Summit Elevation (m): 3109
Trip Date: Thursday, August 16, 2018
Elevation Gain (m): 2800
Round Trip Time (hr): 36
Total Trip Distance (km): 85
Quick ‘n Dirty Rating: Class 2/3 – you fall, you sprain your wrist or break your leg
Difficulty Notes: The difficulty on Mount McConnell is not its technical challenge but the fact that it is one of Banff National Park’s most remote peaks to access on foot. Depending on route choice up to moderate scrambling to the summit.
Technical Rating: SC6; YDS (3rd)
Mount McConnell is one of those peaks that got onto my mountain list somehow and just stayed hovering somewhere near the top of it but never seemed to actually get done as the scrambling seasons came and went. Why was it on my list? As one of the most remote and hard to access peaks in Banff National Park with a summit over 10,200 feet high, it is rarely done (ours was only the 5th recorded ascent) and gets the explor8ion juices flowing. Why does it not get done, even though it’s on many Rockies explorers “to-do” lists? Simple – see above. McConnell is freaking remote and freaking hard to approach! It’s not a sexy remote 11000er either, like Recondite, and nobody outside of Rockies peak baggers even know of it! It certainly isn’t visible from anywhere but other remote peaks that nobody outside of a few peak baggers know about, including Cataract Peak and Mount Drummond and even more rarely ascended peaks along the McConnell Creek and Roaring Creek valleys, both of which originate under the east face of Cataract and north of Mount McConnell.
Interesting Facts on Mount McConnell:
George Dawson’s 1886 map refers to the peak as McConnell’s Mountain and was published in 1886 based on his field work completed during 1883 and 1884. The map included geological surface information and six complete geological cross-sections through various points in the Rockies.
So far, I can’t find any information about the first ascent of this peak, other than an article from the 1992 Alpine Club of Canada Journal from Alistair Des Moulins about his ascent in July 1991 with Gail Des Moulins. I have confirmed with Alistair that he did not find a summit cairn or register on his ascent, so I’m assuming that Alistair made the FRA and Rick’s ascent in 1994 was the 2nd. This makes Liam Harrap’s 2011 ascent the 3rd and ours the 5th with another in between (hard to read the register entry for the 4th).
After completing an 11 day group and solo canoe trip in the fire ravaged forests and shimmering lakes of Northwestern Ontario, and after a very pleasant day trip up The Fang with Hanneke, I was ready for another long, remote, rare ascent in the Rockies. Who else could I entice but Phil Richards for this venture? Texts were sent and plans were consolidated until we came up with a plan to finally tackle Mount McConnell while it was still a fairly unknown and undocumented peak. We knew that we’d have to dedicate a fairly large chunk of time and energy into this project, so we also planned on tagging a second peak on return from McConnell, the exact summit would be unknown until the conditions were more clear, but likely Mount Lychnis or Tilted Mountain would get the nod.
One major bummer about the trip was the copious amounts of forest fire smoke we’d be dealing with – for sure ruining most of our views. Some folks might wonder why we would do such a remote trip into such a beautiful area in smoky conditions. It’s a good point and part of me still wonders about whether or not we made the right call in the end. We both had time off, the weather was perfect and we decided that if the new “normal” for Alberta Rockies hikers / scramblers / climbers is forest fire smoke in August and September, we can’t stop climbing peaks every time the views might be impacted or we won’t get out during the best climbing season all year – August and September. Cést la vie. I’ve been pretty lucky with views over the first 650 peaks of my life. I’m pretty sure I’ll survive some smoky views over the next 650.
Approach to the McConnell Bivy Site
From earlier recons and trips to Mount Drummond, Pipestone and Cyclone, we had a fairly good idea of the first half of McConnell’s approach. Although long, it should be fairly quick and easy – on maintained trails for a long way in for a total of around 30km of on trail approach. The final section up the unnamed creek into the head of the valley south of McConnell was a complete mystery and therefore, severely underestimated by us. More on that later. We knew the approach was close to 40km one way. We knew the total effort was going to surpass even Cataract Peak. What we didn’t know, was just how much total energy would be required to attain this summit (not to mention another on return) in the 2.5 days that we had available to successfully execute our plan.
