Summit Elevations (m): 1911 (Piitaistakis), 2023 (The Dog), 2266 (Livingstone South), 2192 (Morin)
Trip Date: Saturday, May 16, 2020
Elevation Gain – (m): 1450
Round Trip Time (hrs): 8.5
Total Trip Distance (km): 16.5
Quick ‘n Dirty Rating: Class 3 – you fall, you break a leg (if adding Morin, else Class 2 hiking)
Difficulty Notes: Other than the traverse from Livingstone South to Morin Peak this is a class 2 hike. The traverse is moderate with careful route finding.
Technical Rating: SC6; YDS (3rd)
Map: Google Maps
The May long weekend was shaping up to be pretty darn nice for 2020. Of course it was! Camping was still not allowed thanks to Covid-19 so the weather gods decided it was high time for a perfect camping weather weekend. Classic move by mother nature – classic. 😉 Considering the amount of snow coverage in the Rockies, many friends were still out skiing for the weekend but for some reason I was done with the snow sticks for spring of 2020. I think I was just being pouty since I didn’t get the chance at two objectives I was planning thanks to the closure of the National Parks system. Whatever the case or the motivations, I found myself with a solo day on Saturday May 16 and decided I would be heading back to the Crowsnest Pass for the third weekend in a row to attempt some (mostly) dry hiking and possibly scrambling depending on conditions. Already on Bluff Mountain we’d been eyeing up a couple of summits further east, Morin Peak and Livingstone South Peak. Dave McMurray had an interesting report on Morin including a comment about the difficult terrain towards South Livingstone. Bob Spirko had peaked our interest in South Livingstone already years ago (he repeated it in 2019). Also included on my radar for the area was a local peak called “The Dog” and an interesting ridge known as the Piitaistakis Eagle Watch Site – a ridge used by migrating eagles as the navigational pivot of their annual migrations.
To be perfectly honest, as I drove the very familiar stretch of hwy 22 and 3 towards the Crowsnest Pass on Saturday morning, I was a bit apprehensive about the day ahead. The previous weekend Wietse and I had also planned South Livingstone and ended up snowshoeing the Cards Peaks instead due to unexpected conditions. I had zero plans to include Morin Peak (supposedly very difficult from Livingstone South) and wasn’t sure I would need snowshoes for The Dog or not. I really didn’t feel like hiking with snowshoes on my pack all day but I knew from bitter experience on Bluff Mountain that even a “short stretch” of snow could be brutal with the ridiculous 2020 spring snow pack in the front ranges. It was only as I glanced north towards my objectives from near the town of Bellevue along hwy 3 that my “zero” on attempting Morin became a “zero point 78” thanks to fairly dry looking traverse slopes. I turned off to the closed Frank Slide Centre before continuing straight on a gravel road up towards the Piitaistakis site. The key word here is “up”. I was pretty darn happy to keep driving higher and higher along the road, passing a number of random campers along the way. I had no idea what to expect as I was originally planning to walk this section. Eventually the road seemed to be deteriorating ahead so I stopped and turned around before parking along a wide section – not willing to get into any trouble on such a lovely morning. I decided that I’d take the snowshoes for The Dog and with a chorus of happy birds serenading me, I continued up the road on foot.
It turns out I should have kept driving! Oh well. The road was deteriorated a bit but my Taco could easily have made it to the huge clearing just ahead. There was another camper parked at the top – a wonderful random camping spot if you don’t mind the occasional shotgun blast or dirt bike riding by. 😉 I walked through the clearing to its NE corner where I followed a rough trail up a snowy / muddy ravine towards the Piitaistakis site high above. I was delighted to see Glacier lilies blooming in the Aspen stands along the ravine and up the south slopes that the trail navigated. Soon the trail rose above the ravine on its north side where I could see a grassy slope and ridge high above me on my left. I stayed on the south slopes of this ridge, taking photos of the Pasqueflowers here and enjoying the beautiful morning atmosphere. It felt so good to be hiking in approach shoes on dry terrain!
