Trip Dates: Saturday, June 29 2019 to Monday, July 01 2019
Total Elevation Gain (m): 5300
Total Trip Time (hr): 54
Total Trip Distance (km): 118
Peaks Ascended: Wapiti, Tomahawk, Condor, Chirp
Passess Crossed: Tomahawk, Shale, Divide
Quick ‘n Dirty Rating: Class 2/3- you fall, you break something. Class 4 on Condor Peak.
Difficulty Notes: A long and beautiful 2.5 day trip through some of Banff’s more remote and hard-to-access eastern landscapes. Way off the grid and trails are not guaranteed. Bridges are nonexistent and camping is either horse camps or random. This is not aunt Edna’s 63rd birthday weekend trip to Banff for Sunday brunch.
Technical Rating: TL4, OT4, SC6; YDS (3rd class), SC7 (4th class) on Condor Peak
Map: Google Maps
Where do I even start with this report? It’s been a day since we rode our bikes back out of Banff National Park, between the majestic natural gateway of Warden Rock to the south and Wapiti Mountain to the north. The Red Deer River cuts through this valley, leading to the Ya Ha Tinda ranch and from there to the vast Canadian prairie landscape beyond. I guess I’ll just start at the beginning and see where this story goes as I access my overloaded memory banks…
Plans are made to Change
Phil and I had been planning a certain trip for a few years already. In early 2019 we started planning it yet again – this time vowing to let nothing get in the way. Even two weeks ago we were still planning it. Then it kept snowing and snowing and with about a week to go before the trip we realized we’d have to postpone it yet again. The big question was, “now what?”. We’ve been doing some bigger and longer days this year in preparation for something fairly lengthy and we wanted to get away from the concrete jungle for at least 2-3 days. Joanna Ford was also joining us – she’s a long distance ultra runner and wouldn’t accept an easy trip either! 😉
When Ephraim Roberts posted a trip on social media about a recent jaunt up the Red Deer River from Ya Ha Tinda, he posted some pictures of two peaks which had me instantly interested. Mount Peters and Condor Peak both seemed sufficiently out of the way to attract very few visitors. Other names in his report got my imagination going, such as “Shale Pass” and “Divide Pass”. After conferring with Phil and doing some very quick planning and estimation exercises we agreed that this would be our area of interest for the July long weekend of 2019. We were flirting with a Banff bison closure area, but our off-trail side trips were all outside of the closures and on-trail travel was still permitted in the area.
The trip was a hair’s breadth from being cancelled when I had some last minute house sale issues. After calling Phil to cancel the trip I called him back and we agreed to shorten from a 4 day to a 3 day trip, lobbing Mount Peters off the itinerary. (Life can be just as adventurous as the mountains sometimes.)
Day 1 – Wapiti Mountain, Tomahawk Pass & Tomahawk Mountain
I picked Jo up at her house at around 05:30 on Saturday morning and proceeded to the Petro where we loaded up Phil and his gear. The drive to the Bighorn Campground at the eastern edge of Ya Ha Tinda went without issues and by 08:00 we were peddling off up the Red Deer River towards a very distant Wapiti Mountain. Our plan for day 1 was fairly aggressive. We had plenty of daylight to work with so the menu included both an ascent of Wapiti and Tomahawk with a bivy near Tomahawk Pass just outside of the park.
Riding bikes to the Banff park boundary was a no-brainer decision but with much heavier than usual packs we felt it! I thought I was in good biking shape after doing some recent bike approaches but the heavy pack made certain body parts ache more than expected. We tried to avoid getting our feet wet within 10 minutes of leaving the parking lot but this was a futile effort and we just ended up riding further before the inevitable moment occurred. The morning ride was special despite the wet feet and various aches and pains. There was a dreamy moment where I was biking beside a pair of running deer with birds singing their morning songs and the Red Deer River providing backup vocals where I wondered if I was dreaming. It was a good omen for the trip. By the time we finally peddled through the last mud puddle and approached the bison fence and a sign indicating the park boundary we were all more than ready to start walking.
There’s no doubt about it. The initial hiking up the Red Deer River along the old Cascade Fire Road is either going to confirm you enjoy backpacking or bore you to tears. In my case it confirmed that I enjoy the hiking and backpacking almost as much as the peaks we were working so hard to attain. Sure – the trail was a bit dull as far as trails in the Rockies go, but it was also beautiful. Being fairly flat there was almost no effort in hiking it and it was open enough to grant views to feed the soul. As we marched along at a good clip I let the sounds of the Red Deer River on my left and the views of snow covered peaks such as Gable and Tyrrell fill the void that regular life hollows out of me.
