lack of clear signs and trails. Part way down the drainage we stumbled on a pretty good trail leading to our right – away from our ascent route and down towards the main drainage. We followed this trail and crossed the main stream, upstream of where it joins the branch we’d ascended. Here we deviated even more from our ascent route, taking a skier’s right down soft forested slopes towards the Mosquito Creek trail rather than boulder hop in the stream. The forest was open and easy and our feet were very thankful for the soft moss on the route we descended. Before long we were back on the concrete hard Mosquito Creek trail and tramping towards the highway.
OXO is a strange mountain for me to ponder, now that I’ve completed it. On the one hand, it is a delightful challenge (puzzle) to overcome, and the views on approach and from the mountain top are absolutely stunning. But, on the other hand, this is a dangerous mountain that will injure or kill someone if too many folks are attracted to it. There are so many other, less dangerous peaks in this area that offer similar views, that I would strongly recommend that you avoid OXO. Scramble the nearby Dolomite, Watermelon, Noseeum and Quartzite peaks before you try this one. If you still want more views of this area, please be very careful and go solo or with only 1 other competent and experienced scrambler. Also note that using a rope will not help you on OXO, as rapping would be more dangerous than downclimbing thanks to the loose rock and nature of the terrain.