Summit Elevation (m): 2573
Trip Date: Wednesday, August 14, 2019
Round Trip Time (hr): 7.5
Elevation Gain (m): 1550
Total Trip Distance (km): 16
Quick ‘n Dirty Rating: Class 3 – you fall, you break something
Difficulty Notes: This route is a moderate scramble overall but with one important caveat. I CANNOT recommend Top Hat Peak due to a horrendously loose and dangerous access gully which I can only describe as difficult and dangerous due to the objective hazard. The so-called “Jenga Gully” is even worse than Puzzle Peak, although much shorter.
Technical Rating: SC6; YDS (3rd)
Map: Google Maps
The 2019 scrambling and climbing season has been a bit of a bummer when it comes to chasing my primary objectives. Phil and I started our year with a “bang”, standing on Mount Dormer’s summit already in early April. Since then we’ve constantly had to juggle our planned objectives, usually ending up on something much smaller or easier than desired. Wednesday, August 14th was no exception. Thanks to yet another shitty Friday forecast and work commitments on Thursday we had to try to make Wednesday work for something. The forecasts all agreed that although there was a good chance of rain near the divide, it wasn’t happening until the afternoon and it wouldn’t be thunderstorms.
I picked Phil up early in Canmore and we continued to drive towards Yoho in distressingly cloudy and wet weather (remember – the weather wasn’t supposed to come in until 13:00 or later). As we crested the highway above Field we were happy to note the sky above us was mainly clear but we were distressed to see a very ominous cloud bank coming straight towards us from the west! We started the familia objectives debate at this point. Do we stick with our original plan which involved huge amounts of height gain and required fairly stable weather or do we go to our backup plan which I’d only thought of at the very last minute? Proving yet again that you always need a shitty backup plan, we decided that we should be smart and go for the “easy, smaller” choice. Yet again.
The backup plan that I’d dreamt up was an ascent of Top Hat Peak, nestled between Mount Carnarvon and Emerald Peak above Hamilton Lake in Yoho National Park. I didn’t have very much beta but since Jose had done it with snow I figured it couldn’t be that technical. Basically we needed something we could do in suboptimal weather and possibly even rain so it had to have an easy approach and relatively simple terrain. With only around 5 minutes of research, Top Hat fit those requirements. We pulled into the Emerald Lake parking lot around 07:00 and it was already starting to fill but had plenty of spots. We noted one other person heading up the Hamilton Lake trail as we prepared our packs.
Top Hat Peak
The last time I’d been up the Hamilton Falls / Lake trail had been on my last Kane scramble (2nd ed.) in 2010 on an ascent of the majestic Mount Carnarvon. I remembered the trail being quite steep and steady and told Phil that I thought it was “around a 500 meter height gain”. We chatted and ascended the trail quickly in cool summer morning air before noting that it was getting fairly dark above us. Sure enough! Within 15 minutes of clouding over it started raining already. Great. I was getting annoyed that I’d taken a day off work for such shitty weather conditions and we got busy congratulating each other on avoiding our primary objective and even debated seriously about turning back and driving home. The rain seemed to be the sort that could stick around all day – a slow, soaking drizzle with low cloud.
We decided to continue to Hamilton Lake no matter what and re-evaluate our options there. Thankfully the rain let up eventually but the clouds remained very low, filling the valley below and looking downright miserable. Our spirits elevated as we approached the lake when we realized that we’d actually done over 800 meters height gain in 1 hour 20 minutes and only had about 500 meters left to go to our first summit! As we took in the wonderful scenery of Hamilton Lake we were also happy to note that although there was still plenty of low cloud, there were some “sucker holes” forming too. And it wasn’t raining. Or snowing. Yet. We decided to continue towards a surprisingly impressive Top Hat Peak, looming to the north of Hamilton Lake.
As we followed easy terrain to the Carnarvon / Top Hat col I mentioned to Phil that we might want to tag Emerald Peak on the way back down to complete a slightly more interesting loop of Hamilton Lake and make this a two peak day. I’d already skied Emerald Peak in 2013 but didn’t mind repeating it in summer conditions as long as we had some nice views over Emerald Lake. Phil agreed somewhat timidly that it “could work”. I don’t think he was as convinced as I was that the traverse of the west face of Emerald was going to be a simple affair or that the weather would cooperate long enough for such an attempt. We continued on snow to the col where we marveled at the moody views towards South Marpole and the great views back over the TCH corridor towards Mount King and Vaux.