Approximately an hour after leaving the bikes and entering Banff’s eastern gateway we arrived at a wide washout and the terminus of Tyrrell Creek where it meets the Red Deer River just downstream of the trail. Our route to Tomahawk Pass was up the eastern edge of Tyrrell Creek so we turned north and started seeking out the rumored trail. It didn’t take long to find an obvious trail heading up a steep grassy bank and soon we were surprised with an old grave site with views up the valley to Mount White and Tyrrell.
The next 2 hours were filled with uphill trekking, sweating, silent pauses and wildflower meadows overlooking a deep-cut and energetic Tyrrell Creek far below. There were long stretches of forest hiking combined with more open grassy areas where the trail we were following faded almost to obscurity. The weather was perfect for backpacking – cool and cloudy. Our views down the valley towards Gable, White and Melanin Peak with green valleys and grey skies were quite sublime. By the time we were under our planned ascent slopes to Wapiti Mountain we were more than ready to drop the “big” packs and head up to the first peak of the trip.
After completing a pretty chilly, but better-than-expected scramble of Wapiti Mountain, it felt good to be back in the much warmer and summery Tyrrell Creek Valley again! We replenished at the side creek where we’d abandoned our heavy packs before shrugging back into them and crossing the creek. There are no bridges – not even temporary logs – across any of the creeks or rivers in this section of the Rockies. In order to facilitate our planned pace and route we didn’t bother taking off our approach shoes for any of the crossings, choosing instead to hike with wet feet 90% of the time. YMMV, but taking off shoes for every crossing will substantially slow down your pace and there’s enough boggy sections on the route that you’ll likely get wet feet despite your best efforts.
The upper Tyrrell Creek valley was surprisingly choked up with willow thickets. Apparently these willows used to be much less pervasive in this area but are slowly taking over open alpine meadows. (See this excellent article by Kevin Van Tighem for more details and analysis.) These thickets might be inevitable with a warming climate but they’re not great for humans hoping to travel through these valleys and passes. Even with a pretty good trail the stiff shrubs and branches were more than a little annoying at times. As so often happens we also negotiated some wet and boggy sections just before topping out at the wonderful environs of Tomahawk Pass and our planned bivy location for the night.
It had taken another 2 hours to reach the pass after scrambling Wapiti Mountain and we could feel the long day starting to take its toll. It was now around 19:00 and over the last 11 hours we’d biked 14km, hiked over 31km and done over 2000m of height gain, much of that with heavier overnight packs. But we weren’t finished just yet… Joanna wasn’t entirely convinced of our sanity but Phil and I were still thinking of adding one more peak to our first day – Tomahawk Mountain of course! I mean why not? It was right there and what else were we going to do with the remaining 4 hours of daylight remaining?! 😉
We enjoyed setting up camp in dry conditions before eating a warm meal and relaxing with a warm drink. Then it was time to ascend the easy Tomahawk Mountain. By the time we were back at the delightful gurgling brook and our tents it was around 22:30 and still light enough to prepare one last brew before bed. Our first day had been even more scenic and full than expected with around 48 km of total travel and over 2600m of height gain over two peaks and varied terrain. Much more important than the raw statistics however, were the soul-filling landscapes we’d wandered through and over.
As I drifted into a restless night of sleep my mind was overwhelmed with the sensory overload of experiencing so much over such a short period of time. I commented to Phil that the bike ride felt like days rather than mere hours ago and he agreed. I pulled my toque over my eyes to block the final gasp of a dying sun and slowly drifted off.
Day 2 – Shale Pass, Condor Peak, Divide Pass & Chirp Peak
I awoke, freezing cold from a restless sleep to Phil declaring it was now “morning”. Thanks bud. I needed to be told that. 😉 By “morning”, he really meant “morning”! It was 04:50 and it was also well below freezing at our Tomahawk Pass bivy. As he threw open our pyramid tent I could clearly see frost on the ground next to us. As I glanced at my soaking wet shoes laying on the ground beside me I noted that they looked frozen stiff. That would be a future Vern problem. Current Vern had other issues to deal with including a ferocious hunger thanks to yesterday’s efforts and a coffee craving thanks to two days in a row of 5 hours or less sleep!
We “enjoyed” a chilly breakfast as the sun slowly started rising. The pass was still covered in frost and shadow as I struggled to cram my feet into my solidly frozen approach shoes. I couldn’t even do up the laces properly – they were so frozen stiff! Despite the chill in the early morning air, there was also excitement for day two of our long weekend, three passes adventure. Phil, Joanna and I were planning to head down the valley from Tomahawk Pass into the Clearwater Wilderness Area. Our original 4 day plan had us going over Condor Pass to Peters Creek before ascending both Mount Peters and Condor Peak, but after shortening the trip to 3 days we were targeting Shale Pass instead.
