Summit Elevation (m): 1890
Trip Date: Monday, April 13, 2020
Elevation Gain (m): 735
Round Trip Time (hrs): 6.5
Total Trip Distance (km): 17
Quick ‘n Dirty Rating: Class 2 – you fall, you sprain something
Difficulty Notes: Corral Creek Mountain has some easy scrambling along the north ridge if you use my approach. Other than that, don’t expect a trail once you leave the Willow Creek road! Cutline Ridge is a bit of a thrash.
Technical Rating: OT2; YDS (Hiking)
Map: Google Maps
You may not believe it but I really did not think I’d be back in the Willow Creek PLUZ only one day after a fairly long solo snowshoe up Johnson Creek Ridge and Cell Phone Ridge. Thanks to Covid-19 and a terrible spring of 2020 weather-wise, my options were seriously limited for the Easter long weekend. I found myself with 4.5 days and not many options for getting out of the house – something I was more than desperate to do! I woke up Monday morning and realized that the weather was so gorgeous I simply could not “waste” it on my original underwhelming plans but had to up the ante just a bit. So for the third time in five days I found myself driving hwy 22 to hwy 532 near the Chain Lakes. For the second day in a row I found myself driving a somewhat dicey road, covered in snow and mud towards the bridge over Willow Creek and the parking spot for my latest adventure.
The ATV track up Willow Creek past Indian Graves Ridge is used to access 5 “peaks” in the area, including two that I’d done 4 days previous – Indian Graves Ridge and Willow Creek Ridge. The day was brilliantly sunny (the opposite of the day previous) as I strapped on my snowshoes and started up the Willow Creek Road from hwy 532. Two things were immediately apparent. Firstly, the conditions were vastly different from 4 days ago with at least a foot of fresh snow on the ground. Secondly, and more important, the fresh snow was sticking to the bottom of my snowshoes and would be a very tiring issue for the next 6.5 hours or so. A third thing I noted was a fresh set of boot tracks along the road, making my first couple of km slightly easier.
I was more prepared than the day before, with my larger backpack and more supplies in case I needed them. The day before I realized that I’ve done Prairie Mountain a few too many times this year – making me somewhat blase about safety measures. The Willow Creek PLUZ is by no means remote but in early season with the conditions I had it was definitely remote enough! I certainly didn’t come across any other humans on the Sunday or Monday I was in the area. It doesn’t take much of an accident to wish you had fire starter, a warm down jacket and a SPOT device. Or even just some extra fluids. As the day previous, I’d be following Bob Spirko’s route to Corral Creek Mountain and then forging my own way up Cutline Ridge afterwards to tag a “twofer” – two peaks in one hike. Just for fun compare Bob’s photos to my own and remember – he hiked these peaks in actual WINTER. I hiked them in “SPRING”. 😉
After a couple of kilometers I took a side branch over Willow Creek and onto the swampy flats that Bob used to shortcut other routes up Corral Creek via logging roads. Of course the flats were simply “snowy” for me – no sign of a swamp! The day was gorgeous. It was very hard to be grumpy about things like Covid and clumpy snow so I just kept smiling as I walked along. Just as for Johnson Creek Ridge, Corral Creek Ridge is further than you might think. It may not be a 30 km day but with fresh snow, trail breaking and sticky, clumpy snow it wasn’t exactly a Prairie Mountain hike either! Eventually I crossed the marshes and made my way up and over a col leading down a fresh cutline into the Corral Creek drainage with views of my destination. Sentinel Peak looked pretty fantastic as I worked my up an older logging road to the south ascent slopes of the peak rising above.
The snow in the south gully was like concrete sticking to the bottoms of my snowshoes and giving me a top notch workout. I ascended roughly following Bob’s track but deviated near the top, going climber’s left around the summit with spectacular winter views past the very unique summit rock walls towards Sentinel Peak, Hailstone Butte and Iron Creek Mountain. I’ve never seen rock like the summit cliff despite having hiked, climbed, scrambled and skied over 700 peaks in the Rockies. It just goes to show once again that there’s always hidden surprises waiting for the intrepid explorer – no matter how “lame” the objective might be. The north ridge of the peak was easy scrambling on the snowshoes and before long I was enjoying spectacular views of some less-than-spectacular hills and peaks – but beggars can’t be choosers in these strange times we’re in.
After drinking copious amount of cold water (freshened with snow), I started descending the south gully back down to Corral Creek and the north slopes of Cutline Ridge. I followed an obvious drainage instead of my approach track and it worked out very nicely indeed. This drainage would be awful without the copious amounts of snow I had. Once at valley bottom I had to give myself a stern talking to to motivate me up the north slopes of Cutline Ridge. I was feeling the effects of the day previous and the concrete snow and was starting to lose motivation to bag unofficial “summits”. These things happen every once in a while. 😉 I dug deep, sighed deeply and started back into thick bush towards Corral Creek.
Corral Creek proved a little bit interesting to cross, but at least I got some fresh (COLD) water out of the deal. Ascending the lower part of the north slopes of Cutline Ridge was a nightmare I’d rather not remember. Ever. Let’s just gloss over all that and get to the part where I’m struggling up to the summit in rapidly deteriorating snow instead. Nah. Let’s forget that too! Eventually I made the highest point. After the pure pleasure and interesting terrain on Corral Creek Mountain, Cutline Ridge was very underwhelming. I would not recommend it on its own unless you’re truly desperate. I started my journey back to Willow Creek, determined to find the namesake of “Cutline” Ridge.
To make a long story short, there are some intervening high points along Cutline Ridge that either have to be circumvented or hiked over. I hiked over them and they weren’t as much work as they first appeared. The last bump before the cutline was a bit bushy. When I finally found the “cutline” it was terribly steep and not much fun on the snowshoes. Once down the steep part however, I enjoyed a nice ramble along surprisingly stable snow back to Willow Creek and my approach tracks. The walk back out to hwy 532 was fairly easy on slushy snow.
I have to say that I enjoyed Corral Creek Mountain more than I thought I would, especially with fresh snow coating the landscape around me. The Willow Creek PLUZ area provides lots of hiking and rambling opportunities if you are desperate for some foothill / mountain views but don’t expect pristine wilderness.