As I ascended in an east trending curve along the south slopes of the ridge I noticed an old mine works on the SW aspect of the Piitaistakis Ridge above me. That was way too cool a scene to miss, so I trended in that direction rather than gain the ridge directly. The old mine works were pretty neat – it’s surprising what’s not-so-hidden in the hills and mountains all over the Crowsnest Pass area!
After snapping some photos of the mine works I gained the ridge above me, following my nose and bits of an old road. A couple and their dog were hiking ahead of me but didn’t bother turning towards the ridge. We briefly said “hi” before I charged off after my first summit for the day. Just over an hour from the truck I stood on my first peak of the day, enjoying great views over the Crowsnest Pass area towards the High Rock Range, the foothills and south to the Clarke Range including many familiar Castle Provincial Park peaks. It wasn’t eagle watch season so I didn’t linger too long before turning my attention to a very distant looking “Dog” and Livingstone South.
I made my way down Piitaistakis Ridge and started ambling towards The Dog, thinking that it was likely a pretty tame job ahead. For the most part I was correct – the hiking was pretty easy and straightforward but there was more height gains and losses than immediately apparent. I passed some communications equipment on a small hill just NW of Piitaistakis before turning north and hiking a mostly dry route to a pass sitting between the communications hill and The Dog. This pass was lower than I expected and is where most people approach South Livingstone from the valley below. Due to bagging Piitaistakis first, I would have to regain a bunch of height to get back to my parking spot high along the approach road. I wondered if a better option would be to park lower down and walk up the road to Piitaistakis at the beginning of the day and descend from The Dog directly to the hydro cutline at the end. No matter for me – at this point I was committed!
Ascending the lower rubble slopes on the south ridge of The Dog was easy – as expected. There were smatterings of trails but they weren’t needed. Eventually I started short-cutting grassy south slopes of the peak to directly access the summit ridge and avoid obvious snowy treed terrain on the east aspect. Even here I ran into snow and soon I was reluctantly strapping on the snowshoes that I’d been lugging along bone dry terrain up to this point. I say “reluctantly” but secretly I was glad that at least I needed them!
The ‘shoes made the final ascent to the summit ridge and the summit of The Dog very quick and straightforward. Once again I was treated to great views, including very tempting views of Morin Peak to the north. My “0.78” became more like a 78% chance that I would be attempting Morin after seeing how dry the south gullies were and picking out some possible lines from a distance.
My descent of the east aspect of The Dog back to the ridge leading towards South Livingstone was a wee bit hellish. Not the worst sort of stuff, but certainly a bit bushy and a LOT snowy! Thank goodness for the snowshoes is all I have to say. I’m not entirely sure I would have bagged The Dog without the ‘shoes on this particular day but now I was done with them. A short stretch of hiking north on the dry south ridge of the Livingstone Range and I decided to stash the ‘shoes and way point them in my GPS for pickup on return. The terrain kept surprising me along this traverse. It was more undulating than expected and one stretch even threw some moderately exposed scrambling at me! I tried crossing a snow slope on the east face but quickly realized how stupid that idea was (waist deep) and proceeded to the slightly exposed and narrow ridge crest instead. It was here that I ran into Adam and Mark, who’d followed Phil and I up Watermelon Peak and enjoyed that scramble almost as much as we did. We chatted a bit before going our separate ways – Adam and Mark were already on their way back from Livingstone South.