From the col we looked up at the obvious “boulder gully” that both available trip reports mention. We put on our helmets as it looked pretty loose already from below and headed up towards it. Phil took a quick break at the base of the gully while I got my nose into things at the bottom. Very quickly I expressed concerns back down towards Phil. I knew right away that this gully was extremely manky and was going to be one of our most dangerous bits of terrain we’d ever done. I’ve encountered this type of terrain before in the Rockies and it’s scary as heck. It’s hard to explain the difference between “normal” scary and this type of scary. I’m sure South Goodsir is full of this type of crap and it makes me much less likely to ever do that peak. The type of “scary” on peaks like Puzzle or Top Hat is the type that you can’t control. It’s a stacked “Jenga” of huge boulders and smaller rocks all resting on nothing but mud. This particular gully has the added bonus of a bottomless hole sitting underneath all the stacked rock, just waiting to swallow everything balanced precariously on top of it!
I came within an inch of turning around at the bottom of the Jenga gully and on hindsight we should have done just that. I’m recommending you don’t even bother hiking to the base of the gully – if you do, you’ll likely do exactly what we did and head up the dang thing at your own peril. The one summer ascent record I found in my research doesn’t mention how loose and dangerous this gully is, so either it’s gotten much worse since they did it, or they didn’t realize just how dangerous this thing is!
I started very slowly up the gully. Phil was behind me wondering what the heck my problem was. Why didn’t I just quickly pull myself up the moderate terrain? Every rock I touched, whether it was the size of a hockey puck, baseball, basketball or hockey net shifted or moved! And all of it was on impossibly steep angled dirt with a bottomless chasm looming darkly underneath! <SHUDDER> Phil started up behind me and right away realized how precarious this pile of crap was. We both hated our lives for the next 10-15 minutes as we delicately floated up the gully, breathing a sigh of relief at the top where there were a couple of cairns. I am very surprised that apparently more people go up this peak and nobody’s been seriously hurt or killed in that gully yet!
We made our way up the broad summit plateau to the interesting cairn – ironically also piled up very precariously. 😉 There was no register. The weather was quite pleasant at this point with no wind and clouds offering dramatic scenery. We traversed to the south end of the summit block to get pictures of Hamilton Lake and Emerald Peak. I wanted to take a nice 30 minute break at the beautiful summit but the thought of descending that gully had my stomach in knots. I absolutely did NOT want to do it but knew we had no choice.
I told Phil that we should do the descent separately so that if anything happened the other guy could call for help. (I have no idea if a rescue would even be possible in this gully. Nobody would be able to safely get in there or move any rocks if you were pinned inside…) I went first. Dang! This would be a top 5 most dangerous thing I’ve done in the Rockies. Almost as delicate as down climbing the ice on Sir Douglas or the loose gully on Puzzle Peak. It’s funny how even the smallest objectives can so quickly turn into deadly hazards. I didn’t trust anything to hold my weight on descent – and if anything moved it would send the whole Jenga pile down on top of me. When I finally exited the bottom of the gully I wanted to run as fast as I could away from it! I yelled up to Phil that he could descend but warned him that I wasn’t watching him – it was way too nerve wracking. I kept descending to the col in order to avoid the fall line if anything did happen on Phil’s descent.
Thankfully we both made it but we mused aloud that we likely shouldn’t have bothered with this minor peak. Lesson learned? Likely not, unfortunately. But we try! 😉
After the excitement of Top Hat I was looking forward to trying the traverse to Emerald Peak. We side-hilled and traversed the east face on easy terrain (loose!!) before angling up very loose and steep scree to gain the ridge south of the summit. The traverse to the summit along the ridge was surprisingly difficult – with careful routefinding it was moderate scrambling with some exposure.
We descended into the infamous “chasm” but there was no way we were going to do the keyhole escape route from there. With overhanging loose rocks and boulders this is another accident waiting to happen. The route I’d used in the winter back in 2013 was quite steep and exposed without snow, so we backtracked out of the chasm and found a way around the keyhole on climber’s left (west) that included an upper moderate scrambling move or two. There’s an easy by-pass along the east face to the huge avalanche gully which can be used to directly attain the summit but we enjoyed the slightly more hands-on ridge.
Summit views of Emerald Lake were stunning, as expected. Familiar peaks such as Carnarvon, Vaux, Stephen, Walcott, Burgess, Field, Wapta, Ogden, Niles and many others were also visible despite the ongoing presence of clouds. When a particularly dark set of clouds approached, we decided it was time to descend before anything electrical could brew up.
Descent was much easier than expected. We followed the south ridge until an easy scree slope opened up to our left (SE). We followed this slope down until a traverse back west to Hamilton Lake was feasible. We followed a trail that avoided western slabs on the south ridge and ended up at the Hamilton Lake trail soon afterwards. The threatening clouds had dissipated by this time and soon we were hiking out under sunny skies! We met quite a few people lower down on the trail. 7.5 hours after leaving the truck we were back in a ridiculously busy parking lot.
If I’m honest about it, I both hate and love this particular day trip. I love that we saved a day with a very last-minute plan but I hate that gully on Top Hat. I love that a 1550m, 16 km, two peak day felt like a half-day but I hate that if we would have gone for our original objective we would have topped out just as the sky cleared. I love the views that we ended up with but I hate that once again the weather forecasts were so far off the mark.