Summit Elevation (m): 2680
Trip Date: Saturday, September 16, 2017
Elevation Gain (m): 2200
Round Trip Time (hr): 12
Total Trip Distance (km): 36
Quick ‘n Dirty Rating: Class 2 – you fall, you sprain your wrist
Difficulty Notes: Just as for Greater Pharaoh, the difficulty with this easy peak is doing it in one long day from the Sunshine Ski Resort parking lot via Healy Creek and Pass.
Technical Rating: SC5; RE3/4
GPS Track: Download
With larch season comes great responsibility for the Rockies hikers, scramblers and photographers. The responsibility comes from having two weekends (at most) to take advantage of the very limited and short-lived phenomenon of what’s commonly called, <dramatic music>Larch Season</dramatic music>. This season is sacred with those of us lucky enough to have felt its magic touch. If you’re from anywhere else in Canada, you might wonder what all the fuss is about. Larch season is when the commonly known “larches” (i.e. Tamarack trees), all turn the same color that isn’t green like every other darn living flora in the Rockies that isn’t snow, rock or ice.
Ok – they turn yellow. They all turn yellow. At the same time. And then two minutes later with a gust of wind or a dump of snow, all those yellow needles fall off and <dramatic music>Larch Season</dramatic music> is officially over. The funny thing is, being from Manitoba, I used to be quite indifferent to a few trees turning yellow for all of one or two weeks. I grew up spoiled with a diverse and full autumn where trees turned their leaves not only yellow, but also orange, red, purple and every shade of these colors you could imagine! I used to find it quite boring that every larch turned the same bloody color of yellow – and then only for a few fleeting moments. Now that I’ve lived in Alberta for 18 years, I am also part of the crazed crowd of so-called “larch seekers” that lose our minds at the end of September each and every year. I’m not sure when this happened to me but I’m not afraid to admit that I have a problem.
I suppose there is something quite special about sparkling green / blue lakes reflecting puffy white clouds and blue skies, with snow-capped peaks towering above and yellow trees dotting their shores and adding their golden color to the landscape. There is something magical in hiking on trails paved with golden larch needles with the sharp smell of rotting vegetation stinging the nostrils and frosty morning air nipping your skin as the warm sun rises reluctantly over a dying landscape. Whatever it might be, I do know that my absolute favorite time for tramping through the Rockies, is for two or three weeks in September. I look forward to it all year and even take some vacation during this time to help deal with my gold fever.Like everything else tainted by social media, <dramatic music>Larch Season</dramatic music> has also been exaggerated and blown way out of proportion for the general tourist masses. THERE’S MONEY TO BE MADE IN THEM THERE HILLS!!. If a yellow tree or two can make the stores in Banff a few extra bucks, why not I suppose? But it is getting a bit ridiculous. I’m not even sure why Parks Canada insists on advertising <dramatic music>Larch Season</dramatic music> at all. There’s no need to advertise anymore! The first person to post the one yellow larch they found on September 12th is guaranteed at least 1 billion Instagram “likes”, and from then on the zombie hordes will start their annual stampede to all of the larch hotspots. They will all get up at 02:00 and set up their tripod for the one sunrise photo that will make all their dreams and wishes come true. Or not. It’s all very dramatically boring, but I have to admit that I am part of all this silliness and I’m not at all sure I’m OK with that. It is what it is, I suppose. When someone posted on Facebook that;
The larches are turning two weeks early this year!Someone on Facebook
I believed it like everyone else and started making hasty plans. I was skeptical about the claim, but it made some sort of sense that the long dry summer of 2017 had stressed the trees, causing them to turn yellow a bit early. Looking at photos from September 18th 2016 made me think that perhaps yellow needles on the 16th wasn’t even that early and maybe I’d missed the height of <dramatic music>Larch Season</dramatic music> this year. My favorite larch hike of all time was a solo trek into the Healy Pass / Egypt Lakes area on a moody September day in 2016. The views from Greater Pharaoh Peak were stunning that day – I got super lucky with a short break in the weather at the summit. I knew that I’d be back under clear skies for a shot at the less ascended and less dramatic Lesser Pharaoh Peak some day – and that day turned out to be September 16th, 2017. This time I was joined by Phil Richards. We were planning to combine Lesser Pharaoh with the small and easy Sugarloaf Mountain (aka The Sphinx) – just to make a long day even longer. I’m not sure who comes up with these ideas. I think it’s usually Phil who talks me into these things.
We started out from the Healy Creek parking lot (Sunshine Village) at around 07:00 with a fall nip in the air. With a 40km day ahead of us we knew that the first 10km or so would have to be ignored as much as possible. The only way to do this effectively was by chatting and walking fairly quickly, so that’s exactly what we did. As we started gaining some height on the Healy Pass trail I noticed that the undergrowth and low brush around us was still very green. I mentioned to Phil that I was starting to have doubts about the larches turning early – there didn’t seem to be enough frost-kill in the forest. Sure enough! As we slowly started seeing larches in the Healy Meadows around 1.5 hours after leaving the parking lot, a lot of them were a disappointing shade of green. Uh oh. We had just planned a 40km day and two peaks specifically to see yellow larches – not green ones! I felt silly for buying into the social media hype that had led me to believe that all the larches were turning two weeks early. Based on what we were seeing, compared to the same time a year previous, they looked to be a week late if anything.