From the narrow ridge section I lost some more height (!!) before finally getting onto the south ridge proper. I was starting to understand why my planning route in ViewRanger came up at almost 1500 vertical meters for this outing! The strong westerly winds interfered a bit with the pleasure of the ridge and the beautiful views but only a little. Strong winds are always expected in southern Alberta – or at least they should be. I ducked onto the east side of the ridge whenever I could to get brief respite from the gale, but it wasn’t that bad. I’ve had WAY worse in the area over the years. As I hiked up the easy south ridge of Livingstone South, I distracted myself by plotting a viable scramble route from Livingstone South to Morin Peak and back to the south ridge I was on. I meditated on how much difference the experience of hundreds of peaks makes on spot reading terrain like I was doing. I quite easily spotted a return route from Morin to the south ridge I was on – it followed sheep trails and obvious terrain, avoiding trees and gullies as much as possible. It was obviously more height gain to get the extra summit, but I figured even a 2-3 hour diversion for Morin was more than worth NOT having to drive 5 hours from YYC again to bag it separately! The part of the route I couldn’t suss out from this distance was the trickiest bit – traversing from South Livingstone over an obvious cliffband that a previous party reported rappelling in order to overcome (see comments section on Dave’s trip report). I knew I could overcome the obstacle with my “secret weapon” so I wasn’t too concerned about it. What is this mysterious weapon you ask? Simple – it’s my willingness to descend 100’s of meters to avoid failure on a peak. 😉
Turning my attention back to Livingstone South, I trudged upwards in the strengthening winds, finally reaching the summit about 4 hours from the truck. I snapped photos of many familiar peaks and signed the register (noting some famous scramblers had been here only a day previous) before turning my attention to the real prize of the day – Morin Peak.
I was very pleasantly surprised to realize that despite appearances to the contrary, I could easily descend towards Morin directly from South Livingstone’s summit. Originally it looked like there would be way too much snow for such a route, especially considering I was in approach shoes without crampons. The snow was soft enough that I didn’t even bother with icers, descending quickly to the west and working my way quite easily to the infamous cliff that interrupts a straightforward route.
I starting angling to my left (south) already before reaching the edge of the cliffband simply because there was too much snow for my liking on the ridge crest. There were so many sheep trails in the area that I figured my number one strategy was going to involve following the biggest of those and see where I ended up. The first track I followed was a bit too intense for my needs. I turned further south down the ridge crest of the cliff band before trying another track about 75-100 vertical meters under the connecting ridge. It worked! Quite easily in fact – my secret weapon worked once again. The key was looking back north along the cliffs and finding a reasonable traverse into the gully west of it. The gully was choked with snow but I found a quick traverse (again, following sheep tracks) and made short work of it.
The crux now behind me I picked my way up through a much more laid back set of cliffs and pinnacles onto the east facing scree slope of Morin. I made my way up the scree trending up to the summit ridge line, staying just below those cliffs as the warm, windless hiking was a nice break! Once I reached the north end of the scree slope I angled sharply up to my left to stand on the fourth summit of the day. The whole traverse from South Livingstone took less than an hour even with all the routefinding – totally worth it in my books! After snapping photos and signing the register for the first time in almost 2 years (no ascents in 2019) it was time to start the long trek back.
I descended the large east facing scree / boulder slopes of Morin, angling downwards to the bottom of the large gully just west of the cliffband before breaking off the east facing slope and across the gully where it flattened a bit. From this vantage I could see a route that angled a few hundred vertical meters back up to the col between Livingstone South and The Dog, following sheep trails if I could find them and stay on them! This route worked well and within ~2 hours of standing on Livingstone South’s summit I was back on the south ridge. Certainly a quicker option than driving all the way back to Crowsnest Pass just for Morin another day.
There were no more surprises for the rest of my day. I caught up with another couple of scramblers as they returned from Livingstone South – apparently this peak is pretty popular in early season. It was a bit of a bummer gaining a bunch of height on return past The Dog and Piitaistakis but the day was gorgeous and I’d managed to squeeze in Morin with a moderate route so I was pretty stoked.
I highly recommend this four peak day for early season scramblers. The trick is finding the right balance between snow and dry. If it’s really dry you might wish you did a bigger objective but if it’s too snowy you might not navigate a safe route between Livingstone and Morin Peak. Go slow with the routefinding and you should have no issues, there is no reason to be on difficult terrain if you’re careful.