Summit Elevation (m): 2777
Trip Date: Saturday, June 2, 2018
Elevation Gain (m): 1350
Round Trip Time (hr): 6
Total Trip Distance (km): 13.5
Quick ‘n Dirty Rating: Class 1 – you fall, you’re stupid
Difficulty Notes: An off-trail hike, barely a scramble at all. Some steep scree / dinner plate near the summit ridge.
Technical Rating: SC5; YDS (Hiking)
Saturday, June 2 2018 was looking like a mixed bag of Spring weather. Phil and I decided to play it easy and get out for an “exercise day” – hopefully one with some great views. Phil had put Ochre Spring Peak on our list a while ago already, but I’d never paid it much attention until the Matt’s (Hobbs and Clay) recently posted trip reports on it, demonstrating some pretty sweet views.. Phil agreed that this was likely the best time of year to do it and since it has a very short approach and easy slopes, having snow in the ascent gully would be perfect.
After meeting Phil in Canmore, he drove the rest of the way to the empty Paint Pots parking lot along hwy #93. This particular attraction isn’t very popular and I can see why. I’d been here years ago and didn’t have too many memories other than a lot of orange colored mud. About 5 minutes into our trek I remembered why that was my main memory of this place as my red boots were now orange. To be fair, there’s interesting cultural and historical facts behind this roadside attraction, but compared with more sensory options nearby (such as Marble Canyon), this one is a bit understated.
Once again, The Weather Network was completely wrong (11 hours of sunlight – yeah sure) and SpotWX was bang on (95% cloud cover with slight chance of precipitation). I don’t believe in most conspiracy theories but TWN has been so predictably wrong for the Banff / Lake Louise areas over the past decade, that I’m starting to wonder if there’s a “tourist conspiracy” going on! If the wx is forecast for sunny and warm, surely the tourist hordes will come in droves and spend their money in the parks. Being a weather person is the only job I know where you can be wrong every day and keep getting paid… We didn’t mind some cooler weather for once, to be perfectly honest, but we were hoping for some views eventually, since this area is perched near some stunning natural scenery.
We covered the first 3km quickly on the excellent Ochre Creek trail and when Phil announced “this is the ascent gully”, I almost didn’t believe him. I’m getting used to multiple hours on approach, not 45 minutes! The avalanche gully is massive, but thankfully it was mostly free of debris and problematic growth. We trended a bit to climber’s left before stumbling on a bit of a track, but in general we followed our noses towards a thin snow patch we could see lingering above us, where the gully became more defined. I have to warn you if you’re planning on hiking up Ochre Spring Peak. You’re going to read my warning, but when you get there yourself, you’re going to forget it just like we forgot others’ warnings. This peak is one of the most foreshortened scrambles I’ve ever done. There’s something about the physics, the curvature of the earth and the ascent slopes that make it look like the summit is MUCH closer and lower than it really is. It’s weird – and it’s annoying, especially if you’re like Phil and you keep forgetting that this thing is over 1300m of elevation gain in just 3km!
As soon as we hit snow in the gully our progress started to speed up again and we finally started to gain some real height. Our views behind us grew steadily more and more impressive. Ochre Creek sparkled aqua in the few bits of sunlight we had, and the incredible green avalanche slopes coming off Tumbling NE5 directly to the south were stunning under the dramatic skies. We passed a cheerful creek that bursts out of the scree hillside, before encountering what we hoped was a line of snow all the way to the summit. At this point we donned crampons since the slope was slowly getting steeper and steeper ahead of us. We both commented that every time we looked back the slopes we’d just ascended looked flat, while the slopes ahead looked steeper and steeper. It’s all part of the strange optical illusion that makes the distant summit ridge look close the entire time you’re under it.
About an hour or so later, as we continued our upward march and looked back at the “flat” approach, it finally started sinking in that this was, indeed, a 1300m+ ascent line and would take some time to get up despite the easy terrain and the close looking summit ridge. Phil was more annoyed than I was by this and it was amusing to listen to his occasional angry self-talk as he grunted and slipped up the loose rock ahead of me. By this point our crampons were off again as the continuous avalanche snow had deteriorated into soft snow slopes with knee deep slush instead of concrete hard sn’ice. We chose a snow-free line up to the ridge via a steep, shallow scree ridge and tackled it head-on. At this point several snow squalls and some low clouds were threatening our views, but every time we got the feeling that our summit would be completely grayed out, the clouds would lift and some rays of sunlight would poke through. It was enough to keep us going, as were the stunning views back over Ochre Creek, but also now to the SE towards Mount Ball, Vermillion and along the incredible Rockwall and Ottertail Range to the west. We weren’t surprised, but were a bit disappointed that the huge Goodsir Towers were buried in clouds. Sharp Mountain was low enough to display it’s summit and provided some neat scenes with the moving clouds and dappled sunlight.
Finally we hit the summit ridge. A short snow slope to our left led steeply up to the summit cairn but before tackling that final obstacle I had to bundle up in toque, gloves and thick fleece thanks to the very chilly winds. The views were opening and closing around us as we ascended the snow slope and took in the incredible surroundings of the Rockwall area of the Kootenay Mountains to the west and the familiar views of Storm, Stanley, Ball, Vermillion and Isabelle to the SE down the Banff-Windermere Parkway. We spent about 30 minutes on the summit enjoying the visual reward for our efforts, but soon the cold wind chased us back down the mountain.
For descent, we chose a different line than most – sticking to a steep snow slope staring on the SW side of the summit before rejoining the route down more snow to the lower gully and our original ascent line. The upper mountain was steep enough to glissade and we took full advantage – quickly descending several hundred meters on wet snow, taking care not to start a wet slide avalanche on our way down. The lower snow slope before the avalanche debris was very soft and we waded through slushy knee-deep snow before finally getting onto the harder debris in the main ascent gully. From here we descended quickly again, I managed to boot-ski down hundreds of vertical meters which my knees were grateful for. Alas, all good things must end and before long we were back on the dry avalanche gully and descending past very fresh bear scat to the Ochre Creek trail.
Exit was fast, in perfect hiking weather. The sun was shining intermittently and the air was crisp and cool in the forest as we hiked past freshly sprouting wildflowers and under cheerfully singing mountain songbirds. The orange ochre muck stuck to our boots as we exited the more popular Ochre Beds interpretative area to the parking lot.
All-in-all, I really enjoyed Ochre Spring Peak. It’s easy, direct and has an excellent and short approach trail. Best of all are the incredible views. Make sure you pick a cool day in Spring to take advantage of snow in the ascent gully but also make sure you have some visibility as there’s no reason to slog up this easy peak without its million dollar views!