Pulsatilla Mountain

Summit Elevation (m): 3035
Trip Date: Saturday, September 07, 2019
Round Trip Time (hr): 11
Elevation Gain (m): 2300
Total Trip Distance (km): 26.0
Quick ‘n Dirty Rating: Class 2/3 – you fall, you sprain or break something
Difficulty Notes: A lot of total height gain and some loose SC6 scrambling up cliffs if you take our line, otherwise just a long, easy scramble.
Technical Rating: SC6; RE4
GPS Track: Gaia
Map: Google Maps

After completing some long days in the hills on my week off during the first week of September 2019 I was looking for a nice way to cap it off before heading back into the office. After throwing around a bunch of ideas I settled on a long-standing peak on my to-do list. Pulsatilla Mountain is tucked in between Protection Mountain to the west and Johnson Creek to the east and despite having many access points, none of them are that straightforward and none are short day trips either. Wietse agreed to join me for the trip despite its length and height gain. In 2010 Andrew Nugara published a route up Pulsatilla that “shortcut” over Protection Mountain’s long N-S ridge somewhere above the old mine site between Armor Peak and Television Peak. In 2012 Josee published her account of the same route, cementing it as my route of choice. Nevermind that it took 7 years for me to finally get to it, it turns out that the wait was worth every moment.

Pulsatilla Mountain Route Map

Wietse picked me up at my house (a huge benefit to moving earlier this summer) and we bombed down the TCH to the Castle Mountain junction to the Bow Valley Parkway. After getting stuck behind yet another slow moving camper (!) on the parkway we pulled into the nondescript pull off near the Protection Mine trailhead and prepared for a long day ahead. The weather was shaping up to be perfect – yet another in my week off and obviously the reason we choose this objective. The trail up to the mine was pretty much exactly how we remembered it from our trip up Armor Peak with Raf in 2013 and even earlier in 2009 when I scrambled TV peak with Marta. The trail gains height deviously and by the time we reached the old mine site (Eldon Showing) we’d gained almost 1000 meters already.

We were both feeling pretty darn good (I was shocked at how good I felt to be perfectly honest) and made short work of the easy scramble from the mine to the top of Protection Mountain’s N-S ridge. The route deviated further south then I remembered but it also avoided any cliffs above and for the most part followed sheep and human trails in the scree and rubble making routefinding pretty easy. From the top of the ridge we got our first look at Pulsatilla and I’m not gonna lie – it looked pretty darn far! There wasn’t much to do but start down the ridge towards the karst flats that this area is known for. It took us around 3 hours to hike the approach and scramble to the ridge crest.

Armor and Avens at left with Pulsatilla at center across the vast karst valley.

We were feeling great and the day was lovely as we started down easy rubble / dirt slopes to the karst pavement visible below. There were many options for traversing towards Pulsatilla, we simply chose the ones with the least amount of height changes, trying to preserve our energy for the day. Wietse had a good routefinding sense this particular day so I basically got lazy and followed him. On the way across the flats we were blown away with the unique scenery all around us. To the north Armor Peak, Bulwark Mountain and Mount Avens stole the show, looming above a lush hanging valley draining the flats towards Baker Creek. Of course Pulsatilla stole the show directly ahead while Television Peak looked more and more like a mountain the further we hiked across the pavement.

Traversing the karst valley with its unique landscape. Armor Peak at left with Pulsatilla at right.

Eventually we realized that we should contour to our right to avoid unnecessary height loss. Wietse again found a perfect route through the karst maze, leading us around a wide ledge system towards a bubbling brook. We commented more than once how a western or a sci-fi movie should get filmed here with many different unique angles, canyons, sidewalks, lakes and streams. Thankfully our chosen route worked perfectly and we exited to a cheerful little stream where we took a nice break before continuing up towards the two hidden lakes we knew were still ahead.