As I followed downhill behind Phil and Jo I marveled yet again at how lucky we were to be tramping around in the middle of nowhere in this pristine area with healthy bodies and our many riches and freedoms. We had no idea if the trail continued from the Banff park boundary into the Clearwater Wilderness, but thankfully it did. We temporarily lost it and ended up in a willow thicket thrash that wasn’t good for making forward progress! I insisted that there had to be a trail and by traversing to the east side of the valley we found it back. As we approached the Forbidden Creek intersection the day slowly began warming up and we exited the willows and entered sweet smelling pine forest with intermittent open meadows.
At around 08:00, after 1.5 hours of pleasant downhill hiking we came on the intersection of the Forbidden Creek trail. Rick used this trail in 1994 to access this area and make a possible first ascent of Mount Peters and likely a second ascent of Condor Peak. We were using his beta for our ascent of Condor – or at least we thought we were at this point… We followed the trail heading west towards Condor Peak. With all these trails, who’s keeping them so open and maintained? I’m not 100% sure but it almost has to be horse outfitters and riders as evidenced by the sublime camps and primitive corrals we came across on the Clearwater side of the Tomahawk and Divide passes. Even so, there can’t be that many horses going in or out of these trail or they’d be much more damaged (ala Skoki).
After passing the largest horse camp we saw on the trip, located on the south shoulder of Forbidden Peak, we looked carefully for a left hand branch in the trail that would take us back up towards Shale Pass rather than continuing on to Condor Pass. Because nothing is signed and there are multiple trails (low ones are wet, high ones keep you drier), this isn’t quite as easy as it sounds. We had the benefit of Phil’s research and saved satellite maps to thank for finding the correct branch near another, smaller horse camp. This is very likely the camp that Rick Collier stayed at with Mardy Roberts in 1994 when they came into the area via Forbidden Creek to tag Peters and Condor. (We didn’t realize this was where they camped, which would factor into our ascent of Condor Peak later in the day.)
As we branched into the Shale Pass access valley (Forbidden Creek?) we once again faced a choice between a low trail that wove in and out of the creek or a high one that gained a scenic bench high above the water. Despite the extra work attaining the high trail, it proved 100% worth it as we took in more stunning scenery in the pristine valley ahead of us. A grizzly had ripped open the sides of our trail making for some interesting hiking along a 1 km stretch but if it was close by it never made itself visible to us. There’s something mesmerizing about hiking along wolf and bear tracks on the trail. It makes you feel more connected to the land and part of it all rather than just a touron out for a walk (which is exactly what we are – I know).
As we hiked underneath the SE ridge of Condor Peak high above us I wondered aloud if we should ascend this way instead of my originally planned route via a west bowl and the south ridge. It seemed very accessible and would save us a ton of elevation loss / regain down Peters Creek. Phil and Jo weren’t too interested in the idea since we “knew Rick did it from the west side”. Little did we know it at the time, but we were dead wrong about that! Rick clearly ascended this SE ridge and made it sound like no more than a moderate scramble. Ooops! This is the cost of last minute planning an adventure like this, but it’s also the reason we love it so much. Explor8ion all the way and that means screwing up the route sometimes… 😉
As the trail climbed steeply up to Shale Pass the scenery kept improving somehow. Upper Forbidden Creek was a gurgling cheerful wonder capped off with one of the most scenic staircased bedding I’ve seen in the Rockies. Wildflowers were emerging from recently snowbound alpine meadows all around us, distracting us from the task at hand – which was the steep grunt up a winding trail. Finally we topped out at Shale Pass around the south shoulder of Condor Peak with stunning views of Chirp Peak across the deeply cut Peters Creek valley to the south and west. Not for the first time on this trip we wondered aloud at how come this route was so well trailed and so unknown to us? Being 50 km from the nearest parking lot probably has something to do with it.
We descended the pass, back into Banff National Park, down the namesake of the pass (lots of shale on the west side) towards Peters Creek and hopefully another trail that would be our access both down to Condor Peak and up to Divide Pass. On our way down the pass we noted a strange heart shaped outline of rocks that incorporated the vertebrae of a sheep and the words “2K17” indicating a date of 2017.
We crossed a low ridge at valley bottom before finally getting our feet wet in Peters Creek and finding yet another excellent trail on the west side. It had taken us around 4.5 hours to traverse from Tomahawk Pass over Shale Pass and down to Peters Creek. We hydrated and packed up our daypacks for a highlight explor8ion of Condor Peak downvalley.
Upon our return from an exciting side trip up the rarely ascended Condor Peak, we shrugged back into our heavier overnight packs and proceeded to continue up Peters Creek towards Divide Pass, about 150 vertical meters above us at this point. The hike to the pass was on a good trail and although it got pretty wet (what’s with passes and bogs anyway?!) the willow thickets were much less aggressive than they were at Tomahawk Pass. Soon we were gazing south down the lovely Divide Pass meadows and towards our Chirp Peak ascent line. We decided to take a break and eat supper at the pass before continuing up Chirp Peak with lighter packs.