I was up at 04:00, as usual for these sorts of big approach days, and picking up Phil in Canmore around 06:00 before driving to, and parking in the busy Skoki parking lot near Lake Louise on Wednesday, August 15, 2018. By 07:20 we were on our bikes, huffing and puffing our way up the very familiar ski-out road. Many people seem to forgo bikes on this approach, but I would highly recommend bringing them. On descent it’s more than worth it – 7 or 8 minutes of wild exhilaration, instead of another hour trudging downhill on a boring, rock hard road surface! The bike ride hurt, as usual, but we made it to the end of the road and started hiking briskly up to Boulder Pass, unfortunately but not unexpectedly, in thick smoke.
From Boulder Pass, we could barely even see across Ptarmigan Lake. 😐 We lamented the non-views and continued up towards Packers Pass. We decided early on to go over Packers Pass and down past the Skoki Lakes on our approach, just to get some views and keep things more interesting than our usual fairly boring plod over Deception Pass. The lakes were gorgeous and fun, as usual, but even they were obscured by the thick smoke. We descended the fun little chimney to the flats from Myosotis Lake and followed the trail from there along the Skoki Lakes drainage creek until Phil spotted the Deception Pass trail descending off to our right, across the creek. At this point we went off trail and linked up with the Deception Pass trail for a few hundred meters before hooking right along the Skoki Pass trail towards the Red Deer Lakes. We continued on this familiar (and thankfully dry!) trail to a fairly busy Red Deer Lakes campground where we stopped for a quick water and food break.
I was a bit surprised when Phil declared the campground only our “halfway point”. Jeez. Really?! Only halfway? What had I signed up for here?! In hindsight, this was the first warning that our approach day was going to be much bigger than we expected, because in hindsight, this was certainly not the halfway point in terms of either distance or especially energy. It turns out that the true “halfway point” on Mount McConnell is much further down trail than the Red Deer Lakes Campground! If you’re feeling tired already here, don’t even think you can make the bivy in one day. From the Red Deer Lakes campground, we continued along familiar and pleasant hiking trails past the warden’s cabin and down to Shingle Flats tucked under the south end of a hulking Mount Drummond. It was at Shingle Flats that shit started to get real for us. Drummond Creek was a raging torrent of fast moving, silty whitewater. On a hot day during a hot spell, the glacier that feeds the creek was melting furiously and obviously the water levels in the creek were correspondingly aggressive. Thankfully the crossing wasn’t as bad as it first appeared, but we did search for a braided section upstream of the Red Deer River to be safe. We crossed in our shoes, starting a 24 hour cycle of wet feet for me as my Scarpa Boulder X approach shoes don’t dry out as quickly as lighter approach shoes have in the past for me.
From the Drummond Creek crossing, the Red Deer River trail was unknown to me, and I became more interested in the journey, which was a good thing since we were only about halfway at this point, roughly 6.5 hours into a 12 hour day and certainly only halfway on a total effort measure. It was also at this point that we realized our on-trail approach was going to be 30km – a long bloody way on its own! I’m not sure why, but Phil and I both underestimated the on-trail and especially the off-trail portions of Mount McConnell’s marathon approach. We had the tools (online mapping) to be accurate, but our minds didn’t comprehend the distances and height gains involved for some reason. We rounded the corner from Shingle Flats and marched on down the trail. Yes – down it. We were probably lower than the freaking parking lot at this point – a fact I have no desire to check even now as it’s so depressing to think about.
