Summit Elevation (m): 2590
Trip Date: Saturday, January 12, 2019
Elevation Gain (m): 1350
Round Trip Time (hr): 8.75
Total Trip Distance (km): 22
Quick ‘n Easy Rating: Class 2 – You fall you sprain something
Difficulty Notes: This is an easy on / off trail hike in the summer. In winter on Skis via the Twin Lakes trail it is considerably more difficult mainly due to the tightly treed lower trail.
Technical Rating: OT3; RE3
GPS Track: Download
Map: Google Maps
Since my last ill-fated trip with Dr. Phil in an ill-advised November 2018 attempt of Stenton Peak with an immediate subsequent follow up failure on an unnamed pile of choss nearby, my mountain mojo has been sitting somewhere between a 0 and a 1 with 10 being the amount of mojo required for peaks like McConnell or Cataract and 8+ being the amount required to get me out of bed at 04:00 on a weekend morning. A mojo value of around 5 or higher will usually allow me to reply to the many trip idea texts I get from Phil on a weekly basis. In my defense I think I summited something like 70 peaks in 2018 and I put around 6.32 million steps (5000+ kms) on my step counter for the year (mostly from my daily training / de-stressing walks around the city), so I think my mojo deserved a short break. I’m not 20 years old anymore!
Robb Schnell is an accomplished Rockies climber who has recently completed all the Canadian Rockies 11000ers and has also pioneered some pretty impressive FA’s of various routes on various peaks over the years. Robb has climbed (and soloed) many difficult Alberta Rockies ice climbs. Mr. Schnell is also well-known for liberally using ALL CAPS in his Facebook posts – especially when it comes to letting the rest of us peak-baggers know that half the choss piles we claim as “summits” are just the shoulders of higher summits. We have been trying to coordinate schedules for a while already so when Robb suggested “Little Copper” to me as a ski objective, I knew I would have to make it work. And yes – the irony of doing an unofficial outlier of Copper Mountain with Mr. Schnell wasn’t lost on me. Maybe this whole trip report should be CAPITAL LETTERS?
After the regular invites and messages were shared around the regular groups of friends, it was Wietse, Robb, Raf and I meeting at the Twin Lakes parking area on Hwy 93 just off the Trans Canada overpass at 07:15 on Saturday morning. We were happy to see a set of skin tracks leading off down the approach road and after squeezing our gear and ourselves through the locked gate blocking easy access to the trailhead we set a good pace up the easy lower trail. It was strange for me to be skiing with a “considerable” avalanche forecast even below tree line, but we were pretty sure that the terrain to Little Copper was mellow enough to avoid any issues. The snow pack around us was certainly not “bomber” – we had sudden settlements all day with some of them propagating quite far.
After crossing a bridge off the initial wide approach road, the Twin Lakes trail steepened and narrowed considerably. It also had a rolling nature which promised some very interesting skiing on exit. Wietse was the “flying Dutchman” on this particular day. About 5km up the trail Robb, Raf and I finally caught up with him at a spot where a giant tree stood in the midst of the trail. Apparently, for whatever reason, the skin track ended at this tree and from here to the summit we’d have to break our own trail.
After following the summer trail for a bit after the end of the broken tracks, it became apparent to me that we could shave some distance off our planned route by exiting into the forest on our left a bit earlier than originally planned (from closer to the Upper Twin Lake). The others agreed with my suggestion and I led up a mixture of surprisingly firm snow and bottomless sugar into the lower forest leading to the north ridge of Little Copper. I was a bit confused by another ridge to our left or I would have noticed the obvious drainage a bit further to our left that we should have ascended. Oh well. We found that on descent and it’s marked on the route map above.
After some dubious bushwhacking nonsense that Robb expertly led, we finally started running into Larches and knew that the forest would soon thin. Not long afterward, we started getting our first hints of warm sunshine and excellent views over the cloud-filled Bow Valley behind us. Storm Mountain looked awesome from the ridge, rising across the Twin Lakes to our right.
