Summit Elevations (m): 2820, 2807
Trip Dates: Tuesday, September 24 to Wednesday, September 25, 2019
Round Trip Time (hr): 29
Total Elevation Gain (m): 2800
Total Trip Distance (km): 37
Quick ‘n Dirty Rating: Class 3 – you fall, you break something
Difficulty Notes: This route is a heckuva slog! You’ve been warned. The stats alone don’t reflect the bone jarring creek bash, leg numbing elevation changes and potential route finding challenges. Other than that – it’s all pleasure.
Technical Rating: SC6; RE5
GPS Track: Download
Map: Google Maps
It was Tuesday morning September 24 2019 and I was ready for a break. My body was sore and tired and my mind was full of recent adventures. I had hundreds of photos to process from several recent trips including Mount Lillian and Scarab Peak. Thanks to the impending snowpocalypse forecast for later in my week off, I’d even forced myself to go hiking in spotty rain showers and sleet the previous day with Hanneke in Sunshine Meadows. I was feeling pretty beat up as I drifted off to sleep on Monday night. As I drove home from a morning Tim Hortons coffee run, I noticed that the sun was warm and the sky was looking pretty blue above YYC. The mental gymnastics started up on point.
You know how it is don’t you? I had a week off at the end of September to take full advantage of the height of larch season in the Rockies. And the latter half of that week off had been forecasting doom ‘n gloom since the week before. What to do?! Take a day off or go for yet another ramble on a beat up body with a tired mind sitting on top? Obviously I made the questionable decision to go for it. Hanneke was rolling her eyes (for good reason) as I hastily packed an overnight pack while my coffee got cold in the truck. Yes, you read that correctly – an overnight pack. Somehow I convinced myself that rather than do another day trip I should really go for it this time and tackle an overnighter before Mr. Winter rolled over the mountains and ruined my Fall peakbagging party.
Phil Richards and I had Stenton Peak on our list for a few years already when Cornelius Rott started blitzing peaks in the Fairholme Range, including, of course, Stenton. I had Carrot Peak on my list as well and of course Cornelius bagged that one too. (He’s beat me up a lot of obscure peaks in case you’re wondering.) In late August 2018 I completed a solo traverse from Mount Townsend to Epic Tower, Mythic Tower and Little Mythic Tower which provided me some views towards the otherwise well hidden Stenton. For some strange reason in late Fall of 2018 I was part of a desperately hairbrained plan involving snow, ice, wind and a day trip of Stenton Peak with Dr. Phil. We failed. Spectacularly. I don’t think either of us have written much about this attempt but it killed off my mountain mojo for a few months – it was that bad! I was so done with scrambling and peakbagging not to mention the endless slog up Cougar Creek, I thought I wouldn’t be back for years. Tuesday morning, September 24th 2019 changed all that and somehow I found myself driving back to the Cougar Creek trailhead at 10 in the morning. Funny how these things happen.
I briefly wondered what the hell I was doing as I shrugged into my seemingly heavy (it wasn’t that bad considering) overnight pack at the trailhead. It was raining lightly and the weather was obviously not quite as stellar as the blue sky and warm sunshine back in the concrete jungle. But I was committed now wasn’t I? Enough indecision already. Time to buck up or shut up. As Robb Schnell is so fond of writing in summit registers all over the Rockies,
LESS TALK, MORE ACTION!
Dang right Robb. Dang right. Ignoring the pain in my left knee and the mental exhaustion nagging at the back of my head I focused on a tiny patch of blue sky positioned in a direction I wasn’t going and reimagined it ahead of me somewhere. One foot in front of the other Vern – it’s not that freaking hard man. Off I went. Back into the wild for better or worse…
After hiking Cougar Creek three times in 2018 including jaunts up Cougar Peak, the Townsend Traverse and the failed attempt at Stenton Peak it was looking pretty darn familiar to me as I walked up the rocky drainage. The good part is that I thought I knew enough landmarks to employ little mental tricks to make it seem shorter and easier. I was wrong. I’d successfully employed familiar mind tricks on Scarab Peak 48 hours earlier but my mind was getting tired of games. I passed some cheery rock climbers early on in the creek but soon I was on my own yet again. A wild sky boiled and broiled high above me, dumping sunshine, rain, sleet and wind in turn. The creek dried up after the Canadian Forks, as expected, and I settled into the mindless purgatory that all long distance trekkers are intimately familiar with.