In my head I’d always imagined the McConnell approach as ‘simply’ walking past Mount Drummond on the Red Deer River trail for a bit before turning left and bushwhacking up a drainage for a few kilometers to a nice bivy meadow beneath the mountain. It turns out that while this is technically exactly what we ended up doing, the time, effort and distances involved were all much longer, harder and further than I expected them to be for some reason. Phil had the same experience. I enjoyed the trail along the river for the most part. I’m sure the views of the east aspects of McBride and Douglas are awesome – we could only see giant outlines of those peaks. Short sections of the trail were under water thanks to the extremely high Red Deer River, we simply marched right through in our shoes since they were still soaked from the Drummond Creek crossing. At the turnoff for Douglas Lake we were puzzled by the presence of an old, faded sign hammered to a tree but no corresponding trail actually heading off towards the lake. This is the point that the trail started feeling quite remote and infrequently traveled by humans on foot – horses seem to be the vehicle of choice out here! We wandered through an expansive meadow section where we could imagine wild Bison grazing some day before reverting back to front range pine forest and finally the location we’d marked as our chosen turnoff towards Mount McConnell – the foreboding off-trail section.
The first I noticed when scouting our off-trail route was how flat it seemed, especially at the toe of the valley. It didn’t look like we’d gain height until at least mid way up this thing. The second thing I noticed as we looked up the valley from the Red Deer River Trail, was how big it was! This was no “quick ‘n easy” bushwhack up a narrow, steep side valley with one obvious route, but rather a hike in itself, up a wide, wandering series of meadows and streams with three pretty big alpine lakes tucked under Drummond’s east face and Mount McConnell tucked way up the NE end of it all. With around 5 hours of daylight left (it was around 16:00 at this point), we figured we still had plenty of time to navigate to our planned bivy at the third and largest of the lakes, so we did what we always do and set off through the light forest. One foot in front of the other and eventually you get there. I was feeling the 30km approach at this point and had my fingers crossed that the bush wouldn’t suck too bad. Things started out on a good note with light forest and a wide stream bed. Soon however we realized that there would be no secret horse trail up this valley – we were on our own. The bushwhack started for real.
Once we were forced out of the stream bed by a canyon (we ascended steep slopes on climber’s right of the stream) the bushwhack started for real. It wasn’t a Simpson Ridge level of bushwhack, but it was enough to slow us down both physically and mentally. At this point we were at least 33km into our day and were gaining height off-trail with overnight packs, something that’s never easy. We got lucky with a faint animal trail every once in a while that headed in the direction we were interested in, but for the most part we navigated on climber’s right of the creek, dipping into the gravel flats of the watercourse whenever we could to avoid the bush. As we struggled on and on up the large valley, our pace slowed to a crawl and navigation became trickier than it should have.
The mid and upper McConnell valley has a series of streams and draws that are very confusing when trying to navigate through them. I think it was mainly our state of mind at the time, but it was all much different than the picture in our heads! We ended up navigating and side-hilling around more than a few annoying ridges and streams before finally realizing that the three lakes shown on the map as being above treeline, really weren’t. Based on Rick’s description of the McConnell meadows, we were feeling a bit let down by the fairly mature forest we found ourselves in, even as we passed the 2nd lake – too far from it to actually see it, but obviously it wasn’t in open alpine meadows as we were hoping it was. As I peered at the topo maps, I concluded that the lakes were all tucked against the impressive eastern aspect cliffs on Mount Drummond and therefore one side of them was obviously not forested, but likely the other sides would be. Finally, after a pretty exhausting 2.5 hours we started noticing a thinning of the forest and the start of more open alpine meadows underfoot. Making things even more interesting was the few glimpses of Mount McConnell we were finally being given. The summit block didn’t look very easy from our vantage – tilted slabs rose steeper than expected. Oh well. That was a challenge for tomorrow.
Finally, over 3 hours after leaving the Red Deer River Trail, we arrived at the third lake and our chosen bivy site for the night – exhausted both mentally and physically from our 12 hour, 39km and 1300m height gain / 800m height loss on approach. The lake itself was quite beautiful, as expected. Each of the three McConnell lakes is fed by it’s own part of the Drummond Icefield – most of them by small hanging glaciers. Waterfalls plunged hundreds of meters from these hanging sheets of ice to fill their respective lakes. We wondered what this area would look like in 20 years when the glaciers are gone and the lakes lose their main source of water. Will the meadows dry up and become gravel wastelands? As usual for the summer of 2018, the bugs were pretty bad as we set up the mid and started making supper and preparing for the night. We were pretty quiet, each of us lost in our own thoughts of the day and all we’d experienced and gone through in only 12 hours. I was in my sleeping bag by 20:00, reading my book for a few minutes before falling into a deep sleep. I don’t think Phil was down much later than I was.