We tried not to be too disappointed as we started up the trail to Healy Pass. Phil had never been to the pass and didn’t realize how amazing this place can be when all the larches are turned. As we ascended, there were more and more yellow and half-yellow trees. The sun had also risen in a clear, blue sky by the time we reached the pass, and the views back over towards the impressive Monarch were stunning. I temporarily forgot about the half-turned larches and concentrated on the wonderfully clear views. The grasses and shrubs were all covered in frost and the view over the pass towards the Egypt Lakes area was very respectable. It felt good to be out here on this cool, crisp morning. I’m sure it’s been weeks, if not months, since this area has been so fresh. The Verdant Creek wildfire started only a few kilometers from Healy Pass and had been affecting the air even as far away as Calgary and beyond over the past few months. We felt pretty lucky to be enjoying the clean air on this particular day. Within 2 hours of leaving the parking lot we were starting the long descent into the Egypt Lakes area from Healy Pass.
Sugarloaf and the Pharaoh peaks went from looking small and close, to big and far as we descended from Healy Pass. This is the way this long day trip goes. After gaining about 400m to Healy Pass, we spent the next hour or so losing 300 vertical meters all the way down to Pharaoh Creek. The larch forest near Healy Pass was amazing, but as we descended further along the excellent trail, the larches became greener and greener until they weren’t turned at all. By the time we arrived at the bridge over Pharaoh Creek we were 11.5km from the parking lot and mentally only starting our day. We didn’t allow our bodies to feel any pain at this point yet. It’s amazing what small mental tricks like ignoring pain can do! We both found it amusing (and not) that someone had a cheerful fire going in the Egypt Lake shelter despite the signs scattered all over the place with FIRE BAN written all over them!
The next few hours of hiking from Pharaoh Creek up to Whistling Pass were sublime. Sure – the larches weren’t 100% turned but enough of them were yellow to make a dramatic impact on the landscape. The undergrowth and vegetation around the trail was also turned and even some reds crept into the color pallette. The trail up the headwall beneath Scarab Lake is very well constructed and Phil was suitably impressed on his first time along it. As we hiked up to the second pass of the day, we looked up at Greater Pharaoh Peak and wondered if we could possibly add it to the itinerary. It’s so easy to be positive when you’re only 14km and 4 hours into your day. A few hours of effort would cure that problem.
The views over Haiduk Lake and down Whistling Valley from the pass were impressive, as was the view of our destination peak rising to the north. At first glance it looked like there might be some difficulties on the upper south face, but on more careful inspection it started looking easier and easier. Rather than descend the trail to Haiduk Lake, we chose to traverse a large boulder field directly towards an obvious gully coming off Lesser Pharaoh’s south aspect. On hindsight, while this traverse certainly worked, it was more tedious and dangerous than necessary. We knew almost immediately that we’d be taking the trail on return – despite the fact that we’d have to lose and gain more height to do it. In one potentially bad incident, Phil found his right foot buried in shifting rocks with an extremely large and loose boulder threatening to come down right on his leg! He very slowly and cautiously extracted himself from that situation but we were extra-cautious from that point onward. I’ve been in way too many of these temperamental boulder fields this year. They feel easy until you nearly get a crushed leg and then you don’t want to step or touch anything around you anymore.
When we finally exited the boulder field we were happy to find easy terrain in the gully. We ditched our packs about 300 vertical meters from the summit and continued upwards. There were no surprises once we got onto the upper south face and we followed easy, blocky terrain until we finally found ourselves at the first summit of the day. As we ascended, our views of the Middle and Greater Pharaoh Peaks were pretty inspiring. Looking back over Haiduk Lake towards Mount Ball and Haiduk Peak was also quickly filling our memory cards.
By the time we topped out, we’d traveled roughly 16km, 5.5 hours and many hundreds of vertical meters from the parking lot. We were suitably impressed with the views back over Healy Pass and of the many visible lakes including Haiduk, Black Rock and Pharaoh. I knew the view from Lesser Pharaoh wouldn’t quite match the views from Greater, due to the alignment of the main lakes in the area (Egypt, Scarab and Mummy) but I was still pretty blown away by the three other lakes we could see clearly from this slightly lower summit. The wind was cool and we had no extra clothing (remember we left our packs further down), so after 15-20 minutes of enjoying the views we started our descent. On our way back down Lesser Pharaoh, we decided to nab “Tiny” Pharaoh too. This small subsidiary peak to the west of Lesser is a very worthwhile distraction and only took us a few extra minutes to summit. The views back towards the impressive north face of Lesser Pharaoh along with Black Rock Lake nestled at its base were very dramatic.
The rest of the descent down the gully and back to the Whistling Pass trail went without a hitch and before long we found ourselves slowly grunting the few hundred vertical meters back up to the pass we’d been at several hours previous. As we ascended in the warm sunshine I think we both knew that if we decided to do Greater Pharaoh, there was no way Sugarloaf was going to happen. Our legs were getting harder and harder to ignore by the time we crested the pass for the second time that day. We decided that instead of doing Greater Pharaoh, we’d save that one for the 2018 larch season (I was keen for a repeat in clear conditions) and stick with our original plans for Sugarloaf.