Summit Elevation (m): 2910
Trip Date: Saturday, October 27, 2018
Elevation Gain (m): 1500
Round Trip Time (hr): 10.5
Total Trip Distance (km): 28.5
Quick ‘n Dirty Rating: Class 2/3 – you fall, you sprain your ankle or break your leg
Difficulty Notes: Easy scrambling to hiking, depending on route choice and snow cover. This is a remote peak with a somewhat convoluted canyon approach – do not underestimate the effort!
Technical Rating: SC5; RE5
GPS Track: Download
After experiencing a pretty crappy September most people, including myself, assumed that hiking and scrambling season in the Alberta Rockies was likely done for the season. I even resorted to an early season snowshoe up a “Nameless Ridge” on October 6th and assumed this was the start of the dreaded ‘shoeing season when there’s not quite enough snow to ski and too much to hike. My thinking changed after ascending Chimper Peak and Mount Cory last weekend, admittedly in wintry conditions but still as scrambles. One of the peaks on the agenda for this year and for last weekend was Astral Peak and I decided that October 27th 2018 was going to be the day to try it.
Astral Peak has been on my radar for many years now, ever since climbing Devil’s Head in 2012 and looking back over my shoulder as I walked onto its surprisingly spacious summit. The views from this very distinctive and well-known Ghost Wilderness peak provided me with a list of relatively unknown summits to the west including Poltergeist, Astral and Castle Rock Peak. Despite looking pretty hard, I couldn’t find a single ascent record for Astral including from the infamous Rockies peakbagger himself, Rick Collier, which only increased my interest in it. (Note: Bob Milko makes mention of ascending an unclimbed “Astral Peak” in the 1993 CAJ but a careful reading of his account shows that he actually ascended Stenton Peak from Stenton Lake, not Astral Peak.) In 2017 a couple of friends, Cornelius and Trevor, ascended Astral Peak. They found zero evidence of previous human travel on the Astral Peak part of their trip and they loved the area so much, they invited me along for an attempt at Castle Rock Peak only one week later! Of course I took them up on their offer.
Castle Rock certainly didn’t disappoint, and after route-finding our way all the way up the Malamute Valley, I was primed to give Astral Peak a shot of my own sooner than later. Why was I so keen on getting back into this area? To be short – there are very few accessible areas of the Rockies left that are mostly untraveled and unexplored. Other than ice climbers and the very occasional hiker, the upper Malamute Valley is such a place. Make no mistake – it takes more than a minimal effort to access the upper reaches of the Malamute Valley! You either have to be willing to bike over 12km or much further depending on your vehicle and / or tolerance for off-road driving including river crossings and steep embankments, including at least 9 river crossings (many more if you don’t drive to Marker 39) up to knee deep or deeper depending on your timing. By the time you ditch your bike at the campsite near the entrance to the valley, you will feel like you’ve already adventured quite a bit and you haven’t really even started yet. It’s still a long day from the campsite, including a tight canyon with running water and many waterfalls, huge cliff faces towering far above and unstable slopes to negotiate around all the obstacles in the canyon. In short – it’s my favorite kind of place.
As the weekend approached, I wondered if I’d be attempting Astral alone. I don’t love doing such remote trips solo, and after trying the usual suspects with no success, I thought of someone who I should really invite along more often. Calvin Damen is a fellow Rockies explorer who loves to get off the beaten track. He would be the perfect partner for a peak like Astral. I texted him and within 5 minutes we were making our plans. After driving across a raging North Ghost River back in May of 2018 on my Orient Point trip, I was nervous about the crossing at the bottom of the “Big Hill”. I remembered the truck starting to wash downstream in the wild current and thought maybe a heavier truck would be advisable. I knew that Calvin drove a full-size pickup and he agreed to drive, although he was also somewhat nervous having turned back at the same spot earlier in 2017. We agreed that although not ideal, we should probably drive the approach in the dark in order to give us maximum daylight hours on the trip itself.
After meeting at the regular spot at 06:00, Calvin drove us through the sleeping town of Cochrane and off towards hwy 40 north and the even sleepier hamlet of Waiparous. We found the turnoff for the Ghost Valley Road without issue (thanks in part to a very bright moon overhead) and proceeded up the very rough road towards the Ghost Wilderness. We were surprised to have a truck in front of us at this early hour, but eventually they turned off a side road and we were once again alone. Calvin drove slowly down the “Big Hill” and we held our breath hoping for a low / tame river below. Oh – it was tame all right! As a matter of face, it was completely non-existent! Wait! What? Where the heck was the raging torrent from a few months ago?! We were very surprised to say the least. The put-in to the river bed was very steep and despite there being no water, we still took our time and very slowly inched down the steep banks, relieved that we didn’t lose any bumpers in the process.
After the easy first river crossing, I was pretty pumped that Astral Peak might actually be a possibility for this late in the season. Before the crossing I was at about a 70%, afterwards my optimism bumped up a notch to 80%. I reasoned that too much snow in the Malamute Canyon could still realistically kibosh a successful ascent. One other factor was making its presence known as we drove deeper into the Ghost – the wind. When planning the trip I’d noticed SpotWX was forecasting 80-100km/h winds at the summit. This was pretty extreme considering often the winds are much higher than forecast at elevation. I packed googles, a full face mask and extra layers in anticipation of hurricane force winds, but was still a little bit pessimistic about it. I have done some scrambles in fierce winds, especially in Waterton, but having rocks and snow sandblasting your face for several hours does deflate their memory somewhat. The next 20-30 minutes was spent carefully driving along the North Ghost River on a rough track, losing the main road a few times in the darkness but being guided back by handy orange signs at most of the really confusing spots. The river “came back” as we ascended the valley and we had 4 or 5 easy river crossings before finally spotting the “Marker 39” and the end of our drive.
