Summit Elevation (m): 2918
Trip Date: Saturday, August 17, 2019
Round Trip Time (hr): 9.5
Elevation Gain (m): 1600
Total Trip Distance (km): 33.5
Quick ‘n Dirty Rating: Class 2 – you fall, you sprain something
Difficulty Notes: The only difficulties on this hike are finding the motivation to cover the distance and elevation gains in a day trip – it would work great as a side trip from the Fish Lakes campground.
Technical Rating: SC5; RE3/4
GPS Track: Download
Map: Google Maps
Apparently I’m caught in an “opposite day” joke at the weather office. Lately I’ve been trying to beat forecast wet weather by getting up ridiculously early and all it’s getting me is clouds and exit hikes under clearing skies! Saturday, August 17 2019 was no different. The weather forecasts were calling for early clear skis in the Molar Pass area with building clouds and rain in the afternoon. “Minnow Peak” has been on my radar for a few years already, starting with my trip to Cataract and Molarstone Peak in 2017. Obviously this is an unofficial summit but I don’t care about that sort of thing anymore. I expected some spectacular views and a fairly easy ascent based on photos from Molar and Molarstone peaks. I planned the excursion as a day trip via the Mosquito Creek / North Molar Pass trail and the weekend of August 17th presented me with a good opportunity for a solo explor8ion.
Trying to outsmart the dubious forecast, I was on the road from YYC already at 04:10 on Saturday morning. As I drove the TCH past Lake Louise I was a bit put off by both the traffic (I remember when I was one of only a very few on the road at 06:00 on a Saturday morning) and the low clouds. Many folks were obviously camping in various roadside pullouts and even along viewpoints on hwy 93. The Rockies sure are getting much busier and more crowded than I ever remember them being and it isn’t giving me the warm and fuzzies. I guess that makes me a curmudgeon? Oh well. So be it. I’ve always liked my own peace and quiet and that’s never going to change. The low cloud stuck with me up hwy 93 and as I started up the familiar Mosquito Creek trail I was resigned to a cool, cloudy day. You can’t win ’em all! Clouds are good for flower pics – they bring out the saturation and get rid of shadows – and I knew the Molar Meadows were still loaded with flora.
In addition to lots of flowers, it quickly became apparent that there was also going to be lots and lots of muck. And horse crap. And more muck. And more crap… I’ve never had such extremely bad conditions on a popular Banff trail before! After our experience on the Norman Lake / Sunset Pass trail while accessing Minster Mountain a few weeks earlier, this pushed me over the edge, so to speak, and produced a minor Facebook rant. I’m only human after all. I have to say that the amount of slipping and sliding in shit and mud, and trail braiding that I experienced over the first 10km of my hike took away a lot of the pleasure of it all. I don’t want to rehash too much negativity in this report but here’s the long and short of my opinion on horse traffic on popular trails in the national parks;
I understand that horses have a long history of use in our national parks and I respect that. I understand that horses are the reason for many (most?) of the trails we all still use, especially trails along rivers and streams and over passes such as the Pipestone, Siffleur, Red Deer River, Panther etc. There would be zero access to these areas without horses. That being said, I think there should be updated policies in place to limit horse traffic during wet weather on certain trails that tend to get very muddy such as the Mosquito Creek trail and many of the Tonquin Valley and Skoki trails. Surely a ranger can delay setting up a wildlife camera for a week if it’s raining cats and dogs on the day they originally planned to do this?
My biggest beef isn’t with rangers / wardens riding horses in the parks but rather with paid groups that use horses (trains of them!) to pack their guests gear into large organized summer camps. These camps are relatively close to the road and within park boundaries which is strange considering how violently opposed to discrete random camping Parks Canada is for the rest of us… If you’re fit enough to hike the trails and mountains around these base camps you’re fit enough to haul your own pack a few hours up the access trail! IMHO. Another good point raised by many folks in my Facebook “discussion” was pointing out the restricted bikes access everywhere in Banff National Park. If bikes are restricted for wrecking trails, horse traffic should be considered as well for the same reasons. Especially commercial horse traffic. Different rules for different folks isn’t fair when we all share the same trails and all suffer for the unwise actions of commercial enterprises.
Now that that’s done, I’m ready to reflect on a beautiful day spent solo in one of my favorite destinations in the Rockies – the Molar Meadows and Fish Lakes area. As I hiked briskly up the very familiar trail I reflected on the many trips that have taken me up the ever-cheerful Mosquito Creek. I’ve skied it multiple times while accessing Ramp and Quartzite peaks. I’ve hiked it with an overnight pack while heading into the Devon Lakes area to climb Willingdon and to access the remote Cataract Peak. I’ve scrambled Puzzle Peak, Mosquito Mountain, The Fang and Molarstone from this trail. Watermelon Peak looms over the area, as does Noseeum Mountain. All-in-all this is obviously an area and a trail that I’ve spent many hours in over the years! I quickly reached the Mosquito Creek campground and continued up towards the Molar Meadows from there. The trail deteriorated into a gooey mess at this point but I tried to ignore it and concentrated instead on the growing number of wildflowers, the rich smells of the recent rains and the pure enjoyment of hiking solo on a Saturday morning.
