Summit Elevation (m): 2918
Trip Date: Sunday, September 22, 2019
Round Trip Time (hr): 11.5
Elevation Gain (m): 2150
Total Trip Distance (km): 38.5
Quick ‘n Dirty Rating: Class 3 – you fall, you break something
Difficulty Notes: Not an easy day trip but certainly one that won’t be easily forgotten once you do it! When dry you could have bergschrund issues on the dying lower glacier, if wet you could have issues with steep snow or ice. I have to rate the route documented here as “MN6” due to the bergschrund issues I encountered.
Technical Rating: MN6 / SC6; YDS (I, 3rd)
Map: Google Maps
When I got home from Mount Lillian way too early on a beautiful first day of Fall on September 21, 2019 I knew I had to rectify the situation with a something much longer and more engaging the following day. After some thinking on it I decided to go with Scarab Peak in the Egypt Lake area of Banff National Park. (On hindsight I did things exactly backwards and should have done Scarab on the 21st and Lillian on the 22nd to maximize my views but c’est la vie.) For this objective I have to acknowledge two people. Phil Richards originally put Scarab on our list of future peaks a few years ago when we did The Sphinx and Lesser Pharaoh in a long day trip. While Phil had a route planned up the south and east sides of Scarab, it was Robb Schnell who actually completed the route I followed and provided me firsthand beta on it. Without Robb’s beta I’m sure Phil and I would have eventually gotten to it, but the detailed and very accurate description he provided sure helped me on this long solo outing!
I should also acknowledge Phil’s gracious acceptance of me bagging this peak on my own while it was on our list to ascend it together. Due to unforeseeable circumstances Phil couldn’t join me and I was left with a dilemma while considering which peaks to go for on my own with a very short 1 day weather window in the height of larch season. I had a couple of overnight objectives on my list and was literally packed up for them before deciding that the iffy forecasts for Monday were bumming me out and I should just do a long day trip with a lighter pack. Considering the options and the fact that the Egypt Lakes area had provided one of my all-time favorite solo fall outings back in 2016 up Pharaoh Peak, Scarab Peak became a no-brainer choice.
Thank goodness for Robb’s beta on Scarab, which was very detailed and recent, as there wasn’t any other beta available to us when we were planning the peak earlier in 2019. The peak is labelled incorrectly on some of the online maps (not even on the summit) and the height is incorrect in several sources as well (showing it lower than Haiduk when it’s clearly higher). Many people confuse “Sugarloaf“, “The Sphinx” and “Scarab” even though the first two are the same peak and Scarab is much higher and on the opposite side of Mummy Lake. As I reviewed my proposed GPS track based on Robb’s beta the night before, I was very excited for another long day in the Healy Pass and Pharaoh Creek areas of the Rockies. IMHO there is no better place in Alberta to get your annual – and very brief – fill of seemingly endless golden larch trees and Fall mountain scenery. I set my alarm very early (yet again!!) and drifted off, dreaming of peaks unclimbed and sights unseen.
My alarm went off way too early on Sunday morning, September 22 2019 but I was already up and almost out the door when it finally started yelling at me. How am I still so excited to wake up before my alarm after so many adventures to the west? I am still in love with explor8ions of my beloved Rockies, I suppose. As I prepared to set out from the Sunshine parking lot I was surprised to see two people just ahead of me, hiking up the Healy Creek trail. I shrugged into my hiking gear and set off up the trail with my headlamp lighting the dark gravel road in front of me. Soon after crossing the creek I passed the couple from the parking lot. As I was bidding them a “good morning” the man stopped me and asked if I was “Vern”. I affirmed my identity and we chatted for a few moments. It turns out I knew the couple from Facebook and they were going after Pharaoh Peak based on my 2016 trip report – a fine choice for this particular day. I didn’t want to be rude but I also knew I had a long day ahead of me so after a few moments of pleasant chatting I bid them adieu and continued at my own pace up the trail.