We set off on the bikes shortly before 08:00 for the 6km ride to the Malamute Valley. We were instantly very grateful for wearing waders and waterproof pants with the first river crossing – it was very chilly in the predawn air and a stiff wind from the west wasn’t helping with the warmth. After the first few knee deep river crossings we got used to the pattern and settled in for the ride. There was very little snow in the valley and other than a 1km section of very slick ice (thanks to folks ignoring the seasonal road closure), the ride was on frozen dirt and scree. Within 52 minutes of leaving the truck we were pulling up to the random camp near the head of the Malamute Valley and ditching the bikes in the forest surrounding the camp.
The Malamute Valley was much as I remembered it from a year previous. There was certainly more snow, however, and soon it was slowing us down more than I preferred. It’s not that I was in a rush, but conducting a 30km day trip in late October is pushing things – never mind introducing snow, ice and extreme winds into the mix. Calvin gamely followed me up and around the various waterfalls and other obstacles in the narrowing canyon, marveling at the convoluted route. He mentioned more than once that if I wasn’t there, he’d have spent hours longer in the canyon trying to find the easiest route through it. I impressed myself by remembering most of the various decision points, but every once in a while we still had to backtrack and I had to put my thinking cap on before remembering the best path forward. With snow it was trickier and some of the rocks in the canyon itself were terribly slick. Calvin and I each got at least one “booter” – something that wasn’t too pleasant when we started hitting more serious snow depths. The nice part about the canyon approach is that it was very distracting. I was surprised when we reached the turn-off valley leading to Astral Peak and it was already 11:00 – almost 3 hours into our day.
I knew that the alpine bowl beneath the north face of Poltergeist and the south slopes of Astral would be the “snow crux” of our day and it was. Rather than approach this bowl directly up its drainage creek, we ascended an obvious ridge just left (south) of the drainage that Cornelius and Trevor used. The snow rapidly increased in depth on this ridge until I was breaking trail up to knee deep. I knew we had to try getting out of this mess sooner than later and proposed trying a route up the much drier looking forest on the other side of the drainage and leading up to the south ridge of Astral. Calvin readily agreed and we descended and crossed the creek before starting a relatively easy uphill bushwhack to the south ridge – short-cutting Cornelius and Trevor’s route. There was much less snow on this side of the valley and soon we were enjoying some pretty stellar views towards Castle Rock Peak and Devil’s Head from the lower east end of Astral’s south ridge. As we ascended to tree line it became apparent that we had to traverse to our left (west) to intersect the easiest path up the south ridge proper and join the line that Cornelius and Trevor took on their descent. The traverse went easily and within about 4 hours of leaving the truck we were finally looking up at the south ascent slopes – the summit still out of view high above us.
The next 2 hours were spent grinding our way slowly up the easy, but vast south ridge / slopes of Astral Peak. Views of the huge (unclimbed?) north face of Poltergeist kept our cameras warm as we ascended, as did views of Castle Rock, Devil’s Head, Costigan and eventually Aylmer. Other than a few patches of firm (helpful) snow, the route was wind-blasted and dry. Speaking of wind – it was pretty intense but not as bad as I was expecting. My googles and balaclava were very welcome, but not essential. As I approached the summit block I was very surprised by a total lack of wind for about 5 minutes, which greatly assisted my flurry of photos from this unique vantage. Relatively unknown and rarely ascended peaks to the west were especially interesting to me, including Puma, Oliver, Apparition, Davidson and others. Many more familiar peaks looked much different from this angle, such as Aylmer and the Lougheed summits. I was also surprised to note that despite rumors and maps to the contrary, Astral is at least a few dozen meters shorter than Castle Rock Peak, if not more. Calvin joined me at the summit and the wind picked up again, forcing us to spend a very short time enjoying the views we’d worked so hard for. I quickly signed the register that Cornelius had left and we turned our attention towards the long exit ahead.
The descent went much quicker than our 6+ hour summit push from the truck. The south ridge was easy and fast with some helpful snow patches and we enjoyed a few nice breaks out of the wind in the warm afternoon sun. Too quickly we were in Poltergeist’s shadow followed by the late afternoon shade of the steeply walled canyons below. Having tracks in the snow helped us find our way back down the canyon more efficiently than our approach and by the time we were back at the bikes I surmised that we might actually drive out of the Ghost with some daylight remaining. The bike ride was just as I remembered from my last time – much quicker than the approach. I managed to ride my bike all the way through 7.75/9 river crossings which impressed me more than it should have.
Thanks to the daylight, the drive back out of the Ghost was much more efficient than the drive in was. As we approached the paved hwy 40 back to civilization our day was capped by one last obstacle in the form of a flat tire. Calvin did an admirable job changing it in sock feet (his footwear was all soaking wet from the snow and river crossings). I enjoyed Astral Peak immensely – as I suspected I would considering my glowing review of its neighboring peak, Castle Rock. The wintry conditions made it slightly less enjoyable than Castle Rock and it is certainly technically easier which is either a plus or a minus depending on what you prefer. All indications are that this summit sees even fewer visitors than Castle Rock despite it’s technical ease, so that is a huge bonus for me!