Ascent of Mount McConnell
I woke up about 30 minutes before Phil’s alarm went off at 05:00 on Thursday morning. We both had a great sleep thanks to the long and tiring approach the day before and soon we were packing up camp and making coffee in preparation for another marathon day. The worst part of the morning for me was putting on soaking wet socks and shoes after all the creek crossings the day before. Thank goodness I brought dry socks to sleep in! After choking down some breakfast, we set off in predawn light for the relatively short traverse towards the base of Mount McConnell, which was barely even visible from our bivy site. The traverse across the alpine meadow was easy, as expected, and soon we were dumping the extra camp gear in preparation for the ascent. As I wandered up a narrow drainage accessing the wide scree slopes skirting the mountain, I pondered how few people had gone here before me and how lucky we were to be in this remote and special place. I’ve been in an extraordinary number of these special places this year, eschewing bigger and “sexier” 11,000ers for remote, rarely ascended mountains and I’ve enjoyed the change. Sure! Many of the 11,000ers are also very remote and offer more challenging climbing but they are done far more often than peaks like Simpson Ridge, Nestor, Currie, Byng, Alcantara, Brussilof and many of the others I’ve stood on this year. There’s something unique and special to approach and discover peaks that have far fewer than a dozen ascents over the last few hundred (or more) years.
The scree on McConnell’s SW slopes was a grind, no question about that. It was a giant energy sucker, especially after the huge approach the day before. Phil and I managed to slog up towards the summit slabs in about 1.5 hours from the base but we weren’t racing either. The smoke was thick and we didn’t want to push things too much as we knew we had a long exit ahead of us. It was a shame that our views were so impacted by the gray smog, but we knew this was something we’d have to come to terms with. We didn’t love it, but the views we did have were pretty great, especially back towards Mount Drummond’s east face and the hanging glaciers it supports.
As we approached the intimidating summit block, things looked a bit more reasonable as usually happens. Instead of tackling the summit head on from the south, we trended towards the west ridge which looked even easier. From there a few slabby moves and traverses and I finally allowed myself to get excited! I gave Phil, who was just behind me, a grin and a giant thumbs-up – the summit cairn was right in front of me and I could even spot a register within.
In what has become a bit of a depressing theme, as I excitedly opened the summit register, water came pouring out of it. In a further disappointing surprise, there was water pooled inside the protective Ziploc bag that the register was in – I still have no idea how that happens! I could barely peel the pages open, but could read Rick’s original entry from 1994 along with two other ascents – more than I was expecting to be perfectly honest. Of course Liam Harrap had the 3rd recorded ascent with another after him. We were apparently the 5th recorded party to make this lofty peak – another theme that’s getting familiar! There was no way to dry the register out in the conditions we had (cool and smoky) so I scratched our names in it and put it back. I have no expectations that it’ll survive long, which is too bad. We took as many photos as reasonable given the extremely limited views. Thankfully we could see some of the obscure McConnell Creek and Roaring Creek peaks and had great views of both Mount Drummond and Cataract Peak. Other peaks that would normally be visible such as Warden Rock, Barrier and Prow Mountain weren’t.
After enjoying the success of yet another remote Rockies peak, it was time to move on. We still a long day ahead of us as we were planning to bivy somewhere way back in Skoki near Tilted Mountain and Baker Lake. Rather than descend our ascent route, we took the scenic west ridge before plunging (literally) down loose scree slopes back into the upper bowl and then out of the drainage to our waiting camping gear.