There were two obvious false summits indicated on my Gaia GPS map and as we approached the forested lower one, we noted that it was preceded by a low rock outcrop with steep snow slopes on either side. Given the “considerable” avalanche ratings at every level of the alpine we were not about to flirt with anything steeper than 20 degrees if we could help it. I led up the easy outcrop – there were only 1 or 2 steps where I had any concerns about a slide carrying me into something worse. The snow was wind-hammered and almost too hard to kick into so any concerns were short-lived.
From the top of the outcrop we followed Wietse to the summit under very warm, windless conditions. I told you – the Dutchman was FLYING! The views opened up as we ascended the easy north ridge, traversing under the false summit to the base of the wind-hammered, rock hard summit snow slopes. Any steeper and I would have needed ski crampons, but this was all very gentle, easy terrain and soon we were on top of the peak with million dollar views in every direction. I’ve climbed almost every peak around Little Copper but I didn’t even know where “Gibbon Pass” or the Twin Lakes were before researching this ski outing. I love that about the Rockies. Every valley seems to have little gems buried in it that beg to be explored and enjoyed. With all the larches in the area, this would be a great fall hiking trip.
After the requisite million photographs and posing for Raf’s standard PITA group shot, it was time to ski down. I should probably put air quotes around the word “ski”. It was fast and easy skiing down to tree line on icy snow but from there to the parking lot was a lot more like trying not to die than actually proper skiing.
The upper treed section past the rocky outcrop wasn’t horrible – there were enough uphill sections to necessitate re-applying the skins which was a bit of a PITA. As we descended towards thicker and thicker forest we decided to give the drainage a shot. It worked beautifully and should be considered the preferred approach route too. As I followed behind Robb down a short narrow section of the drainage with steep banks rising above, I mentioned this would not be a great place to stop for lunch. Sure enough – as Wietse and Raf followed us past the slope I heard it slide right behind us! The slide was small and wouldn’t have completely buried anyone, but it as a sobering reminder that the avalanche forecasters had been bang-on with their assessment of “considerable” conditions even at and below tree line. They even warned of this exact scenario!
As we regained the Twin Lakes trail, some of us kept our skins on just to assist with speed on the narrow and rolling terrain. As we descended we started noticing a constant roaring helicopter that seemed to be honing in on our location. Hmmm. We kept descending and soon I noticed that clearly someone or some group had followed our skin tracks, turned around and were now descending in front of us. I wondered if they’d gotten in trouble, as I could see from the tracks that they weren’t too happy with the narrow, shitty descent trail. As the chopper circled directly above my head I took off my pack and checked my SPOT to ensure I hadn’t triggered it by accident! Nope. It had to be someone in front of me. The chopper landed in a tiny clearing right beside me before long-lining gear and a rescuer just ahead of me on the trail. I skied about 200m further down before coming on a rescue scene. Three rescue techs were assisting an injured person – looked like a broken or sprained arm or shoulder to me. I didn’t want to hang around and be in the way so I asked if anyone needed any help before skirting around the scene and continuing down the trail. Soon the chopper was back overhead as the injured party was extracted from the mountain. As far as I could tell the traveler was solo and most have gotten hurt skiing back down the narrow trail after turning around part way up. After all that excitement, the rest of the exit was an exercise in not requiring a rescue ourselves! Within about 8.5 hours of leaving the parking lot we were back on easy, flat terrain and skinning towards the cars again.
Would I recommend skiing Little Copper? I think so. Just make sure you’re good with skiing back down everything you’re going up. The forest tends to hold very unsupportive snow at lower elevations so unless you get lucky, expect some sugary survival skiing for at least a few kms. There is very little room on the ascent track to even snowplow your way down – it’s much narrower than Bourgeau or Redearth for example.
It was great to finally meet and get out with Robb and it’s been way too long since Raf and I shared a trip. Many ideas were plotted and schemed during our hours tramping uphill! At a cumulative height gain of 1350+ meters – “Little” Copper isn’t so little after all.