What a glorious day this was! Now, sitting back in my home office thinking about it, I have a smile on my face as I walk back down my memories. Healy Creek itself is actually a pretty boring hike. It’s around 7km of fairly flat, forested trail with muddy puddles, very few views and rather understated ones when they do occur. BUT. It’s a means to an end. And what an end it is! There is nothing quite like bursting out from the dull Healy Creek trail into the magical Healy larch meadows beneath Healy Pass and The Monarch Ramparts. The unexpected explosion of gold and yellow with bits of deeply saturated greens that greets you here is mind-blowing. It certainly makes the previous few hours of drudgery 100% worth it. When you’re planning a day like mine, this glorious “end” of the trip is really only still the very start of it! Sometimes when I think back on some of the hikes and scrambles I do, I honestly don’t know how I do it. I’m not a great athlete by any means and I don’t pretend to be either. People like Phil and Joanna regularly do crazy stuff like run 50-70km in a day, but for me a 30km day is still a bloody long one. Anything over 1500 meters of height gain still feels big. Meditating on the fact that my morning trek up to Healy Pass was less than 1/4 of my total daily effort is humbling and puzzling. I honestly don’t know where I get the energy for this stuff half the time.
I play a little trick on big days in the hills like this one. I play this trick almost every outing with Phil, since they’re always so bloody long. It’s the “approach” trick and Phil still doesn’t know if he loves or hates it. 😉 Mentally I don’t allow myself to think of the day as one huge effort, rather I break it into three phases. There’s the “approach”, the “summit bid” and the “egress” phase. Basically I don’t even count the egress. By the time we’re on that phase (which is obviously still 1/2 of the total distance), I figure we’ve done the peak, we know what to expect and it’s simply a matter of one foot in front of the other until we’re done. If that’s 10, 15 or 20km it’s really no different to me. One foot in front of the other. Plod on soldier! The “approach” phase is the interesting one. This is where I drive Phil nuts sometimes. Mentally the “approach” is also not counted as any sort of energy sucker. It’s only the approach after all! How hard can that be, right? For example on Minster Mountain earlier this year, the end of the approach was either Goat Ridge or the GDT col. On Arete Peak my approach only ended just under the final ascent slopes above Des Poilus Lake after hiking for at least 18 or 19 km already. You can see how this goes. By the time I take away the “approach” and the “egress” with mental tricks, the only real physical effort remaining is on the “summit bid” which is always boosted by summit fever. It’s a time proven method and it worked again on this particular day. My chosen termination of the “approach” was a tree buttress located near Mummy Lake at the bottom of the east slopes of Scarab Peak. I figured everything from there to the peak qualified as a “summit bid”.
Using my “approach” technique, I barely even paused at the lovely, cool and windy Healy Pass. I was around 2 hours into my day and the larches were going off in every direction. I looked around, breathed in the wonderful atmosphere and continued on, prepared to lose hundreds of meters of elevation towards a distant Pharaoh Creek and very much still into approach mode at this point. I was slightly concerned about my knees for this trip. It’s also part of the reason I forwent the overnight option for a day trip – to save some weight on them. I’ve been doing some pretty darn long trips this year and my knees aren’t new anymore! Thankfully my joints didn’t ache too much on the long descent to Pharaoh Creek and sooner than expected I was crossing the familiar bridge towards the Egypt Lake Campground and Shelter.
The campground was much emptier than I expected it to be considering how gorgeous the weekend had shaped up to be, but in a strange way this was a comfort. After hearing a few reports of overcrowding and general buffoonery at the Carnarvon Lake campsite earlier this year, it was nice to pass through a half empty camp at the height of larch season when it should have been packed right full. The mountains are busy enough – some days they deserve peace and quiet and this was just one of those days. I certainly didn’t mind. I only met a handful of people all day in one of Banff’s most scenic Fall landscapes – that is never a bad thing IMHO! I motored on past the warm Egypt Lake Shelter and towards the nondescript trail leading up to Scarab and Mummy lakes and Whistling Pass. This trail always entertains. It’s a bit rustic in places and I’m sure catches folks by surprise if they’re used to more maintained trails such as Yoho Valley or even the Pharaoh Creek trail. This trail has muck and slick rocks and downed trees and I love that too. There’s a certain rustic charm to it – this place is too special to be an easy walk up a beaten highway. You should earn it at least a little bit.
I knew that I’d be losing a bit of height from the top of the headwall under Greater Pharaoh Peak but the amount of height loss still surprised me. I’d done this bit of trail with Phil in 2017 when we came from Lesser Pharaoh Peak and Whistling Pass and tagged Sugarloaf (The Sphinx) on our way through. It sucked back then and it sucked again now – although I was still fresh compared to the last time I’d hiked it. I followed the only trail that exists between Scarab and Mummy lakes, even though it seemed a bit circuitous on the map. When I finally stood above the shores of a windy Mummy Lake and looked up at the wild clouds covering Scarab Peak I knew my approach was almost over. It had taken me 4 hours of fast hiking and over 15km just to reach the lakeshore.