It wasn’t quite as late as the descent of Tomahawk Mountain the day before, but it was getting dark as we set up camp under Chirp Peak. Once again we’d had a very full day including two summits and two passes for a total of around 36km of travel and 2300m of height gain. Once again, it wasn’t the stats that really mattered but rather the experience of hiking through a beautiful and unique little corner of the Rockies that none of us had seen before. It was figuring out a route on Condor Peak, coming together as a team and making decisions and enjoying many tranquil and peaceful soul food moments on the trails.
Day 3 – Exit from Divide Pass to Ya Ha Tinda
Our third day started much like the second one. At around 04:30 I awoke from a restless sleep, freezing cold. I tucked my head into my sleeping bag and tried to get back to sleep but the birds were getting louder and my bladder was joining the chorus so eventually I gave up and this time it was me announcing that “morning is here” at 04:50. Phil loved it, I could tell by the loud sigh emitting from out of his 16 layers of clothing he was bundled in to ward off the freezing mountain air.
Just as the day previous, Phil, Joanna and I enjoyed a perfect hike out of an alpine meadow as the sun slowly melted the frost off the vegetation and the ice off the puddles around the trail. With all the snow and frost it was hard to believe that it was July! Phil had warned us about some strange trail routing from Divide Pass to the Red Deer River which had us ascending quite a way over a ridge along the way. He was right. After descending some lovely forest and meadow terrain we approached a crossing of Divide Creek near a warden cabin. After yet another wet crossing (it was still only around 2 degrees at this point) we started a hike up and over the lower forested east shoulder of Boar Station.
We gained over 200 vertical meters avoiding the Divide Creek drainage before finally starting a long and very pleasant descent towards the Red Deer River valley far below. We could see the odd bison hoof print in the trail – it was pretty cool to walk in their steps. A large wolf track followed the herd which was also pretty neat (for us – not the bison I’m sure). The sun was up by now and it was shaping up to be by far the warmest day of the trip. We followed the faint trail as it wound lazily through old burns, forests and meadows filled with a variety of Rockies wildflowers.
I hung back a bit from Phil and Jo as I needed time to enjoy some solitude and meditate on precisely nothing at all but my immediate environment. Moving houses for the first time in 18 years combined with other life events had proven much more stressful than I imagined and this trip was the perfect antidote to life back in the concrete jungle.
As we finally entered the Red Deer River flats we encountered a set of antlers on a tree marking the Divide Pass turnoff from the main trail and an old sign with the words, “Clearwater River” and an arrow. This understated sign was amusing since the Clearwater River is a good distance from the Red Deer and the sign simply shrugged off any drama and simply said, “go that way – don’t overthink it”. 😉 From here on out it was simply one foot in front of the other until the bikes and then a fast ride out through Ya Ha Tinda. As we walked along the energetic Red Deer River we were treated to now-familiar views of Mount White, Tyrrell, Prow, Warden Rock and Mount Gable.
As we hiked along the Cascade Fire Road we came around a sharp corner with another easy creek crossing. Immediately after the crossing there was a whole camp set up with at least 5 or 6 tents and a dozen or so people in various stages of packing up (it was 11:00). We chatted with a member of the group before realizing many of these people were instrumental in getting the bison introduced to Banff National Park and were on a spiritual quest to connect with the animals in their new home. They were super excited when we mentioned the bison tracks and dung we’d seen around Chirp Peak and Divide Creek. A warden who was meeting the group confirmed that the herd had indeed been on Chirp Peak and was now near Mount McConnell.
After chatting for a bit with the group we continued on our way. It was shocking to me that they were ‘only’ around 20km in on the Cascade Fire Road from the Bighorn Campground and already on their 3rd day. Different strokes for different folks and all that good stuff, but I personally could not travel as encumbered by heavy, bulky gear as they clearly were. Bear proof barrels, large tents, heavy boots and all the other gear they were lugging around seemed like the opposite way to enjoy the freedom of the hills. But again – different strokes. There is no fundamentally “right” or “wrong” way to enjoy backpacking and hiking. There’s just the consequences that you’re willing to flirt with. In our case we flirt with bears and twisted ankles over blisters, short trips and wrecked knees, it’s really that simple.
An hour or so after meeting the large bison group on the trail we finally spotted the bison fence and our exit from the park into the Ya Ha Tinda ranch area and our two wheeled mighty steeds. As we rode the fast exit road through the ranch I meditated on the special experience we’d just had. We are so damn lucky to live in Canada and have the financial and political freedoms to simply put a pack on our backs and go exploring for a weekend.
Within an hour of exiting Banff we were back at the Bighorn Campground which was buzzing with Canada day long weekend activity.