For some reason I thought the side drainage leading off to the Stenton Col was soon after the drainage accessing Cougar Peak but it quickly became obvious that this was not the case. Cougar Creek narrows considerably after the Cougar Peak turnoff and travel slows down. Huge boulders make things interesting but also frustrating when you’re running the clock like I was. Thanks to my late departure time of 10:30 from the trailhead, I had to hustle to ensure I made the summit of Stenton and my planned bivy at Stenton Lake before dark. I don’t like hiking on a clock – it defeats the entire reason I love it so much and starts to feel like work. After what seemed like ages I finally spotted the wide mouth of the drainage leading to a still very distant Stenton Col. It took me around 2.5 hours to reach this point from the parking lot.
I remembered the drainage towards Stenton Col as being engaging the year before, even with snow, and although it was dry this time it was still quite interesting. There’s a section about half way up that has massive boulders and rock debris making for interesting navigation. The trick along this section is to find sheep trails on climber’s right that pretty much avoid all the boulder hopping and associated gymnastics and leads quite nicely up and through all the mess. I was a bit nervous as I headed towards an obvious narrowing of the drainage with a small waterfall plunging down it. This was the crux section for Phil and I the year previous when it was frozen over and there was no easy way either up the falls or around them. Neither Cornelius or Robb mentioned this section and we were surprised by it. The waterfall wasn’t a showstopper but it forced us up on climber’s right (east) of the drainage on steep slabs that were also covered in water ice and snow. We managed to traverse into the upper drainage leading to the Stenton Col but turned back due to nasty weather and nasty looking terrain – made much worse by snow and ice.
The waterfall wasn’t frozen for me this time around, but as I approached it I could see there was still no easy way to directly ascend the drainage anywhere over or around the falls. I’m sure there’s a route here but everything is wet, steep and just out of what I felt was reasonable as a solo scramble. I didn’t linger long but resigned myself back to the slabs on the east side of the drainage. Again, the slabs felt harder than expected but thankfully they were at least dry this time. There are multiple routes along this section but I have to caution that there are more than one no-slip zones along here. Rain, ice or snow will make this section very unappealing to most scramblers. The only good thing is that if you can’t find your way along a reasonable, moderate route here you should turn around. Stenton requires more routefinding and my route up it was more “moderate” as well.
After the slab traverse I took a familiar rising line through light forest, popping out on a sheep trail in the scree leading into the steep south drainage leading up (way up!) to the Stenton Col. You might ask why I didn’t take the much easier looking brown shale col to the west of Stenton Col but there’s an easy answer for that. I’m sure that route is easier and a bit shorter but it dumps you a long way from Stenton Peak – especially if you’re day tripping. If you’re only goal is Stenton Lake or Carrot Peak than that other col is likely preferable. Cornelius mentioned that he stayed high above the drainage on slabs to climber’s left and I did the same. This was easy scrambling and fairly quick too. By the time I dragged my tired butt over the Stenton Col (remember – I had an overnight pack on) it was already 14:45 and just over 4 hours from the parking lot.
The views from the col were pretty good. The weather wasn’t totally clear but it was a nice wild autumn atmosphere with wind, clouds, blue sky and bright colors. It was shocking just how bloody high I was! Looking back I could see that I was basically the same height as Cougar Peak which is around 2644m. Too bad for me but I knew I had to lose a few hundred meters to access reasonable lines up the SW side of Stenton from the col and then lose a few hundred more meters to Stenton Lake afterward. I started down frozen scree on the north side of the col, wondering how long this slope must hold onto snow / ice in the Spring.