I’ll admit that as I tramped my way around the northern end of Mummy Lake in a gusty south wind, I was feeling a bit overwhelmed with what still lay ahead of me. I hadn’t been just sitting on my duff in August or September and the miles and meters were finally starting to catch up to me – mentally and physically. Don’t get me wrong – I was absolutely loving my latest venture! The sun was out, the larches were golden and I was enjoying one of Banff National Park’s premier backcountry areas all to myself. This was one of those days that linger in the memory banks long after it’s over and keeps cycling back during long winter days when stuck in the office and gazing over the frozen concrete jungle. Despite all these raging positives, I was still feeling some trepidation as I easily crossed the outlet stream on the north end of the lake and continued towards an obvious treed buttress and the start of my summit bid phase.
As I hiked across loose boulders and scree towards the treed buttress I wondered what Robb’s beta would be like to follow. I’d never followed beta from him before and as a pretty hardcore climber I wondered if his definitions of “easy” or “simple” were the same as mine? It turns out that Robb should write a guidebook or two – he gives great beta. 😉 As I’ve drawn up (click here for image) the east access route to Scarab Peak is cracked near the bottom of it – the top is fairly straightforward as you’ll see later. I first scrambled up a loose boulder gully next to the buttress, than up an obvious scree cone above it towards lower cliffs clearly visible just above. At the very top of the scree cone I looked to my right (north) and found a moderate scramble up the lower part of the lower cliffs – maybe 10-15 feet high at most and topping out on more scree.
I got lucky and found Robb’s cairns along the next section but it’s obvious even without route markers. Once I got up the short, moderate step there was a south trending scree ledge first going up and then leading a slow descent towards a distant scree slope. The ledge is pretty wide – think road, not sidewalk. The views back over Mummy Lake were incredible and the fun, engaging route combined with the scenery was fueling my enthusiasm. I descended a bit more along the ledge before coming the next obvious landmark, a steep shallow gully marked by loose scree on one side and firm slab on the other. I obviously used the slab on my ascent, staying just right of the scree. When the gully started petering out I had choices but chose to look for some “staircase slabs” that Robb had mentioned, leading off to my right.
The staircase / slab section trended right (north) of the scree/slab gully, topping out at some running water just below a couple of small glacial ponds. I was greatly enjoying myself by now and feeling pretty grateful for Robb’s excellent beta. The views were sublime up here and I could see an ancient debris-covered glacier leading upward to the only realistic break in a band of cliffs ringing the lower alpine bowl I was in. I’d brought crampons but decided the debris would be pretty grippy and after a coffee break I decided to try the glacier without the ‘pons and see how far I got using only my approach shoes.
The glacier was easy travel even without crampons, just as I suspected. As I approached the edge of the ice sheet I began to realize that I was going to be dealing with a bergschrund. To make matters worse I was also going to be dealing with some very thin bridges to get me up and over it. Being solo this wasn’t a great scenario. Smart folks would have turned back here but I’m not always the sharpest tool in the shed, nor do I claim to be. There were goat tracks over the thinnest bridge which happened to be over a pretty deep looking hole. I wasn’t going to follow those! I puttered around, muttering to myself that “things are never easy” before finding something that didn’t look suicidal but did involve some VERY loose and steep scrambling up terrain that exposed me to an unknown sized ‘shrund below. I can’t guarantee you won’t get similar or even worse conditions than I did, so I am rating Scarab as “MN6” so that folks with little or no glacier experience don’t get themselves into trouble. I don’t want to oversell the dangers but glaciers can be nasty creatures – even old dying ones.
Once above the lower glacial bowl the route tamed out and was pretty darn obvious to the summit. A second, upper alpine bowl provided more remnant glaciers but at much easier angles and with no crevasses that I could spot. The crux for me at this point was a short, steep section of glacier that I didn’t feel like putting the ‘pons on for (thankfully there was fresh snow to assist) and figuring out that Robb’s instructions to “go left” at the col really meant “go right”. 😉 That last bit of intuition was made harder thanks to a GPS base map that put Scarab Peak pretty much in Mummy Lake – no help at all when it came to figuring out just where the heck the summit was.