Just as I approached tree line and the open floral meadows beneath the imposing east face of Noseeum the sun came up over Molarstone and shone through the fog and mists that were still hanging low to the ground. My world quickly became a magical multicolored kaleidoscope of flora and towering peaks fading into the mists high above me. A very special moment, proving yet again that getting out of bed and leaving the parking lot under a threatening sky is almost always worth the effort. After snapping dozens of photos my day was already more than worth it but of course I still had a lot of work ahead! I continued up the trail to a fog-covered North Molar Pass which offered some pretty dramatic views of its own. I crested the pass in cool, damp breeze with no views towards my intended destination. I’d come this far, there was no turning around unless things got silly so I kept pushing on down the pass.
As I descended from North Molar Pass the sky started clearing just enough for me to spot my traverse line from the Fish Lakes trail to the base of the peak. I left the trail before it crossed the stream feeding into the upper Fish Lake and started contouring beautiful alpine meadows to the base of the peak. One of the reasons I was looking forward to Minnow Peak was this traverse and these meadows and they over delivered! I didn’t realize I’d be passing a few gorgeous little tarns along the way and was delighted when they showed up. The atmosphere continued to improve too, clouds were swirling and lifting and descending all around me offering a unique and dynamic landscape and some very dramatic views. As I approached the scree slope leading up to the peak I was happy to note zero signs of humans, no cairns, no prints and no obvious trails other than a few ungulate roads.
The scree looked pretty horrid from a distance but up close I realized I could go further SE than my original intent before cutting 90 degrees NE towards the summit. A lower rock buttress was my navigation marker and from there I used cliffs to the east as a handrail high above the scree and boulder slope. There was nothing more than hiking and very tame scrambling required all the way up to the summit ridge where I was greeted to more dramatic views back to Molar Mountain and north up Molar Pass and the Pipestone River Valley.
There were a few too many clouds for my liking but I’ve had all these views before and you can’t expect clear skies every trip so I wasn’t too fussed. It was cold, with fresh snow up high and a brisk wind so I kept ascending. My fear was that the summit would be on the far SE end of the upper ridge requiring a possible tricky down climb but for once the summit was the first high point! It sported a large cairn which didn’t surprise me – there was no way nobody had been up here before.
The views from the summit were stunning, as expected. Again – less cloud was preferable but it wasn’t snowing or raining so I wasn’t too disappointed. Dynamic mountain landscapes can be very unique and powerful and I enjoyed sitting there witnessing the giant Cataract Peak going in and out of swirling clouds while more clouds swirled and danced up the vertical north face directly under my feet. I hunted around the cairn for a register and to my great surprise I found an old film canister! It turns out I was the 2nd recorded ascent of this peak in 29 years – not too shabby for such an obvious and easy peak near a fairly popular campground (Fish Lakes). I stayed at the summit as long as my feet allowed. They were soaked from the morning’s hike and were blocks of ice by the time I finally turned back down my ascent line. (I was waiting for the clouds to clear off a bit more.)
On descent I found a nice vantage on the summit ridge that granted views of both Fish Lakes and some of the Pipestone giants such as Cataract, Little Cataract and outliers of Deluc. Molarstone and The Fang looked tiny and far away from here. On a clearer day the views would rival those of Molarstone – I’d say they’d surpass them by a good margin. The imposing north face of Molar Mountain along with some hidden valleys and tarns to the south of Minnow Peak kept the camera warm as I slowly descended. The descent back to warmer alpine meadows was easy and soon I was snapping more photos of the upper Fish Lake with Minnow’s imposing west and north faces looming high above.
As I finished my lunch and wandered back up towards North Molar Pass I was a bit annoyed with the weather person for the 2nd time in a week as the clouds lifted and blue sky even showed up! I’m not sure WTF is going on but SpotWX used to be very reliable with its clouds forecast and it’s been off by 100% for a good chunk of this summer… Ironically it’s the always-too-positive weather network that seems to be getting the forecast right! I finally started running into more people while descending from North Molar Pass. By the time I wandered through the wildflowers in the alpine meadows the sky was still clearing (!!) and I passed another group enjoying a break off the trail. I continued powering down the muddy mess of a “trail” before finally reaching the camp and the final few kms to the truck.
I really enjoyed Minnow Peak, even more than I thought I would. I highly recommend it as a side trip from Fish Lakes or a day trip for fit parties. Sure, I was disappointed in the horrid trail conditions to North Molar Pass and chuffed at the 100% inaccurate weather forecast but what can you do about such things? Sometimes we have shrug off the negatives and focus on how darn lucky we are to call this special place our backyard and spend so many quality moments there. When I think back to the sun rising through the early morning mists, lighting up the millions upon millions of brilliant wildflowers all around me, I smile. When I think of the wild views of distant peaks and boiling clouds from the distant summit, I smile even wider. That, to me, means I had yet another perfectly fine day in my beloved Rockies and that, to me, is a solid check in the “win” column.