I descended quite a bit before traversing rubble slopes to what I now know was Cornelius’ line up the SW slopes of Stenton. I dropped my overnight pack on the rubble slopes, packed up my day pack and started up to an obvious gully sitting left of the huge slabs that sit between the true and false summits. For some reason as I started up scree towards the bottom of the gully, I saw that my GPS had a different line indicated further to my left (north). Assuming that this must be Cornelius’ route that I loaded back home, I decided to follow it instead of the obvious gully. On hindsight I now realize this route line must have been an earlier proposed one as Cornelius took a much different line than I did – see below.
To make a long story short, I ascended tilted scree and slabs past an overhanging cliff until there was a steep slabby gully escape to my left. I followed this (upper moderate scrambling) to eventually gain the easy west scree ridge which led to the summit. My route was quite fun, somewhat exposed and definitely full of very loose rocks. Cornelius did his route with snow – I’m sure it’s no less susceptible to rockfall and perhaps is even worse. It took me under an hour to reach the summit from my pack drop and that included some interesting route finding.
Views from the summit were moody but very respectable. I was pretty happy to note that next to Cornelius and Robb, I was the only signature in the register since Cornelius placed it in 2016. After snapping a bunch of photos the cold wind pushed me back down the west ridge. (I almost followed Cornelius’ route down but resisted the temptation, not knowing at this point if it would go or not.) I got lost in all the downsloping slabby terrain on the lower SW face but eventually I figured it out and managed to bail off the hard stuff, returning to my waiting pack.
As the winds whipped around me I managed to stumble over rocky terrain towards a small pond and Stenton Lake. I was surprised when I topped out above the lake and saw how much lower than me it was! The exit back over Stenton Col was going to be interesting but since that was a “future Vern” problem I decided to ignore it and started down towards the lake. I traversed rubble slopes to a small stand of trees at the far (north) end of the lake and wasn’t surprised to see evidence of previous camps. The land was a bit more sloped than I’d hoped for but I was tired and cold and wanted the protection of the trees so I set the up ‘mid anyway. As I prepared some hot chocolate and supper I reflected on where I was and how much effort it’d taken to get there and not for the first time I felt like maybe, just maybe, I was overdoing things a bit.
The Insta story of my solo overnight camp at Stenton Lake would show me with a cup of coffee sitting in my tent with my legs stretched out in front of me and a book on my lap. The next photo would be some inspirational quote about “finding yourself” written in cute flowing script with a few hearts and smiley emojis with a sunset view over the lake. The next shot would be a stunning night sky with aurora over Stenton Lake and my tent all lit up like a UFO in the foreground. That version would break the Internet and make me an ambassador for several products that I would pretend I didn’t get for free for the next zillion photos. (I’m getting way too cynical aren’t I?!) The real world story is a bit different and goes more as follows.
First, I have a mild panic attack when I realize just how far from civilization I am and how remote this little spot of “Heaven” is. I am ALONE out here man. Totally, completely, all ALONE. Then I start getting anxious that maybe the forecast snowmageddon for Thursday will arrive a day early. This would severely screw me over as the Stenton Col would be impassible in approach shoes with copious amounts of fresh snow or ice. I manage to calm myself down, walking around (finding two more fire rings and more evidence of camps) and retire to my sleeping bag to read my e-reader and stay warm. As I lay in my half bag with a warm winter down jacket, the anxiety slowly ramps up again. People think that solo wilderness camping is scary because of wildlife, such as bears or cougars. I very rarely get nervous about animals – they tend to stick to themselves as much as I do. My anxiety is usually around weather and / or health.
In this case it was the weather that made me a little twitchy. The wind was howling fiercely around my tent, threatening to lift it clear off the ground! Thank goodness I tucked in behind some small trees because in the open it would have blown away for sure. With the howling wind it was almost impossible to fall asleep. Finally around 23:00 I put down my e-reader and fell into a restless sleep, waking often and usually to very strong winds. As I tossed and turned in the pitch black night, I found myself wondering (and not for the first time in my life) why I wasn’t home in my comfortable, warm bed next to my beautiful, warm wife! WTF is wrong with me that I choose to go solo into the backcountry? I’m afraid that I don’t have the answer to that very good question. Maybe someday I’ll figure it out but I’m not holding my breath.