As I ascended the south ridge of Scarab it quickly became obvious that I had chosen the right direction at the col – phew! Robb had described this section as a “hike”, and although it wasn’t more than easy scrambling, I would still classify it as slightly more than a hike. The ankle to knee deep snow that I encountered probably didn’t help it feel easy in several of the more exposed spots. Although there were more clouds than I would have prefered (I should have been here the day before), the views were pretty on point and only improving as I ascended higher and higher towards the elusive summit. It was only at this point as I glanced back towards The Monarch that I realized that Scarab Peak was the same height as that peak. On getting home I realized it’s actually a few meters higher.
Finally, at 13:00 and almost exactly 6 hours to the minute after leaving the Sunshine parking lot, I was on the the highest point of Scarab Peak. Clouds obscured the highest peaks around me – on a clear day the views of the Rockwall and Assiniboine would be stunning from this vantage. Despite the clouds, my views were still top notch – better than expected and certainly better than no views at all. I enjoyed finally seeing the Pharaoh Peaks well below me. I remembered wondering back in 2016 what it would be like to stand on Scarab looking down at them, and now I knew. I was surprised to see I’d walked nearly 20 kilometres to this point and decided I’d better not linger too long in the cold wind. After snapping dozens of summit shots towards many familiar landscapes I started the long “egress phase” of my day.
The first part of the descent went very quickly – snow assisting rather than slowing me down. The upper bowl was also very quick travel and soon I was staring down at the lower alpine bowl and hoping the bridge I used earlier was still viable. It was. I breathed a sigh of relief once over the ancient icy maw and quickly descended the last bit of ice to the small tarns below. A welcome break in spotty sunshine at the tarns was pure Heaven and over way too quickly but there were miles to cover and the shadows were getting longer.
Retracing my ascent route down the slabs, across the scree ledge and down the moderate step to the scree cone proved relatively quick and easy. Navigating the boulders past the treed buttress felt a bit dicey – I’ve spent way too much time on loose, unpredictable boulders this year. As I hiked back along Mummy Lake’s western shore to its outlet stream I started wondering if maybe there was a shortcut down to Scarab Lake from there. I thought I’d go check it out – if nothing else I’d get some decent photos.
As it turns out, there is a shortcut route from Mummy Lake towards Scarab Lake. It isn’t used much and there’s only a faint sheep track, but with careful route finding I managed to negotiate a fairly easy scramble down the drainage. I then crossed it and hiked back east through a larch forest to join up with the trail, just above Scarab Lake. This saved me a kilometre or so and some height gains on exit – always a bonus! I also managed some great views over Scarab Lake towards the Pharaoh Peaks.
I was in a very good mood as I approached the stream running down to Egypt Lake from Scarab Lake and decided to take a few extra minutes to photograph a lovely little falls just before a much bigger drop down to Egypt Lake. I’d been in this spot with Phil back in 2017 and wanted to take a bit more time to get a good photo of it. After a few minutes and a few neat photos it was time to get back to the egress.
After a slight uphill slog to rejoin the Whistling Pass trail I descended quickly back to the Egypt Lake campground and Pharaoh Creek. I was feeling ridiculously great at this point and after a refreshing drink from the creek (#nofilter) I turned my attention to the long uphill trek to Healy Pass. It was back to my old “one foot in front of the other” mind tricks and it worked, yet again. I caught up to the couple I’d met much earlier in the day and we chatted about their day on Pharaoh Peak. They lamented the cloud cover but admitted the larches were pretty special. We were all suffering a bit with the demands of the lengthy day. Soon it was time to move on and I bid them adieu for the second time and continued up to the pass through a forest of bright yellow and orange larches.
At Healy Pass I was (yet again) treated to a stunning display of golden larches, sparkling tarns and The Monarch looming impressively over everything else. It was hard to believe at this point that I’d been even higher than The Monarch on Scarab Peak only a few hours previous. I tried not to overthink the distance and elevations I’d already covered and those still in front of me. With over 9 km to go, Healy Pass was by no means the end of my day. There was nothing to do but continue hiking down the lonely trail, so that’s exactly what I did.
There’s a stretch of trail in the forest above Healy Creek before hitting the Sunshine ski-out that has surprisingly consistent cell phone coverage. I always turn my cell service back on and start texting Hanneke about my day as I walk this section as it dulls the pain and passes the time. Soon after this stretch I crossed the final footbridge over a dry drainage and started the short walk down the road to the parking lot. My day ended 11.5 hours after starting with over 38 kms traveled and over 2100 meters gained and then lost again. My feet were tired but my soul was fully refreshed with yet another highly recommended trip into the Egypt Lakes area of Banff National Park.