Egress from Mount McConnell
We packed up the gear we had emptied from our packs earlier, and started slowly ambling down lovely, open alpine meadows to the waiting bushwhack exit below. This short section of our day was probably one of my favorite memories from the trip with the cool morning air, lovely views and alarming cries of marmots and picas all around us.
From the sublime alpine meadows through the bush and back to the Red Deer River trail our energy reserves were completely tapped out. I’m not 100% sure why exactly, but likely due to the 40km approach the day previous in thick smoke and the ongoing dirty air wasn’t helping. Both Phil and I were relieved to hit an actual trail again and somewhat alarmed by how many hours of hiking we still had ahead of us at this point – we estimated at least 5 or even 6 hours of steady hiking to our planned bivy under Tilted Mountain! The next hours were a curious mix of nice scenery, dull plodding and absolute hell. I’ve done long trips before but this felt different somehow. I found myself slowly losing my will to live as we plodded endless back up the trail towards the Red Deer Lakes campground. A very strange thing happened just before the turnoff to the Natural Bridge before the Red Deer Warden cabin. We were walking along and suddenly we could hear the sound of rushing water on our left. This didn’t make sense here because the Red Deer River is far off at this point and we were in pretty thick forest. When we came on a rushing stream with a makeshift branch / log bridge across to the trail on the opposite side it took us several minutes to realize that we were, indeed, still on the correct trail and that this stream was something brand new since the day before! I still have no idea where the water came from as there were no tstorms and no glacier feeds this drainage coming off of Pipestone Mountain. Phil has a theory that there are underground caves and fissures leading from the Drummond Icefield under Pipestone Mountain and one of these either overflowed or unplugged while we were gone. Makes as much sense as anything else! We managed to get across this bizarre obstacle – but barely.
Finally around 4 hours after rejoining the Red Deer River trail from McConnell’s access valley, we stumbled through the Red Deer Lakes campground. We knew we still had at least 1.5-2 hours of hiking to make our bivy beneath Tilted Mountain so we didn’t even stop for a break but just kept walking. I hit a low point here, not even able to think about two more hours of walking, much less actually DO the walking! We slowly made our way up along Oyster Peak and towards Baker Pass and the Baker Creek Trail towards Tilted Mountain. In one not-so-funny happenstance, I convinced us that we were almost there, only for Phil to realize later that what I thought was Tilted Mountain was an unnamed outlier between Oyster and Tilted!
That killed Phil’s mojo and our hike became quietly desperate as we continued on our seemingly endless march. Eventually we passed a sign along Baker Creek and continued heading south towards Tilted Mountain and past Brachiopod’s north and east aspects. After a kilometer or so we cut off-trail once again and started a fairly strenuous but thankfully short bushwhack to the unnamed lake tucked under Tilted Mountain’s NW cliffs. Phil almost didn’t have the energy to rock hop around the lake to its far NE end but this is where we finally found a spot for my mid and stopped for the day at 19:30. Thursday had been another giant 14 hour day moving more than 37kms and ascending over 1600m, much of it with overnight packs again.
As we dove into the tent to avoid the hordes of mosquitoes, Phil warned me that he was “done” and would likely not be doing another peak on Friday before exit. His tone seemed different than just a normal complaint at the end of a long day or a temporary loss of interest – he sounded quite serious when he set his alarm for 05:00. I assured him that we could go always go up Tilted Mountain rather than our original objective, Lychnis, if required but even that didn’t seem to stoke his interest. It didn’t take long for us to fall into another night of deep exhausted sleep.
Postscript – Thoughts on Mount McConnell
After coming back from this trip, Phil and I have had several (many actually) conversations about it. Both of us felt a bit let down by the lack of clear views and the sheer exhaustion of it all. In the end, we expected smoky skies but I think it was even worse than we expected and we didn’t fully grasp how 2.5 days of constant exposure to limited views and thick smoke would impact our physical and mental health. We ended up traveling 96km and 3550m of height gain over 2.5 days which probably was a bit aggressive on hindsight, given the conditions. Lesson learned? Perhaps – but don’t hold your breath. 😉