Gorgeous views over the lush hanging valley to the northwest that sits between Armor (L) and Avens / Pulsatilla (R). This valley drains into Baker Creek.

Both online trip reports that we read were pretty vague about the details on attaining the lakes and the upper mountain. We ascended more pavement, including a small, dry canyon with a fully natural and perfectly formed stone staircase! Using my proposed GPS track we came to the first lake – more of a copper colored tarn than an alpine lake. We didn’t drink the water here, put it this way. We ascended a bit further to the north before spotting the real gem of a lake tucked under the south slopes of Pulsatilla.

The first (lower) lake is pretty but isn’t quite as ‘pristine’ as the upper one.
Traversing around the upper lake’s east shore. Pulsatilla looms at right – note the cliffs.

From the east end of the lake we once again simply followed our noses us the most efficient and reasonable terrain, trying to keep things closer to the easier side of scrambling than moderate or even difficult. There were multiple lines breaking through the cliffs to the upper rubble benches but since we didn’t have our helmets (ooops) we wanted to be safe. As it was we definitely ended up on some moderate terrain, scrambling up some fairly solid and fun cracks to attain the middle rubble bench. From the middle bench we angled left and then up and around the next set of cliffs to finally put us on scree slopes to the summit.

Views back down from the middle bench to Protection Mountain, TV Peak and the two lakes.

The views were really heating up by the time I popped onto the summit ridge and when I finally stood on the mountain apex I was pretty much gobsmacked by the incredible views over Badger and Pulsatilla Passes towards more of Banff’s hidden gems including the surprisingly hidden Bonnet Peak (over 3230m) which seems to elude photos no matter where you happen to be standing. Johnston Creek runs down the valley to the south and the views in that direction were sublime with a slight mountain haze, deep green valley, sparkling streams and towering, jagged peaks such as Block and Noetic.

Stunning views NE towards Badger Pass and down Johnston Creek (R) from just under the summit (R).
Incredible summit panorama over Pulsatilla (L) and Badger (C) Passes towards Bonnet and down Johnston Creek (R). Peaks include Avens (L), Bonnet (C), Block and Noetic (R).
Hector (L), Redoubt, Richardson, Pika, Ptarmigan, Avens, Willingdon, Crown, South Tower, Fossil, Harris and Cyclone (R).

Wietse soon joined me at the summit and we marveled in turn at the views in every direction. Pulsatilla is the highest peak on the entire massif that is Castle Mountain and it shows in the views we had! We knew we had a long way to go yet so we didn’t linger long before starting the long journey home. It had taken us around 6 hours to reach the summit from the parkway – not too shabby considering we were around 2000 meters height gain at this point already.

Stunning views down Johnston Creek along the Sawback Range (L). The Castle Mountain massif including Helena Ridge, Stuart Knob, Eisenhower Tower, Castle Mountain and TV Peak at distance.
The karst valley holds many tarns and little ponds. These all drain from this side of the Castle Mountain massif towards Baker Creek.

We took a slightly different line around Pulsatilla Pond on exit before retracing our steps across the magical karst pavement and back up the rubble slopes of Protection Mountain to the ridge crest. For some reason I still felt really good on the re-ascent of the ridge. It was one of those days when everything comes together – weather, fitness, company and views. I felt less good about the rain storms forming over the Bow Valley as I crested the ridge but thankfully they stuck around Lake Louise and didn’t hit us. We made short work of the exit down to the mine where we stopped for a nice break.

Returning back along the amazing sidewalk feature – views to Armor Peak and Bulwark Mountain.

The steep trail from the mine to the highway was excellent, providing mindless direction and allowing us to lose ourselves in conversation and silence. The larches were just starting to turn near tree line which shocked us into realizing that summer is almost over for 2019 in the Rockies.

I have to say that my summer is ending on a pretty high note considering how many a-list peaks I’ve been getting lately. Pulsatilla is highly recommended for a good weather day for fit parties who are tired of the same old views.

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