After a restless sleep I awoke to a dark morning in my tent at the north end of Stenton Lake. Thankfully the winds were much calmer and I could see a million stars winking from high above me. Even better, there was no fresh snow on the ground and the temperate was cool, but not cold. I slowly started getting ready for the day ahead – it was still way too dark to start towards Carrot Peak. Finally, as day broke reluctantly around me I turned on my headlamp and started navigating in pre-morning light along my planned traverse from Stenton Lake to Carrot Peak.
I was feeling surprisingly chipper as I started side-hilling in light forest and open slopes towards a distant Carrot Peak. I’d survived the night and all the anxieties from a few hours earlier seemed silly now. What was I so worried about anyway? The day was shaping up very nicely and I knew this could be my last remote peak of 2019 so I decided to settle in and just enjoy it. I had a suspicion that Carrot was closer than it looked and I was proven right when only 30 minutes after leaving Stenton Lake I was already ascending open grassy slopes to the slabby ridge high above.
As day broke around me I kept pushing higher, ascending above the grassy south slope to more and more engaging slabs on the south ridge. The slabs probably got as tough as upper moderate, but I chose fairly conservative lines as I was solo. Near the summit I could see a nice scree descent line to my left but chose to stick to the slabs on ascent.
After only 1.5 hours from camp I was on the summit and enjoying some pretty sweet morning views. Not wanting to waste any of the great weather I was enjoying (there were lots of clouds to the west) I decided to return to camp after taking a bunch of photos and signing another very empty register.
The descent back to Stenton Lake was quick and relatively painless. I got tired of side-hilling and bushwhacked to the outlet stream (dry) from the lake which worked out fine. Morning views down the South Ghost River from near the Banff park boundary were gorgeous. I also noted that despite all the evidence of camps at Stenton Lake, there are no obvious trails anywhere around there. I have to wonder if this is a heli-hiking thing? There would be at least a faint track up the valley from the South Ghost River if horse or human traffic came in here on a regular basis and there was none that I could see. There’s also no signs of human traffic over the Stenton Col or above the lake from that side.
I brewed up another coffee back at my camp and slowly packed everything up. Putting the overnight pack on again was a bit of a system shock, but after 5 minutes of hiking it became the new “normal”. My overnight pack is still lighter than many folks day packs so I have nothing to complain about. The day before had me nervous about re-ascending the Stenton Col but today I was feeling pretty positive. Carrot Peak had been fun, beautiful and engaging and had lifted my mood considerably. I decided that Stenton Col would fall by “a thousand cuts” – in this case “a thousand tiny steps” and instead of tackling the whole thing at once I would simply put one foot in front of the other until it was done.
My positive outlook and strategy helped immensely and just as on Pulsatilla few weeks previous, the 3-400 meters of gain from the lake to the col didn’t feel that bad or even take that long. I looked back over Stenton and Carrot from my lonely perch and sighed happily – my last gasp Fall trip was turning out pretty stellar afterall! I turned my attention to the long exit ahead and started down the gully towards the lower exit drainage to Cougar Creek. Thankfully there was a lot of scree options down the gully and before long I was gingerly down climbing the exposed slabs around the waterfall and descending back into the drainage. At the drainage I decided to take one more break, brewing up another cup of coffee and relaxing with my thoughts before the long trek back to Canmore and back to regular life.
Despite my tiredness and the sloggy nature of this trip, I’m left with pretty positive feelings on it. I like the landscapes of the Fairholme Range and the South Ghost area. I enjoyed the solo aspect and the remote feel of Stenton Lake, despite the anxieties. I overcame negative emotions and turned them into learning for next time (yeah right) and what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger right? I don’t know if I highly recommend this trip for most folks, but if you enjoy long, lonely walks up boulder-strewn creeks, tons of height gain, slab ‘n scree scrambles, wild backcountry lakes and rarely ascended peaks than this is the trip for you.